Who is the first person who comes to mind when you think of Judaism? Catholicism? Evangelicals?
When researchers asked a group of Americans this question, the answers were often surprising — and disappointing to those who value religious literacy.
The pope was most linked to Catholicism, with nearly 50 percent of those surveyed associating him with the faith. But for Judaism, the person most identified with it was Jesus, the central figure in Christianity, named in 1 in 5 responses.
The survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center, reflects Americans’ limited knowledge of major religions, scholars say. “As an American community, we aren’t particularly well versed in others’ religions,’’ said Jeanne Halgren Kilde, director of the Religious Studies program at the University of Minnesota.
“It points to the whole question of religion literacy, which has been of concern to people like myself,’’ she said.
The Buddha was the best-known figure associated with the six religions in question, with 55% of respondents identifying him as a figure in Buddhism.
The pope came in second, with 47% recognizing him as a key figure in Catholicism.
Evangelical Protestants had a bit of an identity problem. More than two-thirds of respondents couldn’t name anyone.
Twenty-one percent chose the late Rev. Billy Graham as its figurehead. Next came 5% for Jesus and Martin Luther, who launched the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago.
Naming someone linked to Islam also proved challenging, with 57% not answering. The prophet Muhammad received the most mentions, with 26%, followed by “God/gods,” 9/11 spearhead Osama bin Laden and heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali.
Naming an atheist was the most difficult.
Three-quarters of respondents couldn’t name anyone. But 10% referred to a nameless “family/friend,” with Satan placing second.
As for Jesus being the top figure associated with Jews, followed accurately by the historical figure of Moses, Halgren Kilde said there might be a logical explanation. Some Christian denominations are exploring the history of their faith, she said, including the fact that Jesus was Jewish.
It also could simply mean that respondents had little knowledge of the Jewish faith.
The survey was based on the responses of 10,971 people during February 2019.
While answers ranged from historical figures to contemporary leaders, they did share something in common.
“They’re all male,” Halgren Kilde said. “We still think of religious celebrity in those terms.”