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Researchers from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life have released the
results of an interesting survey designed to find out how much Americans
know about "basic religion". The results, as Laurie Goodstein notes in her
New York Times article, reveal that while Americans are deeply religious,
they are also deeply ignorant when it comes to religion. No surprise here.
What surprised me was that atheists and agnostics knew more about religion
than any other segment of the American population.
Before you read any further, I encourage you to test yourself. Here's where
you can find a quick 15 question survey. Take this survey for a spin and
then share your answers (if you want to), on NHNE's Facebook page:
I correctly answered 13. You'll have to guess which two I missed.
The 15-question survey is posted here:
A downloadable copy of the survey, including answers, is located here:
The following report, including the New York Times article, the Pew
Executive Summary, and accompanying links and graphics, is located here:
ATHEISTS, AGNOSTICS, JEWS & MORMONS KNOW THE MOST ABOUT RELIGION
-- David Sunfellow
BASIC RELIGION TEST STUMPS MANY AMERICANS
By Laurie Goodstein
New York Times
September 28, 2010
Americans are by all measures a deeply religious people, but they are also
deeply ignorant about religion.
How much do you know about religion? Try answering a sampling of questions
asked in a phone survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life
phoned more than 3,400 Americans and asked them 32 questions about the
Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and
the constitutional principles governing religion in public life.
On average, people who took the survey answered half the questions
incorrectly, and many flubbed even questions about their own faith.
Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics, as well as two
religious minorities: Jews and Mormons. The results were the same even after
the researchers controlled for factors like age and racial differences.
³Even after all these other factors, including education, are taken into
account, atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons still outperform all the
other religious groups in our survey,² said Greg Smith, a senior researcher
That finding might surprise some, but not Dave Silverman, president of
American Atheists, an advocacy group for nonbelievers that was founded by
Madalyn Murray O¹Hair.
³I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than
religious people,² Mr. Silverman said. ³Atheism is an effect of that
knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That¹s
how you make atheists.²
Among the topics covered in the survey were: Where was Jesus born? What is
Ramadan? Whose writings inspired the Protestant Reformation? Which Biblical
figure led the exodus from Egypt? What religion is the Dalai Lama? Joseph
Smith? Mother Teresa? In most cases, the format was multiple choice.
The researchers said that the questionnaire was designed to represent a
breadth of knowledge about religion, but was not intended to be regarded as
a list of the most essential facts about the subject. Most of the questions
were easy, but a few were difficult enough to discern which respondents were
On questions about the Bible and Christianity, the groups that answered the
most right were Mormons and white evangelical Protestants.
On questions about world religions, like Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and
Judaism, the groups that did the best were atheists, agnostics and Jews.
One finding that may grab the attention of policy makers is that most
Americans wrongly believe that anything having to do with religion is
prohibited in public schools.
An overwhelming 89 percent of respondents, asked whether public school
teachers are permitted to lead a class in prayer, correctly answered no.
But fewer than one of four knew that a public school teacher is permitted
³to read from the Bible as an example of literature.² And only about one
third knew that a public school teacher is permitted to offer a class
comparing the world¹s religions.
The survey¹s authors concluded that there was ³widespread confusion² about
³the line between teaching and preaching.²
Mr. Smith said the survey appeared to be the first comprehensive effort at
assessing the basic religious knowledge of Americans, so it is impossible to
tell whether they are more or less informed than in the past.
The phone interviews were conducted in English and Spanish in May and June.
There were not enough Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu respondents to say how those
Clergy members who are concerned that their congregants know little about
the essentials of their own faith will no doubt be appalled by some of these
- Fifty-three percent of Protestants could not identify Martin Luther as the
man who started the Protestant Reformation.
- Forty-five percent of Catholics did not know that their church teaches
that the consecrated bread and wine in holy communion are not merely
symbols, but actually become the body and blood of Christ.
- Forty-three percent of Jews did not know that Maimonides, one of the
foremost rabbinical authorities and philosophers, was Jewish.
The question about Maimonides was the one that the fewest people answered
correctly. But 51 percent knew that Joseph Smith was Mormon, and 82 percent
knew that Mother Teresa was Roman Catholic.
U.S. RELIGIOUS KNOWLEDGE SURVEY
September 28, 2010
Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring
groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical
Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core
teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.
On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge
questions on the survey by the Pew Research Center¹s Forum on Religion &
Public Life. Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 correct answers. Jews and
Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers,
respectively. Protestants as a whole average 16 correct answers; Catholics
as a whole, 14.7. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons perform better
than other groups on the survey even after controlling for differing levels
On questions about Christianity -- including a battery of questions about
the Bible -- Mormons (7.9 out of 12 right on average) and white evangelical
Protestants (7.3 correct on average) show the highest levels of knowledge.
Jews and atheists/agnostics stand out for their knowledge of other world
religions, including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism; out of 11 such
questions on the survey, Jews answer 7.9 correctly (nearly three better than
the national average) and atheists/agnostics answer 7.5 correctly (2.5
better than the national average). Atheists/agnostics and Jews also do
particularly well on questions about the role of religion in public life,
including a question about what the U.S. Constitution says about religion.
