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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. Joe

    I got a 10/10 and i'm a catholic (thnx to 12 years in catholic school), and i find it ironic that atheists know more than the people who spout off the most amount of religious ideas and such (ie. bible thumpers) who seem to know the least about what they're talking about. is it just me or are the majority of 'religious' individuals ignorant of the basic facts?

    September 28, 2010 at 12:33 am |
  2. Randall

    10/10 Woohoo!

    My spiritual leanings are hard to pin down. I accept the reasoning behind atheism, but I myself believe in a higher power, although I do not adhere to any specific religion nor do I think that there is any one religion that this higher power favors. I have some beliefs that would be considered occult by most theists.

    I'm agnostic in that I think it's very reasonable to conclude that there is no higher power, and spiritual in that personal experiences have led me to believe that there is one.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:32 am |
    • Crimson

      It's the same for me! I just never really realized how to state it... I don't quite seem to fit in any of the other cookie-cutter belief systems.

      September 28, 2010 at 9:22 am |
    • Spinner

      I feel the same way you do Randall, I'm an agnostic. I certainly can see the harm in mindless, dogmatic religions, but I do like being part of a faith community. That's why I'm Unitarian-Universalist. We congregate to support each other on his or her own spiritual journey whatever that happen to be (including atheist and agnostic), and are guided by seven basic humanist principles. (btw 10/10)

      September 28, 2010 at 9:36 am |
  3. Andrea M

    I'm not surprised. My atheist boyfriend pwns me on religion. But he was raised Mormon and I was raised an unbaptised heathen so it makes perfect sense. However, I still find myself capable of believing in a higher power and afterlife without the assistance of formal religion. Sure, I could still be a decent person without it, but I like my teddy bear.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:32 am |
    • TM

      Do you also find yourself equally capable of not believing in the afterlife, with the assistance of logic? Or would that require a leap of faith?

      September 28, 2010 at 12:50 am |
  4. john d

    This is offensive to all who do not believe bible to be their text for religious study. It is time to learn about every religion and not just bible. I am surprised to see the study only conducted was for knowledge of Bible. I stopped after 2 questions. I would have taken the test if the question were for all major religion. Why did the study not include Quran or Gita or other religious text? World would be much in harmony if we learn to tolerate and learn to live each other. Religions is nothing but a way of living a useful and productive life. Just stop all the studies focused on one religion..because americans do not follow just bible..they follow their own religion.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:31 am |
    • Ruspanic

      Had you finished the quiz, you would have seen that it is not just about Christianity.

      September 28, 2010 at 1:11 am |
    • Holy Cow

      swing and a miss, back to the bench

      September 28, 2010 at 8:29 am |
  5. Gay Lynn

    I scored 8 out of 10, I am LDS (Mormon) who believes in Christ teachings. I respect atheists,agnostics,muslims,judaism, hindus, buddhists. We can agree to disagree w/o any blood being spilled.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:31 am |
    • Frogist

      @Gay Lynn: OMG what a novel idea! LOL! I totally agree.

      September 28, 2010 at 1:01 am |
    • MSSHSHH

      Do you also believe that people of other religions will not go to hell?

      September 28, 2010 at 1:03 am |
    • macguysea

      Doesn't' change the fact that LDS is a cult.

      September 28, 2010 at 1:04 am |
    • HotAirAce

      All religions, and sects and denominations within religions, are cults. If you think your particular brand of silliness is not, then your elitist as well as delusional.

      September 28, 2010 at 1:18 am |
    • Lori

      @Gay Lynn – FINALLY... someone with some sense! 🙂

      September 28, 2010 at 9:07 am |
    • ZeroProfit

      Building bridges is so important. I think, for better or for worse, it would leave most fundamentalists of any religion out in the cold. If they want to cross the bridge, they'll just have to accept that some folks will NOT take their pill wholesale

      September 28, 2010 at 9:10 am |
    • @MSSHSHH

      I've studied most, if not all, major world religions, and the only ones that teach that EVERYONE goes to heaven (or at least not to hell) are judaism and buddhism. Although Jehovah's Witnesses do teach that the "good" go to heaven and the "bad" just die, not go to hell.

