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. Sybaris

    Once again proving that Atheists know more about why they don't believe than the sheeple know why they do.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:23 am |
  2. erth

    is this why the republicans go after the religious right?

    new slogan,
    Vote Republican, because we know you aren't that smart!

    September 28, 2010 at 7:23 am |
  3. elgeevz

    At age ten, I joined a Baptist church and set about to improve my life by reading the Bible. But instead of following the pastor's "sugested readings for the week," I started with Genesis 1,1 and read straight through, just as if I were reading a novel. When, some months later, I got to Numbers 31, I was so appalled that I stopped - both reading and going to church.
    In my opinion, the gods were created by men seeking to dominate their brothers and to justify their evil deeds.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:22 am |
  4. Christian

    This was a bit too easy. I admit I missed one, but the question had to do with the Courts and religion and not religion.
    They must have asked the questions in California.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:22 am |
  5. CosmicC

    I was an observant Jew, but am now an affirmative atheist. I do not lack a belief. I actively believe there is no god. I attend a Unitarian Universalist church, along with many other atheists, where my children received an education that includes comparative religions. Through this process they are expected to make an informed decision about what they believe. In the end they both came out deists. I came to my beliefs on my own through much thought and research. Raising my kids as UU's allowed them to go through the same process I did; only not on their own. I'm sure they'd both ace this quiz. Most importantly, they learned to respect other beliefs, even if they don't share them.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:22 am |
  6. Brian

    Our public schools at work

    September 28, 2010 at 7:21 am |
  7. Beware_of_God

    I not only earned a graduate degree, but have studied to some degree all of the major religions of the world. The more I learned the less and less religious I have become. I am now an atheist. However, as I have gotten older I have understood and accepted the need of ignorant people to believe in something like God and religion to give them some meaning to the suffering and hardships of life. The sad thing is that the very thing that gives them some comfort and meaning to their lives is the very thing that keeps them in the dark and separates and divides the human race into waring factions. If only people really understood and could live as John Lennon's song Imagine states. Unfortunately, no religion wants to set its people free, to think independently and intelligently. They need to control them with fear, fantasy, and promises of some eternal afterlife. After all, who wouldn't want to live forever.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:21 am |

    I AGREE SO MUCH with this article..........WE AS AMERICANS ARE NOT EDUCATED ENOUGH, AND NOT WORLDLY ENOUGH, lets fix this! basic knowledge of all religions should be taught in high school with proper courses so that adults can grow up with a bit of respect for what is important to others.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:19 am |
  9. Mary

    As an ex-Catholic agnostic, I scored 10 out of 10. I also live in the South where I am sickened by the lack of bibilcal knowledge of the so-called "Christians." I have absolutely no problem with anyone's religion and I respect thoughtrul, knowledgeable and informed Christians. What truly offends me (and is not worthy of my respect) is the bible-thumpers who don't actually know what's in the Bible.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:19 am |
  10. Joe

    Why should I care? Religion is a choice. It should not be forced upon anyone for any reason. Believe what you wish. Just keep me out of it. It certainly does not belong in our schools. Schools are for facts, not once upon a time fairy tales.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:19 am |
  11. godsofwar

    These Hard Core cult followers of man made religions have been the bane of existence in this planet.

    Here is a Pastor's weekend schedule:

    Morning Routine: Eat some cruelty farmed hot dogs and Commercial milk and drive the SUV to church
    After Noon Lunch: GMO Corn with grilled steak followed by hunting ( killing some animals for fun )
    Evening: Mow the lawns, water , spay around some pesticides . Do your bit to please god
    Night: Molest a 15 year old boy.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:15 am |
  12. Petey

    That test was a dawdle. If Americans kids are getting less than 9 of 10 on that thing, it's a testament to why America is getting its backside botted around by European and Asian kids.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:14 am |
  13. G

    Another article bashing Christians. Last week it was the push on the Pope, then it was followed by heart-warming almost mythicial Jewish stories, of course related to the Jewish Holocaust.

    Boy the hands of God are at work here me thinks blessing the chosen ones again. Miraculous

    September 28, 2010 at 7:14 am |
  14. Guido

    Of course atheists performed better. Anyone who actually knows anything about religion knows it is all nonsense.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:13 am |
  15. TH

    We atheists are generally well educated, but clearly lacking any backbone to step out in to the mainstream. They hit the nail on the head, being atheist is unpopular. I couldn't be elected to the city dog catching post if I were out of the closet. Times are changing though...for the better. Our kids will have an open mind, and be encouraged to follow the path they choose.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:13 am |
  16. Katie

    Extremely easy quiz, but I can understand why people who consider themselves religious don't know the answers. The righteously religious – the ones who yell the loudest about religion – are fairly narrow-minded. The quietly religious – the REAL Christians (following Christ's message of tolerance and love) and the calm, peaceful followers of other religions – don't feel the constant need to convert other people or to belittle or suppress or even hate them to make themselves feel better. Teaching religion in school is not a bad idea, but it'll never happen objectively. Too many fanatics in this country.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:12 am |
  17. Tina

    Religion is just made up. God is no more real than Dora!

    September 28, 2010 at 7:08 am |
    • Geoffrey Sperl

      DORA'S NOT REAL?!?

      What a way to start one's day...

      September 28, 2010 at 7:28 am |
    • Tina

      You can't be serious. If you believe Dora is real you're even more nuts!

      September 28, 2010 at 8:13 am |
  18. sw6blues

    A lot of people might not like it, but i think along with mandatory general "Life Skills" courses (how to balance your checkbook, basic mechanical repair and clothes mending skills etc), I believe that multi-religious education courses should be taught in high school. A course that highlights the world's major religions and the concepts of atheism and agnosticism. In this regard a student can go out into the world a thinker of each religious faith and make his own choices on where he wants to go in life; whether it be as a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Agnostic or what have you. Being able to compare and contrast each faith and see how similar they are (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) and how different they are from each other can put into perspective what each means to each particular student. It also helps to know more about things you're not familiar with for the simple benefit of being able to discuss it with others.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:07 am |
  19. Atheist

    How in the world is it shocking that atheists know the most about religion?

    Anyone who lives in the U.S. can vouch for the fact that there is a constant stream of religious propaganda being pushed on people from the day they're born.

    Those of us who dared to think for ourselves have obviously done a lot of soul searching prior to defying such a prevalent epidemic in this country.

    Religion? Really? I mean REALLY?

    September 28, 2010 at 7:05 am |
  20. janet walsh

    Interesting. I'm 65 and scored 10/10. Raised catholic but left the church in my 40s. I learned what I know about other religions from reading, being informed and talking to friends of all religions. My 12 years of catholic school taught me nothing about other reigions (except that they were wrong, catholicism was the "only true religion" and we prayed for them to leave their ways and convert to our religion – I am sooooo glad that I grew up and left that cult). Any religion or belief that paints itself as being the one "true" faith is selling snake oil. The deity (or deities) are too big for one religion. Believe or not as you choose – just don't try to force your beliefs on others. The founding fathers knew that.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:05 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.