Americans are clear on God but foggy on facts about faiths.
The new U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, released today by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, finds that although 86% of us believe in God or a higher power, we don't know our own traditions or those of neighbors across the street or across the globe.
Among 3,412 adults surveyed, only 2% correctly answered at least 29 of 32 questions on the Bible, major religious figures, beliefs and practices. The average score was 16 correct (50%).
•Doctrines don't grab us. Only 55% of Catholic respondents knew the core teaching that the bread and wine in the Mass become the body and blood of Christ, and are not merely symbols. Just 19% of Protestants knew the basic tenet that salvation is through faith alone, not actions as well.
•Basic Bible eludes us. Just 55% of all respondents knew the Golden Rule isn't one of the Ten Commandments; 45% could name all four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).
•World religions are a struggle. Fewer than half (47%) knew that the Dalai Lama is a Buddhist; 27% knew most people in Indonesia are Muslims.
"People say, 'I have a personal connection with God and that's really all I need to know.' Who am I to argue?" says Pew's Alan Cooperman, a co-author of the report.
But religion, as a force in history and a motivator in present times, "has consequences in the world," he adds, so an intellectual baseline, whatever your faith or lack of faith, can "shape your role as a citizen in the public square."
The top scoring groups were atheists/agnostics, Jews and Mormons. These tiny groups, adding up to less than 7% of Americans, scored particularly well on world religion and U.S. constitutional questions. It's unclear why, although highly educated people overall did best on the quiz, researchers say.
It may be that the conscious choice to take a minority faith or philosophic stand requires an intellectual engagement with religion to a greater degree than experienced by Protestants and Catholics, who dominate U.S. culture. Eight in 10 atheists and agnostics grew up in a religious tradition, chiefly a branch of Christianity, says Greg Smith, a Pew senior researcher.
The single question most people answered correctly: 89% knew that according to rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, public school teachers cannot lead their classes in prayer.
But only 36% of respondents knew teachers are allowed to teach classes comparing world religions, and just 23% knew that teachers can read from the Bible as an example of literature.
"If the public thinks there are greater restriction than there really are, how much impact does this have in the real world when they are looking at religion's place in public life?" Smith asks.
Most respondents have some understanding of the First Amendment: 68% knew that the Constitution says "the government shall neither establish a religion nor interfere with the practice of religion." But, says Smith, "they don't get the specifics."
Questions about half of respondents nailed: 51% knew Joseph Smith was a Mormon; 54% could name the Quran as Islam's holy text. (The survey was conducted May 19-June 6, before a Florida pastor's threat to burn the Quran made headlines.)
Stumpers: Just 8% knew Maimonides was an influential Jewish rabbi. Only 11% knew that the fiery preacher and theologian who participated in the First Great Awakening, an 18th-century Protestant revival, was Jonathan Edwards, not 19th-century evangelist Charles Finney or today's Billy Graham.
Smith says education was the single best predictor of how people scored.
Respondents who went to graduate school answered twice as many questions correctly as people who didn't complete high school.
Overall, men scored better than women, whites score better than blacks and Hispanics, and Southerners did worse than the rest of the nation, Smith said.
The authors say they didn't give the public a grade on its religious knowledge like a school test, such as an A or F.
Why? Because, they say, "We have no objective way of determining how much the public should know about religion."
Credits: Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY