Jul 7, 2008

From the Archives

Americans Identify What They Consider “Holy” Books

As the United States becomes a more pluralistic nation, it would be expected that a broader base of books would be accepted by increasing numbers of adults as “sacred literature” or “holy books.” A new survey by The Barna Group discovered that about two-dozen such books were listed by a national sample of 1003 adults. However, only four books were listed by at least 1% of the public, and just one book was deemed to be sacred or holy by at least 5% of the public.

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The Bible Stands Alone

The only book listed by at least 5% was the Bible, which was named as a holy book by 84% of the public. Although the same percentage of respondents (84%) described themselves as Christian, one out of every 14 of them (7%) did not consider the Bible to be sacred literature, while nearly two out of every five adults who do not consider themselves to be Christian (38%) categorized the Bible as holy.

Three-quarters or more of most subgroups of the population listed the Bible as a holy book. The only exceptions were Asians (just 54% mentioned the Bible); people associated with non-Christian faith groups (59% of whom listed the Bible); atheists and agnostics (30%); and people who describe themselves as “mostly liberal” on social and political issues (69%).

Men are much less likely than women to consider the Bible to be sacred literature (78% versus 90%, respectively). There was an even larger gap between political liberals (69%) and conservatives (93%). People under the age of 40 were notably less likely than older Americans to accept the Bible as holy (77% versus 90%, including only 67% of the adults ages 18 to 23), and downscale individuals were more likely than upscale adults to do so (88% versus 77%).

There were substantial differences based upon ethnicity as well. Whites and Hispanics held the middle ground, with 83% claiming the Bible to be sacred, while blacks (96%) and Asians (54%) were at the opposite ends of the opinion continuum on this matter.

Other Sacred Literature

Although two dozen documents were named by respondents as constituting sacred literature, only three other books were labeled as such by at least 1% of the public. Those included the Koran (deemed a holy book by 4%); the Book of Mormon (3%); and the Torah (2%). Muslims, whose holy book is the Koran, represent about one-half of one percent of the nation’s population. Mormons, who include the Book of Mormon as one of their sacred texts, are roughly 2% of America. Jews, who include the Torah among their holy documents, are also about 2% of the adult public.

Among the books listed by one-half of one percent but less than 1% were the Bhagavad Gita (revered by Hindus), the Talmud (a Jewish text), and Teachings of the Buddha (which is esteemed by Buddhists).

Various volumes were named by less than one-half of one percent. Those included literature embraced by various eastern faiths such as Analects, I Ching, Tao Te Ching, and Ramayana; several Hebrew works including the Ketuvim, The Prophets, and Tanakh; and the Mormon scripture known as Doctrine and Covenants. In addition, several other books were mentioned: Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau, Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard, Mein Kampf by Adolph Hitler, Secret Book by Rhonda Byrne, and Quiet Strength by football coach Tony Dungy.

The people group most likely to say that there are no holy books at all were the nation’s second-largest faith group, the Skeptics (i.e., atheists and agnostics), 52% of whom denied the existence of sacred literature. Other groups containing substantial proportions of people who said no holy books exist were liberals (18%), upscale individuals (16%), men (13%), people from non-Christian faith groups (13%), residents of the West (13%), adults not registered to vote (12%), and people under 40 (12%).

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How Christians View Sacred Literature

Upon exploring the different segments within the Christian community, several patterns were revealed.

Evangelicals were an all-or-nothing segment: 99% said the Bible is sacred literature, and 1% said there is no sacred literature. No other books were listed by the group.

Non-evangelical born again Christians were slightly more accepting. Overall, 96% identified the Bible, 3% said the Book of Mormon, 3% said the Koran, 1% named the Torah, and 3% listed a variety of other books. One percent said holy books do not exist.

Notional Christians were the most open-minded. While 87% included the Bible, 6% said the Koran, 2% identified the Torah, 1% said the Book of Mormon, and 3% indicated there were other books as well. Surprisingly, 7% said there are no sacred books at all.

Catholics and Protestants were generally similar; none of the differences were statistically significant. Furthermore, there were no statistically reliable differences between those who attend a house church and those aligned with a conventional church.

Thoughts about Views on Holy Books

People’s responses demonstrate America’s singular connection to Christianity, according to George Barna, the researcher of faith trends who directed the study.

“Most Americans consider the Bible to be the word of God – and do not believe any other document fits that description. People associated with other faiths are much more likely to view the Bible as sacred literature than Christians are to view any other document to be holy,” Barna noted.

“The groups most likely to consider books besides the Bible to be sacred are those who tend to be the most experimental in spirituality: adults under 25, residents of the West, and liberals. Although most American adults are only moderately committed to Christianity and to the church they attend most often, they have no inclination to embrace anything besides the Bible as sacred, especially if it originated from a different faith tradition. Christians may not know much of what’s in the Bible, but they are not at all likely to investigate the religious books of other faiths or to refer to them as holy.”

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About the Research

This report is based upon telephone interviews conducted by The Barna Group with a random sample of 1003 adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older, in May 2008. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.

“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.”

“Evangelicals” meet the born again criteria (described above) plus 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; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; 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 is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

Non-evangelical born again Christians meet the born again criteria described above, but not the evangelical criteria. Notional Christians are those who consider themselves to be Christian but do not meet the not born again criteria.

“Downscale” individuals are those whose annual household income is less than $20,000 and who have not attended college. “Upscale” people are those whose annual household income is $75,000 or more and they have graduated from a four-year college.

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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