Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
Pope Benedict XVI gives communion to a youth as he conducts Mass in Westminster Cathedral in London on Sept. 18. A study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that nearly half of American Catholics didn't know that, according to Roman Catholic doctrine, the sacramental bread and wine literally become Christ’s body and blood.

In US, atheists know religion better than believers. Is that bad?

A new study shows that many devout Americans know less about religion than do atheists. To some observers, it suggests a shallowness of faith. To others, it is evidence that Americans know the spirit better than the letter of religion.

For a highly religious people, Americans have plenty of room to improve their knowledge of religion, according to a new survey that’s stirring debate about the health of faith in America.

The US Religious Knowledge Survey, released Tuesday from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, found atheists and agnostics know more basic facts about the Bible than either Protestants or Catholics. Among the other findings:

• 57 percent of Protestants can name the Bible’s four gospels.

• 55 percent of Catholics know their tradition teaches that sacramental bread and wine become Christ’s body and blood.

• 15 percent of white evangelicals know Jonathan Edwards participated in the First Great Awakening.

Take Pew's religious quiz: Are you smarter than an atheist?

Based on a May-June survey of more than 3,400 American adults, these findings point to a dearth of religious knowledge in a country where nearly 6 in 10 adults say religion is “very important” in their lives.

“If you can’t even name the four books that tell us about [Jesus'] teachings and way of life, then you’re in big trouble,” said Fuller Seminary President Richard Mouw. “You don’t know who Jesus is if you don’t even know Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”

Not all Christian educators are worried, however. Wilhelmina Jenkins, an Atlanta physicist, says people are hungry for knowledge of history and other religions in the adult Bible study class she leads at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Atlanta. She says facts are helpful, but “academic” questions – such as those asked in the Pew survey – don’t reveal much about a person’s understanding of his/her faith tradition.

“I don’t think this [survey] got to the heart of what most people know about their own religious experience,” Ms. Jenkins said. “It was a very academic view of religion. [But] If you asked people, ‘What’s the fundamental bottom line in Christianity?’ Most people would tell you, ‘Jesus said to love God and love your neighbor.’ I don’t think most people would have any trouble knowing that.”

This Pew survey comes as Americans consider questions of religious identity and religious freedom in light of a proposed mosque near ground zero in Manhattan. Mr. Mouw argues that meaningful dialogue between Christians and Muslims will prove elusive, despite good intentions, unless people come to master the basics of their own faith traditions – and become at least familiar with the other’s.

“Terminal niceness will not get us through this,” said Mouw, author of "Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World." “We need to deal with what’s in the books.”

Other scholars, however, aren’t convinced that knowledge of religious traditions is essential to building interfaith bridges. While such information is helpful, it’s not as key a factor in fostering tolerant views as having a close personal connection with someone of a different faith, according to David Campbell, co-author of "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us."

Whatever the implications, the survey highlights how Americans often don’t feel tightly bound by one religious tradition or another as they carve out their own belief systems. While Mouw sees this giving rise to “vague spirituality,” others fear that faith practitioners might lose respect if lack of knowledge comes to be seen as lack of seriousness about religion.

“Your knowledge of something tells you how seriously you take it,” said Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. “If a person is devout, then I ought to respect that devotion and not mock it, to take it seriously. But if the knowledge base of that devotion is as shallow as it seems, then is the respect earned?”

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