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. Thomas

    I'm 13 and atheist, and got 7/10. Religion doesn't interest me much, but I still should have known the ones I missed 🙁

    December 5, 2013 at 8:34 pm |
  2. sdterp

    Scored 10/10 on the CNN and 15/15 on the Pew quizzes. Still, they both seemed fairly easy and beyond rudimentary. The only slightly challenging question was about the First Great Awakening (Jonathan Edwards - if I had to write the name from memory, I would have likely answered wrong as I always want to say George Edwards...and Jonathan Whitefield). I think the fairly small difference seen between believers and non-believers in these polls would become a chasm if you asked specifics about dogma, theology, etc, with non-believers clearly more knowledgeable.

    November 30, 2013 at 5:09 pm |
  3. Bryce

    10/10 16, Lutheran.

    November 29, 2013 at 8:14 pm |
  4. Melvin McCullough

    If our nation was built on the principles of God and God creates order out of chaos. We will reap the same wrath that his chosen nation. Prepare for the worst times in the history of this great nation. Man doesn't decides what is right. God is our moral absolute

    November 11, 2013 at 9:46 am |
  5. Fred B

    Raised Catholic–very atheist now. Got 10 out of 10. Too easy.

    October 31, 2013 at 4:32 am |
  6. Tony

    Born again Atheist (Extreme) 10/10.

    October 2, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
  7. Velcro

    I'm an atheist and I got two wrong (8/10). I think it would be interesting to see the answers to some harder questions about holy books and about science (as it relates to theology). I missed the first one about Jesus' birthplace. I knew it was Bethlehem, but for some reason I started thinking about Jesus Christ Superstar when Annas sang, "What then to do about Jesus of Nazereth, miracle wonder-man, hero of fools..." So I made the wrong choice there, and I also missed the one about the Jewish Sabbath. I chose Saturday.

    September 17, 2013 at 3:58 am |
    • sdterp

      Yes, he was Jesus of Nazareth yet born in Bethlehem.

      November 30, 2013 at 4:45 pm |
  8. JesusSaves

    Christian 9/10
    The Jewish Sabbath got me ;/

    September 8, 2013 at 12:26 am |
  9. I've changed

    Atheist 10/10.Too easy.

    September 7, 2013 at 5:17 pm |
  10. yrty234


    September 5, 2013 at 10:21 am |
  11. Alex

    10 / 10. Atheist. Quiz is wy too easy.

    June 19, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
  12. Caleb

    8/10 Atheist. I learned that the Sabboth starts on a Friday for Jews. Also misread the 10 commandments in my haste. I am wondering who they polled for this? I am not particularly versed, or knowledgeable at all about religion; as you see it does not peak my interests.

    May 31, 2013 at 11:15 pm |
  13. S

    Muslim here, got a 7/10. I'm not that religious though, but I still believe in God, but I don't do namaaz (pray)

    May 12, 2013 at 7:43 pm |
  14. Marie

    7/10, atheist (and facepalming myself on the question where, according to the Bible, Jesus was born....) daaaargh

    May 4, 2013 at 3:00 am |
  15. Madison

    I am an Atheist and I got 9/10. I'm only 14!

    January 26, 2013 at 9:46 am |
  16. Moby Schtick

    Ten out of ten. I iz a smurt athieest!

    January 23, 2013 at 7:57 pm |
  17. James

    I got 1 wrong, but I believe it was a trick question: When is the Jewish Sabbath observed? My answer was Saturday, but Friday was the correct answer for the test. While most of the world would call Friday at sunset "Friday" a Jew would call that Saturday, so the question requires the reader to know from whose perspective the answer should be given. I answered from the Jewish perspective (since it's a Jewish observance).

    January 23, 2013 at 7:54 pm |
    • daignamic

      I am an atheist and made exactly the same mistake i.e. scored 9/10

      May 31, 2013 at 10:53 am |
    • sdterp

      Actually, the question asks when the Jewish Sabbath BEGINS (not when is it observed).

      November 30, 2013 at 4:47 pm |
  18. Nick Clark

    Wow, that was pathetically easy. I mean I only got one wrong and I'm not religious at all. I'm very much an atheist.

    January 20, 2013 at 5:28 pm |
  19. Nate

    10/10 on CNN
    14/15 on Pew (missed the one about the First Great awakening)
    19, Catholic, born and raised.

    November 25, 2012 at 2:46 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.