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Religious Knowledge Survey – How Would You Do?

This post was written by Elysia
on September 30, 2010 | Comments (12)

Are you smarter than an atheist?

In a book titled Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – And Doesn’t, university professor Stephen Prothero wrote that “Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion.” This summer, researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted a survey to find out just how ignorant we are. The answer seems to be “yeah, pretty ignorant.” On average, Americans correctly answered only 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the Bible, some basic elements of Christianity, Judaism, Mormonism, and world religions, the role of religion in civic life, and the definitions of agnostic and atheist.

In fact, the main take-away from their summary was that “Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups . . . outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics” – even after controlling for differing levels of education. So yes, an atheist with a college degree does know more about the world’s religions than, say, a Catholic with a college degree. And so does a Mormon. Interesting…

Although you can’t take the entire 32-question survey online, they have a shorter 15-question version you can use to gauge how well you’d have done. Spoiler alert! Some of the answers are contained in this blog post, so do it now if you want to go it uncoached.

How do Pagans do on this survey?

Pagans are very literate folks – one well-known saying that has spread around the community is that Jews and Christians are People of the Book, but Pagans are People of the Libraries. (I wish I knew who said it first!) So, you’re probably wondering how Pagans did on the survey. Sadly, there weren’t enough Pagans responding to the survey to count. Who know, maybe there weren’t any. Their sample size was only 3,412 adults. About its methodology, the Pew Forum wrote:

Other religious groups, including Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist, were also included in the general population figure, but there weren’t enough respondents to report on each group separately.

By contrast, agnostic/atheists (about 4% of the adult population), Jews (1.7%) and Mormons (1.7%) were oversampled so that their groups could be reported on separately. (According to its groundbreaking US Religious Landscape study , Pew found that “New Age” religions accounted for about 0.4% of the population, so no wonder they couldn’t find anyone to survey.)

Zeus and other deities

OK, so where do Pagans fit into this new study, then? Frankly, as ancient history. It turns out that 65% of all respondents knew that Zeus was the king of the Greek gods (selected from a multiple choice of Zeus, Apollo or Mars). That’s about the same as the amount of people who can correctly name Genesis as the first book of the Bible, and more than twice as many as the number of people who know that the majority religion in Indonesia is Muslim. So that’s something, right?

Well, not really. Although Greek gods were listed in a question, there was no indication in the survey that anyone in the world actually worships them today. The question was phrased as mythology: “Do you happen to know which of these is the king of gods in ancient Greek mythology?”

But hey, look at the bright side: at least two thirds of Americans know who Zeus is in the first place. Less than half of those surveyed, on the other hand, knew that Vishnu and Shiva were Hindu deities (as opposed to deities of the other two choices, Islam or Taoism!), so if nothing else it shows how pervasive Western mythology still is in the public knowledge, or at least in the school systems that produced these survey respondents. So next time you find yourself explaining your Paganism to someone, be thankful that at least you can start out with a frame of reference that they’re already familiar with. I hate to think of what Hindus must go through when attempting to explain their religion to an outsider! Speaking of which…

No one is interested in other religions

Another important take-away for Pagans to consider is the fact that most people in America have their heads buried in their own religions, and really aren’t taking the time to find out about others. While the survey showed that a whopping 37% read the Bible or other Holy Scriptures at least once a week (not counting worship services), their interest in reading stops right about there.

Nearly half of Americans who are affiliated with a religion (48%) say they “seldom” or “never” read books (other than Scripture) or visit websites about their own religion, and 70% say they seldom or never read books or visit websites about other religions.

Hear that? Seventy percent of religious folks don’t give a hoot about your religion. There were twice as many “nevers” as “seldoms” –which means that nearly half of the everyday people you’ll meet will have never read a book about another religion other than their own. (And for those “unaffiliated with a religion” it’s not much better – it’s sixty-eight percent “seldom and never” for them, too.) Whether that’s good or bad depends on to what extent these uninformed people are trying to legislate your religion at the same time.

The Salem Witch Trials? Really?

One last item of interest from the survey – it also included general knowledge questions in politics, science, history and literature to serve as some kind of baseline. Here they found that basically, if you can answer the religion questions pretty well, you’ll also do pretty well on the general knowledge questions, and if you were really bad at the religious questions, you’ll probably be really bad at the general questions. It all comes down to how much attention you’re paying to the world around you, or how well you perform on pop quizzes you never studied for delivered over the telephone. But there was one very tricky question that the general population scored very low on, and here’s where Witches come back into the picture:

“Only about one-third of those polled know which famous court trial dealt with whether evolution could be taught in public schools; 31% know this was the Scopes trial, while 36% say it was Brown vs. Board of Education and 3% name the Salem witch trials.”

