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. KojoC

    I am of the opinion that religion in American Churches, are business organization/opportunities and conducted as such. As for religions that's another thing and a private thing.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:01 am |
  2. gk

    hahaha... this shows that the more ignorant you are the more likely you are to believe a fairy tale is real...

    September 28, 2010 at 9:59 am |
  3. Ulises

    It's odd how people put atheist and agnostic into two separate categories. There can be people who are agnostic atheist, agnostic theist, gnostic atheist and gnostic theist. Agnostic means one who claims they can not know if god/gods exist. An atheist is one who does not believe in a god/gods. Agnosticism goes to lack of ability to know the existence of gods and atheism goes to not holding the belief in gods. They are two separate things people. For example an agnostic theist is one who believes in a god or gods but claims they do not have concrete knowledge of their existence.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:58 am |
  4. anon

    I can see that Catholics would often fail the quiz, and this is because Catholics usually rely upon their priest to teach them from the pulpit. The Catholic tradition goes back to the dark ages where the priesthood did not want their members to know the Bible beause theat gave them more power over the people. The Bible actually says that in life, above all, Christians are to seek knowledge. Peter called Christians to know the gospel well enough to answer people when they are asked why they believe in Jesus. I am a Christian, but I have studied different philosophies. The Bible is unique in that there are so many prophecies that came true. Jesus himself fulfilled over 100 prophecies that were prophesied by the prophet Isaiah 500 years before Christ began his mission. The book of Isaiah, found in the Dead Sea Scrolls proved how very well the scribes copied the texts and stayed true to the text. For those who believed that the Bible in its entirety was created by a group of people during the middle ages have been completely disproven. If people would study thier religion and as well as its roots, they would be surprised to find how the religions were created. Religions that have sects would realize that sects are really just another name for "falsehood". GOD did not call people to worship him, but to hate people of the same faith, but different sect. God does not call us to hate others of other religions either, we are to share our testimony with others. Anyone with an ounce of common sense should understand that.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:58 am |
    • Kristy

      I agree with you. Most people say they are a believer but then don't study or learn what they say they believe. I used to be one of those people. I have been studying like crazy because I heard about God the Mother. I believe that our salvation relies on believing in her and the second coming Christ. Whom I believe already came also! He came to bring salvation by reminding us of what was lost during the dark ages. He descended but is coming back soon, I believe! I have since shared this news, or tried, with others, to find they don't want to, or don't have time, or they think they know everything already. Not humble enough is the proble,. Hosea 4:6 says people will perish because of a lack of knowledge.....

      God the Mother is real! Christ Ahnsahnhong is real! He has fulfilled the prophecies. Have you heard??

      October 11, 2010 at 1:33 am |
  5. CafeItalia

    My favorite quote:

    "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross." – Sinclair Lewis

    September 28, 2010 at 9:57 am |
  6. Amy

    It's a great stretch to state that we've learned religious facts to argue against religion. Perhaps we just wanted to know more about what people believe, or we wanted to understand religion more. I personally was looking for truth and something to believe in that made sense. All I found were ridiculous, violent and hate filled fantasies. It wasn't the conclusion I had hoped for. You don't know how badly I wanted to believe...reality kept slapping me in the face. I'm a better person and more at peace with reality than when I was searching. Everything means more not less.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:57 am |
    • Keir Gazelle

      I looked for what I needed and found it, but not in a traditional monotheist religion. People tend to see religion in one way..there are thousands of religions older then Christianity...open your mind.

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

      Keir Gazelle, you're assuming I'm as ignorant as you are? I looked at many religions. Had many conversations with those who believe them. The irony is I own several hundred books on religious theology yet you think I know nothing about it or didn't look far enough.

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

      Keir Gazelle, My husband ran a new age book store for over 10 years. The customers were always shocked to find out he was a atheist.They all thought he was some kind of guru or high priest. He knew more about their beliefs than they did..

