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. chris

    I've always viewed the Bible as a neat collection of stories, and nothing else. But I will state that Judas is one the most important people in the bible, and the most important of Jesus' 12 disciples. After all, if Judas doesn't do what he does, then the crucifixation of Christ never happens.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:23 am |
  2. HeIsGod

    So glad to see that America is interested in knowing how many Americans know the Holy Bible.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:22 am |
  3. Rando

    Funny that five of the 10 commandments have to do with worshipping God, sounds like he was mighty insecure about the Jews toeing the line.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:22 am |
  4. HeIsGod

    First book in the Bible – Genesus

    First 4 books in the New Testament – Matthew, Luke, Mark, John

    September 28, 2010 at 8:21 am |
  5. Whatever

    Religion in general is a joke. I say that the score should have been 1%. Fake Bible stories don't need to be learned...

    September 28, 2010 at 8:21 am |
  6. atlantaguy

    seven of 10 didn't know Jewish day was friday the main religion of some other country and didn't know the name of the ancient guy that started a reformation movement or something

    September 28, 2010 at 8:18 am |
  7. RonRon

    After toughs... my last statement was wrong.

    Regardless, God WILL save you... but not in the way that you think. think about it.
    Learn religions this is important! Don't just learn the nice story...


    September 28, 2010 at 8:18 am |
  8. Rob

    When I read the article, I thought they were asking bizarre questions about little known religions. After taking the quiz, however, I realized these are brain dead easy questions. 50% is just sad. If you're a Christian an pay half attention on Sunday, you should do well.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:17 am |
  9. Dwayne S

    Knowledge is the enemy of religion. I was raised Roman Catholic, then decided to try a Baptist church in my early twenties. At age 26 I started college and by age 30 I was agnostic. After a few more years of self study in theology and Christian history I was definitely atheist and remain so to this day. I know many more just like me who grew up in a religious family but became atheist after higher education.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:17 am |
    • Crimson

      Same story for me. I was Roman Catholic before college, then went non-denom Christian, and now after graduating college, and going for grad school, I can pretty much stuff myself into the Agnostic section...mostly cause I don't know. How can anyone know? I haven't the slightest if there's a deity out there or some outside force.

      September 28, 2010 at 9:40 am |
  10. Ramgolfball

    It actually makes sense that so many Americans, who as a group tend to be religious, are so ignorant about religion. 1.) Religion relies on ignorance and narrowness of thought for its propagation, and 2.) Specific religions often discourage meaningful knowledge of others so they can keep the money flowing in an competing ideas at bay.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:16 am |
  11. Lindsay Blue Moon

    The world is upside down. What was unnatural is now perfectly natural and acceptable. Event the earth itself is in peril because of the actions of little men, with little concern about the future of even their own children.

    "The nations were angry; and your wrath has come. The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your witnesses, and those who reverence your name, both small and great–and for destroying those who are destroying the earth." Revelation 11:18

    September 28, 2010 at 8:16 am |
  12. Jessica Kenworthey


    September 28, 2010 at 8:14 am |
  13. Jena

    It's frightening that anyone who has made it past elementary school can't answer every one of these questions correctly. It's not an issue of religious faith. It's an issue of basic knowledge needed to function in today's world.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:13 am |
  14. TB

    I got 10 of 10 and I'm atheist. Go figure.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:13 am |
  15. Mark English

    The creators of the quiz don't even know their religious terms. Muslim is not the name of the religion; Islam is. A Muslim is a follower of Islam!

    September 28, 2010 at 8:12 am |
  16. George

    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 8:12 am |
  17. Randall

    Bible belt southerners scoring low does not surprise me, I live practically on the buckle and these people are insufferably stupid about most everything. Education is treated as a bad thing here and if your too smart then you must have the debble in ya.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:12 am |
    • me

      "If your too smart," really? Do you mean "you're?" You might want to learn some third grade grammar before attacking the intelligence of others.

      October 4, 2010 at 12:15 am |
  18. John

    Quite a few years ago my youngest son asked me, "Why is it that the people who know the least are the most sure of it?" Excellent observation about a lot of issues, not just religion.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:12 am |
  19. goog49

    So, when do we have a political IQ test, correlated with party affiliation?

    September 28, 2010 at 8:10 am |
  20. Seavik

    This isn't news. It's already been shown quite clearly that the more education you have, the less likely you are to be religious. The more you know about religion, the less likely you are to believe it.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:09 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.