Brilliant doubters, dull believers?

Once again, our friends at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life have unleashed another survey that is causing waves of ink to crash into the mainstream press. This time around, the numbers are rather predictable — revealing that Americans, as a rule, have lots of feelings about religion in their hearts, but not that much information in their heads.

By all means, check out the actual survey materials — right here.

If you want to sample the tsunami of mainstream coverage, my advice — picking on several major players — is that you turn to CNN, the New York Times and USA Today and, well, ignore the Los Angeles Times.

Why do I say that? Well, the sexy lede out of this study is that atheists and agnostics know more about religion than, well, religious people. That is just accurate enough to be misleading. It’s also not all that surprising. I know very few people who are as obsessed with the fine details of religion as highly motivated unbelievers. As the old saying goes, the opposite of love is not hate, it’s apathy.

What the survey reveals is that certain kinds of people know more about world religions, in general, while others may know more about their own religions.

Check out the top of the New York Times story by veteran Laurie Goodstein:

Americans are by all measures a deeply religious people, but they are also deeply ignorant about religion.

Researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life phoned more than 3,400 Americans and asked them 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life.

On average, people who took the survey answered half the questions incorrectly, and many flubbed even questions about their own faith. Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics, as well as two religious minorities: Jews and Mormons. The results were the same even after the researchers controlled for factors like age and racial differences.

What is hard to tell is whether or not the results focusing on “Christians” simply covered too broad a spectrum to compete in that kind of simplistic framework. For example, Mormons and Evangelical Protestants demonstrated high levels of knowledge about the Bible and Christian beliefs, while agnostics, atheists and Jews were more familiar with the details of world religions, period.

You can see a bit more of the complexity of the results in the top of the report by Godbeat veteran Cathy Lynn Grossman at USA Today. This is one case where the use of info bullets at the top of a story, in my opinion, really helped:

The new U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, released today by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, finds that although 86% of us believe in God or a higher power, we don’t know our own traditions or those of neighbors across the street or across the globe.

Among 3,412 adults surveyed, only 2% correctly answered at least 29 of 32 questions on the Bible, major religious figures, beliefs and practices. The average score was 16 correct (50%).

Key findings:

* Doctrines don’t grab us. Only 55% of Catholic respondents knew the core teaching that the bread and wine in the Mass become the body and blood of Christ, and are not merely symbols. Just 19% of Protestants knew the basic tenet that salvation is through faith alone, not actions as well.

* Basic Bible eludes us. Just 55% of all respondents knew the Golden Rule isn’t one of the Ten Commandments; 45% could name all four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).

* World religions are a struggle. Fewer than half (47%) knew that the Dalai Lama is a Buddhist; 27% knew most people in Indonesia are Muslims.

Along the same lines, the New York Times noted that 53 percent of Protestants could not identify Martin Luther as the man who started the Protestant Reformation and 43 percent of Jews did not know that the great philosopher Maimonides was Jewish.

According to the researchers, a person’s education was the single best predictor of how she or he would score. I do not doubt that. However, when I have a chance to dig further into this data, I will be looking for evidence of a pew gap in this Pew effort.

In other words, did anyone try to find out if the intensity of a person’s religious practice has anything to do with knowledge. In other words, do daily Mass Catholics know more about Catholicism and other religions than inactive Catholics? Do Jews who regularly attend worship services know more about, well, Maimonides than Jews who are completely secular? Do Evangelicals who take part in foreign missions projects know more about Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc., than people who say they are vaguely “Protestant” and that’s that?

And the Los Angeles Times piece? OK, OK, here is the start of that one:

If you want to know about God, you might want to talk to an atheist.

Heresy? Perhaps. But a survey that measured Americans’ knowledge of religion found that atheists and agnostics knew more, on average, than followers of most major faiths. In fact, the gaps in knowledge among some of the faithful may give new meaning to the term “blind faith.”

So there.

