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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. brad

    There are two universes. The one outside the human being and the other inside him. The outside is made of matter and is occupied by the human organism. This universe is studied with microscopes, telescopes, equations, etc. The universe inside is occupied by the human PERSON. This universe is where spirituality is found. In the interior universe, the person encounters himself. Trouble is, he's too close to himself. One can't be under a microscope and looking through it at the same time. Knowing religious dogmas is something the brain does. Who knows the most doctrine – Baptist, Catholic, atheist – is unimportant.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:33 am |
  2. David Johnson

    Survey Said: "For example, it's not evangelicals or Catholics who did best – it's atheists and agnostics."

    Atheists and agnostics? LOL

    Survey said, ""It's not Bible-belt Southerners who scored highest – they came at the bottom."

    That's because Bible-belt Southerners are home schooled.

    Survey Said: "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."

    They believe the Bible is the word of god, but they don't have it memorized?
    I think they don't really believe.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:32 am |
  3. Derek

    The King James bible says "STUDY to shew thyself approved before God" whereas the NIV bible just says "DO YOUR BEST to show yourself approved to God."

    What is it, STUDY, or just 'do our best' whatever that means? America is brainwashed by statues of a baby Jesus and a dead on-the-cross Jesus, as well as Television and Video Games. Jesus LIVES and we need to break off from our hypnotizing technological media wonderland and LIVE as well.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:30 am |
  4. Pope Benedict

    Couldn't they put in some more challenging questions like:

    What day did god make light? answer – The first day.
    What day did god make the stars and sun that make the light? Answer – The fourth day.

    On the other hand, why would anyone need to know this nonsense?

    September 28, 2010 at 9:29 am |
  5. Methusla

    Parlemort

    There is no heaven,
    There is no hell,
    There is no god,
    I wish you well

    THere is a Heaven
    There is a Hell
    There is a God
    Time Will Tell!

    I feel sorry for you
    You cannot say
    I stand uncondemned
    and you will pay

    September 28, 2010 at 9:29 am |
    • Parlemort

      *yawn*

      September 28, 2010 at 9:38 am |
    • Luke

      Now that these data have proven (again) that the religious are dumber than atheists, I can rest assured that you can still write decent poetry. Good for you.

      September 28, 2010 at 10:13 am |
    • IJAbraham

      You may never know what comes after death since you already wrote the script for your death. If you agree in your own heart that there is nothing after death and live to that end, then that is what you get, NOTHING!

      September 28, 2010 at 12:12 pm |
    • Luke

      IJAbraham – Let me ask you a quesiton. What was it like before you were born? Nothingness at its epitome, right? Death will be very much the same as not being born. The universe got along very nicely for 13.6 bllion years before you were born. It will not miss you when you die.

      September 28, 2010 at 4:24 pm |
  6. Descarado

    I assume the scores are so low because CCN producers and journalists also took the test.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:28 am |
  7. Scott McCown

    Someone may have already asked, but where can we see or take the entire 32 question quiz. As a white, southern, mainline, Christian I scored 9 out of 10 on the examples, I want to test myself on the rest. . .

    September 28, 2010 at 9:28 am |
  8. Pirate65

    I am not an athiest. I guess you would classify me as a deist, because I can look around me and see animals, plants, the solar system, and the universe, all of which must have been created by something greater than humankind. However, religion in general just disgusts me, and I cannot accept any of it as a whole truth. I have studied most all religions, to an extent, and although I cannot accept any of them, I'm sure I could do as well as I did on this quiz – 100 percent correct!

    September 28, 2010 at 9:27 am |
  9. Mike Texas

    It is funny how the most ignorant are usully the most certain.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:26 am |
    • Luke

      It isn't funny. That's the religious business model, Mike.

      September 28, 2010 at 10:11 am |
  10. Faithful

    I too found the quiz quite simple... and I am a devout Catholic (apparently we all don't know anything about religion(s)). I would like to know exactly what demographic they surveyed...

    September 28, 2010 at 9:25 am |
  11. WWYD1965

    I'm GLAD people don't know about religion. You don't need religion to be a good person or citizen. In fact, people who need to be told right from wrong are the ones to be concerned about. A one "true" religion does not exist, therefore it is all a matter of opinion and not something that needs to be taken seriously. Lighten up people.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:25 am |
  12. Methusla

    Alley oops!
    RELIGON??.....NO EVOLUTION THEORYS! LOOK WHAT IT PRODUCES

    Make that RELIGION!

    September 28, 2010 at 9:25 am |
  13. j

    The study makes sense. The more you fervently believe in something, the less you're likely to know about the subject. The problem is that too many people confuse belief with knowledge. Just because you believe something doesn't mean to know anything about it. The two don't go hand in hand.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:23 am |
  14. travis

    I went 10 for 10, Not bad for and Atheist. I guess i shouldn't be surprised, I have never known an Atheist that didn't know more about religion than a theist.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:23 am |
  15. Atheist Liberal

    9 out of 10. It was easy.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:22 am |
  16. Parlemort

    There is no heaven,
    There is no hell,
    There is no god,
    I wish you well.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:21 am |
  17. EdR

    I have some news for the researchers. Its not just religious IQ that is missing in the country.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:21 am |
  18. Mike T

    The truth is no one has come back from the dead, don't harp on me about Jesus. I am talking about every other soul. So what we believe in this life is really academic. If it makes you feel better to think their is a heaven, or not, great, just don't bother others who have opposing views. I don't think God will hold a grudge against someone because they acted as a "chirstian" rather than read the Bible cover to cover.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:21 am |
    • Tommy_T

      "no one has come back from the dead..." You might want to do a search on YOUTUBE.com and check it out. There are also articles that have been written as well. People have risen from the dead AFTER 3 DAYS DEAD!! At least ONE was in the process of being EMBALMED and is was "sweating embalming fluid making him smell bad" last I heard.

      Study MORE!

      September 28, 2010 at 10:00 am |
  19. atheos5150

    I got 10 out of 10.
    Do you realize that 1 out 5 people still believe that the Sun rotates around the Earth.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:21 am |
  20. Isaac

    9 out of 10 correct for me, and the only reason I got one wrong is because I mistakenly read "Indonesia" as "India". My religion? More or less agnostic. Got my own private one that I don't share with anybody!

    September 28, 2010 at 9:20 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.