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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. KojoC

    Religion in American Churches, are business organization and conducted as such. As for religions, that's another thing, a private thing.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:15 am |
    • Pope Benedict

      Correction. They are tax exempt, for-profit business organizations.

      September 28, 2010 at 10:38 am |
  2. Arthur Renero

    A few more points will see you reach CNN Newshound status my ass! An agnostic is not someone who is unsure whether God exists or not, instead we agnostics are people who do believe in God but are incapable to understand him through reason. And if you believe the "the web" definition of things, your mind is being controlled. But we already knew that.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:15 am |
    • Pope Benedict

      Wow! I thought I was agnostic. I guess I'm an atheist. My life is so much better now that I know the truth.

      September 28, 2010 at 10:34 am |
  3. vmprophet

    And this is surprising why lool. Give me a break, they really didnt need to do this survey to figure out that most americans know almost nothing about even their own religious practices

    September 28, 2010 at 10:14 am |
  4. CW

    You know....the reason that people scored low is that christians don't do what we are supposed to do....READ AND MEDITATE ON THE BIBLE DAILY. I will be in prayer for those of you on this page that don't believe and who have your own thoughts on things. The Bible is the word of God....period. All of us need to read it...as I do daily and meditate and let it AND GOD change your life. I promise if you accept God as your savior and let him lead you will never regret it.

    @ Reality....whatever your name....yes....go ahead...sprew your propaganda....one day..when your standing before God the father and the Son...YES THAT'S JESUS...THE ONE WHO DIED FOR YOUR CURRENT AND FUTURE SINS...THEN...EXPLAIN THINGS. I promise you this...as it does say...unless you repent and change your life...YOU WILL GO WHERE "THERE WILL BE WEAPING AND GNASHING OF TEETH"...not my words but the words out the Bible....from GOD!

    September 28, 2010 at 10:13 am |
    • Pope Benedict

      Can't you find anything better to do?

      September 28, 2010 at 10:30 am |
    • Reality

      CW,

      The problem is that we are told that Jesus was the Son of God by the human authors of Scripture but with proper human analyses the passages that indicate there is a link have been found to be embellishments. God being God (if there is one) does not need humans to communicate through. The fact that there are so many differences in NT scripture is enough to conclude that God is not involved in recording the events 2000 years ago.

      For added thought, here is what Professor JD Crossan has to say about atonement theology: (from his book, "Who is Jesus" co-authored with Richard Watts)

      "Moreover, an atonement theology that says God sacrifices his own son in place of humans who needed to be punished for their sins might make some Christians love Jesus, but it is an obscene picture of God. It is almost heavenly child abuse, and may infect our imagination at more earthly levels as well. I do not want to express my faith through a theology that pictures God demanding blood sacrifices in order to be reconciled to us."

      "Traditionally, Christians have said, 'See how Christ's passion was foretold by the prophets." Actually, it was the other way around. The Hebrew prophets did not predict the events of Jesus' last week; rather, many of those Christian stories were created to fit the ancient prophecies in order to show that Jesus, despite his execution, was still and always held in the hands of God."

      September 28, 2010 at 10:59 am |
    • byteme

      "unless you repent and change your life...YOU WILL GO WHERE THERE WILL BE WEAPING AND GNASHING OF TEETH"

      Mr. God is some mean dude...keep him away from me!

      September 28, 2010 at 2:22 pm |
  5. matt

    The only question that I thought was hard was number 10, because with the Surpreme Court you never really know what the decision is unless you know the breakdown of liberals to conservatives when the decision was made.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:11 am |
  6. byteme

    0/10 but that dont matter since when you hav3 faith in the Lord u dont need no booklearning. Pass me a chaw, mammy...

    September 28, 2010 at 10:10 am |
  7. Ski_Bum

    This is classic – the bottom line is that all religion should be done away with – how can you claim "faith" but not know anything about religion? What are you believing in?

    Start seeking out spiritual experience – you don't need religion for this.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:10 am |
    • Missy

      I am interested as to what you would say are the differences between faith, religion and spiritual experiences. Would you mind saying so?

