Americans’ Religious Knowledge Has Major Gaps, Survey Finds

BY Lea Winerman  September 28, 2010 at 1:31 PM EST

Updated 3:58 p.m. ET

Despite their religious faith, many Americans are ignorant of key facts about their own and other world religions, according to a survey released Tuesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

In a survey of 32 religious knowledge questions, Americans on average answered 16 correctly, the surveyors found. Fewer than half of respondents, for example, could identify the four gospels as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Only 47 percent knew that the Dalai Lama was Buddhist, and 55 percent knew that the “golden rule” was not one of the Ten Commandments.

You can read the full report (PDF) and test your own knowledge in a quiz on the Pew Forum’s website.

In a perhaps counterintuitive finding, the researchers discovered that atheists and agnostics generally know more about religion than people who profess a belief. Atheists and agnostics, on average, answered 20.9 questions correctly. Dave Silverman, president of the advocacy group American Atheists, told The New York Times that he was not surprised by that.

“I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people,” he 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.”

Atheists and agnostics were closely followed in religious knowledge by Jews, who answered 20.5 questions correctly on average, and Mormons, who averaged 20.3. Protestants averaged 16 correct answers; Catholics averaged 14.7.

Education level explained some of the difference between the groups — people with more education got more questions correct — but some differences persisted even after the researchers controlled for education level.

Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar who advised the Pew researchers on the study, said that no group’s performance was particularly impressive — if asked to give a grade, he said, he’d give atheists and agnostics a “D,” and the population overall an “F.” Prothero, the author of “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–And Doesn’t,” spoke at a panel discussion at the Pew Forum Tuesday.

“You can talk about the relative performance, but in terms of absolute performance its pretty sad,” he said.

Respondents were generally more knowledgeable about their own religion than about other religions, but still had significant gaps even there. More than half of Protestants (53 percent) could not identify Martin Luther as the man whose teachings inspired the Protestant reformation. And 45 percent of Catholics did not know that that the Catholic Church teaches that the communion bread and wine actually become — not just symbolize — the body and blood of Christ.

Americans were also confused about the intersection between religion and public life in the U.S., and where lines are drawn in the separation of church and state. Most people (89 percent) knew that public school teachers could not lead a classroom prayer. But only 23 percent realized that a public school teachers are allowed to teach the Bible as literature in the classroom.

Prothero said that he believes this is particularly problematic, because the belief that public schools cannot teach students about religion could undermine religious literacy.

“This is to me the great catch-22 in the survey, that we have this religious illiteracy in the public but the illiteracy is so huge that we think we are not allowed to remedy it in the public schools,” he said.

“This study gives convincing proof that Americans may be deeply committed to faith, but that commitment comes most from the heart, not the head,” Michael Lindsay, a religion sociologist at Rice University, told the Dallas Morning News.

But not every analyst is convinced that the results are so significant. Politics Daily correspondent Jeffrey Weiss, a longtime religion reporter, writes that too many of the question seem to come from something like “a religion version of Trivial Pursuit. Too many check the recognition of names or facts without offering much obvious insight into how people understand their faith or the faith of others.”

He also allows, though, that “one can make the case that someone who doesn’t know some of the basic names and facts about a faith probably doesn’t understand the essentials of that belief.

We’ll have more on the survey on the NewsHour Tuesday, including an interview with one of the researchers.

George Griffin contributed to this report.