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. religion is hog.wash

    i got 5/10 guessed on 3

    September 28, 2010 at 12:40 am |
  2. naughtydog

    I think this goes to show that most people just go to church and think that covers it. They don't bother to read and understand what is being taught from the source. I scored 10/10 btw.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:40 am |
  3. Tom

    That was a pretty easy quiz. Pity they didn't have all 32 questions from the test.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:40 am |
  4. Larry

    Unfortunately, Disheartened, you are right on several counts. Christians today, for the most part, are no different from the "world". We go to church (when convenient), pray (if we remember) and rely on God (when all else fails). This is not the model of early Christians or of the Biblical church. We have strayed far. My response is this: Please don't judge Christianity by the deeds of any other man other than the One whose name it carries – the Lord Jesus Christ. Look at His example and you won't find ANY hatred of any person – only of sin. If we ltake a hard, honest look honestly at "sin" , we'll see that Nothing – that is NOTHING – that is considered sinful by God's standard is bad for us individuallly or as a people. In fact, we would see that God's admonishments are for our own good. They're harder to find nowadays, but go to any true Christian church and you'll find some good, solid, loving Christian men and women who are "the salt of the earth".

    September 28, 2010 at 12:39 am |
    • Frogist

      @Larry: I was under the impression that hom-os-exuality was still considered a sin, yet it harms no one. This seems to contradict what you are saying.

      September 28, 2010 at 1:07 am |
    • shecky

      well, 'thou shalt not kill' taken literally will kill you right quick. plants are in fact 'alive' when u eat them, you kill them. further qualifiers added saying 'well its okay to eat plants' merely illustrate semantic issues of the language used. assuming the commandment to only include humans assumes a level of prime importance to humans that doesn't fit in with the 'meek shall inherit the earth' doohickey

      October 3, 2010 at 2:23 am |
  5. religion is hogwash

    correction 5/10

    September 28, 2010 at 12:39 am |
  6. Scott

    So it's plain, the more educated & smart you are, the less likely you are to be pulled into the fairy tale world that is religion. They pondered religion, weighed it and rejected it, whereas the less intelligent/lazy minded are more likely to blindly follow a faith even without understanding it.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:38 am |
  7. Grizz

    When I clicked on the link in the article, I got this message:

    “Sorry, but you are looking for something that isn't here.”

    Which is ironic, since that pretty much sums up religion and belief in a supreme being(s) in a single sentence.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:38 am |
  8. Mary

    Another 10/10 well educated athiest here. The more you learn about religions and all their myths and stories, the more one comes to see how ridiculous they sound. Some of the rituals are nice, but believing them as truth is another matter. The non-religious people I know are more curious, well-read and willing to look at different views because they are not threatened by knowledge that might challenge their rigid beliefs.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:38 am |
  9. Shafster

    Ignorant it's sad

    September 28, 2010 at 12:37 am |
  10. religion is hogwash

    5/5 guessed 3 correct haha @ "tall tales

    September 28, 2010 at 12:37 am |
  11. Andrea

    I wouldn't read to much into this article. Survey's are not accurate and even though it proves a point it still lacks fundamental basics to be called fact.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:37 am |
    • steven harnack

      So you're saying that you scored very badly?

      September 28, 2010 at 1:31 am |
  12. Bugs Bunny

    No surprise here – the religious people are low IQ, the atheist high IQ. That has been proven. It also explains why the atheists don't lap the religious stuff up – too smart for that. I wonder how many religious people fell for the Nigerian Internet scam?

    September 28, 2010 at 12:37 am |
    • Larry

      But you're not arrogant at all, I guess? God is not a respector of persons – IQ, personality, looks, athleticism, etc. don't impress Him. We're not saved by anything we are or anything we do. We're saved only by the grace of God, who calls us by faith. There's no room for braggarts in heaven. If that sounds dumb, just call me stupid! I'll wear it as a badge of honor.

      September 28, 2010 at 1:19 am |
    • asrael

      But Larry, aren't you bragging about your "badge of honor"...?

      September 28, 2010 at 4:59 am |
    • Crimson

      Arrogance isn't the question here, to counter respectfully, Larry. All people can be considered arrogant to some extent. I'm not touching the higher IQ issue here, but if that were the case, then the arrogance that may or may not be accompanying is moot. The article isn't trying to make a statement about the arrogance of the religious and non-religious.

      September 28, 2010 at 9:28 am |
  13. growski

    Look at all of the MAJOR problems in the world. All are created and fueled by the ignorance and intolerance taught by the 3 major religions.. End religion, end the world's problems..

    September 28, 2010 at 12:37 am |
    • Crimson

      I respect your opinion here, but I disagree. I'm closest to Agnostic myself, but it seems that a lot of people rely on their faith and the community it creates to go about their lives. Also, while some religions are surely violent and whatnot, there are many great things that religious groups do (whether they'd do it without their religion is aside from the point) such as soup kitchens, donations, etc. Religion serves a purpose, some good and some bad, but something else would take its place if it weren't around.

      September 28, 2010 at 9:26 am |
  14. JB

    They should have asked this one
    "In Islam, Jesus is "
    a)considered an important prophet
    b)Considered the son of god
    c)not mentioned

    Then followed it up by asking the same about Judaism. I think the answers would have surprised a lot of the self righteous Christians that hold Islam in such contempt and consider Muslims their enemy, while looking at Israel and Jews as just a different form of Christian. Until the day she died my devout mother refused to believe that in Judaism they don't believe Jesus is anything but an old school David Koresh, but thems the facts.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:37 am |
    • fmode

      Well (b) of course. He's a prophet as far as they are concerned; but of course the parts where he claimed to be the Son of God, he was just joking. Or maybe he was a habitually lying prophet!

