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. John

    10-10, 15 year old Catholic. Not all of us just follow our faith and never look into it, people, like me, like to research and read and don't live in the bible belt, were most of the literal Christians live.

    July 28, 2011 at 9:30 pm |
  2. SRN0vA

    5/10 – Atheist. I could, however, talk to you about the major metabolic pathways of the cell or the wave functions of particles.

    July 27, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
  3. Laura

    Are you kidding me? That quiz was a piece of cake. What questions did people answer incorrectly the most?
    I'm agnostic, not that it matters.

    July 26, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
  4. on the path

    10/10 Jesus following Christian.
    However the only ONE thing you need to know is that Jesus is the Messiah and died so that your sins might be forgiven. That one lie you told was actually against an eternal God and makes it an eternal sin. You need an eternal person to take your place, otherwise you'll be doing the paying. Shalom!

    July 23, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  5. haley:)

    10/10.. Teenage atheist currently growing up in a Christian home. I agree with what Greg Smith said – I probably wouldn't have scored so high had I accepted my parents religion. Instead, I had to research and learn and prove to myself what I do and don't believe. Awesome article!

    July 22, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  6. RM from Maryland

    I just took the (very easy) test and got 100%, so I question the statistic of only 8 perfect scores out of what – 1700+? – even more so when you draw a correlation between performance on the test and belief (or lack thereof). At no time before, during, or after the test was I asked about my own beliefs – so where does that statistic come from? I'm not being snarky, I'd really like to know.

    July 18, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
    • Annie

      If you're talking about the test at the top of the page, I don't think it's the same one they used for the survey. I think this one is just kind of for fun, versus the probably much more scientific one used to get these stats.

      July 19, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
  7. Bob Beecher

    Like everyone, I was born an atheist. I was just never indoctrinated into any of the religious cults.

    I got 10 out of 10 correct.

    Soon, the religious will be seen much like we view the remaining smokers of today. They will be the minority. They will have to drive farther each Sunday for their fix of religion as many of the neighborhood churches will have closed down. One day, mighty cathedrals will be museums filled with tourists who wonder how so many people could have believed in these mythologies for so long.

    July 18, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
  8. arl

    10/10 Agnostic

    July 16, 2011 at 11:58 pm |
  9. JB

    Is it really surprising that Americans are doing poorly on a Religion test? Most folks don't seem to ba able to pass a basic history or civics exam or a math quiz these days. Why should the majority of Americans know any more about religion than they seem to know about anything else?

    July 15, 2011 at 10:27 pm |
    • Mark

      Your probably right. Since a 'believer' isn't questioning things or those of others, they often fail to see the importance of knowing the details that they just accept. My water system functions fine, I know little to nothing about the pipes. My car works fine, I don't seek to understand it in depth. Sure, not quite the same but perhaps this has some similarity. The test did seem a little too easy. 10/10 Christian. Probably not the actual test given by the Pew study.

      July 28, 2011 at 9:20 am |
  10. kirshy

    atheists know more about religion for one simple reason: study after study shows that the higher one's IQ, the more likely one is to be atheist. study after study shows that the higher one's degree of education, the more likely one is
    to be an atheist. of course we know more about religion. we know more about EVERYTHING!

    July 14, 2011 at 10:31 pm |
    • Annie

      haha agreed! Also, when you know more about religion, it just doesn't make any sense to attribute to a divine being what is clearly created by humans... just try explaining to someone who believes the Bible is the literal word of god about the council of Nicaea.

      July 19, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
    • Anita

      I think the reason why agnostic/atheist did better on the test is because they did more research to come to their decisions about their beliefs. However, I find it fairly ignorant of you to assume you are better than (or in this case smarter than) another group of people simply because of your beliefs. Isn't that unwarranted prejudice? There are lots of people who are religious who think their beliefs are the only way and treat everyone else like garbage. Why would you want to join that group? Be careful with that thought process. It's not only unfair judgement, but it's cruel. And what do you care that another person thinks there's a heaven or hell. How does that affect you in ANY way?

      July 27, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
  11. Claire S

    Just took it and got 10/10, but it wasn't the real test.

    July 12, 2011 at 7:35 am |
    • Riddles

      Yeah, the real test was 32 questions.

      July 12, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  12. Abby

    10/10 and I'm an Athiest. Wavered a little on the question about Joseph Smith, but got it correct through the process of elimination. I think religious literacy is very important for the religious and non-religious alike. In particular, I think people should have a good grasp on Christianity and Islam. I don't think there's much of an excuse for a Christian not knowing the basics of Islam, and of course, vice versa. These beliefs shape major world events!

    July 11, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
  13. nik

    I thought the jewish sabbath was on Saturday?!? Damn 9/10 atheist

    July 11, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • Jay

      It is on Saturday, but it begins on Friday at sunset.

      July 12, 2011 at 6:50 am |
  14. teddy3indc

    10/10 Muslim

    July 11, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
  15. Jessica

    100%, baby! I'm a Mormon, too.

    July 10, 2011 at 11:12 pm |
  16. jonathan

    guess I'm as good as an Athiest I'm a Christian ..but why should a Christian know anything about what religion is in Indonesia, of Ramadan, or when the Sabbath day begins for the Jews ...those are three questions Christians should easily fail to answer..before 911 I knew nothing of these questions, I'm just defending Christians on this subject...it has nothing to do with with our knowledge about Jesus..A better test for Christians should be about what they know about Jesus..

    July 10, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
    • Mary

      Did you read the part about it being a 32 question test? Obviously, the ten posted at the top are not the entire test.

      Also, if you are not aware of your surroundings and the other religions in the world, how can you possibly exclaim with the full backing of your heart that your religion is the true religion? The narrow-mindedness you show is the reason behind this test.

      July 11, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • Jay

      You're right, you should never learn anything about other cultures. Just live in your own imaginary world.

      July 12, 2011 at 6:51 am |
  17. Kevin

    10/10 Atheist.

    July 8, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
  18. Violet

    Most of these were not questions about the Bible, but about religion.

    July 7, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • Riddles

      Thank you Captain Obvious, the rest of us thought this was a test about Christianity, not all religion in general like the test says outright

      July 12, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  19. JamesT297

    Is this a great country or what?

    July 6, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  20. dave

    10/10 athiest, easy

    July 3, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
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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.