      Don't get me started on Christian's! My God is a loving and forgiving God who would NEVER condemn anybody to eternal damnation. I cannot and will not believe in this. Compassionate God & eternal damnation are completely incompatible terms.

      September 28, 2010 at 12:24 pm |
    • Rohan

      In Hinduism, everyone has a chance of going to heaven depending on their deeds and not a particular belief . After each birth you would go to heaven or hell acc to your Karma and your next birth is determined by your deeds. And in each birth your duty is evolution of your soul, i.e. seek knowledge, and live with discipline and shed desires and you will attain salvation. and there is no end of world. The creation and destruction is a bug cycle aka evolution. Its the only religion that says the world evolves..

      Just FYI...

      September 28, 2010 at 4:53 pm |
  6. JVIPER88

    It shouldn't surprise anyone that people in this country, especially religious people, are completely retarded.

    And it certainly wasn't shocking to learn that Atheists scored higher on a test than a stupid religious fanatic. It doesn't matter what the subject matter is. That outcome is like a law of nature.

    The problem is that religious people talk too much. They all have to tell you what the "Truth" is, but they never listen. That's why they don't know anything, and never will.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:31 am |
    • SynthBeatz

      Ditto!

      September 28, 2010 at 7:50 am |
  7. Disheartened

    Sadly, the reality of it all is that many claim that their faith has nothing to do with the knowledge of their religion. In assuming ignorance (ignorance means a lack of knowledge, not rude,) it is easier for people to hold onto their faith in God because they never question what they never knew. My mother claims to be a devout Christian, however she knows nothing of the Bible in a larger sense but prays daily and will proclaim from the highest mountain that Jesus is her savior. Ironically I, as her atheist daughter, have taught her more about her own religion than she's learned in Bible study or church itself.

    This is the reality of religion: Religion gives one hope in a world where none is found. Ignorance is bliss.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:30 am |
    • Amen!

      I have a real problem with any adult who has not actually read the bible cover-to-cover calling themselves a Christian. They know next to nothing about their own religion; only what others (i.e. preachers) tell them to believe, and then have the temerity to go out and try to "teach" their religion to others. If you want to tell me that your religion is the "right" one and mine is "wrong", then you'd better actually know what you're talking about. If all you have to say is whatever you recall your preacher or sunday school teacher telling you, then go tell it to a tree; I have better things to do.

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

    Religion, religion...ah boy...

    September 28, 2010 at 12:30 am |
  9. Larry

    I waaaay outnumbered here, obviously. I wish all you atheists out there would attend a Southern Baptist Church (I'm Southern Baptist so that's my frame of reference) for a few weeks and get to know some of the faithful there. You will not find a mean spiritied, ignorant or unloving one among them. As in any true faith, there are hypocrites there who will try to turn others away – the Bible tells us they will sneak in and seek to undermine the faith. God's Word is way ahead of you in revealing this!. His Word is also way ahead of this quiz – Christians (unless gifted as a teacher) are to stay away from false teachings – may be a reason so many scored low. I know -"false teachings" is arrogant, etc. Take that up with His Word.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:29 am |
    • Spinner

      How do you know a teaching is false, if you don't even know what the teaching is? Rejecting information without understanding it is willful ignorance.

      September 28, 2010 at 9:24 am |
    • Dear Larry,

      Two points:

      1. Have you actually read your bible? All of it? Cover to cover? And please don't answer this question in the post because we all know you'll answer "yes". Just answer the question silently in the secret depths of your heart.

      2. Every cult forbids it's members to expose themselves to the teachings of others. This is sometimes called "brainwashing". Others call it "education".

      September 28, 2010 at 11:11 am |
    • LP

      Larry –

      Been there, done that - in Georgia during my college days - and do not agree with your statement that every last SB congregant is wonderful. I am a white person from the Northeast part of the country. Made an interesting observation: in the white baptist churches I got looks that said "why are you here, stranger?" and no-one spoke to me at all; in the black baptist churches I was greeted warmly and without discernable judgement. Not trying to incite race wars here, just sharing my experience.