      September 28, 2010 at 10:38 am |
  8. stevie68a

    Laura Nero said in the song "Stoney End" "I was raised on the good book jesus- till I read between the lines".
    Like a wolf in sheep's clothing, this story is about hate, and it's cover is love.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:09 am |
  9. Mary

    Wow, I got all 10 right and I'm not an atheist or an agnostic. I guess I would categorize myself as a Christian (not a perfect one) who does not take the Bible literally and respects and borrows from other religions. I also respect the right of Atheists and Agnostics to believe whatever they want.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:09 am |
  10. sarah

    I hope this was just a sample and not the real exam. It was far too easy for me to believe that the majority scored 50% or less. Forget about the religious content, people lacking the general knowledge to not be able to answer these correctly is what scares me. Hatred grows where knowledge and understanding does not.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:09 am |
  11. Wow, really

    BTW....it's only one survey. Are there details on how the survey was actually done?

    September 28, 2010 at 10:09 am |
  12. Wzrd1

    I went through 5 years of Catholic school before my parents moved me to public school (rather nasty disagreement over the Catholic school management and lay staff behavior).
    When I was in the public school system, we DID have comparative religion taught in our cultures class. It served me VERY well during my military related deployments over the years, as a nice and comfortable stepping stone when dealing with a local populace in a foreign land.
    Of course, THESE days, school districts fear introducing such things, lest they find themselves in court, there spending a substantial amount of school district budget defending a curriculum that no longer has a budget...

    September 28, 2010 at 10:08 am |
  13. ijreilly

    Deepak Chopra is such a con.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:08 am |
  14. Wow, really

    I would only get half the answer right too....because I'd get bored with answering the questions half way through.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:07 am |
  15. Keir Gazelle

    Brian,
    Heaven's Gate was a Christian group...they had some far out beliefs, but they were basicly Christian. They believed in Jesus, that his father was God..the whole bit as well as the more outthere Mother Ship thing.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:06 am |
  16. Pope Benedict

    The only good reason why we need to know anything about religions is so that we can protect ourselves from those who believe in them.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:05 am |
  17. Sarah

    Um, If Muslim is the correct answer for most common religion in Indonesia, why is the picture of a Hindu ceremony?????

    September 28, 2010 at 10:05 am |
  18. Brian

    Religion is the tool used by the few to control the uneducated. This is why I am not surprised by this finding and why I, an agnostics, got 8 out of 10 on the CNN quiz. Faith unfortunately has come to mean "blindly follow what someone else tells you".

    Sadly this article shows the failing of our education system. Religion doesn't need to be taught in school, history – REAL history, reading, writing and math need to be taught in school. To you parents, it's YOUR responsibility to insure the education of your child, not the governments. Take responsibility for it, and force your schools to do their jobs.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:03 am |
    • Missy

      Brian,
      I agree with you that for many people religion has become blind obedience. However, what do you say about those who are very educated about their beliefs and still choose to follow their faith? I know many people of both kinds. I personally believe in studying out what one believes to find out if what they're doing is correct. My church leaders encourage the members to do so, to ask questions and find answers.

      As regarding religion and history, our ancestors had many religions and many important events in history came about because of religious beliefs, practices, or a disagreement with them. So to understand history better, it would be wise to teach something of what those religions were and are. Just like knowing the diversity of people's beliefs today can foster understanding, communication and empathy between persons. Do you agree with that? or do you think it is foolish for anyone to learn anything of any religion?

      P.S. I am a firm believer and also got an 8 out of 10.

      September 28, 2010 at 10:34 am |
  19. Rick McDaniel

    It would be nice, if people could cope with their existence, without needing to clutch to a fantasy.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:02 am |
  20. Hmmmm

    The main point from this article (also demonstrated by the majority of respondents) is that Americans are poor mathematicians. The article neglects to tell any information that what would be useful to interpret the data. We had n= 3400, but what about Confidence interval? p value? Methodology? Type of statistical analysis preformed? Without the necessary statistical information, the article is rather worthless (albeit interesting)

    I am a believer that scored 10 out of 10,but realize this is only anecdotal evidence.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:02 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.