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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. Clint

    I am a practicing apethetic who got 9 out of 10.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:56 pm |
  2. Joe

    How about you leave me alone and I agree to let you continue your little fantasy?

    September 28, 2010 at 12:55 pm |
  3. Neil

    All the atheists: just say it all together: "I scored 10 out of 10!!! " WhooHooo. Here's you're cookie. I'm a Christian and I scored 10 out of 10, and I could probably score 32 out of 32 on the complete questionaire. So aren't we all special.

    When you meet God, he's not going to ask you how smart you are. He's not going to ask you how you did on a CNN 10 question quiz. And you don't get bonus points for arrogance.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:53 pm |
  4. Douglas Holbert

    What does one get for getting all the questions correct on all the tests. So Mote It Be.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:50 pm |
  5. Tim Lee

    I've always thought it is very sad that religious zealots in this country are so uneducated about the book that they put so much stock in. If you're going to live your life by something, how can you be so intellectually lazy about it? I am an atheist and I know so much more about what is in the bible than my christian friends do, its rather embarrassing at times.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:47 pm |
  6. LivinginVA

    if you go to the Pew Forum website you can download a pdf of the full questionaire. ( I just tried to post the link, but it wouldn't take....)

    September 28, 2010 at 12:47 pm |
  7. Niki

    It doesn't surprise me at all that atheists and agnostics would be more schooled in religion. Religion will kill you. Religion killed Jesus. Religion has killed more people than anything else in the world's history. Even Jesus hated religion. The more schooled in religion one becomes, the more cold hearted you become. The pharisees in Jesus' time were devoutly religious and lost because they didn't really believe, they only used the scriptures to suit their own lusts and greed.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:45 pm |
  8. Tim Lee

    No surprise that atheists and agnostics know more about the bible than christians do. We are constantly hit over the head with random passages (often with no understanding of the context) so of course we want to know what was actually said. Also, being more interested in science and facts than ideology, we don't like to take things at face value based on what some impassioned but unbalanced individuals may think.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:44 pm |
  9. Brandi

    i do not need god to tell me what the right thing to do is. I have morals for that! i do the right thing because it's the right thing to do. not because i am afraid of burning in hell. i also have four children and i teach them the same thing. i know that faith is strong in most religious people, but i have been told that i am more christ like than many christians, and i am an Atheist! People... religion belongs in your home, your heart and your church, not in our public schools, or work, or anywhere else. it's time to respect the fact that not everyone believes the same things and move on.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:42 pm |
  10. KM

    Do parents teach their children to lie, to be dishonest? No, of course not. Yet somehow they know to do it. Parents constantly hear ‘NO’ from their children when they ask the child if they have done something wrong or they answer ‘NO’ to eating the cheetos with the orange dust all over their faces. Do we teach them that? No. Do we reinforce it? Yes, we do. Does that mentality carry on for the rest of our lives, debatable at best. We tell the white lies to avoid something we don’t want do to say, like going to the park or McDonalds. Which is more abusive, reinforcing a child to lie, setting them on a path that honesty (morals) doesn’t matter or is one of convenience, or taking them to church?

    Jobs have been lost, marriages have failed, reputations ruined and lives taken…..and it all started with a little white lie. Sometimes meant in jest. “it works because its right’ and not ‘it’s right because it works”

    September 28, 2010 at 12:41 pm |
  11. LivinginVA

    The full survey is available at:

    http://pewforum.org/uploadedFiles/Topics/Belief_and_Practices/religious-knowledge-questionnaire.pdf

    September 28, 2010 at 12:40 pm |
  12. Jennifer

    I want a copy of the actual survey – how can I get a copy and try taking it myself?

    September 28, 2010 at 12:40 pm |
  13. MIchael Schulze

    Atheist here. I got a 10.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:37 pm |
  14. Total believer

    13Center13 – I have read my Bible cover to cover several times. In fact, I study it daily. I didn't turn out athiest or agnostic. It is an amazing and beautiful book full of wisdom and guidance. It is a comfort. It is logical and amazingly scientific. And, I am extremely well educated and not particularly gullible, rather quite skeptical. Most of the people blogging who dislike the Bible have a problem with religion the way it is often practiced by people. Forget the people and give God a chance. Don't get to the end of your life and realize you've wasted it because that is the road you're on.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:34 pm |
    • Sam

      It is logical and amazingly scientific. .. really? and its a comfort? Genocides are comfort? and explain how woman is made from a man.. give me a break. Just say you have faith. Dont try to bring logic into it. Same goes for the plagiarized book called Quran

      September 28, 2010 at 3:12 pm |
    • Renee

      Sam, It sounds like you question the logic of the Bible. Is your question around woman being created from man? Are you supporting a evolution position or a big bang theory? Are you saying that the complexity of the human body alone is an accident?