      That being said, I think we all need to work on not painting entire groups with too broad a brush. There are people of all sorts within any philosophical grouping. It's not always easy, but I try hard to remember that.

      September 28, 2010 at 4:02 pm |
    • shecky

      ive been to the southern baptist church, and currently live 3 blocks from one. it is a major factor in my earlier decision to investigate theism.

      October 3, 2010 at 1:54 am |
  10. Basil

    In America we want our Religion to be feeling oriented. It's too boring to be educated and to know your faith, your scriptures and what others believe. Also rituals albeit not all bad do not invite us to examine beliefs and we often leave it to the pastors and priests to do the thinking for us. Yes I am surprised that with the almighty Google that this religious illiteracy issue wold be a thing of the past.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:29 am |
  11. John

    And yes, those questions were absurdly easy!

    September 28, 2010 at 12:29 am |
  12. kazz

    only 8 out of 10 ... dammit 😦

    September 28, 2010 at 12:28 am |
  13. Frogist

    So atheists and agnostics did better on both religious and non-religious general knowledge questions and a distancing of oneself away from organised religion correlates with higher education....
    Taking a page from Kate...
    Just grinnin'

    September 28, 2010 at 12:28 am |
  14. ember

    A pagan here...got all 10 right.
    Theology intrigues me...mostly because there is so much killing in the name of __________ (fill in the blank per religion)
    I've never quite understood that!

    September 28, 2010 at 12:28 am |
    • TM

      in the name[s] of ___pagan_gods_too___ (filled in the blank)
      OK, so why are you a pagan then? The Druids, Celts, Chuvash, Tartars, Shintos... pagans killed for religious intolerance, too.

      September 28, 2010 at 12:39 am |
    • Wraith

      Pagan here, too. As enlightened as the, "Big 3," like to tout (okay, out of the 3, the Jews aren't as bad, I'll give them credit there), it seems that the fanatics in their folds are the ones doing the most damage.

      ...never heard of a pagan suicide bombing a daycare in the name of a/any/all gods...

      September 28, 2010 at 12:46 am |
    • ember

      I speak of the hypocrisy. How can one claim to believe so strongly but yet break one of the major rules & still expect to get into the "good" place...just because it was in "his" defense? Does an "all powerful" god truly need a defense team?

      Pagans do not have to worry about such restraints. No rules...hence why we are such unruly heathens, lol, which I enjoy the hell out of, pardon the pun.
      As for why I am one...I have a strong connection to nature, which no one can deny is all powerful!

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

      @Wraith, Good point, I'm bringing up ancient history here, literally. And as others have mentioned, it's not so much the big three religions as it is the big corporations and big government interests who have used religion as a propaganda tool.

      September 28, 2010 at 1:01 am |
    • Jeff

      Mostly ancient Pagans killed because they liked to kill things. Which is pretty much why other religions kill too, they're just not as honest about it. 😛

      September 28, 2010 at 1:01 am |
    • shecky

      belief in nature is near-empirical. it requires little explanation. it exists all around you and extends to the end of the universe(and maybe even beyond) im not pagan, as i dont deify anything. i do however strongly believe that i am governed by natural law, and those laws are universal in extent. i also add few nicer laws for my fellow earthlings, as posted previously 🙂

      October 3, 2010 at 1:52 am |
  15. Robert

    Remember the days when it was considered impolite to talk about religion or politics? I miss those days.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:27 am |
    • MIghty7

      You must be very, very old then.

      September 28, 2010 at 6:19 am |
    • Crimson

      Exactly. I'm only in my twenties and I remember that it was not considered polite discourse to discuss politics or religion. Now it seems that's all people want to talk about. It's like they're LOOKING for a reason to disagree and dislike one another.

      September 28, 2010 at 9:19 am |
    • Frogist

      @Robert/Crimson: I disagree. I think we need to talk about these things. Everyone has a perspective on religion or politics and it's important that we share those ideas. How can we learn otherwise? Discussing a subject does not mean automatically disagreeing with someone. But it does mean ideas will be exchanged.

      September 28, 2010 at 6:02 pm |
    • jaypenn

      yes, truly the world would be a better place if we didn't discuss politics or religion. thanks for your input.

