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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. keith1952

    I am a Theist, not a religious idiot, I have a belief in a higher order of the universe that includes a supreme being or beings. I am not religious; I think churches are some of the most destructive forces of our society. I believe Religious broadcasting is about money and that there is neither salvation nor redemption in anything they have to offer. I believe that the churches should be taxed and if they cross the line between religious organizations and political organizations they should be labeled a lobbying organization and be governed by those regulations.

    I came to the personal beliefs I hold like may of you atheists did. I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian church and was not allowed to question the beliefs or the ideas behind the beliefs. Luckily for me when I was 17 I was shunned by the elders of my church so I went on my way to live my life happily without Church. I did spend the next 21 years studying comparative religion, the myths and beliefs of people from all around the world. I read the protestant bible along with the Old Testament probably 20 times and I didn't find any of the doctrines that were taught in my church. I couldn’t find a solid biblical connection to any of the churches that I investigated. So, I found a place within myself where I could experience peace and I found an understanding of the universe that made sense to me. Mine happens to include supernatural beings and it makes just as much sense as the atheist world of happy accidents.

    September 28, 2010 at 5:37 pm |
  2. Susan Boyce

    More wars have been fought because of religion. Why don't they practice what they preach........Peace!

    September 28, 2010 at 5:36 pm |
  3. peter

    stop censoring me!

    September 28, 2010 at 5:30 pm |
  4. peter

    i got 10/10.... the second time lol

    September 28, 2010 at 5:27 pm |
  5. Johnny

    Got 10 / 10. Figures–i'm an atheist.

    September 28, 2010 at 5:17 pm |
  6. HotAirAce

    Did anyone else hear Ali Velshi's logic for aetheists/agnostics knowing more? He said something like it makes sense 'cause aetheists could have been religious and had some experience that turned them away. Seems to me that if aetheists were just lapsed believers, then aetheists would get the same score as believers! I suggested to him (via twitter) that aetheists are aetheists because we've done our homework and rejected religion as a result.

    September 28, 2010 at 5:08 pm |
  7. peter

    it just makes my day that evangelicals scored the lowest 😉

    September 28, 2010 at 5:01 pm |
  8. geo59

    The reply mechanism doesn't seem to be working for me so I'll just blurt out what I'm thinking after reading the article and some of the posts. My conclusion from the article and its stated survey results is, in part, in agreement with what was written: Atheists have spent a lot more time thinking about and studying religion. The other thing, which is correlated in the survey, and is obvious to me is that atheists are always going to do better on any tests because you HAVE TO BE STUPID to believe in an invisible omnipotent being that never does a freaking thing to help anybody....and his mythical son, born to a virgin, walking on water and coming back from the dead. Religious people are simply DUMBER than the rest of us. Come on, let's face it. I'm sick and tired of all this tolerance crap. I'm calling it like it is. About 5 out of the 6 and a half billion people on this planet are brainwashed, sleeping sheep. Primitives. Too scared to take responsibility for their own lives to even come up with a plausible story line. And don't anybody call me an atheist because I agree with FormerChristian above: I don't need a label for every ridiculous, totally concocted con job that I don't believe in. I don't believe in vampires either. Does that make me a werewolf-ist? Religion is ludicrous. They're just using you sheep, controlling your thoughts, taking your money, turning you into canon fodder. Geez, could somebody start waking up some sheep?

    September 28, 2010 at 4:55 pm |
  9. Cathy

    I am not at alll surprised by these findings. I was raised in the Christian faith & remember that even as a child there were (are) many contradictions in the Bible. My uncle was a Baptist minister & he & I had many long discussions. I have always "questioned" & "analyzed" everything. To me this is a good, but not to church leaders. "Sit on that pew & listen & obey what I say." Guess I just wasn't a well behaved woman and of that I am proud. It's the friction that turns the rock into a diamond.

    September 28, 2010 at 4:35 pm |
  10. PPJ

    OK, so Santa Claus sent Eastern Bunny to die for our sins. That's all nice and dandy. Now the question: what does Jesus have to do with that?

    September 28, 2010 at 4:11 pm |
  11. Diane

    This topic really has a lot of people on the defense! Personally, I am not surprised, most atheists or agnostics studied or were involved in an organized religion. I was raised in a fundamental christian family, traveled the world learning about religions and belief systems, before I decided I was spiritual and not religious. I made my decision based on my assessment of the facts I gathered and understanding of my own need for a belief system. My family members who are still very much a part of the christian belief system and we avoid any discussion because I must be wrong or misinformed not to believe as they do.

    I highly recommend a great movie about tolerance and understanding, Enemy Mine.

    September 28, 2010 at 4:00 pm |
  12. OnanismO

    wichart: "saying 'I don't know' is not an intellectually honest answer to a question unless it's about a topic you know absolutely nothing about. People who claim to be agnostic are usually either agnostic theists or agnostic atheists. Simply claiming to be "agnostic" is nothing more than a cop-out response."

