Atheists Know Best: US Religious Knowledge Survey

If you don't live completely under a rock, you've heard about the US Religious Knowledge Survey by now. Atheists are "lording" it over everyone else that we know more about religion than the religious. Which is true, according to the survey and my personal experience. But the Jews are a very close second, and Muslims are a close third.

~EDIT: One thing the survey doesn't show is why are atheists/agnostics so knowledgeable about religions? You can't tease out causation from this. The only thing I can offer is my own experience.

I studied many world religions looking for one that wasn't a hypocritical mess of nonsense. I couldn't find any. Then I studied the big three religions in search of understanding them and how they began. Then I studied history to understand the world as it was when the modern religions of today were created. Then I finally realized it really all was about people wanting to live forever, and about power and control of those people.

So for me, I learned about religions and then became an atheist when I realized they were all created by man out of fear and wishful thinking. I think a lot of atheists I know would say something similar. But, to complicate matters, as an atheist activist now, I study religions to know how religious people think and what motivates them. So maybe it's both the chicken and the egg.

Either way, it shows that education and understanding of religion is a powerful tool that could help people free themselves of dogma. It certainly worked for me and many of my atheist friends. Of course, many people will cling to religion no matter what. It's comforting to them.


Let's look at the survey and see what it says. By the way, CNN has a short 10 question quiz that you can take. I took it and got 10 out of 10. But honestly, if you don't know a couple of the questions, it might just be that you haven't learned anything about Indonesia, for example. The world is a big place. We are all ignorant of much more than we actually know. What matters is that we keep learning and growing.

Better yet, The Pew Forum has a 15 question quiz that will compare your answers to the actual survey. Also, the questions are worded a bit better than the CNN quiz. I just took that one and got 14 out of 15. I got the last one wrong. I had never heard of it. Apparently only 11% of the respondents got that one right so I guess I shouldn't be too devastated.

Go take the quiz and come back. Because I want to talk about the questions of the survey. I'll wait.... (insert cheesy hold muzak here)

Now, remember, only 3,412 adults were surveyed. It's not a huge sampling, or at least it doesn't seem huge to me. And since the breadth of the 32 questions were all the major religions, it's probably understandable that a lot of people don't know when the Jewish Sabbath starts. Some of the others, well, they're pretty important, like what public school teachers are allowed to do in class.

Basically, America is one of the most religious countries out of the world's developed nations, with almost 60% of adults saying religion is "very important" in their lives and about 40% saying they attend worship services at least once a week. But they don't know very much about the major religious traditions. While they don't know much about their own religion, they seem to know even less about others. Many people also think the constitutional restrictions on religion in public schools are stricter than they really are.

Let's go over the questions. Here is a link to a pdf with the actual questionnaire. It's very interesting, explaining how the people were screened (asking for the youngest adult male or female in the household; oversamples taken for Muslim, jewish and atheist/agnostic to get a fair sampling of these small populations; political and science questions, etc) some of the questions were scrambled.

3: The 4 topics were scrambled so they only answered one of the following: How often do you talk with friends or family about science, history, politics or current events, or religion?

4: Name the vice president of the United States: Joe Biden (followed by other political questions to assess general knowledge)

7: True or False: Lasers work by focusing sound waves.

8: True or False: antibiotics will kill viruses as well as bacteria.

15: When does the Jewish Sabbath begin? This is a tricky question if you're not Jewish. You have to know that the Jewish day starts at, what is it, 6pm of an evening. So it begins Friday at 6pm.

17: Is Ramadan: The Islamic holy month.

28: Complicated question which basically comes down to asking the person if their holy book  (the bible/quran/your holy book) is the word of god, or written by men and is not the word of god, or something else.

29: Should your holy book be taken literally or not.

34aa: Which comes closer to your view? Humans and other living things evolved over time, or humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.

35: King of the gods in ancient Greek mythology: Zeus, Mars or Apollo.

36: The holy book of Islam is: The Koran.

37a: Which religion aims at nirvana, the state of being free from suffering? Islam (LOL!), Buddhism, Hinduism

37b: In which religion are Vishnu and Shiva central figures? Islam, Hinduism, Taoism

38: This question is rotated. It is asked both ways. Rotate atheist and agnostic in the following question: Is an atheist someone who believes in god, someone who does not believe in god, or someone who is sure god does not exist?

