Jan 29, 2002

From the Archives

American Faith is Diverse, as Shown Among Five Faith-Based Segments

The growing diversity of American culture can be clearly seen in the changing nature of people’s faith, according to a new study by the Barna Research Group of Ventura, California. Based on interviews with more than 4000 adults across the nation, the report suggests that there are at least five major and distinctive faith groups in America today – three of which are generally thought of as “Christian” but each of which is unique from the others in significant ways. The findings suggest that many Americans have developed a form of faith that is comforting but only vaguely Bible-related while the stereotypical, Bible-based Christian faith is more of an anomaly than it is typical.

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Five Religious Segments

The research released by Barna indicates that there are five discernible religious segments. Three of those are associated with the Christian faith. The smallest are the “evangelicals” – a group of individuals who believe that their relationship with Jesus Christ will provide them with eternal life, and who accept a variety of Bible teachings as accurate and authoritative. (For a full description of the methodology, see the final section of this report.) The second group are “non-evangelical born again Christians,” a segment that also believes they have eternal salvation through the grace given them by God through their personal faith in Christ, but who do not believe in various core doctrines taught in the Bible.

The third segment is one that Barna termed “notional Christians.” These are people who consider themselves to be Christian, but do not claim they know their eternal destiny (i.e., whether they will experience eternal life, eternal damnation or some other outcome) and are less likely than others to embrace core Bible doctrines. The research also identified two segments that are not affiliated with Christianity: those who have described themselves as atheistic or agnostic, and those who are affiliated with a non-Christian faith.

Evangelicals are 8% of the population; non-evangelical born again Christians are 33% and notional Christians are 44%. The atheist/agnostic group contains 8% of adults, while other faith groups have 7%. Because evangelicals are also born again, the total born again Christian population in the U.S. is currently 41%.

A Look at Evangelicals

The evangelical segment encompasses some 15 to 20 million adults in the United States. Demographically, they are more likely than most other adults to have a college degree (29%), to be married (68%), to have children under 18 living in their household (50%), and to be white (81%). They are less likely to have experienced a divorce than any of the other faith segments. They were the only segment among the five for which a majority are affiliated with the Republican Party (58%), although more than four out of ten evangelicals are not associated with the GOP. Half of the group lives in the South, and nearly half (45%) are Baby Boomers.

Attitudinally, evangelicals are more than twice as likely as the rest of Americans to describe themselves as “mostly conservative” on social and political issues (70% do so), and are the least likely to describe themselves as “stressed out” (22%), “concerned about the future” (66%), struggling with debt or finances (30%), and actively “searching for meaning and purpose in life” (20%).

Evangelicals are vastly different from others on moral issues. They are the only group among which a majority (68%) base their moral decisions on the Bible or religious teaching and the sole segment that is more likely to believe in absolute moral truth (58%) than to say that moral choices are relative to the individual and the circumstances (i.e., relativism – 27%). Consequently, their moral views were significantly different from those of every other segment in relation to all 15 of the moral issues examined in the research. They were the least likely to describe cohabitation, gay sex, pornography, profanity, drunkenness, abortion and divorce as morally acceptable behaviors.

As expected, evangelicals are the most active in religious endeavors, ranging from reading the Bible (nine out of ten do so in a typical week) and attending church services (80%) to praying (every evangelical interviewed had done so in the past week), volunteering at their church (45%), attending religious education classes (56%), and participating in a small group for religious purposes (42%). Three out of four shared their faith in Christ with a non-Christian during the past year. Evangelicals are generous donors, too, giving away roughly three times more money during the past year than did the average American adult.

By definition, evangelicals believe that the Bible is totally accurate in all that it teaches; that they have a responsibility to share their religious faith with others; that their faith is very important in their life; and that God is a real being who is all-knowing, all-powerful and still in control of the world. Nearly nine out of ten believe that the Holy Spirit exists. They also reject several popular theological views: e.g. Jesus sinned during His time on earth, Satan is just a symbol of evil but does not exist, and that being a good person can earn eternal salvation.

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Non-Evangelical Born Again Christians

Evangelicals are born again, but most born again Christians are not evangelical. (In fact, only one out of five born again adults meet the evangelical criteria.) The 33% of the adult population who are born again but not evangelical represent some 65 to 70 million people. Slightly more than half of them are married (55%), about seven out of ten are white, and six out of ten are women. They are most likely to live either in the South (41%) or Midwest (26%).

While many of their attitudes are more similar to those of non-born adults than to those of evangelicals, they do share the evangelical concern about the moral condition of the nation. Only one-third embrace the label “mostly conservative” and non-evangelical born again adults are more likely to be aligned with the Democratic Party (40%) than the Republican Party (35%).

On moral issues, this group is most likely to take its cues from sources other than the Bible or religious teaching. The primary influences on their moral decisions are personal feelings about what is right, the values taught to them by their parents, and whatever choices produce the best personal outcomes. Only one out of every four (27%) contends that moral truth is absolute; more than twice that percentage argue that moral truth is relative to the person and their circumstances. Almost two-thirds consider themselves to be “pro-life,” three out of five deem homosexuality to be a morally unacceptable lifestyle, two out of three say movies showing sexually explicit behavior are morally unacceptable, and three-quarters or more say drunkenness, abortion, profanity and gay sex are morally unacceptable behaviors.

