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CURRENT ISSUE:  October 18, 2010
VOL. 48, NO. 18   •   Oakland, CA
Other front page stories
Alarm over loss of Christians
Chileans unite in prayer as miners are rescued
Survey shows Catholics
have knowledge gaps

WASHINGTON (CNS) — A survey of Americans’ general religious knowledge became a national conversational blip with its revelation that atheists, agnostics and Jews know more about religion than those who are active, practicing Christians. Among Christians, only Mormons scored nearly as many correct answers.

People were quick to click onto the website for the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life to test their knowledge on 15 of the 32 questions, which asked about U.S. laws affecting religion and about key figures and beliefs of major religions.

Of those Pew surveyed this summer, at least two-thirds knew that public school teachers cannot legally lead a class in prayer; that Mother Teresa was Catholic; that Moses was the Bible figure who led the exodus from Egypt; that Jesus was born in Bethlehem; and that most people in Pakistan are Muslim.

Less than half the participants in the nationwide survey answered correctly that only Protestants, not Catholics, teach that salvation comes through faith alone, or that public school teachers are legally permitted to read from the Bible in class as an example of literature.

The survey was a first-time study of its type, so at an event where it was released Sept. 28, the authors acknowledged that there’s no way of knowing whether Americans today know more or less about religion than did prior generations.

The survey did ask nine questions intended to gauge knowledge of other subjects, including politics, science, history and literature. Overall, people got more than half of most of those questions right, falling below 50 percent correct only on questions about the author of “Moby Dick,” Herman Melville, and the subject of the Scopes trial, evolution.

Nevertheless, said Pew senior researcher Gregory Smith, “the survey clearly demonstrates that there is an awful lot of important stuff people are unfamiliar with.”

White Catholics scored about the same as the national population as a whole on the 32-question survey, getting an average of half the questions right. Hispanic Catholics came in at the bottom of the breakouts by faith group, averaging 11.6 correct answers.

Catholics didn’t do so well on a key question of Catholic theology, however. Only a little more than half — 55 percent — correctly identifying the Church teaching about transubstantiation, that the bread and wine used in Communion become the body and blood of Christ during the consecration. About 40 percent of all faiths got that question right.

Catholics also didn’t do well on the seven questions about the Bible, averaging 3.8 correct. Only 42 percent correctly identified Genesis as the first book of the Bible; 55 percent correctly picked Abraham as the biblical figure who was asked by God to sacrifice his son; 33 percent named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as the four Gospels; and 25 percent identified Job as the character who remained faithful despite great trials.

Catholics did better on other Scripture questions. On the “golden rule” question, 57 percent of Catholics got it right. Sixty-five percent of Catholics knew Moses led the exodus and 65 percent identified Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus.

Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University, said the survey found “zero correlation” to people doing better on the quiz if they have had years of religious education. Prothero, author of “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t,” helped precipitate the Pew survey with his book.

He said that the survey should raise some flags of concern for the Catholic Church, particularly when paired with the statistic that 10 percent of Americans describe themselves as ex-Catholics.

Researcher Smith said the No. 1 predictor of how well people did on the study was their level of education, with college graduates and those with higher degrees averaging more than 20 of the 32 questions right. Those who took some kind of a religious studies course in college did the best, averaging 22.1 questions right.

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