Atheists, Agnostics Trump Believers in Religious Knowledge Test

September 28, 2010

Are atheists, agnostics and nonbelievers in America ignorant about religion?  According to a study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, they know more about faith than most of their religious counterparts.

As reported by the New York Times , researchers from the Pew Forum telephoned more than 3,400 Americans and asked them 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity, other world religions, famous religious figures, and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life.  "On average, people who took the survey answered half the questions incorrectly, and many flubbed even questions about their own faith."

Yet those who scored highests were atheists and agnostics, along with two religious minorities: Jews and Mormons. According to the Pew Forum, the results were identical even after the researchers controlled for factors like age and racial differences.  Greg Smith, a senior researcher at the Pew Forum, said that "[e]ven after all these other factors, including education, are taken into account, atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons still outperform all the other religious groups in our survey."

Believers still trumped nonbelievers on questions related to the Bible and Christianity; Mormons and evangelical Protestants scored highest.  On questions about world religions (such as Islam, Buddhism, Judiasm and Hinduism), however, atheists, agnostics and Jews scored highest.

The level of ignorance about Americans' own faiths is rather astonishing:

Fifty-three percent of Protestants could not identify Martin Luther as the man who started the Protestant Reformation.

Forty-five percent of Catholics did not know that 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.

Forty-three percent of Jews did not know that Maimonides, one of the foremost rabbinical authorities and philosophers, was Jewish.

As reported by the Times, "The question about Maimonides was the one that the fewest people answered correctly. But 51 percent knew that Joseph Smith was Mormon, and 82 percent knew that Mother Teresa was Roman Catholic."


UPDATE: For a deeper analysis of this topic, see John Shook's related post on Free Thinking .



#1 Michael De Dora (Guest) on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 8:47am

I can’t help but notice that while atheists outperformed all other religious categories, they still only scored about 63 percent on the test. Meaning essentially that Americans generally don’t know much about religion.

#2 Hyrcan (Guest) on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 8:49am

Funny you should link over to a post by John Shook’s.  CFI readers may want to see what John Shook apparently really feels about atheist by reading the HuffPo article.

“Atheists are getting a reputation for being a bunch of know-nothings. They know nothing of God, and not much more about religion, and they seem proud of their ignorance.” ~John Shook

#3 Kate Gladstone (Guest) on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 11:43pm

Funny thing—all the articles about that Pew Forum religious knowledge survey say that the atheists scored highest and the Jews came in second, but the actual stats show that the Jews scores highest and the atheists came in second! See the Pew Forum’s own stats at features dot pewforum dot org/quiz/us-religious-knowledge/?q=16#religous-groups [the misspelling in there is theirs, not mine]

#4 Bruce Gorton (Guest) on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 12:19am


You are looking at the online quiz which likely only compares how atheists did on the 15 included questions (Oddly, I got 100%.)

I would guess that atheists catch up and overtake Jewish people in the proper survey in the next 17.

A better link would be

features dot pewforum dot org/quiz/us-religious-knowledge/index.php

Following Kate’s link will have the quiz redirect and tell you that you are in the bottom percentile because you got every question wrong.

#5 Dwight (Guest) on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 2:20pm

I wonder how many american polititions would score on this test scince they have no choice but to claim a belief in the christian god.I would bet that their score would be even lower than the catholic mexicans as well as the catholic’s and protestant’s.This is one sorry country and the powers that be want to keep it that way and keep the masses as ignorant as possible.

#6 wbthacker on Thursday September 30, 2010 at 6:31am

Interesting idea about having politicians take this survey and report their scores publicly. It would be interesting to see which ones actually understand the religions they promote.

Alas! it can never be. Our Constitution clearly states, “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”



#7 dwight (Guest) on Thursday September 30, 2010 at 3:38pm

That may be true but if you go back to the founding fathers of this country you would see that they despied christianity and that was because they knew everything about it.Thomas Jefferson said that [christianity is the most perverse system that ever shown on man]You would have to go a long way back to find a politition that could ace that test.

#8 Robert Schneider on Wednesday October 06, 2010 at 9:02am

@6… Ironic, what with the inevitable “Compassion Forums” or town hall meetings where candidates are grilled about their faith. 

Yes, I know… this is not the government instituting a religious test.  The end result is nearly the same, as prejudices and assumptions are reinforced to make sure “they” (the non-believers)don’t get elected.

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