      September 28, 2010 at 1:16 am |
  15. JFT

    Half of Catholics didn't know about the ritual cannibalism they're supposed to be engaging in when they take Communion? They don't know that the bread and wine are supposed to become the actual body and blood of someone two thousand years dead (if he existed at all?) How could you miss that part of the whole rigamarole? The thought of it is enough to make a reasoning person sick. Could it be that the Catholic Church is downplaying this gruesome little detail these days?

    September 28, 2010 at 12:37 am |
    • ratkartz

      You mean they still believe in cannibalism as well as transmogrification? I am shocked. Those people should be crucified!

      September 28, 2010 at 12:52 am |
    • Catholic and faithful

      Do not state what you do not know as fact. Catholics are taught before they are allowed to receive the Lord, our God, that it is his body and blood in the form of bread and wine. We are receiving him into our hearts and souls.
      Also I would like to reply to those who condemn Christianity for killing. True Christians do not kill. What is heartbreaking is why so many infants are being killed by abortion, especially now that it is proven by sonogram that a baby is truly in the mothers's womb before birth.

      September 28, 2010 at 12:17 pm |
    • jaypenn

      catholics!!!! you had to bring abortion into this. thank you for making the stunningly erudite point that it's been proven that a baby is in it's mother's womb prior to birth. did you really need a sonogram to tell you that? where did you think it was prior to birth? between her cheek and gum? in a fanny pack? in mary's back pocket waiting for a bus?

      c'mon kids.

      September 29, 2010 at 5:02 pm |
  16. Jim978

    It is amusing to read the comments from a handful of atheists who are so proud of how they did in the on-line quiz and comparing it to those who scored 50% or worse for the actual survey. Apparently these smug morons didn't read the actual article that mentions that there were 32 questions asked for the survey and didn't realize that they weren't taking the same quiz. Way to demonstrate your brillance!

    September 28, 2010 at 12:35 am |
    • James

      The pew website doesn't have the full quiz either (at least not anywhere on the front page) so this atheist had to content himself with the 10 questions CNN chose. I'd love to take the whole thing, just to get a sense of where my knowledge of religion is lacking. When you "out" yourself as an atheist, it's often followed by a flurry of folks trying to tell you why you're wrong, so it's handy to have more than a passing familiarity with religion in its many varied forms.

      Since the article explicitly points out that atheists and agnostics scored highest, it's a safe bet that at least some of their knowledge stems from just this sort of self-defense education. That and every atheist I know personally has come to the position after taking a long, deep look at their own religious tradition.

      September 28, 2010 at 12:47 am |
    • asrael

      You had me at "smug morons', Jim; thanks for the demo...

      September 28, 2010 at 4:56 am |
    • hyde1886@gmail.com


      knock yourself out ... (atheist 30/32)

      September 28, 2010 at 9:36 pm |
  17. Ray

    Then keep your missionaries away from my house, mormonboy. Nothing bugs me more than religion at my door.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:35 am |
    • Sloppy J

      Ray, Ray, Ray . .

      "Nothing bugs me more than religion at your door." Really? Nothing? Not mosquito infestations? How about burning sensations when you pee? How about paper cuts? Losing your keys? Auto-tune? Laugh tracks that kick in when nothing funny has happened? Cell phones going off in the theater? Massive oil spills?

      As a former missionary (spent two years in the Bible Belt), I recall that if someone wanted us off their porch, all they had to do was say "go away," "not interested," or (from the real edumacated, classy folk) "f*** off; we're Christian and have been saved already." Unless the rules have changed, LDS missionaries are not allowed to force their way into your foyer and physically coerce baptism.

      Though, it sounds like you could use a little tough love . . if you'll provide your address, I'll request a pair of our burlier Elders head right over.

      September 28, 2010 at 10:34 am |
    • shecky

      @ sloppy i have entertained a duo of your compatriots in my home for several hours. they left after much discussion and even gave me a copy of your book. I read it. I was not converted. A different duo of young compatriots of yours arrives at my door roughly monthly. I am polite to apologize for my lack of continuing interest. I only wonder if maybe they could deface my property in some fashion that others of your compatriots would 'just know' that i read the book, and politely said no at least 19 times? Then I realize that I am begging for vandalism of my home ... is there a hotline I can call, or maybe a sign I can post outside my door?

      October 3, 2010 at 2:10 am |
  18. Jim

    All you need to do is watch Jay Leno's "Jay Walk" where he asks simple questions to random people on the street to realize tha America is populated by illiterate, ignorant people. For the record my score was 10/10 and I am an atheist. God protect me from Christians.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:35 am |
    • ktrails

      @Jim – "I am an atheist. God protect me from the Christians." That's pretty funny, Jim! 🙂

      September 28, 2010 at 11:36 am |
  19. James

    "As in any true faith"

    So, there's more than one "true faith". How can that be?

    September 28, 2010 at 12:34 am |
  20. Deklan Singh

    Religion exists for two reasons and ONLY two reasons. One, to help people deal with life, externalize their fears, regrets, apprehensions, etc. Two, to give people a means to assert false authority, exercise false power, manipulate under false pretenses.

    You're welcome.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:33 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.