By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
According to a new study released by the Pew Research Center, atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.
According to the report, atheists and agnostics scored an average of 20.9 correct answers on the survey, with Jews and Mormons right behind at 20.5. Protestants averaged 16 correct answers and Catholics 14. The study found that atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons perform better than other groups on the survey even after controlling for differing levels of education.
On questions about Christianity, Mormons and white evangelical Protestants scored highest with Jews and atheists proving to be much more knowledgeable about world religions such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism. Atheists also scored much higher than other groups on questions concerning the role of religion in public life.
The study found that more than four-in-ten Catholics in the United States (45%) do not know that the Church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion do not merely symbolize, but actually become, the body and blood of Christ. About half of Protestants (53%) cannot correctly identify Martin Luther as the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation.
“In addition, fewer than half of Americans (47%) know that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist,” the report continues. “Fewer than four-in-ten (38%) correctly associate Vishnu and Shiva with Hinduism. And only about a quarter of all Americans (27%) correctly answer that most people in Indonesia – the country with the world’s largest Muslim population – are Muslims.”
There also appears to be widespread confusion over the line between teaching and preaching in public schools with most Americans believing constitutional restrictions on religion in public schools are tighter than they actually are.
For instance, two thirds of respondents did not know that it is permissible for a teacher to read from the Bible during class as an example of literature. The Supreme Court has ruled that the Bible may be taught for its “literary and historic qualities” as long as it is part of a secular curriculum.
Most Americans are able to correctly answer at least half of the survey’s questions about the Bible, such as knowing that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (71%) and that Genesis is the name of a book in the Old Testament (63%). Overall, Mormons scored highest on this section of the survey with white mainline Protestants and Catholics scoring the lowest.
The study found that education level was the single best predictor of religious knowledge with college graduates scoring higher than people with a high school education or less. (The survey also notes that Jews and atheists/agnostics tend to have higher levels of education on average, which partially explains their performance on the religious knowledge survey.)
“Other factors linked with religious knowledge include reading Scripture at least once a week and talking about religion with friends and family. People who say they frequently talk about religion with friends and family get an average of roughly two more questions right than those who say they rarely or never discuss religion. People with the highest levels of religious commitment – those who say that they attend worship services at least once a week and that religion is very important in their lives – generally demonstrate higher levels of religious knowledge than those with medium or low religious commitment.”
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