Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

The word "God" is seen on the wall of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in October 2004 in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Alex Wong/Getty Images)
The word "God" is seen on the wall of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in October 2004 in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Alex Wong/Getty Images)

U.S. survey reveals widespread ignorance about religion Add to ...

Americans are by all measures a deeply religious people, but they are also profoundly ignorant about religion, according to a new survey. Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics, as well as two religious minorities: Jews and Mormons. On average, people who took the survey answered half the questions incorrectly, and many flubbed even questions about their own faith. The results were the same even after the researchers controlled for factors such as age and racial differences.

53: Percentage of Protestants who could not identify Martin Luther as the man who started the Protestant Reformation.

45: Percentage of Catholics who did not know 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.

43: Percentage of Jews who did not know that Maimonides, one of the foremost rabbinical authorities and philosophers, was Jewish - the question that the fewest people answered correctly.

51: Percentage who knew Joseph Smith was Mormon.

82: Percentage who knew Mother Teresa was Roman Catholic.

54: Percentage who knew the Koran is the Islamic holy book.

21: Average number of correct answers, out of the 32 questions, given by atheists and agnostics, the highest scorers.

20: Average number of correct answers given by Jews and Mormons.

16: Average number of correct answers given by Protestants.

15: Average number of correct answers given by Catholics.

Mormons and white evangelical Protestants: They got the highest number of correct answers to questions about the Bible and Christianity.

Atheists, agnostics and Jews: They got the most number of correct answers to questions about world religions, such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism.

Buddhism: Less than half identified it as the Dalai Lama's religion.

Scriptures and other books: More than a third said they read the Bible or other Holy Scriptures at least once a week, not counting worship services, but nearly half who are affiliated with a religion said they "seldom" or "never" read other books or visit websites about their own religion.

General knowledge: In addition to questions about religious knowledge, the survey included nine general knowledge questions for comparison purposes. These show, for example, that about three in five Americans can name the Vice-President of the United States, and 42 per cent know that Herman Melville was the author of the novel Moby Dick - but 4 per cent thought it was Stephen King.

Muslims: More than two-thirds knew that most Pakistanis are Muslims, but only about one quarter correctly answered that most people in Indonesia - the country with the world's largest Muslim population - are Muslims as well.

Why Atheists?

"I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people," said Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, an advocacy group for nonbelievers. "Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That's how you make atheists."


Between May and June researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life phoned more than 3,412 Americans. They were asked 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life. The survey has an overall margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points, while the margins of error for individual religious groups were higher.

Sources: NYT, AP, Reuters, Pew Research Center

Report Typo/Error

Follow us on Twitter: @globeandmail


Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular