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September 28th, 2010
12:01 AM ET

Don't know much about religion? You're not alone, study finds

Odds are that you know Mother Teresa was Catholic, but what religion is the Dalai Lama?

How about Maimonides?

And - no Googling - what's the first book of the Bible? How about the first four books of the New Testament?

Americans who can answer all of those questions are relatively rare, a huge new study has found.

In fact, although the United States is one of the most religious developed countries in the world, most Americans scored 50 percent or less on a quiz measuring knowledge of the Bible, world religions and what the Constitution says about religion in public life.

The survey is full of surprising findings.

For example, it's not evangelicals or Catholics who did best - it's atheists and agnostics.

It's not Bible-belt Southerners who scored highest - they came at the bottom.

Those who believe the Bible is the literal word of God did slightly worse than average, while those who say it is not the word of God scored slightly better.

Barely half of all Catholics know that when they take communion, the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ, according to Catholic doctrine.

And only about one in three know that a public school teacher is allowed to teach a comparative religion class - although nine out of 10 know that teacher isn't allowed by the Supreme Court to lead a class in prayer.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life is behind the 32-question quiz, polling more than 3,400 Americans by telephone to gauge the depth of the country's religious knowledge.

Read CNN Belief Blog contributor and Pew adviser Stephen Prothero's take on the survey

"When it comes to religion, there are a lot of things that Americans are unfamiliar with. That's the main takeaway," says Greg Smith, a senior researcher at the think tank and one of the main authors of the survey.

Smith has a theory about why atheists did so well on the quiz - they have thought more about religion than most people.

"Very few people say that they were raised as atheists and agnostics," he explains.

About three out of four were raised as Christians, he says.

"They were raised in a faith and have made a decision to identify themselves with groups that tend to be fairly unpopular," atheists and agnostics, he says.

"That decision presupposes having given some thought to these things," which is strongly linked with religious knowledge, he says.

The single strongest factor predicting how well a person does on the religious knowledge quiz is education - the more years of schooling a person has, the more they are likely to know about religion, regardless of how religious they consider themselves to be, Pew found.

"The No. 1 predictor without question is simply educational attainment," Smith said.

The think tank also asked a handful of general knowledge questions - such as who wrote "Moby-Dick" and who's the vice president of the United States - and found a link between religious knowledge and general knowledge.

Very few people scored high on religion questions and badly on general knowledge, or vice versa.

People who were members of religious youth groups also did well, he said.

"Religious education is an important factor that helps to explain knowledge - people who participated in youth groups get an average of two extra questions right," he said.

Jews and Mormons were close behind atheists and agnostics as the group who did best overall on the religion questions, and white evangelical Protestants also tended to get more than half right.

White Catholics averaged exactly half right, followed by mainline Protestants and people who said they were "nothing in particular," both of whom got just under half right.

Black Protestants got just over a third of the questions right, and Hispanic Catholics just under a third, the Pew Forum found.

The survey was inspired partly by CNN Belief Blog contributor Stephen Prothero's 2007 book, "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know - And Doesn't."

Because the Pew Forum couldn't find any indication that such a survey has ever been done before, it can't say if Americans today know more or less about religion now than they did in the past.

And the organization doesn't claim too much for its 32 questions.

They "are intended to be representative of a body of important knowledge about religion; they are not meant to be a list of the most essential facts," the Pew Forum says.

Only eight of the 3,412 survey respondents got all 32 questions right. Six got them all wrong.

- Newsdesk editor, The CNN Wire

Filed under: Atheism • Catholic Church • Christianity • Culture & Science • Islam • Judaism • Mormonism • United States

soundoff (1,855 Responses)
  1. JC Believer

    Forget all the nasty remarks back and forth about God and get the quiz right. The Jewish Sabbath starts on Saturday – NOT FRIDAY! Our dear Jewish brothers and sisters know that the 7th day (Saturday) starts at dusk for them, so their Sabbath is on Saturday! If you're going to have a quiz on religion, at least make sure you have the facts right!

    And by the way, Jesus is the Lord of all. Just because you don't accept Him, doesn't negate that fact. He loves you so much that He suffered and died for YOU! (John 3:16)

    Please read Lee Stobel's books: "The Case for Christ" and "The Case for for a Creator." You will not be disappointed.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:28 am |
    • catlover8367

      Did your imaginary friend Jesus tell you he was the lord? Do you hear other voices in your head? If I said I heard ghosts or martians or Abraham Lincoln speak to me and tell me what to do, I would be put in an asylum.

      September 28, 2010 at 8:51 pm |
  2. whahappened?

    People shouldn't be so harsh on religion. The more people in church on Sunday, the easier it is for me to get a good table for brunch. In my opinion, keep on keepin' on you religious people. Except for those wacky people who worship on other days. The table by the window is mine! Mmmm, waffley goodness. Or, in the words of Saint Homer, "Mmm, sacrilicious."

