Americans Flunk Religion 101

By Rusty Wright

Would you pass this quiz?

America is full of religious people, but Americans know surprisingly little about religion.  In fact, many atheists and agnostics know more about world faiths than do believers.

So concluded a recent Pew Research Center survey on religious knowledge in America.  For instance, Pew’s quiz revealed that only about half of Americans know that Martin Luther inspired the Reformation, that the Koran is the Islamic holy book, or that the Jewish Sabbath starts on Friday.

Atheists and agnostics scored highest on Pew’s Religious Knowledge Survey, followed by Jews and Mormons.

Bible reading makes atheists?

Atheists were quick to comment.  American Atheists president Dave Silverman – banner carrier for founder Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s legacy – believes religious knowledge helps advance atheism.  “I gave a Bible to my daughter,” he told the New York Times.  “That’s how you make atheists.”

However, Mormons and Evangelicals scored highest on Pew’s questions about Christianity and the Bible.

Pew says nearly 60 percent of Americans claim religion is “very important” to them and about 40 percent say they attend worship services weekly.  But the survey found “that large numbers of Americans are uninformed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions – including their own.”

Forty-five percent of Catholics were unaware their church teaches that the Communion bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ.  43 percent of Jews did not know that Maimonides, a revered rabbi, was Jewish.

Only about a quarter of Americans know that most Indonesians are Muslim.  Less than half know the Dalai Lama is Buddhist.


Is this beginning to sound like Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” interviews?

On the positive side, 82 percent know Mother Teresa was Catholic.  85 percent realize an atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in God.  71 percent know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

Whew.  I guess lots of Americans still follow news, listen in class, or pay attention to Christmas carols.

I flunked, too

I can identify with folks who flub questions about their own faith.  I joined a Christian church as a youth, drifted away in secondary school, but still thought I knew a lot.

As a university student, I found I flunked a basic biblical question:  How does someone become a Christian?


Like many of my compatriots, I thought it was by believing in God, attending church, living a good life, helping other people, trying my best.  God was like Santa Claus: rewarding the good, punishing the bad.  I hadn’t committed murder.  I was born in America.  I wasn’t Jewish.  I must be Christian.

Some friends explained that going to church didn’t make me a Christian any more than sitting in a garage made me a car.  Establishing a personal relationship with God, through Jesus, was what would make me a Christian.  Somehow I’d missed that.

Free gift

They said if I recognized my flaws and accepted God’s offer of forgiveness through Jesus’ death, then he would totally accept me.  It wasn’t something to work for but a free gift to receive.

It almost sounded too easy, but there it was in the Bible: “God … [rescued] you by his grace when you believed.  And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God … not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.”

Guess I should have listened more closely as a kid.  Or maybe I just wasn’t ready.  Anyway, I can appreciate the religious confusion – or unwitting ignorance – that many Americans display.  And I’m glad I got that big question cleared up.

Rusty Wright is an author and lecturer who has spoken on six continents.  He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively.

Copyright © 2010 Rusty Wright

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