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)

    What the hell is bible anyway? Is It a brianwash book? Why are so many people addict to it ? We should burn all the books and stop people from reading it. All religion people are crazy

    September 28, 2010 at 8:37 am |
    • Crimson

      Yeah, that's a great solution. Burning books. Wait.. I think I read a book about that once...

      September 28, 2010 at 9:43 am |
  2. Carmen

    This is nothing new. All it takes is day reading the comments from posters in various CNN articles to know that people know nothing about religion. There is an article on the Black Church and some people that posted comments actually think that Jesus was a Christian. The big different between the religious right and the liberals seem to be liberals have actually READ the bible.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:36 am |
  3. Terry from west Texas

    Religion is not a philosophy. It is an emotional experience. Many humans are hard-wired to want the religious experience; it's an emotional experience. It's a feeling of ecstasy that is very intense in some believers and milder in others. For the religious person, it doesn't matter much WHAT you believe as long as you BELIEVE. Religions are pretty much interchangeable. We inherit them, most of us, and we never question them.

    It is like the emotional experience of watching a football game. I am a football atheist. I look at the crowd in the stadium and I think, "This is the most boring experience I can imagine. I can't believe that people actually pay to watch this crap." Yet others in the stadium have painted their faces orange and they are screaming at the top of their lungs. Those are football's "true believers." The emotional experience is powerful and exhilarating.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:36 am |
    • Ron

      Fantastic. You just answered one of my most perplexing questions with a simple analogy. Now I know why they do what they do. Thanks for the beautiful words of wisdom.

      September 28, 2010 at 9:41 am |
  4. IceCreamMikey

    I am pretty sure atheist are scoring a lot more then most, because these questions are not just for one religion. So a really focus chatolic wont know what other belife, believe in. They just focus on theres. Atheist ( although dont believe in much or anything ) are still curious of what other religion believe in. Like myself i am very interested of what every religion believes in. I study a lot of it, its very interesting. I just wont ever put my life in front of it.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:36 am |
  5. buck

    I am all for learning with am aim of religious tolerance - but am not at all concerned about the loss of religious knowledge in general. we will be just fine, thank you for your false concern CNN.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:36 am |
  6. 13Center13

    The reason they don't know it, is because most people accept the words of a swindler as they come out of his mouth, without question. Most people are not intelligent enough to do their own research and find out that the story of jesus has been told before as a means to control the masses. durp!

    September 28, 2010 at 8:35 am |
  7. conoclast

    Selling out your intellect because you're mentally lazy is one thing, constantly yammering at me to do the same (proselitizing) is another and that's where organized religion starts looking like to me like a giant scam. I am an atheist and I come by it honestly!

    September 28, 2010 at 8:33 am |
  8. Rando

    Mormonism is only another scam in a long history of scams. Joseph Smith was interested in beddding as many women as he could so guess what? God conveniently told him "hey it's cool Jo in fact it's Holy (pun)" What a crock I lived in SLC and Ogden for awahile and all I can say is too bad such a beautiful place is so infested with mentally ill people.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:33 am |
  9. dniq

    Gee, what a surprise: religious folk are less intelligent... A shocker of the century! 😀

    September 28, 2010 at 8:33 am |
  10. lefty avenger

    I believe in the separation of church and state. I believe in a totally secular government. Most Americans lack an IQ period. With Billions poured into the corporate wall street oil war machine and nothing put into education, america is what you get. The Dalai Lama is a Buddhist, one of the coolest guys around.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:32 am |
  11. Agnostice in DC

    The quiz was wrong insofar as it defined agnostic as one who is unsure whether god exists. Merriam Webster correctly defines agnostic as "a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable." Thus, many agnostics, like myself, do not belief in god but recognize that the truth is ultimately unknowable. Because neither the existence or non-existence of god can be proven, I choose to define myself as an agnostic because it is the most intellectually sound position to take. Call that fence sitting if you like, but arguing until you're red in the face or believing in something that can't be proven seems pretty silly to me.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:31 am |
  12. Barney

    Man puts too much faith in Man and his opinions. Read the Bible. Start with the first 4 books of the New Testament. This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Then if you are moved, read the rest of the Bible and realize it is a love story of growth between God and Man, culminated in the final laws exemplified in Jesus Christ. He was our perfect example of what to be, and of what is best for us. It isn't about "religion". It is about having a personal relationship with Christ and God.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:31 am |
  13. King

    I can only hope that the 10 questions that we are given are but a sample of the full quiz and not the full quiz itself With that being said, as a believer I got a 10/10, but these questions should come as a no-brainer to anyone who has at least a high school diploma from a public school system. I don't know how seriously I should even take this quiz and its results considering how simple it really is.

    Because of my faith, I have always had a motivation to seek out why people believe what they believe, and most importantly, why I believe what I believe, and the history of what I believe. God does not want His faithful to be an ignorant bunch, as to be ignorant is to do a disservice to Him, oneself, and to humanity as a whole.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:31 am |
  14. Jon S.

    It's entirely reasonable that those who do not follow a religion did best on this test – they are the ones who study the illogical and absurd aspects of religion, and decide it is not necessary for a fulfilling life. Many who follow religion blindly listen to leaders who selectively tell them what to believe and never read the books their faiths are based on, thus misunderstanding what those religions have to offer, which is mostly illogical, absurd and downright dangerous.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:29 am |
  15. John

    This doesn't surprise me at all, in general the more religious the person the less they know about most things.

    It really is simple, the more you learn about religion the more you understand how much BS is involved.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:29 am |
  16. Mike

    Don't encourage the brainwashed morons to actually brush up on their mythology!

    September 28, 2010 at 8:29 am |
  17. AchievementGap

    It all boils down to education. If we would take the time to study and research, we would be more enlightened. But we live in an imperialist country. Which teaches lies to our children. Making them think there is only one right way. Knowledge is power! Its harder to control the masses if they educate themselves. Just because you study other religions doesn't make the individual's faith any less.

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

    Education is the enemy of religion. I think it's okay to learn religion as long as it's dispassionately and viewed as a part of culture and not as if it is true. Christians should fear this more than atheists because it would have the great potential of deconverting their children they worked so diligently to indoctrinate. Religion should be taught along side Greek mythology.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:27 am |
  19. Raj

    I got 7 out of 10. Well, you don't need intelligence to know it. So I can't proud of it. I believe questions should be from "Origin of species". Because if you don't know bible, quoran... that is fine. You must read Darwin, Gellileo, Hawking, Einstein, and so many similar. Also, US school need more Math and Science to compete and keep Jobs in USA then any thing else.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:27 am |
  20. phnxrth

    Here are some religion facts of note:

    Religious leaders know that people want to feel they're right. No matter how wrong they are. They use the fact to personal advantage.
    Religion and conflict are contradictory. So-called religious people who engage in conflict with others are actually doing the work of Satan.
    The churches have never taught people how to solve problems, because the churches do not know how. Real spiritual attainment must include real problem solving.
    Personal rightness and personal distortedness are completely contradictory. And everyone who isn't correcting his distortions is completely distorted. Religion does not address this problem. Humanetics does.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:24 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55
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.