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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. Brandi

    I am an atheist, and i sure did get 9 out of 10 right! People should educate themselves. I guess if they did, we wouldn't have so many religious nuts running around.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:25 pm |
  2. Your God is Dead

    Who cares?! Religion is a hoax that preys on those of the weak mind who are highly materialistic. They need to believe in something comes after death to calm their pea-sized intellect. Here's a thought: rather than following a group of men who play with little boys or believing in a religion which has you eating flesh and drinking blood every sabath or believing in a divine being that calls for you to stone disobedient children, why don't you simply think for yourself.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:24 pm |
  3. A Adams

    Missed Ramadan question thought it said Raksha for some reason. But I'm not a Christian and got that part perfect. I think we need religion education but I'm not sure school's have time to add another subject. I also fear some people may use it to convert others to their religion.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:22 pm |
  4. JW

    It's good that people are at least talking about some sensitve topics, we live in critical times.2 Tim :1-5 foretold this would be the case, but i am sure everyone would agree that there should be more love in the world. Anyone who says otherwise does not know God because "God is Love"1 john 4:8. Those who claim to be faithful to whatever faith who do not practice this are hypocrites. Its easy to make blanket statements about others, but every good tree produces good fruit a bad tree cannot produce good fruit. So bear good fruit today evryone. Thats all:-)

    September 28, 2010 at 12:19 pm |
  5. jeff

    most people are lazy, and won't read anything that could affect their eternal future...simply amazes me

    September 28, 2010 at 12:17 pm |
  6. Ray

    This was a fun quiz to take! In defense of my own score (8 out of 10), I found that the quiz would be more accurately called a quiz about the history of religion rather than a quiz on religion. In any event, I enjoyed taking it; I love quizzes that test my knowledge of facts.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:17 pm |
  7. Toni

    I don't understand why this is actually important in a country whose tenants of the government espouse freedom of church and state. If anything, it is rather hypocritical, especially to tout religion and not even know about it.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:10 pm |
  8. Vince

    I'm not suprised by these results, or that I scored a perfect score on the sample test. Most non-religious people do a great deal of research to come to the conclusion that they don't want to be part of an organized religion. I also believe a vast majority of atheists and agnostics are more highly educated and therefore have a better background to understand world religions. Thats why its frustrating to watch evangelicals point the finger at other religions and brand them as "filled with hate". How would they know? Clearly they don't know much outside of their own religious practices.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:07 pm |
  9. OnanismO

    It is obvious that the Jews ripped off pre-existing ideas from Greeks, Persians and Egyptians (like Hades, which evolved into the Jewish hell). Then thousands of years later, some Jews ripped off Judaism and made up Christianity. Then hundreds of years later, an Arab ripped off Judeo-Christianity and made up Islam. Then much later still, some American dork made up Mormonism. Etc. Etc. Etc. In addition, Native Americans developed their own spirituality, INDEPENDENTLY of any influence from Judeo-Whatever-ism, which in and of itself should be proof enough to anyone who still clings to religion that ALL religions are MAN-MADE and FAULTY. Anyone who clings to a religion that claims "Our way is the one and only right way" is a DOLT and deserves to be sent to the moon to start their own colony. Keep your mind-poison out of our collective consciousness. Religion is HISTORY! Let it BE history!

    September 28, 2010 at 11:58 am |
  10. talon10

    Religious IQ? I would say the average IQ of religious people is probably around 50.

    September 28, 2010 at 11:54 am |
  11. Grad2010

    The original researchers posted a 15-question version of the survey on their web site, so I didn't even bother to check out the 10-question pop quiz that seems to be ruffling the feathers on this forum. While I did get all 15 questions correct, that wasn't the surprise – it was the question-by-question analysis that followed.

    When my score was compared against the analysis, there clearly was a link between the score and education. While I view all religions with an open mind, I suspect that many of the participants did not and this trend revealed itself in the analysis.

    No worries, though – this is the only comment I will make because it is always more fun experiencing the show as a spectator when you know what goes on behind the scenes.

    September 28, 2010 at 11:53 am |
  12. 11:11

    Evolution is the ongoing process of creation. Science and philosophy were both born from religion. True religion is not a dogma that can be hijacked and manipulated for a political agenda, it is the observation of nature to understand the reality of the divine. As above so below.

    September 28, 2010 at 11:53 am |
  13. BG

    Maybe Americans should spend more time learning about their own religions and less condemning others. I got all 10 correct but that is simply because even though I was raised Catholic, my parents encouraged me to keep an open mind and learn about all religions. That way, even when I don't agree, I at least have a basic understanding of where people are coming from. I grew up surrounded by Jewish families and had a few friends in school that were Hindu. My brother converted to Islam when he married his wife and guess what?? He is NOT a terrorist!! Imagine that...To me, these are all people of faith and people of God. I can't say if it’s the right or wrong God. I can only worry about my faith and my actions which is hard enough in these trying times.

