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Survey: Atheists, Jews, Mormons Know More About Religion than Protestants, Catholics

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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posted September 28, 2010 at 1:19 pm

Many Mormons (Latter-day Saints) serve as missionaries around the world where they are exposed to the beliefs of many different religions. The Church’s view of other religions (or of other Christian Churches)is very positive. We tend to view other religions and faiths as “brothers in arms”–meaning good people doing good things–instead of an adversarial view. We’re interested in and have respect for other religions.

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posted September 28, 2010 at 1:34 pm

I was raised a Lutheran (my father was a Lutheran pastor) so this test was not hard for me. (I did two years of the Education for Ministry program offered by the University of the South, studying the Old and New Testaments in a small group once a week from September through May.) Studying the Christian Bible, after having been raised in it, did more to make me an agnostic than simple lack of contact with the church could have done.
For the record, I have been attending an Episcopalian congregation since 1994, though my attendance has been spotty of late. People talk about the contradictions in the Old Testament, but having read practically the entire book, I can honestly say that it is only as theology that it makes sense. To take it literally is to accept nonsense as if it were true. And the picture of God in the OT is not a picture of a deity that is worthy of worship. Far from it.
Personally, I think knowing little about what is actually in the Bible (and memorizing it by rote is not knowledge) helps protect the faith of those who would be appalled if they read what was actually in the book. To me, the Christian Bible only makes sense if it is seen as a record of the search for God by several different peoples. As the tale of the human quest for God the Bible is a thing of wonder. Frankly, I think the world would be better off if there were more religiously literate agnostics and atheists and fewer religiously illiterate (or mostly illiterate) believers.

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Robert C

posted September 28, 2010 at 2:19 pm

I am not surprised. These are Americans answering. Look who’ve they elected for God’s sake.

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posted September 28, 2010 at 3:10 pm

History has taught us (not that anyone seems to be learning) that people will fight to the death for their religion, but have no idea what they actually believe. I know lots of folks form many denominations who are amazed at what are the “offical” dogma or doctrines of their chosen group. That’s why I love the UCC – our doctrines are unofficial and there is no authority greater than the congregation. I makes all of tihs so much more fun.
Alicia – It’s the contradictions that make the entire book that is the Bible more fun. If it all agreed it would be deathly boring and incredibly pretencious. But the varying perspectives make it more human and better refelction of people expectations of each other and of God. Once I realized tis Bible study was so much more than mere memorization – now I have to read and help others perceive to get the writer’s perception and appreciate when they were writing and why. And its fun to guess what was NOT included – and why was it left out.

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posted September 28, 2010 at 3:45 pm

Two people who see the same accident have very different explanations as to what happend are very common but what is uncommon is the new testemant which was written some 60 years apart and has the same story. There are only two sides to the issue. You either believe or you don’t. There are only two places to go according to the bible so what will it be Heaven or Hell???

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posted September 28, 2010 at 4:14 pm

Having done the short sample (6 questions) I’m happy to say that I got them all correct. Guess the 1st 17 years as a Methodist must have helped. It is a little surprising to me that so many Catholics have no idea that they are supposed to actually be eating Christ’s body and blood at communion. (which to me is disgusting).

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posted September 28, 2010 at 6:45 pm

I got all six right too PS, but I wonder where you can answer all 32 to see how you make out.

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posted September 28, 2010 at 7:01 pm

Don’t know Henrietta, but I would like to take the entire quiz. Think it would be fun!

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William Oltai

posted September 28, 2010 at 9:52 pm

It’s not too difficult to understand why people would fight to the death while being clueless about their religion. Emotion, not rational, creates the need for believing in something that is beyond reach. Leaders of religions compete for as large a membership they can possibly assemble because numbers will always make the difference not only in ideological supremacy but also in financial strength. Members then do not have to understand anything as long as they emotionally embrace a particular religion and will readily fight for it. Actually, having little or no knowledge of it, will not be a barrier.

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Robert C

posted September 28, 2010 at 10:31 pm

The exact same thing could be said about corporations, political parties, most nation states, labor unions, talk shows, certain charities, and many organizations. Cluelessness is a commodity best reserved for mass consumption.

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posted September 28, 2010 at 10:39 pm

“Catholics have no idea….”
Most Catholics do have an idea — in their own way. They know, for example, that a person is Catholic if he or she is baptized Catholic. That sacrament incorporates him or her into the church. The only way a person can drop out is by joining another church. Or formally asking that his/her name be removed from the parish of his/her baptism.
After that, Catholics are fine, free. And they know it, especially younger ones. They are not “bound” as others (often non-Catholics) expect them to be (in an almost fundamentalist fashion).
Case in point: recently, the young screenwriter Ian Brennan received a prize on behalf of GLEE (a popular series best known for its stars’ extravagant dance routines and performance of show-stopping power ballads) at the 17th annual Catholics in Media Award in Beverly Hills, CA.
After the formal ceremony, Brennnan said how how deeply he related with the Catholic church he grew up in — and said he was defensive of it. He also said being a Catholic today for him was a “lot like being Jewish” — and that the believer can disagree with things the church does but still be a Catholic.
I thought that was cool. He is finding his own way within Catholicism, which is so varied and multi-faceted, depending what spirituality (Franciscan, mysticism of John of the Cross) or what part of the world (Latin over European), etc. I am sure he would have many ways of interpreting the sacraments, totally different from fellow Catholics — yet according to catholic church doctrine, they are all still Catholic.

