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. Iqbal khan

    Please listen and read this


    October 8, 2010 at 9:21 pm |
    • Jeroen Albers

      Would this fall under the heading of "shoving your religion down someone's throat"? This adds absolutely nothing to the debate, please think up your own arguments in stead of quoting someone else's words, think for yourself!

      October 27, 2010 at 6:31 pm |
  2. rob kirk

    I just took the quiz... got 9/10. They were right, Atheists know more about religion than believers do. The more you know about religion and the supposed evidence for a god, the more obvious it becomes what a big hoax it's been on humans for the past thousands of years! It's all about men and power.

    October 8, 2010 at 9:48 am |
  3. PogMaThoin

    The reason we "non-believers" have morals might have something to do with being a good person, regardless of an afterlife (or no afterlife).

    October 7, 2010 at 6:22 pm |
  4. slowneutrino

    I got 10/10, and am an atheist. These questions were SO SIMPLE. How could religious people not know all the answers, even if some were about other religions? A 34 question quiz (as given in the survey) is rather short, so one might not expect very good results. But I would say the opinion expressed is true: religious people can be short on the knowledge of their own religion, but it doesn't matter to them. They want something to believe in, even if it is a fairy tale the don't understand. It is childish actually, but some people just never develop mature cognitive skills. What was that noise in the night? It must be a ghost!

    October 7, 2010 at 3:44 pm |
  5. Matt in Oregon

    Atheist here, and ten of ten correct.

    October 6, 2010 at 9:17 pm |
  6. Muneef

    If might help kindly read the following verses from the Quran:
    Sura 04:163 to 167
    Sura 04:170 to 172
    You would like to read this as well:
    Sura 71:01 to 28
    God bless.

    October 6, 2010 at 4:29 pm |
  7. JOE T. SR.


    October 6, 2010 at 6:56 am |
  8. The anointed one

    If you are willing to wait three score and ten you will have the answer to all your questions concerning God. Every man born has an appointed with death, there is no exceptions.

    October 6, 2010 at 3:11 am |
  9. The anointed one

    There is one inescapable fact. Each one of you will eventually know the truth. Every person born on this earth will some day die and only then will the inarguable truth be known by all. Have fun in the meantime.

    October 6, 2010 at 3:09 am |
  10. Bill

    I also don't know crap about astrology either. Why should I waste my time learning about useless arcane mysticism's?


    October 4, 2010 at 12:57 pm |
  11. Elly

    included in your search: "a" "in"
    1.Psalm 14:1
    [ For the director of music. Of David. ] The fool says in his heart, "There is no God." They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.
    I had several but they weren't printed.

    October 3, 2010 at 10:49 pm |
  12. Iqbal khan

    Increase your Knowledge about Islam check

    October 3, 2010 at 6:57 pm |
  13. Mark

    I remember in college, many moons ago, thinking that since I was so very opinionated about religion, I really should make sure I was familiar with the Bible... So I read it... cover to cover... I can tell you, I honestly didn't enjoy it... it's NOT a great read... bits are interesting, and of course very familiar... I took me almost the whole year, but I got through it...
    So imagine my surprise some time later when I found myself at an after conference gathering, that just so happened to have an inexplicably number of overtly religious attendants (inexplicable because it was a hi-tech network security conference) and after listening quietly for a while, jumped in with the statement 'well, you've all read the bible cover to cover, as have I'.... and being met with looks akin to a barnyard of livestock... NO ONE could claim to have read it!...
    I realized then that many people aren't 'religious'... they are simply 'of' their religion... They hold to a set of beliefs... most often given them, rather than acquired themselves, through curiosity, investigation, analysis and reading, and will entertain NO other reality... That isn't religion... that's dogma and indoctrination... and speaks to a complete lack of understanding of the underlying purpose and meaning of a belief system that they don't even pretend to understand, nor care to... WOW!

    October 3, 2010 at 2:22 pm |
  14. Really?

    I just find it interesting that many of the Athiests have mentioned they are looked down upon by those who are religious, but they are doing to the same thing to those who believe in a religion. Why can't people accept that being religious (or not) isn't about IQ or being supperior-it's about how people make choices in life.

    October 3, 2010 at 12:03 pm |
  15. RW

    10 of 10 and I'm religious. This was an easy quiz. Hard to believe a religious person would not know these answers.

    October 3, 2010 at 8:34 am |
  16. Marty Lewis

    I took the CNN Belief blog version of the test. It is pathetic. They are some of the most elemental bits of knowledge that any middle school student should know off the top of their head much less guess the answer on a multiple choice basis! It is little wonder that atheists know more than religious people. Religion thrives through ignorance. Mark Twain: The best cure for christianity is reading the Bible. Atheist have done their homework and the results of the survey prove it. Knowledge beats ignorance every time.

    October 3, 2010 at 1:26 am |
  17. Matt McHugh

    It's not surprising that atheists and agnostics did well on a quiz about religion. It is wise to study the ways of ones enemies.

    October 3, 2010 at 12:25 am |
  18. Allen

    Got 'em all correct. I'm one those dumb Christians.

    October 2, 2010 at 1:45 pm |
  19. Ash

    As an 18 year old college student and christian. I really do not think this article proves anything. Multiple surveys have shown that Americans in general are not knowledgeable about the world at large so this just proves that. Also most people in America who identify as "Christian' do not read the Bible they just blindly listen to anything they are told I got 9 out of 10 of the questions right because I choose to be educated. I am very ashamed of the education system in America that allows people to graduate from high school without knowing about the world around them. As the phrase goes "ignorance is bliss" and I think that sums up the way most Americans behave in general.

    October 2, 2010 at 1:14 pm |
  20. Aspen

    Is it just me or does this quiz seem to be pretty much common sense?

    October 2, 2010 at 6:30 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.