39: What is the first book of the bible: Genesis

40: Give the first four books of the new testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John.

41: According to the bible, where was Jesus born? Bethlehem, Jericho, Jerusalem, Nazareth

42: When was the Mormon religion founded? Before 1200 AD, between 1200 and 1800, sometime after 1800

43: The book of mormon tells the story of Jesus appearing to people in what area of the world? The Americas, Middle East, Asia

44: Regarding the catholic use of bread and wine for communion: does it become the body and blood of christ, or are they symbols of the body and blood of christ?

45: Which of these groups traditionally teaches that salvation comes through faith alone? Only protestants, only catholics, both protestants and catholics

46: Which is NOT one of the 10 commandments: Do not commit adultery; Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; Do not steal; Keep the Sabbath holy

47: Complicated question scrambled differently: Which bible figure is most closely associated with a. remaining obedient to god: Job; c. leading the exodus from Egypt: Moses; d. Willingness to sacrifice his son for God: Abraham. And a fourth choice, Elijah.

48: Another complicated scrambled question: Was Mother Teresa catholic? Is the Dalai Lama Buddhist? Was Joseph Smith Mormon? Was Maimonides Jewish? given as multiple choice.

49: What does the Constitution (as amended) say about religion? 1. christianity should be given special emphasis by the government. 2. The government shall neither establish a religion nor interfere with the practice of religion. 3. The Constitution does not say anything one way or the other about religion.

50: Scrambled question, only one asked: According the the rulings of the Supreme Court, is a public school teacher permitted to; a. lead a class in prayer; b. read from the bible as an example of literature; c. offer a class comparing the world's religions.

55: What religion do most people in a. India; b. Indonesia; d. Pakistan consider themselves? Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, divided

60: What was the name of the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation? Martin Luther, Thomas Aquinas, John Wesley

61: Which of these people developed the theory of evolution by natural selection? Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Clarence Darrow

62: Which of these court trials focused on whether evolution could be taught in public schools? The Scopes trial, the Salem witch trials, Brown vs Board of Education

63: Which of these preachers participated in the period of religious activity known as the the First Great Awakening? Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney, Billy Graham


Now how did people do? People were asked 32 questions. The average that people got right was 16. Atheists/Agnostics did best. Hispanic Catholics did worst.

Mormons and evangelicals know most about christianity; atheists/agnostics and Jews do best on world religions:

There is confusion over what is allowed in public schools by the Constitution. A teacher can't lead a class in prayer (most people know this) but what they don't seem to know is that the bible can be taught as literature and a public school can teach a comparative religion course.

More education seems to be linked to greater religious knowledge:

In the overview, Pew says, "This survey and previous Pew Forum studies have shown that Jews and atheists/agnostics have high levels of educational attainment on average, which partially explains their performance. ... Atheists/agnostics and Jews stand out for high levels of knowledge about world religions other than Christianity, though they also score at or above the national average on questions about the Bible and Christianity.

Some other findings:

  • about six-in-ten Americans can name the vice president of the United States

  • Overall, people who score well on the general knowledge questions also tend to do well on the religion questions. Atheists/agnostics and Jews correctly answer an average of roughly seven of the nine general knowledge questions.

  • While people with a high level of religious commitment do better than average on the religion questions, people with low levels of religious commitment do better than average on the general knowledge questions.

  • Many Americans are devoted readers of Scripture: More than a third (37%) say they read the Bible or other Holy Scriptures at least once a week, not counting worship services. But Americans as a whole are much less inclined to read other books about religion. Nearly half of Americans who are affiliated with a religion (48%) say they “seldom” or “never” read books (other than Scripture) or visit websites about their own religion, and 70% say they seldom or never read books or visit websites about other religions.

I tried to download the full report to find out a bit more but the interwebs wouldn't cooperate. I really wanted to know how people answered question 8 about antibiotics killing viruses as well as bacteria.


  1. "Lasers work by focusing sound waves."

    ROFL! I love it! What an awesome question!

    Nice commentary, Neece!... as usual! :-)

  2. Frans,

    SO true about the Catholic communion! Creepy and disgusting... and disturbing that anyone actually BELIEVES that the transubstantiation actually occurs.

