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. whahappened?

    Religion is kind of like pizza. You might find some that you like and some that you don't, but in the end, it is all the same hot mess.

    September 28, 2010 at 11:40 am |
  2. Murray Rizberg

    RE: "The survey is full of surprising findings. For example, it's not evangelicals or Catholics who did best – it's atheists and agnostics."

    Why is this fact shocking? OF COURSE people whose beliefs are based on the collection of data (reason) are more knowledgeable than people whose beliefs are based on accepting the word of their elders (faith)!

    September 28, 2010 at 11:38 am |
  3. TCB

    All good comes from GOD and all evil comes from oneself. If you do good you will reap good as for evil you will reap as well. Some of us believe in this; for here and now, may they be blessed. Those who believe in reaping good in this life and the next may the Creator all that is in the heavens and on earth bless them. Those who intenionally (scheme,plan, oppress) commit evil may they reap the full benefits of there works. As human beings can we agree to this and work together to spread goodness no matter what faith or denomination you represent, because while fight and debate against each other we are losing to small minority who clearly hate any truth that lays a foundation of justice, equality, etc...to build humanity upon.

    September 28, 2010 at 11:38 am |
    • Murray Rizberg

      You are the reason we atheists can't stand reiligious people, TCB: in the comments section of an article about the religious knowledge of the general public, you waste all of your time talking about heaven and hell instead of the topic at hand. And your totally off-topic comment conveniently explains why you know less about religion than I do.

      September 28, 2010 at 11:53 am |
    • shecky

      i think an atheist reply to your comment would be 'yawn'. a very vocal atheist might ask you 'what do you mean when you say scheme?'
      the rest will just run, quickly. you should spend the 'alone time' after they run ingesting some pertinent information.

      October 3, 2010 at 3:28 am |
  4. vel

    This is no suprise. In my experience as a former theist and now atheist, I was looking for the "real" religion, so I did a lot of research in to many religions. I found that they are all the same, primitive myths created by man to explain the universe, with each "sect" deciding it was "special". After reading about how Judge Jame Taylor in Rogersville TN, wanted a 10 commandments plaque up and couldn't even get it right, 'forgetting' the commandment about adultery, this willful ignorance of religion by theists is no suprise at all. I belong to the forum at Why Won't God Heal Amputees and we see this every day over and over.

    September 28, 2010 at 11:34 am |
  5. john g

    all the hate and jugement STOP!!!! eye see you

    September 28, 2010 at 11:33 am |
  6. Believer

    10 of 10. An evangelical Christion with a long background in agnosticism.

    September 28, 2010 at 11:31 am |
  7. Pumkin

    Also I find interesting that the article points out those of less education scored worse than those with a higher education. Well the Bible is full of accounts where Jesus used common people who witnessed His miracles and helped to spread His message even under brutal backlash but those of a 'higher education' where out to bring him down. Maybe we can take away this: Those with less of an education have operate from faith and those of a higher education operate more from logic which diminishes their faith. By operating in faith one is able to recognize the works of God where as one who questions his existance using logic has difficulty noticing His presence.

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

      Simpletons acting on faith as opposed to the erudite who rely on logic is as much as saying simpletons don't want to know why anything is the way it is, they just accept what they have been told without a shred of evidence. DUMB!

      September 28, 2010 at 11:40 am |
  8. Pumkin

    Interesting article about 'America's knowledge on religion', which is all it is about. It has nothing to do with 'what you believe' but everything to do with 'what you know'. If you are Jewish did you know Jesus' birthplace? If you are Catholic did you know the name of the Muslim holy month? Again, the article is just trying to point out what how much America knows on religion.

    September 28, 2010 at 11:27 am |
  9. Condescending Atheist

    All this article did is rally the atheists. Sheesh. After reading so many of the responses, apparently the atheists are going to feel even more smug than they already do. I'm a Christian, I'm educated about world religions. The fact that educated atheists scored better than southern redneck "Christians" is nothing to be so proud of. I'm not even doubting the findings: yes too many Christians don't know their own religion, or basics about other religions. It's sad and disappointing to me. But for all you atheists: to read this article and think, "aha, see! This PROVES something. This proves that religion is wrong, this proves that Christianity is wrong, this proves that Christians are bad people, yada yada yada, blah blah blah, – you are totally getting off base and LEAPING to conclusions that this survey did not prove. You're just getting all excited and spewing your hatred for something that gave you a bad experience in your life.
    And to all the IDIOTS who think the guy who said there is only one Bible is an IDIOT, you can get off your high horse, because you are IDIOTS. There is only one Bible. If what you mean to think is that there are many "holy books", yes, there are many different "holy books" from different religions, but there is only one book called the Bible, which belongs to Christianity. And different translations don't count as different Bibles.

