Belief Beat

The reason “atheists” are trending high right now on Twitter, Google and other search engines: A Pew study of religious literacy has found that atheists, followed by Jews and Momons, know more than Protestants and Catholics, based on a quiz given to more than 3,000 Americans earlier this year. You can take the test yourself here, then check out the coverage and analysis here, here, and here. (If you want good coverage of a faith-related study, it helps to present your findings at a Religion Newswriters Association conference!)

Pew oversampled atheists, Jews and Mormons, but only because otherwise the sample sizes would be too small to be statistically significant — researchers also accounted for factors like education level and economic status, but still found that those groups scored higher on religious knowledge. Speculation is that many atheists were raised as something else, and have to know a lot about faith to argue against it — as for Jews and Mormons, I would guess that they score higher because they were more likely to know the answers to the minority faith questions.

Another interesting finding from the test: most Americans think that religion is more restricted in public schools than it actually is.

Click ahead to see more from my notes on the RNA2010 session on this study (the results were embargoed until today) — but take the test first, because these notes will give away some of the answers. And, as always, share your thoughts in the Comments section below.


Questions most people got right:

    • An atheist doesn’t believe in God
    • Mother Theresa was Catholic
    • Moses led the Exodus
    • Jesus born in Bethlehem
    • Constitution says government shall not establish or interfere with religion (though some thought Christians get special favor)

Questions that about half of respondents got right:

    • Golden rule is not one of the 10 commandments
    • Koran is the Islamic holy book
    • Ramadan is the Islamic holy month
    • Joseph Smith was Mormon
    • Dalai Lama is Buddhist
    • Jewish Sabbath starts Friday
    • Can name all four Gospels

Questions most people got wrong:

    • Most people in Indonesia are Muslim
    • Fewer than 1/5 people know that Protestantism, not Catholicism, traditionally teaches that salvation is by faith alone
    • Jonathan Edwards was in “First Great Awakening”

On questions about their own faiths:

People tend to correctly answer more often than people from other religions, but large number of Americans are still ill informed. Only 55% of Catholics know that their religion teaches that bread becomes actual body of Christ (beat 35% of Protestants, 33% of Jews) Fewer than half of Protestants identify Luther as inspiration for the Reformation.

On religion in public schools:

Most people don’t realize the Bible can be used in literature and comparative religion courses in public schools — Americans think there are more restrictions on religion in public schools than is actually the case.


Sample: 3,412 people, about 3,000 interviews with nationally representative sample of population in 48 states (not Hawaii or Alaska), then oversampled three groups: atheists/agnostics, Jews and Mormons, since they make up tiny samples otherwise. All by telephone: landlines, and cell phones, English and Spanish. Average interview length was 20 minutes, conducted May 21-June 6.

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