Quiz: What’s Your “Religious Literacy”?

THIS is Part 1 of a 2-part series on Stephen Prothero’s “Religious Literacy.” Here’s Part 2.

“As for the sacred Scriptures, or Bibles of mankind, who in this town can tell me even their titles?”
wrote Henry David Thoreau in the 1850s.

In America, religion is miles wide and a quarter inch deep,” pollster George Gallup Jr. liked to say in the 1980s.

“The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind,
” evangelical historian Nark Noll wrote in the 1990s. 

Perhaps in America, passion and ignorance concerning religion have been such constant partners that there’s nothing much that can be done about it at this late stage in the game. But, Boston University’s chair of religious studies, Stephen Prothero, has launched a spirited campaign aimed at opening the minds of millions of American students—and adults as well.

In his book, “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t,” Prothero writes that he’s distressed over polls that show a majority of the Americans who want 10 Commandments displayed in public buildings—actually are unable to name the commandments, when asked to rattle them off.

That’s not to mention the American inability to pick up on the vast majority of the 1,300 biblical references in the works of Shakespeare, or even biblical references in more recent critically acclaimed dramas, like “Pulp Fiction.” Prothero even argues that knowing a thing or two about the Bible would help Americans discern more of President George W. Bush’s remarks.

In our Part 2, a Conversation With Stephen Prothero, he’ll speak for himself. But before we get too full of ourselves: Wait a minute! Let’s test what we know, OK? Here are 10 of the questions that Prothero asks his incoming students each year—knowing full well that a majority of his students will fail this test. Try to answer all 10—then, read further to see the correct answers.

You can order a copy of “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t” from Amazon.

10 Questions from Religious Literacy by Stephen Prothero

1.) Name the 4 Gospels.

2.) Where in the Bible can one find: “God helps those who help themselves”?

3.) What is the Golden Rule?

4.) What are the first five books of the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Old Testament?

5.) President George W. Bush spoke in his first inaugural address about responsibility along the Jericho Road. What Bible story was he invoking?

6.) Where in the Bible can one find: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God”?

7.) List as many of the 4 Noble Truths of Buddhism as you can.

8.) What are the seven sacraments of the Catholic church, the largest Christian denomination in the world?

9.) What are the two religion clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution?

10.) What is Ramadan?


1.) Matthew, Mark, Luke, John.

2.) Nowhere. It’s not in the Bible.

3.) Treat others as you wish to be treated. (Matthew 7:12) (Prothero points out that “Love your neighbor as yourself is not the Golden Rule.”)

4.) Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.

5.) The story of the Good Samaritan.

6.) Jesus said it in the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5:3)

7.) Here are the 4: Life is suffering. Suffering has an origin. Suffering can be overcome. The path to overcoming suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path.

8.) Baptism. Eucharist/Mass/Holy Communion. Reconciliation/Confession/Penance. Confirmation. Marriage. Holy Orders. Anointing of the Sick/Last Rites. (Various names are acceptable for several of the seven sacraments, Prothero says.)

9.) Clause 1: “Congress shall make no law restricting an establishment of religion …” Clause 2: “… or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

10.) The Muslim month of fasting that celebrates the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. (Prothero says it’s enough to know it’s a Muslim month of fasting -– but still many students get this wrong each year.)

How’d you do?

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