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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. Ron Nospam

    Religious ignorance in America is pretty evident when agnostics score better than the zealots!

    September 28, 2010 at 2:14 pm |
  2. Berto

    Are there people who actually get less than 8 on this quiz? I can see someone missing the Indonesia one (I had to think about that one for a bit, but got it right), but how does anyone miss any of the other ones?

    September 28, 2010 at 2:08 pm |
    • Berto

      (I'm mormon, by the way)

      September 28, 2010 at 2:09 pm |
  3. Stan

    Religious IQ is an oxymoron.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:06 pm |
  4. Tibbi

    Apparently, the American education system is not only failing in Science and Math, but in Reading Comprehension as well.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:01 pm |
  5. mhharpster

    Someone isn't a fence sitter if they don't acknowledge the existence of a fence. That dichotomy is in your head and it appears to be just as important to you as scripture is to the believers. Personally, I find the religion of atheism to be nearly as offensive as traditional religions. The only thing that makes them more dangerous is that they have some power and you don't.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:00 pm |
  6. Bob

    Not too surprising that the majority of people calling themselves Christian would not know much about the Bible or other religions. Christianity is not a religion, at least not from it's inception. Jesus modeled a relationship with the Father that was to be adopted by His followers. Christianity is about relationship with God through His Son and our Savior Jesus Christ. Albeit in vogue to know the criteria and fundamentals of other faiths, Christianity remains steadfast in knowing what God says through HIS Holy Word found in the Bible, and only the Bible (I know, not very open-minded, but neither is the Bible about what God says. See the Book of Leviticus for YHVH's rules of worshiping Him.) Suffice to say that calling oneself a Christian and not reading your Bible, Praying, and following Christs example through the power of the Holy Spirit of God, is calling yourself something that you are not. (God must be the focus of your life. What He says matters, not what you think.) We will all one day bow our knee to Christ, Atheist, Agnostic, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Catholic, Black, White, Asian, etc.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:58 pm |
    • Ron

      I understand what you are saying. You are a devout Christian. Christianity is still a Religion, just as Islam amd Judaism. It is also Monotheistic(the belief in ONE god).

      September 28, 2010 at 10:21 pm |
  7. jake

    The last question got me. I found this to be excedingly easy, I think people today are more concerned with the actions of Lindsay Lohan than that of god.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:58 pm |
  8. TXSweet

    Hmmm ... as a Catholic who studied MANY faiths before deciding to STAY Catholic, I am NOT surprised. I am a Rel Ed teacher & am sadly NOT surprised by how many of my students are NOT educated at home about what their religion teaches. They go home and teach their parents the simple truths of our faith!! And when I see/hear what others THINK we believe...it's truly sad.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:57 pm |
  9. Luke

    Oh no, people aren't memorizing completely useless information! Should we be up in arms if they can't answer as many questions about Justin Bieber? At least we know he's real.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:51 pm |
  10. Jason

    For those who claim that non-belief in a higher being is correlated with higher intelligence need to dig into the history books a little more where you will find most if not all great historical figures, inventors and "brilliant" minds (e.g. Socrates, Newton, Galileo, Einstein) believed in a higher being or through deductive/inductive reasoning eventually believed in a higher being (e.g. Einstein). The reason why people bash religions so much is because historically a lot of violence has been perpetrated but this is only because of authorities that utilize religions and beliefs for their war campaigns and the "just" cause.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:46 pm |
    • sockeyerama

      @Jason: On a historical basis, very few people, intelligent or not, ever considered to question religion. Then came the Enlightenment. Your example of Galeleo employing inductive and deductive reasoning to come to a conclusion of faith is pretty weak. He, at one time, was considered a heretic for proposing a heliocentric solar system. The capacity we have for maintaining cognitive dissonance can explain why some of the most intelligent people can believe in a higher being. Yes, Einstein was a believer. No surprise.

      September 28, 2010 at 2:31 pm |
  11. mhharpster

    Like most polls, this so-called test of religious knowledge is pointless. This is the sort of information that anyone who occasionally reads and pays some attention to the news can easily answer. You don't have to be a believer or a non-believer to score well. What I find most interesting, as evidenced by many of the comments here, is that it brings out the contemptuous remarks and finger pointing of the true-believers and the purportedly objective atheists. Nobody knows the truth and you won't until you die...presuming, of course, there's brain activity, or some sort of activity, to process the information.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:45 pm |
  12. SomeDumbCanuck

    What?! Devoutly Christian Americans hold unshakable beliefs about things they know nothing about?! Stop the presses and call the President, something must be done! For those whose sarcasm detectors are malfunctioning, that was it.

    I won't bother to weigh in on who's smarter, atheists or religious folk, but I would like to comment on one argument the religious have been using. Saying atheists are 'unscientific' because their as dogmatic about disbelief as the religious are about believing is kind of silly. One of the foundations of science is not believing in something unless it can be proven either experimentally or mathematically in the case of things like string theory or relativity that we can't easily measure. So unless someone can direct me to the study that scientifically proves God exists, or at the very least the 'God equation' or something I'm afraid the only scientific conclusion is to at least withhold belief until evidence arises. Colour me unconvinced I guess.

    Oh yeah, and I confess I haven't read every single comment because you know... that life I have and all... However, I was shocked and appalled to see that nobody has asked the most essential of all questions in this debate. What I'm sure America really wants to know is....

    How'd Christine O'Donnell do?

    Cheers from Canada 😉

    September 28, 2010 at 1:34 pm |
  13. Diane

    The test was not that hard but I missed on a few of the history questions. History not being my strong suite. I was raised by an Anglican mother and an athiest father. I have studied some of the common religions on my own and have yet found one to fit my belief system. I am a reincarnationis. I believe in God, but do not feel that we can learn all there is to learn in one lifetime! The test helped me to realize that I need to learn a little more about some of the eastern religions so that I may better understand the people who practice them. That is what this test should be about is whether or not you understand the practices of your neighbors. It helps to promote peace and understanding among the human race!!!

    September 28, 2010 at 1:24 pm |
  14. Ben

    The quiz asked about religino in Indonesia. The correct answer is Hindu – it even shows a picture with Ganesh. But it says the anser is muslim and said tmy answer was wrong. You may want to fix that.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:24 pm |
    • Rita

      Over 80% of Indonesians are Muslim. The picture might be intentionally misleading.

      September 28, 2010 at 10:07 pm |
  15. Niki

    Any "christian" who is shoving his beliefs down your throat isn't acting on christian belief, but human ego. Christianity doesn't teach this practice.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:19 pm |
  16. john g

    all the jugement and hate ,STOP!! eye see you

    September 28, 2010 at 1:15 pm |
  17. OnanismO

    Yeah, this is a re-post, but only because the website keeps incorrectly positioning mine chronologically.

    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 1:06 pm |
    • OnanismO

      This re-post STILL did not get positioned correctly in the time-line. Oh well.

      September 28, 2010 at 1:09 pm |
  18. seriously agnostic Mike

    For all truth seekers, read "The Evolution of God" by, I believe, Robert Wright

    September 28, 2010 at 1:01 pm |
  19. c

    Where can one find the survey?

    September 28, 2010 at 12:57 pm |
  20. troy

    Is this that suprising in a country who votes more for american idol than the presidential race

    September 28, 2010 at 12:57 pm |
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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.