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Atheists and agnostics know more about major world religions than many people of faith, while Mormons can answer more Bible questions than their Catholic and mainline Protestant counterparts.
Those are among the somewhat startling conclusions about religious literacy in America the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life drew after surveying 3,412 Americans.
Some of the multiple-choice questions were relatively simple: Where was Jesus born and who led the exodus from Egypt? What religion was Mother Teresa, what day does the Jewish Sabbath begin and what is the name of Islam's holy book?
Others were more obscure: What is Indonesia's dominant religion? Which Christians teach that salvation comes through faith alone?
About half the Protestants (53 percent) couldn't correctly identify Martin Luther as the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation. Fewer than half of Americans (47 percent) knew the Dalai Lama is Buddhist and only 38 percent correctly associated Vishnu and Shiva with Hinduism.
John Morehead, director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies in Salt Lake City, had already noted religious illiteracy in the general population as well as in the evangelical community. But he did not expect Mormons to top them in their biblical fluency.
"Mormons tend to emphasize Mormon scriptures like the Book of Mormon rather than the Bible in their devotional life," Morehead said in an e-mail.
Even some LDS scholars were surprised to find Mormons at the top.
"We don't study the Bible as much as evangelical Protestants," said Jim Faulkner, Richard L. Evens chairman of religious understanding at Brigham Young University. "I would have guessed that evangelicals would do better [than us]. They have a lot of Bible study classes, some weekly."
Atheists and agnostics, however, felt vindicated by Pew's findings.
"I am pleased to see a survey that shows we are not just ignoramuses who don't believe [in God] out of anger," said Florien "Flo" Wineriter, Humanists of Utah board member. "I am very interested in the history of religion."
Richard Andrews, president of the Salt Lake Valley Atheists, agrees.
"I didn't grow up a Muslim, but I know the difference between the Shiites and the Sunnis," Andrews said. "It doesn't require knowledge to believe. But to be skeptical, you need to feed that skepticism with a little information."
Monsignor Terrence Fitzgerald, vicar general of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, was not too troubled to learn that 45 percent of U.S. Catholics did not know their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion actually become the body and blood of Christ.
"The fundamental doctrines of the Catholic faith are somewhat complicated for the minds of people who do not have a lot of theological education," Fitzgerald said. "The clergy and U.S. bishops are well aware that a good number of our people are theologically uneducated. We are constantly trying to do a better job."
While most Americans (89 percent) surveyed knew that teachers cannot offer prayers in public school classroom, only a third said reading the Bible as literature or teaching comparative religion classes is acceptable.
"I would hope in our state we'd have a little better response to that question," said David Doty, Canyons School District superintendent. "God is not off limits in the classroom, as long as it has an educational goal and not a proselytizing one."
Jodi Ide's world religions class at Brighton High School discussed the Pew survey on Tuesday. The students wondered how atheists could be so well-versed in world religions and how Mormons could score above evangelicals in their knowledge of Christianity.
But mostly, Ide said, the students were proud of their explorations.
Those who study religion "are part of a small minority of people in the country who know of other faiths," the students told her. "We are doing something about this ignorance individually and as a class."
It felt good, she said.