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. keeth in cali

    10/10 on the quiz. I'm liberal, baptized methodist, presently agnostic. I wonder how the field of GOP candidates would do on this test?

    June 8, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
  2. GrasshopperY

    Lutheran – 10/10.

    June 8, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
  3. CRAIG

    Hey my ex wife went to Catholic school and could not quote one verse from God's word.

    June 8, 2011 at 6:22 pm |
  4. Adam

    9/10 Agnostic. But I have a bone to pick: the correct answer about agnostics is incorrect. It's not that agnostics dont know if god exists, agnostics believable it's unknowable to know if god exists. Splitting hairs, I know, but I tend to think the distinction is important. The distinction, for me, comes in to play when people claim that Jesus is god. It's my position that they are wrong, because it's impossible to know if Jesus was god. Why? Because there's no way to prove it.

    June 8, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
    • Chip

      Exactly correct Adam. I was thinking the same thing - agnostic is the belief that god(s) is/are unknowable, or that the existence of god(s) cannot be known or comprehended. One can be an agnostic atheist or an agnostic theist. I got that one right, but actually it is wrong. Technically, if one does not know if there is a god(s) or not, one is an atheist. Only those who believe there is a god(s) are not atheists.

      June 8, 2011 at 10:47 pm |
    • Riddles

      Agnostics are people who do not claim to know, if anything, claiming to never be able to know is a claim of knowledge on the limits of knowledge and thus a gnostic position.

      To claim that we can never know something is pretty much ridiculous.

      Just because you can't prove something one way, doesn't mean you can never know something. What if Jesus magically appeared in the sky and confirmed it?

      "Everything that can be invented has been invented. "
      - Punch's Almanack for 1899

      July 12, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
  5. TonyK

    I got 10 out of 10 and I am a devout Buddhist. For all of the religous illiteracy among the faith community, I do wish the atheists (and as a Buddhist I am, technically, an atheist) would lay off the "all believers are idiots" rant. I wager as a former Catholic and non-believer, I could nonetheless present a convincing and nuanced argument in favor of faith. Please do NOT paint with the broad brush of bias and contempt. Many, many believers are subtle, deep and very critical thinkers. If you don't think so, you need to talk to more educated people in faith communities. Seriously..

    June 8, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
  6. Lycidas

    14/15 (Christian) Did the pewforum. or*g one, it had 15 questions.

    June 8, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • Artist

      The Indonesia one goit me. Just couldn't remember. lol
      It is amazing 50% of the Christians got it wrong. I have to really question that but then again it could be possible. Amazing and scary if that is an accurate reflection of Christians.

      June 8, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • Lycidas

      The Pakistan one on the one I took got me.

      June 8, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  7. Artist

    Agnostic 9/10

    June 8, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  8. Luke

    Atheist – 10/10

    May 10, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
  9. Henri M

    First off, I'm an atheist. These questions were extremely easy. I don't see how anyone can score a 6 or below.

    April 25, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
  10. moviefreevq99

    Living in the 21st century as we are, there is hardly a person who has never watched free streaming movies online in one point or the other in his life. YouTube immediately comes to mind whenever anyone mentions free streaming movies online. The red-colored seek bar at the bottom of YouTube videos is much too familiar to everyone. But here is a thing that will surprise you – streaming movies is not actually that modern as it has been around for almost a century!

    April 24, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
  11. Saved "n" Sanctified

    10/10 and happily saved (born agian)! What can I say, thank you Jesus for your forgiveness.

    PS- Jesus did not come into the world to condem, He came to save and to give life. Give him a chance and you wont regret it.

    March 23, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
  12. jmlew

    Agnostic atheist – scored 10/10.
    This only goes to show that religion prevents people from unleashing their full intellectual potential. This is also the reason why people in larger cities and areas near the coast have higher intelligence levels than those inland (sheltered from free thought and inquiry). It's also notable that a staggering majority of scientists and engineers, some of the most brilliant and logical minds in the world are predominately atheistic. It is said that emotions such as love, are blind. The truth of that statement couldn't be more true.

    March 21, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
  13. Idalino da Silva

    ==> Want To Make A Big Difference In Your Church
    and Community? It Is Simple...

