What Americans Know About Religion — And What They Don’t

Poll of the week

The Pew Research Center asked Americans 32 multiple-choice questions about religion and spirituality earlier this year. The quiz — which you can still take — included questions such as, “What is commemorated on Easter Sunday?” (The choices for responses were ascension, crucifixion, Last Supper and, the correct response, resurrection.) Nearly 11,000 people answered the questions, and Pew released the results this week.

Here’s what Pew found:

  1. Many Americans know some basic facts about major religions and belief systems — and not just Christianity. Seventy-nine percent of respondents knew that, in Christianity, the Trinity is one God in three persons (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) and that Moses led the Exodus of Israelites from Egypt, a tenet of both Christianity and Judaism. Sixty-two percent of respondents knew that Mecca is Islam’s holiest city and a place of pilgrimage, while 60 percent knew that Ramadan is an Islamic holy month. Atheism (87 percent correctly described it as not believing in God) is better understood than agnosticism (61 percent answered correctly that it means being unsure of the existence of God).
  2. It gets murky for people outside of the basics. Respondents really struggled with some questions. For example, only 24 percent answered correctly that Rosh Hashanah celebrates the Jewish New Year, similar to the number (26 percent) who knew that Islam is the religion of most people in Indonesia. Even some Christian doctrines and facts are not that well-known — despite it being the faith of about 70 percent of Americans. Only 51 percent correctly said that Jesus is the person known for giving the “Sermon on the Mount,” a number I thought was low considering that’s a fairly important event in Christianity. (The other possible answers were Peter, Paul and John.) And just 22 percent of Americans could describe the “prosperity gospel,” which is generally associated with evangelical Christians. (Pew defined it as the tenet that “those of strong faith will be blessed by God with financial success and good health.”)
  3. Americans really don’t know the number of Jewish and Muslim people living in the U.S. According to Pew Research estimates, about 2 percent of American adults are Jewish and 1 percent are Muslim. But only 26 percent of respondents answered correctly that Muslims make up less than 5 percent of the population in the U.S. And only 19 percent knew that the share of Jewish Americans is also below 5 percent. Most either thought the Muslim American and Jewish populations were each larger than 5 percent or didn’t know. But I suspect that the explanation for these inaccurate responses might not totally be about how much Americans know about these two religions but may instead be related to broader issues of innumeracy. Other research has shown that Americans have inaccurate views about the size of many demographic groups and may be particularly likely to overstate the size of groups of which they are not a part. For example, Republicans vastly overestimate the number of Democrats who are black.
  4. Some groups answered more questions correctly than others. On average, respondents answered 14 of the 32 questions correctly. But people who are Jewish (19 correct responses on average), atheist (18) and agnostic (17) scored the best.