Another way to interact with the material is through the CNN Belief weblog, where you can test yourself on sample questions — right here — and read a column by the scholar whose work sank into the DNA of this study. That would be Stephen Prothero of Boston University, author of, among other works, a book entitled, “Religious Literacy — What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t.” He trumpets:

Believers and nonbelievers obviously disagree on the virtues and vices of religion. But all careful observers of the world should be able to agree on this: From time immemorial, and for better or for worse, human beings have been motivated to act politically, economically and militarily by their gods, scriptures and priests. Without making sense of those motivations, we cannot make sense of the world.

It is time to address our national epidemic of religious illiteracy.

And all the GetReligion readers said?

“Amen” (I hope).

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Ryan

    I would like to see this study compared with other countries also – I have nothing to base whether, say, the gap in Roman Catholic teaching is the same all over or here – maybe (I doubt it, but maybe) we are doing better than other places.

    Still, not much changes. Here is the results of a doctrinal survey from 1529 written up by the guy 53% of protestants can’t identify:

    “Mercy! Good God! what manifold misery I beheld! The common people, especially in the villages, have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine, and, alas! many pastors are altogether incapable and incompetent to teach [so much so, that one is ashamed to speak of it]. Nevertheless, all maintain that they are Christians…” (M. Luther, Intro to Small Catechism)

  • tmatt


    Now that is a riotous comment. Great job.

    We live in a sinful fallen world, all right.

  • joye

    It should have been noted in these stories that “Nothing in particular” respondents did worse than average and worse than the all the white religious respondents. Why aren’t they grouped with atheists and agnostics?

    I’m looking at the survey now and I would have been interested to see the results broken down by religious group and education level, similar to the way they separated out some racial groups. “Even after controlling for levels of education and other key demographic traits (race, age, gender and region), significant differences in religious knowledge persist among adherents of various faith traditions.” Ok, yeah, but I’d like to look at the data myself, thanks.

    As an aside, I think most journalists need to have “correlation does not imply causation” tattooed backwards on their foreheads so they don’t forget it. Reading science, health, and any other article that involves studies is often an agony for me because of the journalist tendency to turn “a study shows that wearing large pants is associated with obesity” into a headline that screams “wearing large pants will make you fat”.

  • tmatt


    That’s a great question.

    What is the line between a “nothing in particular” (but I guess they believe SOMETHING) and an agnostic (I don’t believe anything specific, including that there is no God or gods)?

  • Nicole Neroulias

    This study was presented (results embargoed until today) at the Religion Newswriters Association conference, and the researchers were asked about that “nothing in particular” vs. “atheist/agnostic” difference in knowledge levels. According to my notes (some of which I put up on my blog), after accounting for contributing factors like educational background, it may come down the fact that many atheists/agnostics were raised as something else and know what it is that they have rejected, and also about the difference among respondents based on their levels of “religious commitment” in general. From my notes:

    Atheists/Agnostics are among the best performers, but people with the highest levels of religious commitment (attend regularly) do better than those with medium/low levels of religious commitment.
    How can atheists/agnostics be among top performers if those with low level of religious commitment do worse than those with high levels of commitment? It’s because atheists/agnostics only make up a small portion of those with low levels of religious commitment.

  • Mina

    “Nothing in particular” means that the person specifically chose that description over “agnostic” or “atheist.” I suppose they might have a vague or weak belief in some sort of deity or supreme being, or they might think of atheism/agnosticism as espousing more active claims about the existence of gods than they can identify with.

    The telephone survey question says
    “What is your present religion, if any? Are you Protestant, Roman Catholic, Mormon, Orthodox such as Greek or Russian Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, something else, or nothing in particular?

    “(INTERVIEWER: IF R VOLUNTEERS “nothing in particular, none, no religion, etc.” BEFORE REACHING END OF LIST, PROMPT WITH: and would you say that’s atheist, agnostic, or just nothing in particular?)”

