Survey finds Americans know little about religion

Tuesday, September 28, 2010 | 7:07 p.m. CDT; updated 5:26 p.m. CDT, Sunday, October 10, 2010

COLUMBIA — What was Joseph Smith’s religion?

Is the golden rule part of the Ten Commandments?

Take the quiz

To see how you'd do, take the quiz.

Maimonides is associated with what religion?

If you know the answers, here’s the next question:

Are you atheist or agnostic?

The Pew Research Center released the findings of a religious knowledge survey Tuesday, showing atheists, agnostics, Jews and Mormons as the highest-scoring participants.

The 32-question telephone survey asked 3,412 adults about religion as referenced by the Constitution as well as the history, teachings and leaders of several major religions.

On average, participants answered only half of the questions correctly. Atheists and agnostics on average answered 20 out of 32 correctly, followed closely by Jews. Mormons and white evangelicals knew the most about Christianity, correctly answering an average of 7 out of the 12 questions about the Bible.

 “It really is a phenomenon that we live in one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world but have significant levels of religious illiteracy,” said Dan Cohen, an professor of religious studies at MU.

Cohen referenced Stephen Prothero’s 2008 book “Religious Literacy,” which highlighted religious misunderstandings similar to those shown in the Pew survey.

When it came to the Constitution, only 23 percent of survey participants knew that public school teachers could read from the Bible as an example of literature.

Within the Columbia Public Schools, there is only one religion class. George Frissell, who teaches classical ideas and world religions to 70-90 juniors and seniors at Hickman High School every year, discussed with his students how the survey confirmed Prothero’s findings Tuesday.

“Even those who are not religious have a responsibility to have a knowledge base,” Frissell said. “You need to understand religion to understand culture and politics.”

Debra Mason, executive director of the Center on Religion & the Professions at MU, said this apparent lack of knowledge about religion is not new.

In June, the center sponsored the World Religions in Missouri workshop for public school teachers. The event brought in curriculum experts, religious studies scholars and a panel of parents to train teachers on why understanding and teaching about various religions is important.

“Religion is no longer a significant part of the curriculum in elementary through high school,” Mason said. “Because of world conflicts, it is imperative for the next generation to expand their knowledge base of religion.”

Of the minority faiths that scored highly on the survey, Mason said people who live in a dominant culture learn a lot by exposure and make a point to research the majority religion.

Atheists, agnostics, Jews and Mormons together make up 7 percent of Americans, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The hole in survey, Mason said, is the lack of Muslim representation, especially with the “increasing tension” in public opinion.

“If we don’t address this lack of knowledge and polarization, the impact will continue to get worse,” Mason said. “More knowledge, more education and more information can change attitudes about other religions.”

None of the survey participants identified as Muslim.

Cohen said religious understanding is essential to undo stereotypes and have intellectual dialogue.

“Religious tolerance is not enough in a religiously diverse nation,” Cohen said. “There needs to be genuine reaching out to understand each other.”

Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.