A Study By PEW Research Centre in JULY 23, 2019
U.S. adults generally can answer basic questions about the Bible and Christianity, but are less familiar with other world religions
Before you read the report
Test your religious knowledge by taking an interactive quiz. The short quiz includes some questions recently asked in the nationally representative survey that forms the basis of this report. After completing the quiz, you can see how you did in comparison with the general public and with people like yourself.
Most Americans are familiar with some of the basics of Christianity and the Bible, and even a few facts about Islam. But far fewer U.S. adults are able to correctly answer factual questions about Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism, and most do not know what the U.S. Constitution says about religion as it relates to elected officials. In addition, large majorities of Americans are unsure (or incorrect) about the share of the U.S. public that is Muslim or Jewish, according to a new Pew Research Center survey that quizzed nearly 11,000 U.S. adults on a variety of religious topics.
Our surveys often ask people about their opinions, but this one was different, asking 32 fact-based, multiple-choice questions about topics related to religion (see here for full list of questions). The average U.S. adult is able to answer fewer than half of them (about 14) correctly.
The questions were designed to span a spectrum of difficulty. Some were meant to be relatively easy, to establish a baseline indication of what nearly all Americans know about religion. Others were intended to be difficult, to differentiate those who are most knowledgeable about religious topics from everyone else.1
The survey finds that Americans’ levels of religious knowledge vary depending not only on what questions are being asked, but also on who is answering. Jews, atheists, agnostics and evangelical Protestants, as well as highly educated people and those who have religiously diverse social networks, show higher levels of religious knowledge, while young adults and racial and ethnic minorities tend to know somewhat less about religion than the average respondent does.
Overall, eight-in-ten U.S. adults correctly answer that in the Christian tradition, Easter commemorates the resurrection of Jesus – rather than the Crucifixion, the Ascension to heaven or the Last Supper. A similar share know that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity holds that there is one God in three persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Eight-in-ten Americans correctly identify Moses as the biblical figure who led the Exodus from Egypt, and David as the one who killed an enemy by slinging a stone, while seven-in-ten know that Abraham is the biblical figure who exhibited a willingness to sacrifice his son in obedience to God.
Most Americans also are familiar with two different terms that indicate a lack of belief in God. Almost nine-in-ten correctly identify the definition of “an atheist” (someone who does not believe in God), and six-in-ten correctly select the definition of “an agnostic” (someone who is unsure whether God exists).
Even some of the basics of Islam are familiar to a wide swath of the public. Six-in-ten U.S. adults know that Ramadan is an Islamic holy month (as opposed to a Hindu festival of lights, a Jewish prayer for the dead, or a celebration of the Buddha’s birth) and that Mecca (not Cairo, Medina or Jerusalem) is Islam’s holiest city and a place of pilgrimage for Muslims.
On the other hand, Americans are less familiar with some basic facts about other world religions, including Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism.2 Just three-in-ten U.S. adults know that the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday, one-quarter know that Rosh Hashana is the Jewish New Year, and one-in-eight can correctly identify the religion of Maimonides (an influential Jewish scholar in the Middle Ages).
Roughly one-in-five Americans (18%) know that the “truth of suffering” is among Buddhism’s four “noble truths,” and just 15% correctly identify the Vedas as a Hindu text.
Many Americans also struggle to answer some questions about the size of religious minorities in the U.S. and about religion’s role in American government. For instance, most U.S. adults overestimate the shares of Jews and Muslims in the U.S. or are unaware that Jews and Muslims each account for less than 5% of the population.3 And when asked what the U.S. Constitution says about religion as it relates to federal officeholders, just one-quarter (27%) correctly answer that it says “no religious test” shall be a qualification for holding office; 15% incorrectly believe the Constitution requires federal officeholders to affirm that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, 12% think the Constitution requires elected officials to be sworn in using the Bible, 13% think the Constitution is silent on this issue, and 31% say they are not sure.
Nine of the survey’s questions were moderately difficult for respondents; more than three-in-ten but fewer than six-in-ten respondents were able to answer them correctly. These questions include one about the Ten Commandments (58% know that the golden rule is not one of the Ten Commandments), one about the Gospel account of the Sermon on the Mount (51% know it was delivered by Jesus rather than by Peter, Paul or John), and one about the Catholic teaching on transubstantiation (34% know the Catholic Church teaches that during the Mass, the bread and wine used for Communion are not symbolic, but actually become the body and blood of Jesus).
These are among the key findings of a survey conducted online Feb. 4 to 19, 2019, among 10,971 respondents. The study was conducted mostly among members of Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel (a nationally representative panel of randomly selected U.S. adults recruited from landline and cellphone random-digit-dial surveys and an address-based survey), supplemented by interviews with members of the Ipsos KnowledgePanel.4 The margin of sampling error for the full sample is plus or minus 1.5 percentage points.
The survey was designed to measure the public’s knowledge about a wide range of religious subjects. The religious knowledge section consisted of 32 questions in total, including 14 about the Bible and Christianity, 13 about other world religions (four about Judaism, three about the religious composition of particular countries, two each about Islam and Hinduism, and one each about Buddhism and Sikhism), two about atheism and agnosticism, two about the size of religious minorities in the U.S. adult population, and one about religion in the U.S. Constitution. For a list of all the questions, see here.
The average respondent correctly answered 14.2 of the 32 religious knowledge questions. Just 9% of respondents gave correct answers to more than three-quarters (at least 25) of the questions, and less than 1% earned a perfect score.
At the other end of the spectrum, one-quarter of respondents (24%) correctly answered eight or fewer questions, and a clear majority (62%) got half (16) or fewer correct. This includes 2% of respondents who did not answer any questions correctly, mainly because they checked “not sure” in response to most or all the questions.