Religious knowledge in the United States


Part of the US religious landscape. Clockwise from top left: Evangelical Protestant, Mainline Protestant, Jewish, Catholic, Other Christian, Other

Readers of this blog know that I really love social statistics, and among the masters of that field are the people at Pew Forum. Back in 2010, they ran an interesting survey of religious knowledge. A simple 15-question version of the survey can be found online [if you want to try it, do so now, since this post has spoilers]. A total of 3,412 adults were interviewed (in English and Spanish). The focus of the survey was on the religious knowledge of different religious groups in the United States:

I was a little frustrated with the survey, since it mixed religion, history, and politics, with questions at quite different levels – ranging from “Where was Jesus born?” (multiple choice: Bethlehem, Jericho, Jerusalem, or Nazareth) to “What religion was Maimonides?” There was, however, an interesting subset of five easy questions about the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), which Christians and Jews have in common, and I decided to do my own analysis of these questions:

  1. What is the first book of the Bible? (Genesis/Bereishit)
  2. Which of the following is NOT one of the Ten Commandments? (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you)
  3. Which Bible figure is most closely associated with remaining obedient to God despite suffering? (Job)
  4. Which Bible figure is most closely associated with leading the exodus from Egypt? (Moses)
  5. Which Bible figure is most closely associated with willingness to sacrifice his son for God? (Abraham)

Since these questions are closely related and of similar difficulty, it makes sense to add them together. Notice also that Pew’s interviewers were instructed to accept both English and Hebrew answers to (a). The last four questions were multiple-choice, with “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not steal,” and “Keep the Sabbath holy” the other options for (b), and with Job, Elijah, Moses, and Abraham the options for (c) to (e). I would expect a bright child in Sunday School to get 5 out of 5 on these questions, and just guessing should average around 1 out of 5.


Which Bible figure is most closely associated with leading the exodus from Egypt?

Answers to these questions in fact depended quite substantially on education level, and this complicates analysis, because average education level in the US itself varies between religious groups. I coded education numerically as follows:

  • Level 0: No High School (grades 1 to 8)
  • Level 1: Partial High School (grades 9 to 11)
  • Level 2: High School graduate
  • Level 3: High School Plus: technical, trade, vocational, or college education after High School, but less than a 4-year college degree
  • Level 4: College (university) graduate with 4-year degree
  • Level 5: Post-graduate training

The chart below shows the 11 religious groups I looked at, and their average (mean) education level. Note that Jews are the best-educated (presumably for cultural reasons), followed by Atheists/Agnostics (possibly because many people in the US become Atheists/Agnostics while at university). The lowest average education levels were for Other Protestants (which includes Black Protestants) and for Hispanic Catholics. Each coloured bar has an “error range,” which is the 95% confidence interval (calculated using bootstrapping). Religious groups with overlapping error ranges can’t really be distinguished statistically:

I “chunked” these education levels into two groups: less-educated (0 to 2, everything up to a High School diploma) and more-educated (3 to 5, everything beyond a High School diploma, be it trade school or a PhD). The chart below shows the average number of correct answers for the five questions, by religious group / education group combination. Each religious group has two coloured bars, the first (marked with +) being for the more-educated subgroup, and the second for the less-educated subgroup:

The more-educated group gets more questions right (on average, 3.4 compared to 2.3), and within both education groups, there is a similar ordering of religious groups:

  • Mormons do best (4.5 or 3.4 questions right, depending on education subgroup).
  • White Evangelical Protestants come next (4.0 or 3.1). Both Mormons and Evangelicals put great weight on Bible study, so this makes sense.
  • Then comes a group of three with similar results: Jews, Other Protestants (including Black Protestants), and Atheists/Agnostics. Orthodox Jews put great weight on studying the Torah, but many Jews in the US are in fact fairly secular. More interesting is the high score for Atheists and Agnostics – they do seem to have some knowledge of the beliefs they are rejecting (Atheists and Agnostics also scored highest on the complete survey).
  • Then comes a group of five: Other Christians, Unknown/Other, White (non-Hispanic) Catholics, White Mainline Protestants, and Unaffiliated (“nothing in particular”). Notice that White Mainline Protestants (ABCUSA, UMC, ELCA, PCUSA, UCC, RCA, Episcopal, etc.) get about one question less right (3.1 or 2.1) than their Evangelical counterparts, reflecting less of an emphasis on the Bible in mainline denominations.
  • The lowest scores were for Hispanic Catholics (2.7 or 1.5 questions right, depending on education subgroup). Given that guessing gives an average score of 1, this suggests that many Hispanic Catholics in the US have a rather tenuous link to their faith (many of them appear to strengthen this connection by becoming Protestants).

Thus if the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is a religious meeting place, it is a meeting place between Mormons, Evangelical Protestants, Jews, and (ironically) Atheists and Agnostics.

It is also interesting to see what happens when we add two simple questions about the New Testament – “Where was Jesus born?” and “Tell me the names of the first four books of the New Testament of the Bible, that is the Four Gospels?” Not surprisingly, Jews now do worse, since the New Testament applies specifically to Christianity. Atheists and Agnostics also do a little worse – apparently they know a little less about the New Testament than about the Old. In spite of the interviews being conducted in English and Spanish, Hispanic Catholics continued to do poorly, with less-educated Jews and Hispanic Catholics providing the wrong answer to “Where was Jesus born?” more than half the time.


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