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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. Ruth

    I'm an agnostic and got all of the questions right. I'm not surprised at the results; most agnostics or athiests have arrived at their point of view after rejecting religion, and they've rejected religion after being thoroughly immersed in it at some point.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:22 am |
  2. jesse

    no duh, it's because people want to have others think they are all religious to be respected but they are actually all just hypocrites and don't know crap about either or care for that matter. republicans and religious nuts are all just hypocrites. period!

    September 28, 2010 at 1:22 am |
  3. Jeremy Horne

    10/10 but it was too easy, at least for someone having taken a basic world history or development of civilization course. Too, it was too skewed towards Xianity. I am shocked about Ganesh being depicted about the major religion of Indonesia- talking about perpetrating misinformation. CNN seems to be short in the graphical proofreading department. Maybe the putting the picture there is one of the ones seriously flunking the test. 🙂 What really is needed is for the public schools to be infused with critical thinking across curriculum and philosophy courses. Any decent history of dev civ course should pick up the religion. However, as a number of other posters have said, the general knowledge level in the U.S. is nothing to write home about. It's scary. Check out the National Report Card or the National Science Foundations report on education in the U.S. Do this in the morning, or you won't sleep at night.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:20 am |
  4. MCO2

    Very nice... I got all 10 correct and I don't even believe this stuff. What's wrong with 'believers' who can't get more than half of them right?

    And Jeff... it's true that all religions are cults but Scientology is the most recent one to 'stick'. The Morons... I mean MORMONS predate Scientology by a fair amount. That religion started about 1830 and Scientology began in 1952.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:19 am |
  5. Shawn

    As an Agnostic, I need to point out your question regarding Agnostics is worded incorrectly. An Agnostic is not someone who is "unsure whether god exists." A true Agnostic does not believe in "I don't know" as an answer, an Agnostic believes the answer can never be answered. And in my opinion, the answer is irrelevant. I think a better way to word it would be "an Agnostic believes religion is irrelevant to human existence."

    September 28, 2010 at 1:18 am |
    • lisation

      I think its more like, some agnostics, are using that term in different ways, for me its just that I dont know if god exist or not, there is no prof at all, so why would I believe it ? Just because some books or 2000 years ago someone said so doesn't make it truth. I like word to be backed with facts, in this case its impossible, but on the other hand I understand people who believe, I know it helps them to have faith, in many ways. For me, well I will have to find out after I die –dont I ? 😉

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

    I just took the test and got 9 out of 10. I guessed Sunday was start of the Sabbath, my first guess was Friday but i second-guessed and picked Sunday. Damn my instincts!

    That being said, I'm not religious at all!!!! WHY DO I KNOW ALL THIS RELIGIOUS BS!

    September 28, 2010 at 1:18 am |
  7. One Spirit

    The quiz preparers are the ones who are displaying their lack of knowledge about religion. For question 8, the answer is that Indonesia is primarily a Muslim country, yet the background image is of some Hindus worshipping Ganesha, the Elephant God.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:17 am |
  8. FictionFriction

    Atheist here with a score of 10 out of 10 and finished it in less than a minute. No lie. Those questions in the "quiz" above are embarrassingly easy. Suck it, delusional whackos.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:17 am |
  9. Natal

    Wow...I'm an atheist and I still got everything right.

    I guess ignorance of religion is a prerequisite for being religious!!

    Lol!

    September 28, 2010 at 1:16 am |
  10. Alan

    Are any of these revelations a surprise to anyone? The facts speak to a pretty terrifying facet of American socio-political "culture," but at this point they aren't exactly revolutionary.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:15 am |
  11. peace2all

    10 out of 10.... O.K......

    Peace.....

    September 28, 2010 at 1:15 am |
  12. Corinthia

    Got them all, but then I am not Christian, just educated.
    Drives me nuts when some one wants "to witness" me, and they don't know the bible a fraction as well as I do,
    what they believe rarely has anything to do with the new testament.

