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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. Endre

    I find it funny that atheists seem to troll this belief blog and make such bold statements as "religion – the great artificial divider of men" and "religion is the root of all evil."

    Webster's dictionary defines religion as "a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects." Couldn't this definition of religion just as easily be applied to the fundamental beliefs of Atheists? Absolute statements such as, "there is no God," are not just based on assumption, (at least I hope not for the atheist's sake) but are rather based on individual and communal "beliefs" in science, logic, and/or self-determinism. Therefore, an atheist is simply part of another sort of religion, that is, a religion that fundamentally rejects the supernatural and all other "religions". Sounds pretty "exclusivist" and "divisive", eh?

    Too bad atheists are self-contradictory...

    September 28, 2010 at 4:15 am |
    • Sam

      AMERICA'S TRUE RELIGION IS "MONEY"...SAYS SO RIGHT ON THE BILLS...."IN GOD WE TRUST"....F\_\CK ALL THIS MUMBO JUMBO ABOUT GOD ALREADY.....THERE IS NO GOD.....

      September 28, 2010 at 9:02 am |
  2. SeizeNN

    It is far from surprising that atheists scored better than those who call themselves religious. If they are more inclined to examine the facts, one would predict they would be more inclined to examine the claimed facts of others' belief systems.

    September 28, 2010 at 4:15 am |
  3. Endre

    This was not a reasonable test of religious knowledge. Anyone with a little bit of just general world knowledge couldve answered that. And I would please urge Christians, Jews, or Muslims not to argue with atheists over the internet because they often dont know what they are talking about, even when they try to act like they do. And alot of you "Christians" not knowing anything either makes it worse, so stop representing what you do not know please. So please just pray for them, dont argue with them. They are truly the extreme minority of this world and should be pitied and not despised.

    September 28, 2010 at 4:13 am |
    • Frank

      Definitely agreed. That's what Jesus taught us to do, anyway.

      September 28, 2010 at 4:16 am |
    • alou

      when you were taught to turn your other cheek, did they tell you to turn your head or your body and leave?

      September 28, 2010 at 6:00 am |
  4. Endre

    This was not a reasonable test of religious knowledge. Anyone with a little bit of just general world knowledge couldve answered that. And I would please urge Christians, Jews, or Muslims not to argue with atheists over the internet because they often dont know what they are talking about, even when they try to act like they do. And alot of you "Christians" not knowing anything either makes it worse, so stop representing what you do not know please. So please just pray for them, dont argue with them. They are truly the extreme minority of this world and should be pitied and not despised.

    September 28, 2010 at 4:12 am |
  5. JM

    It shouldn't be about any type of religion. It should be about knowing Christ, and His word. And not only that, but applying it. There are so so many religions out there, and why? Because each religion will go through and pick out all the things they want to follow, and either skip the rest, or change it, and if one doesn't like the beliefs, or doesn't want to follow it, they go on to the next, or make a new one. You have your religions that think it's ok to worship statues, to pray to Mary, excludes baptism, that think just as long as we look holy on the outside, we're ok on the inside, that are greedy and only after money, that abuse children, that think it's ok to be in a same s*x relationship, to treat people differently based on what they do or don't have, and on and on. And I might get bashed for saying all these things, but these are just a few of the things the bible speaks of. Sad thing is, when one religion has someone mess up, it makes everyone else look bad. Everyone has problems, no matter what the religion. Two greatest commandments – Love the Lord, and love your neighbor as yourself. All the rest of the commandments hang on these two. If you love, you will not sleep with another man's wife, you will not steal from your neighbor, you will not murder, you will not let someone go hungry (if you have the means to help them), etc. Why is it so hard for people to love? Why are people so concerned about how well they do on some stupid quiz, start concerning yourselves with things that truly matter. Start loving one another, not in word or tongue, but in deed and truth.

    September 28, 2010 at 4:07 am |
    • Rick

      Protestantism was created by picking and choosing elements of Christian doctrine, you hypocrite. Maybe if we'd still been burning you heretics, I'd still be Catholic.

