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. automagic

    9/10. I guessed on the Luther one, and got lucky, so I probably only deserve an 8/10. Also, I'm an Atheist.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:31 am |
  2. Greg


    September 28, 2010 at 1:29 am |
  3. Greg

    Is it a surprise that ignorant people flock to religions, which claim to have all the answers?

    September 28, 2010 at 1:29 am |
  4. Bob

    A battle of who has the best fairy tale!! My mythological story is better than yours!!!

    September 28, 2010 at 1:28 am |
  5. Sam

    Also Athiest, Religion breeds ignorance and intolerence.10/10: We know more about world religion because it is humorous. They are a great source of entertainment.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:28 am |
  6. catierkelly

    10 out of 10. Most of that stuff should just be common knowledge to anyone who pays attention to what happens in the world.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:28 am |
  7. Anarimus

    The ten questions were taken from the survey they aren't the survey in its entirety. Nothing makes you an Atheist like reading the bible with objectivity...nothing makes you a Christian like reading the bible with naivety.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:28 am |
  8. redstar79

    Atheists are smarter about religion. That's why they reject it.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:28 am |
  9. GB

    Absolutely nothing in this "religious" quiz would do a thing to show that I knew what was important or tolerant about religion. And that is the problem with any curriculum that would be politically correct enough to pass muster in today's schools. There is almost no way for a teacher to teach this without their bias showing though. It would be the same as trying to "teach" politics. And it would need to be taught at an extremely young age to get in before child biases took over. It just isn't feasible.

    Is it a lofty goal? Sure. But not feasible today.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:26 am |
  10. TheRadicalLiberal

    I've been an atheist since I was 8 years old and I got 10 out of 10 correct.

    I'm not surprised by the findings. I know from personal experience actually talking ot them that the more fundamentalist the person is the less they actually know about their own religion. These are the people who will quote "an eye for an eye" when supporting capital punishment or other violence against a criminal while completely unaware that Jesus in fact said the exact opposite. And they are shocked to find out that God commanded a man be stoned to death for gathering firewood on the sabath and that women who are not virgins when married must also be stoned to death. This is after they have been running off about how evil some fundamentalist muslims are for having stoning as a form of punishment.

    You'd hope that the results of this survey would be enough to shut the fundamentalists up for good out of embarassment but no such luck, they won't even be aware of it.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:26 am |
  11. Mr. Mozique

    "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof", thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."

    -Thomas Jefferson

    September 28, 2010 at 1:26 am |
  12. Greg G

    Anyone arguing over the superiority of their "god" (or even for the existence of one) has already lost the battle to anyone employing reason. American children do indeed need to be educated about all religions, especially the three that dominate the headlines; Judeasm, Christianity and Islam – three branches of the same poisonous tree. If properly educated, those children will be able to resist the brainwashing garbage contained within. Perhaps, just perhaps, we might reverse the religious retardation of the entire human race and actually move forward.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:26 am |
  13. Greg

    Got 9 out of 10. Didn't know that the Jewish Sabbath began on Friday.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:26 am |
    • Blah

      That's because it doesn't. Jewish days run sunset to sunset. Shabbat is the seventh day, which is Saturday in english. It just starts when the sun goes down rather than when it comes up. This is actually how liturgical time is marked by Catholics, western and eastern, as well.

      September 28, 2010 at 5:23 am |
  14. the true light and way

    I am God, creating the world around me with every breath I take. There is no seperation, only dissolusion

    September 28, 2010 at 1:25 am |
  15. Tom


    September 28, 2010 at 1:25 am |
  16. Tom

    Stop hating! you will make yourself and your fellow human being a favor! If what ever you believe or you don't makes you hateful. Search the truth for yourself but stop hating!!!!!!!!!!

    September 28, 2010 at 1:24 am |
  17. Boruch N. Hoffinger BS"D

    To: faysal: "islam is the only true religion."
    Of course this is false. The only true 'religion' is 'The Torah' and 'The 7 Noahide Laws.'
    'The Torah' doesn't say that if you don't believe you're going to 'He–.'
    G-d cares more about being good than believing in Him.
    (The Koran, which came after 'The Torah' (So-called Old Testament) falsifies 'The Binding
    of Issac' by Abraham, ['Akedas Yitzchock'] and states that the favorite son was Ishmael and not Yitzchock, as
    'The Torah' states.)
    So, pardon me Faysal, what you say is not true.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:24 am |
  18. singsong

    and how have you come to this conclusion?

    September 28, 2010 at 1:24 am |
  19. James F W

    The atheist came out to plat on this blog!!! You all should stay out of any kind of religious debate! You all have no faith in nothing what so ever! In your dumb comments show your hatred that dwells in side of you all! And the reason I said to no comment is....Well you don't believe in any kind of religion....so why are you saying anything a all that involves other peoples faith base beliefs? You atheist try to turn people away from their beliefs...and that is wrong! In fact...that is an evil act...an in my book anything evil is not of good! Most atheist I know are filled with hatred...

    September 28, 2010 at 1:23 am |
    • Frogist

      @JamesFW: Just a question, but do you consider christians who proselytize to people of another faith evil as well? They are doing exactly what you say atheists are doing – trying to turn a person away from their faith.

      September 28, 2010 at 2:28 am |
    • asrael

      James: you had me at "hatred"; thanks for the demo...

      September 28, 2010 at 5:19 am |
    • James F W

      Frogist-Our job as Christians...We are suppose to spread the word of God and we are to speak only of truth! So Christians jobs are to spread the word! If someone is to convert from another religion...because you talked to him about God and God moved through you to touch this person's soul...and they came to Christ! Then that would be between that person and God! No one should ever push their beliefs on someone else if it is not wanted! There are Christians out there that say to people ...well if you don't except Christ as your Lord and Savior than your going to hell....Well...that's not the way you go about it and for the Christians that do those sorts of things are misguided in their own understanding of Christ and what we are meant to be! We are the ECLAMPSIA (New Latin, from Greek eklampsis sudden flashing, from eklampein to shine forth, from ex- out + lampein to shine) in the darkness! But atheist do need to stop making their comments in the affairs of religion when they don't even believe in religion! I think most of them get a kick out of people's reaction's...but anyways!

      September 28, 2010 at 6:53 am |
    • James F W

      Sorry for the typo's! And God Bless! Oh! and that little quiz at the top was cake! If people don't know those kinds of things then this world is really in need of some help...especially when more atheist answered the questions correctly than Christians! I wonder what kind of groups did they focus on when taking this survey!? I think they just put this out here to stir some crap up....more than likely that is the case!

      September 28, 2010 at 7:00 am |
    • Frogist

      Umm eclampsia as in the life-threatening pregnancy complication? I find it interesting that you use that term as a positive thing. I've never heard it used that way before.
      So you're saying when atheists try to "convert" people to their philosophy they are evil, but when christians do it, they are good? That sounds like a double standard.
      Also since atheists tested much better than christians on a religion test, doesn't that mean the atheists and agnostics who have a broader knowledge and should take part in discussions about religion? What you're saying is like saying a chemistry professor should be left out of discussions about chemistry, isn't it?

      September 28, 2010 at 9:05 am |
  20. catlover8367

    10/10 and I'm an atheist. All religious people are nuts.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:23 am |
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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.