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. Aussie

    I got 10 out of 10. I'm an atheist because I read the Bible with an open mind. The Bible is a beautiful piece of Literature and an important part of the English Language. I also enjoy learning about the creation myths of other cultures. They are all beautiful stories.

    October 2, 2010 at 3:58 am |
  2. William Simpson

    Because many who are in the position of teaching about GOD, do not themselves, have revealed knowledged of GOD. Until GODs Spirit gives this gift, you will remain in the dark...

    Election is GODs design. Argue, deny, get angry, matters not. Doesn't change the reality of the doctrine of election.

    What else could answer why I know GOD is, and you, or someone else, believes that GOD doesn't exist?


    October 2, 2010 at 12:58 am |
  3. Catholic Answers Apologist

    I took the Pew Forum quiz which have 15 questions. I got 15 out of 15 correct. I then a google search on the quiz and I found the 32 question on religion. I got 32 out of 32 correct. I am a Catholic Christian Apologist. I score higher than Americans who are atheist, agnostic, Jews, Mormons, Evangelical Protestant Christians, and ordinary Catholic.

    I am not surprise with my own score because I took REL 101 in College and religious education is my favorite subject.

    October 1, 2010 at 9:11 pm |
  4. Catholic Answers Apologist

    I took the Pew Forum official quiz which have 15 questions. I got 15 out of 15 correct. I then a google search on the quiz and I found the 32 question on religion. I got 32 out of 32 correct. I am a Catholic Christian Apologist. I score higher than Americans who are atheist, agnostic, Jews, Mormons, Evangelical Protestant Christians, and ordinary Catholic.

    I am not surprise with my own score because I took REL 101 in College and religious education is my favorite subject,and no I didn't Google search the answers.

    October 1, 2010 at 9:06 pm |
  5. Selfish Gene


    October 1, 2010 at 5:57 pm |
  6. ScottK

    As seems to always be the case, the entire premise of this presentation is flawed to the point of being meaningless, and you have to suppose this is done purposefully. The implication is that "religious people are ignorant about religion" (and, I suspect, the most accurate description of the intent would be to paint religious people as ignorant, period). The more accurate description of these results is to say that "religious people are more ignorant about other religions than non-religious people". Of the 20 questions listed in the sidebar on the Pew site, only four were related to (Christian) Biblical knowledge. Five concerned denominational topics and history, of which, even most pastors/ministers/clerics would probably sadly agree, there is admittedly a lack of knowledge in the Christian community. So a Christian could be extremely knowledgeable about their own faith, but less so about others, and would be unlikely to do well on this survey. An atheist or agnostic, on the other hand, who has sampled many religions, knows a superficial amount about many of them but no conviction about any, could easily do better. I don't necessarily defend a lack of knowledge about other religions (I scored 15 out of 15 on Pew's sample quiz on their site), but neither do I see it as relevant to compare the (implied) question "Do you identify with A religion (or faith in God)" with "what is your general knowledge about ALL religions", and presume this is going to generate a meaningful result.

    October 1, 2010 at 3:21 pm |
  7. Tricket

    Christian here, scored 9/10 (I missed the Sabbath question, but you learn something new everyday!)

    Personally, I’m comfortable enough in my beliefs to listen and learn about other beliefs. Anyone who can’t be bothered to lend an ear to someone who believes differently is just insecure. I can certainly listen and respect the beliefs of others without having to sacrifice my own. To each his own, right?

    Personally, the lack of knowledge (on any subject for that matter) in America is incredibly sad. This is almost as bad as those shows where random people were asked about other world cultures (“How many Eiffel Towers are there?”) If anything, it just shows that America is too self-centered. It’s going to be our downfall.

    October 1, 2010 at 2:48 pm |
  8. kryg

    The Pew researchers did not qualify practicing and non-practicing Catholics/Protestants. But then being good does not necessarily mean having more knowledge of many facts. There are many knowlegeable people who do evil things and there are less knowlegeable people who love, care, help people. The fact is that the majority of Americans are still good and generous even if researchers would say that these Christian Americans are not that knowlegeable about their faith. What is knowledge without faith seen in good works. Even Satan can quote the Scriptures.

    October 1, 2010 at 11:23 am |
  9. Dino

    I think that a college religion course better prepares a person for a high score on this test than being a communicant of any religion, if the diversity of the questions are similar to the ten question quiz.(I got a 7/10) I haven't yet taken a religious course but what I've experienced so far in college is that it's not the place to understand Christianity as it's not given the context it deserves. But to those who dismiss the existence of god I suggest you read The Declaration of Independence. Those rights are only inalienable because of gods existence. If no god exists then man is god. And the lord giveith and the lord takeith away.

