New survey: Americans have limited knowledge of world religions, including their own

A woman holds a rosary while praying during a Holy Hour Jan. 22, 2019, at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

WASHINGTON (RNS) — Most Americans know what an atheist is and why Christians celebrate Easter, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center.

But only 20 percent identified Protestantism—and not Catholicism—as teaching that “salvation comes from faith alone” rather than through both faith and good works. Only 34 percent knew that according to Catholic teaching, the bread and wine used for Communion are not symbolic but actually become the body and blood of Christ. Perhaps more surprisingly, among Catholics themselves, only 50 percent correctly answered the question about transubstantiation, while 45 percent of Catholics said that the bread and wine in communion are only symbolic.

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Some elements of Christianity were widely known: 81 percent of all Americans said that Easter celebrates the resurrection of Christ, and 79 percent identified Moses as the biblical figure most associated with leading the Exodus from Egypt. Eastern religions were not as familiar: Only 18 percent could identify the “truth of suffering” as one of Buddhism’s “noble truths,” and only 15 percent could state that the Vedas are prominent Hindu scriptures.

Only 50 percent correctly answered the question about transubstantiation, while 45 percent of Catholics said that the bread and wine in communion are only symbolic.

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The report on American religious literacy, released on July 23 by the Pew Research Center, reveals some of what Americans do or do not know about their own faiths and others.

“I was struck, for example, that just one in five American adults knows that Protestantism, not Catholicism, traditionally teaches that salvation comes through faith alone,” said Greg Smith, associate director of research at Pew and one of the primary researchers for the report.I was struck that only about a quarter of Americans know that Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year.”

The report was based on a survey of 10,971 respondents who answered online multiple-choice questions about religion.

Less than 1 percent of respondents got a perfect score on the 32 survey questions centered on the Bible; elements of Christianity, Judaism and other world religions; atheism and agnosticism; and religion and public life.

Pew has estimated in the past that Jews make up about 2.2 percent of the U.S. adult population and Muslims about 1.1 percent. But the survey found that more than half of Americans surveyed are not sure of the U.S. population size of those faith groups. Just one-quarter of U.S. adults correctly said Muslims comprise less than 5 percent of the population, and 19 percent correctly said Jews account for less than 5 percent of the population. Three in 10 overestimate the percentage of U.S. adults who are Jewish or Muslim.

Slightly more than a quarter of Americans surveyed answered the sole question about the U.S. Constitution correctly, saying there is no “religious test” or requirement to embrace a particular belief or religion to hold public office.

The survey, which drew on the expertise of Boston University scholar Stephen Prothero, the author of Religious Literacy, is not a definitive, course-like test on religion but rather a snapshot of knowledge about certain topics, Mr. Smith said.

Jews, atheists and agnostics scored highest—with each getting answers correct more than half of the time. Evangelical Protestants also had high scores compared with other groups.

There are a number of factors linked to people’s religious knowledge, from their education—both in academic and religious settings—to the range of individuals with whom they may socialize.

“Respondents who know other people from a wide variety of religious backgrounds tend to perform better on the survey’s questions about religious knowledge as compared with those who don’t know people from such a wide variety of religious backgrounds,” Mr. Smith said.

60 percent of Americans feel “warmly” toward Catholics

Researchers found that those who answered more questions correctly are generally more likely to feel warmly toward people of other faiths.

Jews, atheists and agnostics scored highest—with each getting answers correct more than half of the time.

Jews were viewed most warmly overall, with a “mean thermostat rating” of 63 on a scale of 0 to 100. Atheists and Muslims tied for the lowest point on that scale, with a rating of 49. Catholics received a rating of 60, the same as mainline Protestants. Evangelical Protestants fared a bit lower, at 56.

Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, atheists and mainline Protestants tended to get significantly warmer ratings from those who did well on the religious knowledge survey, and Catholics got slightly warmer ratings from the religiously knowledgeable.

Protestant evangelicals were the exception to the rule, Mr. Smith said. Evangelicals had an average thermometer rating of 53 among those who answered eight or fewer questions correctly, but their rating dropped to 43 among those who got 25 to 32 answers right.

On average, Catholics are about average in their religious knowledge

Overall, the average respondent answered 14.2 of the 32 quiz questions correctly. Among Catholics, the average score was 14.0. With an average score of 13.9, Mormons were also close to the overall score.

Catholics responded correctly to an average 7.9 out of the 14 questions specifically on the Bible and Christianity and 4 of the 13 questions on specific aspects of other world religions.

Jewish respondents did the best, on average correctly answering 18.7 of the 32 questions. Atheists got an average score of 17.9. The lowest scores were among members of historically black Protestant churches (9.7) and those who said they were “nothing in particular” (11.4).

The survey found that Christians who attended a religious school growing up did better on answering questions about their own religion, and even those who had religious education such as C.C.D. classes did better than those who had no such religious education.

Pew’s report includes an opportunity for readers to test their own religious knowledge with an interactive quiz.

The survey, conducted Feb. 4-19, had an overall margin of error of plus or minus 1.5 percentage points.

Other findings, on average:

  • Male respondents answered more questions correctly than women (15.5 compared with 13.0).
  • Whites got more questions right (15.4) than Hispanics (11.7) and blacks (10.5).
  • Americans 65 and older answered 16 questions correctly, compared with those under 30, who got 11.9 right.

Additional reporting by Robert David Sullivan.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Michael Caggiano
1 month 3 weeks ago

I've taught 7th grade CCD in a parish in the North Eastern US. These kids have been in CCD since 2nd grade and din't know that Christ died on the cross for them, or that the Eucharist is Christ. There has been a profound failure to pass on the truths of the Faith.

