Feb 23, 2016

From the Archives

Five Ways Christianity Is Increasingly Viewed as Extremist

Society is undergoing a change of mind about the way religion and people of faith intersect with public life. That is, there are intensifying perceptions that faith is at the root of a vast number of societal ills.

Though it remains the nation’s most dominant religion, Christianity faces significant headwind in the court of public opinion. The decades-old trend that Christianity is irrelevant is increasingly giving way to the notion that Christianity is bad for society.

A new major study conducted by Barna Group, and explored in the new book Good Faith, co-authored by Barna president David Kinnaman, examines society’s current perceptions of faith and Christianity. In sum, faith and religion and Christianity are viewed by millions of adults to be extremist.

Here are five facts that explain the emerging reality:

1. Adults and especially non-believers are concerned about religious extremism.

In the wake of religiously motivated terrorism—like the recent incidents in San Bernardino and Paris—it is no wonder that a backlash against extremism is reaching a boiling point. Currently, a strong majority of adults believe “being religiously extreme is a threat to society.” Three-quarters of all Americans—and nine out of ten Americans with no faith affiliation—agree with this statement.

2. Nearly half of non-religious adults perceive Christianity to be extremist.

The perception that the Christian faith is extreme is now firmly entrenched among the nation’s non-Christians. A full forty-five percent of atheists, agnostics, and religiously unaffiliated in America agree with the statement “Christianity is extremist.” Almost as troubling is the fact that only 14 percent of atheists and agnostics strongly disagree that Christianity is extremist. The remaining four in ten (41%) disagree only somewhat. So even non-Christians who are reluctant to fully label Christianity as extremist, still harbor some hesitations and negative perceptions toward the religion.

Barna Access Plus

Strengthen your message, train your team and grow your church with cultural insights and practical resources, all in one place.

3. The range of what constitutes extremism is broad, ranging from behaviors that are almost universally condemned to more narrowly defined extremism.

What actions and beliefs, exactly, come to mind when people think about religious extremism? The researchers examined more than 20 different activities and beliefs, asking a random, representative sample of U.S. adults to identify the degree to which each of those activities appeared extreme. The results essentially fall into four categories, as shown in the infographic below.

  • Category 1 included those actions widely considered to be extreme by at least four in five adults in the U.S. This involved using religion to justify violence, refusing standard medical care for children, and refusing to serve a customer whose lifestyle conflicted with their beliefs. For the most part, these three elements were viewed to be extreme by a majority of all demographic segments as well.
  • Category 2 were activities and beliefs marked as extremist by at least half, but less than 80% of the public. Eight different factors qualified for this level, ranging from demonstrating outside an organization they consider immoral and protesting government policies that conflict with religious views. Many of these factors related to the claims of faith in the public square—that is, how religious people might interact on social issues and government policies.
  • Category 3 included factors that generated extremist concerns among at least one out of five adults, though they are not currently rated as extreme by more than 50% of adults. This group of concerns was populated by elements that are more distinctive to various religious traditions, such as speaking in tongues (characteristic of Pentecostal and charismatic believers), wearing special clothes or head coverings  (e.g., Muslim women), and adhering to special dietary restrictions (such as Mormons, Catholics, Jews, and Adventists). [Note: specific religious connections were not provided to respondents.]
  • Category 4 was only occasionally indicated as extremist, generating concerns among at least one in 16 adults, but fewer than one-fifth of Americans. However, when calculated on the basis of the entire population, these perceptions represent significant numbers of adults who indicate anxiety about these kinds of religious expression. These factors include reading sacred literature (either the Bible or Koran) in public as well as donating money to or attending a religious institution. Again, these are low on the list of extremism, however, for many Americans even these conventional activities are viewed to be extreme.

. Evangelicals stand out from the norm in terms of their attitudes on religious extremism—and they exhibit major differences from the skeptics.

