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Lack of religious knowledge a wake-up call
Religion study shocks faithful, but the results aren't so surprising for some

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BLOG: Amy Umble explains the terms used in this story.

Date published: 10/2/2010

TAKE THE QUIZ: Test your religious knowledge. Take the quiz.


A survey of religious knowledge came out Tuesday, and journalists, bloggers and pundits rushed to spread the news: Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons outscored all other faith groups.

But as people took time to study the survey, many started to wonder if the results were all that surprising. And some Fredericksburg-area church leaders said the survey comes as less of a shock and more of a wake-up call.

"For pastors and churches generally the results point to the challenge at hand for us," said the Rev. Bill Lindner, pastor of Christ Covenant Church in Spotsylvania. "It's a challenge, and for whatever reasons, this points to our falling short in many ways."

Respondents overall reported deep faith, but little knowledge about religion. On average, Americans could correctly answer 16 out of 32 questions about religious history, leaders, beliefs and practices.

Pollsters queried Americans on faiths including Christianity, Buddhism, Mormonism, Judaism and Hinduism. Overall, atheists and agnostics scored the highest, getting 21 questions right. Jews and Mormons followed with an average of 20 right answers each.

Fredericksburg resident and agnostic Pat Chen wasn't surprised. She grew up attending Sunday school, Scripture studies and three weeks of vacation Bible school each summer.

Many atheists share similar childhood experiences, Chen said.

And they often reach a conclusion of unbelief after intensive study of religion, said Drew Austen, co-organizer of Atheists of Richmond.

"Atheists spend a lot of time talking about religion, debating it and questioning it," he said. "When one religion doesn't make sense, they turn to other religions" before deciding on atheism.

In fact, all three top-scoring groups value education and study, said Mary Beth Mathews, associate professor of religion at the University of Mary Washington.

Judaism encourages study of the Torah for its own sake and asking questions is key to the faith, Mathews said.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints--often called Mormons--start studying Scriptures in their youth. Locally, high school students attend early-morning religion classes before classes, said Michael Armstrong, first counselor in the Fredericksburg Stake of the LDS Church.

Two years of those classes focus on the Bible, perhaps explaining why Mormons scored the highest on questions about the Old and New Testaments.

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Only 23 percent of respondents knew that public school teachers can use the Bible in literature classes. This result goes a long way in explaining why Americans overall fared poorly on the test, said Mary Beth Mathews, who teaches courses on religion in America at the University of Mary Washington.

"The fear of violating church and state has led many schools to just not teach about religious history," Mathews said.

And does that matter? As students stop learning about the Bible, literary allusions to "the good Samaritan" or "the patience of Job" or "cast the first stone" become like a foreign language. And as religion takes the stage in the public square, more people argue something they have no knowledge of.

Also, consider this: Two-thirds of Americans say they use the Bible for major life decisions. But fewer than half can name the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Pew Forum pollsters queried 3,412 Americans during May and June. The quiz included 32 questions on religion and nine control questions on politics, science, history and literature. Most questions were multiple choice, but some were open-ended. Want to test your own knowledge? Take a sample quiz at fredericksburg.com.


of the 3,412 people who took the survey got every question correct.

89 percent

of respondents know public school teachers cannot lead a class in prayer.

57 percent

said religion is "very important."

47 percent

know the Dalai Lama is Buddhist.

4 percent

thought Stephen King wrote "Moby-Dick."

71 percent

knew Charles Darwin developed the theory of evolution.

46 percent

knew Martin Luther inspired the Reformation.

82 percent

knew Mother Teresa was Catholic.

54 percent

know the Quran is the Islamic holy book.

72 percent

know Moses led the Exodus from Egypt.

39 percent

identify Job as a biblical figure connected to suffering.

--The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, pewforum.org