A Quick Overview of the Results from the Pew Forum's U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey

by Christopher Jones

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has released the results of its U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey. This won't be entirely surprising to anyone here, but it turns out that Americans, as a whole, are religiously illiterate. Atheists, agnostics, Jews, and Mormons appear to be slightly less uninformed.

On average, Americans correctly answered half of the questions of the 32-question survey (you can take a shortened version of the quiz here). There's a lot to dissect in the results of this survey, but for the time being, here's a quick run-down of some of the findings that struck me as notable or interesting:
  • Mormons answered more questions correctly about the "Bible and Christianity" than did any other group, including white evangelicals, who finished a close second.
  • Racial minorities scored the lowest of all respondents overall, with Black Protestants scoring only marginally better than Hispanic Catholics.
  • Jewish and atheist/agnostic respondents knew significantly more about "World Religions" than other groups.
  • Only 11% of Americans know that Jonathan Edwards, as opposed to Charles Finney or Billy Graham, is associated with the First Great Awakening. To put that in perspective, that's only 3% more than knew that Maimonides was Jewish.
  • (Only) 93% of Mormon respondents correctly answered that Joseph Smith was Mormon.
  • Roughly half (54%) of Americans correctly identified the Koran as Islam's holy book.
  • Less than half (46%) knew that Martin Luther was instrumental in the Protestant Reformation.
  • A large majority of respondents (89%) knew that teachers cannot lead students in prayer at public schools.
  • 33% of Catholics correctly identified the first four books of the New Testament.
  • 4% of respondents thought Stephen King wrote Moby Dick (there were some questions not related to religion included in the questionnaire).
Like I said, there's a lot more in the full report to chew on, and perhaps other bloggers here will offer more substantive analyses in the coming days and weeks than I have here. The results are certainly deserving of further attention. In the meantime, I'm going to keep trying to figure out how 7% of Mormons don't know that Joseph Smith is one of them.


Lisa said…
Maybe atheists know more about religion for the same reason that IP lawyers know more about public domain...
Tom Van Dyke said…
That atheists, Jews and Mormons top the scores is perhaps unsurprising given that they're a) minorities who need to be a ware of the majority beliefs and b) they know more about their own minority religions than the majority Christians do.

At the bottom of the list are those who believe "nothing in particular."

The rest of the survey results are racist, and make any further generalizations about the various Christian sects worthless.
Paul Harvey said…
Over at Easily Distracted, my favorite free-form intellectual blog, Tim Burke has some thoughts on this survey, and these kinds of surveys, generally, as well as further reflections -- well worth reading:

January said…
Tim Burke's comments sound like excuses. Admittedly, a thorough knowledge of the Protestant Reformation is too much to expect of most who call themselves Protestants. Yet we are entitled to ask of any believer, "By what authority do you believe as you do?" Else people can just pretend they believe or can believe whatever they wish. Lutherans have an unequivocal answer to that question provided by Martin Luther

I would have to confess that I am continually developing my understanding of my religious authority, so anyone asking me would have to settle for today's answer. But I have an answer.
eric said…
Perhaps 7% of Mormons outsmarted themselves, or historicized the question. Joe Smith wasn't born a Mormon. I don't know how the question was phrased, but there should be other acceptable answers for Smith's religious identification than 'Mormon.'
Christopher said…
Thanks for the link, Paul.

Eric, you may be right about some Mormons outsmarting themselves, though the other options don't actually make any real sense. Here's the wording and options:

"Joseph Smith was:

1 Catholic
2 Jewish
3 Buddhist
4 Mormon
5 Hindu
6 (DO NOT READ) Other
D (DO NOT READ) Don't know
R (DO NOT READ) Refused"

Smith, of course, was none of those, and in fact never joined any church prior to his founding of Mormonism (though there is some evidence that he participated in a Methodist class, he never joined the MEC or any other organization).

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