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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. wally

    For those bragging they they did well on the quiz.... that wasn't the real quiz. Taken straight from the article it says "Only eight of the 3,412 survey respondents got all 32 questions right. Six got them all wrong."

    Meaning there were 32 questions, not 10.

    They probably just took the 10 most basic questions and put them on here in an effort to emphasize their point of the story.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:49 am |
  2. Rza

    This goes to show, the lower the IQ of the person, the more religious they are. If you are intelligent, it's pretty clear to see through all the organized religious BS that has been at the root of all faults of humanity.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:49 am |
  3. Greg

    Ignorance and hate are humanity's greatest crimes.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:48 am |
  4. Fr33d0mhawk

    I got 9 out of 10 right, missed the Sabbath question, but of course I know religion, I am an agnostic. I used to be Christian until I read the bible cover to cover. I was scolded by much pastor for reading the bible alone, that God's perfect holy book is so imperfect that it needs an interpreter to tell me what it really means, because for all the power of God, he does not have the power to author a book that means what it says. I was told by my preacher that "Salt of the Earth" really meant destroy liberals because salt is used to get into wounds and cause pain, even kill, something got lost in the Greek translation. I was also told that the 3000 Jews Moses murdered for worshipping a golden calf deserved it, just pay no attention that the Thou Shalt Not kill commandment was violated 3000 times the very day the Law was laid down because laws are for peasants and rights are for elitists. God is an angry jealous God, and God uses threats of violence to inspire blind obedience, exhibiting the worst traits of the worst humans, and that was the clincher for me. No way would the super-omnipotent being of the universe would resort to using pure evil to obtain power, to be worshipped.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:48 am |
  5. Abu Tamani

    The Quiz is not an idication of HOW MUCH you know about religion. Multiple choice (aka gambling questions) give you a 25% chance of being right on each question. Some of those answers were obvious even though I never heard the questions before. Let me pose my own quiz on a religion that most Americans HATE buy yet never learned about for themselves. They learned from the media and took that and ran with it. See how well you do.

    1. Do Muslims believe that Jesus, Muhammad, or Zachariya will return before the world is over?

    2. Do Muslims believe that Jesus was born thru immaculate conception and his mother (mary) was a virgin?

    3. Which of the following Prophets of God do Muslims DISBELIEVE in.. meaning muslims DO NOT BELIEVE in? Abraham, Moses, Noah, David, Joseph, or Lot.

    4. Which person or people have a chapter named after them in the Quran? (David aka Dawood, Mary aka Maryam, Abraham aka Ibrahim, Jacob aka Yaqoub, Moses aka Musa, John aka Yahya, or none of the above.)

    5. Which books do the Muslims believe that were revealed from God? A. Torah to Moses, B. Injeel to Jesus, C. Psalms to David, D. Quran to Muhammad. A and B are correct ONLY, D is correct ONLY, A, B, and D are Correct ONLY or All of the above.

    ok time to get a little more detailed

    6. Which Prophet do Muslims believe brought the dead back to life, healed the leaper and the blind?

    7. Who was the first human created according to Muslim belief and name 2 of his children?

    8. Who has the most rights upon you according to Muslim belief over any and everbody in this world?

    9. What are the 6 articles of iman (faith) according to Islam. (meaning what 6 things must mulims believe in to be considered a Muslim or to have faith) {you can save the jokes until later or at the end but try to answer this first to test your knowledge.)

    10. What are the 5 pillars of Islam?

    See how well you do.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:47 am |
    • Abu Tamani

      The answers are
      1. Jesus
      2. Yes
      3. trick question. Muslims believe in all of the above prophets.
      4. Mary aka Maryam and Abraham aka Ibrahim
      5.All of the above. Muslims believe that God revealed the torah to moses, the injeel to Jesus, the Psalms to David, the Scriptures to Abraham and the Quran to Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon all of them)
      6. Jesus
      7. Adam was the first man created by God. two of his sons names are Kane and Able
      8. Your Mother. She has more rights than anyone in this world. 3 times more rights than your father.
      9. Belief in the One True God aka Allah, His Angels, His Books (all of them: Torah, injeel, psalms, Quran), His Prophets and Messengers (all of them from Adam, Moses, Abraham, Noah, Joseph, Lot, Jacob, Zakariah, Jesus, Enoch, Hud, Ishmael, Isaac, Job, Jethro, Aaron, David, Solomon, Elijah, Ezekial, Muhammad (peace and blessings upon them all) and many more, To believe in the decree or the "Qadr". (meaning what will hit you will not pass you and what will pass you will not hit you..) and the last of the 6 is to believe in Judgement Day.
      10. To bear witness that nothing or no one is worthy of worship except the creator of the heavens and the Earth aka Allah and that Muhammad (pbuh) is his last prophet and final messenger, To pray 5 times a day, to pay zakat aka Charity, to fast for the month of Ramadan, and to make Hajj aka the pilgrimage to Mecca if you can afford to do so.

