Atheists/agnostics, Jews and Mormons scored best in a national quiz on religious knowledge, getting about 20 out of 32 questions right, according to a survey from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Mid-level performers were white evangelicals, white Catholics and white mainline Protestants, while those who said they were "nothing in particular," black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics scored lowest.
While most Americans claim religion is very important to them, "large numbers of Americans are uninformed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions -- including their own. Most people also think the constitutional restrictions on religion in public schools are stricter than they really are," according to "The U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey."
The bilingual survey interviewed 3,412 adults. Most questions were multiple choice. The average score was 16 of 32.
The highest number of people, 89 percent, knew that public school teachers can't lead classroom prayers. But only 23 percent knew that public school teachers can read from the Bible as an example of literature.
Among other high scores: 85 percent knew that atheists don't believe in God, 82 percent knew that Mother Teresa was Catholic and 71 percent knew that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
About half knew that the Quran is the Islamic holy book, that Joseph Smith was Mormon and that the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday. Less than one-third knew that most people in Indonesia are Muslim or that salvation through faith alone is a classic Protestant doctrine. The worst score was on whether the medieval theologian Maimonides was Jewish, Catholic, Buddhist, Hindu or Mormon. Just 8 percent of the public -- but 57 percent of Jews -- knew he was Jewish.
The survey was inspired by Stephen Prothero's 2007 book, "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- and Doesn't." Dr. Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University, was an adviser on the survey.
"We have a weird kind of Christianity in America if Christians don't even know what Christianity is," he said.
Religious ignorance hobbles politics and foreign policy because so many movements are rooted in faith, he said.
Americans keep asking for Muslims "who don't believe that there is a fundamental clash of civilizations between Christianity and Islam, who want to bring Islam into the modern world and who are as opposed to terrorism as everyone in the U.S. is," he said. "There are 200 million of them in Indonesia. But we don't know that because we think Indonesia is a Buddhist country."
Scores were tied to education. Those with a graduate degree averaged 22 questions right while high school drop-outs got 11.
"Education is the most powerful predictor in shaping people's overall level of religious knowledge," said Greg Smith, the senior researcher.
But even when education was removed as a factor, atheists/agnostics, Jews and Mormons still finished on top. The same analysis found mainline Protestants, Catholics and the "nothing in particulars" at the bottom.
Most people answered at least half the seven Bible questions correctly. Mormons and white evangelicals scored highest with six and five right answers, respectively.
There weren't enough Muslims in the study to score their results, but Americans know more about Islam than Buddhism or Hinduism. Still, just 52 percent knew Ramadan was the Islamic holy month.
Atheists/agnostics and Jews topped the scores because they did best on questions about religions other than Christianity.
David Balint, a past officer of the nontheistic Center for Inquiry in Pittsburgh, attributed that to the process of becoming a nonbeliever.
"We've taken time to examine the claims those religions and spiritual entities have talked about. But we reject them," he said.
Evan Stoddard, a Mormon bishop and associate dean of Duquesne University's McAnulty School of Liberal Arts, said that Mormons are encouraged to study the Bible and the Book of Mormon from the age of 18 months on up.
When he joins missionaries on home visits, he sees a contrast with those raised as Mormons.
"They don't know the most basic Bible stories. For the most part they don't think about religious matters. Often their personal ideas about God, the purpose of life, salvation and so forth do not fit in the least with the teachings of their professed churches, about which they know very little," he said.
The Rev. David Poecking, director of the office of continuing education for clergy of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, said the survey confirms the Catholic church's own findings that many adult Catholics are ill-informed about doctrine. Just 55 percent of Catholics knew the church teaches that consecrated bread and wine is the actual body and blood of Jesus. Most of the rest thought the communion elements were symbols.
"We've discovered that it's hard to learn the intangibles of faith without first learning the tangibles," he said, citing diocesan efforts to raise knowledge.
The full survey findings are at www.pewforum.org.
Ann Rodgers: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416.