A new survey of Americans’ knowledge of religion found that atheists, agnostics, Jews and Mormons outperformed Protestants and Roman Catholics in answering questions about major religions, while many respondents could not correctly give the most basic tenets of their own faiths.
Forty-five percent of Roman Catholics who participated in the study didn’t know that, according to church teaching, the bread and wine used in Holy Communion is not just a symbol, but becomes the body and blood of Christ.
More than half of Protestants could not identify Martin Luther as the person who inspired the Protestant Reformation. And about four in 10 Jews did not know that Maimonides, one of the greatest rabbis and intellectuals in history, was Jewish.
The survey released Tuesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life aimed to test a broad range of religious knowledge, including understanding of the Bible, core teachings of different faiths and major figures in religious history. The U.S. is one of the most religious countries in the developed world, especially compared to largely secular Western Europe, but faith leaders and educators have long lamented that Americans still know relatively little about religion.
On Basic Religion Test, Many Doth Not Pass
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.
“Even 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,” said Greg Smith, a senior researcher at Pew.
That finding might surprise some, but not Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, an advocacy group for nonbelievers that was founded by Madalyn Murray O’Hair.
“I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people,” Mr. Silverman said. “Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”
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 “to read from the Bible as an example of literature.” And only about one third knew that a public school teacher is permitted to offer a class comparing the world’s religions.
The survey’s authors concluded that there was “widespread confusion” about “the line between teaching and preaching.”
Atheists, agnostics most knowledgeable about religion, survey says
American atheists and agnostics tend to be people who grew up in a religious tradition and consciously gave it up, often after a great deal of reflection and study, said Alan Cooperman, associate director for research at the Pew Forum.
“These are people who thought a lot about religion,” he said. “They’re not indifferent. They care about it.”
Atheists and agnostics also tend to be relatively well educated, and the survey found, not surprisingly, that the most knowledgeable people were also the best educated. However, it said that atheists and agnostics also outperformed believers who had a similar level of education.
The groups at the top of the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey were followed, in order, by white evangelical Protestants, white Catholics, white mainline Protestants, people who were unaffiliated with any faith (but not atheist or agnostic), black Protestants and Latino Catholics.
Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists were included in the survey, but their numbers were too small to be broken out as statistically significant groups.
Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University and author of “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t,” served as an advisor on the survey. “I think in general the survey confirms what I argued in the book, which is that we know almost nothing about our own religions and even less about the religions of other people,” he said.
The Rev. Adam Hamilton, a Methodist minister from Leawood, Kan., and the author of “When Christians Get it Wrong,” said the survey’s results may reflect a reluctance by many people to dig deeply into their own beliefs and especially into those of others.
“I think that what happens for many Christians is, they accept their particular faith, they accept it to be true and they stop examining it. Consequently, because it’s already accepted to be true, they don’t examine other people’s faiths. … That, I think, is not healthy for a person of any faith,” he said.
Don’t know much about religion? You’re not alone, study finds
“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.
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.
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.
U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey Full Report