According to an article, “Basic religion test stumps many Americans,” in yesterday’s New York Times, atheists and agnostics scored better than “protheists” on a basic religion test administered by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The Pew Forum telephoned 3400 people and asked them 32 questions concerning the Bible, world religions, well-known religious figures, and “the constitutional principles governing religion in public life.” According to the Times article, atheists and agnostics, Jews, and Mormons, with an average of 20-21 correct answers out of 32, scored significantly better than the rest of the population, even after the results were corrected for demographic factors. The majority of people answered barely half the questions correctly, and many could not even answer questions about their own religion.
The format was mostly multiple choice and included questions like, “Where was Jesus born? What is Ramadan? Whose writings inspired the Protestant Reformation? Which Biblical figure led the exodus from Egypt? What religion is the Dalai Lama? Joseph Smith? Mother Teresa?” Many people do not know much about their own religions either:
� Fifty-three percent of Protestants could not identify Martin Luther as the man who started the Protestant Reformation.
� Forty-five percent of Catholics did not know that their church teaches that the consecrated bread and wine in holy communion are not merely symbols, but actually become the body and blood of Christ.
� Forty-three percent of Jews did not know that Maimonides, one of the foremost rabbinical authorities and philosophers, was Jewish.
You might think that this survey gives new meaning to the old rhetorical question, “Is the Pope Catholic?” But, as it happens, 82 % knew that Mother Teresa was Catholic.
Additionally, I was pleasantly surprised to read that 89 % of respondents knew that public school teachers are not permitted to lead a class in prayer. On the other hand, fewer than one quarter knew that a public school teacher is permitted “to read from the Bible as an example of literature,” and only one third knew that public schools may teach comparative religion.
Regular readers of Panda’s Thumb tolerate a lot of ignoramuses who think they know more about biology, geology, or cosmology than the experts; it now seems that they may know less about religion than the atheists.
Footnote: I did not read the source document, only the Times article, but one thing I noticed was that people who classified themselves as “nothing in particular” scored about 15 out of 32. If a very large fraction of these people were agnostics or atheists but did not identify themselves as such, then they would have brought down the score for agnostics or atheists.
Appendix: According to a graph in the Times, which I will not reproduce, average number of correct answers out of 32 questions: atheists/agnostics, 20.9; Jewish, 20.5; Mormon, 20.3; white evangelical Protestant, 17.6; white Catholic, 16.0; white mainline Protestant, 15.8; nothing in particular, 15.2; black Protestant, 13.4; Hispanic Catholic, 11.6.