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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. Reality

    Does this Pew study simply point out a major move from religious beliefs/myths to secularism/rational thinking? And there are always those who simply answer questions wrong to be contrarians!! So much for said poll!!! And is this once again another "topic" which is actually another free ad for S. Prothero's book?

    September 28, 2010 at 12:24 am |
    • Ken

      Yeah, because those Southern Bible-thumpers are known to be contrarians...

      September 28, 2010 at 12:40 am |
  2. Matt

    Those sample questions were extremely easy.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:24 am |
  3. Rob

    Interesting results. I would like to see how much people knew about American history. I bet it would give our nation pause.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:23 am |
    • Frogist

      Or science...

      September 28, 2010 at 12:49 am |
  4. Brandon Fields

    I dont see it as a bad thing that people do not know about this stuff. It serves no real purpose in life therefore there is no real need to know it especially if you are not a religious person. Why would I be ashamed to know nothing about something I do not care about? I scored an 8 of 10. I just dont see how not knowing about this makes someone stupid.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:22 am |
    • John

      because most of those people tested are religious, that's why. Blind faith is stupid.

      September 28, 2010 at 12:26 am |
    • Frogist

      @Brandon: Maybe it's important to know so that you can carry on conversations with those who do believe these things. One of the biggest factors in "converting" someone to another idea is the ability to relate to another person. Also it's basic knowledge. We should all have at least basic knowledge.

      September 28, 2010 at 12:49 am |
    • Wakeup&smellthekoolaid

      It matters because in a democracy idiot zealots vote & when that zealotry is fed into by political organizations it is empowered & there is a real threat of theocracy taking hold.

      September 28, 2010 at 10:14 am |
    • shecky

      @wakeupandsmellthekoolaid LOL coming from my non theistic stance, i look at the amount of pure 'faith driven belief' in the (now) worldwide monetary economy. i remind myself that infinite growth potential in a finite space actually best describes a 'black hole' not an economy. then i cease wondering why it hurts. i am fully aware that humans are not designed to survive an extrusion process. theism and money, both suck dead bears, both widely believed in. go figure.

      October 3, 2010 at 1:35 am |
  5. houstongal

    This is good news. I am always amazed any woman would support something that suppresses women and keeps them subservient. I have no clue what happens after death and anyone that says they do is lying. I am sure there is not a head man in charge that favors men.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:22 am |
    • Bonnie

      Jesus treated women with respect.

      September 28, 2010 at 12:27 am |
    • jaypenn

      yeah, it's a shame so many christians don't.

      September 29, 2010 at 4:53 pm |
  6. Steve

    All this proves is Black and Hispanic Christians are not as smart as Jews and White Catholics. Or was that not the point of the article?

    September 28, 2010 at 12:21 am |
    • Nonimus

      @Steve
      "All this proves is Black and Hispanic Christians are not as smart as Jews and White Catholics. Or was that not the point of the article?"

      Actually, if I'm reading it correctly, it's saying a Black or Hispanic Atheist would likely be smarter that a White Catholic.

      September 28, 2010 at 3:35 pm |
  7. Bonnie

    No one should be shoving any beliefs down anyones throat.... that is not what Jesus did...but He did share what he knew with others...nothing wrong with that.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:21 am |
    • MSSHSHH

      Please, if there would not be religious wars in the past, I wonder If Christianity would survive till now and widely spread...

      September 28, 2010 at 12:59 am |
    • Allan

      Bonnie, proselytizing will soon become a human rights violation, to stop Christians from "sharing" their religion and committing religious genocide.

      September 28, 2010 at 3:19 am |
    • Raj

      Muslims also do that.. they both have same "roots". Spreading your belief is fine, but if someone does not buy into that they will say its because "Satan" is blocking your vision. Its like car sales man trying to push some car on you and when you dont buy, he will say "Hey you don't know what you are missing" I had someone in my college try that on me and when I rejected, I was told I was eternally damned.. LOL

      September 28, 2010 at 5:01 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Bonnie: It depends on what you mean by "sharing"... If by sharing, you mean doing good works and should someone ask you about your beliefs you kindly answer their questions? Or is this the sharing that comes with political reforms and exclaiming how I'm going to hel-l? There is nothing wrong with the one. But something very unwelcomed about the other.

      September 28, 2010 at 5:54 pm |
  8. zounds

    Yea-studying comparative world religion is good-maybe everyone will not so be fearful of the other football team.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:20 am |
  9. DirtyBob

    Religion is slowly leaving. Now speed up.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:20 am |
    • StevieBoy

      Turn churches into museums. Gorgeous, historical architecture, but nothing good ever came OUT of them.

      September 28, 2010 at 12:37 am |
    • Medardus

      The only good thing ever to come out of religion was the music. – George Carlin

      September 28, 2010 at 1:30 am |
  10. James

    9/10 but not many questions in that quiz actually relied on knowing the Bible. Mostly the quiz probably demonstates that Americans aren't very aware of the world around us. We already knew that.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:20 am |
  11. James

    Kinda sad a Jew scores higher on a test mostly about christianity than most Christians do huh?

    10/10

    September 28, 2010 at 12:20 am |
    • Jeff

      Wonder if that's because Christianity is what you get when you mix Judaism and a twisted ancient middle-eastern cult.

      September 28, 2010 at 12:41 am |
    • bob

      shows you how nosey they are

      September 28, 2010 at 3:17 am |
  12. makak

    Atheists know more about religions than religious people. And it's based on this knowledge that they choose not to believe it. So is it implied that religious people are too ignorant to know any better? 🙂

    September 28, 2010 at 12:20 am |
    • John

      Exactly.

