Atheists, Jews, Mormons top U.S. religious knowledge poll

September 28, 2010

relig symbolsAtheists and agnostics may not believe in God or gods but they know a thing or two about them, according to a survey of religious knowledge among Americans released on Tuesday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

“On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey. Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 … Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers,” Pew said. It found Protestants answered 16 correctly and Catholics on average 14.7.

“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,” said Pew, which is based in Washington.

Highlights of the survey include:

- More than four-in-10 Catholics do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion actually become the body and blood of Jesus.

- About half of Protestants cannot correctly identify Martin Luther as the person who sparked the Protestant Reformation.

- Less than half identified Buddhism as the Dalai Lama’s religion, 51 percent knew that Joseph Smith was Mormon and 54 percent correctly said the Koran is the Islamic holy book. More than 80 percent knew that Mother Teresa was Catholic.

Read the full story here. You can find the full survey here.

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4 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

The problem with this survey is that its organizing principle is that knowledge of religion ought to be gaged by wide sweeping superficial facts about all the world’s religions. This notion of “religious knowledge” of course favors the secular and atheists as a demographic who may know a lot of superficial facts about a large number of religions but do not know any in depth and from the inside as a set of spiritual and moral practices.

See my fuller critique of the poll from the perspective of a young atheist convert to Catholicism here: http://bit.ly/9wxwIG

Posted by JWBlakely | Report as abusive

The question about Martin Luther doesn’t seem related at all. It’s more historical than religious. I mean, he’s not even *in* the bible.

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive

Many past studies have shown that religious people have lower IQ and less curiosity than either agnostics or atheists.

The first commenter ties morality to religion, another myth that has been proved incorrect many times.

The problem is that many religious people use religion like race, to pretend that they are superior in some way just because they believe a different set of stories.

Posted by jstaf | Report as abusive

This reminded me a survey I conducted several years ago. The purpose was to find out how much our university students know about Stalin. Here is the description of the results:

According to one professor most MSU students do not know who Stalin was. I was very surprised and decided to survey my students. Of 23 present only 13 raised their hands indicating they knew who Stalin was. Was my small sample a good representation of the student population at our university? This was a statistics class, composed mostly of non-science students. As an exercise in data gathering I asked each student to conduct a survey in another class on campus. Find the fraction of students declaring “I know who Joseph Stalin was.” I now have 19 samples based on 439 students. On the average 72% of polled students think they know who Stalin was. The actual results are shown in the following table . . .

Ludwik Kowalski (Ph.D.)
the author of “Diary of a Former Communist: Thoughts, Feelings, Reality,” at

      http://csam.montclair.edu/~kowalski/life  /intro.html

It is an autobiography illustrating my evolution from one extreme to another–from a devoted Stalinist to an active anti-communist. This testimony is based on a diary I kept between 1946 and 2004 (in the USSR, Poland, France and the USA).

Posted by Ludwik | Report as abusive

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