  3. LOL, I know. And people got it wrong. Although they didn't say in the overview how many got which general knowledge question wrong. I would have liked to see that. I think I would have found it very frustrating!

    Thanks for being the impetus behind me writing this post, Dan. BTW, I added more commentary, which I think is really important, which you might find interesting.

  4. I KNOW! Super gross and creepy! I don't think I mentioned it, but the survey found that many catholics didn't know it was transubstantiation. They thought the cracker and wine were just symbols.

  5. 15: Thanks for clarifying on the Jewish Sabbath. You're right. It's sunset. I guess I extrapolated to 6pm for some reason. I have to say I didn't look it up. It isn't a big issue in my life. :P Although learning about Sinterklaas was interesting.

    38: really is simplified. I think for what they are asking, it does the job though.

    41: I am under the impression that the whole Nazareth thing is more to do with fulfilling prophecy so it was thrown in there to make the case for Jesus as the messiah. But I might be wrong.

    44: Agreed, super creepy and gross!

    47: The question itself isn't complicated, just how it was asked due to the scrambling and asking different people different parts. I was trying to word it simply, but explain that it is asked to each person differently, as a multiple choice.

    Thanks for your feedback, Frans! :)

  6. As this is my first time here I will say I do enjoy the thoughtful discussion. Tho i feel I have successfully made the transistion from agnostic to athiest, i am rip off Scott Cunningham here a bit...a sole practitioner. Altho it has been pointed out to me that it is really rather easy as there is nothing to practice!

    As a self ex-communicated catholic i confess I did know the answer to the rather unfortunate question on communion. I do like the idea of the new low calorie host that is being offered tho....I Can't Believe It's Not Jesus........

  7. Good one, Neece! I like these things you dig up. I don't watch news very often, so I guess I do live under a rock...aced the Pew survey. But to be fair, I graduated in '74 & the First Great Awakening was part of my American lit class in 70-71. "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" by either Mathers or Edwards was read in class as an example of some early, specifically American lit. I guess to reinforce the idea that America was established as a xtian nation.

  8. 14 of 15 on the PEW; same as you missed the last one cause I wasn't familiar with the details of the 'First Great Awakening.'

    RE: Jewish Sabbath - I see Frans already pointed out it starts at sunset Friday; but thought I'd add also that the Sabbath doesn't end until sunset on Saturday. Also that Seventh-Day Adventists hold this same practice. I grew up SDA, my parents weren't super-strict, but no TV was allowed during that time. Things were more strict when we were with other extended family or other church members; we weren't allowed to do anything that was not connecting us to God and faith during that time.

    AU has an interesting (and I think valid) take on the lack of knowledge when it comes to religion versus law. They postulate that the Religious Right has over-blown the restrictions and the court cases, as well as providing misinformation and fabricated or embellished anecdotal stories - thus leading many to think the law and public schools are more restrictive than they actually are.

    We've seen a fairly resounding response from the atheist community on why we are more knowledgeable; now I'm waiting for the responses (or excuses) from the religious groups on why they did poorly.

  9. LOL, I saw a picture of the I Can't Believe It's Not Jesus. It cracked me up. :)

  10. I'm glad you liked it, Angie. :)
    Thanks for more info on the Great Awakening. I'd never heard of it.

  11. Thanks Johnny, I had no idea the SDA also did the Sabbath practice. Thanks for that information!

    Yes, I agree with what you said about the religious right basically exaggerating how restrictive the law is on separation of church and state. That makes sense.

    And yes, again, I agree, it will be interesting to see what the religious say about why they failed so miserably! Although, to be fair, as I stated above, mormons and white evangelicals knew more about christianity than we did. So they know their own religion to some extent. They just don't know about any other religions very much.

    I think that's an area we need to look into; pushing comparative religions classes out to people so that they can see the whole picture. That certainly made a significant difference in my deconversion.

  12. Nice term Neece...deconversion...

  13. It is a good term, isn't it, Jim. I don't know where I first heard it but I think it's very appropriate. :)

  14. Was comfortably an atheist, what cracked the cacoon was a book about matter and energy. Ugh, maybe death isn't the easy out. Eeecch, maybe the artist who painted the Last Judgement had a good grip on reality- that transcends the physical kingdom. Yeah accountability issues - so shoot me already.