DENVER - Dave Silverman was poring over the results of the latest survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and smiling broadly.
"I am a very happy person," said Mr. Silverman, president of the American Atheists Inc., at the group's booth at the Religion Newswriters Association's annual conference here last week.
The reason: Data showed atheists and agnostics know more about religion than do most Americans. Of the quiz's 32 questions, atheists and agnostics, on average, answered 20.9 of them correctly. Right behind were Jews, answering an average of 20.5 questions correctly, and Mormons, with 20.3 correct answers.
Other groups, in descending order of correct answers, were:
•White evangelical Protestants, 17.6
•White Catholics, 16.0
•White mainline Protestants, 15.8
•Nothing in particular, 15.2
•Black Protestant, 13.4
•Hispanic Catholic, 11.6
Overall, Americans got exactly half the answers right, with an average score of 16 out of 32.
Mr. Silverman saw it as a chance to pat fellow atheists on the back. "When it comes to criticism of religion, we know what we're talking about," he said. "Atheists often reach their conclusions about the universe by examining the claims of religion and then finding these claims to be wanting."
Greg Smith, a Pew Forum senior researcher, previewed the survey results for journalists at the RNA conference.
Debra Mason, journalism professor at the University of Missouri and director of the Center on Religion and the Professions, said the lack of religious knowledge is a factor in recent religious conflicts such as the controversy over proposed mosques in New York and Tennessee and a Florida pastor's threat to burn Qur'ans.
"The more you know about religion, the less likely you will be swayed by misinformation, and right now many people are being swayed," she said. "We are in an era in which conflict about religion in the public sphere is at an extreme level."
Mr. Smith said education was the single most important factor in predicting religious knowledge, with college graduates averaging eight more correct answers than people with a high school education or less - 20.6 to 12.8.
Other factors linked to religious knowledge included reading Scripture at least once a week, talking about religion with family and friends, and higher levels of religious commitment (people who said they attend religious services at least once a week and who said religion is very important in their lives).
The multiple-choice questions were intended to address a broad knowledge of religious knowledge rather than the most essential facts about religions or religious trivia, the researchers said.
Among the questions asked were: "What was Mother Teresa's religion?" (Catholic); "What was Joseph Smith's religion?" (Mormon); "What religion do most people in Pakistan consider themselves?" (Muslim), and "Which Bible figure is most closely associated with remaining obedient to God despite suffering?" (Job).
Only 2 percent of those surveyed answered 29 or more questions correctly, and only 8 of 3,412 respondents scored a perfect 32.
About 70 percent of those polled knew the Constitution bans the government from establishing an official religion or interfering with the free exercise of religion, and 89 percent of those surveyed correctly said a teacher cannot lead a class in prayer.
But the survey revealed some misperceptions about religion and the Constitution; Mr. Smith said that 23 percent wrongly thought the Constitution forbids teachers from reading from the Bible as an example of literature.
"People assume that restrictions on religion in school are much more tighter than is actually the case," Mr. Smith said.
Many religious groups scored poorly on questions about their own faith.
Forty five percent of Catholics polled, for example, did not know that the church says the bread and wine in Communion become the body and blood of Jesus, and 43 percent of Jews did not identify Maimonides, a venerated 12th century rabbi, as Jewish.
The survey, the first on the topic by the independent Pew Forum, was based on phone interviews in English and Spanish with 3,412 adults from May 19-June 6, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percent. There were not enough Muslims, Buddhists, or Hindus polled to list them in separate categories, although their answers were included in the overall population.
Survey results and the 32-question poll are available online at pewforum.org.
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Dave Silverman was poring over the results of the latest survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and smiling broadly.