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. Alex

    Conclusion: the more religious you claim to be, the less you know.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:39 am |
  2. Deborah R Malec

    Excuse me but I am a Christian and I aced the College Religion final exam!

    September 28, 2010 at 9:39 am |
  3. creative_educator


    Your comment caught my attention.

    I am very fascinated with the books that have been edited from the Bible. Why or how is even more intriguing. This has to be about the um-teenth time, by the way, that a mention of giants in the Bible was discussed.

    You have to wonder: just WHAT is going on? What exactly did happen?

    I know that some people will respond, "We don't know because we have to have faith/there is not enough knowledge/it's illogical because..."

    Take your pick, the list goes on. However, it still will spark some curiosty. Perhaps one day we will indeed get the truth we were looking for on these inaccuracies of the Bible.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:38 am |
  4. RPCV

    For those who are bragging about doing well (10 out of 10! yippee) on the quiz linked at the top of this article or saying this quiz is not representative: it is not the same as the Pew study which had 32 questions (not ten). Perhaps the next quiz should be 3rd grade reading comprehension.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:38 am |
  5. Jason

    7 out of 10. Not bad. It's most likely a better score than what the folks at CNN would get on a journalism-without-bias quiz.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:38 am |
  6. Noway

    Religion is only a thought of mind This coming from a catholic. Religion should not be involved with any nation or country way of life or politics. Religion is such a joke that anyone who is willing to write stuff and exaggerate about it and make someone feel good that's religion for you in a nut shell. I see this the common sense way. But let the preachers preach and prayers pray. All i can say once we pass away there is nothing after it's darkness and i'm sure we won't even know that where gone . But this is my opinion.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:38 am |
  7. IH

    Men who believe absurdities will commit atrocities. -Voltaire

    September 28, 2010 at 9:37 am |
  8. >:

    Yeah this article is no surprise. Much like the "athiest and liberals having a higher IQ" study. It takes some brain power to think for yourself. It takes even more brainpower to start to think for yourself after being brainwashed earlier in your life. That and you have to be willing to admit mommy and daddy were wrong in the name of truth. Yeah yeah, you can say that religion is the way to truth but, logically speaking, believing in a god is the incorrect conclusion to reach based on what we know about religion in general and the incompatability between the religion and the real world.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:37 am |
  9. Zach

    BREAKING NEWS: The religious are stupid. More at 11.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:37 am |
  10. Methusla


    "Do you believe that you will get 70 (or whatever the number) virgins when you die?!?!?! Sounds like a screwed up religion to me!!!!"

    Do you believe that when you die you will go to a magical, peaceful place where all your family and friends are and where nothing bad ever happens? How is that any less screwy?

    Do you believe that you will just ceast to exist?
    You will not go anywhere, except the safety of your grave?
    That you lived your life, only to have nothing in the end?
    Do you not know that there is a soul, regardlee if you profess one or not?
    Its not physical, so it can't reamin in the grave with you..
    How screwy is that?

    September 28, 2010 at 9:37 am |
    • Godless

      Actually, yes. I think when it's over, it's over. So make the most of it today. People want to believe in an afterlife because they don't want to think it's over. It's scary to think that. It's not comfortable. It's much more comfortable to believe that when you die, everything and everyone you ever loved will be there with you. Who wouldn't want that? But wanting it doesn't make it real.

      September 28, 2010 at 10:11 am |
    • IJAbraham

      Methusia, You will have what you expect and believe! What a hopeless existence we all will have if this life is all there is?

      September 28, 2010 at 12:06 pm |
  11. Ash

    Wawooo (I know my stuff) I got 9 out of 10 bad not 10/10 anyway! I just want to say ((Religion is the opium of the people))

    September 28, 2010 at 9:36 am |
  12. Mrsmith

    OK, the fact that atheists and agnostics scored the highest has NOTHING to do with their faith or lack thereof. Statistically, atheists and agnostics have more formal education than others and therefore inherently have a wider breadth of general knowledge and are more likely to question EVERYTHING, which makes it harder for them to believe in a higher power.

    The people that win week after week, answering knowledge based questions on Jeopardy, probably can't fix a toaster oven or problem solve their way out of an awkward social situation. Book knowledge is just that... sterile facts. Religion is based on FAITH, BELIEF, and living a purposeful LIFE. Just because someone from a suburb in Connecticut knows that the primary religion in Indonesia is Muslim doesn't make them better in some way that this study is trying to identify.

    Oh, and by the way, I'm an atheist...

    September 28, 2010 at 9:36 am |
  13. Jakko

    All the atheists reading this and saying to themselves, "Damn! I'm the shiznit!" should do themselves a favor and read Ecclesiastes. Whether you believe in God or not, the message is undeniably true: Doesn't matter how much you know because in the end, we're all going to die. Go feed that big brain of yours for all the good it's gonna do you.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:36 am |
  14. Blue

    I got 100%, and I'm not even religious.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:35 am |
  15. I. Hustle

    Do you atheist/agnostics/zealots not see how dumb you really are. The religious nuts want to show non believers how right they are by quoting the bible, a book the athiests don't believe in. The Non-believers have to try and show how they are so intelligent just because they read a magazine article about religiong once and now they can quote it.
    The funniest one to me is the people who claim to have studied theology for years and that is how they know everything about everything. It's funny that none of you see how stup1d you really are.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:35 am |
  16. MikeFallsChurchVA

    Lol religious IQ is lacking? I think American IQ is lacking these days IN GENERAL. Just take a drive around Virginia and you'll know what I'm talking about.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:34 am |
  17. skwyz

    I got 9 out of 10 correct and I'm an athiest 🙂

    September 28, 2010 at 9:34 am |
  18. Robin

    Religious Americans' IQ Lacking

    September 28, 2010 at 9:34 am |
  19. Sarah in Texas

    This is not surprising at all, but it's nice to see a formal study finally bring this to light. The more "religious" someone is, the more likely they are to be ignorant and not even know what they believe. This should be a wake up call to those who didn't already know this. Faith and religion can be great things, but open your eyes and actually know what it is you "believe."

    September 28, 2010 at 9:34 am |
  20. Rare Penguin

    I enjoy reading all kinds of ancient texts...as you find out when doing this, reading about other religions and their texts of faith... you find that there are alot of common denominators.. and that we all really are not so different...I look at it like a big wheel with alot of different spokes and each spoke is a different religion and in the center is our common spiritual goal of being with our creator.. in what ever form we see this creator. we are all trying to get to the same place but each in our own way. I think religion is a means to spirituality which is a means to wherever we go next from this physical plane..but then i don't go to a church.. I just study and pray..

    September 28, 2010 at 9:33 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.