Who knows religion best?

Earlier this week, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released the results of an interesting poll, the Religious Knowledge Survey.  They asked over 3,400 adults living in the US a series of 32 multiple-choice questions relating to Christianity, Judaism, other world religions, religious history, and religion-related politics.

Those of you who want to see all the questions, click HERE.  A sampling of the questions includes:

When does the Jewish Sabbath begin?
Choices: Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Don't know
(45% got it right)

In which religion are Vishnu and Shiva central figures?
Choices: Islam, Hinduism, Taoish, Don't know
(38% got it right, 52% didn't know)

Which if these court trials focused on whether evolution could be taught in public schools?
Choices: The Scopes trial, the Salem witch trials, Brown vs. Board of Education, Don't know
(31% got it right, 36% said Brown, 30% didn't know)

Many of the other questions got about the same sort of responses, while a few of them were much easier, such as "What is the first book of the Bible?"

The average score was 16.0 out of 32, or exactly 50%.

The groups that did the best were Atheist/Agnostic, grouped together and getting 20.9% right, followed by Jews who got 20.5% right, and then Mormons with 20.3% right.  There's big drop-off to the next group, evangelical protestants, who got 17.6% right.

Here's the entire chart from Pew:

religious-knowledge-01 10-09-28

The breakdown of the broader topics is quite interesting:

religious-knowledge-02 10-09-28

On questions about the Bible and Christianity, Mormons did the best, followed by White evangelicals.  The next most knowledgeable group about Christianity was the atheists and then the Jews.  (Protestants overall did just slightly better than the Jews but only because of the White evangelicals.  Without them, Protestants and Catholics did quite badly.)

On questions about world religions, Jews did the best, followed by Atheists.  Nobody else was even close.

And on questions about religion in public life (such as whether public school teachers can lead a class in prayer), Atheists did the best, followed closely by Jews. Again, the others were far behind, statistically speaking.

In addition to these trends based on religion, there was a clear correlation with education, with higher educational achievement closely tied to more correct answers.  Given the high percentage of Jews who go to college versus, for example, Hispanic Catholics, it's hard to say whether there's some aspect of Jewish culture beyond formal education which causes them (us) to do so well on this sort of quiz.

religious-knowledge-17 10-09-28

One obvious take from the key data is that Christians tend to know a fair bit about their own religion but less about any other.  That insular focus is supported by another piece of data, looking at the impact of a religious education: those who went to religious private schools did worse on the test than those who went to non-religious private schools; I presume that most religious private schools are Christian schools.  That said, the gap was small, and both groups did better than public school attendees.  (That could easily be a question of economic class as much as the quality of public versus private schools, though you have the additional confounding factor of many more bad public schools existing versus bad private schools.)

As far as "Belief in God and Views of Scripture", there were interesting data:

Non-believers did the best overall. Those who are certain that God exists came in a distant second, followed closely by those who believe in God but are less certain.

Those who believe the Bible is not the word of God did the best, followed by those who think it is, but not to be taken literally, and coming in last were those who think the Bible is the literal word of God.

A couple of other tidbits:

  • People who have never had children did substantially better than parents.
  • Republicans did better than Democrats or Independents...but liberals and conservatives were about equal, with moderates slightly behind.
  • Not surprisingly, those who have changed religions or married outside their religion did better than those who haven't.

All in all, the quiz results tell me a few things, though clearly different people will take different inferences:

Christians can be more insular than American members of other religions. Jews, not surprisingly, know a lot about a lot, given our cultural tendency toward education.  I don't know enough about Mormons to offer a substantive comment except that their relatively intense level of study shows up at least in their understanding of Christianity.

Most interesting to me, as a Jewish atheist, is how well atheists did on this quiz.  To me, the explanation is that when people are surrounded by a dominant social trend, it takes some rather serious research to decide to reject that trend.  Going against how one is raised and how most of our peers live their lives is a non-trivial decision and clearly not one that atheists make without some real thought.

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