May 24, 2004

From the Archives

Faith Has a Limited Effect On Most People’s Behavior

Jesus taught that Christians would be recognizable by their distinctive behavior – specifically, by the way they love others and how their lives reflect their spiritual values and beliefs (i.e., the “fruit” of their transformation).  A new report from The Barna Group, a cultural analysis company in southern California, presents research indicating that people’s faith does not make as much of as difference as might be expected – especially among non-evangelical born again Christians. Based on a national survey that related people’s faith and 19 lifestyle activities that might be expected to be affected by faith views, the report concludes that two groups – Christian evangelicals and those without a faith preference (i.e., atheists and agnostics) are those that stand out from the crowd.

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Evangelicals: Few in Number, Different in Lifestyle

Christian evangelicals are a small proportion of the national population, representing just 7% of the adult mass. However, they are the group whose faith is most clearly evident in their behavioral choices. The survey divided the population into five faith segments (evangelicals, non-evangelical born again Christians, notional Christians, adherents of non-Christian faiths, and atheists/agnostics). Evangelicals emerged as the group most likely to do each of the following:

  • discuss spiritual matters with other people
  • volunteer at a church or non-profit organization
  • discuss political matters with other people
  • discuss moral issues and conditions with others
  • stop watching a television program because of its values or viewpoints
  • go out of their way to encourage or compliment someone

Evangelicals were also distinguished by being the segment least likely to engage in the following endeavors:

  • contact a political official
  • view pornographic media
  • read their horoscope
  • use tobacco products

There is a strong connection between the faith views and practices of evangelicals and their lifestyle. Evangelicals also emerged as the group most likely to attend church; pray to God; and read the Bible. By definition, they believe in the accuracy of the Bible, contend that they have a personal responsibility to share their faith with others, claim that their religious faith is very important in their life, reject the idea that Jesus Christ sinned, describe God as the Creator who still rules the universe today, and believe that Satan is real. That body of beliefs – and the worldview it represents – has produced a distinct way of living in an increasingly postmodern culture – a lifestyle that is increasingly at odds with the accepted norms.

Atheists and Agnostics: Practicing What They Believe

The other faith segment that was notably divergent from the national averages is comprised of those who are atheist or agnostic. This group is larger than the evangelicals, but still relatively small in number: 12% of U.S. adults.

Atheists and agnostics were the group most likely to do each of the following:

  • recycle used materials
  • visit an adult-only website
  • view pornographic media
  • get legally drunk
  • have sexual intercourse with someone to whom they are not married

Adults without a faith preference were the segment least likely to do each of the following behaviors:

  • volunteer at a church or non-profit organization
  • stop watching a television program because of its values or viewpoints
  • fast for religious reasons
  • do at least 30 minutes of physical exercise in the past week

This segment has grown more quickly than any of the other five faith segments in the U.S. during the past decade.


Non-Evangelical Born Again Christians Struggle for Distinction

The second-largest faith segment in the nation – non-evangelical born again Christians – was more similar to notional Christians (i.e., people who consider themselves Christian but have not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior) and to adherents of other faiths (such as Islam, Buddhism and Scientology) than to evangelical Christians. (Non-evangelical born again adults have accepted Christ as their savior but do not necessarily accept the Bible as completely accurate in its teachings, accept a personal responsibility to share their faith with others, cite their faith as very important in their life, believe that Jesus Christ was holy, believe that God is the Creator who continues to rule the universe today, or believe that Satan is not symbolic but truly exists.) This segment constitutes about one-third of the national adult population.

Of the 19 lifestyle items tested in the survey, non-evangelical born again adults were indistinguishable from people of other faiths in relation to 10 of those factors, and identical to notional Christians regarding 12. They were less similar to evangelicals than to adults who do not possess a similar trust in Jesus Christ as their savior.

Notional Christians Lean Toward Non-Christian Behavior

Notional Christians – adults who say they are Christian but have never made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ – represent almost half of all people attending Christian churches in the U.S. In total, they are about one-third of the adult population.

These individuals were more likely to behave in ways that characterized non-Christians than to reflect the behavior of born again adults. In other words, their faith does not seem to be a defining factor in many of their lifestyle choices. For instance, this group is more similar to born again Christians on matters such as recycling and the likelihood of discussing political matters. However, they are more similar to non-Christians on matters such as the likelihood of discussing faith matters, volunteering, turning off offensive television programs, discussing moral issues, gambling, using tobacco, having sex outside of marriage, getting drunk, and passing on encouragement to others.

Particularly Surprising Outcomes

The survey identified several instances in which people’s faith seemed to correlate to behavior that is antithetical to their belief structure.

For instance, evangelical and non-evangelical born again Christians were the two segments least likely to engage in recycling. Just half of evangelicals and 47% of non-evangelical born agains recycle, compared to more than six out of ten adults who are either atheists/agnostics, adherents of non-Christian faiths, or notional Christians.

While the mass media commonly portray evangelicals as rabidly involved in politics, the survey showed that even though evangelicals were the group most likely to discuss political matters with other people, they were the segment least likely to contact a political official to express their views on an issue. (Past research by Barna has demonstrated that evangelicals are the faith group most likely to register to vote and most likely to vote.)

The study also indicated that even though the Bible and churches encourage fasting for religious reasons, the people most likely to engage in religious fasts are adherents of non-Christian faiths. In fact, the non-Christian people of faith are twice as likely as Christians to engage in fasting.

Atheists and agnostics are sometimes incorrectly portrayed as people who have no interest in moral issues. They survey showed that this group is just as likely to discuss moral conditions and issues as they are to bring up matters related to sports, parenting or politics in personal conversations.

Despite teaching that focuses on the meaning of “good stewardship,” Christians are more likely to invest their money in lottery tickets than are non-Christians. Overall, 15% of born again and 23% of notional Christians purchased lottery tickets in a typical week, compared to just 10% of other-faith adherents and 12% of atheists/agnostics.

Reactions to the Findings

The results of the survey caused George Barna, the Directing Leader of The Barna Group, to note that many Christians are hard-pressed to convert their beliefs into action. “The ultimate aim of belief in Jesus is not simply to possess divergent theological ideas but to become a transformed person. These statistics highlight the fact that millions of people who rely on Jesus Christ for their eternal destiny have problems translating their religious beliefs into action beyond Sunday mornings.”

Citing related studies among children, Barna suggested that Christian churches and families would benefit from integrating faith practices at earlier ages. “We have found that unless young children are taught how to tie their beliefs into their daily behavior, the chances of that faith ever influencing their lifestyle in significant ways is slim. Parents and religious teachers must both model such integration for young people while simultaneously working through such behavior and choices with them. Faith perspectives that are not quickly translated into action become mantras that get lip service but have limited affect on lives – theology without hands and feet. Our studies consistently show that the habits formed while we are young are the behaviors that define us when we are old.”

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Research Source and Methodology

The data in this report are based on a nationwide telephone survey conducted by The Barna Group among 1,002 randomly selected adults during May 2003. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of adults is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. People in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of those individuals coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. population. The data were subjected to slight statistical weighting procedures to calibrate the survey base to national ethnic and gender proportions. Households selected for inclusion in the survey sample received multiple callbacks to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of qualified individuals.

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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