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. Don Simpson

    Of course Americans know very little about religion. Most people of faith do not question anything. Someone tells them that every word in the Bible or Quaran is the word of holy god and they simply accept it. It should not surprise anyone that the non-believers did well on this quiz. They are the folks who ask question before blindly following what ever they are told. This is why if it so easy to get people to commit acts of violence in the name of god. If there ever was a god, he gave up on this planet long ago.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:26 am |
  2. Morton

    This morning CNN's expert panel appeared to be unanimous that an academic discussion of religion was less useful than belief in something that resulted in being kind to our fellow man. It seems to me that we can do this more easily based on our own sound reasoning than based on instructions by religious leaders who always seem to end up compromising one group or another on our planet.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:25 am |
  3. Joker

    This makes absolute sense. Most agnostics, like myself, researched a lot of religons before comming to the conclusion that they are all a bunch of bull. Faith is fine, but organised religon was just a way to control ignorant weak minded masses. It has no place in modern soceity.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:24 am |
  4. The Adam

    Interesting finding?

    We know all along....

    September 28, 2010 at 10:24 am |
  5. adam s

    religion is the worst. it's almost as bad as believing in America.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:24 am |
  6. Bong-Bong

    10 out of 10 here. Catholic I am but I go to church very very seldom.But communication with God is always there. And I think Eddie Long is so very guilty.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:23 am |
  7. Shane Roberts

    Is this report really a surprise? If these nasty bombastic Christians that protest funerals and wrap their lives around political candidates as a savior actually read the Bible they would see they are not in line with God's will. Read Matthew 15:8 and Isaiah 58, then read the rest of the Bible. A lot of them will be surprised when they stand before God.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:23 am |
  8. gbb5

    take a look at the south americans in this country. If you want to find people who know about religion, and who put the most hours into practicing their religion, it's the South Americans. They're the ones supporting the catholic churchs in the cities.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:22 am |
  9. Keir Gazelle

    With the talk of Mormonism...Glen Beck is Mormon. Takes all kinds in any religion...

    September 28, 2010 at 10:22 am |
  10. Neil C.

    One important item I'd like to point out to the readers of this article and the author, is that the simple 10 question survey provided on this page IS NOT the same quiz given in the actual survey. The article says the questionairre had 32 questions "including general knowledge questions..." CNN's editors should have done a better job pointing that out. It's very misleading.
    But anyway, yeah Redneck Christians are stupid. Educated athiests are not. Big deal. No surprise. I'm an educated Christian.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:21 am |
  11. marblenc

    Realizing they are ignorant about religion, even their own, some Americans are now unsure if Obama really is a secret Muslim trying to subvert Christianity and impose a godless Communist government – or if he was just trying to ensure health care for the needy. http://www.onelineheadline.com

    September 28, 2010 at 10:21 am |
  12. Bong-Bong

    So the Bible-belt southerners came at the bottom of those who took this quiz. And they're the loudest people in the church.And I am pretty sure thye're among the followers of Bishop Eddie Long of Atlanta, who looks very guilty.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:20 am |
  13. Ruth

    here's a longer sample of the quiz.


    September 28, 2010 at 10:19 am |
  14. kay combs

    John Roberts reported that non-believers did better on this quiz because they had a need to win arguments about religion. I think they searched and learned about religions prior to discarding it as a way of life.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:18 am |
  15. Cheese Doodle III

    Jesus is a load of Dingo's kidneys.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:17 am |
  16. chellekd

    I got 9 out of 10 right. Not bad for someone who came from a WV Pentecostal background. With that being said I'm glad that my minister Dad always taught me to be open and tolerant to other faiths even if I didn't believe in them. I learned things from him outside of the Bible which gave me an appreciation for everyone's beliefs. Now if you'll excuse me I need to go learn more about Ramadan.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:16 am |
  17. Michael

    It's not surprising that atheists scored higher on the test than most religious people. After all, the dominant religions in the United States keep their followers by encouraging them to remain ignorant of other religions out of fear they will find out that there's basically nothing new under the sun, and that the ideas of Christianity date all the way back to ancient Egyptian religion ant the mythology surrounding Horus and Set.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:16 am |
  18. Ryan

    Education is the cure for ignorance? Golly! Since when?!

    September 28, 2010 at 10:15 am |
  19. Wow, really

    I do wish there was also a survey or report on the difference of charity, volunteering, and contributions to society as a whole between religious people and the non-believers. I have seen the dollars spent (and the economic classes) of those from religious beliefs, but don't have any figures from non-believers. I suspect I know the results (for median per person contributions) but with out data I could be wrong. But it would be a great addition to this story CNN is pushing.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:15 am |
  20. Aeowyn

    I love religions. It occupies people who might otherwise bother me. But really, why waste energy on what other people believe? For cripes sake people nearly worship celebrities, but I don't go around harping on them for what they do in their free time. If I'm going to hell, I have fantastic company.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:15 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.