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posted September 29, 2010 at 12:03 am

This is about the most Unintelligent article ever written.
As a Catholic – This is another one that is as low as you can get.
Go read more Pew studies – You need to learn a bit more – They will help you achieve total literacy!

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posted September 29, 2010 at 12:31 am

I took that survey, and did better than 93% of the average, and I’m no religious studies scholar. It’s pathetic that anyone who considers themselves educated in any minimalist sense of the word would not get most of those right. They’re pretty basic questions about major world religions, with one or two areas where you’d have to be up on Constitutional law and history a bit.

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posted September 29, 2010 at 11:01 am

I too wish the entire test was available. I got 6/6 with essentially no effort on the sample.
It should not be so surprising that most people’s grasp of religion is so feeble. Far too many teach that the Bible is “too complicated” for people to understand, or they read it trying to make it say what they think it means.
To me the Bible is a thousand page poem, full of subtle meanings, illustrations, and parables. Fools can pick and choose their way through the book, taking this literally and that symbolically and massage the basic message to suit their own ends.
The apostle Paul really understood the big picture, yet I hear so many people say that Paul is so difficult to follow. Those who find so many inaccuracies and inconsistancies in the Bible, are so obsessed with how the trees relate to their treasure-map that they are missing the beauty of the great, green, forest.

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Rob the Rev

posted September 29, 2010 at 11:29 am

The results of this poll does not surprise me as a former Lutheran Misery Synod pastor of 30 years who was pastor of three congregations, one with a parochial school. Lutherans think they have learned everything they need to know about their religion if they attended Sunday School and took Confirmation instruction. And many learned little from that. As adults in the church I was often appalled at what they believed.
I joined the Lutheran Church, Misery Synod as a young adult fundamentalist at age 22 and left it as a mature adult liberal, spiritual not religious, at age 62. I’ve seen institutional fundamentalist creedal protestant religion from the inside out and can tell you that it is Bullsh-t.
BTW, I took the condensed version of the poll and got six out of six correct. It was not difficult. I’d like to take the full poll. I think I’d ace it.

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posted September 29, 2010 at 1:18 pm

NPR (and other news tweets): Atheists And Agnostics Know More About Bible Than Religious
I rarely make comments (replies) on the various tweets I have coming in on Twitter, but this particular one really bugged me…It took me about ten seconds to rip out my reply – my only problem was I only had 140 characters, so it’s awfully short for me.
It was:
It’s not what you know, it’s what you do that matters. Doing a kind deed for another person is more important than “knowing”

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Joe Gonzalez

posted September 29, 2010 at 9:09 pm

i think the main problem lies in the demand, on the believer, whether Catholic or Protestant to accept the Tradition as it is, and unquestioningly. Belonging to either mainline Christian confessions – though Protestantism has endless ramifications – turns into a sort of pride. We have, for example, the WASPs as an indication of what is was to be a good american ( White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant.)America sort of prides itself in being mainly Protestant. Catholics were looked down upon during a long part of our history, seen as alien, papists and other things. But there is, I find, very little interest
( and here i speak as a Catholic ) in delving into what truly constitutes Catholicism. When you read Thomas Aquinas, for example, or many of his interpreters, you get a SOLID feeling about what the religion is based on. When, on the other hand, you have to testify, some would tell you even to the point of martyrdom, about some so-called truths that are only ‘ dogmas ‘ and very difficult for an unaided, and even a briliant mind, to understand, the what’s left to you is to say : ” It is what it is, what it is, and that’s all ! ” And this is the mindset of the fanatic, who usually is a brainwashed yea sayer, and who, because, among other things tradition and family tradition, will go to great lengths – even violent ones, such as we witnessed not long ago in Ireland – to, notwithstanding logic and reasonable questioning, take brutal offense at any and all investigations or queries about their faith.

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posted September 29, 2010 at 9:50 pm

I took the 15 question test and got 14 correct. The Great Awakening question was the one that got me. I was raised Presbyterian, but became an agnostic at 16, so I count myself as a religiously literate non-believer.
I think the reason non-believers do better than the average believer is that they are not going along to get along. So they are a self selected group that has a strong opinion on a topic. While someone who’s a marginal believer would like skew the scores of the faithful downward.

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Deacon John M. Bresnahan

posted September 30, 2010 at 6:53 pm

The more broad based or broad reaching any group is, the lower it will do on tests like this. In just the 6 questions I saw, I have real questions about their wording and relevance. Is the whole test available anywhere? And to make a big deal in a headline about an apparently only 4 answer difference between atheists and Catholics is almost absurd. Catholics (and Orthodox Christians) are into the saints and Mary as well as Bible knowledge. I wonder what the balance in questions was.

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posted October 4, 2010 at 5:11 pm

It was only after my brother became an atheist that he truly, deeply studied the Bible. He said later that “90% of Christians don’t know most of their own Bible.” I don’t know if he realized that he was also talking about his own past self… and personally, I think he only studied the Bible AFTER he developed a loathing for it. Sadly, his mind (and that of many others) tends to more easily attach itself to negatively perceived things then positive ones.

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