Friday, April 20, 2012

Religious illiteracy

How much do you know about Christianity and other world religions? Test yourself on the questions below.

I've recently come across this 2010 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which surveyed 3,412 people, asking them 32 questions (most multiple choice) about some fairly basic pieces of religious knowledge. These were not difficult questions. Although they did not ask "Is the Pope Catholic?", they came pretty close.

Incredibly, the average score was 16 out of 32, with self-identified Christians scoring notably worse than atheists and agnostics. Only 8 people (0.002%) got all 32 questions correct. Since most of the questions were multiple choice, even guessing every answer would lead to an average score of 9.05 correct, yet one in seven did not even rise this high.

Now, it might be easy (particularly if we happen to have studied in this area for some time) to do the quiz and feel pretty smug about our general knowledge of basic religious concepts and figures. Or to laugh at the failure of most Christians in the US to be able to answer even basic questions about Christianity, being soundly beaten by atheists. But the point is that this survey actually has significant implications for how the church thinks about its mission. Yes, it was done in the US (and there were four questions specific to the US context asking about the the Constitution and Supreme Court rulings), but I'm unsure that Australians (for instance) would necessarily score much higher.

We're not (on the whole) surrounded by people who have tried Christianity and found it wanting, but by people who simply don't know what it is, apart perhaps from a few media-derived stereotypes. And this probably includes many of the people in the pews next to us.

Here are the questions, arranged under various themes and slightly abbreviated. Precise wording is available here. The ordering of the multiple choice answers varied.
  1. What is the first book of the Bible? (Open-ended)
  2. What are the names of the first four books of the New Testament, that is, the four Gospels? (Open-ended)
  3. Where, according to the Bible, was Jesus born? Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth or Jericho?
  4. Which of these is NOT in the Ten Commandments? Do unto others…, no adultery, no stealing, keep Sabbath?
  5. Which figure is associated with remaining obedient to God despite suffering? Job, Elijah, Moses or Abraham?
  6. Which figure is associated with leading the exodus from Egypt? Moses, Job, Elijah or Abraham?
  7. Which figure is associated with willingness to sacrifice his son for God? Abraham, Job, Moses or Elijah?

    Elements of Christianity
  8. What is Catholic teaching about bread and wine in Communion? They become body and blood, or are symbols?
  9. Which group traditionally teaches that salvation is through faith alone? Protestants, Catholics, both or neither?
  10. Was Mother Teresa Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu or Mormon?
  11. What is the name of the person whose writings and actions inspired the Reformation? Luther, Aquinas or Wesley?
  12. Who was a preacher during the First Great Awakening? Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney or Billy Graham?

    Elements of Judaism
  13. When does the Jewish Sabbath begin? Friday, Saturday or Sunday?
  14. Was Maimonides Jewish, Catholic, Buddhist, Hindu or Mormon?

    Elements of Mormonism
  15. When was the Mormon religion founded? After 1800, between 1200 and 1800, or before 1200 A.D.?
  16. The Book of Mormon tells of Jesus appearing to people in what area? The Americas, Middle East or Asia?
  17. Was Joseph Smith Mormon, Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist or Hindu?

    World Religions
  18. Is Ramadan the Islamic holy month, the Hindu festival of lights or a Jewish day of atonement?
  19. Do you happen to know the name of the holy book of Islam? (Open-ended)
  20. Which religion aims at nirvana, the state of being free from suffering? Buddhism, Hinduism or Islam?
  21. Is the Dalai Lama Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Catholic or Mormon?
  22. In which religion are Vishnu and Shiva central figures? Hinduism, Islam or Taoism?
  23. What is the religion of most people in India? Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim or Christian?
  24. What is the religion of most people in Pakistan? Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Christian?
  25. What is the religion of most people in Indonesia? Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Christian?
  26. Who is the king of Gods in Greek mythology? Zeus, Mars or Apollo?

    Atheism and Agnosticism
  27. Is an atheist someone who does NOT believe in God, believes in God, or is unsure whether God exists?
  28. Is an agnostic someone who is unsure whether God exists, does NOT believe in God, or believes in God?

    Religion in Public Life
  29. What does Constitution say about religion? Separation of church and state, emphasize Christianity, or nothing?
  30. According to the Supreme Court, can a public school teacher lead a class in prayer?
  31. According to the Supreme Court, can a public school teacher read from the Bible as an example of literature?
  32. According to the Supreme Court, can a public school teacher offer a class comparing the world’s religions?

The hardest question was #14, which only 8% got correct. If everyone had guessed, you'd expect at least 20% would have got it. The easiest was #30, which admittedly only had two options, yet 89% were able to answer correctly.


Anonymous said...

Byron, thanks for this. It makes me want to work up a survey/quiz to use as an evangelistic tool (especially for baptism preparation), to help people realize that they don't have all the answers.

Alan Wood

Anthony Douglas said...

Fascinating. I'm a better American Protestant than an American Protestant.

The questions in themselves are revealing - as in, the type of questions tell you a fair bit about what the surveyors think understanding should look like: 'facts', rather than comprehension. The Job question seemed the most egregious example.

Also, for a group that runs a few surveys, they seem pretty clueless about how to ask questions properly. I'm pretty sure the Supreme Court would have to admit that a teacher could lead a class in prayer, or they'd never have had the chance to make a ruling on it. Whether the court thinks it legal or not is another matter...

Anthony Douglas said...

Oh, and seriously: no analysis by age bracket??!

byron smith said...

Anthony, as an incorrigible pedant (is there any other kind?), I thought you may have noticed the link I included to the full questions, where they clearly ask "is a public school teacher permitted to...". ;-)

I don't see how the Job question is guilty of only being interested in facts rather than comprehension. Or do you simply mean that the question is phrased as a question about the beliefs of scripture readers ("most closely associated with") rather than directly asking about the content of the stories? My guess is that they take that approach in order to make it clear that they are aiming for mainstream interpretations of these stories, rather than fringe readings.

As for age, this does seem to be angle not mentioned in the online report (I wonder if there is a fuller version somewhere?). Though it's worth noting that Pew have done a number of studies focussing specifically upon age.

Toby said...

A quick note about guessing: it seems that respondents were free to admit when they didn't know something. So for Maimonides, 71% took this option. Of those who thought they had a shot, Jewish was only second to Hindu.

byron smith said...

Toby - Yes, I noticed that after I'd written the post, but since I then noticed that the interviewer was not to offer that option (only to record when it was taken), I decided not to change the post. Whether people guess or admit they don't know in a survey like this is probably quite a complex issue.