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. Jan

    Mickey; when I say atheist, I mean NO God. Not Zeus, not anything. I think that science will eventually answer everything, although not in my lifetime. Kudos to Steven Hawking for taking a stand for science'

    September 28, 2010 at 12:47 am |
  2. godless

    Though religions are abundant, in reality there is no god/dog. Get over it. Masterbate and you will be free....

    September 28, 2010 at 12:47 am |
  3. Eli

    10/10, and I'm an agnostic.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:47 am |
  4. religion is hog.wash

    not a single shred of evidence that some "god" or jesus existed.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:47 am |
    • Larry

      And just where is all that evidence about evolution and the "big bang". Still only "theories" and can never be proven. Does love exist? Prove it. You don't want to get in a debate on this – you won't win!

      September 28, 2010 at 2:23 am |
    • bob

      How can you trust anyone that banters and dispises a man for being treated unfairly as Jesus Christ ?

      September 28, 2010 at 3:40 am |
    • Rick

      Larry: Evolution? Fossil records. The Big Bang? Background radiation and the fact that the temperature in space is warmer than it should be. There's a lot more evidence there than for some omniscient, omnipotent sky being who demands our worship.

      September 28, 2010 at 8:06 am |
  5. Blackdruid

    10/10 I am a pagan, as a pagan I am well versed in bible and other religious text. "A well armed pagan>" is not just about to "arms" but information as well.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:47 am |
  6. thies

    a lot of arguing about fairy tales in the comments again. how sad.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:46 am |
  7. Michael S

    I was a religious person until i actually read the bible.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:46 am |
  8. Phil

    101/10. This test was so freaking easy. It's nothing but a few easy trivial questions. I would probaby score the same on a test about astronomy, a topic I know nothing about. This test does not prove that one knows a lot or little about religion. I really hope that the folks at Pew don't think this is the defining test...The real question is...why is this article front page news. Out of all of the things going on in this planet.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:46 am |
    • Eli

      You got a 101 out of 10? Guess you don't know much about math either 😀

      September 28, 2010 at 12:48 am |
  9. Allen

    I can see that bible belt and "Christian" types would do poorly on a test like this. I've read the Bible, Torah and Qur'an extensively (I am a Christian btw), and it always shocks me how little some of the Bible's most ardent defenders actually know about it.

    I seriously have been working with a local pastor to try and get some of his congregation to understand that the story of Genesis isn't to be taken literally. If you take the account of creation literally, you believe that we all come from Adam and Eve. Yet, right after leaving the garden Adam and Eve are (figuratively speaking) tripping over other humans who just randomly appear.

    If you take doctrine literally, working on a Sunday is as sinful as being gay, and drinking, oh my, there was a whole religious movement that actually created what is now known as Prohibition! Today most so-called "Christians" in America wouldn't hesitate at all to lift a frosty Budweiser to their lips, but just 80 years ago "what is in the Bible" was reason enough to ban alcohol in the entire US!

    September 28, 2010 at 12:45 am |
  10. Chris in NC

    I have to wonder if athiests and agnostics scored better because a person who is very religious is going to have too many strong feelings about the subject. It does require a certain level of emotional distance from something to think objectively about it rather than simply reacting to it.

    Personally, I think there's value in looking at and understanding all different religions, not only because it can help you to better understand and appreciate the viewpoints of those who follow that religion, but also because they can offer takeaways in the form of lessons or principles or different ways of looking at the world and our place in it that can be valuable even if you don't hold a literal belief in that religion's teachings.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:45 am |
    • NL

      What do you mean, that they guess the answers with a bias against religions they feel a hostility towards?

      September 28, 2010 at 1:09 am |
    • Frogist

      @Chris in NC: I think you have a valid point in bringing up the emotional distance issue. Anyone would find it very difficult in appreciating something they feel strongly against. I think a lot of religious people, atheists included, forget that people are emotionally invested. And they forget to treat others with kindness as humans first and whatever denomination next. By applying a direct unfriendly force against people we don't agree with, we end up calcifying their position by pushing them further from ours.

      September 28, 2010 at 1:15 am |
  11. G

    I thought religion and a lack of IQ was synonymous.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:44 am |
    • ratkartz

      There are some kids of average intelligence who do OK on religious games, but they never do very well at physics.

