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. Brownstain

    Sky boogiemen do not exist.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:00 am |
  2. Ben

    Is that a surprise? How many times do Liberals and Atheists "quote" the Bible on these boards to tell Christians they are being "unChristian" as it relates to the NYC Mosque or something else? Of course, its only a regurgitation of a quote from Obermann or Maddow, who also haven't read it (or the Koran, but that doesn't stop them lecturing on that either).

    September 28, 2010 at 8:59 am |
  3. Donovan

    Raised catholic, turned agnostic. I find religion to be very interesting. Their only problem is the big questions, who are we, who created us, when and how remain unanswered. The general thought is that religion can answer this but they have, and will not. That is ok I think. Meanwhile I still think and search for those answers. The best theory I believe is postulated by Zecharia Sitchin in his Earth Chronicles.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:59 am |
  4. Joe

    You're all a bunch of wack jobs! Apparently it's "wrong" to be a Christian. I think atheists and agnostics have a problem with "Christianity" more than anything else...you rarely see them ganging up on Judism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddism, etc. So what's your beef? If you don't believe...fine...but knock it off already – Everyone! Christians, if they (agnostics) want to learn the word of God, we're here to help them with that commitment. Atheists & agnostics, if Christians want to hear your opinion, they'll ask. But knock it off already! And to all you non-believers...you sound like the people you hate, so practice what you preach.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:58 am |
  5. Brownstain

    Religions of all stripes suck. Just another distraction from the sadness of our existence.
    The need to prostrate ourselves in awe of some sky boogieman is a human weakness.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:58 am |
  6. Jordan

    I can't believe it matters what American's know about religion. We would be better off being completely ignorant to the idea.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:58 am |
  7. GeorgeBos95

    So ... what ... if people are unaware of the myths and rituals from religion. It's all fantasy ... you might as well be quizzing people on Grimm's Fairy Tales.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:58 am |
  8. jyotirmaya das

    Science without religion is mental speculation, and religion without science is mere sentiment. There has to be both. For example, what is the difference between a live body and a dead body? Scientists cannot explain. But the soul is there giving life to the body. The soul is situated within the region of the heart and it is the soul that makes the heart beat. Once the soul leaves a body that is inhabitable by disease then that body dies, and no scientist can bring it back to life even though he has all of the ingredients of the body at his disposal.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:57 am |
  9. Mona

    I am a Christian and got 9 out of 10. However, I got the Agnostic question wrong.... I thought Agnostics were people who believed in a higher being but that the being doesn't interfere in people's lives. Is that correct? The correct answer on the test said an Agnostic was one who was UNSURE about God's existence so I am now confused. To me, those are two separate concepts.

    As a Christian, I don't believe in shoving my faith in people's faces. I think if more Christians lived their lives in a way that showed Christ's love to others by helping those in need and being the hands and feet of Jesus to the hurting world around us, I think Christians wouldn't have as much as a bad rap. AND... we would be making more of a difference in the world. Faith is more than just preaching, it's an everyday outpouring of love to everyone around us regardless of their faith or their situation in life. Jesus did much more than just preach to people during his time here on Earth. He healed, loved, counseled, ministered, and met people right where they were in life. He didn't run around pointing fingers and judging people. He ministered to people from all walks of life, backgrounds and religions.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:57 am |
  10. Rich

    Absolute total waste of news. Has nothing to do with the state of the economy. The bible is a fiction book about the past – we need to look at now and the future

    September 28, 2010 at 8:57 am |
  11. Truthiness

    The world will be a better place once all of mankind finds atheism. Think of all the brainpower and money that has been wasted on this planet studying and worshiping ancient literature. If all these resources were put into solving problems such as alternative energy….

    September 28, 2010 at 8:56 am |
  12. Tonyb

    And this is a surprise? Most Americans know very little about the world around them...

    September 28, 2010 at 8:55 am |
  13. Stoprunning

    I scored 80% on the test and I hate all religions based in the middle east.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:55 am |
  14. Jeff

    Amazing how the "enlightened" non-believers think themselves so much more intelligent than everyone who has a faith. How's that for arrogance?

    September 28, 2010 at 8:55 am |
  15. Sorcha

    Religion is basically mythology without the dragons and centaurs, a little easier to swallow. Perhaps if more people understood this, they too might question it. And is that so bad? Questioning does not mean we can’t still believe.

    The beauty of religion is that we can believe in anything we want—gods, saints, unicorns, if you will. It becomes dangerous when a select few religions become status quo and all others are burned at the stake. Americans don’t need a bible (or other text) lesson, but they could use a history lesson on just how some organized religions came to be, and how they took hold. They may be horrified at what they discover.

    It’s amusing to watch people argue over something that both sides will never know the answers to. It’s too bad they can’t just believe–and be truly content doing so.

    It’s also amusing that CNN should have such a headline. It may have well just read “Americans’ Astrology IQ lacking.”

    September 28, 2010 at 8:55 am |
  16. Igor

    As people learn more about religions, and their origins, they are likely to become agnostic or atheist. I believe in higher power, but I don't believe in religion. Majority of them are full of crap and cause nothing but wars.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:52 am |
  17. Semper Reformanda

    Calvinist, and yes, 99.7% of the Christians I've encountered know pretty much nothing about their own beliefs, and even less about others. It's pathetic, it's disheartening, and it's terrifying.

    Oh. And everything I need to know about world religions I learned from Southpark. (Now singing in my head
    Lucy Harris: smart, smart, smart. Martin Harris: dumb, dumb, dumb...")

    September 28, 2010 at 8:52 am |
  18. Tom

    But... religions are based on belief systems, not facts, so they clearly belong in churches, not schools. This is a completely ridiculous premise.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:51 am |
  19. Tommy_T

    I know that, eventually you will ALL get this right!

    Christianity is NOT about RELIGION........It's about RELATIONSHIP!

    In "religion" man attempts to reach out to God. In Christianity, God reached out to man in the form of JESUS CHRIST! I would call THAT a major "difference"!

    September 28, 2010 at 8:50 am |
  20. Grain of Salt

    Face it, America is a nation of morons. Just by being alive, interested in culture, and reading something other than People or Rolling Stone, any person should be able to get at least half of the questions right. The scary part is that these same morons vote and protest, as if they had any idea what they were talking about. You don't have to have a particularly religious upbringing, just a healthy intellectual curiousity and a sense of what has gone on before you, and the meaningful things going on around you now. But again, Americans believe the propaganda they are fed – look at the political parties and the vitriol spewed on these posts every day. Left, right or baggers, they just suck up the propaganda without examining the facts and thinking for themselves.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:50 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.