In Theory: Scoring on the Religion Quiz

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public life this week published a short, 15-question religion quiz. The quiz is a shorter version of the "3,412 sampled adults who were asked these and other questions in the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey." The poll was conducted on landlines and cell phones, in English and Spanish, from May 19 to June 6, 2010.

This week, the In Theory writers were asked to take the quiz, the results of which would not be known to the group until publication. The writers were also asked: Was it fair? Did it ask a broad set of questions? What advantages or disadvantages do you think a quiz like this will have on readers who did poorly? Who did well?

One does not like to brag. OK, one shouldn't like to brag! But I got all 15 questions right.

I gave the same quiz to my wife, who got 11 right, and to a parishioner, who got 12 right. In general, I thought the quiz was not particularly difficult and also not particularly helpful. Just because someone does well on such a quiz doesn't make that person a better person; in fact, if he does well, he might lose all humility, and that's not good. By the same token, someone who didn't do so well on the quiz is not necessarily an evil person. Knowledge about God or religion is not the same as knowing God.

I once taught Bible at a private school in Colorado. The smartest kid in my class was probably the least religious and the most cynical about God or the idea of God. So simply testing well on the subject of religion does not mean that person is any closer to God than someone whose test score was not nearly as high. This bumper sticker sort of speaks to what I mean: "No Jesus, No Peace. Know Jesus, Know Peace."

The Rev. Clifford L "Skip" Lindeman

La Cañada Congregational Church,

La Cañada

Already a news-of-the-culture fanatic, I recently volunteered and was accepted as an In Theory respondent, so I was very interested in the results of the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.

The surprise was the fact that atheists scored higher than believers in religious knowledge, which is not mentioned in our question this week.

As an atheist, I was very tense taking the quiz, a shortened 15-question version of the full survey. With both my atheist credentials and Lutheran heritage of good education to uphold, I looked for tricks in the easy questions. Whew, I scored 100%.

The Pew Research Center's website says that it is "committed to conducting research in a manner that is impartial, open-minded and meets the highest standards of methodological integrity," so I trust the survey to be well-formulated.

Another interesting survey this year, by Gallup, shows the U.S. bucking the worldwide trend of the poorest countries being the most religious; we are more like Bangladesh than the United Kingdom in religiosity. What does it say that we also have a low level of religious knowledge? Karl Marx explained it, but that name alone is probably enough of a shock to our readers, for now.

There is no hostility in my rejection of religion, which is certainly not the worst of human inventions. Beats war for sure, or reality television , or a lot of other stuff we've come up with. The idea of God is real — who can deny a notion so widespread? I just don't buy it, personally.

I hope to add a spirit of broad inquiry to this column when appropriate, as Sharon Weisman did so ably before me.

Roberta Medford



I'm pleased to report that I got them all right.

I should, having so much religious education, but then the atheist/agnostic group was over most with its number of correct answers and I guess that says something awful about how we Christians are doing with educating the faithful.

I wasn't surprised that the educated ungodly did well, in that it takes knowledge to conclude an informed answer to the evidence, even negatively so, and those who say they just cannot draw a conclusion may have amassed a lot of investigative religious information that just hasn't been processed. I hope they continue.

I was agnostic, but stepped into faith when I realized how the facts were stacking up (notwithstanding the Holy Spirit's efforts in my reception of those facts). I don't understand how atheists can gamble eternity with such certainty.

My score ranked me in the top percentile and I guess everyone wants to be adept in their own field. If I had to take a quiz on electronics or zoology I might not fare well, but in my spiritual community, faith is ranked above vocation and all else. I suppose I expected more from it, though my particular church congregants happily ranked above average.

Evangelicals knew Moses fairly well, but not his Ten Commandments with complete certainty. It makes me wonder if we're not getting our education more from Hollywood than church. It's also telling that church attendance made no significant difference. That says to me that Sunday services are not as educational as they ought to be, and that nobody can rely on Sunday religion alone to satisfy all of their spiritual development.

Each religious group seemed to know their own stuff best, which makes sense; but in our society, it behooves Christians to know more about the beliefs of our neighbors. How else will we engage them in dialogue about true heavenly verities and save their souls?

Rev. Bryan Griem

Montrose Community Church,


I scored 12 out of 15, which is better than 87% of those surveyed. What I found most interesting were the specific statistics on my three incorrect answers.

The first question I missed was, "Which of the following best describes the Catholic teaching about the bread and wine used for Communion?" I thought they were symbols, but the correct answer is that they become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Interestingly, 53% of Hispanics claiming to be Catholic missed that question. As a Hispanic, I'm not a bit sorry I was wrong. My hopeful answer was that the Catholic religion wasn't making a ritual out of actually partaking of body and blood. The symbolism itself seemed scary and gruesome enough.

The second question I missed was correctly identifying which religion aims at nirvana, the state of being free from suffering. I picked Hinduism, but the correct answer was Buddhism. Shame on me. I should have known this and if I had taken a couple more minutes thinking, I would have reasoned it out.

