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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. freetime1

    CNN having three guest all believing that it is a good idea to promote god or teaching about god in the schools and not a single guest with different ideas on this subject is just wrong. One Atheist added to the guest list would have changed the whole conversation. CNN I expect better from you. What you did is closer to what I would expect from fox news.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:42 am |
    • IJAbraham

      Freetime1, do you believe that humans descended from APES? What earthly experience(s) caused you to deny the existence of GOD? You should take another look. The argument for GOD exists in nature. Maybe you have eyes but cannot see. Sometimes people confuse GOD with religion. Take note that GOD is not a religion; GOD is a spirit!

      Do you believe that the devil exists? If you do, then by inference you must believe in GOD. Otherwise, your claim of Atheism is false. By definition you cannot believe in the devil without believing in GOD because they are counter forces or spirits. For the sake of equilibrium, either both the devil and GOD must exist or they both must not exist! This does not imply that you serve or love GOD.

      September 28, 2010 at 11:55 am |
  2. JPeavey

    The key is, DON'T TAKE OTHERS WORDS OR ACTIONS AS THE RELIGION; FIND IT FOR YOURSELF AND PRACTICE DAILY!!!!

    The real issue is not the religions that most Agnostic/Atheist people are seemingly "Bashing". (And yes, if you look over the now 1167 comments, about 600 are either bragging or slamming the ideas of religion.) The REAL issue is those that pursue religion BLINDLY and take for granted everything that comes from the pulpit. The reality is, (just as Reagan said; not in reference to this however) "Believe, but verify." If you take anyone's word as 100%, you're setting yourself up for failure.

    Second, many "religious people" are overly zealous and yes, are VERY pushy. Again, the reality is that most are raised with some form of religion, but each person is charged with finding their own way AFTER adulthood. If they choose not to; that is also a choice that can be made; but (in my beliefs) those reprocussions will have to be paid upon death. Those are the only ones that know for sure; those that have passed before us.

    Yes, I was also a church burnout; being raised penacostal. I also knew of God's existance, but faileed the pursuit until AFTER I worked it out of my system.I needed a clean start, so to speak; and I followed and educated myself on what religions are, not just my own. I suggest that everyone do the same; you'll be shocked and surprised about MANY things ;O)

    September 28, 2010 at 10:41 am |
  3. Jerry

    Wow, 10 out of 10, and I'm an atheist. That classic 80's song got it wrong, it should have been "She blinded me with theology!"

    September 28, 2010 at 10:41 am |
  4. Melissa

    This does not surprise me in the least. I'm not even born in the United States, I'm a Canadian immigrant, and it frankly never ceases to shock me how unbelievably uneducated most Americans are. Its supposed to be the greatest country in the world. Its NOT. They are way too over confident in the greatness of their country. The only reason they are still top of the heap is that they are riding on old glories.

    Why do I stay? Because I'm married to an American citizen (he was born here) who seems to the rare exception to the rule. He actually has a brain in his head that he actually uses.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:39 am |
    • billyjojimbob

      I'm American and have lived two years Asia and ten years in Northern Europe...and have met and made friends with many Canadians along the way. I always hear this crap from Canadians, and it always annoys me. I think the only American stereotypes (loud, overbearing, not very bright) I have ever met are, in fact, Canadian. I've come to the conclusion – after much observation – that Canadians are nothing more than Americans with an inferiority complex (and a slightly better hockey team, annoyingly). I know, I know...I'd be bitter too if I was sleeping in the 'loft above a really good party.'

      September 28, 2010 at 12:23 pm |
  5. Dave

    I'm an evangelical and I scored ten out of ten. What an amazing thing. I though I was supposed to be ignorant......

    September 28, 2010 at 10:36 am |
  6. ted

    Of course Atheist know alot about religion.... That's why we're atheists...

    September 28, 2010 at 10:36 am |
    • Phil

      That form of logic can also be applied to the following:

      I went to medical school; that's why I'm a plumber.

      September 28, 2010 at 10:46 am |
  7. Cherry

    It's amazing what people will say behind a computer screen or within themselves. "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (quote from Jesus) What you say out your mouth is indicative of what fills your heart and of what type of person your are. I'd rather be an ignorant Christian than a hateful person of a different faith or philosophy. As an Evangelical fundamentalist, I know exactly what I believe, and am constantly learning and studying the beliefs of others. After studying the beliefs and philosophies of other faiths, I found that Jesus speaks most accurately about mankind and society (back then and today). I don't force my beliefs on anyone I share my philosophies just like the atheist or agnostic does in the coffee shop. For the record I got a 10 out of 10 on quiz.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:36 am |
  8. al the atheist

    "The No. 1 predictor without question is simply educational attainment"

    Interesting. So the survey also implies that atheists and agnostics are typically better educated than believers, as well as having spent more time learning about religion. That's been my experience as well.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:35 am |
    • al the atheist

      BTW, I also got a 10/10

      September 28, 2010 at 10:38 am |
  9. JAB

    Took the quiz, got them all right. I am a Christian, but frankly I know pretty much nothing about other religions. I can tell you why this is the case: I was not shopping for a religion. I had an experience, and that settled it. I don't have to wonder if the other religions are true, I have found the Truth.

