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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 • Faith Now • Islam • Judaism • Mormonism • United States

soundoff (1,855 Responses)
  1. AmbidextrousLefty

    I am Roman Catholic and I got 10/10 correct. To be fair, I learned most of it after I LEFT the church, and have since returned.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:09 am |
  2. SRute

    10 out of 10. This wasn't a hard quiz and one correlation (not causation) is educational attainment. As a person who has faith and educational attainment (BS '03 MS '05), I strive my best to think critically and freely. Do I believe that the earth is 6000 years old? No. Do I belive that Darwin's theories disprove an existance of God? No. Science and religion are not mutually exclusive. The problem is fundamentalism in all forms (including fundamental atheism). Fundamentalism prevents critical thinking and causes close mindedness. Reason and Discovery are wonderful gifts of humanity, but Faith is a wonderful gift as well.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:09 am |
  3. Lindsay Blue Moon

    Most importantly, I want to remind you that in the last days scoffers will come, mocking the truth and following their own desires. 2 Peter 3:3

    September 28, 2010 at 8:08 am |
  4. dennis

    One either believes or they don't...

    September 28, 2010 at 8:07 am |
  5. RonRon

    Ouch! James, your Comment is scary... I am a 52, born catholic, and am interested and been studying religions, its origins, foundations and inner workings for about 35 years now... I will agree that I know more about religion than I do about Catholicism an believe me I spent a lot of time in churches as a child and teenager... didn't learn a damn thing there other than I should constantly worry, but if I gave money, I could worry less for a while!!

    This is such complex questions as organized society uses the same basic inner workings as religion. Keep your people dumb, give them always a little less than they need and keep them amused (entertained) on a regular base so they will work to be amused the next day... give them hope...

    Hope is the fuel of religion and is directly related to fear. Fear comes from ignorance and lack of power or control. In any religion or society, who has control and who has fear, hope, who works for society (taxes etc...),

    Believe and you will be saved. Meanwhile, work for us a little and don't forget to give...

    James, your right. Lest close our eyes, believe and keep going under... Don't matter. God will save us anyway...

    Ron.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:07 am |
  6. Joe

    I took the quiz-got all ten right.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:06 am |
  7. phnxrth

    So what's the formula here? First you fill your head with religion factoids, then you pass the test and can become a blind, dumb follower?

    Is that to distract attention from the cause and effect of the current state of the world that thousands of years of so-called religious attainment has created?

    September 28, 2010 at 8:04 am |
  8. Skeptimist

    To the extent that all major religions share and support the same core principles of decency for guiding human behavior, they are beneficial to the well being of their believers. To the extent that (some) religions emphasize non-essential (often frivilous or even vicious) points of doctrine to to claim exclusive possession of the "truth", they are the tool of demagogues whose agendas are more about power and wealth than the spiritual health and legitimacy of their followers. Those curious and independent thinkers who have discovered this and are angered by it, call themselves atheists. Those who have made these observations but maintain a sense of humor about themselves and the human condition in general are more likely to call themselves agnostics. And noone knows how many folks grasp the hypocrisy but keep their own counsel and tolerantly join their neighbors in organised worship simply because the goodness found in fellowship does, for them, outweigh the poverty of acrimony.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:04 am |
  9. Holly

    But the BIBLE SAYS.........

    September 28, 2010 at 8:04 am |
  10. Michael R

    hmmm... 7 out of 10. missed the Jewish sabbath. And I dont believe in the bible nor god. Although growing up Catholic, attending Catholic schools and being open-minded about what is out there helped.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:03 am |
  11. Bilal Khokhar

    CNN needs a crash course on religion as well. Look at the answer of Question 7 and the pic that is displayed on the background. They are completely opposite !

    September 28, 2010 at 8:03 am |
    • Chuck Trent

      You may be right, Bilal, but you are answering the questions, not the pictures. I think so mkany people missed the Jewish Sabbath question for the same reason I did, they didn't read the question very well & just jumped to the conculsion they knew what was being asked.