    Another stupid comment! Saying "I don't know" is an honest answer when, as in the case of determining whether there is or is not a "god", there is NO WAY of knowing ANYTHING. Atheists claim there is no god. Theists (religious idiots) claim there is a god. Agnostics (regardless of whether they lean towards being religious or irreligious) are the only ones HUMBLE enough to admit that there is NO WAY OF KNOWING ANYTHING about an invisible man in the sky whom no one has ever talked to, heard from or seen...EVER! Get over yourself!

    September 28, 2010 at 3:53 pm |
  13. brad

    Why do atheists bring their awsome reasoning powers to the religion page, and then let their reason be overwhelmed by their own emotions? I for one can't take atheism seriously because I can't take atheists seriously.

    September 28, 2010 at 3:52 pm |
  14. Anusha

    Whats the big deal about knowing the answers for these? Should this be the priority right now? Should we all go read about books which have been the reason for so many genocides in the world? Know about your religion and teach tolerance of other relgions.

    September 28, 2010 at 3:51 pm |
  15. brad

    It cannot be proven that we can be moral without religion. We can't go back, eliminate religion, and see what would have happened. An analogy: Here in the Southwest, temperatures soar well over 100 F for weeks. The streets bake during the day, and give off that heat at night, still hot as hell. Imagine someone stepping onto the street at midnight, feeling the heat, and proclaiming " See ! I can be warm w/o the sun !". We have been soaked in the Judeo/Christian moral code for 4000 years. Any morality we have today is only borrowed.

    September 28, 2010 at 3:28 pm |
  16. votethemoutinNovember

    Cool! So Mormons do know a great deal about Christianity. What a surprise! ...who knew?
    It's always the last place you look.

    September 28, 2010 at 3:27 pm |
  17. Pat

    This survey appears to be similar to studies that demonstrate Americans know little science, geography or history. I don't know the sample size or methods use. It doesn't give enough information to verify its validity, let alone what the results even mean.

    I think that anyone that thinks through their philosophy or belief system, will have more knowledge of that belief system and hopefully others, since they were exploring.

    It could be used to attack religion, prop up one belief as better than another, etc, but that has no value, IMHO.

    It shows that Americans have little education or knowledge of the scientific method. Where is the hypothesis? Where is the data and what was the data collection technique? What is the conclusion?

    The only reason CNN, the LA Times and yahoo posted this is to create controversy. The journalists did not research whether it was a valid study, at least it does not appear so, but that didn't stop the posting of this story. It demonstrates that Americans, as a group, are uneducated, and leap to conclusions based on what they are told. Unfortunately, that is all too familiar. That is what religion is about, faith. The articles is intellectually useless, but the fact that so many have responded to it, demonstrates that we as a society don't care. Politiicians will use this to defend their belief they need to have in order to woo voters. Churches will say they are picked on to stir up the pulpit. But, the real issue here has nothing to do with the content, for the content is meaningless unless we know what the intent and data gathering was. The real issue is that Americans are more dogmatic than in the past, believing what they here and becoming less educated as a group. Something we like to thrust upon the "radical Islam" group. Be careful who you judge, for your enemy may be in the mirror.

    September 28, 2010 at 3:19 pm |
  18. brad

    This page is enough to drive a person into sarcasm. Atheists, now that you understand religion so well, try going to the science page. There you will find statements like "Scientists now believe.......". Atheists, how much do you know about genetics, thermodynamics, the human psyche? Can you solve a problem from calculus? Pretty hard to be a genius on the science page so please stay here. You can be a mental giant through ridicule.

    September 28, 2010 at 3:19 pm |
  19. Sam

    Many people have stated, if Indonesians are muslims, how come there is a Hindu picture. Hello.... the pictures are not "clues" may be. Maybe you need to know the answer in spite of it.. Jeezz...

    September 28, 2010 at 3:15 pm |
  20. Pat

    There was a comment that atheists and agnostics tend to be more educated. This may or may not be true. In a world where 75% or more of mankind professes a belief in a religion, the atheist or agnostic are in the minority. Since religion is a worldview, the minority group probably wants to read further and make sure they are sound in their belief system, my guess only.

    The other thing..............religion is easier to accept over an atheistic or agnostic belief. Why? There is comfort in knowing that you will be taken care of in another life by God, or be reincarnated to learn more later. Plus, the teaching of religion tends to be dogmatic. Thou shalt believe because if you don't, you will perish in flames, or something of the sort. If you are uneducated, and have that kind of fear thrust on you, PLUS by following the word, you get the afterlife, it makes it pretty easy to see why someone would just accept that belief. Then it gets passed down generation to generation without a lot of thought in today's secular society.

    So, I don't think most people really think about their religion on a deep level, and that's okay................it gives them comfort. But by just accepting their religion that way, becomes dangerous to society, because then it is easy to take lots of things on "faith", like this article.

    September 28, 2010 at 3:13 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.