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What do Americans know about religion?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 28, 2010 - Until now, no one has ever set out to examine what large numbers of American know about many faith groups. Instead, for nearly a century, Americans have been surveyed about whether they believe in God and hell, how often they attend houses of worship and what they give to charity -- if they give.

The first ever survey of what Americans know about their own and others' religions is being made public this morning. On average, those surveyed gave correct answers to half of 32 questions about religions.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group did the unique study in May and early June. The 20-minute telephone poll was made in 48 states last May and June. Information will be used in an October PBS program on KETC-Channel 9 "God in America."

Many who go to their houses of worship weekly or more, and study the Bible many times a week may be surprised that atheists and agnostics are among the groups that averaged top scores on the 32 survey questions.

Atheists and agnostics clearly have intellectually explored various religions and many were often raised in religious households, Pew Forum senior researcher Greg Smith said Saturday at the Religion Newswriters Association's annual meeting in Denver. Smith will also lead a discussion on the topic today at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. His remarks and the study were embargoed until this morning.

Atheists and agnostics got an average score of 20.9 answers right. Jewish people polled averaged 20.5 answers right -- perhaps in part because there are five Hebrew Bible -- Old Testament -- questions compared to two New Testament questions. Mormons averaged 20.3 right answers.

White Evangelical Protestants came in next with an average of 17.6 right answers. However, they outscored all other groups for accuracy on the seven Bible questions.

Catholics got an average of 16 answers right -- which was the average score for all respondents.

White Mainline Protestants averaged 15.8 answers right. Those who said they had no particular religion, sometimes called "the Nones," got 15.2 answers right. Black Protestants averaged 13.4 correct answers. Hispanic Catholics got 11.6 correct answers.

The survey interviewed 3,412 Americans by phone in English or Spanish, as appropriate, by land lines and cell phones. Random calls were made to 88,117 phones in 48 continental states.

Muslims were questioned but their answers were not pulled out as a group because statistically -- much like Greek, Russian, Serbian Orthodox Christians -- they represent such a small percentage of the poll, Smith said.

Of those who completed the survey, 48 percent were male and 52 percent were female. Men averaged one more correct answer than women. Across the U.S., most regions did about the same except in the South where scores were lower, Smith said.

Scores of those married to someone of a different faith group averaged one more answer right than those married to someone of the same faith group. That's a different faith group as defined by the Pew survey -- Methodists married to Episcopalians would both be considered the same faith group -- Mainline Protestant. However, a Methodist married to a Southern Baptist would be considered different faith groups -- respectively Mainline Protestants and Evangelical Protestants.

Educational attainment is the most powerful predictor of correct religious knowledge on the survey, Smith said.

Overall however, those with the highest level of commitment to their faith got higher scores than those without commitment or just medium commitment. That may sound contradictory to those atheists' scores, Smith said, but the atheist/agnostic group is a "small group" over all.

It is no surprise that those who were raised in one faith group and now are in another averaged about one more correct answer in the poll than those who remained in the same faith group all their life. Those who were born in our religiously diverse country got nearly three more correct answers than those who were immigrants.

Conventional wisdom seems to say that politically conservative people would have an edge over liberals. Even noting that religious knowledge is different from religious sensitivity, the results may make pundits think twice. Liberals averaged more than one half a question correct than conservatives.

When sorted for age, those between 30 and 64 got the best scores. The young -- between 18 and 29 - got slightly higher scores (less than a half a question better) than their elders who are 65 and older.

The slightly higher score for the youngest group over those over 65 does not surprise Beth Damsgaard-Rodriguez, executive director of the 25-year old Interfaith Partnership/Faith Beyond Walls of Metropolitan St. Louis.

"Today from kindergarten, kids ask about each other and include religion, they are comfortable asking," she said. "It's OK."

The over-65 generations were more likely to have grown up in a neighborhood and gone to public schools where most everyone shared the same faith, she said. Her grandparents and parents grew up in Chicago where one neighborhood was Swedish, another was Italian, another German and it was taboo to ask others about their religion."

The Pew Forum's survey was made up of questions considered as important about various religions and not meant to be trivial, Smith said. However, they were not to be a canon of essential information, he said.

The questions included identifying the Greek mythological god Zeus and answering whether the federal courts have ruled that teachers can read the Bible as literature in public schools. Most incorrectly said that public school teachers could not read the Bible as literature to students.

Smith noted great variation in the awareness of historic Christian leaders. About 82 percent of those polled knew that Mother Teresa of Calcutta was a Catholic, including 90 percent of Catholics. About 71 percent answered that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Others selected Nazareth or Jerusalem in that multiple choice question.

Smith was surprised that only 46 percent of those polled knew that Martin Luther inspired the Protestant Reformation, and just one in 10 Americans could identify Jonathan Edwards -- sometimes called America's greatest Protestant theologian - as the preacher of the Great Awakening in the Colonial period.

More than half of all surveyed said incorrectly that Catholics believe that the bread and wine at Mass symbolize Jesus' body and blood. Even 41 percent of Catholics did not say that Catholic theologians teach that the bread and wine actually become Jesus' body and blood.

That's just one of the examples that showed that people of various faiths don't know things about their own religion, too.

"I think that people don't even know what they don't know about their own religion until they have to get beyond their familiar buzz words and explain those words to people of other faiths," Damsgaard-Rodriguez said. "Explain, for example, what it means that Jesus is their personal savior or that there are three persons in the Trinity."

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer who has covered religion for many years. 

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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