How people react to moral issues is a common challenge these days. The Supreme Court nomination of John Roberts, funding for stem cell research, the war in Iraq and against terrorism, sexual abuse by clergy, the Terri Schiavo case, gay marriage, and many other recent issues have brought people’s moral convictions into play. Yet, in spite of the fact that most Americans consider themselves to be Christian, very few adults base their moral decisions on the Bible, and surprisingly few believe that absolute moral truth exists. These are among the findings from a new national survey conducted by The Barna Group among a representative sample of 1002 adults.
The survey also revealed that most Americans say they are “deeply spiritual,” feel “accepted by God,” and believe they have a clear personal understanding of the meaning and purpose of their life.
About half of all adults (54%) claim that they make their moral choices on the basis of specific principles or standards they believe in. Other common means of making moral choices include doing what feels right or comfortable (24%), doing whatever makes the most people happy or causes the least conflict (9%), and pursuing whatever produces the most positive outcomes for the person (7%).
Among those who claim to make moral decisions based on specific principles, a wide variety of sources were listed as the wellspring of that moral guidance. Three out of every ten people named the Bible as the sources of those principles. Overall, then, just one out of every six adults (16%) claim they make their moral choices based on the content of the Bible.
Different segments of the faith community address morality in divergent ways. For instance, six out of ten evangelicals (60%) rely on the principles contained in the Bible as their main source of moral counsel. In contrast, only two out of every ten non-evangelical born again adults (20%) do the same, while only one out of every sixteen notional Christians (6%) and one out of every fifty people aligned with non-Christian faiths (2%) do so. Protestants were three times as likely as Catholics to base their morals on Biblical teaching (23% versus 7%, respectively).
Absolute Moral Truth
When asked whether they believe moral truth is based on absolute standards or is relative to the circumstances, Americans are divided into roughly equal segments. About one-third (35%) contends that moral truth is absolute – that is, it is not dependent upon the circumstances. Another one-third (32%) says that morality is always determined by the situation. The remaining one-third (33%) indicates that they do not know if moral truth is absolute or relative.
Once again, people’s religious connections relate to their perspective on truth. A large majority of evangelicals (70%) report believing that moral truth is absolute. But a minority of non-evangelical born again adults (42%) holds that same view, and even fewer of the notional Christians (25%), people associated with non-Christian faiths (16%) and those who claim to be atheist or agnostic (27%) embrace moral absolutes.
For several years, The Barna Group has been tracking how many people possess a “biblical worldview.” The organization defines such a life perspective on the basis of several questions about religious beliefs. The definition requires someone to believe that absolute moral truth exists; that the source of moral truth is the Bible; that the Bible is accurate in all of the principles it teaches; that eternal spiritual salvation cannot be earned; that Jesus lived a sinless life on earth; that every person has a responsibility to share their religious beliefs with others; that Satan is a living force, not just a symbol of evil; and that God is the all-knowing, all-powerful maker of the universe who still rules that creation today.
Using that framework, Barna discovered that the percentage of adults holding a biblical worldview has remained minimal and unchanged over the past three years, despite the widespread public debate about moral issues and the efforts of thousands of churches to enhance people’s moral convictions. Currently, only 5% of adults have a biblical worldview. The percentage varies among faith groups. About half of all evangelicals have such a perspective. Overall, 8% of Protestants possess that view, compared to less than one-half of one percent of Catholics.
George Barna, whose acclaimed book Think Like Jesus described the core elements of a biblical worldview in laymen’s terms, noted that the religious books of greatest influence in the past several years have not addressed people’s fundamental theological views. “Most of the bestsellers have focused on meaning, purpose, security and the end times,” the researcher pointed out. “While there have been theological views expressed in those books, very few popular books have helped people to think clearly and comprehensively about their core theology. Consequently, most born again Christians hold a confusing and inherently contradictory set of religious beliefs that go unchecked by the leaders and teachers of their faith community.”
Truth, Morals and Spiritual Connections
The Barna survey also showed that most Americans (62%) consider themselves to be deeply spiritual. That level has not changed in the past decade. However, people’s age substantially impacts such a self-description. The younger a respondent was the less likely he or she was to claim to be deeply spiritual. In fact, a minority of Mosaics (44%) made such a claim, about half of Busters did so (55%), two-thirds of Boomers claimed the label (65%) and 70% of Americans 60 or older embraced that characterization.
