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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. Dee Ann

    10/10 for me. I'm a Militant Atheist.
    When you argue with religious idiots you better be prepared to do battle.
    Like they say, don't show up to a gun fight with a pocket knife.

    Bible thumpers will go batchit insane, spewing nonsense when you challenge their faith, all you have to do is shoot them down in flames with their very own holy book which very, very few people have even bothered to open up and read.

    Most don't even own one and the few that do use them to store their dust collection on.

    You want to do battle properly? Read all the holy books. Xian bible, Torah, Talmud, Quran, etc....
    The Xian bible is just the Jewish Torah with some newer, psychedelic fairy tales tacked on to the end.
    An Xians know almost nothing about their religion. Why should they bother with learning? It's easier to wallow in ignorance, less work and they have plenty of company down there in the bottom of the knowledge barrel.

    I believe in freedom FROM religion. Stop imposing your fairy tale religion upon me with your Adamic law.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:57 am |
    • Victoria Ferris

      Bring it on!

      September 28, 2010 at 1:38 am |
  2. jacob the atheist

    Bonnie, I'd like to say I "knew" you.....all hail the flying spaghetti monster!

    September 28, 2010 at 12:56 am |
  3. houston, texas

    I'm pretty much an atheist but tell everyone I'm agnostic because it seams to be more acceptable.
    9 out of 10. missed the one about the religion of the country. thought it was Hindu
    Peace

    September 28, 2010 at 12:56 am |
    • HotAirAce

      I use to do the same, and then I read God Delusion and decided it was time to stop lying to myself and everyone else.

      September 28, 2010 at 1:26 am |
  4. Russ

    Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown which is in between when Friday ends and Saturday begins, so the question is poorly worded.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:55 am |
  5. guyintower

    Man I got all of the test right and I am not involved with any organized religion. I think there mostly doing more evil than good in this world. And I don't think humans are smart enough to know everything about life, the universe and everything. Really no one can truly know if there is a God, or if there is a afterlife. Thats just not something anyone can know for sure at least in this world. So one should do the best that you can with the life you have and worry not about anything else. In the end thats all we really can do. Peace and best to you all.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:55 am |
    • Frogist

      Peace to you too.

      September 28, 2010 at 1:56 am |
  6. Chip

    10/10 on this one and 14/15 on the longer Pew version
    http://features.pewforum.org/quiz/us-religious-knowledge/
    I'm an atheist.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:54 am |
    • Frogist

      Thanks for the link to the extended quiz.

      September 28, 2010 at 1:54 am |
  7. ryan

    this is a gimme quiz. i wouldn't get all big-headed if you got them all right. this stuff is BASIC knowledge.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:53 am |
  8. Eric

    Uhh...

    This poll is pretty spiffy. Although it's not really fair calling this a religious test. It's more like a World Studies test.

    10/10 – Agnostic with a bit Catholic sympathy.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:53 am |
  9. Larry

    Funny how this conversation is so lopsided on the athiest line of thought – yet Christians (who do vastly outnumber athiests) are forcing things down people's throats. Do we force things down people's throats the same way promiscuous Hollywood does? Or the gay rights movement? What about the "Freedom From Religion" movement? ACLU anyone? I guess these groups are just exercising free speech, fighting for their rights and educating the ignorant. The only politically correct gpeople to insult anymore is any Christian who stands for his or her faith. Prove me wrong.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:53 am |
    • Frogist

      @Larry: Since you provided no actual facts, it's hard to prove anything wrong. All you have is baseless conjecture.
      But you might find this site interesting...
      http://aclufightsforchristians.com/
      Yes, the big bad ACLU fights for the rights of even the pitiful christians...

      September 28, 2010 at 1:45 am |
    • Larry

      Frogist: It's all a matter of perspective. If you lived in my world, the basis for my argument would be clear. I'm fully aware that the ACLU has fought for Christians and that the American Centers for Law and Justice (a Christian legal group) has worked with them in the past. That may not have been the best example as I do fully support separation of church and state (Government teaching my kids about God? I don't think so!). On the other hand, the ACLU has also supported NAMBA (North American Man Boy Association). This conversation unfortunately does not allow for in depth discussion on these matters, but suffice it to say that, from the perspective of most Christians, our faith is under attack.