      September 28, 2010 at 8:40 am |
  6. Rebecca

    Interesting article. I consider myself agnostic, but I was raised Lutheran and attended bible school as I child and the pastor seemed to cover the entire Bible every year with themed Sundays (i.e. Palm Sunday, Moses, Christmas, Easter, etc.). It's the closest protestant religion to Catholicism. I'm also a huge history buff but I learned pleanty about the history of Christianity and the stories of the Bible in church. I have noticed in every Southern Baptist church though, the preachers are simply preachers and there is little to no scripture education/history during sermons. Just preaching about getting saved. Therefore, this is the basis of my theory on why devout southern Christians (mainly Baptist) generally suck when it comes to Christian history & other Abrahamic religions as well.

    September 28, 2010 at 4:02 am |
  7. y knot

    got most of them wrong. i'm going to hell, dam.

    September 28, 2010 at 3:59 am |
  8. Roger Ogilvy Thornhill

    Guilty. I don't know that I equate knowledge of religion with my IQ though.

    September 28, 2010 at 3:58 am |
  9. Tom

    I don't think people should be vilified due to the religion they practice or don't. Why do people feel the need to make every bodies personal decisions their business? Shouldn't we judge by content of character? Isn't a moral atheist better than a morally bankrupt believer? Or a compassionate believer better then a cynical agnostic?

    September 28, 2010 at 3:53 am |
  10. Dan

    no offense but in this nation we're good Christians only when is convenient to us

    God Bless us everyone
    we're a broken people living under loaded gun

    September 28, 2010 at 3:50 am |
  11. Vladimich

    I answered 3 incorrect, Joe Smith, Always thought that Agnostics were Atheists, and the First one about Jesus being born.

    Most questions are easy. I am not sure though, Religious Classes, doesn’t Social Studies cover that?

    September 28, 2010 at 3:49 am |
  12. Jay G

    Uhhh.. Why in the world do we need more religion courses? Religion should be abolished – then we could eliminate about 90% of the world's wars.

    September 28, 2010 at 3:47 am |
  13. Mark

    Religion is irrelevant. All it does is enforce ignorance, intolerance, and stupidity. I'm an atheist.

    September 28, 2010 at 3:47 am |
  14. Kevin E

    Jesus Christ is Lord & Savior and is the only way to eternal life. Hallalujah!!!

    September 28, 2010 at 3:46 am |
    • Are you really a Christian?

      It is my very strong, personal belief that no adult may call him or herself a Christian until he or she has actually read the bible cover-to-cover. Until then all you are doing is repeating whatever "religious" teachings you've received from others who may or may not actually know what they are talking about. So, are you REALLY a Christian?

      September 28, 2010 at 10:04 am |
  15. bsd12

    That 50% would be dems and college students.

    September 28, 2010 at 3:45 am |
  16. dswaf

    The first problem that you are all making on "belief" of whatever it is you believe, is that you think it is or its your oppinoin of? Seriously what you think or your oppinion is like a void of intellegence. People will and always will be stuck on whatever it is they are stuck on, nobody wants to know what the truth is. And that truth is Jesus our salvation is the only Son of God

    September 28, 2010 at 3:39 am |
    • Sam

      Hmmm....wasn't Julius Caesar born of a virgin mother and his father a "GOD" too???...

      September 28, 2010 at 8:57 am |
  17. dswaf

    seriously I read some of the posts and its the same underintelligent jiberish and foolishness, will the world end already? Seriously people are beyond the range of lame.

    September 28, 2010 at 3:34 am |
  18. Mark

    Why doesn't CNN do a story on how many people can answer basic questions about their leaders and questions about the government of the United States or their particualar state's government? I can assure you the percentage of correct answers will be about the same or worse than this article. Most people do not even know how laws in this country are made. Or more importantly who the people are that are actually DIRECTLY affecting their lives on a daily basis by making these laws. Most people are more concerned with who is the current hot contestant on american idol. Pathetic.
    I see this as a much more pertinant article for the headlines of a global news media organization, but CNN wishes to print articles which bash religion as a whole. No wonder people don't view CNN as the most trusted name in news anymore. It's articles like these that show your clearly biased view on the world and how you use your power to try and influence people to get them to see things as you do.
    This isnt news, it's propoganda.

    September 28, 2010 at 3:32 am |
  19. Roland

    Religion is a nice hobby. Please keep it within the club and leave us free of your fantasies.

    September 28, 2010 at 3:32 am |
  20. dswaf

    Im sure that if you wanted to find the truth no matter what that truth is and believe what you find with all reason, throwing out ignorance and what you think its possible, it has to be.

    September 28, 2010 at 3:29 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.