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. Christ Follower

    I don't understand why atheists are so full of hate. I know that is a generalization but it seems that those who post in venues such as this are in-your-face intolerant name-callers. My God preaches love and having a servant heart. Yes, there are and always have been those who use "religion" as a means to accomplish their twisted agenda (the group in Kansas who preach hate and the militant Muslims who kill innocents in the name of Allah), but true followers of Jesus are full of joy and love ("by their fruit, you shall know them").

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

      Too bad your religion has such conflicts that you can't really follow it. You claim your religion is one of love probably because Jeebus was a peace-loving hippie communist, though his predecessor "Father God" was a tempestuous tantrum-throwing child. Kill all who do not believe the same way. Keep on twisting those words however it suits you.

      September 28, 2010 at 11:20 am |
    • AliasJohnDoe

      "Christ Follower" said..."I don't understand why atheists are so full of hate."

      That comment was "full of hate". The atheists I know are mostly loving and giving people.

      Why would a supposedly "good Christian" like you say such a hateful thing? Or is that what you are programmed to say?

      September 28, 2010 at 3:13 pm |
  2. Philipp

    10/10. Does that make me agnostic?

    September 28, 2010 at 11:10 am |
  3. rogerashton

    With 21 or fewer right answers out of 32, every category flunked!

    September 28, 2010 at 11:09 am |
  4. Nella

    this article is fair enough. i really appreciate for it, because shows to us about the fact. So we can see which is can being honest as a human. Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, never ask us to save them. Why human can't understand and get this point? ah, or you too drunk!? if the answer is YES,
    just relax and enjoy http://gritte-agatha.co.cc

    September 28, 2010 at 11:09 am |
  5. CenterStage

    The survey nor the article are about religion; they are about the KNOWLEDGE of religion(s). There's a vast difference. If questioned in a survey about their own particular religion, most people who confess to be religious would pass. However, professing to be "religious" does not make you Christian. Society's view and definition of what it means to be a true Christian has become skewed.

    September 28, 2010 at 11:08 am |
  6. katlynruth

    I find this article very interesting. It is true that most popele who claim to be religious are not true believers but just the technical believers. Technical believers are people who have faith and "know the bible" but dont know anything about their history and the proof behind God. Most people dont even know that dinosoars were mentioned in the bible over 23 times. Most people dont know that the bible says a thousand years is like a day to God, so it is very possible that the earth took seven thousand years to create not the literal seven days. What most athiests/agnostics choose to ignore is the bible has predicted the future over and over again. I scored a 9/10 on the quiz, rather well I think but it is not because I am "religious" nor am I an "unbeliever." I know these things because I actuallly RESEARCH and pay attention in school... not just google 😉

    September 28, 2010 at 11:08 am |
    • OnanismO

      I just love it when bible-thumpers claim the bible is accurate in predicting the future. HA HA HA! Do you realize how easy it is to predict DOOM? Oh, well things will get worse in the future. There will be an END. Ooooooh. Wow! What prognostication! Look, I'll show you how easy it is. The prediction I am about to make will NEVER fail (as long as there is a stock market).
      PREDICTION: The stock market will get worse.

      September 28, 2010 at 11:12 am |
    • OnanismO

      Dinosaurs mentioned in the bible? HA HA HA! Please quote chapter & verse!
      FACT: Dinosaurs NEVER lived side by side with humans according to the fossil record which has only been dug up in the last century or so. Keep on drinking that Kool-Aid and wearing the tin-foil hat. HA HA HA!

      September 28, 2010 at 11:16 am |
    • billyjojimbob

      This HAS to be a joke, right? Dinosaurs in the bible? The Earth is 7,000 years old? I would like you to point out one prediction the bible made correctly. If the bible predicted the Enlightenment, the cure for polio, the popularity of a thing called the internet or the fact that a man named Barack Obama would be the 44th President of a world power called the United States of America, THEN I would be impressed. Hell, that would even make me a believer. I beg you to give me an answer: Name one prediction the bible has gotten right.

      September 28, 2010 at 12:12 pm |
  7. Philip

    WOW...I got 100 and I'm an atheist 🙂

    September 28, 2010 at 11:05 am |

    Spirituality and Faith are truly wonderfull things. Religion, as a whole, and the missinterpretation of it's disperate messages could quite realisticly be considered the greatest crime against humanity this world has ever known. Funny how people are so quick to execute the guy that kills one person, yet revere Imams, Popes, and Priests that are responsible for the deaths of millions throughout history. Yet we are SUPRISED that some of the most 'faithful' are so ignorant about the subject they will claim is most important to their lives?

    September 28, 2010 at 11:04 am |
    • IJAbraham

      Please note that this earth is the domain of the devil. He was cast down from heaven because he and his imps tried to rebel against GOD. Don't be naive. The devil rules this world of ours, and he has his ministers. That is why we pray for GOD's love; so that we are spared the wiles of the devil. Only the spirit of GOD can save us. If the evils you see make you angry, call out to the GOD of salvation. Tell Him about your concerns. You will be surprised how GOD can work in your life to bring change to the workings of our world. Amen.

