Mormons Know More About Religion Than Protestants or Catholics

I just read this article about how a survey shows that “Americans don’t know much about religion.” The article goes on to say that “atheists, agnostics, Jews, and Mormons outperformed Protestants and Roman Catholics.”

Really? Mormons know more about religion in general than Protestants and Catholics? Like tell me something I don’t know.

Believing Protestants in particular (i.e. usually Evangelicals) often live in a self inflicted world of ignorance when it comes to other religions. I did note that they at least performed well on questions about Christianity, though Mormons still beat them out.

At least the case for Catholics is more understandable because we’re often dealing with many marginal believers – people that attend on Christmas and Easter but have little other connection to their own religion. It’s not that shocking that they don’t know about a more esoteric doctrine like transubstantiation.

On the other hand, I was a bit shocked that atheists and agnostics performed best of all overall, except for on the subject of Christianity. My personal experience with atheists are that they suffer from the same self inflicted ignorance that Evangelicals do, but for all religions instead of just ‘other religions.’ And my experience with agnostics is that they are agnostic because they just don’t have interest in religion, so I would not have expected them to have a lot of general religious knowledge.

This survey suggests that I’m probably bumping into a heuristics problem. This is particularly easy to believe for atheists because the vocal ones are the ones I’m going to notice and they tend to be the more ignorant ones. The silent ones are probably the majority and probably a lot more knowledgeable about religion in general, often being raised in a religion and having done some real soul searching at some point.

Interestingly, the three predictors of religious knowledge mentioned in teh news article were, get this:

  1. Education (nothing shocking there)
  2. Church attendance
  3. Atheism or agnosticism

This might suggest that best performers in general religious knowledge were highly educated church goers that no longer believed in their religion. Perhaps this isn’t that shocking after all. You’d, for example, expect an ex-believing, but still practicing, Christians to explore other religions and thus become more knowledgeable overall.

29 thoughts on “Mormons Know More About Religion Than Protestants or Catholics

  1. I took the sample test and scored 15 of 15. Three of the questions made me pause before answering; most of the rest were rudimentary, Schoolhouse Rock intros to various world religions.

    And yet the average score is 50% or so. Unbelievable.

  2. Boo Ya!

    Actually, the atheist thing makes sense to me because most atheists I know are obsessed with religion. Hence they are motivated to study it thoroughly. Sort of like anti-mormons. I’m not trying to be mean, just point out that many seem obsessed.

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  4. I don’t understand how so many people could miss the answers to these questions. Except of course for the fact that I went to a pretty good university and didn’t read the Bible until I was 35 and was thinking of converting to a religion. So perhaps the truth is that it isn’t that uncommon at all to go through your life being completely ignorant of religion, even if you are relatively educated.

  5. I think that this is one of the fruits of correlation that is to be expected. We are repeatedly instructed on the basic gospel principles as taught in the scriptures. The golden rule, the 10 commandments, Job and Moses, are all heavily emphasized in lessons, sacrament meeting, general conference, etc.
    We are not just proof-texting when the scriptures are discussed. I am sure that some friends of mine are a little disturbed that the Mormons show the best bible knowledge of any group.

  6. Several comments within your post are terribly problematic, Bruce, from gross (and insulting) overgeneralizations (“Evangelicals live in a self inflicted world of ignorance when it comes to other religions”) to odd conflations (“Believing Protestants … (i.e. Evangelicals)”) to an ignorance of the multiple other factors at play (class, race, education level, etc.–all of which the full report on the survey engages).

    Finally, I’d just caution you in your delight as a Latter-day Saint at the survey’s results (you too, Joseph Smidt). These results are really nothing to glory in. As Geoff notes, these questions were fairly simple, and just because Mormons scored higher than others does not mean Mormons scored high. The issue at hand is one of relative ignorance, not relative knowledge.

  7. Christopher,

    Two things:

    1. The Boo ya! comment was just having fun. It’s not like I think we’ve now entered the millennial conditions.

    2. “these questions were fairly simple”

    I somewhat disagree. They are easy for you because you are, from what I can tell, a fairly-well educated LDS person. *But that is the point*, the LDS community is knowledgeable enough that questions like this are basic to us. When you are in the “smart” group it is easy to think questions hard for everyone else are easy to answer.

