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. Andrew Murphy

    8/10 15 Years Old.
    Raised Catholic, now Agnostic.

    January 11, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
  2. Harris

    9/10 25 yr old Female Texas (raised southern baptist, currently non-denominational)

    I didn't know the religion of Indonesians.

    January 8, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
  3. Mark

    Male, 18, agnostic-atheist, and 8/10 right.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  4. Danilo

    I'm not an Atheist or an Agnostic, but I was raised Roman Catholic and am now a Greek Orthodox Christian, I got 10/10.

    December 11, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
  5. Maria Barker

    Where can I take the entire quiz? I want all 32 questions, not 10.

    December 9, 2011 at 7:35 am |
  6. Gabe Letoto

    Born and raised as a Catholic, now an atheist.

    December 8, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • Gabe Letoto

      Also, the test was completed within less than a minute.

      December 8, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • Danilo

      Frankly, I'm surprised that 90% of people raised Roman Catholic aren't Atheist/Agnostic with the other 10% either staying or becoming Orthodox Christian! My dad is an Agnostic.

      December 11, 2011 at 8:36 pm |
  7. Katie

    oh, current age: 23. forced to go to luthern church: 18 years.

    November 13, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
  8. Katie

    10/10. Atheist raised lutheran.

    November 13, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
  9. dilbertqdoggie

    10/10 - I am an Electrical Engineer, and I also pastor Central Baptist Church in Aiken, SC in my spare time. I've never been particularly typical, I suppose ...
    The most powerful truth in the universe is this: "Jesus loves you."
    Many religions and philosophies have the same basic rules and tenets, but only one has a Savior.

    October 21, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • Christopher M

      "The most powerful truth in the universe is this: "Jesus loves you.""

      Hell no!

      December 4, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
    • Maria Barker

      Many religions and philosophies have the same basic rules and tenets, but only one has a Savior.

      Absolutely false! Guess you are more typical than you believed.

      December 9, 2011 at 7:33 am |
    • Derp

      Actually, you are a troll because nobody can be that retarded.

      December 28, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
  10. CalgarySandy

    10 out of 10. Atheist raised Baptist. BA (Honors) in European History, Grad work in History. BEd in Secondary Social Studies.

    You cannot understand European History without studying Christianity. To understand the US it is necessary to know what the Puritans believed and handed down. You cannot understand any people without knowing about and understanding something of what they believe in. You do not have to believe it but you have to know it because it is real to them and it motivates their behavior. It is not necessary to know everything about Christianity to understand what people today believe. You need to know what they believe now. History is not theology though it certainly does inform its development.

    September 1, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
  11. Emily

    Oh, and I was raised as a Southern Baptist.

    August 29, 2011 at 11:36 am |
  12. Emily

    16, female, Agnostic, and I got 8/10 correct.

    August 29, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  13. Denis Egan

    The most intelligent debate of this subject was a "Munkdebate" in Toronto between Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair. Hitchens was brilliantly sarcastic in his attacks on religion. Blair was passionately and intelligently reflective in defense of religion. He was thorough in his acceptance of the mistakes of religious groups who are dismissive of the brilliant contributions of free thinkers such as Hitchens and their intelligent questioning of the subservience of religious groups to their leaders. The deadly element here is the limitation of individual reason and action by spiritual or political leaders.

    August 27, 2011 at 11:33 pm |
  14. Justin

    9 out of 10. I didn't know the Indonesian population was predominately Muslim. Learned something new today. 31, M, secular raised turned follower of Yeshua (Jesus).

    August 26, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • CalgarySandy

      Indonesia has had problems with radicals blowing up night clubs and such. Another Muslim nation suffering at the hands of terrorists and most Americans do not even know that the fundamentalists are even more dangerous to their fellow countrymen than they are to the US.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
  15. Anon

    All Christians are screwed up in the head.


    August 12, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  16. RogueThinker

    Seriously? How can so many people fail this? I'm not even christian and I got 10/10.