The only other question I missed was, "Which one of these preachers participated in the period of religious activity known as the First Great Awakening?" Only 11% of those polled knew the correct answer was Jonathan Edwards. It turns out that, according to Wikipedia, the First Great Awakening was a religious movement in the 1730s and 1740s that resulted from powerful preaching that gave listeners a sense of personal guilt and a need of salvation by Christ. Since I have no need to live a life filled with personal guilt, nor the need to redeem myself before a judgmental God, this question is meaningless to me.

What's interesting is that I scored higher than those who claim to have a religious affiliation.

It seems odd that those of faith have less religious knowledge than I do — yet I claim no affiliation. The thing I'd most like to know is what percentage of those who don't really understand other religions or beliefs continue to judge and criticize them. There were no statistics on that.

Gary Huerta



And the score is in!

I answered 14 of 15 questions on the quiz correctly, for a score of 93%.

According to the statistics, I scored 41 points above the overall population — although I was only 28 points ahead of my Jewish brethren. One of the more fascinating results was that my (relatively high) score was 41 points ahead of those who worshipped weekly, 45 points above those who worshipped monthly, and — get this — only 44 points over those who never worshipped at all. This statistic basically tells me that worship services may provide people with a religious experience, but they do not seem to provide much educational value.

In regards to gender, there is a four-point differential between men and women, which makes my score 41 points over the average man and 45 over the typical woman — nothing significant there.

Finally, when it comes to comparing the results based on educational level, it seems that the more educated a person is, the higher they scored on the test. What a revelation! Those who had post-graduate degrees scored on average 68 points, putting me a mere 25 points ahead of them. College graduates came in at 61 points; those with some college education at 54 points; and the lowest showing of all came from those with a high-school education or less, checking in at 40 points.

Regarding the actual fairness of the quiz, I felt that it was okay, though not particularly broad. I can definitely see why people whose knowledge is limited would not do very well on a test of this sort. In addition, people who know something about their own faith but have never been exposed to other spiritual traditions — either through comparative religion studies or diverse life experience — would find this quiz very challenging.

What does all this tell me? First, that rabbis (and I assume other clergy members) probably do fairly well on religious quizzes, since our occupation is focused on that subject. I would imagine that the same would be true with other specialized professions, so that a cardiologist would ace a test on the cardiovascular system. But more importantly, this quiz demonstrates that education is central to a wholesome religious life. The more one studies, the more likely he or she is to be religiously knowledgeable — and knowledge is the key to personal and spiritual growth.

I also think that our pluralistic, diverse society can only benefit from encouraging citizens to gain a general understanding of different faiths, since the result will be greater tolerance and respect for people of all backgrounds and beliefs.

Rabbi Simcha Backman

Chabad Jewish Center,


I got 100% — 15 out of 15. Thank God, all that waitressing and bartending money I put myself through seminary with didn't go to waste. My score was better than 99% of the general public; other white mainline Protestants got 48%; other weekly church attendees got 52%; other women got 48%; and others with post-graduate education got 68%.

The question I hesitated over was the question everyone else seemed confused about, too, whether public-school teachers could teach the Bible as literature. I had taken a course called "The Bible as Literature" in college, but didn't know if the law had changed since then. I guessed right that it was still OK.

Not much surprised me about the poll results. You'd think I'd be surprised by the two groups that scored highest; but I've already been bested in my knowledge of Christianity several times by Jewish friends, and already had many intelligent arguments with atheist friends, who make it their business to "know the enemy."

The thing that most surprised (and depressed) me was what little difference it made in overall score, whether people attended church weekly (scored 52%), monthly/yearly (48%), or seldom/never (49%). The seldom/never group actually did better than the monthly/yearly! As Seth and Amy would say on "Saturday Night Live's" "Weekend Update" bit: "Really? Going to church every week gets you three points better, on a test of religious knowledge, than people who never go? Really?"

I guess we already knew that we needed to do a better job of teaching world religions; but the poll certainly motivated me to get more serious about that. Those scores were pretty dismal. In the questions on the phone poll, not included in the online test, fewer than half of Americans knew that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist. Really? And only 54% knew that the Koran is the holy book of Islam. Really, people, really?

On the upside, since only 10% of churchgoers know who Jonathan Edwards is, I can freely plagiarize his sermons. Get ready for "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," everyone!

The Rev. Amy Pringle

St. George's Episcopal Church,

La Cañada Flintridge

Pop quiz! What a fun surprise. I got 14 out of 15 (93%) correct (that's why it was fun, not publicly humiliating).

Honestly, I had seen an article about the quiz a day or two before, but I believe I answered from what I already knew. I missed the one about Pakistan's predominant religion. It's Islam, not Hinduism. Makes sense. Getting the Jonathan Edwards/Great Awakening question was probably a good guess — but it still counts!

I did better than 97% of the general public. Send your letters of congratulations to my church. Jews (65%), atheists (64%) and Mormons (61%) rocked! My fellow White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) got 54%. I should get a raise, or a promotion? Come on, WASPs! Are we preaching the word? Are we listening? Do we know the world we're trying to reach for Christ?

Those who regularly attend worship services and those who almost never did both got about 50%. If I don't show up at church I'd get in trouble. Men barely had the edge over women — so why don't more of us show up for church?