    We did significantly better than most groups. Humans are similar enough that to do significantly better means we must be doing something that is making a difference. This makes me happy.

    3. But alas, I’m sure no matter what good the LDS people accomplish in whatever category someone will always say it isn’t good enough or isn’t something we should be happy about.

  8. Christopher,

    Three things:

    1. The Boo ya! comment was just having fun. It’s not like I think we’ve now entered the millennial conditions.

    2. “these questions were fairly simple”

    I somewhat disagree. They are easy for you because you are, from what I can tell, a fairly-well educated LDS person. *But that is the point*, the LDS community is knowledgeable enough that questions like this are basic to us. When you are in the “smart” group it is easy to think questions hard for everyone else are easy to answer.

    We did significantly better than most groups. Humans are similar enough that to do significantly better means we must be doing something that is making a difference. This makes me happy.

    3. But alas, I’m sure no matter what good the LDS people accomplish in whatever category someone will always say it isn’t good enough or isn’t something we should be happy about.

  9. Christopher has a point. I imagine those who sought out the test and took it did very well, regardless of affiliation; it’s a self-selecting group that must have at least some confidence/competence to want to take the test.

    And as someone who does very well at Jeopardy while sitting at home, but who didn’t pass muster at a Jeopardy audition…I can’t say I’d have done as well if approached to take the test. Different stresses when you are approached.

  10. Christopher,

    I appreciate your comments and I even clarified what I meant due to your feedback via insertion of two words.

    But you are wrong about the education factor. The article specifically says “The top-performing groups on the survey still came out ahead even when controlling for how much schooling they had completed.”

    I am going to respectfully agree to disagree with you on Evangelical Christians. I think the evidence that they intentionally and systematically encourage ignorance towards other religions is overwhelming. My personal experience directly matches Lloyd Averill’s scholarship on this subject.

    “As Geoff notes, these questions were fairly simple, and just because Mormons scored higher than others does not mean Mormons scored high. The issue at hand is one of relative ignorance, not relative knowledge.”

    A comment like this leave me with the impression that the thing you most want out of this is to make sure that no Mormon takes even a small amount of satisfation out of having scored slightly higher on the average.

    Sorry, but I’m going to savor our extremely minor and utterly unimportant victory over your objection.

  11. Jim W says: “I imagine those who sought out the test and took it did very well, regardless of affiliation;”

    Actually the whole point was that most groups did really poorly. Arguably, all groups did if you think the questions are really obvious.

    Of course we’re comparing apples and oranges. The quiz that matches the survey *is* self selecting, so presumably most of us will now do well on it. (Especially after reading the article that gives away some of the answers.)

  12. Bruce – My main issue has nothing to do with the survey but with what I take to be your mischaracterizations of the word ‘evangelical.’

    First, Lloyd Averill’s book (also, Lloyd Averill’s book? really? of all the work on evangelicalism out there you pick a minor twenty year old study to cite? Assuming, of course, you’re talking about his book on evangelicalism rather than the 35 year old Christian Century article you might have found on Google) is about fundamentalism, and lesson 1 here is that fundamentalism is not the same thing as evangelicalism. Fundamentalism is one of dozens of small manifestations of evangelicalism which often gets read as representative of the whole thing, simply because fundamentalists tend to be odd enough to attract disproportionate and hostile media attention (sort of like the Mormons). But within evangelicalism there’s also, say, the emerging church (tattooed young hippie types who play the guitar in church), the house church movement (middle-class families), pentecostalism, neo-evangelicals (well educated and theologically sophisticated), high church evangelical Anglicanism, the black churches, and the high liberal evangelical tradition. Evangelicalism is simply too diverse to refer to as a “they,” unless you think you can encompass Martin Luther King, Francis Collins, and Sarah Palin in the same generalization.

