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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. Jeroen Albers

    10/10 yep this atheist knows his stuff apparently, even though I've never bothered to read a holy book. These questions are so general anyone with a highschool diploma should be able to answer most correctly.

    October 27, 2010 at 6:19 pm |
  2. Northern

    The World knows a lot about Religion and how it has been screwing the World and little boys since day #1.

    Commercialized, out dated lies.

    October 27, 2010 at 5:18 pm |
  3. George C.

    These questions were not terribly difficult.

    October 27, 2010 at 3:46 pm |
  4. Keith

    It is as if there is almost three tiers of religion M. Scott Peck speaks about this in some of his writings, the bottom tier are those who blindly accept, the middle level is composed of those who came to reject the things they accepted blindly, and the final tier of enlightenment is those who have gone through all the hard questions, accepting nothing blindly, yet eventually find God. May we all arrive at this final level and shed the ignorance of the first two levels.

    October 27, 2010 at 3:42 pm |
  5. rh

    This is a no-brainer. Most non-atheist/non-agnostic people think that it was a capricious decision to become an atheist or an agnostic. The vast majority of atheists are non-confrontational people who came to the decision after learning about various religions, and often were raised in an organized religion.

    I spend a lot of time telling my son about different religions, and he can pick one when he is an adult, if he wants to. But yes, we know more about religion because we don't close our mind to other religions for fear of being prosyletized.

    October 27, 2010 at 3:20 pm |
    • CRAIG

      If you have the truth of God's word why would you want to go elsewhere?

      June 8, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
  6. BSchurch

    testing

    October 26, 2010 at 9:08 pm |
  7. Irina

    I am amazed how much response this article is causing, especially, in those who do not consider themselves religious.

    October 19, 2010 at 6:32 pm |
    • Riddles

      Considering that the non-religious score among the most, why are you surprised that the non-religious are more aware of this test?

      July 12, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  8. Thoughtful

    Just because an atheist and agnostic scored higher doesn't mean that the atheist or agnositc made a more informed and therefore more correct decision. Knowing about something is not the same as knowing something. There is a story of two men that were waiting in a waiting room outside of an office after both of their deaths. An intellectual and a poor farmer. The intellectual was taken into the office and interviewed first. He was asked to tell the interviewer all about Christ. The intellectual proceeded to give a very detailed account of the new testament, pretty much every event recorded. The interviewer said thank you and asked him to proceed through another door. Then the poor man was shown in, and asked the same question. He had a difficult time answering because he had begun to weep. Then he fell to his knees and said "My Lord my God". True knowledge is something you feel, you can't really know something until you truly understand that it is so, and feel it deep inside.

    October 18, 2010 at 12:21 pm |
    • Riddles

      Considering most atheists are ex-believers, of course many of them know what they are talking about.

      True knowledge is not emotional thinking like you believe, true knowledge is knowing something.

      You merely don't want non-believers to know more about your religion than you do, many of them used to be priests and left because they knew more about religion.

      July 12, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
  9. LiberateUs

    I'm Catholic. Scored: 10/10 SUCK....IT, BRIAN!

    October 17, 2010 at 11:15 pm |
  10. Jeuan David Jones

    I am atheist, living in the UK. I was curious about this test. It's VERY VERY basic. Why, I even knew the final question about the US supreme court ruling on the viability of bible text as an example of English literature.

    But the point is that most of us atheists do make a clear rational choice in our lives that we do not believe in supernatural beings. Most of us are informed and actively and avidly devour many forms of information and knowledge about the world.

    October 16, 2010 at 11:33 am |
  11. House

    I'm sure it's been said before, but "atheists" and "agnostics" aren't two separable. (a)gnosticism is a (lack of) knowledge on something and (a)theism is a (lack of) belief in something. So you're either

    a) a gnostic theist (someone who believes in god and knows it exists)
    b) an agnostic theist (someone who believes in god but doesn't "actually" know it exists)
    c) a gnostic atheist (someone with a non-belief in god and knows it doesn't exist)
    d) an agnostic atheist (someone with a non-belief in god but doesn't "actually" know it doesn't exist).

    a) and c) are intellectually dishonest because knowledge of supernatural things is impossible. They rely solely on belief and nothing more, no matter how crazy they may seem. b) is what any and all believers SHOULD claim to be. d) is what any and all atheists SHOULD claim to be.

    So to claim "atheists and agnostics" score better (yadda yadda) has no meaning. Everyone is agnostic if they have any intellectual honesty. Priests are agnostic, the pope is agnostic, rabbis, immams, and spiritual leaders the world over are all agnostic. There's no arguing, there's just dishonesty.

    There may or may not be a deity(ies) but there's no way to know it... so please, people of Earth, get over this "atheists vs theists vs agnostics" schtick and focus on the real issue at hand: "atheists vs theists".

    October 15, 2010 at 2:21 pm |
  12. Little Lady

    I cannot believe how disrespectful everyone on here is being to one another. Faith or not, we are all human beings and should treat each other as such.

