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. Keith

    Ok, so I spotted two problems with the quiz.

    While the Jewish holy day technically begins on Friday it is more frequently identified with Saturday because it begins at sundown, and the prescript against working holds on Saturday, not Friday.

    As for the picture associated with question #8, it shows Hindus praying in traditional Indian garb, not Muslims at all. Shame on CNN for conflating the two.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:05 am |
  2. Brett Favre's fan (a.k.a. ybs)

    "All" religions are one big pile of dung surrounded by sheep that pontificate about its virtue or lack thereof! Most are still trying to justify having eaten it!


    September 28, 2010 at 2:03 am |
  3. DN3

    I'm surprised that they broke it down by race, although to me it just says that whites have more access to education and more role models than the other two communities.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:00 am |
  4. aaarrghhh

    Feeling proud about answering 10 out of 10?

    Ummm, people who took the quiz – you do realize you only answered only 10 of the 32 questions that were on the full quiz??? You do know that, right??? No, I didn't think so. Not only do people fail or barely pass the questionnaire, they can barely read or comprehend the written article staring them in the face... I guess it's back to basic education boys and girls.

    BTW I failed one of the questions from the article – I never ever heard of Maimonides and had to Google that one.

    Equating religion knowledge with the level of general knowledge doesn't surprise me but how about asking a few questions like "quote me John 3:16" Surely, you've seen enough sports on TV to memorize that verse... 🙁

    The full questionnaire can be found here, replete with instructions for the interviewers. NOW TELL ME YOUR SCORE – AND BE HONEST!

    September 28, 2010 at 2:00 am |
    • Jennie

      Christian in NC. I got all 32 of them correct.

      September 28, 2010 at 4:23 am |
  5. daniel

    99.9 percent of the world and religious leaders still cant get the 10 question test right about the laws of God. Plug the word Sabbath into word definition for the meaning and compare it to how everyone observes it. then remember that if you break one commandment you fail the test. Failure is the wages of death. Food for thought you born agains lol have a nice day

    September 28, 2010 at 1:58 am |
  6. Chris

    We've known this for years, those who lack a general education tend to narrowly believe in just a few things and don't question them to much. Those who have studied widely tend to be skeptical of everything, religion included. Education teaches one critical thinking and to question everything. Of course there are counter examples but we are talking about statistical results of a survey.

    What they say is that, in general people's knowledge and skepticism about religion matches their general level of knowledge and skepticism

    September 28, 2010 at 1:57 am |
  7. Mark

    I was taking the quiz, I got 9/10 (I missed the question about the most popular religion in Indonesia), and I would actually object to the question about Joseph Smith. *Spoiler Alert for anyone who hasn't taken the quiz.

    The question was Joseph Smith was a ...? The "correct" answer from the quiz was "Mormon." From a scholarly point of view that is actually not true. Joseph Smith never called himself a Mormon, that is a derogatory name given to him by those who thought he was a false prophet.

    Mormon is a ancient prophet of God that lived somewhere in the Americas around 400 AD. Mormon abridged the records of his people, the Nephites, which was later given to Joesph Smith to translate into English. Joesph Smith was not Mormon. The question in the quiz would be like saying, " the Pope is literally Peter," or "that a Rabbi is literally Moses."

    I really only point this out because the whole point of the article is about knowing the doctrines of different religions, and the quiz itself doesn't even score 100% accuracy. I still think the point of the article is valid, and was a very interesting read. Also congratulations to all those scoring a perfect 10 on the quiz.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:55 am |
    • asrael

      That's OK: the early Christians didn't call themselves Christians, either...

      September 28, 2010 at 5:28 am |
    • Fernando F.

      the question for Joseph Smith: "what was his religion?" .... I thought it meant "originally". Smith establish the Mormon Religion but the "was" in the question is ambiguous to me. Smith had to have a religion before he "invented" Mormonism 🙂

      September 28, 2010 at 9:48 am |
    • mike

      So, by the same logic, Christ wasn't Christian because he never called himself Christian?

