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. Dwight

    12/21/2012, Matthew 24:29 it is for the humans of Malachi 4:1. As the 5 Plan_ETs & the moon aline. A new age of thinking will be, me thinking that 12-9-2010 the ST-ART date.

    September 28, 2010 at 3:11 pm |
  2. Brighton

    On the one hand, ignorance of religious differences reduces sectarian violence. One the other hand, ignorance of honest spiritual values increases fundamentalist violence. In the end, we don't need organized religion. Morality is religion-neutral. American religion is slowly becoming kindergarden-level new age. That's probably a good thing, except that we have to marginalize some beautiful sacred literature. Go here for my two sheckels on this topic: http://brighton-towne.blogspot.com/2010/09/america-is-abandoning-organized.html

    September 28, 2010 at 3:09 pm |
  3. SkegeAce

    Who in the crap administers these tests? Who takes them? I'm a southern protestant and I knew all of the answers to those questions. And what was the need to point out the fact that "white" protestants got more than half right. What's with the racial categorization? Dang, CNN...get it together!

    September 28, 2010 at 3:08 pm |
  4. publius enigma

    Its more important to remember that the theme of Jesus is forgiveness of sin than to remember the names of the 5 first chapters of the NT.

    September 28, 2010 at 3:03 pm |
  5. brad

    If man can be moral without religion, it can never be proven. An analogy: here in the Southwest, the temperature will soar well above 100 for weeks on end. The streets bake all day and after sundown, they are still hot. Imagine someone stepping onto those streets at night and proclaiming "See. I don't need the sun to keep warm !" For 4000 years, humanity has been "soaked" in the Judeo/Christian morality. (Read such books as Wisdom before your religion=violence comments). Our morality is only that borrowed from the past. Can't go back, remove religion, and see what would happen.

    September 28, 2010 at 3:01 pm |
  6. hates religion loves Jesus

    From the Pew survey:

    White evangelical Protestants answer an average of 17.6 religious knowledge questions correctly. Though white evangelicals have lower scores than Jews and atheists/agnostics overall, they do significantly better on questions about the Bible. White evangelicals correctly answer an average of 5.1 out of seven Bible questions, compared with 4.4 among atheists and agnostics and 4.3 among Jews. Mormons answer almost six of the seven Bible questions correctly on average.

    So this means that Christians know more about their own faith than atheists, so everyone who said Christian's don't know about what they believe in needs to apologize, because the Pew Survey says Christians knew more about the entire bible than atheists and Jews.


    September 28, 2010 at 3:00 pm |
  7. Guy M

    The results are about what I was expecting in terms of relative ranking but the numbers are more than a little disappointing across the board given how easy the 32 questions are. Personally, I would be embarrassed by anything less 30 of 32 or so. That doesn't make me a smug atheist / agnostic. It makes me a disappointed American who happens to be an atheist / agnostic.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:58 pm |
  8. rews

    The person who wrote this piece said: The survey is full of surprising findings. I find this comment either disingenous, or evidence of a complete lack of understanding of what has been going on in this nation for decades. A cursory glance at the affairs plaguing our nation gives cogent witness to the anemic condition of Biblical Chrisitanity in this nation.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:51 pm |
  9. mehmet

    It s awkward that the ones whom we think that they know nothing about religions,got the highest score. I haven't got the test but i believe I ll score higher than average and I completely agree that education is the key, unfortunately arogance does not coincide with knowledge.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:50 pm |
  10. Chuck Norris

    I got 20/10 for simpy answering all questions with CHUCK NORRIS! For Chuck Norris is god!

    September 28, 2010 at 2:45 pm |
  11. Stephanie

    Can anyone give me a citation for question 10? according to the supreme court, can a public school teacher from the bible as an example of literature? Thanks.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:43 pm |
  12. NL

    Dez, posting @ 1:12 (CNN, please fix this time zone problem)
    You said "Really? We need Christianity taught in schools because parents don't have time to teach it at home? Hmmmm ... I suppose also that goes for manners, personal hygeine, responsible pet ownership, how to change a light bulb and basic toilet training?"

    Kindergarden teachers already teach manners, personal hygeine, responsible pet ownership (through class pets like turtles), and even basic toilet training, believe it or not. Lessons in how to change a light bulb come in later grades, when they teach basic electrical circuits.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:42 pm |
  13. Randy R

    As one of Jehovah"s Witnesses I am in my community as questions of people about religion. Most know very little. I live in Nashville the buckel of the bible belt but most people go with emotion, either making a choice due to family history or look for a church tha offers something for their career, socilal standing, or some sports related activity. Reason seems to take a low place on choices.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:42 pm |
  14. brad

    One post suggested getting a psychologist to help "get over" a religious mentality.
    Carl Jung, father of psychoanalysis, said "I have treated many hundreds of patients. Among those in the second half of life – that is to say, over 35 – there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. " When asked if he believed in God, he replied, " I don't believe it. I know it."

    September 28, 2010 at 2:34 pm |
  15. Randy R

    As one of Jehovah"a Witnesses I am at peoples doors asking questions and I find a great lack of knowledge of religion in the community where i live, Nashville. Most people either pratice a faith their family has maybe fpr years or find the church that he;lps them with a job, social standing, or sport activities. There is very little baised on anything else ather than feeling. Logic seems to have been left at the door.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:32 pm |
  16. Carole

    If religion is taught in school, it should be taught as a subject and include some history and facts about each of the major religions of the world.It should be taught as objectively as any other subject is taught. This would help students understand how to be critical and selective about the things they hear in the media about religious groups. It should also make students more understanding and tolerant of each person's right to believe as they think is right for them. The parents should be the ones who try to teach their children what to believe, but a well educated child can make his own choice about what to believe or not believe when s/he is an adult.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:32 pm |
  17. brad

    One post here suggested getting a psychologist to help get over such mental conditions as religion. Carl Jung, father of psychoanalysis observed this: "I have treated many hundreds of patients. Among those in the second half of life – that is to say, over 35 – there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. "
    In an interview he was asked "do you believe in God". His answer: " I do not believe. I know."

    September 28, 2010 at 2:27 pm |
    • conradshull

      Over Jung's door read the words (translated), "Bidden or Unbidden, God is present"

      September 28, 2010 at 2:31 pm |
  18. conradshull

    I scored 10 out of 10. This was a religion related history/culture quiz. There wasn't any actual theology questions.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:27 pm |
  19. NL

    If Jesus was a real person then he was a male Jew and could read from Torah, right? If he could, or bothered to read anything else is unknown. Being wide read was a rarity for a Jew living in that area at that time, but restricting oneself to only scripture nowadays is simply inexcusable.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:21 pm |
  20. sockeyerama

    Resistance to Mosque near ground zero is classic evidence of ignorance of religions. You can relate in exhaustive detail and provide voluminous evidence that the vast majority of the 1.5 billion believers of Islam were not responsible for nor in approval of the 9/11 terrorism, and at the end of your plea for common sense, they will, with a glazed look, just repeat their criticisms of Islam as though they never heard a word. -Not even the pretense of a solid counter argument! All they offer is some anecdotal account of a stoning in some village in northern Afghanistan or a subjective interpretation of the Koran.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:15 pm |
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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.