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Can you pass a basic religious knowledge quiz? Most Americans can't, and that's likely bad news for the country

SALT LAKE CITY — I attended church almost every Sunday as a kid. I worked for a mission trip company in college. I even received a master's degree in religion from Yale University.

But when a recent episode of "Jeopardy!" included a Bible category, I missed every question.

That's embarrassing to admit, but at least my ignorance isn't unique. A new Pew Research Center report shows that few Americans can pass a 32-question religious knowledge quiz.

More than 8 in 10 U.S. adults know the definition of atheist (87%) and what's commemorated on Easter Sunday (81%). Just over half could tell you the "religion of Joseph Smith" (58%). However, when it comes to questions about religious demographics or Buddhist or Hindu beliefs, confusion is widespread.

TAKE THE QUIZ: U.S. Religious Knowledge Quiz

Americans are "pretty knowledgeable about the basics of Christianity and familiar with the terminology of nonbelief. Most even know some basic facts about Islam. But, when it comes to other religious topics, the public is much less well-versed," said Greg Smith, Pew's associate director of research.

That's bad news for more than aspiring "Jeopardy!" champions, according to Pew. Low religious literacy seems to help explain ill will between people of different faiths.

"People who scored the best on the survey's religious knowledge questions tended to rate other religious groups more favorably as compared with folks who didn't do so well," Smith said. "Religious knowledge might be connected with an important societal outcome like the level of interreligious understanding."

Why does this research matter?

The goal of Pew's new research wasn't to depress religion reporters, teachers or pastors, although that might be an unintended consequence. Instead, it was to take a step back from the organization's regular surveys on political policies and societal concerns to get a sense of public understanding, Smith said.

"We know religion is an important factor in many people's lives and an important force (in society), but what do people even know about it?" he said.

TAKE THE QUIZ: U.S. Religious Knowledge Quiz

In many cases, the answer is not much. "The average respondent correctly answered 14.2 of the 32 religious knowledge questions. Just 9% of respondents gave correct answers to more than three-quarters (at least 25) of the questions, and less than 1% earned a perfect score," Pew reported.

The new analysis is based on an online survey conducted from Feb. 4-19, 2019, with nearly 11,000 respondents. The margin of error is 1.5 percentage points.

Pew found that many Americans are unfamiliar with even basic facts about their country's minority faith groups, including ones that are regularly in the news.

For example, only half of U.S. adults know that yoga is rooted in Hinduism, even though its link to that faith has led to several lawsuits. Around three-quarters wrongly believe that Muslims make up more than 5% of the U.S. population, which may fuel efforts to limit religious freedom protections for Islam.

Additionally, just 27% of Americans correctly answer that the Constitution outlaws a religious test for federal officeholders, Pew reported. That's bad news for folks aiming to spread the message that you don't have to be Christian to be a good American — the Deseret News wrote about some of them in 2017.

Rollie Westman practices yoga at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019.
Rollie Westman practices yoga at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The survey's design allowed researchers to determine what traits are tied to better quiz scores, Smith noted. Jews, atheists, agnostics and evangelical Protestants scored well compared to other faith groups, and having more years of formal schooling seemed to boost people's scores.

Pew also found that older Americans tend to know more about religious beliefs and issues than more youthful ones.

"Americans ages 65 and older correctly answer 16.0 questions, on average, while adults under 30 get fewer questions right (11.9)," Pew reported.

How do you boost religious knowledge?

Some of these findings hold better news than others for people working to boost religious literacy. Such teachers may not be able to control their pupils' age, religious affiliation or years of formal schooling, but they can increase their interactions with people of different faiths, which was also linked to higher religious knowledge.

"Respondents who know someone who belongs to a religious group tend to correctly answer more questions about that religion," Pew reported. For example, "while 71% of respondents who know someone who is Hindu also know that yoga has its roots in the religion, just 43% of those who do not know a Hindu are aware of yoga's Hindu roots."

In addition to planning religiously diverse play groups, parents who want to help boost their kids' religious understanding may want to ensure they're engaged with their own faith, Smith said.

"Having an interest in a religion can be connected with higher levels of knowledge about it," he said.

The Very Rev. Tyler B. Doherty, the Rev. Canon Caryl Marsh and the Rev. Canon LeRoy Carter pray during the Holy Eucharist with Consecration of Chrism and Renewal of Vows service at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 16, 2
The Very Rev. Tyler B. Doherty, the Rev. Canon Caryl Marsh and the Rev. Canon LeRoy Carter pray during the Holy Eucharist with Consecration of Chrism and Renewal of Vows service at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 16, 2019.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Even if you or your loved ones can already pass Pew's quiz with flying colors, it's important to keep having conversations about religion, said Diane Moore, director of the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard Divinity School. Faith groups are internally diverse and always evolving, and questions about the 10 Commandments or Jewish holidays capture only a small sliver of what's possible to learn.

"If you embrace a complex, rich and dynamic understanding of religion, you'll never exhaust the incredible array of religious expressions it's possible to study," she said.

Moore recommends seeking out continuing education courses on religious studies, whether at a nearby college or online. There's also value in visiting a local house of worship or making a new friend from a different faith, but that's not where your quest for religious knowledge should end, she said.

"It can be an entry-level introduction, but not the final destination," she said.

Such activities might be time-consuming, but they might also help you build a more peaceful world.

"People who are the most knowledgeable about religion tend to express more favorable views of people from other religions as compared to people who aren't so knowledgeable," Smith said.

TAKE THE QUIZ: U.S. Religious Knowledge Quiz