I really hope those 3% were kidding. Seriously, because on every multiple choice question you could also just say “I don’t know.”

If you want to see what the questions were and who responded what to them, click here for the Who Knows What About Religion section of the Pew’s report. For a more readable overview, check out the New York Times article on the study. Please share your thoughts about the study, or your score on the mini-test, in the comments section.

Reader Comments

Written By Michelle
on September 30th, 2010 @ 11:57 pm

13 right out of 15 on the test, not bad. But I suppose I have always been interested in comparative religion, took a course in college and did extra reading for fun.

Written By Ty
on October 1st, 2010 @ 6:45 am

I got 14 out of 15, putting me at the 97% correct or top 1% level! I wish I knew which one I missed, but that’s OK. I guess we are people of the libraries.

On a more serious note, I am not surprised at how poor most people did. As a former Catholic and Methodist, I found that even those with a a ‘religious education’ were lacking in the basic information of other major faiths.

Written By Laura
on October 1st, 2010 @ 5:26 pm

14/15. I missed the last question about the pastor associated with the “First Great Awakening”. Indeed, an interesting survey. It’s surprising people know so little about religions outside of their own, but shocking that they don’t know much about their own!

Written By Kim
on October 4th, 2010 @ 5:01 pm

10/15. There were a few that I thought I knew and missed them. With the ones I should have answered correctly, I would be around 13/15.

Written By Christy
on October 4th, 2010 @ 5:48 pm

13/15. I’ve really been interested in religion and I feel like it’s something everyone should learn about to understand how different cultures work and how people think and feel about life, the universe, and everything. This study just proves to me that we have a long way to go before we can do this.

Written By Chere
on October 4th, 2010 @ 6:23 pm

I got 12 out of 15, 87 percentile, feel pretty good about that since I slept through Sunday school. Actually, am REALLY surprised. But I think people like me, who consider themselves pagan, do a lot of soul searching and read about what’s out there. I’ve sampled a lot of different religions.

Written By Donald Michael Kraig
on October 4th, 2010 @ 10:04 pm

Yep. I got 14 of 15 and missed the same one as Laura. Actually, I knew what the First Great Awakening was, I just didn’t know the pastor associated with it. However the thing I find interesting is the scores listed by Pagans here. Three 14 of 15 and one 13 of 15. This is way above average. Looking at the questions, however, I’m not surprised. Many of the Pagans I know would have easily scored 12-15 right, way above the norm. That may be because most people are born into a religion and don’t care while most Pagans choose their faith after doing investigation, research, and soul searching. I would add that this verifies the data collected by Margo Adler in her classic Drawing Down the Moon from three decades ago where she reported that there was a higher percentage of people with degrees and involved with computers among Pagans than among the mainstream. I don’t think being Pagan makes a person smarter, but I do think people who are smart are often drawn away from the more dogmatic religions of their birth and toward Paganism.

Written By Mary
on October 5th, 2010 @ 7:48 am

I did 13 out of 15. I do not find it surprising that pagans are doing better than average here. As Mr. Craig pointed out most are born into their religion and give it little thought. Pagans must find their own way to it. I do think that in a small way perhaps paganism does make a person smarter, because in researching and soul searching it broadens one’s knowledge of the world in general.

Written By ravenwindstone
on October 5th, 2010 @ 12:14 pm

I scored 87% (missing only two)…that was higher than 93% of the public…..wow… 🙂

Written By Tami
on October 6th, 2010 @ 8:18 am

Wow! 14 out of 15. I even impressed myself!! I am a bookie that’s for sure. As a long time in-the-closet-pagan I am only finding my way. I was surprised to see that the one question I missed was a teacher reading the bible in class as a work of literature!! I just “assumed” that it was off limits.

You will be sorry to hear that some schools don’t take the church/state seriously. I recently rescued my daughter (agnostic with thoughts to pagan) from her school district after being harassed by students AND teachers about her religion (or lack of christian religion). They allow students (without parental permission) to leave school in the middle of the school day to attend church services that teach intolerance and hate. It’s called the 411 Club, they reward the kids with candy, soda and pizza parties. When I asked WHY??? I was told that they have nothing to do with what the children are doing off school grounds, even during the school day. The Vice Principal told me that the school can not interfere with children practicing their religion (i.e. christian religion). I wonder how the same people would react if Muslims, Jews, and Pagans would set up tents and recruit with candy and soda just off the grounds. HHmmmm, would they gladly send the kids on their way then?? It shows what ignorance has brought us to. Don’t give up on reading!!! Religion is a part of history, all of our history.

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