    Just Print the Flyer from here (click or copy into your browser):
    display on the board (better yet hand it to them)
    for the members... –Your part is done.

    Idalino da Silva.

    January 27, 2011 at 12:13 am |
  14. Your Average Atheist

    I agree Mom. This common claim that without a god, morals would go to hell, is just plain ignorant. People are good to each other because of kindness and intelligence, nothing to do with a god. Furthermore, many animals are social and cooperate together. This is because it helps their species not because they believe in a god. LMAO

    January 1, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  15. come to my house

    to jdan:
    who told you your deity is looking out for you and wants certain things for you? and how do you know that person or book knows what your deity wants? and you don't have to be religious to have morals. religious consequences aren't the only consequences that exist

    December 20, 2010 at 5:26 pm |
  16. GRACE

    Religion is men way of reaching God. Religion says do this and don't do that then God will accept you. God is love, he already accept every human being because of the finished work of Jesus Christ. if any man knows he is accepted by beloved, he has the power to become the children of God without doing or not doing any thing. God hate religion. God is against religion. Religion is SATANIC and false way to reach God.

    November 26, 2010 at 9:14 am |
    • Riddles

      If you follow the bible, Jesus Christ or any of that, you are religious. Just because you claim "it is a personal relationship" doesn't nullify all that makes it a religion.

      July 12, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
  17. Crepers

    I believe as a Christians all Christian should learn about other religions. Maybe thats just because I don't believe what other Christians believe. I am not religios, I have a relationship with a heavenly father, and I go to church to fellowship with my family and that is just what my church is... an extended family. However I just hate it that there are a lot of Christians that don't understand or take the time to learn about other religions out there. I used to be Wiccan, and I hated how judged I used to get from Christians. How many Christians know about the true meaning behind Holloween, or that Satanism is not about the worship of satan or even believes in Satan at all. And then those that claim muslims are wicked and because they are all terrest when Muslims are usely friendly and co exsit with what around them. or Christians don't that during "Christ"mas and Easter the majority of the symbles they use are pagan. And these are the ones that are trying to preach and shove something down someones throughts that don't even believe in hell. How are you going to teach someone that if he doesn't believe that Christ is God manifested and died and arose on the third day you are going to hell, when in fact that person just don't believe in Jesus or the same God or heaven and hell that the Holy Bible teaches.

    November 3, 2010 at 2:50 am |
    • Riddles

      "relationship with heavenly father" = Religious yet don't know what a religion is.

      You are religious, all the stuff that makes you religious doesn't get thrown out the window once you claim you are on speaking terms with your god.

      July 12, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
  18. Alan

    Another atheist with 10 out of 10 correct.

    October 31, 2010 at 11:28 am |
  19. Nestor

    Dominican Atheist , scored 10 out of 10


    October 28, 2010 at 1:33 pm |
  20. Scott

    Why is this a surprise to people? 1John 5:19, says that the whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one, Satan the Devil. He doesn't allow poeple to find the Truth from the bible. This article is talking about people not knowing anything about religion, not the Bible. The real problem is, is that people don't know anything about the Bible, at least the Truth from it. Athiests and agnostics are a bi-product of false religion. Using their common sense, they have been turned away from religion and the Bible because of false teachings of the churches. Find any Jehovah's Witness and open up the Bible with them and you will find the Truth.

    October 28, 2010 at 9:20 am |
    • Ibram

      Now I think about it it makes me realize that aethiests think more about it as one person I knew at school quite a religious Christian and in science he kept interupting when we were doing evoloution he kept interupting people saying "god made everything" which seemed to me that he was brainwashed.

      April 26, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
    • Riddles

      You are yet another christian that can't accept that you may be wrong so instead you say that other people are wrong.

      If someone becomes an atheist you say it is because they followed a false religion.

      If someone is christian and becomes an atheist you claim they were a false christian who followed wrong teachings, even though they barely differ from your own.

      If someone is the same kind of christian you are and becomes an atheist you claim they were never true believers in the first place.

      And yet if you were ever to become an atheist, you would admit that you're religion was actually the one with the flaws in the first place and there is no big difference between all the religions.

      July 12, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
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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.