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What Americans Do and Don’t Know About Religion

September 28, 2010 at 6:08 PM EDT
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How much do Americans really know about religion? A new Pew survey has some surprising answers. Judy Woodruff has details.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now: How much do Americans really know about religion? Judy Woodruff gets some answers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There’s no doubt that faith and religion play a large role in American life. But a new survey out today shows that Americans’ basic knowledge about their religion and others is somewhat lacking.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life posed 32 questions to more than 3,400 Americans. Some were very basic. Who was Moses? Where was Jesus born? Others required a deeper understanding, such as the name of the figure who inspired the Protestant Reformation. The results were surprising. People got roughly half the answers wrong. Atheists and agnostics scored best. Jews and Mormons scored highly as well.

Well, we discuss these findings now with the Pew Center’s Alan Cooperman, who did the survey. Alan Cooperman, good to see you. Thanks for being here.

ALAN COOPERMAN, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: Great to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let’s start with what people do know. Tell us what — what some of the answers were that most people got right.

ALAN COOPERMAN: Well, the Bible and the Constitution, Judy, Americans, about two-thirds of the Americans know that the Constitution says that the government shall neither establish a religion nor interfere with the free exercise of religion.

And two-thirds or more Americans are — seem to have passing at least familiarity with major Bible stories. So, as you said, most know that Moses is the biblical figure associated with the exodus from Egypt. About 70 percent know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, according to the Bible, and not Jerusalem or Nazareth.

And about 60 percent correctly associate Abraham with willingness to sacrifice his son for God in the Bible story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, let’s talk about some things that people didn’t tend to know — and we — I think we have a graphic here — some of the questions that you indicate about half people knew the answers to.

ALAN COOPERMAN: Yes. Well, to begin with, the Ten Commandments. So, we asked a question, which of the following is not among the Ten Commandments, do not steal, do not commit adultery, keep the Sabbath holy, or do unto others as you would have them do unto you? And a little more than half the public, 55 percent, correctly said do unto others as you would have them do unto you, the golden rule…

JUDY WOODRUFF: The golden rule.

ALAN COOPERMAN: … is not among the Ten Commandments. But fully a quarter of Americans, in fact, a little more than a quarter of Americans, think keep the Sabbath holy is not among the Ten Commandments, and do unto others as you would have them do unto you is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, now, that’s what people got about half right. Now there are questions I want you to share with us a couple of examples only less than a third of Americans knew the answers to.

ALAN COOPERMAN: Well, you know, one of these is how — you know, is about the largest Islamic nation in the world, Indonesia. And only a quarter of Americans know that most people in Indonesia are Muslims.

You know, at a time when Islam is very much in the news, when Barack Obama spent some of his youth in Indonesia, you would think it might be higher. But less than a quarter of Americans know that.

Questions about religion in the public schools, very interesting. The highest single response rate that was correct on any of our questions was to a question, under Supreme Court rulings, can a teacher lead a class in prayer? And nearly 90 percent of Americans correctly said no. In the public schools, a teacher cannot lead a class in prayer.

But, on a similar question, can a teacher read from the Bible as an example of literature, most Americans also say no — incorrectly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What — so, Alan Cooperman, what should we take away from this? Why — do you come away from this with theories about why people don’t know as much as we think they should or do?

ALAN COOPERMAN: Yes, a whole variety of theories depending on the questions. On the public school questions, it seems that people overestimate. They think that there are greater restrictions on the teaching of religion in public schools in the United States than there really are. On some of these other questions, it’s hard to know.

One of the interesting things is who does better and who does worse. You noted that atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons come out on the top. You know, atheists and agnostics are only about 4 percent of the U.S. population. They’re a tiny fraction. They’re people who self-identify in our survey. We didn’t call them atheists and agnostics. They called themselves atheists and agnostics.

And, so, my hypothesis is that people who self-identify as atheists and agnostics are people who have actually thought a lot about religion, paid a lot of attention to it. We know that 75 percent of them were raised as Christians. So, it’s not that they haven’t had exposure to religion.

And we think that people who self-identify, well, actually, these are people who care quite a bit about religion. And maybe that’s why they do better.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Should we draw any broader conclusions from all this about what people — how much people really understand about their own faith?

ALAN COOPERMAN: Well, there are some questions in here that would indicate, if I were a religious educator, I might be concerned about how much people know about their own faiths.

It’s harder to for me to say — I have no basis on which to say how much people should know about somebody else’s faith.


ALAN COOPERMAN: To be a good citizen in this world, yes, maybe — maybe that argument could be made.

But, just as an example, on Roman Catholicism, it’s only about half of Roman Catholics who can correctly answer a question about the Eucharist, the communion, the bread and the wine used in communion. So, nearly half of Roman Catholics incorrectly say that the church’s teaching is that the bread and wine are merely symbolic of the body and blood of Christ.

Among churchgoing Catholics, it’s a little higher. Maybe I should say transubstantially higher.


ALAN COOPERMAN: Fifty-five percent of them know…


ALAN COOPERMAN: I’m sorry — 65 percent of them get the Eucharist question right. But, still, nearly half of Catholics, a third of churchgoing Catholics, get that question wrong.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So much to chew over here, so much to look at. It’s a survey worth looking at. Alan Cooperman with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, thank you very much.

ALAN COOPERMAN: Thank you, Judy.