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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. MJG

    This entire comment string is an example for the article. A conversation that began discussing the lack of theological knowledge, in the United States (not American, that is a collection of continents), turned into a discusion about the lackings of your theology, or someone elses, or how superior one type of theology is over the other. This is exactly where the problem in this country lies, knowledge of one religion (the practiced theology of your family or household) and assumptions and criticisms on others ... Christians hatting muslims, Jewishand musims disliking each other. It is a vicious cycle of lack of knowledge and understanding, to shead some light on theological strife all theologies are intertwined. The roots of both christianity and musliams both began in Judism, and other "traditions' of every religion (not just these three example theologies) can be traced to even other religions. Why do you think Christmas is on december 25th every year? it's not because that is the exact day Jesus was born (simply a cerimonial representation), the Calander that we use today didn't exist, the date was actually inherited from another theology. Don't believe me? ask your clergyman (priest, etC.). I challenge you to become more enlighted! Explore your theology look were its roots lie, then look outward and understand other theologies.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:13 am |
  2. Alex

    Atheists and Agnostics rule! Suck that one, my ear Christians.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:13 am |
  3. RJ

    I would encourage everyone, from the lifelong or saved Christians to the Atheists to read The Reason for God by Timothy Keller. Christians, it shows you it is not only okay to examine your beliefs, but necessary. Atheists, it will provide some dissections you might find interesting. I challenge everyone to read the entire thing so you can look yourself in the mirror and face what you believe and why. ALso, Mere Christianity by CS Lewis, a former devout Atheist converted Christian is a compelling read as well.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:12 am |
  4. Alex

    Atheists and Agnostics rule! Suck that one, my dear Christians.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:11 am |
  5. atheos5150

    "For example, it's not evangelicals or Catholics who did best – it's Atheists and Agnostics." The simple answer to this is that a true and real Atheist comes to the point of non-belief through education and understanding, we question everything and desire real answers. Atheists are not content to simply believe because we are told to so, we are educated people with a lust for knowledge. Evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons, Christians, basically all religious people walk around with their plastical belief that they are some how intellectually superior because they are connected to a fallacy when in fact it is their own lack of education and abundance of ignorance that allows them to believe in a mythical god that does not exist. Their unrelenting desire to feel loved, understood and guiltless far out ways there personal need of education, religious ignorance is bliss. God does not exist, that is not a belief, that is science.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:10 am |
    • mike

      Science? Asserting that lack of evidence equates to proof of non-existence is the most flawed scientific formula I've ever heard. Be agnostic instead.

      September 29, 2010 at 8:54 am |
  6. liz

    Too many of us religious people are complacent with the absolute knowledge that theirs is not just right, but the ultimate, the only and that researching any thing differenet is a useless pursuit.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:10 am |
  7. richard

    I know of nothing that sends you to hell because you dont know what dali lama or anybody else is. The secret to christianity is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. That takes all worldly influences out of the equation. ALot of people sitting in the pews forget this and become stuck on themselves. Like the Pharacees of Jesus time, They become a sideshow and worthless for the kingdom. Folks, keep it simple, love others as God loved the church. fullfill the great commision. This is what God requires from us. Nothing more, nothing less.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:10 am |
  8. JayDeeT

    Not surprised!! Most Americans don't really know much about the world around them anyway. If you asked any number of Americans about the Bill of Rights, most would not know what it is, but they would certainly know Lady Gaga!!

    September 28, 2010 at 9:08 am |
  9. Kevin

    I think this article is saying that religious people in America only know about their own religion. I can definitely see these folks arguing that it is unfair to ask them about other religions because they only need to know their own.

    And I think atheists probably know more because they became atheist after realizing that all religions are the same.. thus they study them all equally, as a science. That must seem like such a cold life to you "believers." You know, needing an imaginary friend and all

    September 28, 2010 at 9:05 am |
  10. NSP

    8 of 10. Not bad. Should've been 9. I hit the wrong one by accident.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:04 am |
  11. Johnlib

    I'm sure that Glenn Beck only knows anything about religiosity when he is drunk or snorting cocaine and that Sarah Palin pretends to be a Christian when she is assailing gays, Immigrants and Liberals. Religion is Nature's Sick Joke on Mankind and now we know that people who pretend to be religious are spewing nothing but empty rhetoric!

    September 28, 2010 at 9:04 am |
  12. scieng

    Given that CNN just did an entire weekend smearing Christians, this article is not surprising.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:04 am |
  13. Proud Canadian

    BIG SURPRISE! Americans are ignorant about religion and the world around them. Guess what? The rest of the entire planet already knows this. Maybe you should now sit down and shut up and learn from the rest of the planet. It is time now to put the US in its place, disarm the ignorant nation and maybe the rest of the world can achieve some peace.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:03 am |
  14. David, Cincinnati

    The results of this test are not surprising at all. The "religious" in the US are often the many ignorant and desperate who can only hope for a miracle. Several questions were omitted like: Who did what to Galileo and why, and how recently was he pardoned? How many disparate gods have humans created? What is amiss with the Catholic priesthood? Can faith, for example in the virgin birth, lead to faith in other untested facts like, 2 + 2 = 5, or to following our leaders into a pointless war that permits torture of other humans?

    September 28, 2010 at 9:03 am |
  15. boydanb203

    The greatest evil of humanity ORGANIZED RELIGION!!! It will destroy us.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:01 am |
  16. Conrad

    It seems the more you study, the higher your education, the further you want to distance yourself from organized religion. Dawkins' book, "The God Delusion," made a lot of good points, but did not shake my believe in a higher being. But everything between me and said being/life force is man-made and based solely on gaining and holding power. I am not an atheist or even an agnostic–just a total 100% unbeliever in any of the organized schemes mankind has come up with. Study the history of any organized religion, and it's the same tale of mass murder, genocide, pillage and torture. As Diderot said, "Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest." Religion has held us back for millennia.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:01 am |
  17. Joe

    You people bragging on your "8/10"s and "10/10"s are as pathetic as the sample questions.
    The one point this article reinforces by way of the posted comments is atheism and and agnosticism have just as fanatic a following as any religion and that following's reasoning is driven by bitterness, arrogance, and ignorance. Evidence prima facie presented in the form of the hostile drivel posted here by its adherents.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:01 am |
  18. Dave

    Religion used to be a way to worship things that were an unknown...the sun, the stars...whatever. Then it became a way to scare people into following some sort of law. Religion was just another form of government. After all, the definition of faith is to be a blind follower with no real supporting facts.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:01 am |
  19. ZeroProfit

    I was at a Christian Men's group meeting recently and I tried to use the idea of Karma and Yin/Yang to draw a parallel to the role of light and darkness in the prologue in John's Gospel. You could have heard a pin drop. People started squirming in their seats. And then I got this response: "Well, I wouldn't know what you mean because I don't believe in 'Karma'". Then later, I made the mistake of wishing someone good luck at which point I got the response, "Yeah, I don't believe in luck. I'll take a God Bless, though".

    Jeesh. Times I'm ashamed to say I'm a Christian – in the presence of those guys – yep! Why is it so wrong to have a worldview/global perspective and try to bridge faiths based on sacred parallels of belief?

    September 28, 2010 at 9:00 am |
  20. PSY_LT

    This is a suprise? Many people aren't brought up in a religous household anymore or are so sour over their childhood experiences they abandon it. Thank God too (not really), as a veteran I can tell you religion only makes people crazy both here and overseas. Crazy.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:00 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.