      September 28, 2010 at 3:17 pm |
  9. JustMe

    I got 9 out of 10 w/o cheating and am an atheist. The questions needed to be harder. Then only atheists and possibly preachers could answer them as most christians never read in depth into there book. Most never read it or only read it using a book that tells them which passages to read.

    I wonder why? Oh ya because most of the book contains sick things that if it was any other book you wouldn't allow your children to read.

    That is all good day.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:57 am |
  10. JSD

    Religion is a crutch for the weak people who cannot lead themselves.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:56 am |
  11. Goss

    7 out 10......awesome and I don't even go to church.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:55 am |
  12. patti bradfield

    Dear CNN, I find this article offensive. This slanted piece of writing (not journalism) has been my tipping point. You have fallen down the proverbial rabbit hole of left vs right and this reader....chooses to not read nor watch you anymore. You have ceased being 'our' watchdog on what's really happening in America. No wonder your ratings have fallen so badly.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:52 am |
  13. MikeTheInfidel

    This quiz is fundamentally broken. While the birth stories of Jesus say he was born in Bethlehem, later bits of the gospel have people talking about how he's from Nazareth.

    Where was Jesus Born?

    September 28, 2010 at 10:49 am |
  14. IJAbraham

    Many people claim a traditional religion even though they actually practice no religion or practice a subcultural religion. Most people who claim to be Christian in fact do not practice Christianity at all. The same can be said for Jews, Muslims and others. Take note that GOD expects the believer to know His laws and commandments. In addition, the knowledge of GOD is the beginning of wisdom. All Christians must know enough about GOD in order to please Him.

    Spiritual Ignorance, which is associated with darkness or evil according to the Holy Scriptures, is not a trait of a believer, but of a non-believer. Furthermore, without the knowledge of GOD pleasing Him is impossible.

    In my opinion, a public education system that does not teach students about GOD is creating a morally and spiritually bankrupt society that is destined to decline and destruction. These United States will never be saved by its military, but by the moral and spiritual character of her citizens.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:49 am |
  15. Rosa altagracia

    What is a "white catholic"? I did not know in all life that there was a difference between a white, black, hispanic, asian Catholics. I am a American dominican and in my youth attending ccd all races and cultures shared the same classroom learning the same stories of the bible.
    It is blowing my mind how choice words impowers one race to think better of themselves then the other.
    I think that CNN and all the other news channels should really hear yourselves, and know how you instill separatism in society.
    Words are things and poeple who hear these words go with it like the wind, without thinking for themselves.
    But again, what is a white catholic again? Know wonder poeple don't change for the netter, know wonder there are those that can't step outside there cultural circle. It's really sad but it is a reality not almost everyone seems to be okay with.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:48 am |
  16. gbb5

    I took the quiz, and I found that I know more about the muslim faith then I know about my own.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:46 am |
  17. Cherry

    It's amazing what people will say behind a computer screen or within themselves. "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (quote from Jesus) What you say out your mouth is indicative of what fills your heart/mind and of what type of person your are. I'd rather be an ignorant Christian than a hateful person of a different faith or philosophy. As an Evangelical fundamentalist, I know exactly what I believe, and am constantly learning and studying the beliefs of others. After studying the beliefs and philosophies of other faiths, I found that Jesus speaks most accurately about mankind and society (back then and today). I don't force my beliefs on anyone I share my philosophies just like the atheist or agnostic does in the coffee shop. For the record I got a 10 out of 10 on quiz.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:45 am |
  18. mtw220

    My dads father was a preacher as well as my Mom's. When they left home they left all that atmospher behind until I was about 15 or 16 and they started making me go to church. They made me get baptized and remember like it was yesterday, when I was walking down in the pool for baptism and some elders of the church were TELLING me to talk in tongues. I was like, what the hell. I knew this wasn't right. And these were so called elders, leaders of the church. It was a total turn off for me. I vowed to study different religions as well as the history of religion, meaning before Christianity. Man what an eye opener. Trust me, I'm at peace forever. No one can never come to me and try to covert me to anyting. Take that fear and your' going to hell crap and stick it.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:45 am |
    • IJAbraham

      MTW220 you were caught up in a bad cult, which usually works to create the person you have become. You said that you have studied religion. I hope that your study was thorough. If it was, you must have found that there is a force that no man can deny; a creative and natural force. This force we call GOD. The question you must ask yourself is: Does GOD exists? If your answer is yes, then you must dutifully find out who He is. As an exercise, read the book of PROVERBS in the Holy Scriptures. Do not think about you parents or the church elders, but think about yourself and your own relationship with GOD. Pray for wisdom. I wish you LOVE and PEACE!

      September 28, 2010 at 11:10 am |
  19. Raymond

    here is a nice quiz

    September 28, 2010 at 10:45 am |
  20. Jc Ohio

    Hey "Munch" ... "For the record, I took the quiz and got 10 out of 10 right. "
    That really doesn't say too much for you since the actual quiz had 32 questions ... not 10.
    It wasn't a quiz regarding a persons level of faith, but their knowledge of that faith and things faith related.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:44 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.