Pew survey reveals basic ignorance of Christian belief

Gary Bates and Lita Sanders

Photo stock.xchng Empty church

Can you name the four Gospels in order? If you can, you’re doing better than the over-half of Americans who can’t—only 45% of the participants in the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey1 could. They surveyed Protestant and Catholic Christians, Mormons, Jews, and atheists/agnostics to measure rudimentary religious knowledge among those groups. This included rudimentary questions about Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Mormonism, and Eastern religions.

The average Christian respondent to the survey answered 16 out of 32 questions correctly, including 6 out of 12 questions pertaining to Christianity. White evangelicals were the most knowledgeable group, answering 7.3 questions correctly, but still not measuring up to the Mormons, who could answer 7.9 questions. For instance, only ¼ of white evangelicals knew that Protestants uniquely teach that salvation is by faith alone (somewhat of a mistake—the actual teaching is by grace through faith—Ephesians 2:8–9).

The good news is that the media hype about this survey is somewhat overblown—no group really scored very well on this survey. The bad news is that religious knowledge in general, including knowledge of one’s own religion, is abysmal. This includes ignorance of some very basic teachings, and as such, it is obviously a major contributor to the decline of Christianity as the dominant or prevailing worldview that it once was in most Western countries. This is simply because as a church—as individuals—we are not addressing the questions that the culture is asking. If one asks street evangelists, for example, what are the major reasons people reject the Christian faith, most will advise that in the ensuing conversations that follow, it ultimately can be boiled down to doubts about the authority of Scripture. In short, most people don’t believe the Bible to be authoritative; they believe that it contains errors; and evolution, which causes most of them to reject the Bible’s account of origins, is where the doubts start.

What is the church supposed to do for its people?

This indicates that among other things, the church simply isn’t teaching its members basic knowledge about the Bible and Christian doctrine. Forget about complicated topics such as the Trinity as three hypostases, one ousia;2 most can’t even articulate very basic, different views of communion and soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). The average churchgoer may well be completely ignorant of people like Job and even Abraham and Moses who should be Sunday School staples. This is more clear evidence that the entertainment-driven programs of many churches are clearly not producing people who can articulate even the most basic tenets of their faith, or who know the Bible.

Some churches try to fill pews with people who are simply seeking a spiritual experience to fill the God-shaped void in their lives. But this is not the function of the church. The Great Commission commands us to make disciples of others, who then go out and spread their faith to others. Evangelism is the function of the individual believer, while the function of the church is to feed believers and equip them to go out. How can this occur when many denominations have capitulated, compromised and don’t even accept Genesis as real history? Church becomes merely a club or something that someone does on the weekend to make one feel good about oneself. That is certainly the case when one considers the intellectual vacuum left by the seeker-sensitive and emergent church ‘isms’—as even some of the seeker-sensitive church leaders have now realized—see A Major Rethink on Church Growth.

⅔ of Americans incorrectly believe that it is illegal to teach a class in comparative religions, and ¾ don’t know that a teacher can use readings from the Bible for their historical or literary value.

And when people don’t know about their faith, this means that they don’t share their faith, and they are much less confident when it comes to defending it. Can a person even properly be called a believer if there is this much ignorance about what the content of that belief is supposed to be? A person is much more likely to compromise if they are ignorant of important information about their faith. Conversely, when one is confident about what one believes, then one is more likely to be motivated to share it with others. Is it any surprise then that biblical creationists are often recognized as being more outspoken and confident, and more knowledgeable about Scripture in general—even by those who do not share the ‘young-earth’ position? This is because the major doubts that many others have about the truth of God’s Word have been answered for biblical creationists due to their exposure to creation information. They are no longer hoodwinked by a secular worldview that presents evolution as commonly understood ‘science’. Thus they also are more motivated to learn about the Bible, since they believe its history right from the beginning.

The attacks on the faith today probably come from no greater area than the area of secular science, which leaves many in the pews confused about what parts of the Bible to believe. This demonstrates how foundational the creation/evolution issue is to what people believe. It could be correctly described as the ‘issues of all issues’ facing the church if it is to correctly communicate the reliability of God’s Word. If the first book of the Bible cannot be trusted then naturally one cannot be confident where the truth actually begins in Scripture.

Another finding of the survey which has evangelistic implications is Christians’ general ignorance of other religions. When Christians are ignorant of the beliefs of other faiths, they are less effective when evangelizing those people. Someone who is conversant with the basic beliefs of other faiths will be able to interact with people of those faiths more effectively. Just as importantly, when Christians are ignorant of both their beliefs and the beliefs of other faiths, it becomes much harder for them to differentiate what is unique about Christianity, and what makes it different from Islam, Hinduism, and the rest of the world’s religions and cults. Let’s use the analogy of a battle or a war—as the Bible often does. One would not just engage the opposition without first gaining some idea of what you were up against. To enter into such a battle without that important information would be suicidal.

