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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. dswaf

    Sure most "Christians" dont even know or do what is required of them according to their own beliefs, but its equally true that those that oppose it are full of their own "resoning" and "understanding". People see what they want to see, some people are just stuck on what they think, those that "believe" and those who are "intellegent" But if you really want to know the truth, really, Im sure you could find it if you wanted it no matter what that truth is. Its not what anyone thinks, we are all dumb, its what is true, and something is true, not everything is false. Thats why most people fail, because they believe what they think rather than believing what they find is true.

    September 28, 2010 at 3:27 am |
    • Ummmmm...what???

      Wow! It's amazing! Not one single sentence of that rambling gibberish actually made sense!

      Reading all these postings is not very educational, but it sure is amusing!

      September 28, 2010 at 10:11 am |
  2. Lala2001

    Religion is the most stupefyingly boring subject in the world, bar none. When people start spewing their religious claptrap, I practically go into a coma. Blah, blah, blah. Religion should be banned.

    September 28, 2010 at 3:27 am |
    • Frank

      "Religion should be banned."

      You're just as bad as the fundamentalists of all stripes. There's enough idiocy going around for everyone. What we need is respect and freedom.

      September 28, 2010 at 3:37 am |
  3. dswaf

    I like how the athiests are so "informed" and "smart", lol

    September 28, 2010 at 3:18 am |
    • asrael

      You do mean "atheists", right? thanks for the demo of "informed and smart"...

      September 28, 2010 at 5:40 am |
    • Sam

      And I like how "stupid", "misinformed and "controlled" religious people are....Atheists have a much higher I.Q. than people who believe in "GOD"......and it has been proven....The existence of "GOD" has NOT been proven....and don't give me the sh!t that He is like the wind....LOLOLOL....could be felt but not seen....how stupid that sounds.....

      September 28, 2010 at 8:53 am |
  4. Oodoodanoo

    I'm not Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. I couldn't care less what the Bible says, even though I scored 9/10. Not one of those questions makes you a wiser or smarter person. I'd rather memorize the phone book. Better yet, I'd rather learn something that actually matters, like which asteroids are going to hit the Earth.

    September 28, 2010 at 3:16 am |
  5. Ravenna

    Hey CNN! Hey world! LOOKIE HERE! There are more athiests than God-Country wants to admit! Just read all the replies! Seriously. I don't feel Atheism is a minority, but a silent, unadmitted majority, (self included) which only shows the world on blogs like this where most folks just go by pseudonyms.

    We've got a long way to go.

    September 28, 2010 at 3:14 am |
    • Sam

      Only because we don't force our beliefs down anyone's throat...We don't use scare tactics to make someone believe in the truth......scare tactics are only used when you want people to side with you even though you're wrong.....

      September 28, 2010 at 8:48 am |
  6. dswaf

    that quiz was lame, saying that quiz valid to a christian is like saying cleanliness is next to Godlyness is in the bible. I like the moron question I mean mormon.

    September 28, 2010 at 3:14 am |
    • Sloppy J

      You're doing great for a non-native English speaker just starting out in an ESL class. Keep trying hard and some day you may articulate a coherent thought.

      September 28, 2010 at 11:08 am |
  7. Corbijn

    Oh no, another story from the "Liberal Media" somehow attacking those of conservative faith! Many if not all of the most ignorant and arrogant people I know are also the most devout zealots out there. One of my co-workers (who happens to be a very outspoken Christian) flat-out stated they did not believe dinosaurs ever existed. This person also doesn't believe in evolution or the big bang and can't differentiate between the two; literally they are the same thing in her view. This country is slipping back into the dark ages the more I find out how many home schooled kids belong to religious groups that believe if it isn't religion in nature it's not worth knowing. It does surprise me to hear how well Mormons did (I was raised LDS); Mormons know little of the true history of their own church or have really skewed views on this. Mormons literally believe that Native Americans are decedents of Hebrews who had swords and horses. This lost Hebrew tribe were white but those who fell away from the word of God had their skin turned black then killed off the rest of the white population. Mormons know tons when it comes to proving another religion wrong however one has to have faith to believe in LDS doctrine.
    I guess if someone writes it in a book it somehow becomes fact. This being said I found out that one of the first Danes to conquer a part of Sweden then become a king was literally called Beowulf. I guess this means he really did win a fight with a dragon and a monster known as Grendel. It's just as logical as believing in a resurrected demi-god who millions upon millions cannibalistic worship every week.

