Mormons, Jews, and Atheists Know Most about Religion

A new Pew survey out today has been making the news.  It shows that Atheists/Agnostics, Jews, and Mormons have the highest religious literacy.  On the questions regarding Christianity and the Bible, Mormons scored at the top!  Among other Christians, Mormons also demonstrated the most knowledge about world religions and tied for the highest score in the category “Religion and Public Life.”  Jews and Athetists/Agnostics outscored Mormons in both categories.

I don’t know whether this makes me happy, or want to cry.

I am a supporter of religious literacy programs and think that knowledge about religion is just one of those important things to have.  I am incredibly pleased that relative to others, Mormons appear generally informed about these issues.  Yet, the bar is so low that  successfully jumping over it should elicit essentially no praise whatsoever.  Only about half of Americans can successfully identify the significance of Martin Luther, the religious affiliation of the Dalai Lama, or that the Koran is the holy book of Islam.  I mean, we are talking remedial religious knowledge here, barely anything that could pass for “literacy.”

So, I am not sure what to make of this.  What, if any, importance should we place on religious literacy as a religious community?

46 Replies to “Mormons, Jews, and Atheists Know Most about Religion”

  1. I checked out the full questionnaire and missed one. Friggin’ First Great Awakening. I should have known that one too. I went with my second guess. Always a no-no on multiple choice.

    This is a really interesting survey. I think we should place a high degree of importance n religious literacy. There’s that old saw, “if you only know one religion, you don’t know any,” and I think it’s a teensy bit hyperbolic but it really struck me. In studying other religions I certainly have come to better understand my own. How to foster such interest when there may be “weightier matters” for the global church to handle, though…

  2. I do agree that the bar is rather low, but I think this is still a significant pointer of how different religious groups approach their faith. Some religions do not focus on the historicity of their religion, rather on the things they should venerate, accomplish and have faith on. Other religions have a more mixed approach: teaching principles in a historical context of the religion, I think Mormons do this. Atheists will obviously look at the study of religion through a more diverse and objective lens, so they are bound to know much more about a wide varietty of religions than people who focus their lives on one particular faith.

    I am not surprised that Catholics scored so low since they really don’t have wide spread programs to teach about their faith as other religions. Catechism and other educational programs in the Catholic Church are very minimal compared to the better organized and rich year long programs of the sunday schools of Protestants and Mormons. Strict doctrinal teaching in the Catholic Church happens mostly around events that include ordinances. Marriages, baptisms, confirmations, etc; they all require some classes to be taken prior to the event to increase the understanding of the event.

    I was actually most surprised that Protestants scored so low. They are the ones who believe in earning a degree in order to be able to lead their congregations and they have agressive sunday school programs for their parishoners, from which the LDS sunday school tradition is derived.

    I am also well pleased that atheists and agnostics are at the top of the list (although again, like you said, the bar is low). It is proof that religion does limit the understanding of the individual about similar subjects outside their faith, and they will tend to have a more biased approach about otherh faiths.

  3. Some of the questions were hard. I didn’t know who Jonathan Edwards was. And some of the questions were a bit tricky. (i.e. is Christ’s flesh literally in the sacrament for Catholics)

  4. I wonder if Mormons’ high scores can be attributed to their Mormonism (it certainly could), or whether the cause of their relatively high religious literacy can be found elsewhere (i.e. better access to higher education more generally).

    I don’t recall learning much about other religions, religious history (outside of Mormonism), or religion’s role in public life and society growing up, although my two-year mission did bring me into close contact with and force me to learn about and grapple with others’ beliefs.

  5. And I admit some mild shock at Blair and Clark both missing the FGA/Jonathan Edwards question. I certainly don’t mean that as an insult–I’m just genuinely surprised since each of you have more than a passing interest in theology.

  6. I earned a perfect score on the test. Go, me!

    “What, if any, importance should we place on religious literacy as a religious community?”

    Do you mean a religious community as in the Mormon religious community or the religious community as in the broader religious community? I think Mormons do a pretty decent job at memorizing all the right answers, so if that’s what you mean by religious literacy then I think Mormons are all set.