  • Maureen

    What were the “right” answers? I find that multiple-choice religious questions usually are written so as to force agreement with at least three heresies per answer; and I’m a member of a mainstream religion. Anybody from a group with really different theology is bound to have even more troubles.

    Also, one may have plenty of knowledge about something without knowing what the survey wants you to know. I mean, if the “correct” answer for where to find Wiccans wasn’t “a coven” but “a Unitarian church”, that’s not going to be obviously right to most respondents.

  • Maureen

    Hmm, doesn’t look too bad on the questions, though I can see why some people would answer what they did.

    Oh, and of course it’s Ray Bradbury who wrote Moby Dick. (The screenplay, that is.) :)

  • Jerry

    First, I wonder about the posting headline. It harkens back to the Christians are dumb stories but the text refers to knowledge not intelligence and those are often not related. So I don’t understand why the headline was chosen.

    I wish the stories had been organized by basic question as I’ve tried to do below into general historical, specific historical and doctrinal questions. And, as the story noted, this is apparently the first such survey and so it needs to be replicated before we start drawing too many conclusions.

    1. Is people’s knowledge about religion better or worse than knowledge of general history. For example, there was one question about who was involved in the First Great Awakening that to me is almost totally a historical question. And I would like to have that question paired with one on general history during that time.

    2. Is people’s knowledge of their religion better or worse than atheists or members of other religions? That is at least partially answered by the sentence in the report On questions about the Bible and Christianity, the groups that answered the most right were Mormons and white evangelical Protestants. . But knowing about Maimonides is not the equivalent question for Jews. I think it would be something about keeping kosher or perhaps the Day of Atonement.

    3. Do people know the most critical doctrines of their church? At least a partial answer is provided: Forty-five percent of Catholics did not know that their church teaches that the consecrated bread and wine in holy communion are not merely symbols, but actually become the body and blood of Christ.

    4. Do Americans understand the current interpretation of the First Amendment? This includes the questions about what a teacher is permitted to do in a classroom. It’s interesting that a much higher percentage answered one of those correctly but missed the other one. I guess all the furor and fury on the part of some over this issue has raised that awareness but has not provided a more rounded picture of the situation.

  • Mike Hickerson


    The full survey can be found online here as PDF. That was one of my questions, too – how “tricky” were the questions? – but I found them to be fairly straightforward. E.g. What religion is the Dalai Lama?; Name the first four books of the New Testament; In which religion are Vishnu and Shiva central figures? The questions were Jeopardy-style “factoids,” not questions of personal belief or doctrine.

  • Robert King

    Taking the CNN version of the Pew quiz, I find it ironic that the image connected to the question about the religion of most Indonesians shows people praying to the Hindu god Ganesh.

    Then, the question on agnostics is linked with an image of a very crowded Catholic church.


  • Kenny

    I read this story in the LA Times and instantly clicked over to GR hoping for a comment on this phrase: “… Mormons, who are not considered Christians by many fundamentalists …”

    I realize that the proper categorization of Mormonism is a very contentious question, but you can’t just label all those who don’t consider Mormons to be Christians as fundamentalists. After all, there are Evangelicals who wouldn’t normally be classified as fundamentalists based on their other beliefs who don’t even think Roman Catholics are Christians.

  • Joel

    I’ve taken three different sample quizzes online so far, one of which asked what the Constitution said about religion. The choices were:
    A: Separation of Church and State
    B: Emphasis on Christianity
    C: Nothing

    In fact, the answer falls between A and C, but only A was counted as correct.

    I also wonder how Mormon readers would respond to the question of when their religion was “established.” Like any other self-identified Christians, Mormons believe their religion was established at Pentecost. (I can’t wait to hear what John Pack Lambert will have to say about this.)