    September 28, 2010 at 11:26 am |
    • billyjojimbob

      I think what this survey indirectly says is that the more you know about religion, the more you realize what crap it all is. Because let's face it: It truly is. A supernatural being who can hear all your prayers? An omnipotent being who, if he were to exist, would be a totally cruel nihilist (all because he wants to test us? Give me a break)? Think about how insane this would sound to someone not having any idea about the monotheistic religions.

      I'm one of those smug atheists...and, no, I have no childhood traumas to speak (just a father who taught me to think critically). I think the burden is on you to show us Atheists the proof. Atheists are smarter than you – at least about religion – because they KNOW you will never be able to come up with the proof. Until you give me some real evidence, I'll put as much stock in the Flying Spaghetti Monster as I would in your silly, cruel, arrogant, selfish, jealous God.

      I'm sure you're an intelligent person...you just aren't about religion.

      September 28, 2010 at 11:46 am |
    • shecky

      i'm an atheist. i do not feel in any way smug to offer another human being valuable insight that i gained through personal learning. if by learning you are somehow lessened, this too makes me question your priority towards faith. i will exclude anyone lessened by learning from further discourse.

      October 3, 2010 at 3:35 am |
    • shecky

      you think YOU are persecuted? lol try being an atheistic deep southerner. my fave is to wear my t-shirt on sunday at the grocery store that has a fake name badge on it that says 'hello, my name is satan'. it gets conversation flowing in a jiffy.

      October 3, 2010 at 3:41 am |
  10. SpringWolf

    Another pagan with a 10/10 score. Many of us have always known that non-Christians have greater knowledge about other religions and more accurate knowledge of Christianity than Christians themselves do. Blindly following a religion and it's doctrine does not guarantee your passage into "heaven".

    Early pagans didn't instigate war over the belief that their religious views were the only true path and all others must be eliminated. They were war like because life was hard then and they often fought for their own survival. More land meant more food to sustain their own people. Going to war over belief is a phenomenon of the Abrahamic religions (Jewish, Christian, Muslim and their off shoots).

    Pagan religions (Shamanism, Witchcraft, Hindu, Budhist etc) have all grown over the past 2000 years, incorporating knowledge and wisdom from the growth of societies, cultures, science and medicine. What each of these practice today is not the same staunch, set in stone doctrine of the past. We have evolved not only in mind and body, but also in spirit accordingly.

    However, non-pagan religions refuse to grow and change for the better. Believing that what was written is the only path and it need not be altered. Which is why they score at the bottom of the chart. Unwilling to learn about others and share a view of tolerance, acceptance and peace. They each in their own way fight to promote their way as the one and only way of living. And this is why they are still living in the past and still inflicting their own hatred and bigotry upon the rest of the world.

    You don't have to believe as I do. But you don't have the right to degrade or belittle my beliefs. I respect your rights to follow your own faith, or to follow no faith at all. I do not judge you by those choices, but by how you treat others, how you live up to your own standards of belief/non-belief and I expect the same respect.

    September 28, 2010 at 11:25 am |
  11. Diane

    I've been a Sunday school teacher for 25+ years and wouldn't waste a moment of precious life debating self-worshipers who devise reams of reasons why religion is bad and those who believe are fools. If most of those who left the church were honest, they'd admit the main reason was because they were just too lazy to get their butts out of bed on Sunday morning! Sunday morning sports and bagels hold much greater appeal. I wonder if these "very sophisticated", PC types would "flashback" to those Sunday morning sports and bagels if ever they heard the command: "Assume crash position!" You have the opportunity...you just lack the wisdom! (For the record: I got 9 out of 10: I would fully expect to be cuffed by the local police if I brought out a Bible in a public school classroom for any reason. So I got that one wrong.)

    September 28, 2010 at 11:22 am |
    • shecky

      hmmm, interesting point. in my own case i made it to sunday school very regularly, and on time, no bagel. as an adult i realized that it is infinitely difficult to have a personal relationship with anything described in any book of the bible, though it is very possible to relate to the book, as allegory, or possibly history. i realized that there are many such books. i read them. i became atheist for, any number of reasons, none of which include bagels, all of which include open-mindedness and an eye for detail. i certainly do not feel any hate towards this upbringing as my parents were doing what they felt right. strangely, they too are now non-religious, independent of any thought of mine, as for most of my adult life i lived 1500 miles from them.calling atheism lazy is ... iono dear. its whoa silly. but if you must throw your stone, then i will dodge 🙂 enjoy your time on the planet. be sure to procreate many times as per your faiths teachings.never question authority, it certainly is NOT the lazy way out you follow ... (nope im not sarcastic, heh)

      October 3, 2010 at 3:55 am |
  12. Renee

    After scoring a 10 out of 10 on this "Religious Test", I found it did not test my knowledge at all. My faith is based on the 66 books in the BIBLE and my personal experience with God and his son Jesus Christ. I think there were only one or 2 questions that were based on the BIBLE (King James Version). The remaining 80% of the questions were based on Man traditional practices, that are used to separate God's people. For example the BIBLE does not mention Mother Theresa or Martin Luther or John Smith or the Reformation, or a Supreme court ruling. This "test" is an academic on the history of religion not about the BIBLE.

