Pew Survey: Americans Know Little About Religion

Wednesday, September 29th 2010, 1:05 pm
By: News 9

By Byron Pitts, CBS News

ROSWELL, Georgia -- For the overwhelming majority of Americans, religion is a central part of life. We wake up and watch it, pay tribute to it, Lord knows we argue over it, but how much do Americans really know about religion?

"We're a nation of religious illiterates," said Stephen Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University. "We have a lot of people who really love Jesus but don't know much about him. We have a lot of people who believe and hope that the Bible is the word of God, but they don't really bother to read it."

And it shows. On average, Americans correctly answered 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on a survey by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life.

"The three groups that really come out on top of this survey are Atheists and Agnostics, Jews along with Mormons. At the bottom are mainline Protestants, Catholics and those who describe their religion as nothing in particular," said Greg Smith with the Pew Research Center.

One reason for the disparity: education.

The better educated a person, the more likely they are to know more about all kinds of religions, not just their own.

Here are some of the results from the survey.

  • When asked the Dalai Lama's religion, 47 percent of Americans correctly answered that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist.
  • More than a third of Americans don't know that Genesis is the first book of the Bible.
  • Only about half know that the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday.
  • Less than one third of those surveyed knew public school teachers can read the Bible in class as an example of literature

Take the quiz; How much do you know about religion?

Reverend Nancy Lane, associate pastor at Roswell United Methodist Church in Atlanta, believes faith without knowledge can be dangerous.

"I think people definitely are out ‘church shopping' for a church that can serve them somehow. We have diluted down the Gospel message," Lane said.

Fifty-five year old Atlanta businessman Lee Hollingsworth said he didn't find Christianity until he almost lost his life to drugs and alcohol. For him, religion is based on a spirit of faith, not a fact sheet.

"It's irrelevant…because it's a matter of faith," Hollingsworth said.

Religion remains a powerful inspiration force in the lives of most Americans, but it is the information at the core of religion where believers and non-believers still have room to grow.

The survey of 3,412 Americans was conducted by telephone, in English and Spanish, from May 19-June 6. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life said the general margin of error the survey was about 2.5 percentage points.