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. Praetorian

    I think that the reason why those who adhere to the less tolerant faiths don't do as well on a quiz such as this is because the more you know about a given faith, the less easy it is to condemn it and its followers. Those who take the time to learn about other faiths realize that they are different but valid ways of looking after one's spiritual health, so to speak.

    September 28, 2010 at 6:45 am |
  2. Andy

    All thinking men are atheists- Ernest Hemmingway

    September 28, 2010 at 6:45 am |
  3. keith

    No surprise here. The reason people become agnostics or atheists is becasue they think about things. Blind faith just doesn't satisfy their brains.

    September 28, 2010 at 6:45 am |
  4. Reality

    Only for the those interested in a religious update:

    1. origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482

    New Torah For Modern Minds

    Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

    Such startling propositions - the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years - have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity - until now.

    The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life" in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine docu-ment.

    2. Jesus was an illiterate Jewish peasant/carpenter/simple preacher man who suffered from hallucinations and who has been characterized anywhere from the Messiah from Nazareth to a mythical character from mythical Nazareth to a ma-mzer from Nazareth (Professor Bruce Chilton, in his book Rabbi Jesus). An-alyses of Jesus’ life by many contemporary NT scholars (e.g. Professors Crossan, Borg and Fredriksen, ) via the NT and related doc-uments have concluded that only about 30% of Jesus' sayings and ways noted in the NT were authentic. The rest being embellishments (e.g. miracles)/hallucinations made/had by the NT authors to impress various Christian, Jewish and Pagan se-cts.

    The 30% of the NT that is "authentic Jesus" like everything in life was borrowed/plagiarized and/or improved from those who came before. In Jesus' case, it was the ways and sayings of the Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Hit-ti-tes, Canaanites, OT, John the Baptizer and possibly the ways and sayings of traveling Greek Cynics.


    For added "pizz-azz", Catholic theologians divided god the singularity into three persons and invented atonement as an added guilt trip for the "pew people" to go along with this trinity of overseers. By doing so, they made god the padre into god the "fil-icider".

    Current RCC problems:

    Pedo-ph-iliac priests, an all-male, mostly white hierarchy, atonement theology and original sin!!!!

    3. Luther, Calvin, Joe Smith, Henry VIII, Wesley, Roger Williams, the Great “Babs” et al, founders of Christian-based religions or combination religions also suffered from the belief in/hallucinations of "pretty wingie thingie" visits and "prophecies" for profits analogous to the myths of Catholicism (resurrections, apparitions, ascensions and immacu-late co-nceptions).

    Current problems:

    Adu-lterous preachers, "propheteering/ profiteering" evangelicals and atonement theology,

    4. Mohammed was an illiterate, womanizing, lust and greed-driven, warmongering, hallucinating Arab, who also had embellishing/hallucinating/plagiarizing scribal biographers who not only added "angels" and flying chariots to the koran but also a militaristic agenda to support the plundering and looting of the lands of non-believers.

    This agenda continues as shown by the ma-ssacre in Mumbai, the as-sas-sinations of Bhutto and Theo Van Gogh, the conduct of the seven Muslim doctors in the UK, the 9/11 terrorists, the 24/7 Sunni suicide/roadside/market/mosque bombers, the 24/7 Shiite suicide/roadside/market/mosque bombers, the Islamic bombers of the trains in the UK and Spain, the Bali crazies, the Kenya crazies, the Pakistani “koranics”, the Palestine suicide bombers/rocketeers, the Lebanese nutcases, the Taliban nut jobs, the Ft. Hood follower of the koran, and the Filipino “koranics”.

    And who funds this muck and stench of terror? The warmongering, Islamic, Shiite terror and torture theocracy of Iran aka the Third Axis of Evil and also the Sunni "Wannabees" of Saudi Arabia.

    Current crises:

    The Sunni-Shiite blood feud and the warmongering, womanizing (11 wives), hallucinating founder.

    5. Hinduism (from an online Hindu site) – "Hinduism cannot be described as an organized religion. It is not founded by any individual. Hinduism is God centered and therefore one can call Hinduism as founded by God, because the answer to the question ‘Who is behind the eternal principles and who makes them work?’ will have to be ‘Cosmic power, Divine power, God’."

    The caste/laborer system, reincarnation and cow worship/reverence are problems when saying a fair and rational God founded Hinduism."

    Current crises:

    The caste system and cow worship/reverence.

    6. Buddhism- "Buddhism began in India about 500 years before the birth of Christ. The people living at that time had become disillusioned with certain beliefs of Hinduism including the caste system, which had grown extremely complex. The number of outcasts (those who did not belong to any particular caste) was continuing to grow."
    "However, in Buddhism, like so many other religions, fanciful stories arose concerning events in the life of the founder, Siddhartha Gautama (fifth century B.C.):"

    Archaeological discoveries have proved, beyond a doubt, his historical character, but apart from the legends we know very little about the circu-mstances of his life. e.g. Buddha by one legend was supposedly talking when he came out of his mother's womb.