The church has the answers if it has the courage to address the questions

While the church has not always had answers to the evolutionary juggernaut that has challenged the authority of the Bible, there is no longer any excuse for Christians not to be able to defend their faith in this vital area. As Christians, today we have more information and evidence to support the Bible’s history than in any time in the Church’s own history. But so many in the church are not aware that these answers exist, or they do not understand the importance of the information for creation. Can you see then that the church is actually committing intellectual suicide by not providing answers and saying, effectively, “Just believe.”? This is not an adequate response to a society where ‘science’ is viewed as having the ultimate answers to—well—everything!

If Christianity dies in America it will not be for a lack of evidence of its truthfulness. It will be for a lack of dissemination of the evidence of its truthfulness.—Mike Adams

One revealing aspect of the survey is that most Americans think that US law places tighter restrictions on faith in the public schools than it actually does. Most know that a public school teacher cannot lead a class in prayer. But ⅔ incorrectly believe that it is illegal to teach a class in comparative religions, and ¾ don’t know that a teacher can use readings from the Bible for their historical or literary value. This shows that Americans have been so conditioned by the media and constant reports of ACLU lawsuits, etc, that they have been fooled into thinking that nearly any mention of Christianity in public schools is forbidden. Other surveys have shown that there is widespread misunderstanding about how schoolchildren are allowed to express their faith (there is in reality no prohibition on students’ expression of faith, as it falls under freedom of speech; students are allowed to pray, wear clothing with religious messages, read religious literature, etc. as long as it is not disruptive. See What rights do public school students have?). The legal obstacles (perceived and actual) to expressing faith in government institutions, including schools, make people less comfortable discussing religion in general.

Conversely, many churches are afraid to discuss controversial issues for fear of losing their tax-exempt status; what churches are allowed to talk about while retaining their tax-exempt status is also widely misunderstood. Pastors are also afraid of offending people and losing numbers. First, if that is their motivation, they would refuse to allow Jesus to preach, because thousands left Him after some hard sayings (John 6:66). Second, it is simply a fallacy to believe that by avoiding the tough questions or controversial issues one is less likely to offend and therefore keep the pews full. The reality is, one is more likely to view the church as irrelevant and out of touch with the questions people are asking if we don’t address them. Dealing with issues is actually part of the equipping process for Christians. CMI speakers can testify time and again to the impact of showing people, for example, that Genesis can be trusted as real history. This ‘impact’ feedback mainly occurs in churches, with Christians, which demonstrates that Christians by and large don’t have the answers. This is especially apparent in Q&A times after talks by CMI speakers, where the audience finds that nearly all their vexing questions are covered in our Creation Answers Book.

The reason equipping, teaching and evangelism is so important for Christians is so that we can go out and make disciples of others. When hearts change, we’ll see lives change, and if enough change, then we will see society change.

Christians, first and foremost, need to learn the foundational truths about their faith. This includes a basic knowledge of the contents of the Bible and how the Bible’s teachings have been systematized into a framework of doctrine by various branches of the Christian faith over history. We also need a greater emphasis on the Bible as something worth learning about—people aren’t motivated to study something that is increasingly viewed as a religious alternative to Grimm’s Fairy Tales. While not the only factor, increasingly downplaying the function and status of Scripture as the Word of God logically means that fewer people will be interested in studying it.

Sadly, our experience shows that when one asks a wider Christian audience where they think the Gospel begins in Scripture, most answer “The New Testament”. But of course the whole of Scripture really proclaims the gospel—from Genesis to Revelation as it gives the big picture of the Fall/Redemption/Restoration framework. CMI aims to educate the church about the foundational history in Genesis which underlies the rest of the Bible’s history and doctrine. The first eleven chapters of Genesis are either history, or they are simply a myth that the Jews plagiarized from other cultures for their own purposes. If it is the latter, then the rest of the Bible simply makes no sense.

This survey, however, actually reveals opportunities. The ‘spiritual’ ignorance about faith was not limited to Christians. Christianity has the answers because it is the correct and true history of the universe. If the church could simply embark on teaching and equipping believers with the basic information they need to defend their faith, then, once again, Christianity could become the great force it once was in shaping Western thought and social structure. As criminology professor Dr Mike Adams says:

If Christianity dies in America it will not be for a lack of evidence of its truthfulness. It will be for a lack of dissemination of the evidence of its truthfulness.

One cannot impose Christian morality, for example, on hearts that are not conditioned to receive it, though it is possible to impose it outwardly, with laws against murder and theft, for example. The reason equipping, teaching and evangelism is so important for Christians is so that we can go out and make disciples of others. When hearts change, we’ll see lives change, and if enough change, then we will see society change.

When one views the Bible as a reliable account of how God has intervened throughout history to bring about His plan of salvation, and a collection of timeless teachings for His people, studying it, sharing it with others, and defending it suddenly takes on a new importance.

Published: 2 November 2010


  1. “US Religious Knowledge Survey” Pew Forum 28 http://pewforum.org/Other-Beliefs-and-Practices/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey.aspx, September 2010, accessed 30 September 2010. Return to text.
  2. To use Basil’s famous description of the Trinity. Loosely translated, it means “three existing beings, one essence”. The Latin formulation is more familiar: three personae in one substantia. See Gerald Bray, Creeds, Councils and Christ, Christian Focus Publications, April 1997. Return to text.

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