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. Maria

    Why am I supposed to know about ancient fairy tales? I thought we are going to settle on Mars. Instead, we are supposed to learn about women having children without insemination and winged creatures sitting in the sky. Are we this insane in the 21st century? Or is this just another power struggle. In any case, count me out.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:20 am |
  2. Romas

    I am amused by so many of the responses. Why would those challenging religion be better informed? Because as the article implies they think and analyze rather than blindly believe. That is what I find wrong with religions, they preach subservience to their dogma to the exclusion of others. You want to believe in a religion? Go right ahead; but think about it. Analyze it. Challenge it. You will be better off for it.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:20 am |
  3. Hugh

    Religion has always been for the uneducated and ignorant...I don't know why it's a surprise that this is still the case. Just another way for the few at the top to control the many at the bottom. Life is and always will be a battle for power between the haves and the have nots.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:20 am |
  4. Mark

    Well this is good news. About time people start finding fairy tales irrelevant. It'll be nice when our nation grows out of it the same way that a child grows out of the easter bunny.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:19 am |
  5. jobleaux

    No surprise here. Religious people are inherently stupid.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:19 am |
  6. Methusla

    David Johnson

    Well, these blogs aren't nearly as fun if there are no fundies to get irate. Cheers guys!

    So, David heads for the door, to go to work. As he drives his chariot down the road:
    I chase your Jesus around the blog with my iron chariot! Run! Run! False Messiah!
    As David drives his chariot, he observes the road kill, and muses about the dust he created as he whizzes by.
    Someday, that'll be me, he thinks, as he hums Puff the Magic Dragon, and checks to make sure he didn't forget to bring his book of Blah.

    Soon David arrives at his destination, the Rock quarry. He ascends from his mighty chariot moblie. Being a lover of himself, he whips out his mirro, to observe what evolution has done for him.
    Upon his head, he wears his haunghty steel unicorn helmet. It has one defunct eyeball in the middle (which he blames the God he does not believe in for) it rolls around in its socket, as it is also a lazy eye. His face looks rather strange, hmm he thinks, could have been much better!
    He observes his bad design. > Humans and other animals have many more examples of sub-optimal or bad design
    He wonders at chimpy lookin mouth, but remembers, he has too many teeth for his mouth. Ohhhhh! His eyeb-a-l-ls are screwed up too. If only God could give him some birdeyes?Thats right, he don't exist. He attempts to sit down, but his protruding pelvis, makes it a hard feat. David is all out of shape. He consults his book of Blah, to see what could have possibly gone wrong!

    All of a sudden, he hears a sound, and turns to see his buddy Luke, another disgruntled specimen from the Big Bang explosion, approaching him.
    Hail David! It is I Luke!
    Luke is weird lookin too. He has lots of lines in his face, from being too close when the unknown factor caused the Big Bang! Luke has been shot out of the same explosion along with David. He has his helmet on too, but instead of an eyeball like Davids, his has a blow hole. When he eats. he can blow all the primorvieal soup out of the hole in his helmet, thus eliminating choking.
    He says to David:

    I'm tired of this nonsense. Evolution is not a theory that some scientists believe in. Evolution is a fact of science and the foundation of modern biology
    Just look at me, I am proof!
    David, thinking himself to be a great Science Scholar, tells Luke, Just look what the great explosion did for us, we should be not complaining! Who cares what the fundie Christians think!

    ScienceScholar – yeah, of course I understand that. But try explaining that to an idiot. See where our problem arises?

    Both of the primate looking misfits have a discussion, further complaining....If it turns out that there is a God, I don't think that he's evil. But the worst that you can say about him is that basically he's an underachiever.
    All of a sudden, a hughe lightening bolt strikes close to where Davy and Lukie are sitting.

    Praise be to the Evolutionary God, that thing could have hit us! Ok Back to the conversation...
    David Johnson

    God IS an underacheiver. Look at these bad designs.

    When we study the retina at the back of the eye, we can see that the cell layers are backwards. Light has to travel thru seven layers of cells before reaching the light sensing cells. Then the signals go back thru these layers to the nerves on the inside surface. In addition, the blood vessels are on the inside surface and further block the light. A truly intelligent designer could have done better than the human eye. Actually, evolution did a better job with the eyes of birds (which have no blood vessels in the retina) and the octopus and squid (which have the light sensing cells on the surface).


