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U.S. religious knowledge survey


The United States is often characterized as among the most religious, and religiously diverse, nations in the world. Yet the depth of Americans’ understanding of both the content of religion and its dynamics with government and society has not been broadly assessed.

In September 2010, the Pew Research Center published the “U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey,” taken by more than 3,400 people. The 32-question survey examined knowledge on religious history, teachings of major religions, religious leaders, Scriptures, global religions and the role of religion in American public life.

The survey’s major findings include:

  • Formal education was associated with higher correct responses: those with only a high school diploma got 13.7 questions right on average, compared to 20 for those with bachelor’s degrees.
  • Self-identified political alignment had little impact on average score: 16.7 on average for liberals; 16.6 for conservatives; and 16.2 for moderates.
  • Holding all other factors constant, atheists and agnostics scored higher than any other religious affiliation, with an average score of 20.9 correct answers.
  • Jews and Mormons placed in a close second and third place, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively.
  • The question most frequently answered correctly was whether or not U.S. Supreme Court rulings allow teachers to lead public school classes in prayer. Nine in ten (89%) correctly said this is not allowed.
  • The question most frequently answered incorrectly was whether or not public school teachers are permitted to read from the Bible as an example of literature. Two-thirds (67%) incorrectly said this is not allowed.
  • Six of every ten respondents (62%) know that Hinduism is the predominant religion of India. About half know that Ramadan is the Islamic holy month (52%) and can name the Koran as the Muslim holy book (54%).
  • Approximately half of Protestants (53%) were unable to identify Martin Luther as the person responsible for inspiring the Protestant Reformation.

Tags: religion

    Writer: | Last updated: September 28, 2010

    Citation: "U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey", The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, September, 2010, PDF.

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    Analysis assignments

    Read the Pew Research Center report "U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey."

    1. Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
    2. Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
    3. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)

    Read the study-related Christian Science Monitor article titled "In U.S., Atheists Know Religion Better Than Believers. Is That Bad?"

    1. Reporter's use of the study: Evaluate what the reporter chose to include and exclude from the study. Would the audience have acquired a clear understanding of the study's findings and limits from this article?
    2. Reporter's use of other material: Assess the material in the article that is not derived from the study. (for example: Does the reporter place the study in the context of other research and to what effect? Does the reporter include reactions to the study from other researchers or interested parties [e.g., political groups business leaders, or community members] and are their credentials or possible biases made clear?)

    Newswriting assignments

    1. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
    4. Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.