These are among the key findings of the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, a
nationwide poll conducted from May 19 through June 6, 2010, among 3,412
Americans age 18 and older, on landlines and cell phones, in English and
Spanish. Jews, Mormons and atheists/agnostics were oversampled to allow
analysis of these relatively small groups.1
Previous surveys by the Pew Research Center have shown that America is among
the most religious of the world¹s developed nations. Nearly six-in-ten U.S.
adults say that religion is ³very important² in their lives, and roughly
four-in-ten say they attend worship services at least once a week. But the
U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey shows that large numbers of Americans are
uninformed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major
faith traditions -- including their own. Many people also think the
constitutional restrictions on religion in public schools are stricter than
they really are.
More than four-in-ten Catholics in the United States (45%) do not know that
their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion do not merely
symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ. About half of
Protestants (53%) cannot correctly identify Martin Luther as the person
whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation, which made
their religion a separate branch of Christianity. Roughly four-in-ten Jews
(43%) do not recognize that Maimonides, one of the most venerated rabbis in
history, was Jewish.
In addition, fewer than half of Americans (47%) know that the Dalai Lama is
Buddhist. Fewer than four-in-ten (38%) correctly associate Vishnu and Shiva
with Hinduism. And only about a quarter of all Americans (27%) correctly
answer that most people in Indonesia -- the country with the world¹s largest
Muslim population -- are Muslims.
The survey also finds widespread confusion over the line between teaching
and preaching in public schools. Out of a total of 41 knowledge questions
(32 about religion and nine testing general knowledge) the single question
that respondents most frequently get right is whether U.S. Supreme Court
rulings allow teachers to lead public school classes in prayer. Nine-in-ten
(89%) correctly say this is not allowed. But among the questions most often
answered incorrectly is whether public school teachers are permitted to read
from the Bible as an example of literature. Fully two-thirds of people
surveyed (67%) also say ³no² to this question, even though the Supreme Court
has clearly stated that the Bible may be taught for its ³literary and
historic² qualities, as long as it is part of a secular curriculum.2 On a
third question along these lines, just 36% of the public knows that
comparative religion classes may be taught in public schools. Together, this
block of questions suggests that many Americans think the constitutional
restrictions on religion in public schools are tighter than they really are.
On the other hand, most Americans are able to correctly answer at least half
of the survey¹s questions about the Bible. For example, roughly seven-in-ten
(71%) know that, according to the Bible, Jesus was born in Bethlehem. More
than six-in-ten (63%) correctly name Genesis as the first book of the Bible.
And more than half know that the Golden Rule -- ³Do unto others as you would
have them do unto you² -- is not one of the Ten Commandments. On the full
battery of seven questions about the Bible (five Old Testament and two New
Testament items) Mormons do best, followed by white evangelical Protestants.
Atheists/agnostics, black Protestants and Jews come next, all exhibiting
greater knowledge of the Bible than white mainline Protestants and white
Catholics, who in turn outscore those who describe their religion as nothing
Factors in Religious Knowledge
What factors seem to contribute to religious knowledge? Data from the survey
indicate that educational attainment -- how much schooling an individual has
completed -- is the single best predictor of religious knowledge. College
graduates get nearly eight more questions right on average than do people
with a high school education or less. Having taken a religion course in
college is also strongly associated with higher religious knowledge.
Other factors linked with religious knowledge include reading Scripture at
least once a week and talking about religion with friends and family. People
who say they frequently talk about religion with friends and family get an
average of roughly two more questions right than those who say they rarely
or never discuss religion. People with the highest levels of religious
commitment -- those who say that they attend worship services at least once
a week and that religion is very important in their lives -- generally
demonstrate higher levels of religious knowledge than those with medium or
low religious commitment.3 Having regularly attended religious education
classes or participated in a youth group as a child adds more than two
questions to the average number answered correctly, compared with those who
seldom or never participated in such activities. And those who attended
private school score more than two questions better on average than those
who attended public school when they were growing up. Interestingly,
however, those who attended a private religious school score no better than
those who attended a private nonreligious school.
This survey and previous Pew Forum studies have shown that Jews and
atheists/agnostics have high levels of educational attainment on average,
which partially explains their performance on the religious knowledge
survey. However, even after controlling for levels of education and other
key demographic traits (race, age, gender and region), significant
differences in religious knowledge persist among adherents of various faith
traditions. Atheists/agnostics, Jews and Mormons still have the highest
levels of religious knowledge, followed by evangelical Protestants, then
those whose religion is nothing in particular, mainline Protestants and
Catholics. Atheists/agnostics and Jews stand out for high levels of
knowledge about world religions other than Christianity, though they also
score at or above the national average on questions about the Bible and
Christianity. Holding demographic factors constant, evangelical Protestants
outperform most groups (with the exceptions of Mormons and
atheists/agnostics) on questions about the Bible and Christianity, but
evangelicals fare less well compared with other groups on questions about
world religions such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism. Mormons are
the highest-scoring group on questions about the Bible.
