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Blissfully Ignorant Protestants and Catholics.

September 28th, 2010
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That would the “take away” headline from a study released by the Pew Foundation, which, based on interviews with 3,400 people, scientifically done of course, announced the results recently of a survey that demonstrates there is a lot of ignorance among Christians about even the most basic tenets of their faith. Here is the Pew Forum’s press release:

New Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Survey
Explores Religious Knowledge in the U.S.

Washington, D.C.—Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, 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. 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 U.S. 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.

These are among the key findings of the “U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey,” a nationwide poll conducted from May 19 through June 6, 2010, among 3,412 adults.

Additional findings include:

•    More than four-in-ten Catholics (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

•    Fewer than half of Americans (47%) know that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist; fewer than four-in-ten (38%) correctly identify Vishnu and Shiva with Hinduism; and only about a quarter of all Americans (27%) 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%) know that U.S. Supreme Court rulings do not allow teachers to lead public school classes in prayer. However two-thirds of people surveyed incorrectly say that Supreme Court rulings prevent public school teachers from reading from the Bible as an example of literature, and only 36% 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%) know that, according to the Bible, Jesus was born in Bethlehem. More than six-in-ten (63%) 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.

For those curious about their own religious knowledge, the online presentation of the “U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey” includes an interactive quiz that allows Web visitors to answer a selection of questions taken from the survey and compare their results to the nation as a whole and with various religious and demographic groups.

In conjunction with the release of the survey, WGBH in Boston will debut “God in America,” a six-hour series that interweaves documentary footage, historical dramatization and interviews to explore the historical role of religion in the U.S., including its impact on society, politics and culture. It will air over three consecutive nights on PBS beginning Oct. 11.


The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life conducts surveys, demographic analyses and other social science research on important aspects of religion and public life in the U.S. and around the world. As part of the Washington-based Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan, nonadvocacy organization, the Pew Forum does not take positions on any of the issues it covers or on policy debates.

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Categories: Culture
  1. September 28th, 2010 at 09:25 | #1

    I’d have preferred to see the original 32 question quiz, but it’s no where to be found.

  2. Ryan
    September 28th, 2010 at 13:32 | #2

    To borrow a phrase – ‘There is nothing new under the sun’

    Here is the conclusion of the Pew Foundation’s religious literacy exam of 1529:

    “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)

  3. Matt Jamison
    September 28th, 2010 at 13:49 | #3

    I would like to see a test that diagnoses how well a person understands Lutheran theology specifically. Has anyone worked on such a test?

    It would be good to have, say, a multiple-choice test where respondents are asked which response they most agree with. Then, an answer key that would reveal whether a person’s belief’s tend to be Lutheran, Catholic, Calvinistic, Arminian, Pietistic, Diestic, etc.

    Example: Which of the following best describes what happens at communion?
    a) The bread and wine represent the body and blood of Christ
    b) The bread and wine miraculously become the body and blood of Christ
    c) The body and blood of Christ are present along with the bread and wine
    d) We eat together in order to remember Christ and obey His commandment

    Are you aware of any such test? Surely somebody has worked on this.

  4. katy
    September 28th, 2010 at 14:39 | #4

    Matt: google “what denomination are you” and a number of results come up.

  5. Matt Jamison
    September 28th, 2010 at 15:39 | #5


    Thanks, but I’m looking for something a little more sophisticated and written from a Lutheran perspective. Specifically, I would like a tool that we could use in our congregation to identify ideas that some of our members are carrying around that are contrary to what we believe, teach and confess as Lutheran.

    I think we have a big problem with long-time members who consider themselves “good Lutherans” but are not properly catechized, perhaps because they have neglected individual or group Bible study or worship or have been under the sway of weak preachers. Our problem (I include myself) is that we don’t know just how much we don’t know! The Pew Foundation survey makes this problem embarrasingly obvious in a number of church bodies.

  6. September 29th, 2010 at 07:41 | #7

    actually, if you go here http://pewforum.org/Publications/Analyses/ you’ll be able to search for the actual questions.

  7. September 29th, 2010 at 09:38 | #8

    @Matt Jamison
    Does your congregation do an examination of its confirmands every year? I imagine many of those questions could be used/adapted quite well to survey the members. Or just take multiple choice questions from a year-end catechism test perhaps?

    Just some thoughts.

  8. SLW
    September 29th, 2010 at 11:10 | #9

    Here’s a good test to see how Lutheran one’s faith really is -

    Please answer the following statements with True or False.

    1. Man has the ability to choose Christ.

    2. God loves some people more than others.

    3. You must do good works in order to be saved.

    4. The Bible teaches that you become a Christian by praying to accept Christ as Lord and Saviour.

    5. Baptism has no real power to save. It is simply a picture of our death, burial and resurrection with Christ.

    6. You should never fear the possibility of losing your salvation.

    7. God’s elect can lose their salvation.

    8. In the Lord’s Supper, the bread and wine simply represent the Body and Blood of Christ.

    9. We should never refer to Mary as “the mother of God”.

    10. God did not die on the cross – only Jesus in his humanity.

    11. The issue of women’s head coverings in the church is no longer applicable today.

    12. Women may exercise authority over men, and no longer need to be silent in the church.

    13. God does not care whether Christians agree on every point of doctrine.

    * All of the True-False statements above should be answered False.

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