      How many did you get right??

      September 28, 2010 at 12:01 pm |
  6. Ituri

    Its really not that surprising that my fellow Americans are religiously retarded. Most Christians I know haven't even read the Bible all the way through, and I can out-quote them with their own scriptures. Its also not been a priority to learn about the rest of the world, and US education is suffering from all the nonsense they're forced to do (nearly-useless standardized tests that take years to prepare for) and then lack of time to do anything else (like actually learn). That Americans approach religion the same way they do every other "educated" topic is hardly surprising. People who don't know how to study, to read, to approach literary or serious topics, or how to learn in general are useless even in things they profess "expertise" in. Its the foundation of religious brainwashing, to stop people from learning (or caring about learning). So the sad thing is, the religious IQ of the US has suffered because of the religious indoctrination that stunts the learning process. Thats what happens when a country isn't smart about its religion... it turns into Turkey, Iran, Syria.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:47 am |
  7. RB

    The problem with some religion is that people aren't allowed to question it. Once they challenge the premises and basic assertions with skepticism–which is natural to do–they are punished, bullied, and told they are going to hell if they don't follow. The problem with many people is they were indoctrinated with myth and ritual since birth and so have a hard time completely dismissing religion, and hence are stuck in a limbo of kind of believing due to fear, heritage, and lack of confidence in their own ability to reason; while at the same time subconsciously being aware of the nonsense that is religion.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:47 am |
  8. Jon

    I try to know as little as possible about religion and I still did pretty well on this quiz.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:47 am |
  9. Silat

    There is no such thing as an atheist. You believe in a god, power, government or yourself. Everyone has a religion. Maybe you believe in good and bad luck and knock on wood. To say that you are an atheist is pure ignorance.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:47 am |
    • AJ

      The word 'atheist' means 'a person who doesn't believe in God', not that a person has no belief system whatsoever.

      September 29, 2010 at 12:28 am |
  10. physics professor

    10/10. I'm pagan, and teach biology, chemistry, and physics.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:47 am |
  11. Carml

    This survey does not only speak to a lack of religious knowledge. It would indicate a sorry lack of general educational and historical background!

    September 28, 2010 at 9:46 am |
  12. WMesser58

    The whole idea that you need to know religion is inane. It's shoved down your throats everyday and like lap dogs you lick it up.

    There's nothing you can defend because religion is the greatest divider there is and has caused more death and destruction than any cause known.

    Study it if you think it will help but, in the end you'll do as they all do and destroy our society.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:45 am |
  13. Silat

    I got 9 out of 10 correct. The test is flawed, an agnostic is one who believes in a creator or power but does not know which. An atheist does not believe in either.

    To acknowledge is agnostic. Etymology my dear friends. Therefore I scored a perfect 10!!!!!!!

    September 28, 2010 at 9:44 am |
  14. Daphne

    My one question is....since when do you have to score well on a test to be able to believe or not believe in something?

    September 28, 2010 at 9:44 am |
  15. TONY

    THERE IS ONLY ONE GOD, BUT DIFFERENT NAMES!!!!!!!!!!!!

    September 28, 2010 at 9:42 am |
  16. JR

    I'm not religious but it sure isn't an accident that this is literally on the front page of CNN at this particular time, as well as a lot of the comments in this thread. Let me translate:

    "Hey America, you're stupid about pretty much everything".

    A more appropriate headline should be 'America's rudeness has hit an all time high because of a spike in narcissism'...We are smart, you are stupid. Here, let us mock you as we think that this somehow proves our superiority, when it really just reveals the gaps in our own human education.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:42 am |
  17. Kevin

    lolol, atheists and agnostics a.k.a. people who actually read the books

    September 28, 2010 at 9:41 am |
  18. Crystal

    Seems to me that the more you know, the less you believe in it. "For example, it's not evangelicals or Catholics who did best – it's atheists and agnostics."
    Because if you really look at the details, you realize Catholicism it's not a plausible story.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:40 am |
  19. JG

    Wait a minute....Educated, smart, intelligent, logical, rational people DONT believe in God and uneducated, naive, irrational, dummies DO believe in God? Shocking!!!

    They really needed a study to determine this? The damned know more about the religion of the saved..lol

    September 28, 2010 at 9:40 am |
  20. Jon

    A good question to include in the survey would be "What religion believes Jesus was born to a virgin, that he was crucified and ascended to heaven, and that he will return on the day of judgement?" Answer: Islam.

    I once saw a bumper sticker that read, "If it's not King James, it's not the Bible." How narrow-minded can people be? Did that person think only English-speaking people will go to heaven?

    September 28, 2010 at 9:40 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.