    For starters when did the "Prince of Peace", become the God of War??? Only "Christian" solider believe this, but anyone who's read the gospels and think you can be a solider and a Christian, needs to go back and read the gossips. And remember if you a christian, then the Old Testament is not were it is at, only the gossips – the words of Christ.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:13 am |
  13. Scott

    This survey certainly doesn't suprise me. Very few of the religous, if any can practice what they preach. Just ask forgiveness on sunday...........

    September 28, 2010 at 1:12 am |
  14. Victoria Ferris

    I'm calling bull sh!t on this survey–If you actually take the survey and answer the questions, it shows that evangelical Christians–people who read and study the Bible, and are ready to give an answer for their faith–scored higher on the questions than athiests and agnostics. Well, DUH?? However, if you read the article, it seems VERY different; it seems to make Christians appear ignorant of their own faith, let alone the faith of others. BTW–I scored 100%

    September 28, 2010 at 1:11 am |
    • Frogist

      @Victoria: Can you point to a link for your assertions? The article is saying the exact opposite of what you are claiming.

      September 28, 2010 at 2:07 am |
    • Frogist

      @Veronica: Nevermind! I found what you were talking about here:
      http://pewforum.org/Other-Beliefs-and-Practices/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey.aspx
      And it does say that evangelicals score high on their own religion but not as high as Mormons who know more about the bible and christianity than evangelicals apparently. However overall, they still rank as lower in total religious knowledge than atheists, mormons and jews.

      September 28, 2010 at 2:15 am |
  15. snwomack

    how old is scientology?

    September 28, 2010 at 1:11 am |
    • Rick

      Founded in 1953.

      September 28, 2010 at 8:13 am |
  16. joe

    Did you ever play a game at a party where you line up and repeat a sentence from person to person and it gets all screwed up? What do you think happened to the Bible after 2000 years, obsolete languages, numerous reprinting, and an update called "New"? Think something might have been lost somewhere along the way?

    September 28, 2010 at 1:11 am |
  17. Aaron

    One thing i notice often on these posts is atheists are often as intolerant as every religious belief. To me, it doesn't matter what religion you are, but one thing I can't stand with most people that claim to be religious is they talk the talk but never walk the walk. Charity seems to be converting more than helping, and I think an atheist probably feels more spiritual helping someone than any Christian does when so-called spreading the word.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:11 am |
    • Alan

      You have to understand the extent to which religion affects our lives against our will. It's absolutely ruining this country – I have absolutely no problem with privately religious folks. I don't know any atheist who does.

      September 28, 2010 at 1:18 am |
    • Aaron

      Well, that being said, I understand your feelings. Just when words like "all" are used and a generalization is put on all religions by some I find it often offensive. But again, I understand and find it more than annoying to when someone tries to save or convert me, etc. I've grew up Catholic and there some things I like, and some things I hate about the church, but when other Christian religious types attack, I jump all over them and there ignorance of Christianity's history. I also like how non-clerics are ready to spread the word like the rest of the world is some primative tribe. I think in these modern times, people know their choices and can find their way to a church, synagogue, mosque, etc. So if you really want to find God, how about fixing up a playground or something.

      September 28, 2010 at 1:40 am |
  18. Rock God

    I got 10 out of 10 on this easy quiz. America is becoming an Idiocracy.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:10 am |
    • manyidiots

      We are already there. I'm quite happily married but wouldn't dream of bringing children into this silly world. I'm surprised most people remember to breathe. Spouting catch phrases, watching sports and eating factory food is no way to live.

      September 28, 2010 at 8:33 am |
    • Frogist

      @manyidiots: If you consider yourself smart but don't want to spread your dna by "bringing children into this silly world" then the idjits will take us over soon. Breed, man! Breed!

      September 29, 2010 at 1:21 pm |
  19. jacob the atheist

    "I am sofa king we Todd did" thus spake the flock

    September 28, 2010 at 1:10 am |
    • ShowyourFace

      Another smarty pants atheist... love it!

      September 28, 2010 at 10:40 am |
  20. Richard

    Wow. Another couple of articles like this on the front page of CNN and I think I'm done. If I wanted mindless garbage like this I'd check out Fox news.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:09 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.