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Poll finds unbelievers know the most about belief

September 29, 2010

WASHINGTON, D.C.

Who can best answer questions about religion in America?

Based on a new survey released Tuesday (Sept. 28) by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, it’s your atheist or agnostic neighbor, followed by the Jew or Mormon down the street.

A significant percentage — four in 10 — of Roman Catholics did know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used at Communion become the body and blood of Jesus during Mass.

The survey also found that graduates of private schools did better than students in public schools, but religious private school graduates didn’t fare any better than secular private school students in their ability to answer questions about the Bible, world religions or the role of religion in public life.

“Our survey certainly shows that there are lots of things that Americans do know about religion — most Americans have a certain familiarity with the Bible for instance,” said Greg Smith, a senior researcher at the Pew Forum. “But, at the same time, there are important things that people don't know as well.”

Overall, agnostics and atheists, Jews and Mormons scored the best on a quiz of 32 questions — from citing the first book of the Bible (Genesis) to naming a preacher from the First Great Awakening (Jonathan Edwards).

David Silverman, president of the group American Atheists, said he wasn’t surprised that atheists answered more questions correctly than others, and hopes the findings will help people realize that atheists understand the religious beliefs that they reject.

“It certainly underscores the fact that atheists are not atheists due to ignorance,” he said.

In fact, Smith said, eight in 10 of the atheists and agnostics polled in the survey were raised in a faith, including three-quarters who were reared as Christians.

Mormons’ high levels of religious knowledge can be credited to four years of early-morning classes in the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and Mormon church history during high school, said Terryl Givens, a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond.

Likewise, Jews have a strong emphasis on education, he said.

“I think probably as with Mormons, Jews have learned that in order to operate ... effectively within a larger dominant culture, one has to be bilingual ... in their own and the host culture,” said Givens, author of several books about Mormons.

Most Americans are somewhat familiar with the Bible, Smith said, but responses to the poll’s nonbiblical questions reveal a lack of knowledge on certain traditional beliefs. For example, just 16 percent correctly said that Protestants — not Catholics — have taught that salvation comes through faith alone.

The poll results were based on telephone interviews with 3,412 adults nationwide between May 19 and June 6, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

That total includes an oversample of Mormons, Jews and nonbelievers. Smith said the high number of correct responses from those groups was not due to the oversample. Those additional interviews helped ensure a reliable analysis of groups that account for a small share of the overall population.

Stephen Prothero, author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- And Doesn’t, said the findings reflect Americans’ tenuous grasp on the world’s religions, preventing them from having significant interfaith conversations.

“Yes, there is a kind of ‘Jeopardy’ quality to this,” said Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University who consulted on the survey. “But I think these kinds of simple questions indicate the deficit that we have as a country in understanding the religions of the world and our own religions.”

Although the average respondent answered just half of the answers correctly, researchers opted not to give anyone an “F” or an “A.”

“It's not as if the American public has taken a semester-long religion course and are now being tested on topics with which they should be familiar,” Smith said. “That’s why we don’t assign grades.”

The average number of questions answered correctly by different groups (out of 32 total) was:

  • Atheist/agnostic: 20.9
  • Jewish: 20.5
  • Mormon: 20.3
  • White evangelical Protestant: 17.6
  • White Catholic: 16.0
  • White mainline Protestant: 15.8
  • “Nothing in particular”: 15.2
  • Black Protestant: 13.4
  • Hispanic Catholic: 11.6

Results of the survey were summarized and discussed Tuesday at a large gathering at the Newseum here that included members of the National Council of Churches Communication Commission.

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