Americans Ignorant of Their Own Religious Beliefs and History

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Pew Research has just released the results of a new survey testing US Religious Knowledge and guess what? A lot of people know jack shit about religion. Their own religion.

51% of white mainline and black protestants think “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is one of the 10 commandments. I guess that’s why theocratic politicians are constantly trying to get the 10 commandments hung up in schools and courts, because apparently nobody is reading them at church. FYI, protestants: “be nice to each other” isn’t one of the ten commandments but “don’t say Jesus Christ when you stub your toe” is.

Jewish people are the only ones who reliably know what Ramadan is, since Muslims weren’t a group that was measured. 90% of them got it right, compared to 36-75% of the other groups.

41% of white Catholics and 53% of Hispanic Catholics don’t know that Catholics believe communion bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus. I knew that, because I made a video once where I mentioned this fact and Catholics got super angry at me. Don’t yell at me, Catholics, yell at the Pope! Or God, I guess. Or whoever taught you to call yourself a Catholic but didn’t teach you what that entails.

48% of evangelical Protestants, 54% of white mainline Protestants and 60% of black Protestants don’t know who Martin Luther was. Here’s a hint, Protestants! Half the stuff you believe in is because of him. Including your weird dislike of Catholics. Or is that just Jack Chick?

And most respondants from all religious identities, including the atheists, think that according to the US Supreme Court, a public school teacher is not permitted to read from the Bible as an example of literature. In other words, everyone in the survey tended to overestimate the strictness of laws protecting separation of church and state.

I often hear atheists talk about how we know more about Christianity than Christians, and if you look at the overall survey results you may think this supports it. Atheists and Jews did the best overall, getting about 21 out of 32 questions right on average.

But when you break the questions down, you see that atheists and Jews tended to know more about other religions than the Christians, but on the questions about the Bible and Christianity, Christians did the best. Mormons were on top with an average of 7.9 questions correct out of 12, followed by evangelicals at 7.3. Atheists were down at 6.7.

It’s just one survey so that’s far from conclusive, but it is worth keeping in mind the next time you want to make a blanket statement about atheist vs Christian knowledge of Christianity. Not every atheist is Matt Dilahunty, and not every Christian is that guy who gets a tattoo of Leviticus 18:22.

If you want, you can take part of the survey on Pew’s website to see how you stack up. I got 100%, allowing me to smugly look down on everyone else’s score.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Religion itself has hardly needed the help of rationalists to make it look ridiculous; for several centuries, Catholics and Protestants burnt one-another at the stake over minor points of theology—when they weren’t burning heretics, apostates and witches.Given this, it’s probably a good thing that most self-identified believers know little of the dogmas they claim to follow.

  2. 14/15, all were very easy, except the last one, since American religious history (other than mormonism) hasn’t been something I’ve looked into.

    1. I also got 14/15, missing the same question. I just happened to have missed that guy, and was looking for Amy Semple MacPherson.

      1. Same, I usually just skim through dark age periods when studying history, and the great awakening was certainly that. Same with the reformation. Though I never tire of reminding people that despite Hitler’s Catholicism, the Holocaust was basically the brainchild of Martin Luther.

        1. Apparently everyone here is in the 2% at the top of the poll, because I also got 14/15, also missing the last question. Apparently though 11% of people get that question right, and only 8% of us skeptics (defining skeptics as Agnostic/Athiest)

    2. I missed the last one because I couldn’t shake John Edwards for appropriate answer Jonathan Edwards in my head. There was a forehead slap when the next page loaded.

  3. “Pew Research has just released…” in 2010. Looks like this study has been resurrected since I’ve seen going around recently on other blogs.

    But interesting nonetheless. Good video!

    1. Yeah, this is the third blog I’ve seen it on in about as many weeks. Otherwise, I find it both a bit hilarious and a bit disappointing that people who call themselves skeptics can’t even be bothered to check a date that is on the very link itself. I think that goes to show how easy it is for even the best of us (oy, now I’m getting arrogant!) to screw up and this is not to say that Rebecca and others who have posted this as “new” are bad skeptics.

  4. One of my little pleasures is teasing pushy Catholics about their ritual cannibalism and watching them try to weasel out of it. I’ve found that with less informed Christians it’s pointless to even try because most of them have faith that what they remember being told is true and not a lot more.

    1. OK, 14/15 on the quiz because I’d never heard of the “First Great Awakening”, which was apparently a fad in the americas in the 1700’s. And seriously, “know what Ramadan is” means “which religion is it from” not “explain the rationale and celebration that takes place”. I was surprised at how broad and easy most of the questions were, and not really surprised to find two US-specific ones (merkins always do that).

      We really should have an “Atheists’ favourite religious laws (that followers forget)”… although that’s more of a Cracked title.

  5. 14/15. I definitely got ripped off. I clicked Martin Luther, but the results came back telling me I got that question wrong because I left it blank. Grumble Grumble Grumble. Yet another example of religion making everyone’s lives miserable.

  6. 15/15 but I somehow felt I’d seen this quiz before. No matter, the brain space would be better taken up by Billie Holiday songs and a good curry recipe or two in any case.

    If they think “the golden rule” is one, I wonder what exactly the Christians who think America was founded on the 10 commandments really believe is in there. Would they be surprised to learn that one of them (thou shalt not covet) puts a pretty large hole in their beloved capitalism?

        1. Potentially spectacular if well aged. Can you get galangal where you are?
          (I’m going OT cos I totally agree with you!)

  7. 14/15 Darn it! Think before you click. I admit as a kid the Abraham story with Isaac story really stuck with me.

  8. “It’s just one survey so that’s far from conclusive, but it is worth keeping in mind the next time you want to make a blanket statement about atheist vs Christian knowledge of Christianity. Not every atheist is Matt Dilahunty, and not every Christian is that guy who gets a tattoo of Leviticus 18:22.”

    Sure, I would agree that it’s good to get more specific in such statements. But I would also say that atheists need not be knowledgeable on Christianity. I wasn’t knowledgeable myself until about…oh, gosh, I guess it’s nearing 6 years now, when I decided I should have a bit more knowledge on this whole religion thing, largely because of my interest in politics. (Need I say why knowing about religion would be important with politics?)

    Getting back to the point, one shouldn’t be calling themselves a computer programmer if they don’t know much about actually programming a computer. Likewise, I don’t find it rational for people to call themselves Catholics, Protestants, etc, if they don’t know much about their denomination. So, for atheists, on average, to be anywhere close to being as knowledgeable on Christianity as professed Christians should be an embarrassment to Christians.

  9. 100%, but I remember seeing this same test before. I also tried the full version of 32 questions, and also got 100%

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