      September 28, 2010 at 12:21 am |
    • StevieBoy

      And it's painfully obvious that the poorer and less educated a population is, here in the U.S. as well as in other 3rd world countries, the more religious they tend to be. Naturally, this belief in a wonderful, magical afterlife gives them incentive to get through the drudgery of their lives here on Earth. I say that's fine if it gets them through the day, but in the end they will have suffered a less robust life based on their ignorance and, to top it off, they'll rot in the ground and turn to dust just like everyone else. There is no grand prize awaiting behind door number three!! Live life to the fullest NOW!

      September 28, 2010 at 12:34 am |
  13. Buster Bloodvessel

    What's to know? A virgin had a baby and ti grew up to be God, but was executed and came back to life and then went to heaven. Nothing weird or supernatural about that, right? Also, there's a rabbit who lays colored eggs at estrus time and some guy in a red suit with a white beard gives you gifts in the winter.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:19 am |
    • Mr A

      I'll tell you what's to know: Christianity isn't the only religion on earth – heck, most people on Earth aren't Christians. you just proved the point of this article, congratulations.

      September 28, 2010 at 6:30 am |
  14. Stan Marsh

    Does the quiz include questions about the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus?

    September 28, 2010 at 12:19 am |
    • Kace

      No, but it does include Joseph Smith!

      September 28, 2010 at 7:17 am |
  15. Xugos

    It's just an observation of mine (hell I'm a muslim!) that atheists and agnostics tend to study religion harder than most people who believe in religion. I think that's what brings most of them to its rejection anyways, how can you reject ALL religions if you do not know what they ALL say?

    September 28, 2010 at 12:19 am |
    • chuck

      Atheists don't reject all religions. They reject the notion of some sort of all-powerful deity, and especially one that gives a damn about us.

      There are many religions that don't necessarily require belief in a deity.

      September 28, 2010 at 12:22 am |
    • James

      Seriously? They all say the same thing: "Follow our magic book. It was written by our God and it's perfect in every way, even the ways in which it's obviously a steaming pile of nonsense."

      September 28, 2010 at 12:30 am |
    • Xugos

      James, that is just monotheism. I see you already do not know much about it, lol. Hinduism, Taoism, Confuciusism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Animism, etc, most of those don't have books.

      September 28, 2010 at 12:50 am |
    • James

      ...and yet all ask a person to believe without evidence. To quote Hitchens (who always says these things far more eloquently than I ever could):
      “[All religions] make the same mistake. They all take the only real faculty we have that distinguishes us from other primates, and from other animals—the faculty of reason, and the willingness to take any risk that reason demands of us—and they replace that with the idea that faith is a virtue. If I could change just one thing, it would be to dissociate the idea of faith from virtue—now and for good—and to expose it for what it is: a servile weakness, a refuge in cowardice, and a willingness to follow, with credulity, people who are in the highest degree unscrupulous.”

      September 28, 2010 at 12:59 am |
    • James

      I'll also concede that some Eastern "religions" (you site Confuciusism and Buddhism which by some definitions might fall outside of "religion" and into "philosophy") are less guilty of regarding faith as a virtue. Still, (for instance) Buddhism asks its adherents to believe in reincarnation, again without any tangible proof. While there may not be a book and there are some positive points to be sure (the same could be said of any religion), the teachings are still riddled with nonsense.

      September 28, 2010 at 1:10 am |
    • sean

      @ Xugos, Hinduism has gods, Buddhism, the religion school of thought also have gods like hinduism. Confucianism is not a religion but a philosophy. Taoism is part philosophy mix with nature worship, kinda like Wiccan....

      September 28, 2010 at 1:28 am |
    • Anusha

      @Xugos.. Hinduism does not have books?? really. It does not have one book, but it has many. Hindus done believe in a single prophet and final prophet etc. Its not a revealed religion but a philosophy. Anyone who follows Vedas (Rig veda being earliest) and the traditions in there are Hindus. The other books like Upanishads etc lays out philosophies and other sciences. There is Bhagavad Gita which is a battlefield conversation between Krishna and Arjuna, in which Krishna lays out the basics about purpose of life and spirituality.

      September 28, 2010 at 4:37 pm |
    • Anusha

      And all of those were written much earlier than any Jude-christian books. Rig Veda is estimated to have been passed down from 10th century BC.

      September 28, 2010 at 4:44 pm |
  16. Amy

    I'm agnostic and I was surprised when I mentioned a biblical story to a Christian friend who had not hear about it. Quite shocking.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:19 am |
  17. BUTCH

    that was easy. 10 of 10 and i'm an atheist. i mean, if you're not going to believe in something you need to know what you don't believe.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:19 am |
  18. Xugos

    I'm a muslim and I got 10/10. This doesn't even deserved to be called a quiz haha.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:18 am |
  19. chuck

    Another 10 out of 10 for an atheist.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:18 am |
  20. StevieBoy

    I just laughed and shook my head when I read: "For example, it's not evangelicals or Catholics who did best – it's atheists and agnostics." Well yeah, there's a surprise! This is what's so damm scary about religion; people blindly following whatever they're told without question or doubt. Only education and embracing other cultures will erase the ignorance that religion has cursed on our societies. I'm a proud atheist!

    September 28, 2010 at 12:18 am |
    • Guest

      Very true. What ever happened to the free will that their god gave them?

      September 28, 2010 at 12:35 am |
    • Chumbolex

      That's the thing, if you think about religion, you question it. Most religious people consider it a sin to question god, so they never think about it. Sucks, huh?

      September 28, 2010 at 7:55 am |
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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.