Religious Knowledge Slipping Among Americans, Pew Finds

WASHINGTON (CN) – Do you have a working definition of Rosh Hashanah? Could you pick the holy text of Hindus out of a lineup?

If you said Jewish New Year for the first, and have no problem differentiating your Vedas from your Mahayana Sutras, you would be in the minority of a survey out Tuesday from the Pew Research Center. The survey, taken in February of about 11,000 U.S. adults, asked 32 multiple choice questions about various religions. The average American answered only 14 — less than half — correctly.

While 42% of U.S. adults (42%) know that the Sikh religion generally requires male adherents to wear a turban in public, about 1 in 5 incorrectly chose Islam or Hinduism in response to this question. Buddhism was selected by 3%, and another 1 in 5 said they were unsure of the correct answer.

Predictably, those who study religion often or attended religious school tended to score better on the quiz. However, non-Christians with little religious background also did well, in some cases scoring better than certain Christian sects.

Among the highest-scoring demographics of the survey are Jews (18.7 questions answered correctly), atheists (17.9 questions) and evangelical Protestants (15.5 questions), outperforming Catholics (14 questions), Mormons (13.9 questions), and those who describe their religion as “nothing in particular.”

Members of historically black Protestant churches scored the worst (with nearly half of them getting eight or fewer questions correct, and only 15 getting at least 25 questions correct).

As compared with the results of a similar Pew survey from 2010, several demographics demonstrated a substantially lower understanding of religions than they did a decade ago.

In that poll, atheists and agnostics answered nearly 21 out of 32 questions about religion correctly, and Jews and Mormons each answered about 20 questions correctly. White evangelical Protestants answered about 17.6 questions correctly in the 2010 survey.

When it comes to questions strictly about the Bible and Christianity, evangelical Protestants and atheists generally score the same on average (9.3 questions out of 14 for the former, 8.6 for the latter), with Mormons coming in a close third (8.5 questions), this year’s survey finds.

Jews score the highest on questions about other religions, hitting on 7.7 questions on average, while atheists answer about 6.1 questions correctly.

Becka Alper, a Pew research associate, said the survey shows most Americans have a baseline knowledge about Christianity and Islam, but not so much about Judaism or Buddhism. That baseline knowledge goes up the more education a person has, she said, and the more personal connections that person has to members of a particular faith.

Alper added she could not make an apples-to-apples comparison of the 2010 survey with this recent survey, since the earlier survey included some different questions and was done over the phone, while this survey was done online.

Basic tenets of Christianity seem to be well-understood: 8 in 19 Americans correctly answered that Easter represents the resurrection of Jesus, and that the Holy Trinity represents The Father, The Son and the Holy Spirit.

Islam is less understood, with 6 in 10 knowing that Ramadan is the holy month in that religion, and that Mecca is its holiest city and a required place of pilgrimage.

Most do not know basic facts about Judaism, however, with just 3 in 10 answering correctly that the Jewish sabbath begins Friday night and 1 in 8 recognizing Maimonides as a crucial figure in the faith.

Americans score less well regarding Buddhism and Hindusim, as well. Only 1 in 5 Americans know that the “truth of suffering” is one of Buddhism’s four “noble truths;” (this reporter answered 14 out of 15 questions correctly in Pew’s mini-quiz but got this question wrong).

Only about 15% could identify the Vedas as a Hindu text, and 24% were able to describe Rosh Hashanah correctly.

The survey also says individuals who knew members of a particular faith generally had a more positive and inclusive view of that religion, including people’s view of atheists. The same generally applied to people knowledgable about a religion and their view of that religion.

That doesn’t seem to apply, however, to people’s attitudes toward evangelical Christians. Survey takers who answered at least 25 questions correctly rated evangelicals more coolly than those who got fewer questions correct.

“We know from previous work that this could be related to politics,” Alper said, noting that evangelical Protestants are overwhelmingly Republican. “We’ve known for a while that party affiliation and religious identity are strongly linked.”

The survey, which had a margin of error of 1.5 percentage points, included a smattering of questions about various faiths but focused mainly on Christianity. Fourteen of the 32 questions concerned the Bible and Christianity, with four questions about Judaism, two each about Islam and Hindus, one each about Buddhism and Sikhism, and two about atheism and agnosticism.

It also asked several nonspecific questions about religion, including what the U.S. Constitution says about religion and federal officials (only 27%  answered correctly that no religious test is required for holding federal office).

Religious demographics in the United States have changed over the last few decades, though the country still remains a largely Christian nation. A 2018 Gallup poll found that almost three-quarters of the country is Christian (Protestant, Catholic or Mormon). Jews represent only 2% of the U.S. population, according to Gallup, with Muslims less than half that amount.

The number of “nones,” or those who do not claim any religious identity, is about 18% of the population, according to that poll.

Similar research from the Public Religion Research Institute has found that white Christians represent less than half the American public, while the youngest Americans tend to be non-Christian.

Experts say the Islamic faith has been the fastest-growing in recent years with the nonreligious population increasing as well.

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