      September 28, 2010 at 10:40 am |
  7. dave

    funny-- VThose 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.----

    The bible Belt is also the lynching belt, the segregation belt, the military belt, the illiteracy belt - When I read the Gospels I read Jesus telling me about the kind of relationship i should have with God and my fellows - how I should live how I should behave - we are supposed to care for the poor not lower taxes for the rich and tell poor kids with no health insurance to suck it up - starting a war is not Christian regardless of the provocation Why do you need the 10 commandments on the wall in the courthouse when every town has multiple churches let the churches put up signs with the commandments - do you know what Moses did when he came down the mountain - he lead his most trusted men is a slaughter of 3000 Jews, read it

    September 28, 2010 at 9:56 am |
  8. Monica

    9/10. Lutheran, currently studying Catholicism. I don't think it is the responsibility of a particular religion to teach its members about all of the other religions of the world and I would never expect to learn about Islam in a Lutheran or Catholic church. I view it as a personal responsibility to be an informed citizen of the world to recognize and understand the various religions that exist. I don't see any other way to determine that the religion you're practicing is the one that's right for you without knowing at least a little about the others.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:56 am |
  9. binskipy2u

    Religion is MANS way of getting to God.. Jesus Christ is God's way of getting to man.. The bible is the INSIPIRED word of God.. written by MAN.. 40 authors, over 1500 years, on 3 different continents on 3 different continents. And with all that diversity, time, distance, the beginning coincides with the end... The men that did write the bible were inspired by the Holy Ghost. Catholic means "universal" which includes any church/relgious affiliation that has Jesus Christ as the center.. he is the WAY, the TRUTH and the LIFE.. no one comes to the Father but by HIM! Now GOD in his infinite wisdom has given us all FREE WILL , free to believe by faith, or not .. but Jesus is the ONLY religious figure in history(out of Budha, Mohammad,and every other religion) that claimed to be GOD INCARNATE, no one else did. So it's a choice (even though most of us make, have made or will make the wrong choices in life) you have to make for YOURSELF.. and if there is NO God, no harm no foul.. your gain is NOTHING neither is your LOSS when you die.. but if there is a God.. your gain is EVERYTHING, while your loss is also EVERYTHING.. (google pascals wager) A true christian job/duty on this earth is NOT to FORCE his/her religion/beliefs on anyone else... as Paul said "You must be able to give an explanation for the JOY you have and the HOPE You have, and the FAITH you have to others" the rest is up to God the Holy Ghost and the person you are talking to, to believe, or not.. So, all the people in this thread that have bashed the bible, catholics, evangelicals (not the the 1% of priests that molested kids, they should be PUNISHED for that, or the evengelicamaniacs that have fleeced peoples money for non-religious use) should actually READ the bible you are bashing, or look into the REAL decent people that belong to above mentioned religions.. before you bash, and please, read the bible or at least glance at it, before putting your foot in your mouths and spewing about things you do NOT know... at least try to sound INTELLIGENT in your anti-bible, anit-religion anti-Jesus, Anti-God discourse.. so when that time comes and you meet your maker, and justice is carried out perfectly in that day, you can take your sentence like the educated adult you at least thought you were.. God bless.. that's my .02, now I'm Broke.. but my faith gives me EVERYTHING, not in the "now" but surely in the Hearafter.. that'f faith & Grace.. Grace is a FREE gift, that one must ACCEPT.. not earn, buy, or wish for, but ACCEPT, while faith is the belief in the things UNSEEN, while the SEEN things in this world are temporal and temporary, the UNSEEN things are ETERNAL.. again.. God Bless

    September 28, 2010 at 9:55 am |
  10. Sandy Moyer

    You call this a "knowledge of the Bible" quiz but that is incorrect. This is, however, a quiz about religion. Whereas, the Bible contains information about how to become a believer, a child of God, "religion" encompasses many facts not contained within the Bible. Please change your caption.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:54 am |
  11. Adrian

    I agree with Larry, I was forced fed too on the bible and paying ties. I had to learn all the bible stories and go to summer camp and a bunch of Psalm verses by heart. By the time i turned 18 and moved out, i was already exhausted on praying everyday and knowing the commandments. I love that my family cares alot about me learning religion but forcing it on me soo young and not letting me develop and interest has drawn me away from going to church every week. I want to do what's right but i'm confused and don't know how to pass what i learned on to my son. Any thoughts????