  • Lester

    No Surprise here. Anyone familiar with Stephen Prothero’s 2007 book “Religious Literacy” knows this has long been the case in the US where the depth of religious knowledge is superficially at best. But the story is finally hitting the mainstream, but it is not a blot on religion. If anything it should encourage people to learn more. So they say that if you actually become literate on your theology, you might not go for the hocus-pocus part of the business of religion. I disagree, folks should explore the depths of knowledge about their religion. Don’t be scared away for finding out what the Bible actually says or put in context for when it was written. Its wrong to dumb down Christianity to the point that its readily digested with the shortest of attention spans. The point of religion is to think deep about big pictures issues of our lives.

    No one should be calling believers stupid and that’s not what the survey says. Theological scholarship is a time honored tradition and should be encouraged. Don’t be afraid of learning more about religions in general either.

  • slanehill

    Looking at the PDF of the poll, I don’t see that Mormons or Jews display such high knowledge of doctrine or world religions as some of the comments seem to indicate. There were a total of 2 Mormons, 1 Jew (Reformed), and 1 Muslim polled. Hardly a wide survey. Oh, and no Buddists or Orthodox Christians. How does this tell us anything???

  • gfe

    The survey summary makes for fascinating reading. The results showing widespread ignorance about religious matters should be put in perspective, however. People aren’t ignorant just about religion — many are ignorant, period. Fully 40 percent couldn’t correctly name the vice president of the United States. What does that say about the state of our democracy?

  • John D


    Those where percentages. 1% of their respondents were Jews. Clearly, they’ve always gone for the next highest whole percent, since of the Jewish respondents, there were an equal number of both Reform and other.

    If you check the numbers, they come to or just above 100 in all cases. A poll of just 100 people wouldn’t be worth much.

  • John D

    er, “Those were percentages…”

  • Mollie

    Kenny wrote:

    I read this story in the LA Times and instantly clicked over to GR hoping for a comment on this phrase: “… Mormons, who are not considered Christians by many fundamentalists …”

    The LA Times thinks that “fundamentalist” is a synonym for any Christian more traditional than a typical UCC member, I think.

  • Julia

    what the Constitution said about religion. The choices were:
    A: Separation of Church and State
    B: Emphasis on Christianity
    C: Nothing

    Actually the Constitution doesn’t say anything about “Separation of Church and State”, that is found in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson and in some Supreme Court decisions.

  • Julia


    So they say that if you actually become literate on your theology, you might not go for the hocus-pocus part of the business of religion.

    Actually hocus-pocus is widely believed to be a term mocking part of the Catholic Mass.

    Many people today believe it originated in a corrupted form of the words of the consecration of the host in the old Latin mass: hoc est (enim) corpus (meum), “this is my body”, an idea first aired by John Tillotson, Archbishop of Canterbury between 1691 and 1694. But as this was part of an anti-Catholic sermon, it may be taken with a fair-sized pinch of salt.


  • Ray Ingles

    Julia –

    Actually the Constitution doesn’t say anything about “Separation of Church and State”, that is found in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson and in some Supreme Court decisions.

    And Madison’s letters and papers. (A guy who had kind of a lot to do with the First Amendment.)

    As to the coverage, I too was unimpressed with the L.A. Times, but missed the USA Today one – from a science reporting perspective they seem to convey more about what the study actually says and how it was conducted.

  • Joel

    Actually the Constitution doesn’t say anything about “Separation of Church and State”, that is found in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson and in some Supreme Court decisions.

    Exactly, Julia. And to their credit, the actual poll was worded better. But the online sample quiz (I forget which one it was) used the vaguer phrasing.

  • Jay

    I found the CNN coverage interesting about the agnostics/atheists, as further clarified by the remarks above.

    However, what no one says is that the “agnostic/atheist raised religious” case is probably unique to this generation, given the rapid falling away from the Church since the 60s. In future generations, we will probably have more “agnostic/atheist raised agnostic/atheist.”

