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. Wallace

    As a secular nation should we be expecting people to be experts on religion(s)? Seems like a good hobby but I'm not sure it makes people more well-rounded...just more neurotic about being human.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:50 am |
  2. mr donut

    the quiz was/is a joke...the religion of the people in indo ? the maimonides ? who cares what they are ? my bible has no mention of this...i scored 9, guessed at one of them...

    September 28, 2010 at 8:49 am |
  3. Neptune

    Wow, a link between religion and ignorance. Who would have known?

    September 28, 2010 at 8:49 am |
  4. Charles

    Yes, let's require comparative religion in school. Valid for the history, and then children can see a) the moral similarities, b) that every religion is convinced it is the One True Way, c) they all plagiarize each other, and d) they're all, ultimately, bunk.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:48 am |
  5. Morgan

    Smith is right. Many modern American atheists and agnostics have thought more (and researched more) about world religions. We're working from a vast body of knowledge and philosophy. Knowledge is power – and so is free thought.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:47 am |
  6. Lee

    I believe in God...not religion though, it's all hypocrasy in my eyes

    September 28, 2010 at 8:47 am |
  7. lex

    Religion is going out of business. Atheism is the wave of the future. LIke it or not.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:47 am |
  8. Chris

    The more you know about religion, the less you believe? Hmm.
    The less you know about religion, the more you believe? Hmm.
    Perhaps belief is not just an alternative to knowledge, but rather the opposite of it.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:45 am |
    • Tommy_T

      I think you need to clarify your understanding, Chris. "Knowledge" is ENDORCED by the Bible:

      Hsa 4:6 My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, that thou shalt be no priest to me: seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children.

      Knowledge is one thing.....UNDERSTANDING?....AH, now we can talk about the difference between "ignorance" and "stuidity"

      September 28, 2010 at 9:03 am |
  9. JustAGirl

    It is no shock to me that evangelicals/Bible thumpers would score the lowest. Instead of seeking information from correct sources, they would rather go on very inaccurate information from those that are supposedly educated about world religion. If you don't believe as they do in any single thing, you're gonna go to hell.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:45 am |
  10. Rick B

    I scored 10/10 on the sample quiz and I'm and agnostic. Very easy.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:45 am |
  11. lex

    Can't you tell when an industry is going out of business? Athiesm is the wave of the future, like it or not.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:44 am |
  12. WillBe

    50% failure rate is a good start but I'd like to see that number closer to 100%. Religious texts, of all descriptions, are simply fairy tales concocted by men to control others.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:44 am |
  13. theomont

    B. Scovern, you must be one of the masses that doesn't know all that much about religion. There's definitely more than one bible. Here's a good list of the different versions of the bible:

    American Standard Version(ASV)
    Amplified Bible (AMP)
    New American Standard Bible (NASB)
    Revised Standard Version (RSV)
    New Revised Standard Version (NSRV)
    English Standard Version (ESV)
    King James Version (KJV)
    New King James Version (NKJV)
    New Jerusalem Bible (NJB)
    New American Bible (NAB)
    New International Version (NIV)
    Today"s New International Version (TNIV)
    God’s Word (GW)
    Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)
    New Century Version (NCV)
    New Living Translation (NLT)
    New International Readers Version (NIrV)
    Good News Translation (GNT)
    Contemporary English Version (CEV)

    September 28, 2010 at 8:44 am |
    • Tommy_T

      And all of thse were taken from the same MSS! Why? Simple.....READABILITY! How many different ways are there to express a given concept IN ENGLISH? Study Hebrew and Greek...the LANGUAGES of these manuscripts. Invest in a Strongs, Crudens, or Youngs Concordence and reference EVERY WORD back to the original language and ALL POSSIBLE MEANINGS!!

      Do a little research.....get the understanding.

      September 28, 2010 at 9:09 am |
    • MuDdLe


      Don't you just love that particular recipe that consists of one part arrogance blended with one part ignorance?

      September 28, 2010 at 3:09 pm |
    • MuDdLe

      @ Tommy T

      My mistake in the other post. I intended my question for you–not the original blogger here. I'll let you sort out the differences in implication. 🙂

      September 28, 2010 at 3:10 pm |
    • Tommy_T

      @ MuDdle

      I guess I don't understand what you are driving at. How many of these MSS have you personnally handled and compared? Are you familiar with the scribe's "proofing methodology"? You wouldn't know unless you've either handled or actuall SEEN these manuscripts. Again....the reason for those "different versions" is simply READABILITY since there are so many DIFFERENT WAYS to convey a given concept IN ENGLISH.

      September 28, 2010 at 3:29 pm |
  14. porky

    did anyone take the quiz... there is a question about what is the religion of most people in indonesia... the answer is muslim, yet... the picture that goes along with the question and answer is confused... i think i saw an elephant trunk on the idols face... maybe the folks who put together the quiz and slide show should brush up on thier religious and cultural studies as well...

    September 28, 2010 at 8:42 am |
  15. jyotirmaya das

    The Dalai Lama practices Buddhism. They chant some mantras and meditate, but they do not believe that there is a personal God. Buddha was an incarnation of Krishna. He had to mislead some followers of the Vedas who were killing animals on the plea of some Vedic sacrifices which allow animal sacrifice to give the animal a human birth in it's next life. But these people who were doing it all wrong were not qualified priests to be performing such sacrifices that allows the killing of an animal so Krishna, the original preceptor of the Vedas, came as Buddha and told them to forget the Vedas and live a life of non-violence (ahimsa) and to just follow his precepts. Buddha was actually a great soul who was empowered by God to do this mission, and there have been Buddhists on the planet ever since. There are four major religions in the world which are known by scholars to be bona fide – Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism and Muslim religions. All others are usually sub-cultures of one of the major religions. Any "religion" created by an ordinary man is just sentiment or mental speculation for only God is authorized, and God alone can inject a religion into the human race.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:42 am |
  16. elgeevz

    Maybe it's just coincidence, but the most honest, decent, and benevolent individuals I have known in my 78 years were not at all religious. On the other hand, essentially every time I have been ripped off or stabbed in the back, the deed has been done by psalm-singing Baptists. Go figure.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:40 am |
  17. paganlove

    I think its so funny, how people in prior post say that athiest and agnostics, are full of hate, when actually i have found more often than not people with out organized religion claims my self included, tend to much nicer, and less judgemental, than those with one, the study was to show how many people have no clue, about your own religion, as also stated in previous posts if god gives knowledge, and a brain, why not freakin use it.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:39 am |
  18. trixen

    Who cares? Religion is a waste of time and I don't like to spend even a few minutes of my day thinking about it when I could be doing something far more productive...twiddling my thumbs, perhaps.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:39 am |
  19. rainydaylee

    “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.” ~Seneca
    True when first written, true now.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:38 am |
  20. Black Atheist

    It is impossible to be intelligent and be a believer in any faith that is based on what must be believed to be true, but cannot be disproven. I feel sorry for ignorant believers and contempt for those who use their religion to blind the ignorant from taking control of the only life we know to exist.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:38 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.