    Bottom line: There are many good ways of living but be aware of the hallucinations, embellishments, lies, and myths surrounding the founders and foundations of said rules of life.

    Then, apply the Five F rule: "First Find the Flaws, then Fix the Foundations". And finally there will be religious peace and religious awareness in the world!!!!!

    September 28, 2010 at 6:45 am |
  5. name

    It is interesting that this is supposed to be a quiz of Bible knowledge, but very few questions were actually about the Bible. There is no mention of Luther, Mother Theresa, or Smith in the Bible. If you want to have a quiz about the Bible, ask Bible questions.

    September 28, 2010 at 6:44 am |
    • Rick

      Who said that this is supposed to be a quiz of Bible knowledge? Or are you equating Bible = religion? If so, then you're illustrating the point of this article perfectly.

      September 28, 2010 at 8:52 am |
  6. Joseph

    It isn't a surprise that atheists and agnostics did best. The more you know about religion, the more obviously revolting it is.

    September 28, 2010 at 6:44 am |
  7. Mark

    "Those that hold strongly to their beliefs tend to have little understanding of what they believe. " This is so true. People that hold on tightly to their beliefs are not going to seek out those bits of information that may upset the apple care of belief. This has been my experience with people. Instead we seek out those bits of information that confirm our beliefs, that stroke our ego.

    September 28, 2010 at 6:43 am |
  8. Vlad

    And the fool said into his heart, there is not God!

    September 28, 2010 at 6:41 am |
    • Joseph

      Yes, but which god are we talking about? There are many older than your own, worshiped by civilizations that predate Biblical creation. I imagine you dismiss them out of hand. Trouble is, any argument you use against the gods of others can be used against your own.

      September 28, 2010 at 6:46 am |
  9. Random Commenter

    Agnostic scoring 10/10 and chuckling at all the self-proclaimed 'atheist' zealots who are acting as intolerant as the religious they accuse of being the same (note that doesn't apply to every atheist in this thread.

    Doesn't matter if it's a God or a Flying Spaghetti Monster or the non-belief of either, a zealously and violently held belief is a dangerous thing. Let the zealous atheists in this thread show as much proof of that as their fanatical religious counterparts. Far too many atheists believe in a non-existence of god/divinity rather than simply disbelieve in god/divinity, and this is an important distinction to be made insofar as how it affects their behavior.

    Acceptance springs forth from questioning, open minds, regardless of belief.

    September 28, 2010 at 6:37 am |
  10. Guest

    So, you morons know absolutely nothing about the religions you profess to follow? Quelle surprise,

    September 28, 2010 at 6:35 am |
  11. Justina

    I think the issue here is American public's general knowledge and education level, though I doubt other nations can do any better. Atheists and agnostics may slightly know more than other kinds, but they are utterly hopeless as they willfully attack the very conscience of human civilizations, namely Christianity. They need to know knowing without being good is nothing.

    September 28, 2010 at 6:35 am |
  12. johnharry

    i am only an atheist until Christmas time. i like getting prezzies!!!

    September 28, 2010 at 6:35 am |
  13. Zaza

    10 out of 10, and an Orthodox Christian. Plus, I'm a student of anthropology. Science and belief can co-exist, at least for me. PS- I don't mind what anyone believes.

    September 28, 2010 at 6:33 am |
  14. vick

    CNN.com isn't much better than 50% of Americans. Question asks about the major religion of Indonesia- the answer is correct Islam, however a picture of Ganesh(a Hindu God) appears. Way to go CNN.com! point proven!

    September 28, 2010 at 6:30 am |
  15. Piobair

    The results aren't very surprising for a nation whose primary method of learning about other countries, cultures, and ethnicities is by bombing them.

    September 28, 2010 at 6:29 am |
  16. flooby

    I believe in Bugs Bunny and Santa Claus too.

    September 28, 2010 at 6:25 am |
  17. jfjlksdjdf

    if u have high iq in religion then ur a retard

    September 28, 2010 at 6:22 am |
  18. TB

    Sounds like some people have been sleeping through Sunday school.

    September 28, 2010 at 6:22 am |
  19. Piobair

    Q: "What is the religion of most people in Indonesia?"
    A: Muslim
    Picture in background; altar to Ganesh.

    September 28, 2010 at 6:19 am |
  20. Catie

    I got 9 out of 10. Not bad for a Catholic 😉

    September 28, 2010 at 6:18 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.