    If so, there’s nothing particularly educated or savvy about the agnostic/atheist category, only (as implied above) the difference between those who fell away to “nothing in particular” vs. those who intentionally chose “agnostic/atheist.”

    I agree with Joye, we need to see the real data to understand what happens when you control for education.

  • AmaniS

    I fail to see how the agnostics/atheist are more knowledgeable. There is 1 atheist and 3 agnostics.
    12 said nothing in particular.

    The survey itself is not bad. There are not enough of certain groups to state that one group know more than another group.

  • zman

    p. 8 of the survey topline…what, no question about “how often do you read other books or visit the GetReligion web site?”

  • Ray Ingles

    BTW, tmatt –

    I know very few people who are as obsessed with the fine details of religion as highly motivated unbelievers. As the old saying goes, the opposite of love is not hate, it’s apathy.

    Um… I thought you didn’t like the L.A. Times coverage? Isn’t this just another way of saying:

    American atheists and agnostics tend to be people who grew up in a religious tradition and consciously gave it up, often after a great deal of reflection and study, said Alan Cooperman, associate director for research at the Pew Forum.

    “These are people who thought a lot about religion,” he said. “They’re not indifferent. They care about it.”

  • Dave

    What the media have missed is that this is about education, and that education is not just teaching to the test. It’s about knowing stuff, and learning how to learn. Of course the better educated are more religiously educated; it’s a subset, not a separate item.

  • Dan

    The reason Catholics scored so low is that the questions were not based on the post-Vatican II catechism that is now so prevalent. Had they asked, for example, was Jesus a nice guy? (correct answer: yes), or is it wrong to use “Him” to refer to God? (correct answer: yes) or even the more difficult question of which is correct in reciting the Nicene Creed, “for us men and our salvation,” or, “for us and our salvation”? (correct answer: the latter), Catholics would have been right up there with the Jews and the Mormons.

  • Jerry

    There were a couple of comments about the survey I found very interesting. First there is the issue of knowing facts and living the reality. I’ve met a very few people who’s hearts were so open to God that they automatically lived a holy life without having intellectual scriptural knowledge. So this first point matches a few people I’ve known:

    So, we should note that the Pew study was about superficial knowledge, and not about religiosity or spirituality. Previous studies have addressed this, and I’m pleased that Mormons show up well in both. Yet knowing that Genesis is the first book of the Bible or that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem has nothing to do with the quality of my life’s religious experience. What was it that Paul said of some of his contemporaries? – “Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (2 Tim. 3: 7).

    Applied knowledge is something else entirely. If my knowledge of scripture offers me lessons in life, or suggests cause and effect, or offers moral insights, prompts conscience or strengthens faith, then its value is self-evident. One can have faith in God and live accordingly without producing proof of a theological degree or demonstrating academic-like mastery of biblical history.

    The second point is about cultural bias in some of the questions. For example, “Martin Luther” can call up quite a different image for blacks compared to whites.

    I would not be surprised, for example, if quite a few black folks thought “Martin Luther” was a reference to a great American civil rights leader, not the German priest and professor who initiated the Protestant Reformation.

    Maybe black church products like me would have scored better with questions like this:

    1. How is Thomas A. Dorsey most often remembered by cultural historians?

    2. What do the initials in the A.M.E. Church stand for?

    3. What is America’s largest black religious denomination?

    4. What do these “Negro spirituals” have in common: “Steal Away,” “Wade in the Water” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd.”,0,7551372.column

  • John D

    Maybe there needs to be a “Get Numbers” blog. To those who think they are pointing to a vanishingly small sample size, such as AmaniS,

    I fail to see how the agnostics/atheist are more knowledgeable. There is 1 atheist and 3 agnostics.

    That would be up to 1% and up to 3% of the survey respondents were atheist or agnostic.

    The actual sample size was 3,412 respondents. We can assume there were about 340 atheists who responded and about 1,000 agnostics (roughly speaking).

    Amplifying on my earlier comment, we can expect at most 340 Jews, of whom probably half were Reform.