    And as a back pain sufferer, thanks David. There are more too:

    Our teeth don't fit in our jaws. Most of us need surgery to remove extra teeth at roughly age 20. We eat and drink through the same hole in our face that we breath. If only we had an extra blow hole? Think how many humans would not die of choking to death. And I'm not asking for too much here: mammals such as whales and dolphins have an extra hole and therefor, cannot choke., our eyes suck. Our eyes really suck, to be honest. Our hearing is not all that great too. What made us so extraordinary is our brains. We are problem solvers, like the rest of the primates

    As David and Luke sit consulting thier Book of Blah, searching for answers, Luke has a sudden, unexpected erruption of the blowhole!
    David is covered in splatterings , but is too occupied in his all time question:
    Why do men have n-ip-ples??

    Who cares? When you die they will be roadkill, blowin in the wind....!

    The two evolution pioneers pack up thier sad selves and hit the road, after failing to do an honest days work.
    For who knows what lays between the rockpiles...a fossil ? A pre Big Bang Match?
    Inquiring minds want to know!


    September 28, 2010 at 9:19 am |
    • Luke

      Well that was entertaining. I don't think I understand the point though, Hemmingway.

      September 28, 2010 at 10:10 am |
    • IJAbraham

      Methusla, why don’t you design a better eye, mouth and blow-hole for man? After all, you have a pretty good brain in spite of being a primate. Now, You have a big job to do so get busy with your designing. It cannot be like the Jarvik heart which is mired with functional problems! It can be used only temporarily until a real heart is found (quickly).

      Remember that evolution is a process. It is not an initiator! Evolution proceeds while an initiator manipulates, creates, destroys, etc. Evolution creates nothing, but changes the environment based on diverse stimuli. For example, all humans will eventually look like monsters due to all the pesticides, antibiotics, genetically altered organisms (GMO), weaponized bugs and germs, nuclear radiation, etc. that are in our current environment. The apes will be more beautiful that humans!

      The evolutionists talk about evolution as though evolution brings things into being, which it does not. However, evolution is the process by which one or more actions results in a change in something that was already in existence! The thing that evolves must already exist before it can evolve.

      Who or what created the thing that then evolves? What caused the “BIG BANG”? Who created the thing that caused the “BIG BANG”? Don’t take the easy way out. Answer these questions profoundly and sincerely.

      September 28, 2010 at 1:15 pm |
    • Luke

      IJAbraham – First of all, anyone with a science background knows that evolution does not insinuate the spark of life. Evolution is change from one generation to the next. We know that. It'st he religious that don't and foul up the defintion. Second of all, your rationale only begs the question, "Then who created the creator?" An uber god? It's backward thinking, irrational and nothing new. Yawn.

      September 28, 2010 at 4:21 pm |
  7. bobaloo

    The sheeple have been brainwashed by the government; that makes control easier by the $beast$. If people knew what the pope and gov are hiding about Fatima. The truth shall set you free.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:18 am |
  8. steven

    the level of arrogance of some people here is amazing.
    all you have to do is treat someone with respect and they will probably listen, or at least not completely shut down or ignore you.
    i'm a christian and respect what others have to say. i don't try to put them down because i know that closes doors to possibly sharing something that i feel is very important. if they are interested i'll tell them what i know and have experienced. if not, that's fine. calling someone stupid is the easiest way to make enemies and cause unnecessary problems. nobody knows everything there is to know so you shouldn't act like you do.
    i got an 8/10...meh

    September 28, 2010 at 9:18 am |
  9. johann1965

    Yet more evidence that religions (not faith mind you) is populated by ignorant people who would rather use their fears and insecurities to rule their decisions than rational thought.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:17 am |
  10. Drew

    Next up... survey reveals air to be breathable!

    The larger question is, when faced with the fact that atheists know more about major religions than others, whether they were unfaithful before or after they learned all of that? Does being well informed reduce the compelling factors of faith, or does being faithless drive people to study religion? Maybe a bit of both...

    September 28, 2010 at 9:16 am |
    • johann1965

      It has more to do with abandoning reason in favor of faith. The two things seem to be mutually exclusive for many super religious people, no matter what their faith is.

      September 28, 2010 at 9:20 am |
  11. Richard

    What's the big deal? Polls, surveys, questionnaires and studies tell us that Americans score less than 50% on just about everything. Welcome to Century 21. Remember when "Number 2" used to try harder? Now we are twenty-fourth. We'd better start trying really hard. Sooner or later, it will be too late.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:16 am |
  12. karen

    So what are the questions ?