    I’m not confident most Mormons really do know very much about other religions, however, since Mormonism is presented as the one true religion above all others. Although the church seems to be backing away from statements like this lately, so perhaps there’s more education about other faith traditions happening in Mormon circles beyond the obligatory C.S. Lewis readings.

  7. Some of you young’uns must not have had nightmares after your freshman humanities reading of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” I’m still shivering.

    But the real shocker for me — so much so that I’m making a bore of myself repeating it everywhere — is that only 93% of the Mormon respondents could correctly identify the religion of Joseph Smith. Um, what?

  8. Christopher, I just choked. I’ve read works by both men, I don’t know why I mixed them up. Cruddy.

    Although the church seems to be backing away from statements like this lately,

    I’ve seen this claim lately but haven’t seem anything to substantiate it anywhere. Where is this idea coming from? It is still mentioned fairly frequently. Perhaops most prominently in Henry B. Eyring’s April 2008 Conference address, “The True and Living Church.” Ensign, May 2008, 20–24.

    It was also mentioned in talks by Callister, Nelson, Packer, Tingey, Maxwell, Hales, and some others in GC over the past decade. I’m not sure how that squares with claims that the Church is moving away from the claim. Leaders might discuss it differently, emphasize it differently, but we would have to demonstrate that by looking at actual data.

    (Why does this claim come up often recently anyway?)

  9. Clark, are you pokin’ fun? That is how I honestly took #3 – tongue in cheek.

    And Ardis, the real shock is those who have lived for some time in Southeastern Idaho and have never read anything by Joseph Smith. I try to slip to them The Religious Affections.

  10. Hey, Blair – I remember an interview on NBC’s Today Show a couple of years back where the GA (or Church PR person) dodged the One True Church question and answered the Mormons believe in finding truth in all religions. I haven’t heard the One True Church belief pushed as strongly now as it was when I was growing up.

  11. ECS, I wouldn’t say that constitutes backing away at all. The finding-truths-in-all thing goes all the way back to Joseph Smith as well. Briefly looking at conference addresses it seems there isn’t a backing away.

  12. No, I was being honest. I think the literalness of the Catholic version of the Euracrist is more than a little hard to fathom for the average person. And yes, I have to admit that I didn’t know offhand who Jonathan Edwards was. The kind of theology I read is more technical philosophical arguments. I fully confess to having a fairly superficial knowledge of American Protestant history.

  13. I’ll have to find the clip, but the upshot is that Mormons used to be more vocal in proclaiming the “One True Church” approach instead of emphasizing commonalities with other religions. I haven’t heard the Catholic Church (or other churches) referred to as The Whore of All the Earth in quite some time. Thankfully.

  14. I don’t tie the apostasy rhetoric so closely with the “only true and living church” (an interesting qualifier). They can come up in tandem and are clearly related, but ramping down rhetoric doesn’t mean backing down from claims about being “only.”

  15. Christopher, as I mentioned at my blog post on the topic, knowledge about religion is pretty heavily correlated with education. Jews and Atheists and Mormons tend to be much more educated on average. So I think that explains a large part of the statistics.

    I did know about the Catholic view of the sacrament. However I bet most people don’t. (Indeed if you look at the stats even many Catholics don’t)

  16. You and I have separate lived experiences in the Church. I grew up hearing more about how the Church is unique and the only true church than I do now. That’s it.

  17. Ardis, they noted sampling issues in the footnotes for Mormons and Atheists. So I suspect one typo or misstatement would be magnified. That suggests one should use the Mormons statistics cautiously.

  18. ECS, I’m reminded of a comment in a Philip Roth novel, The character is reflecting on his upbringing, recalling that as a younger man “Newark was all of Jewry to me…”

  19. Clark, I don’t really see it as a neat trajectory, but rather fluctuating over time, each respective approach being present from nearly the beginning, though not emphasized equally.

  20. “Mormons, black Protestants and white evangelicals are the most frequent readers of materials about religion. Fully half of all Mormons (51%) and roughly three-in-ten white evangelicals (30%) and black Protestants (29%) report that they read books or go online to learn about their own religion at least once a week.”

    no doubt daily, hourly visits to the bloggernacle are what tipped the scales here.

