Jun 9, 2003

From the Archives

Four Out of Ten Adults Discuss Religious Matters During the Week

The adage warning people to avoid discussing religion and politics with friends and family has fallen on deaf ears in modern-day America. A new survey from the Barna Research Group has discovered that in a typical week more than 100 million adults discuss political issues with others while about 90 million adults delve into religious or spiritual matters.

In a study of the topics of conversation raised during a typical week, the survey revealed that of the seven topics evaluated, the most popular topic was the content of movies or television programs. Two out of every three adults (66%) talk about that topic during a typical week. The next most popular items of conversation were money, discussed by nearly six out of ten adults (57%), and sports, which is the focus of 55%.

Less popular topics, but also widely addressed, were politics (51%), parenting (50%), moral issues or situations (49%) and spiritual issues and beliefs (42%).

Moral Discourse

The widespread interaction regarding moral issues and viewpoints reflects the significant concern over the perceived moral decay of the nation. With surveys finding three out of four adults troubled by the moral condition of the country, the frequency of related conversations is consistent with people’s anxiety over the growing sense of disrespect, rejection of authority, rudeness and independence in America.

However, researchers were surprised by the types of people most likely to discuss moral issues. The segments that are most frequently engaged in such conversations are people under 55 years of age, upscale adults (i.e., those with a college degree and above-average household income levels), blacks, those who attend mid-sized and large churches, and residents of Texas. Among the groups least likely to express interest in moral matters are Asians and Hispanics, people who are not registered to vote and those registered independent of a party affiliation, senior citizens, and downscale individuals.

A person’s faith commitment also affects their participation in conversations about moral issues. Born again adults were considerably more likely than non-born again adults to discuss morality during a typical week (57% versus 44%). Protestants were more likely than Catholics to address moral conditions and beliefs (53% versus 45%). The group most likely to address moral issues is evangelicals, four out of five of whom do so (80%) in any given week.

Faith Focus

Since the survey also reported that 85% of all adults contend that their religious faith is very important in their life, and that 81% align themselves with a particular faith group, the fact that 42% of Americans discuss their religious views or faith-related issues during a typical week is lower than expected. However, that translates into an estimated 90 million adults who talk about religious matters with family or friends in an average week.

The types of people most likely to talk about religious matters are women, Baby Boomers, upscale individuals, blacks, residents of the South, Republicans, conservatives, those attending churches of more than 100 people, and residents of Texas.

Religious-oriented conversation is least common among men, Asians and Hispanics, people not registered to vote or registered without a party affiliation, political moderates, downscale individuals, those who attend churches of less than 100 adults, and residents of California.

Not surprisingly, the religious alignments of people closely related to their engagement in religious talk. Born again Christians were nearly twice as likely as non-born again adults to participate in such conversations (58% versus 33%), and Protestants were more likely than Catholics to do so (49% versus 34%). Once again, evangelicals emerged as the segment most likely to discuss faith-oriented topics during the week (79%).

Unexpectedly, the research found that one out of every three atheists and agnostics (32%) talks about faith-related matters during a typical week.

Perspective On the Data

Researcher George Barna, whose company conducted the study, felt that the results emphasized some important trends for the future of the nation. “Recognize that Asians and Hispanics in America are much less likely to discuss moral and faith issues than are whites and blacks – but it is the Asians and Hispanics who are responsible for most of the population growth in the country. As their influence grows with their swelling numbers, the effect may be to further dampen the frequency of dialogue on these critical matters, further diminishing the influence of faith on the nation’s culture.” Barna noted that while a majority of the white and black portions of the population discuss both moral and spiritual matters in a typical week, only one-quarter of the Asian population and just one-third of the Hispanic segment do so.

Barna also encouraged the leaders of small churches, which represent the majority of Protestant congregations in the U.S., to motivate their people to converse on matters of faith and morals. “People who attend mid-sized and large Protestant churches are about 24% more likely than those attending small churches to raise issues related to faith and morals during a typical week. It may take some intentional motivation, some focused teaching, and behavioral modeling by the leaders of small churches to get their people to incorporate their spiritual and moral convictions in their conversations, as a means of integrating their faith-related views into decision-making and influence efforts.”

The study also revealed that men are more comfortable speaking to others about moral issues than religious issues. “As churches strive to help men focus more directly on their spiritual beliefs, initiating such conversations with a discussion of moral convictions and then moving into a deeper understanding of the spiritual basis of those convictions may help men to see the significance of their faith and more easily relate their religious beliefs to their moral behavior. Our studies consistently show that many men consider their faith to be isolated from their personal behavior and lifestyle.”

Research Source and Methodology

The data in this report are based on a nationwide telephone survey conducted by the Barna Research Group from its interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. The OmniPollSM survey involved interviews among 1002 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. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of qualified individuals.

“Born again Christians” were defined in these surveys 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.” This segment currently represents 38% of the adult population.

“Evangelicals” are a subset of born again Christians in Barna surveys. In addition to meeting the born again criteria, evangelicals also meet 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 of its teachings; 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 based on church attendance or denominational affiliation. Respondents are not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.” This group is currently 6% of the adult population; they represent about one out of every six born again Christians.

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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