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. Kazemah

    Islam is the one and only true religion till the end of time. People can say whatever they want about it but it's the truth. I am a muslim woman and I am nowhere near oppressed or looked down upon. Islam honors me as a woman and mother and if anyone actually took the time to research the correct Islam for themselves, instead of believing every little thing they see or hear on tv, they would know that. Everything in my religion is throughly explained. Islam doesn't in any way tell anyone to blow themselves up and in fact forbids suicide. I'm not saying there aren't bad muslims who do bad things, just as all other religions have their sinners, but should islam be understood and based off of the actions of those few people? No. People hate what's right and true and this is surely shown by how much people hate Islam.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:18 pm |
  2. Ron

    50% of Americans don't know the name of the Governor of the state they live in. It's sad...BUT they know the name of the latest American Idol Winner.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:00 pm |
  3. Jennifer

    My Question is, what are their basis for statistics? Mine were not put in there. I know my bible, I do not know a lot of history, but I know my Bible. I am not from the South but I have lived there. Were the ones who took the test young, middle aged, or older? Is there a difference as to background, what is the difference in their family upbringing? There is a lot of missing criteria for them to make such sweeping statements. Beware of all those who try to put labels. Just as the CNN people put down it is "their take" on the information that was garnered. Just as all these comments are our own personal opinions. You can assume all you want that I am uninformed, because I may not get 100% on your quiz, but I bet if you took my quiz "PEWY people you would not pass my quiz!!!!

    September 28, 2010 at 9:43 pm |
    • Ron

      Jennifer, those were basic religious questions. True, they wern't just Christian questions but basic religious questions. Most should have gotten 8 right out of 10. I missed one..About when does the sabbath begin..I knew the sabbath is Saturday for Judaism, but it begins friday night.. I wonder if someone from Irag could have answered the questions? CNN needs to have a quiz about the Christian religion only, not just about Religion.

      September 28, 2010 at 10:09 pm |
  4. Stephanie H.

    Saw this bit on tv last night...why so confused as to why atheists/agnostics would know more about it over theists? Most are former theists, and most got to atheism/agnosticism through much reading and studying.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:33 pm |
  5. Hugh

    All religions are wrong — including atheism. They should all be ignored so we can progress as a society.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:31 pm |
  6. Phil

    I'm atheist and answered them all correctly. What does that say? It says that this is not an accurate gauge for intelligence, religion or not. The test was pointless.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:05 pm |
  7. MLopez

    I myself had a Lutheran upbringing (private school) until at 14 I had to begin working. I picked up my education at the age of 26 in order to advance my family. I work as a Firefighter/EMT and I am in the Bible Belt. Let me for one just say tht this survey comes as NO SHOCK to me as I battle religious ignorance on behalf of my friends, family an coworkers daily. Religious study is a hobby of mine, however I take it very seriously. I am glad it has finally been put out there in black and white.

    Oh and hey America, try learning FROM other religions too. Remember- You don't have to be wrong, for me to be right. Tolerence comes from learning, not from blind following.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:02 pm |
  8. E. Tousents

    I'm not surprised at any of what's goping on here or the reason for it. For all you Christians out there maybe you ought to read Hosea 4:6. And maybe put a little contemplation into Ps.2
    It won't be long.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:25 pm |
  9. Denise

    I am not surprised at all with the findings of the survey. I spend a lot of time talking to people about the Bible, and I come across people all the time who believe things without thinking about it. Some just pick a religion or belief system that is convenient for them and that allows them to do what they want to do, so thinking about just what they believe would be inconvenient for them (isn't that why there are so many religions today that claim to be Jewish, or Muslim, Christian...?) Others continue in the religion they grew up in without ever really investigating if they wholeheartedly believe what is being taught since they will have to face disgruntled family members if they convert. Furthermore, being a professed Christian no longer means knowing anything in the Bible, it just means giving proper lip service. For example, people utter the Lord's Prayer day after day, "Our Father, who art in heaven hallowed be thy Name (but they don't know what 'hollowed' means or what God's name is), thy kingdom come, thy will be done (but they don't know what God's Kingdom is or what his will is for the earth)..." They don't even know that according to Matthew 6:7 they are not supposed to utter prayers like this one over and over again, but Jesus was giving them a general outline of things they can pray for. In fact, a person doesn't even need to know about Jesus or his message in order to be a professed Christian. Being a professed Christian just means believing in him on a superficial level. People the world over believe in Jesus, but most of them don't let knowledge of him or of his Father determine the way they live their lives or how they speak. They lie, curse, steal, gamble, fight, commit fornication and kill without a second thought, but they do believe in Jesus. They do eveything that Jesus condemned while on earth, yet they claim to follow him. Obviously faith is not enough, but action is needed. (James 2:26) This is why I speak to people about the Bible, to show them just what the Bible teaches so that they can conform their lives to the Bible and make necessary changes to be real Christians based on the Bible, not based on what some man's opinion.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:08 pm |
  10. Tommy_T

