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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. Kyran

    I believe Islam is a religion ... not Muslim. They shouldn't be judging society if they can't ask a proper question. I'm a practicing Catholic and I know my Bible well. Those of you who read yours will realize Jesus' main messages were love and forgiveness. The faith ful should stop attacking the atheists , I doubt that was CNN's intent by allowing comments. Our Evangelical friends should also remember that the Christ said: "Judge not lest ye be judged." I read a forum a while back created by Evangelicals that stated that all Catholic priests are vampires and child molesters. Catholis and Lutherans actually have the lowest rating of abusive clergy at 1-2% , Evangelicals have a 10% rate! That study was led by an agnostic humanities professor. My priests have all eaten garlic , touched hosts , and been around many crucifixes and holy water fonts ; So I highly doubt they're vampires. That just shows Evangelical hate in action. My church is loving and welcoming , it aids the poor and cares for the sick. It provides education.

    To the non churchgoers , I care about you and apologize for "Christians" hateful words apon you. Don't hinder my beliefs and I'll extend the same respect.My best friend is an atheist and he is the best person I know.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:05 am |
    • Kyran

      10/10 P.s. anyone with a functioning brain has evolution in their credo.

      September 28, 2010 at 7:09 am |
  2. elgeevz

    Sixty-eight years ago, at age ten, I joined a Baptist church and set about to improve my life by reading the Bible. But instead of the minister's carefully selected "suggested readings for the week," I started with Genesis 1,1 and read straight through, just as if I were reading a novel. When, several months later, I finally got to Numbers 31, I was so appalled that I stopped going to church. But I scored 90% on the quiz.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:05 am |
  3. Jason

    Religion is just a man made invention to control people. Also by far the leading cause of death throughout history. I have no idea why it even exists anymore. I assume it's simply the weak minded people that are terrified at the prospect of absolutely nothing after death keeping it alive to comfort their little minds.

    Quick everyone. go google up "iq vs religiosity" You will notice a trend on the graphs. Christians wont like it much.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:04 am |
  4. manifest

    This would explain Bishop Long having such a strong backing and Sherri Shepard saying on The View that she believes the bible literally. As a black woman Humanist myself it shows me just how deeply rooted the indoctrination from slavery really is.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:04 am |
  5. Jeff from Columbus

    This isn't a surprise with how Hollywood, liberals, and the Mainstream Media have villainized anyone who has religious faith. People today under 30 grew up in a culture where, if you were Christian, you were bad. The only accepted religion today by the media and liberals in America is Islam. Christianity is a code word now for "right-wing extremist".

    It is truly sad what these groups have done to America. A belief in God can help one in so many ways. Faith is a very powerful tool for humans. It can give them the strength to face and deal with adversity and troubled times in their lives. But, today's younger generation is told to stay away from God and religion. So, they can't turn to God when times are bad like those over 30.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:03 am |
  6. Steven Billington

    I am one of those supposedly fundementatist bigots who doesn' t know anything and I got a perfect score...every one of them right.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:01 am |
  7. Tony

    I guess that explains how Bush was around for two terms and why Palin appears intelligent to some.
    Good Grief.........

    September 28, 2010 at 7:00 am |
  8. Alpha 1

    While i am an Agnostic, i was raised Christian. Why i ran away from Christianity ( or any other religion for that matter) I don't know. I do know that I love reading about all religions and how they came to be. I would love to see religious studies be taught in schools. Not religion, religous studies. Not forced upon you but offered. Students could then open their minds and make decisions for themselves.

    September 28, 2010 at 6:59 am |
  9. Chris

    I would not be so worried about American lack of religious knowledge and more about the lack of knowledge on geography, history etc. The US education system needs to be re-visited and some general standards should be put in place.

    September 28, 2010 at 6:56 am |
    • Alpha 1

      couldn't agree more!

      September 28, 2010 at 7:01 am |
  10. Alert Sooner

    Understanding religion has become more like.......go to church to learn about foregiveness and then flip a bird at someone who cuts you in traffic on your way home!

    September 28, 2010 at 6:55 am |
  11. Cassy

    Agreed, the gates of hell have just been opened.

    September 28, 2010 at 6:55 am |
  12. Michael

    From a monk (many years ago):

    "An unlearned peasant, whose contentment is the service of God, is far better than the learned and the clever, whose pride in their knowledge leads them to neglect their souls while fixing their attention on the stars...An overweening desire for knowledge brings many distractions and much delusion. Many like to be considered learned and to be praised for their wisdom; how much knowledge there is which adds nothing to the good of the soul! Remember, the more you know, the more severely you will be judged. So do not be proud of any skill or knowledge you may have, for such is an awesome responsibility."

    September 28, 2010 at 6:55 am |
  13. Deano

    People, please relax and take in the article. If it applies to you and you are in fact less educated in your religion then, get educated. If you are quite knowledgeable of religion and do not believe or not sure, then embrace it and know that you have knowledge about something. I saw a similar article about Democrats and Republicans...they too went off just like the people in this blog. I think people should simply respect others opinions and religions (or non religion.) You can make a point without insulting someone and challenging who they are. Be better than the insult.

    September 28, 2010 at 6:54 am |
  14. Luke

    And this on the same day that America came in 27th out of 30 developed countries in science. Hello.....anyone concerned yet?

    September 28, 2010 at 6:54 am |
  15. l Sleeter

    Where is fhe link to the quiz?

    September 28, 2010 at 6:52 am |
  16. The Half Baked Lunatic

    Religion is just a belief in something that is not proven. As soon as it is proven, it becomes fact and then relgions are no longer interested (Yes, the world is round. No, the Earth is not the center of the universe).

    September 28, 2010 at 6:50 am |
  17. Kris

    Did anyone else take the quiz. According to the quiz, the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday; This is incorrect. According to Jewish tradition a day ends at sundown. When the Sabbath begins, it is already Saturday, not Friday.

    September 28, 2010 at 6:49 am |
    • Dawn

      Sundown does not mean midnight. It still starts on Friday.

      September 28, 2010 at 11:39 am |
  18. Curt99

    In other words all these claims about the US being a devoutly christian nation is but just another lie fed to you by the establishment, sort of like the republicans will take back the senate and the house. Nothing could be further from the truth, unless they cheat again, you better watch those voting machines very carefully in November.

    September 28, 2010 at 6:48 am |
  19. Michael

    I find it interestingly ironic that those of "faith" claim to know and leave it at that. When dialoging with a believer the arguments move round in circles avoiding such hurdles as logic, reason, scientific data, and fact. There are so many books written and yet so many come back to one written in the iron age...that is so full of anger, and hate, and jeolosy. I just don't get it. BTW atheist and 10/10! I do research the topic and read extensively...I don't just take living, and breathing, and knowing for granted...

    September 28, 2010 at 6:47 am |
  20. Brian the Atheist

    I got 10/10. One up for us atheists.

    September 28, 2010 at 6:47 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.