J Cosgrove
1 month 3 weeks ago

I wonder how many of them could answer the question, why should anyone be a Catholic. Few can here based on what is written by the authors.

Nora Bolcon
1 month 3 weeks ago

I got 13 out of 15 on the test. Did you guys take the sample survey yourselves yet? In fairness I would have probably only scored 12 out of 15 if the above article didn't tell about the Truth of Suffering. I goofed on the Jewish Sabbath Question because being Christian I forgot the difference by a day.

I taught Faith Formation too and for many years. There comes an enormous ignorance with lack of practice. Many of the kids never went to mass, never mind regularly going to mass. I do think even if you teach the facts, history, traditions, of religion, if it is not practiced regularly, the kids don't remember it. In that way religion is like language. This is why nuns clothes are call a "habit" right? Habits in practice keep us remembering what to do in order to represent our support of our main beliefs, and practicing them regularly reminds us to think about why we do what we do which brings us back to our faith basis for our actions.

This was an interesting article.

Beth Cioffoletti
1 month 3 weeks ago

The nuns educated us so profoundly back in the day. We had religion class every day and the faith was woven into just about everything else as well. No way anyone who went to Catholic schools back then would get these questions wrong. Then with V2 we were ready for Ecumenism.

Roland Greystoke
1 month 3 weeks ago

Let me fix that headline for you - New survey: Some Americans have limited knowledge of world religions, including their own
I have a BA in Arabic and had to read the unholy Koran in both English and Arabic. Grew up Christian and went to Sunday School with 10 years of Catholic schools. I have read The Book of Mormon, The Torah, The Bhagavad Gita and have been studying Taoism since 1986. I am certainly not alone in these endeavors.

Peter Schwimer
1 month 3 weeks ago

I would guess that many Cathokics have no clue that they are supposed to actually practice what they've been taught.

David Philippart
1 month 3 weeks ago

I'm not disputing the general thesis that we Americans do not know enough about world religions or our own. But it is most unfortunate that this survey, like a New York Times survey from the '90s, phrased the question to Catholics about the eucharist in this way, pitting the rather technical theological use of the word "real" as in "real presence" against the more commonly used word (but a word that likewise has subtle technical meanings in theology) "symbolic." The question "Is the eucharist really the Body and Blood of Christ, or is it symbolic?" is a trick question today because the meaning of the terms is slippery.. To most people today, "real" means "physical," as in "the accidents" of the Thomist formulation. To most people today, "symbolic" doesn't mean "not real," it means something more like "that which reveals the deeper truth." So knowing that the bread and the wine of the eucharist continue to look, smell, taste, and feel like bread and wine, of course most Catholics today will reach for "symbolic" to talk about the mystery. Most Catholics today would not realize that "real" here is being used in a very specific theological sense. And sacraments have long been explained as "signs that effect what they signify," and the eucharist has long been explained as "the real presence of Christ under the signs of bread and wine." So the question posed as "Is it real or is it symbolic?" is just a badly phrased question (the best answer to which is probably "Yes!") Upon careful reflection, those who are ministers of the eucharist--both ordinary and extraordinary--can attest to the sincere faith of those who come forward to share in holy communion. I can.

Will Nier
1 month 3 weeks ago

Hey that is very close to a survey that my Pastor did a couple of years ago!

John Mack
1 month 3 weeks ago

The best example of this ignorance was the constant chanting of the cardinal of NY (in opposing legal same sex marriage) that "marriage has always and everywhere been between one man and one woman." What an embarrassment. Clearly he ignored the existence of Muslims and never read or understood the Old Testament. And sorry, the word for Hagah as Abraham's wife and Sarah as Abraham's wife was the same Hebrew word, the word for wife. Translating Hagah as concubine was a gross act of deception.

Adeolu Ademoyo
1 month 3 weeks ago

Thanks for the survey and the statistics. Facts -contemporary and historical are important for intelligible conversation. So my questions are, do these data and statistics explain why people young and old (i) miss important issues of faith which are explicable and justified only by the bible and Church documents (ii) mix up what is about faith and what is merely about culture and politics (iii) misplace culture and politics for Christian faith, misinterpret cultural issues and wrongly call them faith issues (iv) vote for purely political reasons while claiming to vote for faith reasons, (v) easily misled by "pastors" who are basically campaign managers of politicians and political party and who (i.e the "pastors") tactfully sway parishioners to vote for such politicians because they (the "pastors") have sold such dubious, trickster politicians and transactional politicians as "Christians" and "defenders" of Christian values when before own very eyes such politicians are not Christians, they do not respect Christian values, and they have nothing to do with Christianity?

These questions are relevant because if someone does not know his/her faith and does not know about other religions, he/she has made himself/herself vulnerable to and be manipulated by the dubious and calculating whims and caprices of especially "pastors" who inside the church/parish are basically campaign managers of transactional politrickcians who have nothing to do with God or Christian faith, in fact whose whole lives are against the basic and core values of Christianity. So know your faith and free yourself from the political and economic calculations of "pastor"-politicians which are masqueraded before innocent parishioners as faith! Knowing your faith shall set you free!

Again, I thank America Magazine for the survey. It is good from the standpoint of brute data, fact and statistics to know why we think the way we think.

Dr.Cajetan Coelho
1 month 3 weeks ago

Religions are wisdom banks. Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Islam, Taoism, Zoroasterism, Bahaism, and Chrisitanity have much to learn from each other.

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