Mar 1, 2023

Doubt & Faith: Top Reasons People Question Christianity

Recent data show a majority in America is open to tapping more deeply into their spiritual life—yet this curiosity may naturally be accompanied by tough questions. Are churches making space for this reality?

Today’s article, an excerpt from “What Do We Do with Doubt?”—the first release in Barna’s Spiritually Open study, available exclusively on Barna Access Plus—digs into the doubts that keep people away from the Christian Church.

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52% of U.S. Adults & Teens Have Experienced Religious Doubts in the Past Few Years
First, the good news: Recent data show that Americans are trending toward spiritual openness. As of October 2022, Barna data show three out of four U.S. adults (74%) say they want to grow spiritually. Additionally, the same proportion (77%) say they believe in a higher power. Nearly half (44%) say they are more open to God today than before the pandemic.

With this openness comes opportunity, but also doubts. Our new data sheds light on the doubt that often accompanies people on their spiritual journeys.

Over half of teens and adults (so, the U.S. general population ages 13+) report that they’ve experienced doubts about their religious beliefs at least sometimes (12% frequently, 16% occasionally, 24% sometimes) in the past few years.

Similarly, exactly half of those who are Christian or who have some Christian background or experience (50%) say they have gone through a “prolonged” period of doubt at some point in their life.

Overall, most in the general population, and Christians in particular, see doubt as a phase to move through, and arriving at certainty is the preferable end goal. Interestingly, teens and adults of other faiths and especially those of no faith have more comfort with doubt, less often seeing it as something to be overcome—and even seeing it as something to be praised.

Past Religious Experiences & Hypocrisy Are Top Causes for Doubt
What reasons do U.S. adults give for doubting the Christian faith? Over one-quarter (27%) says their cause for doubt comes from past experiences with a religious institution. For those with some distance from Christianity or the Church (whether we analyze by people of no faith, the unchurched, those who could be described as deconstructing and so on), the “hypocrisy of religious people” is the top driver of doubt.

Elsewhere in this study, and throughout many years of Barna’s research, our data shows that those who are reluctant to affiliate with a church say Christians seem closed and judgmental, or that they often value being right in their beliefs over and above helping others make their own faith discoveries. 

Interestingly, pastors seem attuned to this reality. By an overwhelming majority, pastors assume that past experiences with a religious institution (83%) or the hypocrisy of religious people (80%) cause people to doubt Christian beliefs. These are indeed among the top responses among people of no faith, along with science and human suffering. Those in the pews, meanwhile, seem less aware of—or less willing to admit—potential barriers to belief.

Spiritually Open Series

Cultivating Curiosity & Conversation About Jesus

The Spiritually Open research underscores a need for churches to become safe places for people of all ages and stages of faith to grapple with questions—the ones that may keep them from fully embracing Christian beliefs, as well as the ones that may captivate them and draw them toward faith.

Additional reading and resources:

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About the Research

The Spiritually Open project, produced in partnership with Gloo and He Gets Us, is based on a survey of 2,005 U.S. adults and teenagers (ages 13-17) conducted online from December 13–22, 2022 via a consumer research panel. The margin of error for the sample is +/- 2.0 percent at the 95 percent confidence level. Quotas were set to representation by region, race / ethnicity, education, age and gender based on the U.S. Census Bureau. Minimal statistical weighting has been applied to maximize sample representation.

Additionally, a survey among 511 U.S. Protestant senior pastors was conducted online from December 13, 2021–January 3, 2023. Participants are all members of Barna Group’s Proprietary Pastor Panel. Minimal weighting has been used to ensure the sample is representative based on denomination, region and church size.

Some questions were only asked of Christians, people who were raised Christian or people who have “had a Christian experience”—the latter refers to anyone who indicates that at some point in their life they considered themselves a Christian or at some point in their life they consistently attended a Christian church or parish.

The first chart is from a survey 2,000 U.S. adults conducted online October 21–31, 2022. This group was quota sampled by age, gender, race / ethnicity, region, education and income to maximize representation. Minimal statistical weighting was applied and the margin of error was +/- 2.1%.

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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