      September 28, 2010 at 12:48 am |
    • Jan

      It is!

      September 28, 2010 at 12:55 am |
  12. stevie68a

    The famous "Doubting Thomas" story is notable here, because jesus proved to him that he returned from the dead by having
    Thomas place his fingers in the holes from his wounds. Of course Mr. jesus won't appear for us, because he is imaginary!
    Like rosary beads for saying the same prayers over and over (which is devotion or BRAINWASHING) I repeat. jesus is
    Imaginary. jesus is Imaginary.jesus is imaginary. If he answered your prayers, try praying to a fire hydrant or Ronald McDonald
    and your prayers will be answered to the same degree that "jesus" answers. jesus is imaginary...shout it from the rooftops!
    jesus is imaginary. GROW UP!

    September 28, 2010 at 12:44 am |
  13. Atheist Hulk

    I see mostly Atheists posting comments here. Then again, we are the most informed, which is why we would be checking the news in the first place.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:44 am |
    • NL

      We are also most interested in learning about religion which is why we gravitate to discussions such as this.

      September 28, 2010 at 1:00 am |
  14. atheist2010

    7/10...so what? ;0

    September 28, 2010 at 12:44 am |
    • Jan

      Means I took the quiz shooting from the hip and not really caring if I got the correct answers. Shows more my knowledge of history rather than of religion. Agree with everyone who says religion is basically the root of all evil. Name one war that has not been fought in the name of some misguided religion or other. Hypocrites.

      September 28, 2010 at 12:54 am |
  15. Jan

    Let's see: I got 7 out of 10 correct, and I am an atheist. I think the issue here is lack of education, not necessarily knowledge of religion per se. Interesting nonetheless.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:43 am |
    • shutup

      ppl just shut up yall need to get a life and leave God out of this God will strike you all with lightning

      September 28, 2010 at 9:52 am |
    • shecky

      @shutup LOl ok cool, now if i just keep doing this repeatedly, i should be able to generate free power for my EV merely by attaching a lightning rod to my head and plugging my finger into the adapter. good thing i brought my tin hat, huh.

      October 3, 2010 at 2:29 am |
    • Daniel

      Oh, how very Christian of you. Jesus must be proud.

      October 6, 2010 at 1:17 am |
  16. N Young

    Southern man
    better keep your head
    Don't forget
    what your good book said

    September 28, 2010 at 12:43 am |
  17. Kevin B

    "It's not Bible-belt Southerners who scored highest – they came at the bottom."
    And yet the Southern Baptists are the largest Protestant denomination in the world. Yes, I agree, the more truly studies religion they less likely they are to believe in it.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:43 am |
  18. whitekong

    Wow all these 10/10 people showed up to comment here eh? Either some of you are lying or the test was not administered correctly without bias. Maybe Americans are too busy working and paying bills to pick up every religious book out there. With all the grammatical errors I see on this site the media shouldn't be implying the american people are ignorant. I believe in God, but don't think any one religion can say they are the gate keepers to heaven. Its like a country club that won't admit certain people. I'm pretty sure God just wants us being good people. By the way Jesus was jewish which led to christianity which also led to Islam. Funny how the forbidden fruit came from the tree of knowledge because we wouldn't want the sheep to gain knowledge.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:42 am |
  19. Christian

    Here's the misleading part about this article. Maybe I'm just defensive, but the tone suggests that American's religions beliefs are unfounded or ill informed. Yet this quiz is about multiple religions. If your a catholic, should you be well-versed in muslim theology in order to be confirmed?
    And at that, WHO CARES. Believe in whatever you want to believe, talk about it to whoever is willing to listen. Heck make up your own religion Doesn't bother me at all. Not a news story.
    P.S. I scored a 7 out of 10, which is surprising to me. I'm catholic but not really a purist.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:41 am |
    • Christian

      Have to correct my first sentence: "...implies that religious American's beliefs are...". Apologies for the shoddy sentence craftsmanship.

      September 28, 2010 at 12:42 am |
    • Larry

      AMEN! Who cares – this "test" is itotallly rrelevant by its
      own design. (I scored 8 of 10).

      September 28, 2010 at 1:46 am |
  20. NL

    Could have predicted the results of this study. Interesting how, the more one educates oneself about religion, the more likely they are to conclude that it's baseless and unnecessary.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:40 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.