    September 28, 2010 at 2:27 am |
  3. Nancy

    Where's the study on Wiccan Knowledge ?

    September 28, 2010 at 2:27 am |
  4. jean

    i scored 10 out of 10 i'm russian orthodax you forgot about the eastern church. im neither roman catholic and certianly NOT prodestant!

    September 28, 2010 at 2:25 am |
  5. diana

    religious IQ?? laughable.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:25 am |
  6. DT

    The writers of this article lacks IQ. IQ is based on the capability of learning, now what your brain has memorized.
    Regardless of what religion you subscribe to or don't subscribe to has nothing to do with the brains capability to store information. Many people use religion as a scapegoat to run from responsibility, but that doesn't make them dumb, it just makes them foolish. They need to interview all 350 Million Americans who are smart enough to be unaware that they are being interviewed. Then we might come back with a better survey. These CNN articles on religion are being deliberately created as a case study on the comments being left, not interviews of real people.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:25 am |
  7. Ronnie Harper

    If the bulk of humanity REALLY knew anything about religion, it would no longer be in service, having been relegated to the fiction section at the local bookstore. Religion is a pox on humanity, a disease of the mind. It is the cause of all suffering on earth, and does not displace the despair that is inherent to existence. Only a strong will and a love of knowledge can do this, and propel a person toward happiness.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:24 am |
    • catlover8367

      Well said.

      September 28, 2010 at 8:47 pm |
  8. Proudcommie

    I believe religion should be stomped out completely. This is what this election was really about and American must begin its path towards communism just as every other western country has.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:24 am |
  9. Audrey

    Well, this devout Episcopalian (raised Catholic) got 100%, as did her husband (raised Mennonite).

    What...are these people just not paying attention at all in Sunday school? (or at Mass?)

    September 28, 2010 at 2:23 am |
  10. DT

    The writer of this article lacks IQ. IQ is based on the capability of learning, now what your brain has memorized.
    Regardless of what religion you subscribe to or don't subscribe to has nothing to do with the brains capability to store information. Many people use religion as a scapegoat to run from responsibility, but that doesn't make them dumb, it just makes them foolish. They need to interview all 350 Million Americans who are smart enough to be unaware that they are being interviewed. Then we might come back with a better survey. These CNN articles on religion are being deliberately created as a case study on the comments being left, not interviews of real people.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:23 am |
  11. harry

    This just goes to show that Americans are living in a world of their own. Besides football, baseball, basketball and what the Hollywood actors are upto, the knowledge of most American is Zilch. Our school system needs a complete overhaul.

    While we will teach Holocaust in our classrooms, the rest is just who cares.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:22 am |
  12. rozewolf

    The majority of the test was about various flavors of Christianity. Ironically, one of the main beliefs of fundamentalist Christianity is that it doesn't have to make sense, and all you have to do is believe. This allows the lazy to have something to pontificate about. Please inform yourself about your belief system. If your leadership takes issue with this, you need to ask yourself why. For the record... Pagan and nailed the test.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:20 am |
  13. Leon

    All religions and forms of government are the same, equally perfect. The problem comes in when people get involved.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:17 am |
  14. Daws

    Oh come on....no easy link to all 32? Gonna make me work for it eh? >.<

    September 28, 2010 at 2:15 am |
  15. cassarit

    I'm 10/10, Roman Catholic and delighted with my church, I also enjoy listening to inspired sermons by Protestant preachers and I don't think the Moslems are too intense about religion.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:15 am |
  16. Roland

    That is because religious leaders don't teach anything. They are all con men who do everything possible to prevent the congregation from understanding the truth. When is the last time when your religious leader asked you for your opinion on how he could improve?

    September 28, 2010 at 2:12 am |
    • It happens in the synagogue

      In my synagogue our rabbi never "preaches", but always asks what we thought that week's reading meant. (And we were EXPECTED to know the reading before we showed up for services.) He never preaches, he just leads discussions of the text by the lay members, and only occasionally puts in his two cents worth. And this is every week, not just once in a while. And let me tell you, we KNOW our "bible" backward and forward.

      September 28, 2010 at 10:31 am |
  17. Daws

    Another atheist that aced it. Nanner nanner 😛

    September 28, 2010 at 2:09 am |
  18. DN3

    Bs*d. You sound like you're living in the middle ages with you theory on cancer.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:08 am |
  19. ray brick

    What do blacks know about African-American histroy, or Africa for that matter? Does that make them less black? Why doesn't ABC ask these questions of ethnicities? .........are they anti-religious? .......it's a rhetorical question ...........

    September 28, 2010 at 2:08 am |
  20. Noble9

    My religion is best because I know my Gods are real.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:06 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.