    September 28, 2010 at 9:16 am |
  13. Joitou2

    Ten out of ten- Protestant, Assembly of God, from Tennessee. College Degree. I wish I could take the whole quiz. I can't imagine living my life without knowing there is a better place to go after I die.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:15 am |
    • johann1965

      One can believe in an afterlife without buying into the cr@p spewed by most religions.

      September 28, 2010 at 9:22 am |
    • Bkitties

      You can't live your life without telling yourself a comforting lie? That makes me really sad for you.

      September 28, 2010 at 10:43 pm |
  14. Sam

    Why are there so many athiests/agnostics posting on here trying to convince everyone how smart they are? Do you really feel that justified and vindicated by a single survey? Maybe it's just insecurity. It's as if some are claiming to be athiest/agnostic just so they can masquerade their average intellect as something more. There is no dismissing the findings of the survey, however there are many possible explanations beyond the trite conclusion that athiests/agnostics are "smarter." There are highly educated and intelligent people who arrive at a conclusion opposite that of athiests/agnostics. They are fewer in number, but as I have said before, the truly enlightened have always been a minority.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:15 am |
  15. yankel

    1) Article is quite an eye catcher. CNN – you've mocked religion again with your picture of "One Nation Under G-d" and American s Religious IQ – are you trying to create or insinuate a correlation or is this a media coincidence?
    2) There's the Bible then there's the Christian Scriptures. The Bible or Torah is the Jews. After that it's all Christian and to Jews there is nothing "new" about it. Period. That's our Religion and Faith. I don't care if anyone gets offended on this one. I find the terms "new testament" and "old testament" offensive. One is Jewish one is not.
    3) 9 times out of 10 Atheism arises out of an immature and or childing understanding of the relationship a person can have with G-d. G-d is not cruel – sometimes that answer is NO. Not because He hates you, but because He create you and Knows what is best for you!
    4) too angry to think straight to write more...

    September 28, 2010 at 9:15 am |
    • Alex

      god is just an stupid idea created to deal with death (when someone pass away) because we don't have the courage to cope with it.

      September 28, 2010 at 9:30 am |
    • Tommy_T

      BOTH testaments were written BY JEWS and TO JEWS. To say they are NOT related is simple ignorance.

      Study more!

      September 28, 2010 at 9:40 am |
    • Ruth

      Tommy T,

      You are the ignorant one. Jews had nothing to do with the so called "new testament". It was written way after "Jesus" "died on the cross by the Church.

      September 28, 2010 at 11:36 am |
    • Tommy_T

      Wait a second here. What are you trying to say. I'm saying that each and every book of the NEW TESTAMENT was written by JEWS, written TO JEWS, ABOUT A JEW!

      September 28, 2010 at 7:08 pm |
    • Bkitties

      99 times out of 100, atheism arises from the realization that there isn't a single shred of positive evidence for a god's existence.

      September 28, 2010 at 10:35 pm |
  16. Al

    The atheist and agnostics understand that religions are nothing more than social control mechanisms to extract obedience and money from the plebs. It is that simple.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:15 am |
  17. Mike D

    As an atheist I scored 8 correct out of 10. Whats wrong with you religious people?

    September 28, 2010 at 9:15 am |
  18. IceT

    Just proves followers don't want to know, they just want to follow. And if that makes them happy, good for them, but stop trying to tell everyone else they're wrong.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:14 am |
  19. atheos5150

    "For example, it's not evangelicals or Catholics who did best – it's Atheists and Agnostics." The simple answer to this is that a true and real Atheist comes to the point of non-belief through education and understanding, we question everything and desire real answers. Atheists are not content to simply believe because we are told to so, we are educated people with a lust for knowledge. Evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons, Christians, basically all religious people walk around with their plastical belief that they are some how intellectually superior because they are connected to a fallacy when in fact it is their own lack of education and abundance of ignorance that allows them to believe in a mythical god that does not exist. Their unrelenting desire to feel loved, understood and guiltless far out ways there personal need of education, religious ignorance is bliss. God does not exist, that is not a belief, that is science.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:14 am |
  20. Alex

    Atheists and Agnostics rule!!

    September 28, 2010 at 9:14 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.