Evangelical Christians stand out among national trends. In all but four cases, evangelicals are much less likely to perceive the elements assessed in the research to constitute extremism. Evangelicals are equally likely as the general population to say that religiously motivated violence and refusing medical attention to children are extremist—in other words, the vast majority of evangelicals agree with virtually everyone that these activities are certainly extreme. Also, evangelicals are equally likely as the general population to say that wearing special clothes or head garments and reading the Koran in public are extremist actions.

[Note: Barna’s definition of evangelicals is not based upon a person self-identifying as evangelical. See the methodology below for details. As Barna defines them, evangelicals represent 7% of the population or about one in every 14 adults.]

The research points out a massive gap between two “super segments” in American life today: evangelicals and skeptics (those who self-identify as atheist, agnostic and religiously unaffiliated).

On virtually all of the extremist factors assessed in the research, evangelicals and skeptics maintain widely divergent points of view. The chart below shows 10 of the largest differences. For example, only 1% of evangelicals believe it is religiously extreme for a person to teach his or her children that same-sex relationships are morally wrong. However, three-quarters of skeptics (75%) believe this is extremist. Attempting to convert others generates a perception gap of 10% to 83% between evanglicals and skeptics, an incredible 73 percentage points.

What The Research Means

David Kinnaman, who is the president of Barna and directed the research study on religious extremism, comments that “These gaps show the challenges practicing Christians and especially evangelicals are facing. In a religiously plural and divisive society, various “tribes”—ranging from faithful to skeptic—are vying to decide how faith should work. The most contentious issues are the ways in which religious conviction gets expressed publicly, but the findings illustrate that a wide range of actions, even beliefs, are now viewed as extremist by large chunks of the population.”

“The research starkly demonstrates the ways in which evangelicals and many practicing Catholics are out of the cultural mainstream. In fact, skeptics and religiously unaffiliated are now much closer to the cultural ‘norm’ than are religious conservatives. In other words, the secular point of view, which says faith should be kept out of the public domain, is much closer to the mainstream in U.S. life.

“This fact explains why millions of devout Christians are experiencing such frustration and concern. They are feeling out of step with social norms and the cultural momentum. This is most significantly felt when it comes to social views, such as evangelicals’ convictions on same-sex relationships. However, the perception of ‘social extremism’ also applies to many other beliefs and practices, including personal evangelism and missions work.”

On March 1, Kinnaman released a new book Good Faith that analyzes the new “social extremism” that characterizes the current faith landscape. Teaming up again with Gabe Lyons, the co-author of unChristian, the book explores cultural trends that are creating obstacles and opportunities for Christians. “UnChristian examined the negative perceptions of young non-Christians,” says Kinnnaman. “And now, nearly a decade later, Good Faith continues that work by helping to explore how Christians can be biblically countercultural in a society that is increasingly unfriendly to faith.”


Comment on this research and follow our work:
Twitter: @davidkinnaman@barnagroup
Facebook: Barna Group

About the Research

The study on which these findings are based was conducted via online surveys from August 17 to August 21, 2015. A total of 1,000 interviews were conducted. The sample error is plus or minus 3.0 percentage points at the 95-percent confidence level. The completion rate was 66% percent.

Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables. The online study is derived from a probability panel, which means that respondents are recruited for inclusion in the research based on physical mailing addresses, not an opt-in online panel. Those randomly selected households without Internet access are provided an Internet-enabled device to complete surveys

Special thanks to Pat Macmillan and Dee Alsop for their contributions to this study.

“Evangelicals” are those who meet nine sets of criteria, including having made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and believing that, when they die, they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. The seven other conditions for evangelicals 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 Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; 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.”

“Skeptics” self-dentify as atheist or agnostic.

“Other faith” indicates respondents who self-identify with a religion other than Christianity.

“No faith” indicates respondents who self-identify as atheist or agnostic, or who are religiously unaffiliated.

“Practicing Christians” are self-identified Christians who have attended a church service in the past month and say their religious faith is very important in their life.

“Practicing Catholics” are self-identified Catholics who have attended a church service in the past month and say their religious faith is very important in their life.

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.

Get Barna in your inbox

Subscribe to Barna’s free newsletters for the latest data and insights to navigate today’s most complex issues.