Those with post-graduate education (my peers) got 68%. That's a passing grade in most courses, but life is a one-question test: Do you personally know Jesus Christ? He won't say, "Depart from Me — you didn't study hard enough." But he will tell many people: "I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness." (Matthew 7:23) And: "Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe." (1 Corinthians 1:20-21)

The short, 15-question version isn't enough to fully test a person on such a broad subject, and it wasn't a test on one's own faith. Our wrong responses should move us to learn more about our fellow men. Our right responses are commendable, but they accomplish nothing if we don't actually preach the good news about Jesus Christ to a world that is lost without him.

Submitted by

Pastor Jon Barta

Valley Baptist Church,


So what does a 15-question quiz on religion tell us about what individuals really know about religion? I'm not sure it tells us that much. The quiz is styled to have questions spanning a number of religious traditions, as well as some general Bible questions. However, the quiz is light on actual theology.

According to the Pew Forum, atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are the highest-scoring groups on both the 15-question quiz and the actual survey itself. Some may be surprised that atheists and agnostics scored so high on a religion quiz, but I believe that may be a result of the type of questions asked — more factual and less theological.

As a society, I would assume that religious knowledge is waning as religion is becoming less important. Further, if Jay Leno's "Jay Walking" on the "Tonight Show" is any indication, America may be losing its educational edge all together.

As noted by the Pew Forum, Mormons scored relatively high on both the quiz and the survey. I think this can be attributable to several factors.

First, during their high-school years, Mormon youth attend early-morning seminary, where they have the opportunity to study the scriptures and religious concepts five days a week for 45 minutes each day.

Second, many young Mormons spend time serving church missions around the world — two years for men and 18 months for women. These missions provide them with invaluable opportunities to learn more about Christianity and other religions.

Third, Mormon families are encouraged to have daily scripture study and prayer, and to set one night a week aside for "Family Night," which consists of both religious learning and family fun.

Fourth, Sunday worship services include Sunday school, which provides lessons each week on the scriptures.

As Paul highlighted in 2 Timothy: 3:15: "And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus."

Rick Callister

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

La Cañada II Ward,

La Crescenta Stake

I did score 100% percent on the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey. Having theology and master's degrees from a seminary, I would expect to know most of these questions. In comparing my score with some other people and their level of education (not necessarily theology), I found post-graduate students to have received 68% correct; college graduates 61%; and those with no college education, 40%. As far as gender goes, women received 48% and men 52%. I fit in the white mainstream Protestant category, and that group received 48%.

So, alright, I received a score 99% better than the general population. Ministers probably would. I believe a medical doctor would receive 100% if being surveyed on medical facts. My thoughts on this quiz are that it was not so much about biblical knowledge or knowledge of one's particular religion as it was about religious knowledge in general. The survey was fair in how it touched upon general information that may be known overall by many people, but not in depth for those who have studied in higher education.

I do not believe it to be a reflection of what people know about their particular religion. Much of my own knowledge comes from formal education in theology and religions and the fact that I do this as a ministry and career. I would not want anyone — who has great faith and knowledge of their particular religion and perhaps has another career — to find it a reflection on their faith. Many have had no reason to study these topics or have not taken courses in college that would cover this information. There is no need to feel ignorant if you score low.

I believe that knowledge and being well-read are good practices to aspire to in general if it interests you. But it is not a replacement for the deep faith some have who have not had these opportunities.

The Rev. Kimberlie Zakarian

La Vie Counseling Center,


Hey, I aced it. I think that just means I have been paying attention to what my neighbors are up to, worship-wise. I suppose religious professionals should be worship geeks — if we aren't interested in how people seek ultimate meaning, then who is?

If you haven't seen the quiz, the questions are about the basic facts of world religions: "When does Jewish Sabbath begin?" and "Which religion celebrates Ramadan?" About half the respondents got those questions right. In an interfaith world, widely held knowledge about each other's holy times will at best open our ears and hearts to each other's calls to worship, and will at least help us schedule ourselves respectfully. If, for example, readers who did poorly are coaches who schedule tournaments when teenagers are fasting, they might want to brush up on their basic religious knowledge.

The overall results show that Christians in general are less aware of what everyone else is up to. I don't want to overdraw any conclusions, but this might serve as a bit of a wake-up call. When your stories and theology are dominant in the culture, there is less need to learn about your neighbors. Politicians might make metaphorical reference to Moses or David or Jesus, but they are unlikely to incorporate Krishna and Arjuna in the chariot, and we all know what happens if Muhammad is quoted. In all humility, Christians would probably do well to consider how cultural dominance shapes us as a people, and shapes our approach to life and public policy. What voices are we not hearing? What insights might we be blind to? (I know, it's a little deep for a 350-word essay.)

Moreover, for a people with a dominant story, Christians didn't do so hot on their own basic religious questions. It's a little embarrassing. What to say, except that a life of faith calls for more than the repetition of platitudes and an assumption of righteousness. It calls for worship, study, service, and community.

And it calls for humility — so that the possibility for new growth is always present.

The Rev. Paige Eaves

Crescenta Valley United Methodist Church,

La Crescenta

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