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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. Ryan

    You know i dont mind athiest people, but damn you guys are just about as annoying as religious fanatics... u act like ur special and try to think of urselves as minoritys...its pretty annoying... like the lil emo kids at the mall, who like to dress in all black to look different so they stand out... if you dont have any beliefs then why do u care? oh thats right, you want attention too...

    September 28, 2010 at 6:15 am |
  2. Realistastic

    Will all of the "brainiacs" who scored 10/10 on this most difficult of quizzes....please stop bragging about it as if it were some great feat. Here's a little rule of thumb to follow; if you missed more than 1 question you should be ashamed of yourself....if you're on here bragging about getting all 10 kiddie questions right, then you should be even more ashamed of yourself. Other than that...religion is bad, reason is good....religion bad, reason good. Just keep repeating until it sinks in, and picking up a more recently published book probably wouldn't hurt either.

    September 28, 2010 at 6:10 am |
    • Catie

      You're sure grumpy in the morning

      September 28, 2010 at 6:24 am |
  3. Catie

    CNN has sure written quiet a bit of negativity toward religion lately. Is there a new atheist running the show?

    September 28, 2010 at 6:09 am |
    • Realistastic

      The negativity does not loriginate from CNN, it is merely a reflection of the innate evil inherent in all orgainized religions...that of willful ignorance and the power driven division of our species.

      September 28, 2010 at 6:18 am |
    • Eli

      No, actually, CNN just installed a new president the week - he's the man who "discovered" Glen Beck. Yep, the new CNN President used to run the talent at Fox News. Yikes.

      September 28, 2010 at 6:29 am |
    • infidelio

      Catie: How about asking the question "Is there a rational person running the show?".

      September 28, 2010 at 10:06 am |
  4. Wesley John

    People are actually starting to realize that religions are just a scam to make money, and are used as "hope" that people who follow their religions rules go to a better place in the after life. I don't blame them either considering the many types of conflicting religions along with all the currupt preists that are supposed to be setting the example...therefore religious IQ's are increasing not decreasing.

    September 28, 2010 at 6:09 am |
  5. freetime1

    There is a reason people do not know what is in the bible. Church leaders don't want their flock to know. If people really knew what was in the bible they would reject it for what it is. Made up, but more then that it is evil too.

    September 28, 2010 at 6:00 am |
  6. brad

    The answer is obvious as to why athiests score better. They actually read the bible itself. The super religious people only read the parts their preacher/priest whatever tell them to. That way no one has to worry about those pesky contradictory portions. Athiests read the whole thing so we can debate christians with their own information. I had a christian quoting shakespeare once to me (never a borrower or lender be) swearing it was from the bible. Good stuff.

    September 28, 2010 at 5:59 am |
  7. Infinity690

    Good. We're making room for common sense.

    September 28, 2010 at 5:55 am |
  8. van1014

    How short life really is, and there are people that don't want to know what life is all about?

    September 28, 2010 at 5:54 am |
    • infidelio

      What life is about? Religion is not going to help you there! Try this: We are all creatures that evolved from the biosphere of the earth. The biosphere should be our center of sacredness. That means that we should live in a sustainable way and leave something for others. Of course, these heretical ideas imply that we are all from the same origin and so there is no room for the murderous tribalism that characterizes "religions of the Book".

      September 28, 2010 at 9:59 am |
  9. alou

    I hit reply too

    September 28, 2010 at 5:53 am |
  10. Dennis

    How did they score of Greek mythology?

    September 28, 2010 at 5:41 am |
  11. DrMabuse

    I got 10 out of 10 right, by the way.

    September 28, 2010 at 5:40 am |
  12. van1014

    I'm glad Jesus healed me, cause self-help books and paxil didn't do it. Thank you for the supernatural.

    September 28, 2010 at 5:39 am |
  13. DrMabuse

    It's not unusual that atheists scored highest. In my case, the more I learned about all religions, the easier it was to eschew them. In the two years before 9/11, I had finally gotten around to reading about Islam because it was the main religion of which I knew almost nothing. It was 9/11 that finally caused me to realize the ridiculousness of all religions and fully embrace atheism.

    September 28, 2010 at 5:36 am |
  14. joeD

    Not surprising that aetheists no more about religion than those who practice religionl.

    September 28, 2010 at 5:36 am |
  15. Tom

    I suspect very few "Christians" have read or ever read their bibles. Most buy whatever doctrine their pastor/priest/rabbi puts to them. I know this because Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers" and our so-called Christian nation jumped on the bandwagon to invade a country that did nothing to us. They even gladly accepted the lies told them to inspire hatred for Muslims. Sad, very sad. But then Jesus said, "many are called, but few are chosen", so I guess this is to be expected.

    September 28, 2010 at 5:30 am |
  16. Jaeger

    No surprises about this report. Find any group, with the exception of maybe a scientific community, and test them on a subject they claim to firmly believe and you will find that most have never individually studied the topic. Their opinions and beliefs are that their own but rather what some has told them. While at the same time having knowledge is not the same as belief in an idea. 10 out of 10 didn't mean I believed any of what I was able to answer. However, the reality is that polls are usually wrong or at least their results are purported to be something they are not. Which explains, why a Frog with no legs is Deaf?

    September 28, 2010 at 5:30 am |
  17. PAPilot

    I know enough about religion to know it is a farcical delusion designed to control people through fear.

    September 28, 2010 at 5:26 am |
  18. Blah

    Regarding CNN's mini-quiz above:

    The Jewish day of rest (Shabbat) is on Saturday in the west, that is the seventh day of the week. If it "begins" on Friday, then it is observed over two days, is it not? Well, of course, it is not two days, but one. It is the seventh day, which begins at sunset of the sixth day.

    (Jewish days, and Catholic liturgical days, run from sunset to sunset.)

    September 28, 2010 at 5:19 am |
  19. Doug

    When I think of religion, I think of the Malaysian airline pilot who prayed while his plane crashed instead of doing his job. I think of the parents who prayed while their daughter died of diabetes instead of seeking medical help. I think of Tanzanians eating the limbs of little albino children, and of Ethiopian church elders advising HIV patients to throw out the anti-virul drugs in favor of holy water. Maybe this article should just say we need more murder courses in school. I think that perhaps we need more science and common sense.

    September 28, 2010 at 5:17 am |
    • infidelio

      Good points. Thanks Doug!

      September 28, 2010 at 9:50 am |
    • Sam

      Malaysian airline pilot who prayed while his plane crashed .. when was this?

      September 28, 2010 at 3:43 pm |
  20. Joebrack

    religion is just a cop out in life. if somethin good happens praise god if somethin bad happens its the devil.. no one takes responsiblity for their own actions.

    September 28, 2010 at 5:06 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.