    Secondly, even if I took “evangelical” to mean what you seem to mean by the term, theologically conservative, white, and so on, I’ll invite you to visit the campuses of, to pull three off the top of my head, Oberlin, Drew, and Westminster College in Salt Lake City, all of which were founded by evangelicals. Or Calvin College, Wheaton College, and any number of other schools that are self consciously evangelical today and weirdly have decent scholarly reputations. Then you can read George Marsden’s work on modern evangelicalism and higher education, Mark Noll’s work on evangelical intellectual history, the sociology of Nancy Ammerman and Stephen Warner and Susan Harding on evangelical education, lifestyles and worldviews, and the work of James KA Smith or John Witvliet, two quite well educated evangelical philosophers.

    Once you’ve done all that, then you can tell me that “evangelicals encourage ignorance.” Heavens.

    Now, to be sure, this is not to say that there is no strain of anti-intellectualism within evangelicalism; several of its strands, particularly the fundamentalists, do cling to that. But it is to say that using this as proof that evangelicalism in general encourages ignorance is like pointing at Warren Jeffs and saying Mormons practice polygamy.

  13. All these comments about how the survey shows Americans are as dumb as a bag of rocks when it comes to religion are a bit much, especial coming from graduate students studying topics related to religion. Haven’t any of you kept in touch with old pals from high school who didn’t go to college, maybe didn’t even finish high school? Don’t you home teach some people from the left half of the bell curve? The histogram Pew put up of the number of correct responses indicates that the exam was pretty well calibrated to find the range of knowledge out there.

  14. But you are wrong about the education factor. The article specifically says “The top-performing groups on the survey still came out ahead even when controlling for how much schooling they had completed.”

    Bruce, I’ve read the full report of the Pew survey. I’m aware of the controls they used. My point was in reference to your suggestion that Catholics scored so low because they only attend church twice a year. If you look at the full report, you’ll notice that Hispanic Catholics scored much lower than their white counterparts (and for that matter, Black Protestants generally scored lower than their white counterparts, too)–race and socioeconomic status do, in fact, matter here.

    Re: Evangelicals: what Matt said. Personal anecdotes and one piece of outdated scholarship does not equal solid grounding for sweeping generalizations.

    A comment like this leave me with the impression that the thing you most want out of this is to make sure that no Mormon takes even a small amount of satisfation out of having scored slightly higher on the average.

    Perhaps unsurprisingly in light of your other mistakes, misreads, and insulting overgeneralizations, you’ve also misinterpreted me. My point was to point out that Mormons’ actual score was the equivalent of a D-, and that instead of celebrating it may be worthwhile to consider the function of religious literacy in our community and how we can work to improve it. That you find religious literacy “extremely minor and utterly unimportant” speaks volumes.

  15. We should also take into account the fact that one of the questions was about Joseph Smith, which makes it a real gimme for Mormons.

    Given that the difference in performance on this test between Mormons and other Christians is only a few percentage points, it is possible that our scores would be just as bad as everybody else’s if we didn’t have this freebie.

  16. Maybe Mormons’ high score on knowledge of Christianity is more proof that we aren’t Christians, since atheists scored the highest on knowledge of religion overall.

  17. And, frankly, what difference does it make if someone knows who Jonathan Edwards was? I do, but I suspect that my wife doesn’t. Does that make me a better Mormon than she is? Or than all the members of the Spanish language wards in our stake?–I’m willing to bet that not a single one of them knows who he was.

  18. Bruce writes, “Interestingly, the three predictors of religious knowledge mentioned in teh news article were, get this: 1. Education (nothing shocking there) 2. Church attendance 3. Atheism or agnosticism. This might suggest that best performers in general religious knowledge were highly educated church goers that no longer believed in their religion.”

    I read this differently. Note that church attendance is a higher predictor than atheism. What it says to me is that if you are a churchgoing Christian then you will know more than an atheist. Which in turn indicates that a lot of the respondents call themselves Christians but don’t go to church. Apparently these non-churchgoing “Christians” are skewing the survey results.

  19. I have to correct my prior comment after having read the survey results for myself (http://features.pewforum.org/quiz/us-religious-knowledge/?q=16). It seems that church attendance is a lower predictor than atheism/agnosticism. Regular churchgoers in general scored lower (52%) than Jews, atheists and Mormons.

    However education is the highest predictor of all. I think the survey tells us more about the average educational level of these different groups than anything else.

  20. The more I think about this test, the more I come to the conclusion that we can’t really come to any conclusions at all about it.