    September 28, 2010 at 9:53 am |
  12. brad

    I think the average atheist knows more about religious doctrine than he does about scientific matters. How many of them truly understand the theories of Hawkings, can solve a problem from calculus, or balance a chemical equation? Seems many atheists are merely scientific camp followers, like the Christian "sheep".

    September 28, 2010 at 9:53 am |
  13. God is not a Trinity.com

    It is sad that organized religion teaches false doctrine not found in the bible. ie: Three Evangelical Lesbian ministers were accepted recently into the church. This is totally contradictory to what the bible's teaches at 1 Cor 5:9,10, "...Do not be misled. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men kept for unnatural purposes, NOR MEN WHO LIE WITH MEN, 10 nor thieves, nor greedy persons, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit God’s kingdom."
    This is one example of why people can't trust churches anymore. But there is one true religion, and it does teach what the bible says, word for word. But it is surrounded by such falsehood by other faiths that it is hard for people to see through the fog.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:52 am |
    • Rohan

      How do you know your is "true" religion. How many other books have you read? People can t see through fog... yeah right. Many people can see clearly and now all will buy into one religion. Thats why Humans are not sheep.

      September 28, 2010 at 2:37 pm |
  14. Spinner

    NPR had a great story recently that explained how religious belief may have given early man an evolutionary advantage by making groups or tribes more socially cooperative. Oh, but wait... how can religion give an evolutionary advantage if religion states that evolution doesn't exist.... Oh, the irony.


    September 28, 2010 at 9:52 am |
  15. KR

    I really don't know why the poll results are so surprising. Atheists and agnostics tend to have higher levels of education than people of religious faith. Educated people ask more questions. If you don't ask questions in the first place, faith will suffice.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:51 am |
  16. SKO

    Is the picture behind question #8 (about the religion of most Indonesians – Muslim) a picture of Hindus worshipping Vishnu? If that is the case, how is that helping religious education?

    September 28, 2010 at 9:51 am |
    • Shivya

      Its Hindus worshipping Ganesh.. and the picture is not a clue. People are supposed to know inspite of the photo. and it was educational as you did not know the name of that God.

      September 28, 2010 at 2:32 pm |

    Hi Mrs.Flannigan 🙂

    September 28, 2010 at 9:50 am |
  18. Former Catholic School Boy

    This is no surprise to me at all. Intelligent people look at things logically and usually come to the conclusion that there is most likely something out there that is beyond our comprehension but that organized religions are nothing more than man's creation. They are businesses. People are taught to fear "God" and those who are less intelligent are easily manipulated. There are many good lessons to be learned from the bible. It's a shame that most people use it to demonize others. The true good people are kind to others and have a sense of justice. Then there are others who feel superior and use their religion to hurt and judge others who have never done anything to them. I like to beleive that TRUE goodness will be rewarded in the end.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:50 am |
  19. tewrobert

    What did they do? han pick the ones they wanted for the quiz.
    there is unoubtly some dummies but there is some scholars out there....do not think for a minute there isnt,
    and in all religions,.........
    We got to stand for somehting, Not like these idiots in office that keep screwing with us to see what they can dream up next.
    Are we goi g to hell or what? Government in religion?

    September 28, 2010 at 9:50 am |
  20. KidCanada

    Of course the atheists are the ones that know more, because they actually took the time to read the literature. Which followed by fits of laughter and a big sure he did...
    It's the blind faith that keeps people ignorant and in the shadows. Faith is only a thought that you have thought of before.
    If more American's read the bible and then read a few other religious books, they would see the copious amount of plagiarism that fills the Christian Holy Bible from cover to cover. But blind faith dictates that you cannot think logically about this, because if you put thought into the other side of the argument, it is a sin, and / or the devil did it!

    September 28, 2010 at 9:49 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.