      September 28, 2010 at 2:05 pm |
  12. MOBADTHANGOOD

    Well what do you expect???????
    Its been taken out of schools.
    We arent' allow to talk about it because we might "offend" some other stupid persons "beliefs".
    They are doing everything they can to remove OUR Christian beliefs from everything from money, to the courthhouses, to your place of work and everywhere else that Christians go to and attend.
    Gays, atheists, crybaby liberals, "mentally challenged", and anybody else that wants to can cause this to happen.,
    MIDDLE CLASS AMERICANS whether you are white, black, brown, yellow, red or mixed, YOU BETTER START STANDING UP FOR YOURSELVES OR WE WILL BE DESTROYED.
    STOP THE DESTRUCTIION OF THE MIDDLE CLASS AMERICAN WAY OF LIFE.
    WE BUILT THIS COUNTRY AND WE NEED TO TAKE IT BACK.
    STAND UP AND BE COUNTED.
    MIDDLE CLASS AMERICANS ARE THE ONES LOSING OUR HOMES, OUR JOBS AND OUR FAMILIES.
    STAND UP MIDDLE CLASS AMERICANS. STOP LETTING THEM WALK ALL OVER US.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:03 am |
    • Real World

      I am middle class, white and Gay.
      Your religion keeps trying to pass laws telling me that i cant
      marry my life partner of 35 years.
      Believe what you want, but keep your religion out of my life
      and O U T, of our government !

      September 28, 2010 at 11:45 am |
    • MOBADTHANGOOD

      real life:
      are you honestly saying they it is not your life style that is being forced upon people. I mean really.
      Christians have not come out of the closet. We have been here fighting for our beliefs for a very long time.
      If you hve been gay for 35 years then thats you. Not the majority.
      I can GUARANTEE that I will never FORCE my beliefs on anyone the way that gays and the like have tried to force their beliefs on us now for so many years. Stop trying to force that on us and we will be even.
      Also read the whole post and don't pick out the parts you want or don't like.
      Hypocritical Christians do this all the time. They pick out the parts they don't want to read or live by.
      WE are ALL hypocrites. I don't claim not to be.
      My point of the post is that people don't know about religion because it has been taken away from us by small minority groups. Gays were included because they say it is alright when the Bible says it is not.
      I do not say that a person that is gay cannot die as a Christian and be forgiven of their sins just like every human being on earth. We are ALL sinners here and nothing will change that unitl the time comes for all of us to meet our maker.

      September 28, 2010 at 2:43 pm |
  13. Joitou2

    10 out of ten right! I am a protestant, fairly religious. I belive myl ove of history helped me more than Sunday school, though.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:02 am |
  14. MJD

    It's sad, but not surprising, that many people know nothing about other religions and little about their own. Books have been unchained for over 500 years. Its time they were opened and actually read!

    September 28, 2010 at 7:59 am |
  15. michael

    I agree JOSH...religion does not support critical thinking! Though many people who believe are intelligent (IQ), they rest their laurels on faith, which has no scientific support (logic or reason).

    September 28, 2010 at 7:59 am |
  16. melissa

    ok...I think there was 1 question in there that was a Biblical reference...so why should evangelicals score 100%??? I feel sorry for all the venemous people that are so full of hate...try to grow up a little and open your mind and let God in so He can heal all of those hurts so you can let go of the hate and poison in your hearts!! He loves you! He made you!mel

    September 28, 2010 at 7:58 am |
  17. twiddly

    Such a sad, worldwide mass delusion!

    And now the religious lemmings in the US want to turn it into a christian theocracy, spouting crap like 'this is a christian country' and 'it was founded by god'.
    The teabagging fundamentalists supporting Palin and O'Donnell are not much different from the zealots following Al Qaeda.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:58 am |
  18. Sam

    "Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church." (I Corinthians 14:34-35)

    September 28, 2010 at 7:58 am |
  19. lovesJesus

    When Jesus taught about His kingdom, He did not use fear, man started this. Jesus always used parables, and they were based on the audience to whom Jesus was speaking. You all are blaming God for PEOPLE did to you. Christ NEVER pushed religion down anyone's throat. He taught us to love each other, regardless of our differences. The Bible teaches us the origin of sin so we can understand sin's nature and how to conquer our continued desire to commit sin. Look to God for wisdom instead of man for teaching...

    September 28, 2010 at 7:56 am |
  20. skjwee

    I know all I need to know about religion by observing the hatred and violence of its followers.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:54 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.