  21. Christopher,

    I know in our past we’ve sort of had a ‘oneupsmanship’ approach to how we interact. But I’m going to put that behind me and ask for you to dial back on your tone too. And I’m going to lead out by taking what you say seriously and exploring it further in a respectful manner.

    First, let me clarify myself on the Catholic issue. I was not trying to say something negative about Catholics. I meant that if I were a Catholic and I read this news article, it wouldn’t concern me much. I know that religions like Mormons or Protestants are smaller and thus probably have a higher ‘activity rate’ amongst those that self identify as members of those religions. I would also know that there are many people that self identify as “Roman Catholic” even though they have little or not association with the Church. Therefore, I’d reason to myself that it just makes sense that people that took the survey that said “I’m Catholic” would probably in general score lower than people that self identified as Mormon or Protestant. I would also expect that if you controlled for those that actually go to Church and believe in their religion that you’d find that Catholics score just as well as equivalent people in other religions. (I do not know if this is true or not, but it’s my honest guess.)

    In any case, I do not see how the points you make relate to what I said. Why would race somehow affect whether or not self identifying Catholics are on average as active as other religions?

    For that matter, I do not see how the fact that race and socioeconomic class affect level of knowledge can be used to explain why Catholics scored lower than Mormons even when you break such classes down. For example, according to the report, Mormons scored an average of 20.3 while “white Catholics” still only scored 16. So I do not see what your point is — not by race, not be education, not be socioeconomic class. If you want to explain the statistically significant difference between Mormons and Catholics you can’t appeal to those categories according to the report. So my off the cuff assumption that self identifying Catholics have a higher percentage of those with marginal affiliation is probably a pretty good hypothesis worth exploring further and doesn’t deserved to be dismissed so quickly.

    As for Evangelicals, I need clarification as to what you are getting at.

    To clarify my point of view, I most certainly do perceive self-identified “Evangelical Christians” as having a significant problem with intentionally spreading misinformation about other religions to those that belong to their own. While obviously this is imbided and believed in various levels, there is a significant enough population that buys into this that it shows up in studies like this.

    What I don’t know is if you are arguing that I’m wrong – that self-indentified Evangelicals no longer on average encourage misinformation about other religions more so that any other group – or if you are aruging that I just shouldn’t say it because there are minority groups (that aren’t yet large enough to affect the averages) that this isn’t true for.

    If you mean the first, I confess I would find this incredibly difficult to believe. But I’d be honestly interested in any thing (studies, books, etc) that you want to send me towards to help me change my mind. But, heck, we’re talking about a group that even just two or three years ago had a bunch of studies done that came out showing that one third of them won’t vote for a Mormon even if the guy/girl is the most qualified candidate AND closest to to their religious political point of view. I doubt there is anything similar to this for any other religious or political group. This really doesn’t bode well for the ‘that’s old news’ theory.

    On the other hand, if you really just mean that it’s true that Evangelicals are worse in this area on average, but that there are minority groups and strains within that don’t have the problem, then I’d agree with you. But that would still mean my statement was correct.

    Contexually you act as if you are arguing the former – that you believe I’m factually wrong. But your examples all suggest that you were actually arguing the later – that I’m right, but you’d prefer I didn’t lump all Evangelical’s together on an issue like this.

  22. Oh, one other thing. Averill defines Fundamentalism by action, not by self identification. People rarely want to be called “Fundamentalist” these days because of the poor connotation.

    So a simple “Evangelicals are not Fundamentalist” response isn’t sufficient because Averil would consider a Christian that calls themselves an Evangelical to be a Fundamentalist if he/she behave in the ways negative ways he outlines. One of those defining behaviors was in fact intentionally misrepresenting other religions in “anti” style classes.

  23. Interesting that only 93% of Mormons got the What was Joseph Smith’s religion question right? Did they think it was a trick question?

  24. I know some people that are atheist and know a ton just because they have questioned their Mormon upbringing and researched it to death.

    Interesting article.

  25. Bruce writes, “So my off the cuff assumption that self identifying Catholics have a higher percentage of those with marginal affiliation is probably a pretty good hypothesis …”

    As a Catholic I agree with Bruce on this.

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