    August 5, 2011 at 9:43 am |
  17. Mybiz41

    What can you expect of religions who tout as a holy prophet and the patriarch of their religious faith a man who made a fortune pimping his wife all over the Middle East for years until his god raised hell and threatened a prince who was shacked up with her at the time. Don’t take my WORD for it. Read Genesis again, this time with eyes wide open. From the loins of Abraham sprouted three of the major religions that spend more time murdering in the names of their god than learning where their faiths really came from, not that they really want to know; they might have to think for themselves. Sheep are not very good at doing anything for themselves except eating and excreting.

    July 31, 2011 at 2:35 am |
    • joe e buttafusco

      Abrihim (Prototypical Jew) - BS,

      Saul -the tentmaker (Evangelist) -– MS,

      Mohammid and Jos Smith (Revisionists) -–PHD(s) (PiledHigherDeeper)

      All of it ranks right up (or down) there with Zeus/Wotan/Krishna/FSM/you name it = Caca del Toro

      August 17, 2011 at 1:31 pm |

    Hey read this Islam holy book http://quran.com/5/51 it said "do not take the Jews and the Christians as friends"

    The fact now not argument, let your own brain think not others opinion. This is the fact. Admit it Islam. How we can stand together with Islam immigrant in one country if your prophet Mr Mu-hammed told you to hate us. admit it Muslim.

    Sahih International
    O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are [in fact] allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you – then indeed, he is [one] of them. Indeed, Allah guides not the wrongdoing people.

    July 28, 2011 at 11:05 pm |
    • Mybiz41

      It wasn't just Mohammed. Jesus didn't want Christians either. When he sent his apostles out to teach his lessons to all nations, he said Jews only. "Do not go into the house of the Gentile or the Samaritan." Matt 10, 5. And he was right. As soon as Paul got hold of the religion, he loaded it with Gentiles and changed all the rules that Jesus strongly believed in.

      July 31, 2011 at 2:41 am |
    • judson

      mybiz41just because Jesus told his disciples not to go into any gentile or Samaritan town does not mean that Jesus did not come to save the gentiles or Samaritans. Read John 4, Jesus talks to a Samaritan women and tells her quite plainly that she too can be saved even though she is a Samaritan.

      July 31, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
    • Kory Satter

      I hope you know that the New Testament says not to do that either; but, the Qur'an, like any other book, is a product of its time. It says that because most Jews and Christians back then were hostile to Muhammad and his followers and worked actively with hostile peoples to kill or maim them.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
    • Anakaraya

      like most religious literature it was writing during a time when other religions where hostile to them. And of course back then they all thought that their religions were the only right religion. And that wasn't just the muslims, but the christians, and jews and everyone else.
      By the way, that was written how many hundreds (if not thousands) of years ago? Because I don't know about you but I know Muslim people who are friends with jews and christians and have no problem whatsoever. BECAUSE IT IS THE MODERN ERA!! Besides, There are christians, buddhists, jews, catholics Hindus etc. who won't let their children be friends/marry/talk to anyone who is not of their religion. So don't just narrow it down to the muslims.Many groups do it.

      October 3, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • Ricardordels

      The Koran does not say what you pretend to understand; you can read with your eyes but do not see what it is written. Read the whole surah of The Table Spread, especially from verse 47 up to 51; God is revealing a mighty truth: every group will be judge by its own knowledge (its own revelation; its own book). The verse 51 intents to transmit: you cannot judge Jews or Catholic by the truths revealed to the Islam. Jews are the root and Catholic the sprout. Islam is separated by God's purpose and read 48 to confirm this is His will. There is one only almighty God.

      December 30, 2011 at 5:10 pm |

    Hey read this Islam holy book http://quran.com/5/51 it said "do not take the Jews and the Christians as friends"

    The fact now not argument, let your own brain think not others opinion. This is the fact. Admit it Islam. How we can stand together with Islam immigrant in one country if your prophet Mr Mu-hammed told you to hate us. admit it Muslim.

    Sahih International
    O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are [in fact] allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you – then indeed, he is [one] of them. Indeed, Allah guides not the wrongdoing people.

    July 28, 2011 at 11:00 pm |
  20. Brandon

    10/10 13 year old SDA (Christian)
    Although I don't necessarilly agree with other religions I respect them, and look into them by researching them. (Also I'm a bit of a know-it-all for my age). Oh, and kirshy if you know more about EVERYTHING as you state, then why on earth is your grammar so atrocious?

    July 28, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55
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.