      September 29, 2010 at 8:48 am |
  8. Beeeeeeeeeeeee

    Not a surprise at all. And nobody needs to be told that southerners = retards. It's pretty lulzworthy, nonetheless.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:55 am |
  9. Mike Johnson

    How is it possible for peopel to be so friggin stupid. They should not be allowed to vote .. period .. they are idiots if they did not get that quiz 90% right

    September 28, 2010 at 1:54 am |
  10. ryo

    Ya Mormons and Jews represent!

    September 28, 2010 at 1:53 am |
  11. Anonymous

    Oh brother. Here CNN goes again...fanning the flames of religous devide. Enough already CNN! Enough!

    September 28, 2010 at 1:51 am |
    • Beeeeeeeeeeeee


      September 28, 2010 at 1:56 am |
  12. whitekong

    You are a bad christian. Carl's Jr. Is now your God!

    September 28, 2010 at 1:50 am |
    • Rick

      Would people living in areas where Carl's Jr is Hardees be heretics?

      September 28, 2010 at 8:32 am |
  13. Noah

    Yeah, Take that you right wing morons

    September 28, 2010 at 1:50 am |
  14. Mike Johnson

    "Americas' religious IQ is lacking" ... ? ... the correct headline should be "Americans' IQ is lacking" ... we are truly the new pollacks.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:49 am |
    • Sloppy J

      Right . . because I'm sure if you plucked the average man on the street from Tokyo, Moscow, Sydney, Johannesburg or anywhere else they'd display encyclopedic knowledge of all world religions. Every country has its ignorant masses. That's why they're called "masses."

      September 28, 2010 at 10:52 am |
  15. Lars J

    Nothing in the study surprises most active and educated American Christians. The phenomena is similar in other cultures and other religions. Simply stated, most people the world over identify themselves with the dominant religion of their culture. They are "cultural" Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and even atheists, in the case of former and current communist and secular countries. But most of all, they are human. Which means that in spite of their ignorance of their professed religion, they zealously hold to their faiths even though they might not be able to give an informed reason why. For example, I live in Idaho which has a large Mormon population. I have had Mormons work for me who knew far less about their theology and history than I did, ye† fervently hold their beliefs as precious to them. I am sure one would find the same true of any world-wide religion. A minority have studied and come to various conclusions for themselves. The rest drift along – satisfied with a superficial knowledge of what they supposedly believe.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:48 am |
    • Sloppy J

      Very true, Lars J . . religion is mostly about belonging to a social club for most people, even though those same people would vigorously deny this and assert their literal belief in things they can hardly articulate. It takes a certain mindset and a lot of guts to even internally question what you've been brought up believing. If you had a happy home and your parents were part of a particular church, you'd really, REALLY have to be bothered by the illogic of it all to actually leave. Which of us don't choose to believe little lies that fit with our worldview? Even the atheist/agnostic with three PhD's has some silly stuff buried under their skull.

      I don't claim to be above this . . I'm a lifelong Mormon and adhere to all (errr, most) of the quirky little doctrines, despite realizing how goofy the whole thing is when taken literally. Fact is, I'm better off as a person for the choices my religion has led me to, and my family's better off. To stand up, publicly declare my issues with the illogic of the whole thing, and leave the church would shatter my parents and extended family. Why would I do that? To satisfy some sense of intellectual superiority? Pass. I'm content knowing my silly, cultish beliefs are no sillier than those of Evangelicals, or Catholics, or Muslims, or JW's, etc, etc.

      September 28, 2010 at 10:48 am |
  16. joe

    Jesus can beat up Muhammad. I also booked passage to Kolob, The Mormon Home World, instead of Florida this winter.
    Maybe you just got mad. Maybe you just smiled. Whatever the case...Lighten up.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:45 am |
  17. Lisalc


    September 28, 2010 at 1:44 am |
  18. Wilbur

    Jeff – you forgot Scientology

    September 28, 2010 at 1:43 am |
  19. catlover8367

    And yeah, kids get cancer because of "the sins of the parents." You are insane and dangerous.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:43 am |
  20. row, row, row your boat....

    I took the short bus to mass yesterday and now I'm starting to doubt my own existence. Grandma is dead and we can all quit pretending already.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:43 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.