      September 28, 2010 at 2:10 am |
    • Frogist

      @Larry: You see that is why I have to ask you. Why do you think your faith is under attack? And by whom? I keep hearing these phrases but I don't see it at all. Christianity is alive and well in this country. Unfortunately there are those who do not honor the separation of church and state and wish for christianity to be more of a political force than a spiritual one. I'm just always confused when people make these accusations. I put it down to hyperbole since if they were being attacked churches would be closed en masse, bibles would be outlawed and christians would no longer be able to name themselves publicly. But none of those things seem to be happening. It still seems to be an elite position to call oneself a christian in this country. Do you see something I don't?

      September 28, 2010 at 2:22 am |
  10. Mike

    Education is highly correlated to living in reality... no suprise there. I once saw a preacher on TV who tried to argue that God created fossils to give 'the appearance of antiquity' to the planet. The fantasies these people come up with so that they can continue to live in ignorance.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:52 am |
    • steven harnack

      How about the ones who seriously believe that satan put fossils here to confuse the faithful?

      September 28, 2010 at 1:41 am |
  11. Doug

    9 out of 10 by the way. It always amazes me that three of the worlds major religions,Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, whom by the way share the same God. Having been fighting each other for centuries and in God's name. God must have a perverse sense of humor to allow so much killing in his name. Maybe it's time to move into a more sensible secular world of respect for the individual instead of the dogma.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:52 am |
  12. yousifer

    10/10. Can I claim an 11/10 on this one because I noticed that the Indonesian Muslim question shows a Hindu shrine as the graphic that pops up with the answer?

    September 28, 2010 at 12:51 am |
  13. Jim J

    Religion belongs in a museum.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:51 am |
  14. Dave

    You got it wrong, CNN. Americans have a low IQ about everything, not just about religion. Unless your quiz is on celebrity gossip, football, beer or the 99 cent menu at McDonald's the general public is always going to disappoint you.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:50 am |
    • Crimson

      Yet we continue to make the claim that we're the 'greatest country in the world.' There are times when it just seems like a losing battle to be considered an intelligent, well-rounded and healthy american. Too many stereotypes working against us.

      September 28, 2010 at 9:33 am |
  15. Jim

    My dad always told religious proselytizers at his door that he would give them 30 minutes to explain why their religion is best for him if he could have 30 minutes to explain why his religion is best for them. No one ever took him up on the offer.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:49 am |
    • TM

      Cool dad! For the JWs, I ask exactly how many people will be raised into heaven (one thousand gross), and if they are aware that this number exceeds the current population of JWs (tens of millions).

      September 28, 2010 at 12:55 am |
  16. John

    8/10, I missed the one about the supreme court allowing the bible to be used as a literary example, and the begining of the Jewish sabbath (forgot that jewish days begin at sundown, and I should know better). I'm one of Jehovah's Witnesses and spend 50 + hrs a month talking to people about the bible, and listening to how they feel about it. I'm not out to convert people, that is what the knights of the crusades and the conquestadors did. I aim to teach people about what the bible truly says, and have learned one thing while doing this. People who have actually sat down and read, and then meditated on what is contained in the scripture's....regardless of their beliefs.....are few and far between. the same can be said of the holy books and people of other religons. Church has become more of a social club and a "scene" then a place of worship and understanding. The results of a quiz like this will reflect that, do I aim to insult and put people down. No. This is just what I have encountered. Take it for what it is worth, weather you like witnesses or not.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:49 am |
    • shecky

      i have several friends in various locations that are 'witnesses'. i also understand that meditating on a topic leads to circular logic patterns.they are still my friends.

      October 3, 2010 at 2:38 am |
  17. Shawn

    How come they didn't ask any questions about the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

    September 28, 2010 at 12:49 am |
    • peace2all

      @Shawn

      RE: "Flying Spaghetti Monster"... exactly...!!! 🙂

      Peace...

      September 28, 2010 at 1:20 am |
    • Rob2112

      I was thinking the same thing - the Flying Spaghetti Monster really warrants a question here!

      September 28, 2010 at 9:41 am |
  18. G

    Atheist: Score 10/10. Thank you very much. If only the religious would actually READ and COMPREHEND their religious texts, they might become more aware and realize it is all a load of fictional bunk.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:48 am |
  19. ryan

    it's important to know, at the very least, the basic tenets of all the world's religions. They are an integral part of most cultures and the more you understand them, the more you understand why various groups behave and react they way they do. Also, it's good to know where the low IQ populations are concentrated.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:48 am |
  20. Jessica

    Atheist. 9/10

    September 28, 2010 at 12:48 am |
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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.