So Many Gods, So Little Time

The majority believes. They’re just not that interested in the details.


Stephanie Glaros

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Americans have deeply held personal religious beliefs, but a recent survey shows that many of them don’t exactly possess a kingdom of knowledge about religion in general. In fact, atheists and agnostics, along with Jews and Mormons, handily outscored Christians on many questions about religion in a survey conducted in May and June 2010 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The widely trumpeted proficiency of atheists and agnostics was just one in a string of eyebrow-raising findings from the survey, which posed 32 multiple-choice questions such as When does the Jewish Sabbath begin? What is Ramadan? and Where, according to the Bible, was Jesus born?

The mainstream media covered the poll’s overall findings, but after the initial splash the story passed with very little comment. Parsing the findings again, some notable trends emerged:

Vishnu who? Fewer than half of Americans know the Dalai Lama is Buddhist, only 38 percent correctly associate Vishnu and Shiva with Hinduism, and only about a quarter know that most Indonesians are Muslims.

Church and state confusion. Nine out of ten people correctly affirm that U.S. Supreme Court rulings do not allow teachers to lead public school classes in prayer—the question most often answered correctly on the survey. But beyond this, things go downhill fast. One of the questions people most often got wrong is whether public school teachers are permitted to read from the Bible as an example of literature. Two-thirds of respondents said no, even though the Supreme Court has ruled that the Bible may be taught for its “literary and historic” qualities as part of a secular curriculum. Only 36 percent of respondents knew that comparative religion classes may be taught in public schools.

Because the Bible tells me so. Thirty-seven percent of Americans say they read the Bible or other holy scriptures at least once a week outside of church. But Americans in general are much less inclined to read other books about religion. Nearly half (48 percent) of religious people say they seldom or never read non-scriptural books or visit websites about their own religion, and 70 percent say they seldom or never read books or visit websites about other religions.

Higher learning, higher power. College graduates get nearly eight more questions right, on average, than do people with less education. Those who have taken a religion course in college tend to know their religion facts better.

The upshot of all of this, it seems, is that religious righteousness is not always backed up by scholarship, and the two may in fact have an inverse relationship. At the very least, it may make believers think twice before tangling with an atheist over a particular Bible passage.

Some Christian media commentators responded to their overall lackluster performance by pointing out that members of minority religious groups are of course more likely to know about the dominant religion than vice versa—and while this is true, others were chastened.

“The real shame here isn’t that non-Christians know our tradition almost as well as we do,” wrote Steve Thorngate on the Christian Century website. “It’s that we know so little about others.”


To take a Pew Forum mini-quiz on your religious knowledge, go to 

jan-feb-2011-cover-thumbnailThis article first appeared in the January-February 2011 issue of Utne Reader.