    September 28, 2010 at 11:22 am |
  13. Ray

    How come the question in the quiz above regarding the faith of most people in Indonesia (Muslim) shows a picture of people in front of a statue of Ganesh (Hindu)?

    September 28, 2010 at 11:19 am |
  14. Salvi

    God is made in mans image. This idea puts religion in its proper perspective.

    September 28, 2010 at 11:15 am |
  15. CenterStage

    This article nor the survey were about religion, but rather they were about the knowledge of religion. There is a vast difference. Having knowledge of religion does not make one religious. Professing to be a Christian does not make one a Christian. Societal views of true Christianity and religion have become skewed.

    September 28, 2010 at 11:14 am |
  16. Da

    A great new book is out called "Cannabis and the Some Solution." by , Chriis Bennett

    September 28, 2010 at 11:14 am |
  17. steve

    I realized something was wrong with religion at 13 when my questions to my pastor/priest/mullah/rabbi/reverend were met with control responses instead of anything that made sense. I began investigating the major religions of the world and soon came to the conclusion that religion is a lie to use and control people. It is essentially fascism and it should be no surprise that people are not given relevant information in any given church; it's counterproductive to indoctrination. How lovely to see the world slowly waking up and recognizing religion as the abuse it is.

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

      I understand Frank. I was skeptical, too! As you should be! You have to study diligently for yourself to believe. Don't just believe what you hear! Have you heard of the Spirit and the Bride? Rev 22:17. Many say that the bride is the church. But only God can give eternal life. Also, if the bride was the church, who would come? Not the non-believers. Rev 21:9-10 says "come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the lamb." and he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain...and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. This isn't a physical city, but spiritual metaphor. Also Gal 4:26 says, "But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother." free means without sin. It is deep and a lot, I know. But the only way to overcome is thru studying. How can we be a cult when we are the only church (like the early church) to keep His commandments, Sabbath which is really Saturday, and Passover(New Covenant, not the O.T. Way) and his feasts? Exodus 23:14. Leviticus 23. Exodus 20 Ten Commandments. The whole world has been led astray! Many follow Pagan ways and Holidays. Halloween, Christmas, and Easter are Pagan traditions. Research history for yourself. 1 Peter 4:3. God tells us over and over throughout the Bible to not follow Pagans, etc. but everyone does! And they make their own justifications as to why. It's not good. We can only preach the Truth now and hope some listen. That's why I feel so obligated to write you back. Hope you can see yourself. God bless you! all churches are false churches Steve! Except the Church of God World Mission Society! Second coming Christ came back because of all the false teachings being preached. It says in the bible that he would come back to remind us! You are right for feeling the way you do! Please find a church near you....let me know if you want help finding one. If you care? Kristycartledge@msn.com

      October 11, 2010 at 2:26 pm |
  18. dan


    the appropriate response to the realization that US non-believers know more re the bible than self-professors

    September 28, 2010 at 11:11 am |
  19. hates religion loves Jesus

    For being so open minded and having the ONLY CORRECT WAY to believe about god you atheists sure are rude, vindictive, show no love and are very judgmental and self righteous.

    September 28, 2010 at 11:11 am |
    • shecky

      the only correct way to believe is to research the thing you are attempting to believe until you in fact do believe it. a common method is the scientific method. it is very reliable. it gave you things like churches, podiums, bibles, crucifixes on a necklace. all kinda things. it is highly regarded on earth.

      October 3, 2010 at 4:03 am |
  20. Bedista

    Who is Maimonides? I need to know or I would be religiously illiterate. So I would know what religion he has so I would religiously knowledgeable. I know many things about religion but like the first few questions that ask about your knowledge on other people like Mother Teresa, etc., then that's 50-50 for me right there, right on the average. You could ask a Koran scholar or a priest or an imam at a remote place in Asia, and if you ask him what religion does Tony Blair converted to, you would have no idea if you don't know who that person is so that's 50/50 right there too and they would probably be surprised that they should know who certain people are to be considered religiously knowledgeable.

    I wish they would publish too other important facts behind those numbers, like on the 3,412 respondents, how many of those were Jews, Christians, atheists, etc. and not just the average of certain groups. Because the info on Christians could be more reliable for the 50% average if 3,412 of those respondents, 3,000 of those where Christians, but if the Muslim people got 75%, it could be true if all Muslims were to take that test which I also hope we can take a look at, but if they were only able to interview or get 8 Muslims to respond and their average is 75%, then this data wouldn't be reliable. I'm just giving an example why other info or data is important as well, so there would be transparency. So can we see those figures as well?

    September 28, 2010 at 11:10 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55
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.