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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. atheist-in-pajamas

    i wanna know what groups associated with the 8 that got all 32 questions right, and the 6 that got all 32 questions wrong...

    "rastest way to become an atheist? read the bible." -penn jillette

    July 2, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • JamesT297

      🙂

      July 6, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
  2. man

    10/10, Conservative, Evangelical, Protestant. I attend a Southern Baptist Church in the Midwest. Born-again believer.
    Guess some groups have a lot of outliers.
    But let's be fair about the 10 questions; being a Christian doesn't mean you are an expert on comparative religious studies. Not knowing much about Mormonism (considered a cult by Evangelicals), Islam, Buddhism or Catholicism doesn't really say much about or imply much about knowledge of the Bible and its teachings.
    Maimonides (mentioned in the article) was a Jewish scholar who wrote excellent commentary on the Torah. I am more interested than most of my peers in the history of the Bible and the history of the church. I am also interested in understanding the faith of others so that I can more easily witness my faith to them. None of that informs my Biblical knowledge, it is all adjunct. I did like the quiz though. 🙂

    June 30, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • JamesT297

      Apparently, being a christian also does not mean one has to know anything about anything.

      July 6, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • Riddles

      The quiz was about religion in general, not only Christianity.

      July 12, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
  3. Jim

    10/10

    Atheist with a history degree.

    June 30, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  4. PR

    Who cares how much people know about religion? Jesus HATED religion. What does Joseph Smith, Mother Theresa, and Muslims have to do with the Jesus dying on the cross to save us from our sinful nature? We should focus more on the centerpiece of the Bible, Jesus, and less on "religion". Religion prevents people from seeing Jesus. I'm a born again, Bible believing follower of a raised from the dead Jesus Christ (since everyone else is touting their stance) 🙂

    June 28, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • Ja

      You've learned about how Jesus Christ is our Savior through the Bible.–>This Bible contains the writings of prophets.–>Writings of prophets are significant because prophets receive revelation (communication) from God (ex. Moses, Adam, Isaiah, etc.).–>Joseph Smith was another prophet of God. This is where LDS members believe he falls into place.

      June 29, 2011 at 10:23 pm |
    • JamesT297

      Absolutely everything we have learned since about 1100 tells us there is no god, so why is there any need to plumb the depths of any religious text to gain any personal understanding? As a context for understanding History, I get it. As a direction marker for how to live one's life, it's a waste of time and resources and we should all focus on contributing what we can to make a real impact on real problems for real people right now.

      July 6, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  5. Mark Williams

    Atheist : 8/10

    June 28, 2011 at 11:16 am |
  6. DD

    Jewish. 9 of 10.

    June 9, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  7. Rob

    Conservative, born-again Christian - 10 out of 10

    Let's all say it together: Correlation does not prove causality. Strong religious faith does not cause ignorance, nor is it caused by ignorance.

    June 9, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • tommas

      You will always have outliers

      June 17, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
  8. Jim Casy

    To be fair, these questions were pretty easy. Getting all 10 right requires very little actual religious study. I'd be curious to see what kind of curve balls the full 32 question test throws.

    June 9, 2011 at 9:42 am |
    • FYI

      A detailed analysis of the 32 question test is here: http://pewforum.org/other-beliefs-and-practices/u-s-religious-knowledge-survey.aspx

      I see that here is a link on that page to a 15 question test. I don't have time to search the whole thing to find a link to the 32 question test, but it is also available.

      I took the 32 question test several months ago. I, an atheist/agnostic with a Catholic upbringing, scored a 31/32.

      June 9, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
  9. Eddie

    Agnostic (brought up as Catholic – but parents weren't strict, born in the US, moved as kid to Austria) – 10 out of 10

    June 9, 2011 at 7:30 am |
    • JamesT297

      Born and raised without much church knowledge, but with faith orientation. Born in the US but moved to California at an early age.

      July 6, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
  10. Sammie

    10 out of 10~ I'm a Presbyterian with a Jesuit Catholic college education who grew up with Mormons and Jews as best friends in a heavily Muslim/Jewish/Mormon area of Los Angeles.

    June 9, 2011 at 4:03 am |
  11. Kaylee

    I got 9 out of 10. I go to a Baptist church.

    June 9, 2011 at 2:00 am |
  12. Meuus

    Parents raised me Baptist my mother is Jewish and I'm Atheist. 10 out of 10 and I know who Maimonides was. Good point about Atheists knowing more about religion because, in general, we've thought about it, worked though the nonsense we had pushed down our throats and lived to forgive, for the most part the adults in our lives that did their level best to scare us, to scar us as children. I had nightmares about hell for years letting that go was one of the most freeing moments of my life, and I'm old, I've had a lot of moments.

    June 9, 2011 at 12:26 am |
  13. milli

    ten out of ten;Lutheran

    I'd also like to see the whole survey. Is it available online?

    June 9, 2011 at 12:00 am |
  14. Kathysam

    Atheist: a perfect 10

    June 8, 2011 at 11:48 pm |
  15. Uthor

    9 of 10. I'm agnostic. But I had a profound Presbyterian childhood; my family provided generations of Ruling Elders, including the first woman Elder ever in the local church (my grandmother). During junior high school I joined a group of born-agains, but their simplicity and personal politics were off-putting, and that experience probably put the nail in the coffin of Christianity for me. They were extremely self-righteous and self-satisfied, and did not practice the very basic precepts of Jesus of Nazareth.

    Finally I got to the point where I realized that as a human I–with my limited perceptions and just-beyond-animal intelligence–could not paint the face of god, or pretend to describe what no mere human can fully understand. And I did not wish to judge others for their faults and weaknesses. Religion is still interesting and at the same time horrifying to me. It comes down to this: If someone tells you they know what god wants or what god thinks, it is vanity.

    June 8, 2011 at 11:47 pm |
  16. Geckoguy

    Jehovah's Witness turned atheist. 10/10. I'd like to see the whole quiz.

    June 8, 2011 at 11:36 pm |
  17. tallulah13

    Atheist. 9/10. I knew that the Jewish sabbath was Saturday, but didn't know it started Friday. Bad me.

    June 8, 2011 at 10:57 pm |
  18. jan

    I was raised Catholic – 8 years of Catholic school and all – and I scored 10 out of 10. Then again my school made it a point to teach us about other religions so we could respect them just as much. I also think I scored high because I grew up around a lot of evangelicals who were always saying I was going to hell for being Catholic. It encouraged me to learn more about the bible simply to counter their never-ending claims to my damnation. It's kind of sad that the positive message of love and acceptance in the New Testament is totally missed by extreme evangelicals and extreme atheists alike.

    June 8, 2011 at 8:47 pm |
    • Paul

      Most people ignore the New Testament because it's crap. Taking what was supposedly "the word of God" and revising it into the Care Bear Happy Fun Time Hour so as not to scare off new recruits then wrapping it up in a neat little bow and calling it the New Testament is garbage. Same with the King James Bible. Don't like it? Change it it to suit your liking. I'm not religious anymore but if I was going to pick a God, I'd want him vengeful and wroth since he did flood the world and kill everyone...or so I was told.

      June 9, 2011 at 2:18 am |
  19. nina

    10/10 – atheists rule!

    June 8, 2011 at 7:07 pm |
  20. Diane

    "Barely half of all Catholics know that when they take communion, the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ" – why would you do something if you don't even know WHY you are doing it?!

    June 8, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
    • Jay

      Just another sad example of cattle following the herd.

      June 9, 2011 at 5:12 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.