Americans love good fiction. Despite a spate of high-profile books recently released that have questioned the existence of God and the validity of the Christian faith – most American adults believe that the stories they read in the Bible can be taken as literal truth, not merely as stories told to communicate life principles.
A new nationwide survey by The Barna Group explored a half dozen stories drawn from the Bible. The Barna researchers asked a sample of 1005 adults if they trusted those stories to be factually accurate or to be narratives that were not factually accurate but were designed to teach principles. A majority of adults indicated that they accepted five of the six stories – including the virgin birth of Jesus Christ – as being literally true, while half accepted the sixth story as an accurate depiction of an historical event.
The Virgin Birth
Three out of four adults (75%) said that they believe Jesus Christ was born to a virgin, Mary, as described in the gospel narratives. Of the six Bible stories examined in the survey, this story was the most widely accepted.
A majority of all but one of the sixty population subgroups studied in the research took the virgin birth at face value. The exception was atheists and agnostics (among whom just 15% said this really happened). Some people groups in which a majority rejected every other Bible tested broke that pattern in relation to the virgin birth. Mary’s virgin birth was accepted as literally true by two-thirds of upscale adults (66%) and by a bare majority of the unchurched (53%). Even a strikingly large share of those who describe themselves as mostly liberal on political and social issues (60%) adopted the biblical view of Christ’s birth.
Turning Water into Wine
Seven out of ten adults (69%) embraced the story of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana as being literally true.
However, there were substantial differences across subgroups. Born again adults were nearly twice as likely as others to accept the story at face value (94% versus 49%). Churched adults were almost twice as likely as the unchurched to adopt this story (80% vs. 42%). Protestants were more likely than Catholics; blacks were more likely than whites or Hispanics; downscale individuals exceeded the likelihood of upscale people; and conservatives were more likely than liberals to see the story as literally accurate. Residents of the South were far more likely to embrace the story than were people in other regions of the country.
Feeding the Crowd
The Bible tells about Jesus using five loaves of bread and two fish to feed five thousand men, and then collecting 12 baskets full of leftovers. Two out of three people (68%) view that story as factually accurate.
The people groups most likely to accept this story as literal truth included born again Christians, Protestants, downscale adults, residents of the South, Republicans, conservatives, and churched people. Atheists/agnostics, liberals, upscale people and the unchurched stood out as especially resistant to this story.
Most Americans (64%) have no trouble believing that the planet-altering flood actually happened, in which Noah, his family and numerous animals were spared by building and then living on a giant boat for several months.
Not everyone had an easy time adopting this story as accurate. Half or fewer of several groups bought into Noah’s adventure: Catholics, atheists/agnostics, residents of the Northeast, upscale adults, the unchurched, and liberals.
Eve and the Serpent
In total, 56% of adults believe that the story of the devil, disguised as a serpent and tempting Eve to sin by eating the forbidden fruit, is literally true.
More than four out of every five born again adults embraced this story, compared to less than half as many among the non-born again. While Protestants were significantly more likely than Catholics to accept this story as literal truth, only a minority of the upscale (39%), the unchurched (32%), political liberals (35%) and people in the Northeast (46%) shared that confidence. Only 8% of atheists and agnostics accept the story.
The Strength of Samson
The Bible tells of Samson, one of the judges of ancient Israel, losing his legendary strength when Delilah seduced him into revealing that his hair was the source of that strength and that he lost his strength when she had his hair cut. Only half of the population (49%) accepts that story as completely accurate.
Born again Christians (72%) were among the most prolific defenders of that story. Joining them were people who attend Protestant churches that are not associated with mainline denominations (71%) and African Americans (70%). This was also the only Bible story tested in which gender affected perspectives: females were more likely than males to accept this story as accurate.
General Patterns Observed
There were a number of consistent response patterns revealed in the research. Those patterns included the following:
- Born again Christians were far more likely than non-born again adults to accept each of the six narratives as fully accurate. On average the difference between the two groups was forty percentage points! In relation to four of the six stories tested, the born again group was twice as likely as their counterparts to view the story in question as literal truth.
- Protestants were more likely than Catholics to accept each of the six stories as literally true. Catholics especially struggled to put their faith in the Old Testament stories. Examining a dozen Bible evaluated in this manner by The Barna Group in surveys in October and December, about half of all Catholics trusted the Old Testament stories evaluated, compared to about three-quarters believing the New Testament stories. Meanwhile, among Protestants, in relation to all six of the scriptural narratives, those who attend mainline churches were significantly less likely than those attending other Protestant congregations to say that they trusted the stories as told.
- People who live in the South were more likely than residents of all other regions to embrace the truth of all six stories.
- Downscale individuals were substantially more likely than upscale people to characterize each of the six stories as factually reliable.
- Those who portrayed themselves as mostly conservative on political matters were substantially more likely than those who called themselves mostly liberal to consider each of the six stories to be literally true. The average difference between the two segments was 26 percentage points.
Reflections on the Data
Upon analyzing the findings, researcher and author George Barna noted that the outcomes helped to better understand the place of Christian belief in American society.
“Americans are clearly knowledgeable about many of the key Old Testament stories, but they are also more comfortable accepting the stories drawn from the life of Jesus and the New Testament,” Barna explained. “Many people seem to divide the Bible into two separate and unequal portions: the Old Testament, with what they perceive to be allegorical stories, and the New Testament, with what they believe to be factual history.”
But as Christmas nears, Barna also pointed out that the large majority who believe in the virgin birth coincides with the fact that few Americans are offended by public displays that remind people of the meaning of Christmas and the importance of the celebration. Quite the contrary, he stated, “Christmas is one of the few components of the Christian faith that even nominal Christians – who exceed 40 million adults – appreciate. Although that group, in particular, is not spiritually inclined, the joy and deeper meaning introduced by celebrating the birth of Christ resonates with them at the same time that the season strikes a more profound spiritual chord with committed Christians.”
About the Research
This report is based upon a nationwide telephone survey conducted by The Barna Group in December 2007 among a random sample of 1005 adults, age 18 and older. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.
“Mainline Protestant” churches were those associated with the American Baptist, United Church of Christ, Episcopal, United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Presbyterian Church in the USA denominations.
“Upscale” people are those who have completed a four-year college degree and have an annual household income of $75,000 or more.
“Born again Christians” are defined 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 are not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”
The Barna Group, Ltd. (which includes its research division, The Barna Research Group) conducts primary research, produces media resources pertaining to spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries. Located in Ventura, California, Barna has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each new, bi-monthly update on the latest research findings from The Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website www.barna.org.
© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009.
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