Although they are not as active in religious practices as are the evangelicals, a majority of the non-evangelical born again group attends church, reads the Bible, and prays to God during a typical week. Slightly more than half of these adults shared their faith in Christ with a non-Christian during the past year.

The most noticeable difference between evangelicals and the non-evangelical born again segment is in the area of beliefs. The largest gaps relate to embracing a responsibility to share their faith in Christ with others (47%), firmly rejecting the idea that Satan is a merely a symbol of evil (just 26% do so), rejecting the idea that Jesus Christ sinned while He lived on earth (53%), and strongly denying that the Holy Spirit is just a symbolic representation of God’s power or presence (86% of evangelicals do so, compared to only 22% of the non-evangelical born again adults). Also, only six out of ten people in this category strongly believe that “the Bible is totally accurate in all that it teaches.”

Notional Christians

The largest segment of the five identified in the Barna study is that comprised of people who describe themselves as Christians, but do not believe that they will have eternal life because of their reliance upon the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the grace extended to people through a relationship with Christ. (A large majority of these individuals believe they will have eternal life, but not because of a grace-based relationship with Jesus Christ.) This group, referred to as “notional Christians,” encompasses 44% of all adults in the U.S., which represents roughly 90 million adults.

Unlike the two born again segments described above, a majority of the notional Christians are single, and only half are women. These individuals are distributed evenly across the four regions of the nation. Hispanics are especially common in this segment.

One-third of these people say they are stressed out, one-third admits to struggling with debt and finances, and one-third also claims to be searching for a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Just one out of four say they are “mostly conservative” on political and social issues, and Democrats outnumber Republicans by an 8 to 5 ratio. Although four out of five donated money to churches and charities last year, they donated just one-third as much (on a per capita basis) as did evangelicals, and gave barely half as much as the typical non-evangelical born again individual gave away.

Only one out of every ten notional Christians bases moral choices on the Bible or religious teaching, and just one out of every six believes in absolute moral truth. Although half say that abortion should be illegal in all or most circumstances, just 39% consider themselves to be “pro-life.” A majority of the people in this segment contends that morally acceptable lifestyles include homosexuality, cohabitation, viewing pornography, and entertaining sexual fantasies.

Even though three-quarters of these people regularly attended a Christian church during their childhood, only a minority regularly attends these days. In a typical week, one out four reads the Bible, one out of three attends a church service, one out of ten attends a religious education class, and one out of ten participates in a small group that meets for spiritual purposes.

The religious beliefs of this group stand in stark contrast to those of the two born again segments. For instance, even though they represent half of all Americans who describe themselves as Christian, just three out of ten notional Christians claim to be “absolutely committed” to the Christian faith. One out of four firmly believes that the Bible is totally accurate; just one out of seven (15%) strongly disagrees that Satan is symbolic but not real and a similar number (11%) firmly rejects the idea that the Holy Spirit is merely symbolic. A majority contends that eternal life can be earned through good behavior. Only one out of four strongly disagrees with the contention that Jesus committed sins during His tenure on earth.

People of Non-Christian Faiths

Adults associated with a faith group other than Christianity represent 7% of the population. Among the most prolific faith groups included in this hybrid segment are Jews, Muslims and Buddhists. This segment represents an estimated 10 to 15 million American adults.

Adults associated with non-Christian faiths are the most educated of the five faith segments: almost two out of every five have a college degree. That helps to explain why this group is the most affluent of the five segments, with more than one-third living in households that earn $60,000 or more per year. Roughly equal numbers of them are married, have never been married and were formerly married but are now single. These people are most likely to live in the Northeast or West. One of the most striking observations about their demographic profile is that a majority of them is 35 or younger.

Adults aligned with non-Christian faiths are two and one-half times more likely to describe themselves as “mostly liberal” than “mostly conservative” – a vivid contrast from the self-portrait of those associated with the Christian faith. These individuals are also more likely to be associated with the Democratic Party than with the Republican Party by a 3 to 1 margin; however, only two-thirds of them are registered to vote (compared to nine out of ten evangelicals). Like evangelicals, though, they are less likely than other adults to be “concerned about the future.”

Similar to the notional Christians, but in a major departure from the views of evangelical and born again Christians, most adults who follow a non-Christian faith believe that all truth is relative (75%); just one out of six (17%) believe in absolute moral truth. Only 8% of these Americans rely on the Bible or their religious teaching as the dominant influence upon their moral choices – and those choices are dramatically different from the norm. A majority of these individuals believes that cohabitation, smoking marijuana, pornography, profanity, drunkenness, sexual fantasies, and abortion are morally acceptable behaviors. Just one out of every ten embraces the “pro life” description.

