Atheists outperform believers in religious knowledge, survey finds

By staff writers
September 29, 2010

Less than half of Americans know that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist, almost half of US Catholics (45 per cent) do not know that their church teaches the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ, and half of US Protestants cannot correctly identify Martin Luther as the person whose writings and actions inspired the Reformation.

These are just some of the findings of a new survey of religious knowledge which found that atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.

The survey was by conducted by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life.

On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey. Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 correct answers. Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively. Protestants as a whole average 16 correct answers; Catholics as a whole, 14.7. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons perform better than other groups on the survey even after controlling for different levels of education.

On questions about Christianity (including the Bible), Mormons and white evangelical Protestants show the highest levels of knowledge. Jews, atheists and agnostics stand out for their knowledge of world religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism. Jews, atheists and agnostics also do particularly well on questions about the role of religion in public life, including what the US Constitution says about religion.

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. Many people also think that the constitutional restrictions on religion in public schools are stricter than they really are.

Findings include:

• More than four-in-ten Catholics (45 per cent) do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion do not merely symbolise, but actually become, the body and blood of Christ

• About half of Protestants (53 per cent) cannot correctly identify Martin Luther as the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation, which made their religion a separate branch of Christianity

• Roughly four-in-ten Jews (43 per cent) do not recognize that Maimonides, one of the most venerated rabbis in history, was Jewish

• Fewer than half of Americans (47 per cent) know that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist; fewer than four-in-ten (38 per cent) correctly identify Vishnu and Shiva with Hinduism; and only about a quarter of all Americans (27 per cent) know that most people in Indonesia are Muslims

• There is widespread confusion over the line between teaching and preaching in public schools. Nine-in-ten Americans (89 per cent) know that US Supreme Court rulings do not allow teachers to lead public school classes in prayer. However two-thirds of people surveyed incorrectly said that Supreme Court rulings prevent public school teachers from reading from the Bible as an example of literature, and only 36 per cent know that comparative religion classes may be taught in public schools.

• Most Americans are able to correctly answer at least half of the survey's questions about the Bible. Roughly seven-in-ten (71 per cent) know that, according to the Bible, Jesus was born in Bethlehem. More than six-in-ten (63 per cent) can correctly name Genesis as the first book of the Bible.

Data from the survey indicate that educational attainment—how much schooling an individual has completed—is the single best predictor of religious knowledge. On average, college graduates answered nearly eight more questions correctly than those with a high school education or less. Religious knowledge is also higher among those who have taken a religion course in college. Other factors linked with religious knowledge include reading Scripture at least once a week and talking about religion with friends and family.

Full results of the survey here:


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