Aug 1, 2011

From the Archives

20 Years of Surveys Show Key Differences in the Faith of America’s Men and Women

It’s hardly news that men and women think and behave differently. But a new analysis of national tracking surveys conducted over a 20-year period by the Barna Group profiles specific differences between the genders in relation to 14 religious beliefs and behaviors of significance. The report is the third in a series of six that constitute the annual State of the Church report released by the Barna Group. This year’s report became public simultaneous to the release of the latest trends book by author and researcher George Barna, entitled Futurecast.

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Women and Faith
No population group among the sixty segments examined has gone through more spiritual changes in the past two decades than women. Of the 14 religious factors studied, women have experienced statistically significant changes related to 10 of them. Of those transitions, eight represent negative movement – that is, either less engagement in common religious behaviors or a shift in belief away from biblical teachings.

Five of the six religious behaviors tracked showed significant change.

  • Church attendance among women sank by 11 percentage points since 1991, declining to 44%. A majority of women no longer attend church services during a typical week.
  • Bible reading has plummeted by 10 percentage points, declining from half of all women reading the Bible during a typical week (excluding that done during church events) to just four out of ten doing so today (40%).
  • Sunday school involvement is less common among women these days, down seven points from the 24% mark noted in 1991.
  • Women have traditionally been the backbone of volunteer activity in churches. However, there has been a nine point slide in the percentage of women helping out at a church during any given week. That drop reflects a 31% reduction in the non-paid female work force at churches.
  • The only religious behavior that increased among women in the last 20 years was becoming unchurched. That rose a startling 17 percentage points – among the largest drops in church attachment identified in the research.

The only religious behavior tracked among women that stayed stable was the percentage who attended a church of 600 or more people, which has remained at 16%.

Although the core beliefs of women have undergone comparatively less turbulence, five of the eight beliefs tracked registered significant change.

  • Women are six percentage points less likely to say their religious faith is very important to them than they were in 1991. Even so, nearly two-thirds of them (63%) hold their faith in high regard.
  • When it comes to views on the devil, women are five percentage points less likely to write off Satan as merely a symbol of evil. Sixty-one-percent did so in 1991, but that has been reduced to 56% now.
  • Perceptions of the reliability of the Bible have taken a hit, as the percentage of women who firmly believe the Bible is accurate in all of the principles it teaches has declined by seven percentage points to 42%.
  • An even larger drop has occurred in the proportion of women who possess an orthodox view of God. Those who contend that God is the “the all-knowing, all-powerful and perfect Creator of the universe who still rules the world today” has slumped from 80% in 1991 to 70% today.
  • The percentage of women whose beliefs qualify them to be classified as born again Christians has risen significantly in the past 20 years. In 1991, 38% of woman said they had made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that remained important in their life, and also said they believed they would go to Heaven after they died solely because they confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Since then, the figure has increased slightly to 44%.

Men and Faith
While men have not undergone changes on as many religious indicators as women have since 1991, men experienced statistically significant shifts in relation to six of the 14 religious factors studied. Four of those transitions were behavioral while the other two were shifts in belief.

The four behavioral changes were all negative from a church’s perspective.

  • Church attendance declined by six percentage points among men, The research showed that the proportion of men who had attended a church service, other than a special event such as a wedding or funeral, during the week prior to their survey interview fell from 42% to 36%.
  • Sunday school attendance declined by eight percentage points among men since 1991. Only one out of eight men (13%) presently attends such a meeting in a typical week.
  • The percentage of men who volunteer at a church during a typical week has slipped by six percentage points since 1991 to its present level of 18%.
  • The proportion of unchurched men has grown by nine percentage points since 1991. Today an estimated 39% of all men can be deemed unchurched – that is, having not attended a church event, other than a special service such as a wedding or funeral, in the past six months.

The two religious beliefs that witnessed significant change were having a personal responsibility to share their religious views with others who believe differently (down five points, to just 23%); and firmly believing that the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches, down by ten points to only one-third of men (33%).

Among the surprises emerging from the research was the fact that despite decreases in core religious behaviors men are no less likely to read from the Bible these days than they were 20 years ago (41% in 2001, 40% in 1991). In fact, men and women are now equally likely to read the Bible during a typical week, thanks to the recent decline Bible reading among females.

There were additional changes of interest related to men and women, described along with some interpretive comments by researcher George Barna on his blog site, That site also contains his perspectives related to the State of the Church data released last week concerning the aggregate national averages on the 14 indicators, as well as differences on those measures across the generations.

On each of the next three days (August 2 – 4) Barna will release additional summaries regarding how the 14 religious factors tracked since 1991 have shifted according to people’s region, ethnicity, and religious affiliation. He will continue to provide commentary after each release on his blog site.

These Updates come shortly after the release of Barna’s newest book, Futurecast, which examines national trends in a wide array of areas including family, lifestyles, entertainment, technology, values, attitudes, demographics, and media consumption, in addition to religious beliefs and behaviors.

Additional Reading and Resources

  • To read additional commentary about these trends, and to leave your own thoughts, go to

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About the Research

The data from which the trends are drawn is based on the annual OmniPoll™ survey conducted by the Barna Group each January of 1,000 or more adults. The 1991 survey included 1,005 adults randomly selected from across the United States. The comparable 2011 survey included 1,621 randomly chosen adults. Although the Barna Group has been conducting such research since 1984, it was not until 1991 that many of the core tracking questions used by the company were developed and then followed annually.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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