Posted by: L. E. Barnes | September 29, 2010

What Americans Know (or Don’t Know) about Religion

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found some interesting (or perhaps disturbing) facts about Americans’ knowledge of religious matters:

Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.

On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. 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 differing levels of education.

On questions about Christianity – including a battery of questions about the Bible – Mormons (7.9 out of 12 right on average) and white evangelical Protestants (7.3 correct on average) show the highest levels of knowledge. Jews and atheists/agnostics stand out for their knowledge of other world religions, including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism; out of 11 such questions on the survey, Jews answer 7.9 correctly (nearly three better than the national average) and atheists/agnostics answer 7.5 correctly (2.5 better than the national average). Atheists/agnostics and Jews also do particularly well on questions about the role of religion in public life, including a question about what the U.S. Constitution says about religion.

…Previous surveys by the Pew Research Center have shown that America is among the most religious of the world’s developed nations. Nearly six-in-ten U.S. adults say that religion is “very important” in their lives, and roughly four-in-ten say they attend worship services at least once a week. But the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey shows that large numbers of Americans are uninformed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions – including their own. Many people also think the constitutional restrictions on religion in public schools are stricter than they really are.

And I found this news especially shocking:

More than four-in-ten Catholics in the United States (45%) do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion do not merely symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ. About half of Protestants (53%) 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%) do not recognize that Maimonides, one of the most venerated rabbis in history, was Jewish.

Over 40% of Catholics don’t even know the Church teaches transubstantiation??!! Scary, and sad…

There was a bit of good news:

On the other hand, most Americans are able to correctly answer at least half of the survey’s questions about the Bible. For example, roughly seven-in-ten (71%) know that, according to the Bible, Jesus was born in Bethlehem. More than six-in-ten (63%) correctly name Genesis as the first book of the Bible. And more than half know that the Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – is not one of the Ten Commandments.

But still, the news for Catholics is not too encouraging:

On the full battery of seven questions about the Bible (five Old Testament and two New Testament items) Mormons do best, followed by white evangelical Protestants. Atheists/agnostics, black Protestants and Jews come next, all exhibiting greater knowledge of the Bible than white mainline Protestants and white Catholics, who in turn outscore those who describe their religion as nothing in particular.

This underscores the need for improved catechization among Catholics. In addition, the Church–in my humble opinion–needs to do a better job of promoting Bible reading among lay Catholics. (I found a common criticism that Protestants–especially evangelicals/fundamentalists–level against the Catholic Church is that your typical Catholic has a weak knowledge of the Bible and seldom, if ever, reads the Bible outside of church. We need to keep in mind St. Jerome’s admonition that ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.)

You can read the full article here.



  1. Hey Evan. It looks like catechists have their work cut out for them. Too bad, with Catholics schools, this is what our Catholic student’s knowledge base is.

    Great blog!!

    • Thanks! Yes, it sounds like there’s more need than ever for effective catechists.

      So get to work, Master Catechist! 🙂

  2. Survey Shows Americans’ Knowledge of Religion Uneven…

    VOA News 28 September 2010 A survey in the United States finds that many Americans know relatively tiny about religious practices and traditions – either……

  3. I saw this, too. IN the 1990s a survey showed that somewhere around 67% of Catholics didn’t believe in the Real Presence. Maybe that accounts for so many Catholics taking such a casual attitude towards attending Mass on Sundays and the extremely casual dress they adopt when they do attend. Our non-Catholic brethren dress far better for their services. At least in southwest Missouri anyway.

    • The number of Catholics who don’t believe in the Real Presence is shocking and appalling. How to reverse it?

      Around here I’ve actually noticed that Catholics, generally speaking, probably dress better for mass than a lot of Protestants, especially contemporary charismatic evangelicals, tend to dress. My parents, who are charismatic evangelicals, have often complained about how sloppily a lot of people in churches they have attended would dress on Sunday–including the minister! But that’s eastern NC. I don’t know how it is elsewhere.

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  5. […] What Americans Know (or Don’t Know) about Religion […]

  6. Religious Ed is what I specialize in. Even as a SAHM, my research continues. It is a tough area. It is very hard to get effective teaching into many parishes. of course, the problem begins at home. We have parents who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s who got very poor instruction and who know do not know how or why to pass things on to their kids.
    There is a lot of work to do!

    • I’m not surprized. I wasn’t raised Catholic, but I get the impression that religious education among Catholics isn’t what it used to be. But you’re right that there is much to be done. Too many Catholics don’t understand their faith well at all and are thus susceptible to anti-Catholic polemics.

  7. I think there needs to be more adult ed offered at the parish level.
    As for how people dress, as long as it is tasteful – not too revealing, etc., I do not really care. I figure Jesus is just glad they showed up.

  8. We went on and on @ this on FB this week. A couple of things to note:

    1. By and large, these questions were about trivia and not about matters of faith. We still wish people would know, but it’s not *necessarily* the tragedy it appears on the surface.

    2. The people who scored best on this survey were those whose goal in life is to disprove religion. Big surpirse.

    I have a lot of trouble taking this thing very seriously, frankly.

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