    September 28, 2010 at 3:11 am |
    • Hey!

      How dare you use logic, intelligence and reasoning in these posts! You're going to ruin it for everybody!

      September 28, 2010 at 10:15 am |
  8. The Silent Majority

    @KP

    "Religion is pollution of the mind, it was once used to explain the things we couldn't explain, but as young Americans are getting more educated these days and have access to a variety of viewpoints and opinions of the world wide web, they are learning that Religion is no longer needed and their bigotry and hate is no longer needed either, each person is to their own ideals and opinions, I don't need a religion to tell me what is wrong or right, I and an atheist, but I open doors for older folks, I hand people the change they drop on the floor and I live a great and positive life. I can only hope that one day religious people can think for themselves and not need other to tell them what to think or do."

    Does anyone else find it curious that KP is arguing that religion tells people how to think, and that it is apparently a bad thing, and he is doing the same in his ignorant rant. And I'm the hypocrite?

    September 28, 2010 at 3:09 am |
  9. bob

    you licentious news people already said, God is dead.

    September 28, 2010 at 3:09 am |
  10. Nunya

    People spend more time in this country thinking over the purchase of a car, then critically thinking about their own religion or belief system. Yet isn't it funny how steadfast they are in their chosen self-hypnosis? Let me clue you all into a little fact. EVERYBODY IS WRONG. Christianity, Islam, Judiasm, Satanism, Zoroastriantism....take your pick. No one has the slightest idea what is really going on. Not even me. But at least I can admit it.

    September 28, 2010 at 3:08 am |
  11. fordjohnson

    Islam is the religion of peace, but only after your blown up do you find peace

    September 28, 2010 at 3:05 am |
  12. LittleMe

    GOD is like the Father, didn't Yahushua said so too? Why can't we call out YAH'S name? What about Psalm 91?

    September 28, 2010 at 3:03 am |
  13. Kingofthenet

    All I know is GOD want's me to have LOTS 'O Guns!!! Whoo Wee!

    September 28, 2010 at 3:02 am |
  14. Yak

    As an agnostic, I can't stand organized religion. It is a pox on mankind but what really gets me are the Jehovah's Witnesses that ring my doorbell and the televangelists who bilk old ladies of their money. The type of old ladies who are God fearing Christians but who probably would have a hard time attaining a score of 1 on the above test. The whole thing is pitiful and would be laughable if it wasn't so sad.

    September 28, 2010 at 3:00 am |
  15. hirouk

    2000 years ago god put a virgin to sleep and had her insemineted by the holy spirit. god then had his son, jesus, crucified to show his love. now jesus is in heaven and judges you when you die. jesus gives you a choice, get born again and go to heaven, or burn in hell.
    palin/paul '12

    praise jesus!!!

    September 28, 2010 at 2:59 am |
  16. Alex

    Why am I not surprised that atheists have a higher score than religious folks on this?

    Very few religious people actually have a deep understanding of their own religion, much less the ability to retain and logically file information.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:57 am |
  17. daniel

    Lmao there is no intelligent life down here beam me up Scotty. Religion is like Republicans vs Democrats..Everyone is always blaming the other and either side cant get it right. Like the oil spill ya dont send a scientist to do a pipelayers or plumbers job.. peace out people

    September 28, 2010 at 2:53 am |
  18. Mark Thompson

    I find the religious people posting their score on this CNN simplified version of the actual survey. Some are gloating at a score of 8/10, but this test is very simple. Take the actual survey to see how you score relative to the study population. It goes to show just one step further how easy it is for the religious to hold so many misconceptions about the world around them. They know about their exclusive religions, but beyond this the religious doctrine promotes ignorance of other religions and culture. When religious folk are isolated into their little communities with Sunday prayer, all is peaceful. When religious folk start speaking on the national and international stage, their prejudice turns to hatred, anger and war.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:52 am |
  19. Translation

    That was the quiz that 50% of Americans couldn't pass? I got 10/10. What a bunch of ignoramuses!

    September 28, 2010 at 2:48 am |
  20. DT

    JC Believer. The Hebrew Sabbath starts at SUNDOWN on Friday, and extends to saturday.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:46 am |
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About this blog

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.