  21. Just to speak up for Jonathan Edwards – not to hammer on Clark’s ignorance, but I think that it signals an unfortunate break between Protestant theology and what’s considered “serious” philosophy that’s nobody’s fault in particular, but is reflective of the larger course of American academia in the past hundred years. It’s hardly a stretch, I think, to put Edwards on par with Dewey in the race for greatest American philosopher. The Nature of True Virtue, the Freedom of the Will, or Religious Affections are extremely important books.

  22. “It’s hardly a stretch, I think, to put Edwards on par with Dewey in the race for greatest American philosopher. ”

    Are they racing to get the silver behind Rawls?

  23. #1 BHodges ~ I checked out the full questionnaire and missed one. Friggin’ First Great Awakening.

    I hope you didn’t answer “Billy Graham.”

    He’s old, but he’s not that old . . .

  24. I find it interesting that many times I have heard Anti’s tell me that I really don’t know what my religion believes and if I did I wouldn’t be a Mormon. This test seems to say that not only do Mormons have a good understanding of their own religion (thank you early morning seminary and 3 hour meeting schedule) but we also have a fair understanding of what other religions believe.

  25. Todd G,
    As I said, the bar in this test is extremely low. Being able to correctly identify (mostly) a very few key terms or figures doesn’t exactly constitute a “good understanding,” I don’t think.

  26. Sure, Mormons are slightly less ignorant than others. I can accept that. Though it makes me extremely sad at how little knowledge is necessary to qualify for that distinction.

  27. Chris and Matt, I thought Peirce had that race all wrapped up already. (grin)

    Funny – I’ve honestly never heard the name. And I read a lot on free will. But the nature of analytic philosophy (unlike Continental) is not really historical. You might hear Kant or the like mentioned but it’s rare pre-20th century figures beyond a few (Frege for instance) get mentioned.

  28. It looks like if you come from a religious minority community, that you have more general knowledge about many religions. The most insular communities are going to have much less interaction with many other religions. Hispanic Catholics come from areas where 90+% of the population is the same religion they are. There is much less opportunity to interact with many other religions in rural Mexico, for example.
    Education and even “gasp” correlation also contribute to Mormons high scores on Christianity.

  29. TT and others,

    How many correct answers should people have been able to give? The average was 16 out of 32, 20.6 for college graduate and 12.8 for those with a high school education or less. What should those groups have scored for this set of questions?

    Keeping in mind:

    In addition to questions about religious knowledge, the survey included nine general knowledge questions (on history, politics, science and literature) for comparison purposes. These show, for example, that about six-in-ten Americans can name the vice president of the United States (59%) and understand that lasers do not work by focusing sound waves (60%). More than seven-in-ten (72%) correctly associate Susan B. Anthony with the movement to give women the right to vote, while just 42% know that Herman Melville was the author of the novel Moby Dick.

  30. Good questions, John. (When I took that full quiz I still only missed one Q!) Here’s some stuff on literacy issues in the US:

    Here’s an article where 90+% of the people polled said it was really important to have a good grasp on history, but about half of them didn’t:

    Carl Sagan has repeatedly lamented the poor scientific understanding of us regular folk too.

    So evidently we’re not just lacking in religious knowledge.

  31. The Joseph Smith question could be read in a tricky way. “Catholic” and “Protestant” are two of the first three answers; I sat there trying to remember what denomination he had left for a while before I thought to read all the possible answers and saw “Mormon” near the bottom. I’m a screenwriter, I’m a fiancé, I’m an elementary school teacher’s kid who nonetheless has truly horrendous test-taking form…and I’m a Mormon.

  32. This was a very interesting survey. I’ve thought about why it is that Mormons scored high on it. Several ideas: 1) Many Mormons are converts have come from different religious backgrounds that might give them extra insight. 2) Many Mormons go on missions and are in contact with many people of other faiths. 3) Mormons do tend to be a little better educated than the general public. 4) As a (no-so-well-thought-of) minority religion Mormons tend to be more aware of the differences that separate Mormonism from other branches of Christianity and other world religions.

    I missed the Nirvana question–and I knew better!

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