    September 28, 2010 at 11:52 am |
  14. NL

    whahappened?-
    You said "Religion is kind of like pizza. You might find some that you like and some that you don't, but in the end, it is all the same hot mess."

    I think religion is more like a hamberger, wonderful to indulge in even if you know, deep down, that it's not good for you, and real easy to give up if you ever bothered to research how it's made. Touring a slaughterhouse and working at a fast food joint is the quickest path to becoming a vegetarian, and studying religion is the quickest way to becoming an atheist.

    September 28, 2010 at 11:47 am |
  15. GodIsForImbeciles

    Question #8: What's the major religion in Indonesia? A: Islam...and they show a picture of Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of obstacles...which is a HINDU god.

    CNN: Go back to sleep.

    September 28, 2010 at 11:47 am |
  16. Bedista

    As an Atheist you are thankful (with no one really) that you found this article and draw to a conclusion that Atheists are more knowledgeable of other people's religion than their own because of what you've been reading here on CNN written by other Atheist people? I find that funny, very funny. I didn't know that Atheists have their own prophets found online too to believe in whatever they blog about, hehehe. I thought the Atheists are the easiest belief to understand, there is no God, period.

    How did God made the human body work so well from things us humans can't make ourselves from scratch like how we can create computers, iPhones, etc that work well too? Easy, there is no God. :-). There is Steve Jobs who can think and create and made iPhones into existence but no God to create Steve Jobs who can create things. Maybe Steve Jobs is a god, or the beginning... but nah, he can't be a god cause there is none, iPhone is part of the evolution that evolved from human's hands, and brains, and our own two eyes, since iPhones now have two cameras.

    Atheists owe to write their own book instead of blogging to their own followers here on Internet, I'm pretty sure more would be thankful for that. And I'm pretty sure too that people from all religion would get 100% if they were asked a question about atheism, hehehe. There is no God, period. The only way that book will have more words to it than the Bible is if it were to talk about God or the Bible, lol. Well probably not all will get 100%, specially if they will start asking non-religious questions like who Hawkins is, then ask what religion he believes in or if he belives in God. Then it's a guessing game. Which would fall into the 50/50 average. Hehehe.

    September 28, 2010 at 11:45 am |
    • shecky

      i read your long post above. you call atheism the easy way, yet it seems to require much more input than religion. you say no god can make the ipod, and you are quite accurate, you say very many things in your post. unfortunately none of them are related in any way to atheism, nor do you make any intelligible sense. please go read your 'good book' 3 times slowly, then come back to the keyboard.

      October 3, 2010 at 3:18 am |
  17. qwerty

    I'm an atheist and I got them all correct... Although it kind of makes sense. If you are devout in a particular religion, it makes you much less likely to want to learn about other religions. Since I don't believe in god, I find them all somewhat interesting from a literary and historical perspective. For me, the Bible, Koran or Old Testament are works of literature like Homer's Odyssey or the Great Gatsby.

    September 28, 2010 at 11:42 am |
  18. Del

    If you want answers to Bible questions that make sense and harmonize with science read the literature of Jehovah's Witnesses.
    It's impossible to have real faith without an accurate knowledge . What many term "faith" is a mere emotional response with no foundation in reality.

    September 28, 2010 at 11:42 am |
    • shecky

      so how many of your fellow 'witnesses are you willing to personally kill off? seeing as only a very specific number of you get allowed in(and this number has been exceeded in the past)

      October 3, 2010 at 3:22 am |
  19. Sharon

    I am a Christian. I scored 8 out of 10 but that is a pretty small test. I think Christians need to read and study their Bible. Just believing something because a preacher or someone high up at the church tells you it's so is not enough. How can you believe something you don't know about? Yes, faith is very important but you still need to learn things and decide for yourself.
    If someone wants to be Agnostic, Hindu, whatever that is their business. If you ask me about my beliefs I will tell you. If you don't, I keep my mouth shut. I LIVE my beliefs not run around all day talking about them.

    September 28, 2010 at 11:42 am |
  20. NL

    As a child, religion is one of the few things that most families do together and it's often marked by special occasions like weddings and most holidays. No wonder children are more willing to accept it when it has been so closely linked to the love and joy that families have as a whole. Maybe that's where a lot of the warm-and-fuzzy of religion actually comes from, the family togetherness as opposed to some unity with a deity?

    On smaller scales, children often develop similar feelings for other activities that family members or special friends particularly enjoyed, like fishing with Dad, baking with Mom, or football with your brothers. Doing these things becomes a religious experience and often carries on into adulthood.

    September 28, 2010 at 11:40 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.