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. lazygamergirl

    I can't remember everything I read about Harry Potter either. The Bible = original fantasy book.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:53 am |
  2. G

    More negative Christina articles after the Pope/Catholic church bashing last week...but oh so positive Jewish aricles starting Thursday and througout the weekend, partcularly as it related to heroic mythical stories on the Jewish Holocaust....pretty sad the intent going on

    September 28, 2010 at 7:52 am |
  3. Josh

    They demonstrated that the people who know the most about religion are atheists. That's not surprising.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:52 am |
  4. G

    More negative Christina articles after the Pope/Catholic church bashing last week...but oh so positive Jewish aricles starting Thursday and througout the weekend, partcularly as it related to heroic mythical stories on the Jewish Holocaust....pretty said the intent going on

    September 28, 2010 at 7:52 am |
    • IH

      Haha G, your probably one of the six guys that got all the questions wrong..

      September 28, 2010 at 9:34 am |
  5. skjwee

    Unbelievable that CNN headlines this!? I was raised an atheist and proud of it. More people need to take up atheism. It's really the only sensible thing. Religion is ruining our societies.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:51 am |
  6. Tony

    I got nine out of ten. Shame on me. Next question: What religion would be against shooting the six participants that got all questions wrong?

    September 28, 2010 at 7:50 am |
  7. bash

    Mr. Smith seems to have got it right. I am an atheist, and scored 100% on the mini-quiz. More importantly, I have studied and thought a lot about religion (was raised a Protestant Congregationalist) and have travelled to many places around the world, encompassing many different religions. My religious friends are always surprised when I know as much, if not more, than they do about religion and the bible. I don't think that atheists generally become so without a lot of thought and investigation.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:48 am |
  8. Sam

    How about BANNING all types of religion and making this world a better place for people??..

    September 28, 2010 at 7:48 am |
  9. Kite005

    I'll read the article next but am responding to the headline now. The reason most don't know about religion is because a lot of the information comes from crackpots like the supposed reverend or preacher, whatever, in Florida who was going to burn Korans. Pretty much the same way religion has been used around the world to manipulate us.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:47 am |
  10. Arlene

    They should try reading LCG.ORG

    September 28, 2010 at 7:45 am |
  11. Jason

    Did anyone notice that the question #8 is incorrect? The picture is of Hindus worshiping Ganesh, not Muslims. It seems CNN lacks religious IQ as well.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:44 am |
    • bash

      Absolutely right! Maybe they were thinking of Bali...which has Hindu influence...

      September 28, 2010 at 7:50 am |
  12. various failures

    Baaaaa baaaaaa baaaaaaa

    September 28, 2010 at 7:44 am |
  13. Arlene

    They should try reading LCG.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:43 am |
  14. Bill T

    This poll was really a troll to bring the Atheists to the surface. The very simple CNN poll was different from the questions posed in the study and was based on more educational achievement and socioeconomic status than anything. That being said, most atheists in the U.S. are former Christians and are challenged more frequently on their beliefs than your garden variety churchgoer, so a higher degree of general religious knowledge makes sense. These results are hardly shocking or unpredictable.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:43 am |
  15. paula

    It is sad that people do-not know what the scriptures actually teach. But, it is equally important to realize that religion can't save you. Nor will knowing what the bible says about everything save you. It is not what you know, it's who you know (Jesus) that counts. I know my bible very well and have debated athetists and cults on what the scriptures mean. As for blind faith, it isn't blind faith, when the Savior has appeared to you. Remember, Jesus, rose from the dead and was seen by over 500 people in one place. Their were eyewitnesses to his resurrection. This is proof positive that the scriptures are indeed true.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:42 am |
    • Rick

      Then where were the eyewitness accounts? There were none. The events were written down decades after they supposedly happened. If you knew anything about the history of your precious Bible, you'd know this.

      September 28, 2010 at 9:09 am |
  16. Tony

    What a great survey. So many whodathunkit surprises. It just shows to go; you never can tell.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:42 am |
  17. laotsuiconicon

    Atheists are just as idiotic as theists. There is so much talk about 'religion', and not enough about true spirituality. And yes, there is a huge difference.........

    September 28, 2010 at 7:41 am |
  18. Cypros

    I got 100% . I am an Atheist-American.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:41 am |
  19. Enough

    I was brought up Lutheran, but started having alot of questions in my mid teens. Alot of the bible didn't make sense to me, so I read it front and back several times over, then started digging into other books to find answers. Many of the things in the bible can be explained by nature, wind involved in the parting of the red sea, locust, etc,. . It's a story, some of which was taken from stories thousands of years before Christ. So, today, I am an agnostic. I will believe when E.T. comes to get us.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:41 am |
  20. Sam

    10 / 10...Atheist....Where faith begins, common sense ends.......Religion is good for only one thing...TO START WARS.......Who says you need a "God" to be a good person with morals and common sense????.....Get a grip......Who said He is everywhere??.....He is good???..oh so I guess he doesn't like the states that are flooded right now, huh?.....He is punishing them...right??.....How about New Orleans??..Why did he unleash the wrath of Katrina???.....Hmmm...I mean if he controls EVERYTHING he must create floods and earthquakes and fires and death and destruction...no????...oh..wait no..that's the work of the devil, right???....but answer this.....what free will do children born with illnesses and disease have??..What choice did they have???....and don't give me the "It's what their parent's did that God is punishing them"...PUHLEEZ!!!!.......GOD WAS CREATED BY MAN IN THE IMAGE OF HIMSELF....THAT'S WHY HE IS A SELFISH GOD....WANTING EVERYONE TO BELIEVE IN ONLY HIM....LOLOLOL.....What a joke.....RELIGIOUS PEOPLE ARE MENTALLY ASLEEP....WAKE UP!!!....

    September 28, 2010 at 7:40 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.