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. yjeva

    While the article and survey are all very interesting I don't think that whether a person knows that Mother Teresa was a Catholic or that most Indonesians are Muslim really proves anything at all about either their IQ or their knowledge and understanding of religion. The questions belong in a general knowledge quiz but have next to nothing to do with anything else.

    September 30, 2010 at 3:42 am |
  2. Atheist

    10 out of 10 correct.
    Many atheists actually study religions, and think about them. that is why most of us do not believe in any. the more you really look at them the less they make any sense.

    September 30, 2010 at 2:09 am |
  3. Lil_Abner

    It is so amazing how so many "knowledgeable" people know so little. I am talking about the people commenting that are obviously not Christian. Yes, Christians ARE tolerant of other religions. (Please do not bring up the Crusades because if you do you do not understand history!) Like everyone else there are the few jerks that the news media pick up on that everyone thinks is an example of "all" Christians. If I used this same thinking I would think that all Muslims are airplane flying terrorist. It is actually the other religions and atheists that are intolerant of Christians. There wouldn't be freedom of religion in this country if it wasn't for Christian tolerance! Notice how religious freedoms and other freedoms are being reduced in this country. It is not the Christians doing it. If a Christian is not allowed to pray on a public street then you, whatever religion you are, will not be either. People it is time to get rid of all your pent up hatred and get over it or this country is going to end up like Russia or Cuba. They have great standards of living...everyone is poor! The Jewish Lady from LA, I bet you don't know that there have been many Christians supporting Israel with money and prayers.. Personally, I don't feel the need to put down other people's religion as long as they do not try to control mine. I know plenty about my own to get by and guess what I am from the Midwest. I guess I will go brush my one tooth after using the outhouse and then go pray for you people that think they are smarter than all us people that live in the hollers between the coasts.

    September 30, 2010 at 1:27 am |
  4. Frog

    Well , my age is showing , & it is past my bedtime! I was reading my post & see I made an err. When I was speaking of other faiths getting along. I said None , I meant to put all got along. Forgive me & its OK if you have some fun with it. I like to make people laugh. Laughter is good for the soul. Good night!

    September 30, 2010 at 12:15 am |
  5. Frog

    I took the quiz , got 8 & like many have pointed out, it was more a history test than a test to see how much each person knew about their individual faith. The only 2 ? that could really have been religious, was about the birth place of Christ, and the 10 commandments. Why, if you are happy with your faith or belief, study in depth, about other faiths or beliefs. You would need only to have a basic understanding of their way of life, in order to get along, & to show them due respect , or you are still searching for something to believe in . I'm 57, and a Christian, and as a whole I have seen people here in Am. of all faiths & none, get along respectfully well. Of course there are always those who are ready to try and force their opinion on you, like progressives, & they come in all faiths & beliefs. I think we have all been had!!! That this poll is doing just what it was meant to do. To cause contention & distract us from spending time with what is really important to the WORLD right now, because If America falls in the hands of the progressives, & be com a socialist country, we are all in trouble! They show know mercy on, races, faiths, straight or gay, young or old. Its there way or the highway. God bless you all , to live long enough to grow up & be able to enjoy the freedoms America use to have. May you learn wisdom & use your time to be constructive in doing something that will actually be beneficial to you & people everywhere. Love you all!

    September 30, 2010 at 12:07 am |
  6. Jeremy

    Actually, an agnostic is someone who believes nothing can ever ben known or proven about the existence of God or anything beyond the observable universe. Basically that anything besides fact is speculation and can only be taken on accepting things without evidence.

    September 29, 2010 at 10:09 pm |
  7. Gary

    Science and religion do coexist. religion is based on faith and mythology. Science is based on experiments and facts. Science should be the death of all religions. Humans have deep minds with great imaginations. The human mind mixed with brainwashing,ignorant elders and the yearning for hope make a breeding ground for religions to flourish.

    September 29, 2010 at 9:47 pm |
  8. Gary

    Religions are all man made couldnt care a less what I know or dont know. History is very important to know. History is littered with religious wars religious kings and one would think as history repeats itself humans would finally become less religious...

    September 29, 2010 at 9:40 pm |
  9. Pal

    Wow. The hostility on here just chokes me. Must we always end up in a me versus you, us versus them, atheists vs believers dichotomy? What happened to respectful tolerance of other people and trying your best not to hurt anyone? Can we just start there? And I got 10/10 – and what I believe is my own business. And yours is too.