    I think this is why atheists and agnostics scored high: they are either shopping for a religion, or are on a mission to try to poke holes in religion. My personal experience is that atheists can quote scripture better than about anyone. But here is the problem: they have no understanding. That comes with faith, which is something atheists don't have.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:35 am |
  10. gbb5

    Tina, I have many many friends that have done the same. I did for a little while, plus switched religions. Tried four different religions. There all about just as crazy. Many people turn to "a god" when something horrible is happening in their life and they need to find one bit of help that might exist but they don't knows for sure. It would be worth a try in that case.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:35 am |
  11. Phil

    Interesting – albeit not surprising – article, and a very simplistic quiz (a third-grader in Sunday School class could do this in his/her sleep, it's way too easy! Challenge us and ask us about the differences between Yahwistic vs. Elohimistic traditions in Old Testament canon), but this shows the tragedy – or perhaps the irony – of faith: in America, if not elsewhere, the concept of faith is kept at such a simplistic level that most people just plain "believe" without having any form of knowledge (in spite of the Bible stating, 'Where is the wise man? Scholar of this age?"). I went to a Bible study once where one guy said, with a straight face, how he has "no interest" in learning more about his faith because it's meant to be a "simple faith". So when the agnostics, atheists, etc. of the world come up to someone like him and discuss evolutionary theory, situational ethics from an historical worldview, or why God allowed the cast of "Jersey Shore" to be born, he'll just remember how he flunked the quiz and rely on his "simple faith" as "all good Christians do".. Yahwistic, Elohimistic or otherwise..

    September 28, 2010 at 10:35 am |
  12. Jacob

    Umm... the image for #8 doesn't match the answer. That's Ganesha, a Hindu 'god' (really just a facet)... definitely not related to Islam.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:35 am |
    • Anu

      I am sorry, why should the picture match the question. Are americans so brain dead that they will only answer if the picture gives a 'clue'.. use your brain

      September 28, 2010 at 3:06 pm |
  13. Sean McManus

    I do believe that faith comes from your heart and you don’t need to be educated about religion to accept Jesus as your savior. However that doesn’t make Christians uneducated about religion, because as a Christian that’s when your education starts.
    Look at the people in the Bible that sought out Jesus because of faith in their hearts. Jesus then began to educate them about the religion and some of the people went on to become disciples of God and Christianity. I think that as Christians our path should be the same. First, Belief and faith in the heart. Next accepting Jesus; and then after being educated further via the church going out to help others accomplish this.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:34 am |
  14. god-delusion

    There is some actual truths to the stories in most biblical text. the main one being that, the god that the big 3 religions worship is none other than Jehova. At that time humans had were very much illiterate and it was Jehova that commanded all these rules of worship and created the idea of hell for not obeying. Jehova is mentioned in early religious books he is the one that has duped all you religious fools. Wake up, people Jehova has not been around there is no pressure to obey 2000 year old illogical rules. Why do you think that there are more atheist that know more about religion than the religious? Answer: we've studied and determine that based off courses and studying your holy texts.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:34 am |
  15. donagurl

    I found this article interesting – the Quiz was ok, I think that the real quiz should have been more in-depth. I am not religous but spiritual, I think religion has been used as a means of control. I do not think there is anything wrong with having faith but to judge or condem other because of theirs is just wrong. I don't think that there is an enemy religion as some have posted. Muslims (most of them) just want to worship in peace like most christians – but there are fanaticals in every thing and they make it look bad for the masses. If religion helps a person live their life and have faith great, but when it gets contorted and misused by governments and fanaticals.. it takes the love and spirituality away from the practice.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:34 am |
  16. AliasJohnDoe

    Why did Kyra Phillips have 3 religious people on answering for atheists? She would have gotten very different answers about why atheists know more about religion than religious people. I'm insulted that she would allow a religious person to speak for me...I am an Atheist and I can speak for myself.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:33 am |
  17. Timay

    I got 9 out of 10 but the one that was was actually right. The Jewish Sabbath begins on Saturday. Their Saturday begins sunset on Friday technically, but it is really their Saturday, hence the word Sabbath.

    I am agnostic by the way.

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

    I missed the first one...and I knew it. Bad mistake, other then that I got 9 out of 10..and I am Wiccan.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:28 am |
  19. punkfarie

    6 out of 10. not bad. considering i had "Oh duh!" moments when told the correct answers. i kinda love this study. it shows that maybe, just maybe, the ones that doubt the major religions are the ones that actually do their research and ask questions, instead of just blindly following. which is something EVERYONE should do; research, ask questions, learn about what you believe in.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:27 am |
  20. Pope Benedict

    One more reason we need to know about religion is so that CNN can create controversy from it and keep people watching commercials and clicking on ads (which pay for the writers who create the controversy, thus keeping the unemployment rate down).

    September 28, 2010 at 10:27 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.