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Can You Pass the Religious Literacy Test?

  • Dr. James Emery White President, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
  • Updated Mar 26, 2007
Can You Pass the Religious Literacy Test?
Stephen Prothero, chairman of the religion department of Boston University, has written a new book titled Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t.  For the last two years, Prothero has administered a fifteen-question quiz he gives his undergraduate students - one which they consistently fail.

Game to give it a try?

Here’s the test (answers below):

Directions:  Tally your points and multiply by two to get your score out of 100.

1 point each:

  • Name the Four Gospels.

1 point:

  • Name a sacred text of Hinduism.

1 point:

  • What is the name of the holy book of Islam?

1 point:

  • Where, according to the Bible, was Jesus born?

1 point:

  • President George W. Bush spoke in his first inaugural address of the Jericho road.  What Bible story was he invoking?

1 point each:

  • What are the first five books of the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Old Testament?

1 point:

  • What is the Golden Rule?

2 points:

  • “God helps those who help themselves.”  Is this in the Bible?  If so, where?

2 points:

  • “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.”  Does this appear in the Bible?

10 points:

  • Name the Ten Commandments.

4 points:

  • Name the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.

7 points:

  • What are the Seven Sacraments of Catholicism?

1 point each:

  • The First Amendment says two things about religion, each in its own “clause.”  What are its two religion clauses?

2 points:

  • What is Ramadan?  In what religion is it celebrated?

7 points:

  • Match the Bible characters with the stories in which they appear.  Some characters may be matched with more than one story or vice versa.  Characters:  Adam and Eve, Noah, Paul, Moses, Jesus, Abraham, Serpent.  Stories:  Exodus, Binding of Isaac, Olive Branch, Garden of Eden, Parting of the Red Sea, Road to Damascus, Garden of Gethsemane.

Prothero argues, and rightly so, that everyone needs to grasp Bible basics, as well as the core beliefs, stories, symbols and heroes of other faiths.  In a commentary for the Los Angeles Times, titled “We Live in the Land of Biblical Idiots,” Prothero (who grew up Episcopalian and now calls himself a spiritually “confused Christian”) maintains that biblical illiteracy is not just a religious problem.  It is a civic problem with political consequences.  “How can citizens participate in biblically inflected debates on abortion, capital punishment or the environment without knowing something about the Bible?… an entire generation of Americans is growing up almost entirely ignorant of the most influential book in world history, unable to understand the 1,300 biblical allusions in Shakespeare, [or] the scriptural oratory of President Lincoln and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr..”

Such admonishments are hardly new.  In the late 1980’s, E.D. Hirsch burst onto the scene with his idea of “cultural literacy,” which detailed the importance of having a core of background knowledge for functional literacy and effective national communication, much of it including religion.  In my own A Mind for God, I argue for the importance of foundational biblical, historical, and theological literacy, and the importance of churches serving the pursuit of such literacy.

As Winston Churchill presciently stated in his address to Harvard University in 1943, “The empires of the future will be empires of the mind.” Alister McGrath, reflecting on Churchill’s address, notes that Churchill’s point was that a great transition was taking place in Western culture with immense implications for all who live in it. The powers of the new world would not be nation-states, as with empires past, but ideologies. It would now be ideas, not nations, which would captivate and conquer in the future. The starting point for the conquest of the world would now be the human mind. Adds John Stott, “We may talk of ‘conquering’ the world for Christ.  But what sort of ‘conquest’ do we mean?  Not a victory by force of arms... This is a battle of ideas.” 

Prothero’s challenge is a call to learn about those ideas.

So how did you score?

James Emery White (Ph.D.) is president and professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Prior to becoming president of Gordon-Conwell, Dr. White was the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. James Emery White is the author of over a dozen books, including such Gold Medallion nominees as Serious Times and A Search for the Spiritual, Christianity Today book-of-the-year award winner Embracing the Mysterious God, as well as The Prayer God Longs For and Rethinking the Church


Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (HarperSanFrancisco, 2007).

“We live in the land of biblical idiots,” Stephen Prothero, March 14, 2007, (,1,3102398.story).

“Americans get an ‘F’ in religion” by Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA Today (

E.D. Hirsch, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.

Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism (New York: Doubleday, 2004), p. xi.

John R.W. Stott, Your Mind Matters (IVP).

Answers to the Test:

*Matthew, Mark, Luke, John

*Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads, Puranas, Mahabharata, Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana, Yoga Sutras, Laws of Manu, or Kama Sutra



*Good Samaritan

*Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy

*”Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Mt. 7:12)  Or a similar statement from Rabbi Hillel or Confucius.  “Love your neighbor as yourself” is not the Golden Rule.

*No, this is not in the Bible.  In fact, it is contradicted in Proverbs 28:26.  “He who trusts in himself is a fool.”  The words are Ben Franklin’s.

*Yes, in the Beatitudes of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5:3).

*No other gods before me; you shall not make yourself a graven image; you shall not take the name of the Lord in vain; remember the Sabbath and keep it holy; honor your father and mother; you shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor; you shall not covet.

*Life is suffering; suffering has an origin; suffering can be overcome (nirvana); the path to overcoming suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path.

*baptism, eucharist/mass, reconciliation/confession/penance, confirmation, marriage, holy orders, anointing of the sick/last rites

*”Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”; the words before the comma are the Establishment Clause, the words that follow are the Free Exercise Clause.

*Ramadan is a Muslim holiday characterized by a month of fasting.

*Adam and Eve + Garden of Eden; Serpent + Garden of Eden; Abraham + Binding of Isaac; Moses + Exodus/Parting of the Red Sea; Noah + Olive Branch; Jesus + Garden of Gethsemane; Paul + Road to Damascus.