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. gypsyrose1972

    10/10 on CNN quiz

    15/15 on Pew quiz

    I'm in my 40s and I'm an atheist from Houston, Texas.

    October 25, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      10/10 on the CNN test (if I recall, I took it long ago. I remember it being very simplistic.)
      14/15 on the Pew test. (Again, I took it long ago.) That last question is for former fundies. It's interesting from a historical perspective but otherwise I'm not sure it was relevant.

      And yes, atheist.

      October 25, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
  2. Ivan

    retake the test after months without studying the quiz or whatsover, got 9/10. 1 was quite a guess

    July 1, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  3. gingerygiggles

    10/10 Atheist. To be fair, a couple of those were just educated and lucky guesses.

    June 7, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
    • Ray Lee

      Yeah; "They were only educated. Jeez."

      July 16, 2012 at 6:16 am |
  4. Danilo

    Got it all right folk.
    They said: you know your stuff. But I say: No I don't. this is not a quiz, this is a joke a elementary questions regarding religion.
    I am from Brasil and my grandma got 8 out of 10.
    America, the most religions nation of earth? sure, but that as far as it goes regarding its common people!

    May 30, 2012 at 4:59 am |
  5. ZBP

    32/32 Agnostic Atheist, 27 USA
    Take the 15 question quiz here:
    Then you can see the full survey in PDF form via a link at the bottom of the results page. I find it hard to believe only 8 people got all the questions right...

    May 22, 2012 at 1:28 am |
  6. Ivan

    my bad, 5/10. christian, 15.

    May 11, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  7. Ariel

    It is truely sad that these men who claim to be the sons of God have not knoweldge in God's Holy Word. Visit my site http://www.theresurrection.ca to learn the sin the church is committing against our Lord.

    April 26, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
  8. Chad

    You answered 13 out of 15 questions correctly
    for a score of 87%.


    April 12, 2012 at 10:22 pm |
  9. Sarah

    9/10 correct. Catholic. 16 years old. For some people knowledge on all religions has more to do with wanting to understand other people, not reasuring oneself that they belong to the right religion. I suspect that most people reading this article have more knowledege than the average person on religion, since they are interested in reading an article about people that lack knowledge.

    April 9, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
  10. Lily

    I posit the reason Agnostics and Atheists know more about religion is that when one studies religions – more than one or two religions – one sees more clearly the absurdity of them, and comes to the only logical conclusion that they are all myths. American Christians by and large don't study their OWN religion much, let alone the religions of others... and bizarrely many of them seem all the more fervent in their certainty, the less they actually KNOW...

    April 8, 2012 at 12:11 am |
  11. mae

    i think we need to be educated as much as possible,to know about others and about what's spiritually dangerous.But I thought this was going to be a quiz on the Bible,that's what's important.People don't know the Bible anymore and that's why people are lost,confused,hurt,and simply don't know anything.

    March 27, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • books28

      Not only is it important to know about one's own faith but I feel you must also know about others as these influence the actions of those around you and therefore many of the policies made by governments around the world- many of the policies being unjust!

      May 19, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  12. Tycho

    10/10; 21 y/o Atheist, Central Europe

    I don't find things like 'on which day of the week does *....* start' important knowledge but alright.
    Anyone not living under a rock should answer 9/10 correctly.

    Have a good day, keep an open mind and lead by example.

    March 25, 2012 at 8:27 am |
  13. Matthew

    I also think that many of the people who claim to be Christian are really just Pseudo-theists who just need that "God" father figure, and are not true devout believers who follow the Bible.

    If you ask a REAL Christian, you will probably get more correct answers.

    Oh... and 9/10 Atheist. This seems to be a trend in comments and I wanna be cool too. 😉

    March 23, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  14. Bible Education

    Good blog post. I absolutely love this website. Thanks!

    March 11, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
  15. wayne

    9/10. I agree with John. Muslim is a people. Islam is their religion. Question number 9 is a trick question. It's what threw me. Agnostics 'do' believe in God. They just don't believe anything can be known about Him.

    Note to atheists, non-Christians, other religions, and CNN: You can read the Bible all you want and never become Christian. That's what you get for opening someone else's mail.

    March 5, 2012 at 3:13 am |
    • Matthew

      You're a bit off on agnostics. We can believe or not believe in god(s); we're seperated into agnostic theists, agnostic atheists, and just plain ol' agnostics.

      Agnosticism pretty much means, "We don't know and we're fine with it.". Agnostic theists and atheists favor one side over the other, but it's still "We don't know for sure." Agnostic atheism can also be mistaken as weak atheism due to the similarity.

      I think the news post was focusing on the fact that religious individuals don't know vital information about their religion, whereas non-believers tend to know more.

      March 23, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • Mark

      Theist- God
      Agnostic- possibility of a god
      Atheist- No god.

      Number 9 is not a trick question. Agnostics believe in the possibility of a god, not that there is a god.

      April 12, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
  16. John

    Question number 8 is incorrect. Muslim is not a religion. The correct answer should be Islam. Apparently the people who made this test don't know much about religion either.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:42 am |
    • Nicholas

      Totally false! A "muslim" is one who is a follower of Islam. Muslim is not a race or nationality. Just as Christian is not a race or nationality. A follower of Christianity is identified as a Christian. A follower of Islam, as a Muslim. Fact!
      (Not of any of the Judeo-Christian or Middle-Eastern faiths)

      June 19, 2012 at 9:07 am |
  17. Stefan

    10/10 atheist. These are very simple questions.

    February 9, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
    • wrong side of the bed

      Ya beat me 9/10 atheist.

      March 15, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
  18. John

    10/10 correct. Atheist. Surveys show atheists are generally more knowledgeable than Christians, especially Evangelicals, about a wide variety of subjects. Many Christians, particularly theologically traditional ones, naively think that what they believe comes straight from the Bible. If they studied the history of the Christianity they would discover that many of the tenets of their faith were decided in 325 A.D. and 451 A.D. by vote (and in at least one important case, by an extremely narrow margin) at the councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon. Some will fantasize that God guided the process to unfold exactly as he wanted. But if that's the case, did he also want Popes to have illegitimate children, or for the church to sell tickets to heaven (indulgences) to finance an expensive rebuilding of St. Peter's Basilica?

    February 2, 2012 at 1:09 am |
  19. James

    10/10 This was an extremely simple quiz. I'm not religious at all, but I don't consider myself atheist per se. Religion or lack thereof is simply not an issue for me. Anyhow, most of this stuff should be fairly common knowledge if you're breathing and open a book every once in a while.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
  20. Deenul Islam

    10/10. 17 years old Muslim, BORN AND RAISED. Alhamdulillah (All praise due to Allah)

    January 23, 2012 at 12:27 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.