    ".....whom no one has ever talked to, heard from or seen...EVER! Get over yourself!"

    So Jesus Christ is just a "figment of my imagination"?? You might want to check your historical FACTS!! That Jesus lives has already been clearly established as HISTORICAL FACT! Next question is "What will YOU do with HIM?"

    September 28, 2010 at 7:31 pm |
  11. Muneef

    Accept to see this with all love and respect;

    Listen with your Ears,Read with your Eyes,Think with your Mind,Judge with your Heart find Truth for the Love of God. When you make one step towards God ,God makes ten towards you, you walk towards him,he comes running to you and that is Love of God is to connect with God through worship,behavior,prayers,praises,glorifies those clean heart deep from darkness of any satanic obsession,scruple,misgiving.

    They say some day some one will come to take you so very faraway and love will show the way..


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

    CNN: Another failed blog comment board: The replies don't go under the original posts and new posts are liable to show up just about anywhere. This is not conducive to an interesting discussion. Please come up with a better system.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:12 pm |
  13. Bradley Skierkowski

    I served in USN at the end of Desert Storm

    September 28, 2010 at 7:04 pm |
  14. Mike

    Because people are full of it, too lazy to read and just speak off the cuff as if they were stating fact. Sound bite simpletons.

    September 28, 2010 at 6:43 pm |
  15. Mike

    Why doesnt CNN do an investigation into the truth behind all religion. They do stories on every other thing they think is worth it. Don't they have an obligation to find out the truth?. Are they afraid of who they will offend with the truth they find? That seams to be the problem with this topic in general. Just start with the pope and work your way down. Demand that they show some hard facts to support there theory. Can't be all that hard, they did it to Joe the plumber and look at what that found...Joe wasn't even a plumber. Let's keep them honest Anderson!

    September 28, 2010 at 6:41 pm |
  16. efrique


    *In Judaism, a day is not from midnight to midnight but from sunset to sunset.*

    i.e. for Jews the Sabbath does *begin on Saturday* – it starts at sundown. Sheesh, Pew, how lame.

    September 28, 2010 at 6:34 pm |
  17. Caesar

    The only problem I have ever had with religion, any religion, is that the faithful seem to think that athiests need to prove that god doesn't exist. Not only is that completly idiotic, but impossible. Athiests in general have just come to the conclusion that nothing indicates an all powerful diety is responsible for the universe. What religious people need to realize is the simple fact that you are asserting that there IS some type of being out there. Using simple logic, the burden of proof would have to be upon the religious to prove the existance of the being they are saying exists. Simply waving a book around and saying it's true because you were taught it was isn't very compelling. If any scientist in any field tried that he would be laughed out of his profession. (and before you grab the herring, almost all scientific texts are based upon many years of study, experiments, and observation. all of which cannot be said for almost any religious texts.)

    September 28, 2010 at 6:32 pm |
  18. sara

    Hmm. Maybe it's just that Agnostics and Atheists are more intelligent people -OR- Perhaps once educated on religion people realize that god does not exist.

    September 28, 2010 at 6:03 pm |
  19. BigJ

    Amazing how quickly this story disappeared from CNN's frontpage.

    September 28, 2010 at 5:57 pm |
  20. MC

    Does it really matter if we know what the first book of the bible is? The thing that is truly embarrassing is that many Americans can't find America on the map, and almost nobody can point out Iraq on a map. I bet some people can't even tell you what country we live in. I am serious. Have you ever seen Jay Walking on Jay Leno or that old show Street smarts? Truly pathetic.

    September 28, 2010 at 5:56 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.