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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. Mc

    How did Muslim Americans do on the test?

    September 28, 2010 at 4:56 am |
    • MegaBrite

      I am Muslim and I did 10/10. But those are very basic questions that I knew when I was 10. If people can not get these basics right then this country ins in deep ...

      September 28, 2010 at 10:36 am |
  2. Allen Hill

    The Bible calls a person (atheist) who says there is no "GOD" a fool. REPENT!

    September 28, 2010 at 4:50 am |
    • asrael

      You had me at "fool"; thanks for the demo...

      September 28, 2010 at 5:51 am |
  3. ChiefK

    The Quran: delivering virgins to martyrs. For what purpose? Why virgins? What are they going to do with these virgins? That's right folks...the Quran dictates such lustful desires and needs among its male followers. Islam? Muslims? Do they have it 'right'? Do the math. And it's all part of God's perfect plan. Use your God-given intellect to deny God? Are you? You have the right to choose...the only creature on earth with such a gift. A gift not to be squandered. So make your choice...but choose wisely.

    September 28, 2010 at 4:49 am |
    • Rick

      So does the Old Testament. Or did you miss the part about "kill all the men, boys, and old women, and keep the girls for yourself"?

      September 28, 2010 at 8:43 am |
  4. JP

    Appx. 80% of college professors are democrats, and that statistic is even further skewed at more prestigious ivy league schools. Those who teach art and science are close to 90%. Is it because the rudimentary logic of the religious right is quickly dissolved by logic and reason?

    September 28, 2010 at 4:47 am |
  5. Faisal

    Doesn't matter if you believe in God or not, He is coming and there is nothing you can say and/or do about it. but for your own sake I suggest you read the facts, read the debate, and come to a conclusion that there is a God.. if you don't, well then you are pretty much screwed, because He certainly exists.

    September 28, 2010 at 4:45 am |
    • asrael

      Just spoke with God, and ... She ... says you don't have a clue...

      September 28, 2010 at 5:49 am |
  6. Jeffrey Young, Sr

    I think a strong distinction should be made between faith in G_d and belief in a particular religion. 30 years of study of the worlds religions has taught me that all can be extremely liberating or dangerously dictatorial. I have a deep and abiding faith in G_d but I refuse to align myself with any religion as practiced today. This survey, to my mind, only lends greater creedance to my choice. And it only adds more strength to the argument that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing!

    September 28, 2010 at 4:42 am |
  7. Chris

    7/10 that's it I blow my opportunity to go in Heaven

    September 28, 2010 at 4:39 am |
  8. SJtR

    10/10 here too. I'm Christian and sick of hearing atheists cry and whine as if Torquemada is in power oppressing them or something. Plus, in those questions, such as indonesia being muslim... whats that got to do with being a Christian knowing your stuff in America?

    September 28, 2010 at 4:37 am |
  9. dx2718

    I got 9/10. Learned most of that in World History. The headline is misleading. There is no reason why anyone should be required to know about the Bible. However, it *is* important to understand which religions are where and some of their basic beliefs, only because religious fanatics will do *anything* to protect and promote their religion, and so in the interest of keeping the world safe, we need to know what we're up against. When we are truly enlightened, religion will no longer pose a threat to anyone, because nobody in their right mind would act in a way affecting their neighbor based upon a religious belief.

    September 28, 2010 at 4:35 am |
    • Frank

      "because nobody in their right mind would act in a way affecting their neighbor based upon a religious belief."

      Except actually doing what Jesus taught us to. You know, little things like feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, caring for the sick, comforting the widow and the orphan and visiting those imprisoned.

      September 28, 2010 at 4:41 am |
    • hates religion loves Jesus

      You nailed it Frank!

      dx2718 wouldn't want a person of faith or a religion to treat them in a decent fashion because their religion or faith told them too? Go figure.

      I got 9/10. Learned most of that in World History. The headline is misleading. There is no reason why anyone should be required to know about the Bible. However, it *is* important to understand which religions are where and some of their basic beliefs, only because religious fanatics will do *anything* to protect and promote their religion, and so in the interest of keeping the world safe, we need to know what we're up against. When we are truly enlightened, religion will no longer pose a threat to anyone, because nobody in their right mind would act in a way affecting their neighbor based upon a religious belief.