      September 30, 2010 at 1:32 pm |
  15. Clint

    It should not be surprising that atheists and agnostics are better educated on the subject of religionthan so-called religious folks - espcially christians. In general, children accept the religion of their parents without question, and then continue to practice it as adults. An agnostic or an atheist is likely to have started in this way, but at some point made a conscious decision, based on study and discussion, to reject traditional religions in favor of either a life of continual inquiry or a life of self-reliance. At the risk of seeming elitist, it would be interesting to know the average IQ of the agnostics and atheists versus the average IQ of the others in the study.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:31 pm |
  16. Brandi

    Religion only came about to control the masses. To make people afraid that if they "misbehave", they will spend eternity in a fiery pit of hell. What motivates people, better than fear?

    September 28, 2010 at 12:30 pm |
  17. AtheistRE

    I find it funny that the question about the major religion of Indonesia is Muslim, yet they show a Hindu picture......

    September 28, 2010 at 12:28 pm |
  18. Bedista

    Where did you guys take the test and got 10 out of 10? The article says there were 32 questions. Are they giving us a different test from what they have concluded to write this article?

    To those people calling the guy who said there is only one bible an idiot, you guys are right! There's billions of them! It's the most book ever published in the history since Christ's death.

    Funny thing I heard from a knowledgeable atheist I'm class in a university, that since there were no videos back then, it was hard to prove Jesus' existence, that he most likely didn't exist at all. Our other knowledgeable philosophy professor didn't contradict him but added that Jesus birth from his studies probably wasn't on Dec. 25 but sometime im April. Important info from these smart people. True, though Jesus has been the most widely talked about person in the history of mankind heard by the poor and the kings and the wealthiest alike probably didn't exist. Somehow he really connected God to Jesus and since he doesn't believe in God, Jesus must not have existed. Although Jesus' book is the best seller of all time and no book ever came close, and the only person whose year of death we have been using and counting on each year, I guess now is the year 2010 since he died so I'm not sure what they mean that Jesus didn't exist, which year have they realized that? LoL. And not only his death that we have been counting on since year one, but Jesus' birthday is also the most celebrated one, EACH YEAR. Too weird to celebrate both the birthday and count the years a non existing person's death. The atheist professor with docorate degree of course who claims he can change our belief in God on our first class meeting by the end of semester challenged Jesus' birth date, but didn't challenge the use of our year from the time Jesus' death which probably wasn't January 1st either, lol. He challenges his students beliefs through questioning of their faith when his belief is questionable too. That's just one story of my experience with atheists, their question about people's faith, and my question about theirs too. Yeah, he also challenged us about the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg, without knowingthe answer as well. Christian tradition believes that we are all created but which did God first create? According scientists, recent studies prove that it was the chicken, not the egg that came first, just getting some info out for those who doesn't know yet. I'm guessing man came first before his sperms, lol. And we were designed by God, not Steve Jobs, for human bodies to work well produce sperms and eggs both needed from two different humans to create one, and be creative too like God is and make iPhones.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:26 pm |
    • AtheistRE

      There is no historical evidence of Jesus. Even the two small entries of Josephus were contrived by later christian scholars.

      September 28, 2010 at 12:32 pm |
    • OnanismO

      "Human bodies were designed by God" which would only go to show that God wasn't very good at what He did. Take cancer, heart disease and any of the other leading (and often very painful) causes of death. If that's not enough, what about the slow, degenerative diseases like ALS that leave people as vegetables for many years before they finally croak. If that's not enough, then consider all the innocent children who are born with congenital defects so horrible that they don't have a chance in h&|| of living a life worth squat. If that's not enough, why are there so many ugly people in the world? So many stupid people in the world? God is fraud (or at least he/she/it is very stupid)!

      September 28, 2010 at 12:51 pm |
  19. Your God is Dead

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2EnjkBvHpao&w=640&h=390]

    September 28, 2010 at 12:25 pm |
  20. Jim

    Hilarious Irony: The above quiz asks on Question 8 "What faith dominates in Indonesia" the answer is "Islam or Muslim" and the picture they show when you answer is one of Hindus Worshiping and Idol. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Guess who else doesn't know much about religion CNN?

    September 28, 2010 at 12:25 pm |
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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.