    September 29, 2010 at 6:50 pm |
  10. Jamie

    @Saca way upthread who said that there are more Christians than atheists, so of course we should find more ignorant Christians, but what about the ignorant atheists? The ignorant atheists should also show up in the survey too (unless somehow it's easier to find an knowledgeable atheist than an ignorant one). Either way, the percentage of knowledgeable atheists outweigh the percentage of knowledgeable Christians.

    September 29, 2010 at 4:58 pm |
  11. rotsyourmind

    seems to me like those who research religions in-depth are usually those who are searching for facts, or faith, or something that feels right. many unknowledgeable individuals are those who were raised to study and live according to a single religion or faith. these are the individuals, who, generally, may not take the time to question what is offered by other religions, what might be pressing about their own, or whether any religion or god can be the right answer. the idea that many people do not know even the basics of these things listed is shocking, but the notion that atheists & agnostics know the most.. not quite surprised on that! like the post.

    September 29, 2010 at 4:21 pm |
  12. Jaytee

    The reason why Religion does not make sense for practical life use is that it is requires faith and "faith" is the belief in the unknown. Beside religion what part of our life do we run our life on with faith? That’s because you can't just have faith that our kids will do the right thing. We have to teach our kids through life experiences what it takes to become a productive part of our society. We can't just have faith our finances will be in order, or if ill we will get better. We have to know these things today, tomorrow in our life time and we take action to correct or manage what life deals us. For the most part religion allows one to have faith all life without any proof of its necessity. Then we die, and well there is no way to assess if ones belief in faith had any real meaning. Besides the fact that chronologically religion has man's existence here on earth ALL wrong, there can be no doubt we have experienced evolutionary change in the very short time that religion has been in existence. Man has evolved from being closely connected to our environment, i.e. understanding the lunar and solar cycle, and creating a living off of what this earth offers to us to creating a living off the earth by damaging our environment and less and less of us knowing anything about the celestial bodies that surround us. The fact is we have evolved because Man had to in order separate Man once civilizations grew. Without religions’ help i know one should not kill, or steal, and YES we should obey our parents. Most of the other 10 commandments cover Gods ego. Really if you look at the history or religion it teaches and promotes separation and difference rather than being one man under God.

    September 29, 2010 at 4:17 pm |
  13. Donna4843

    Although Jewish sabbath starts sundown Friday,Friday is known as "Adams day" by the Muslims,this is their holy day and Saturday is the Jewish "Day", Sunday is for Christians. So, we all can live together in peace. The quiz got this wrong.

    September 29, 2010 at 3:06 pm |
  14. Donna4843

    The quiz got one wrong. Although Jewish sabbath starts sundown Friday,Friday is known as "Adams day" by the Muslims,this is their holy day and Saturday is the Jewish "Day", Sunday is for Christians. So, we all can live together in peace. The quiz got this wrong.

    September 29, 2010 at 2:58 pm |
  15. Sarah

    Did anyone else notice that on the question about Indonesia, Islam was the correct answer, but the picture they showed was of Hindus?

    September 29, 2010 at 12:26 pm |
  16. Carrie

    I am LDS and was raised with religious instruction in all the major world religions. World religion is a part of the church educational curriculum. The instruction is a positive look at philosophy and doctrine of other religions. The other religions are not disparaged or ridiculed or taught that they are bad. I think that this kind of instruction is important and am thankful that I have at least a general knowledge of what my brothers and sisters believe in other religions. I wish more people correctly understood what I, as an LDS woman, really believe.

    September 29, 2010 at 10:45 am |
  17. AJ

    If I recall correctly, I think I have seen studies that show there are actually *physical* differences between the brains of believers and atheists.

    If anyone is aware of these studies, could they please post the details of them or links to them as I have forgotten the specifics.


    September 29, 2010 at 10:40 am |
  18. Tracy Learner

    Yippie ! I got all the answers correct and I'm an Agnostic.

    September 29, 2010 at 9:48 am |
  19. brad

    First, the atheist declares that all religious doctrine is nonsense. Then he congratulates himself on knowing more of it than a believer.

    September 29, 2010 at 9:20 am |
  20. brad

    First, the atheist declares that all religion is nonsense. Next, he prides himself on knowing more of it.

    September 29, 2010 at 8:58 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.