When education and other demographic traits are held equal, whites score
better than minorities on the survey¹s religious knowledge questions, men
score somewhat better than women, and people outside the South score better
than Southerners. The oldest group in the population (age 65 and older) gets
fewer questions right than other age groups. However, people 65 and older do
about as well as people under age 50 on questions about the Bible and
Christianity; they do less well on questions about other world religions.
Other findings of the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey include:
On world religions other than Christianity, about six-in-ten Americans (62%)
know that most people in India are Hindus. About half know that Ramadan is
the Islamic holy month (52%) and can name the Koran as the Muslim holy book
(54%). Roughly one-third (36%) correctly associate striving for nirvana with
Around four-in-ten Americans know that the Mormon religion was founded
sometime after 1800 (44%) and that the Book of Mormon tells the story of
Jesus appearing to people in the Americas (40%). About half (51%) correctly
identify Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints, as a Mormon.
In addition to questions about religious knowledge, the survey included nine
general knowledge questions (on history, politics, science and literature)
for comparison purposes. These show, for example, that about six-in-ten
Americans can name the vice president of the United States (59%) and
understand that lasers do not work by focusing sound waves (60%). More than
seven-in-ten (72%) correctly associate Susan B. Anthony with the movement to
give women the right to vote, while just 42% know that Herman Melville was
the author of the novel Moby Dick.
Overall, people who score well on the general knowledge questions also tend
to do well on the religion questions. Atheists/agnostics and Jews correctly
answer an average of roughly seven of the nine general knowledge questions.
Among the public overall, the average respondent correctly answers 5.2 of
these general knowledge questions.
While people with a high level of religious commitment do better than
average on the religion questions, people with low levels of religious
commitment do better than average on the general knowledge questions.
Many Americans are devoted readers of Scripture: More than a third (37%) say
they read the Bible or other Holy Scriptures at least once a week, not
counting worship services. But Americans as a whole are much less inclined
to read other books about religion.
Nearly half of Americans who are affiliated with a religion (48%) say they
³seldom² or ³never² read books (other than Scripture) or visit websites
about their own religion, and 70% say they seldom or never read books or
visit websites about other religions.
Mormons, black Protestants and white evangelicals are the most frequent
readers of materials about religion. Fully half of all Mormons (51%) and
roughly three-in-ten white evangelicals (30%) and black Protestants (29%)
report that they read books or go online to learn about their own religion
at least once a week. Only a small fraction of all religiously affiliated
Americans -- 6% of the general public and no more than 8% of any religious
group -- say they read books (other than Scripture) or visit websites to
learn about religions other than their own at least once a week.
The remainder of this report is divided into two parts. Section II, ³Who
Knows What About Religion,² focuses on differences between religious groups
in eight domains of knowledge: the Bible, Elements of Christianity, Elements
of Judaism, Elements of Mormonism, World Religions, Atheism and Agnosticism,
the Role of Religion in Public Life, and Nonreligious Topics. Section III,
³Factors Linked With Religious Knowledge,² describes factors associated with
religious knowledge. Details about the survey¹s methodology are available in
Appendix A, and the full wording of all questions and topline survey results
are provided in Appendix B.
This survey is being released at the God in America National Symposium on
Religious Literacy on Sept. 28, 2010, in Washington, D.C. WGBH Television in
Boston collaborated with the Pew Forum and the Religious Freedom Education
Project at the Newseum on the symposium, which will also feature a screening
of the three-part PBS documentary ³God in America.² The series interweaves
documentary footage, historical dramatization and interviews to explore the
historical role of religion in the U.S., including its impact on society,
politics and culture.
1 The Pew Forum¹s 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey estimated that Jews
and Mormons each make up about 1.7% of the U.S. public, while atheists and
agnostics combined account for about 4% of the U.S. population. Atheists and
agnostics are treated as a single group throughout this report. The survey
sample included too few interviews with atheists to analyze them separately.
For more details on the sample sizes of religious groups, see Appendix A.
2 Writing for the Supreme Court majority in its 1963 ruling in Abington
School District v. Schempp, Justice Tom Clark made a case for the importance
of the study of religion as the court clarified how public school teachers
may go about it: ³. . . [I]t might well be said that one¹s education is not
complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion
and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be
said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic
qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible
or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of
education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.²
3 This may seem paradoxical, since atheists and agnostics have very low
levels of religious commitment and yet score very well on the survey
questions. However, atheists and agnostics account for a relatively small
share of the total number of people with low levels of religious commitment;
4% of Americans describe themselves as atheists or agnostics, while fully
35% have low religious commitment. Atheists and agnostics answer an average
of 20.9 questions correctly, compared with an average of 15.4 correct
answers among people with low religious commitment who do not describe
themselves as atheists or agnostics.
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Published by David Sunfellow
Phone: (928) 257-3200
Fax: (815) 642-0117
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