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. Scott

    Well, really, we just need to realize that religion is just a matter of faith. I was raised agnostic, and am still a settled freethinker. I lean towards the God doesn't exist end, but I won't say it is irrefutable fact, because it isn't. It is simply what I believe to be true; just a hypothesis, an educated guess. I don't believe there will be an afterlife, because I think that the human conscience is entirely a function of the brain. When we lose consciousness from a head injury, we stop thinking and feeling. There is nothing, just blackness. Well, sometimes we dream. I imagine that is what death is like, but without the dreaming. I don't believe souls exist, conscious or feeling, and I don't believe in the concept of divine retribution and judgment as a consequence.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:39 am |
  2. Terry T

    Since religion is not a necessity for making a living, I don't see why time and money was waasted on a survey at all. If someone wants a religious education, there are morre than enough churches and schools that cater to that type of "knowledge". I would like to see more math, english, science and phyical activity in schools rather than anything about the Bible. By the way I'm NOT an atheist, I believe in God. I don't believe in churches and organized religions that constantly try to force people around to their way of "believing". I believe in freedom of religion, and that includes MY way of worship too. It's just that my way doesn't involve paying some self proclaimed demi-god to tell me what to think and do.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:37 am |
  3. Bruce

    see http://www.zeitgeistmovie.com (2007) for a thinking person's version of how religion is just one big game of telephone
    an eye opener for me

    September 28, 2010 at 7:36 am |
  4. drchronicusa

    Most religions ask one to believe things which are contrary to our intelligence and knowledge.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:35 am |
  5. Melissa

    This test is inaccurate... The article should be base on how well do you know the bible. NOT religion. There are a million religions out there who cares who founded what who cares what religion mother Theresa was that has nothing to do with bible teaching..... We shouldn't be concerned about religion. We should be concern with applying bible principles to our lives.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:34 am |
  6. Paul Steele

    I scored 10 out of 10 on the quiz and I'm an atheist, but I don't consider that a factor in my score. I happen to be somewhat of a news junkie which helps keep me current and have always liked history. Religion is just another part of our world history. Prior to Christ and Mohammed most of the world at that time followed other religions, often multi theistic religions like those that existed in the Roman and Egyptian empires. It seems pretty obvious that humans created god to explain the unexplainable and as a way to exert power/control over the population. Over the millienia, religions have come and gone and I suspect when the opportunity arises, another human/humans will invent yet another religion for their own purposes, and there will undoubtedly be people who blindly follow that religion...

    September 28, 2010 at 7:34 am |
  7. lovesJesus

    Although a Christian myself, I don't mind learning about other religions (even I do not apply their principles). Learning about other religions teaches us differences and (sometimes) why people act the way they do.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:33 am |
  8. Evert van Vliet

    I's rather think that people can't be anything but ...people.

    Anything they call themselves but that is absolute nonsense, that includes a religion or A-theism (the last can only "exist" by the "grace" of the first) , a nation or a part/united parts thereof (which can only exist by the grace of the planet) , rich or poor (which can only exist by the "grace" of the money-press....to name "just" a few.

    Nothing but excuses to claim what's never been yours....aka theft.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:33 am |
  9. ramrod

    Six people got all the questions wrong!? Is that possible?! Statistically, it's not probable. Mostly, a joke I guess but hey thanks for everyone's participation. Love your comments!

    September 28, 2010 at 7:33 am |
  10. Randy

    Well, I got 10 out of 10. Of course I'm lying, but that's OK, because if I don't believe in God, everything's relative. (Actually got 10 of 10 right, and I believe in Jesus!!)

    September 28, 2010 at 7:32 am |
  11. JeffB

    Americans are ignorant...This is news?

    September 28, 2010 at 7:30 am |
  12. zoomer

    it's not that people don't know religion, it's people like myself that believe religion is just another scam to control
    people and steal there money. we don't need a Priest to steal our money and molest our children,, there is no after life
    you die they bury you and you rot and become oil !!! now go to church and let your god explain that.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:30 am |
  13. George

    Couldn't they put some more difficult questions like:

    What day did god make light? answer – The first day.
    What day did god make the stars and sun that make the light? Answer – The fourth day.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:29 am |
  14. Teacakes

    Apparently ancient people worshiped something. Who indoctrinated them? "Religion" is manmade and subject to man's rules and regulations therefore can and has become adulterated. Religion merely tells you how, when, and where to believe and worship. It's like having a manual to tell you how to breath. You don't really need one, some things you just know how to do on your own! Believing in and worshiping God is one of those things.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:27 am |
  15. Jacob M. Howard

    Couldn't they put in some more difficult questions like:

    What day did god make light? answer – The first day.
    What day did god make the stars and sun that make the light? Answer – The fourth day.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:26 am |
  16. Geoffrey Sperl

    10/10. And I am an atheist. 😉

    September 28, 2010 at 7:25 am |
  17. godsofwar

    These Hard Core cult followers of man made religions have been the bane of existence in this planet. Bible belt has less IQ than rest of the developed world and people here are more gullible and less educated.

    Here is a Pastor's typical 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 7:24 am |
  18. Jacob M. Howard

    Couldn't they put some more challenging questions like:

    What day did god make light? answer – The first day.
    What day did god make the stars and sun that make the light? Answer – The fourth day.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:24 am |
  19. Sam

    America needs freedom FROM religion......Cant wait til the day comes when America realizes that there is no such thing as "GOD".....This thing was created by man to control the masses......sorry, but I don't believe in the invisible man......

    September 28, 2010 at 7:24 am |
  20. Joe

    Yet another guilt trip to try and lay over people.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:23 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.