One-third of the people who currently align with non-Christian faiths regularly attended a Christian church while they were growing up. Six out of ten pray to their deity during a typical week, but only one out of every seven attends some type of religious gathering or service during a typical week and less than one out of 10 participates in some type of religious education class or meeting. Not surprisingly, most of them deny the holiness of Jesus Christ, possess a view of God that is decidedly different than that offered in the Bible, and deny the existence of the devil or the Holy Spirit.

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Atheists and Agnostics

Eight percent of all adults describe themselves as atheist or agnostic. This segment covers an estimated 10 to 15 million adults. Demographically, they are the group least likely to be married (only 34% are) and most likely to be male (63%). A majority of these people (55%) are 35 years of age or younger.

Besides being the group that is least concerned about the moral condition of the nation (only 41% harbor such concern), they are also the group most likely to be affiliated with the Democratic Party (44%), most likely to define themselves as “mostly liberal” on current issues, and least likely to donate any money to a religious center or non-profit organization. Among those who did donate funds to non-profits, they gave away the least amount of money – less than 10% as much as the average evangelical donated during the year.

Three-quarters of the self-proclaimed atheists and agnostics say that all moral truth is relative to the person and circumstances; only 10% believe in absolute moral truth. Their views on morality are in extreme contrast to those of the two born again segments. For instance, seven out of ten believe abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances; six out of ten approve of clergy performing gay marriages; nine out of ten approve of cohabitation; more than three out of four embrace pornography as a moral behavior; and two-thirds deem drunkenness and using profanity to be morally acceptable acts.

As was true among the adults associated with non-Christian faiths, several million atheists and agnostics grew up regularly attending Christian churches (30%). As would be expected, their religious views vary widely from those who associate with Christianity. Just one out of ten believe that the Bible is totally accurate in all that it teaches; only one-fourth say their religious faith is very important in their life; and large majorities reject beliefs in the existence of Satan, the reality of the Holy Spirit, the notion of Jesus leading a sinless life, and a biblical depiction of the nature of God.

Perspective on the Segments

George Barna suggested that America may be more religiously diverse than many people realize. “The events of September 11 raised many questions about the religious faith of the American people. A common response was that we are a nation of Christians with a few pockets of smaller, lesser-known faith groups intermingled. The research suggests that even within the 85% who say they are Christian, there is enormous diversity of belief and practice. Most interestingly, perhaps, is that we find such diversity to be common even within individual Christian churches. If nothing else, this indicates that people’s faith is a process in motion – an ever-changing series of views and behaviors that we rely upon, to differing degrees, to shape our worldview and lifestyle.”

Some of the information points to a seminal shift in religious thought and behavior. “Young adults profess an interest in spirituality, but their preferences are moving in a different direction than might have been assumed: more than one out of every five adults under 35 is atheistic, agnostic or affiliated with a non-Christian faith. Less than half that proportion of the people 55 and older fit that pattern,” explained Barna. “Similarly, men appear to be easing away from Christianity, and millions of Hispanics are rethinking their faith views and church ties. The implications of this period of exploration and re-determination are huge, given the correlation between the nature and intensity of people’s faith with their moral and lifestyle choices.”

Survey Methodology

The data described above are from telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 4005 adults conducted from January 2001 through December 2001. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All of the interviews were conducted from the Barna Research Group telephone interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. Adults in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of respondents coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. adult population. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of adults.

The number of people interviewed from each of the five subgroups described in this report varied. In total, there were 313 evangelicals, 1316 non-evangelical born again Christians, 1754 notional Christians, 282 adults from non-Christian faith groups, and 300 atheists and agnostics.

“Born again Christians” were defined in these surveys as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”

“Evangelicals” are a subset of born again Christians in Barna surveys. In addition to meeting the born again criteria, evangelicals also meet seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical has no relationship to church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church they attend. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

The Barna Research Group, Ltd. is an independent marketing research company located in southern California. Since 1984, it has been studying cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. This research was funded solely by Barna Research as part of its regular tracking of attitudes, values and behavior.

If you would like to receive a bi-weekly update on the latest research findings from the Barna Research Group, you may subscribe to this free service by typing your e-mail address in the field above located at the top of this page on the left-hand side.

A Comparison of Five Faith Segments
evangelicalsnon-evan., born againnotional Christiansnon-Christian faithatheist/agnostic
mostly conservative on social issues70%37%25%12%12%
registered Republican58%35%26%11%15%
Bible or religious teaching is the basis of their moral decision-making68%27%11%8%3%
believe that absolute moral truth exist58%27%15%17%10%
homosexuality is a morally unacceptable lifestyle95%59%38%27%20%
cohabitation is morally acceptable10%42%65%82%92%
movies with explicit sexual behavior are morally acceptable12%33%54%75%79%
having an abortion is morally acceptable4%24%38%67%71%
read from the Bible in past 7 days86%53%24%17%9%
attended church service in past 7 days80%58%36%14%9%
strongly disagree that the devil, or Satan, is not a living being but is a symbol of evil100%26%15%20%15%
strongly disagree that when He lived on earth, Jesus Christ was human and committed sins100%53%27%20%20%
strongly disagree that the Holy Spirit is a symbol of God’s presence or power but not a living entity86%22%11%20%13%
sample size31313161754282300

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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