      September 28, 2010 at 3:07 pm |
  10. SJtR

    here goes media once again playing the all knowing usurper

    September 28, 2010 at 4:34 am |
  11. US MARSHAL

    How can you trust anyone that banters and disparages a man for being treated unfairly as Jesus Christ ?

    is there a problem posting such as a reply
    for this licentious crap ?

    September 28, 2010 at 4:33 am |
    • Bob

      thats sh oura law –

      September 28, 2010 at 4:50 am |
  12. Brian Athiest

    10 out of 10 (although I guessed at 1)... how can you tell I am an athiest. Frankly, I can't believe that someone who claims to be religious would not easily get all these questions right. I guess the point made that athiets actually think about things before making a decision is the answer.
    I was raised christian and was even bribed to go to church, but I would fall asleep while sitting there. And everything seemed so totally silly, like how people raise their hand up while singing and crying ( i think they are tringing to 'take in the lord')... or some people breaking out in giberish, or the nearly mental religious nut that would hug all the boys... I found it unbearable.
    To say I thought about it before I made a decision might be overstating it, though... from the age of 5, I thought religion was absolutely, totally, completely ridiculous. We really must be wired differently, because I just don't see how people can still fall for this crap in a modern world.

    September 28, 2010 at 4:33 am |
  13. CJ

    The great thing about Jesus is He is an international, multicultural figure; He does not discriminate by race, creed, color, gender, etc; He came for all people to reconcile them to God: Black, White, Latino, Asian, Jew, Arab, Buddhist, Muslim, Atheist, Jesus doesn't care where you came from.

    Anyone who has come to the point in their lives where they know there's something else out there, where they know life isn't supposed to be lived the way they're living, these are the people for whom the message of Christ exists. "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him would not perish, but have everlasting life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him." John 3:16, 17

    The only people the message of Christ is not for, is good people. "I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." Jesus, Luke 5:32

    September 28, 2010 at 4:33 am |
  14. Frank

    I have to say that that Crucifix on that lady's Rosary beads looks the one on one of mine. Cool.

    September 28, 2010 at 4:33 am |
  15. Iridius Izzarne

    This article and the quiz are both replete with inaccuracies and false information. I don't need to know what the first chapter in the bible is called. I don't know the name of the first chapter of ANY fiction, so why that book?

    September 28, 2010 at 4:29 am |
    • Frank

      Ah, so this is the 'intellect' of the high and mighty atheist. "I certainly don't need to know anything about the most influential book in the world!"
      Whether you believe it or not, it pays to be cultured. Otherwise you just end up looking like a jack@ss.

      September 28, 2010 at 4:37 am |
  16. Jedah

    Blind faith saves a weak mind from the burden of thought.

    September 28, 2010 at 4:28 am |
  17. chris

    why such hateful comments towards christians?

    September 28, 2010 at 4:28 am |
  18. ufadoof

    Religion: Being awesome since neolithic times. Well...except that being awesome part. More like just being ...______fill in the blank.

    September 28, 2010 at 4:28 am |
  19. Mama

    Hmm 9 out of 10, not doing too bad. But american's 'usually' only get 5 of 10 or less? That is surprising, when 'In God We Trust' is their thing.

    September 28, 2010 at 4:23 am |
  20. Dark Poet

    Hmm I don't think religion should be taught in schools. Don't get me wrong being a christian myself I think that it is something you must choose to be not FORCED into from biased Pastors. I have been to many churches where Pastors only preach hatred and I've actually taken the mic from a pastor to "TEACH HIM" about tolerance and how we shouldn't judge other people or religions just because it was how people were raised or chose to be. We have freedom of choice. That its self is a blessing many Christians/Catholics have forgotten over the years. As long as you don't purposly hurt other and are a good person who cares what Power you believe or Don't believe in. THAT IS THE BIBLE RIGHT THERE! Not some monster both sides twist it to be. Matthew 6:5 says it all to those pastors/priest who choose to throw their own beliefs in front of biblical facts. If you disagree with me then hey that you opinion but at least read fully into mine first before sending the backlash 🙂 Just remember the bible itself was written by man ( and some by woman that the Catholic church refuses to release) and John himself was a hostile person and a selfish one.

    September 28, 2010 at 4:17 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.