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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 • Faith Now • Islam • Judaism • Mormonism • United States

soundoff (1,855 Responses)
  1. phil

    It's not easy to believe in someone or something that can't literally be seen or heard. If takes a lot of personal study and thought. The idea of blind faith is laughable. Fortunatly, there is a plethora of evidence wherein the truth can be found. Until one ivestigates thouroughly, one remains blind. Not to mention how devastating contempt prior to investigation can be on the human brain.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:06 am |
  2. lisation

    as agnostic, I will just click my home button, oh and btw, 10/10 on that quiz =]

    September 28, 2010 at 1:06 am |
  3. Shelly Man

    It makes sense that atheists and agnostics are the most knowledgable. The more you read the bible, the more you realize how screwed up religion is. Religion is for ignorant people. They just listen to the priest or preacher and do what he or she tell them.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:06 am |
    • Tora

      Another 10/10 strong atheist here. Then again, I have a degree in theology and trained to be a religious education teacher back home (UK). You're right. Most atheists I know have read and analysed the bible, as well as numerous other religious texts (in translation). Theology interests me...religion and belief does not.

      September 28, 2010 at 2:18 am |
  4. Betsy

    Wow, 10/10.

    James, grammar only exists in your mind.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:04 am |
  5. The Atheist

    Many studies have shown that the more religious you are the lower your IQ. Atleast 4 studies have proved this, so its no surprise that the religous lack knowledge of what they believe in.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:04 am |
  6. RVW51

    We should be far more concerned that Americans can't find the USA on a world map, that they think "news" mean what's the latest on Jay-Lo or Paris Hilton, and that ever more and more don't know what 7 x 9 = without a calculator... and we wonder why this country is headed towards 3rd world status.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:04 am |
  7. Larry

    Talk about ignorance! Does anyone not see the obvious problems with this "test" that make it about as meaningful as a blop of mud in the Missisippi River? This is a problem with America – we take anything at face value and go with the argument – not even thinking that the premise of the issue may be false. Waiting 'in expectation 'til Christ comes. Praying in the meantime for us to wake up as a nation.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:03 am |
    • steven harnack

      You forgot to explain the "obvious problem" with this test! Now I think that the obvious problem with this test, for you, was that you got 0/10?

      September 28, 2010 at 1:50 am |
  8. Aaron

    I do have one question that has always puzzeled me. Why do the Protestant always ask Catholics why they see Mary as someone special? It just seems kind of funny to me that if you believe in Jesus and the whole virgin birth, she'd be pretty damn high up there if God picked her.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:03 am |
  9. HereticX

    All religions are vehicles of control and essentially ancient 'political' movements preying on people who have a primal fear of the after life. So if you get to 'heaven', what will you do for eternity? Pray? It's a moot point then, isn't it? What has Jesus, Mohammed, your ancestors, anybody, been doing in heaven all this time? They certainly aren't answering prayers for world peace, and end to hunger, end to disease, an end to slavery, an end to torture.... If any religion is right, why doesn't it work? Where is the love? Religions are all about fear fear fear, and no salvation without fear fear fear.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:03 am |
  10. Ed

    Well, I got 10 for 10...so....next!

    September 28, 2010 at 1:02 am |
  11. macguysea

    There is a CLEAR separation of Church and State. RESPECT IT!

    September 28, 2010 at 1:02 am |
  12. jacob the atheist

    Please tell the pope to keep it out of my pooper

    September 28, 2010 at 1:02 am |
  13. jack

    lol at all the kids showing off they got 10/10

    September 28, 2010 at 1:02 am |
  14. CdnJim

    Studies done in the lae 70's early 80's confirm that people who actively go to church not for the social factors, but rather to seek communion with God among a company of fellow believers, become disillussioned and leave the church in far greater numbers than those who go there primarily as a social group, (friends go there, family go there, habit, social/business contacts.)

    September 28, 2010 at 1:01 am |
  15. Dee Ann

    Also, I find Christ-insanity to be very offensive.

    When Christ-insanes start off with their silly fairy tales I get sick to my stomach, it makes be feel like I'm about to throw up to listen to that BS.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:01 am |
  16. Atheists r stupid

    I got 0/10, there were too many questions about the devil's religion (islam.) What gives CNN? The whole quiz was about Islam? Stupid muslims.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:01 am |
    • Alpha 1

      WHERE IS YOUR CAVE LOCATED? So I can stay far away from you!!

      September 28, 2010 at 12:27 pm |
  17. MojoBlack

    SEE RELIGON IS STUPID AND THOSE WHO BLINDLY FOLLOW SHOULD BE STERALIZED.........

    September 28, 2010 at 12:59 am |
  18. Herb Walker

    If Americans are ignorant re: religion, why doesn't CNN help educate them rather than filling you publications with Sarah Palin stories and encoraging the ignorance and hate?

    September 28, 2010 at 12:59 am |
  19. Russ

    Each Jewish day begins at sundown, so the at Sundown when the Sabbath begins it is already Saturday. The question is poorly worded.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:59 am |
  20. Popepuncher

    9/10 -Satanic Theologist. Thought the Mother Teresa Question was a trick question for some reason lol. American needs to read it's bible and see the disgusting nature of the so called "GOD". Killing thousands of innocent egyptian babies in Exodus for spite, Telling a father to kill his son to prove that he was loyal, flooding the earth to destroy all of us.Creating a child who was born for one reason: TO DIE. Not only die, but be put through the most torture than anyone could bare. I am sure Jesus appreciates all of it.
    Remember America was formed on the one principal that we were given as gift from the rebel angel who knew the truth; FREEDOM! Without the apple, the knowledge, we would not be who we are today... Free.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:58 am |
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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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.