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Pew Forum Religious Knowledge Survey: Atheists, Agnostics Score Highest

Pew Religious Knowledge

First Posted: 09/28/10 08:33 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 06:50 PM ET

Washington, D.C. -- Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge. They outperformed evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.

These are among the key findings of the "U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey," a nationwide poll conducted by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life from May 19 through June 6, 2010, among 3,412 adults.

On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey. 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 different levels of education.

On questions about Christianity (including the Bible), Mormons and white evangelical Protestants show the highest levels of knowledge. Jews, atheists and agnostics stand out for their knowledge of world religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism. Jews, atheists and agnostics also do particularly well on questions about the role of religion in public life, including what the U.S. Constitution says about religion.

While previous surveys by the Pew Research Center have shown that America is among the most religious of the world's developed nations, this survey shows that large numbers of Americans are not well informed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions -- including their own. Many people also think that the constitutional restrictions on religion in public schools are stricter than they really are.

Additional findings include:

  • More than four-in-ten Catholics (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
  • Fewer than half of Americans (47%) know that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist; fewer than four-in-ten (38%) correctly identify Vishnu and Shiva with Hinduism; and only about a quarter of all Americans (27%) know that most people in Indonesia are Muslims
  • There is widespread confusion over the line between teaching and preaching in public schools. Nine-in-ten Americans (89%) know that U.S. Supreme Court rulings do not allow teachers to lead public school classes in prayer. However two-thirds of people surveyed incorrectly say that Supreme Court rulings prevent public school teachers from reading from the Bible as an example of literature, and only 36% know that comparative religion classes may be taught in public schools.
  • Most Americans are able to correctly answer at least half of the survey's questions about the Bible. Roughly seven-in-ten (71%) know that, according to the Bible, Jesus was born in Bethlehem. More than six-in-ten (63%) can correctly name Genesis as the first book of the Bible.


Data from the survey indicate that educational attainment -- how much schooling an individual has completed -- is the single best predictor of religious knowledge. On average, college graduates answered nearly eight more questions correctly than those with a high school education or less. Religious knowledge is also higher among those who have taken a religion course in college. Other factors linked with religious knowledge include reading Scripture at least once a week and talking about religion with friends and family.

For those curious about their own religious knowledge, the online presentation of the "U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey" includes an interactive quiz that allows Web visitors to answer a selection of questions taken from the survey and compare their results to the nation as a whole and with various religious and demographic groups.

In conjunction with the release of the survey, WGBH in Boston will debut "God in America," a six-hour series that 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. It will air over three consecutive nights on PBS beginning Oct. 11.

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Filed by Clay Chiles  |