      September 29, 2010 at 4:55 pm |
    • shecky

      polite discourse is semantically identical to political correctness. both solve absolutely nothing, and still make people mad.

      October 3, 2010 at 1:47 am |
  16. Jebus

    I'm embarrassed. I got 8/10 correct.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:26 am |
  17. Iowa City

    I am a Mennonite ... nine out of ten right. Why would anyone be upset about poor scores? We could all use a bit more education about world religions. Who knows, maybe we would then begin to see and understand the beautiful attributes each faith has to offer and become more tolerant of religious diversity.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:26 am |
  18. JG

    I don't think that this quiz proves much at all. Not everyone is going to know a lot about the other religions. I did ok and was a little bit surprised that I missed a few things. I simply don't remember some of them. Knowing what religion Mother Theresa doesn't mean jack to me! I am not a catholic. LOL. All of this is trivia. But I can tell you a lot about the religion that I belong to and can offer in-depth discussion about it. I often argue with my atheist friends (yes we are still friends!) and even he is surprised what I know. So I missed a question or two on the quiz. Who cares...

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

      @JG:No, not everyone should know all about other religions. But we are a global community and are coming into contact with many other religions and cultures. It is up to us to represent our ideas wisely, as you say you have done, but also to be able to understand another person's culture too. Unfortunately that is severely lacking in the US in my experience.

      September 28, 2010 at 12:53 am |
    • shecky

      lol @ the mother theresa comment, OMG she is like a friggen ICON for catholics! she helped a bunch of humans. I always like to remind myself that albert einstein helped humanity in its entirety. puts it all into perspective for me, and anyone catholic enough to disagree, well, i am allowed to giggle if nothing else. congratulating a limited vision in my view, no matter how well intended, is still limiting. i often find myself wondering how many humans mother theresa didn't help. i know of at least one lol.

      October 3, 2010 at 1:44 am |
  19. Lee Bartholomew

    8 out of 10. Not Jewish so really got that wrong. Lutheran, not Jewish. Only other one I got wrong is someone I have no idea who he was. Can't tolerate Atheists. They tend to be arrogant beyond. Like trying to argue with a tea party member. Agnostics at least one can have a proper discussion with. They also tend to be nicer.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:25 am |
    • Jebus

      Yeah, those Atheists jerks and their arrogant logic.

      September 28, 2010 at 12:34 am |
    • ed

      Jewish. Got all 10 right!!!

      September 28, 2010 at 5:21 am |
    • steven

      Jebus...exactly.

      September 28, 2010 at 8:54 am |
    • Nick L.

      Once you research the answers to the two questions you got wrong, you may want to take a pass at grammar and sentence structure. Attempting to decipher your reply is, to say the least, painful.

      September 28, 2010 at 9:05 am |
    • Talon528

      We Aithiests are not all arrogant, we might tend to come off like that to you, because we have chosen to delve further into the religion, find what it really stands for, find the true meanings, and cast it away. Why? Because it disgusts us. We choose to stand up against the bigot people who bash everything they don't know much about, simply calling them sins, and acts of the devil. MEanwhile, they commit crimes and hateful acts against these innocents, calling them rightous acts and the work of God. It is ignorance. IF christianity, or any religion was not around, if they had never existed, I can list many large historical and cutural probloms that would have never happened. Like The Crusades, Salem Witch Trials, 911, The child molesting priests, etc. It is pure ignorance to follow the blind teaches of a 100 man who is a worldwide bigot and accomplice to child molestation. We are not all that ignorant, though it is ignorant to mindlessly call out another's way of beliefs (or lack there of) without knowing, like clling out Christians for being Christian without having much of a reason, or likewise, a Christian calling out a Aithiest for not believing.

      September 28, 2010 at 9:26 am |
  20. Bonnie

    10 for 10 as well...and I am a Christian. (easy questions if you ask me) No one should be shoving any beliefs down anyones throat.... that is not what Jesus did...but He did share what He knew with the people around Him...nothing wrong with that.

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

      Amen

      September 28, 2010 at 4:17 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.