    October 14, 2010 at 8:59 pm |
  13. Maty

    Maybe I'm missing the point, but I've always thought of my faith as a metaphor. The Holy Trinity, Blessed Virgin Mary, et al, I believed to relate to elements of my own person, and the personification of a better "me". Reading the Bible, attending Mass, merely opportunities for me to reflect on my place in the World and my community. I don't think anyone is stupid, or going to burn in Eternal Hellfire, for not being Christian, but I also think its pointless for someone to denigrate me because of my habits, or make like I'm an idiot. Faith isn't half as cartoonish or clearly defined as those who diminish it: If you only base your arguments against faith from academic texts, magazine articles or "arguments" you've had online, well, then who's actually poorly educated on the subject?

    October 12, 2010 at 9:18 pm |
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    October 12, 2010 at 3:49 pm |
  15. Kristy

    I understand Frank. I was skeptical, too! As you should be! You have to study diligently for yourself to believe. Don't just believe what you hear! Have you heard of the Spirit and the Bride? Rev 22:17. Many say that the bride is the church. But only God can give eternal life. Also, if the bride was the church, who would come? Not the non-believers. Rev 21:9-10 says "come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the lamb." and he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain...and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. This isn't a physical city, but spiritual metaphor. Also Gal 4:26 says, "But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother." free means without sin. It is deep and a lot, I know. But the only way to overcome is thru studying. How can we be a cult when we are the only church (like the early church) to keep His commandments, Sabbath which is really Saturday, and Passover(New Covenant, not the O.T. Way) and his feasts? Exodus 23:14. Leviticus 23. Exodus 20 Ten Commandments. The whole world has been led astray! Many follow Pagan ways and Holidays. Halloween, Christmas, and Easter are Pagan traditions. Research history for yourself. 1 Peter 4:3. God tells us over and over throughout the Bible to not follow Pagans, etc. but everyone does! And they make their own justifications as to why. It's not good. We can only preach the Truth now and hope some listen. That's why I feel so obligated to write you back. Hope you can see yourself. God bless you!

    October 11, 2010 at 2:32 pm |
    • Riddles

      Instead of using the bible to back up your claims, prove that the bible is actually true to begin with.

      The bible is not a universally recognized fact, it is is collection of beliefs held by less than a third of the world that can't be agreed upon by all of them

      July 12, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  16. Kristy

    Has anyone heard about God the Mother? She is here on earth and second coming Christ already came! He came to remind us of what we should be doing. Keep Sabbath, Passover, his feasts, The Ten Commandments, etc! People have been led astray! It's not enough to just say you believe! But to do his will! Mat 7:21-23. Please find a Church of God near you! World Mission Society Church of God! It's real. Not a cult! Don't believe some. Instead study for yourself like the Bereans did! You will see that Christ Ahnsahnhong has fulfilled all the prophesies!! I heard and have since been baptized in the church, after studying a lot! You can't just believe what I say or anyone else! Find out thru studying yourself! The bible is real people! It's been proven! We don't have much time. Please don't put it off, you can be saved, too!

    October 11, 2010 at 1:49 am |
    • Frank

      Yeah, right.
      Just who is this 'God the Mother' and why doesn't everyone know about her? Sai Baba claims to be God but he most certainly is not. You say you aren't a part of a cult, but it sure sounds like you are.

      October 11, 2010 at 1:59 am |
    • Kristy

      I understand Frank. I was skeptical, too! As you should be! You have to study diligently for yourself to believe. Don't just believe what you hear! Have you heard of the Spirit and the Bride? Rev 22:17. Many say that the bride is the church. But only God can give eternal life. Also, if the bride was the church, who would come? Not the non-believers. Rev 21:9-10 says "come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the lamb." and he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain...and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. This isn't a physical city, but spiritual metaphor. Also Gal 4:26 says, "But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother." free means without sin. It is deep and a lot, I know. But the only way to overcome is thru studying. How can we be a cult when we are the only church (like the early church) to keep His commandments, Sabbath which is really Saturday, and Passover(New Covenant, not the O.T. Way) and his feasts? Exodus 23:14. Leviticus 23. Exodus 20 Ten Commandments. The whole world has been led astray! Many follow Pagan ways and Holidays. Halloween, Christmas, and Easter are Pagan traditions. Research history for yourself. 1 Peter 4:3. God tells us over and over throughout the Bible to not follow Pagans, etc. but everyone does! And they make their own justifications as to why. It's not good. We can only preach the Truth now and hope some listen. That's why I feel so obligated to write you back. Hope you can see yourself. God bless you!

      October 11, 2010 at 2:10 pm |
  17. Hananyahu

    Religion comes from Ancient Babylon and has passed down throughout the generations. The word is from the latin 'Religare' which means to bind and is a reference to Egypt which is the House of Bondage. In other words, Religion equals Slavery.

    October 10, 2010 at 3:03 pm |
    • Frank

      Ever heard of Sumer? There's even city-states that have been found that are older than Sumer, of which we know nothing about. Babylon is nothing.

      October 11, 2010 at 2:02 am |
  18. Regular Teen

    I think that we should all respect each other's religions. Are we not all people with feelings. I am personally tired of people bashing other religions to make themselves feel better. Life is hard enough, I think many would appreciate it if we all put aside our differences and loved each other. I am also proud to say I belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    Sincerely,
    A Pacifist

    October 9, 2010 at 10:29 pm |
  19. Valtiel

    10 for 10, for an atheist. Honestly, this survey question is mind-bogging easy....

    October 9, 2010 at 9:46 pm |
  20. krazygem

    God is in your heart.

    October 9, 2010 at 2:51 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.