    October 1, 2010 at 9:51 am |
  10. elizabeth

    It is not that we know so much about religion even though we are atheist; we are atheist because we know so much about religion.

    October 1, 2010 at 2:00 am |
  11. elizabeth

    We don't know a lot about religion even though we are atheists; we are atheists because we know so much about religion.

    October 1, 2010 at 1:56 am |
  12. mkv

    Evolution (science, etc) is NOT a religion but people sure do WORSHIP it like one. It's also hypocritical because they [atheism] are shoving down their beliefs into our children and young adults, teaching that evolution is the answer. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention. They are shoving down their beliefs to religious people as well. Who's really the bigger hypocrite now? I like science, a lot. I enjoy reading all these science stuff, and I appreciate how science can only bring me closer to God.

    September 30, 2010 at 11:16 pm |
    • Frank

      Exactly! Even though the strict Darwinian evolutionary theory makes no sense and is being refuted bit by bit by new findings. I'm not creationist, by the way. Who knows? Aliens might've played with the DNA for all we know but there's something they're not telling us.

      October 1, 2010 at 2:01 am |
    • Tell_Me


      It seems like you are hung up on the "worship" thing. The sun rises in the east on Earth... do you "worship" that fact? People may trust Science... worship, no.

      October 1, 2010 at 3:06 pm |
  13. Mike

    I would bet that nonreligious people do better on this test than religious people.

    September 30, 2010 at 8:52 pm |
  14. MP

    I consider myself a christian, with religious knowledge and general knowlege,however I do not hold to a set of views dictated by an organized religion, I believe the organized religions are where we have gone wrong, as someone pointed out earlier to most "religious people" to question ones faith or organization is wrong but that is exactly what the bible tells us to do... test ALL things to see what is true. I feel like there are many others out there like myself who do have faith in God but do not want the dictatorship of organized religion. As with all this in this world we should be careful of generalizing people.

    September 30, 2010 at 5:52 pm |
    • Muneef

      @MP. You are right about organized crimes,terrors,religions all these organization are behind all the world crushing on it's inhabiters. But we say forget about the organized ones and just do your faith for love of God only and not in love of your organizations or clans.
      Let us be of good people that are not to keep silence but to say load and clear that all this is wrong, and if they go on judging people they will have not time or opportunity to know and love them...

      September 30, 2010 at 6:21 pm |
  15. dutchblitz1

    Took the quiz at pewforum.org. Scored 15 out of 15.


    September 30, 2010 at 5:41 pm |
  16. dutchblitz1

    Scored 10 out of 10. I'm an evangelical Christian.

    September 30, 2010 at 5:31 pm |
  17. Lu

    There are people without faith, that's ok it's up to them to believe what they want.But if you say you're a Christian at least know something about what you say your are.If you have never read the Bible at least once how can you say you're a Christian?Can you say you're a Math teacher but do not know how to add?Therein lies the point if you say you're something ,know what it is you are.As it is the US is full of h

    September 30, 2010 at 11:01 am |
  18. Fleabus7

    I aced the test, but when I tried to walk on water, I sank. In the Catholic faith, Communion wine is made by pouring a bit of water and a bit of olive oil into a cup of wine. This reflects the early attempts to avoid diarrhea. Water back when was very polluted as people did not know about microbes and such, so they got their drinking water upriver and dumped their wastes downriver. They brewed some very potent wine and dropped water into it, thus bringing the wine back down to drinkable and also getting their liquid somewhat more safely.

    September 30, 2010 at 6:22 am |
  19. Fleabus7

    I aced the test, but when I tried to walk across my bathtub, I sank. And if the comments above are about the so-called blood of Christ, the truth about the communion wine is less glorious. The water, even the river water, was highly polluted with waste material. Some genius figured out that if you poured a little wine into the drinking water, you didn't go quite so often. So they brewed themselves some potent brew and poured it into the water. They didn't know anything about microbes then.

    September 30, 2010 at 6:11 am |
  20. yjeva

    While the questions and the survey are all very interesting I do not think that whether a person knows that Mother Teresa was a Catholic or that the majority of Indonesians are Muslim really say anything at all about either their IQ or their knowledge of religion. The questions belong in a general knowledge quiz and prove nothing.

    September 30, 2010 at 3:45 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.