    Since all response numbers are expressed as whole numbers, it’s hard to say with some of these things. Add up the numbers and you’ll see that things equal or edge over 100.

  • Dave

    That would be up to 1% and up to 3% of the survey respondents were atheist or agnostic.

    The actual sample size was 3,412 respondents. We can assume there were about 340 atheists who responded and about 1,000 agnostics (roughly speaking).

    That would be 34 atheists and 102 agnostics.

  • John D


    And clearly I should also be reading “Get Numbers.” Thank you for pointing out that I had figured 10% instead of 1%. Let’s call it 30 atheists and 100 agnostics, then.

  • Evanston2

    I found today’s Gallup’s survey regarding media trust (at an historic low) to be much more relevant than how people did on a trivial pursuit quiz. Further, I do not believe that the survey questions had much, if anything, to do with the “motivations” that Prothero believes we all should understand.
    So, to answer TMatt’s closing sentence, this GetReligion reader doesn’t say “Amen” but says “No, man.”

  • mattk

    Simple questions. I’m surprised so many people got ANY of them wrong. In my experience people are much more informed than the results indicate. I have trouble believeing the results of the survey.

  • Jettboy

    Average number of questions answered correctly out of 32:

    Atheist/agnostic: 20.9
    Jewish: 20.5
    Mormon: 20.3
    White Evangelical Protestant: 17.6
    White Catholic: 16.0
    White mainline Protestant: 15.8
    No particular belief: 15.2
    Black Protestant: 13.4
    Hispanic Catholic: 11.6

    Basically, there is not much of a difference between them overall. Talk about trumpeting smarts when colleges (at least before the era of grade inflation) would have flunked every one of them.

  • Dave

    There’s a big difference between 20.9 out of 32 (65%) and 11.6 out of 32 (36%).

  • Sam Urfer

    There is a difference, but his point is that 65% is still a failing grade on any test whatsoever, and is very doable in a “guessing on every question” approach.

  • John Pack Lambert

    “all white religious” what? What all white religions? Are you calling Mormons that? Mormons are less white in the US than Episcopalians, and I have good reason to suspect the Pew Results on that matter.

  • John Pack Lambert

    So Oriental Orthodox is excluded. What about Christians who would describe themselves as such and not as Protestants?

    Jettboy’s issue about differences is important. How exactly do you even describe what statistical variation means for the answers.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Mormons would not ever argue their religion was established at Pentacost.

    Joseph Smith restored the Ancient Church, but there is no continuity from the Ancient Church in a phisical stance.

    On encountering the question, at least if your wording reflects what the question says, than I would answer April 6, 1830. On the other hand, Mormon belief is that this is that same Church and gospel that was had by Adam. Jesus clearly had an organized Church. Mormons do believe in Pentacost as the recieving of the Holy Ghost, and the rest of what is recorded in Acts, but they would not call it the organization of the Christian Church.

    Mormons believe in the full apostasy of ancient Christianity, and so generally will, especially in this context, go for the April 6, 1830 answer.

    However this all assumes people are trying to give the answers they expect the surveyers to want. The problem is that it is inconsistent to have a survey that allows for open and free-form identification of religion, and then go into such forced straight-jacket questions, especially if the “what does the Constitution say about religion” question was one of them.

  • John Pack Lambert

    There were 2 Mormons and 1 Jew polled? Why is such a poll given any credence at all?

  • Jettboy

    I’ll admit a D can be passing and an F is flunking no matter how you look at it. So what? The problem is that bloggers and newspapers are looking at this as if the top grades are an A compared to the rest. I guess if you are doing the bell curve that seems so popular in Education. At least with those there really are top scorers in almost all cases.

  • Jettboy

    JPL, percentages, not numbers of individuals. Why is that so difficult for reader’s to understand? Not that I think there were enough people interviewed for a more realistic survey or that the questions were at all telling.