Currently, nine out of ten adults (88%) feel “accepted by God.” Barna listed a pair of interesting correlations related to that self-image. First, about one-third of the individuals who feel accepted by God do not consider themselves to be deeply spiritual. Second, people are twice as likely to feel accepted by God as they are to be born again – a condition that, many Protestant leaders argue, is a key reflection of God’s forgiveness and ultimate acceptance.
The study also highlighted the fact that four out of every five adults (82%) say they are “clear about the meaning and purpose” of their life.
The national norms regarding acceptance by God and clarity regarding meaning and purpose varied little across the various faith segments examined by Barna.
Other Trends Discerned
The research confirmed that the younger a person is, the less likely they are to trust the Bible as their source of moral guidance or to believe that absolute moral truth exists. For instance, 20% of adults 60 or older base their moral choices on the Bible and 18% of Baby Boomers do so, but only 13% of Baby Busters and a mere 9% of Mosaics follow suit. In the same manner, while four out of ten Boomers and Builders say moral truth is absolute, just 32% of Busters and 25% of Mosaics hold that view.
On the matter of possessing a biblical worldview, education substantially influenced people’s views. College graduates were twice as likely as other adults to have a biblical view of life (9% versus 4%, respectively). People who describe themselves as “mostly conservative” on social and political matters were twelve times more likely to have a biblical worldview than were people who said they are “mostly liberal” on such matters.
An intriguing discovery was that African-American adults, who generally emerge as the ethnic segment most deeply committed to the Christian faith, were substantially less likely than either whites or Hispanics to have a biblical worldview. In total, just 1% of black adults met the criteria, compared to 6% among whites and 8% among Hispanics. (Less than one-tenth of one percent of Asians possesses a biblical worldview.)
Down the Road
The survey outcomes compelled the survey’s director, George Barna, to remind Christian leaders to stay focused on the things that matter. “Our studies consistently show that churches base their sense of success on indicators such as attendance, congregant satisfaction, dollars raised and built-out square footage. None of those factors relates to the kind of radical shift in thinking and behavior that Jesus Christ died on the cross to facilitate. As long as we measure success on the basis of popularity and efficiency, we will continue to see a nation filled with people who can recite Bible stories but fail to live according to Bible principles.”
Asked for ideas as to how to remedy the widespread ignorance of biblical principles, Barna cited research he had completed regarding the limited impact of preaching. “We know that within two hours after leaving a church service, the typical individual cannot recall the theme of the sermon they heard. But if they have a discussion about a principle and its application to their life, or if they have a multi-sensory experience with those principles, they retain the information much longer and the probability that they will act on that information rises dramatically.”
Alluding to research that appeared in his book, Think Like Jesus , Barna encouraged ministry leaders to narrow the body of biblical principles they would like to see their people embrace as the foundation of their faith and create a long-term strategy for repeatedly driving those truths home in creative and practical ways. “Few people in churches have a biblical worldview because most preachers seem intent on teaching broadly rather than deeply. That’s emotionally and intellectually appealing, but until people have a mental framework through which they can process the numerous principles, ideas and stories provided in the Bible, preaching is typically an exercise in information overload. We have to prepare people to know what to do with the information. A biblical worldview gives them the filter they need to know how to categorize and implement the facts and ideals they receive.”
Research Source and Methodology
The data reported in this summary are based upon telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 1002 adults conducted in July of 2005 by The Barna Group. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All non-institutionalized adults in the 48 contiguous states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of respondents in the survey sample corresponds to the geographic dispersion of the U.S. adult population. The data were subjected to slight statistical weighting procedures to calibrate the survey base to national demographic proportions. Households selected for inclusion in the survey sample received multiple callbacks to increase the probability of obtaining a representative distribution of adults.
“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 were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.” Being classified as “born again” is not dependent upon church or denominational affiliation or involvement.
“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; contending that they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; stating that Satan exists; maintaining that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; asserting that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; saying that the Bible is totally accurate in all it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Further, respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.” Being classified as “evangelical” is not dependent upon any church or denominational affiliation or involvement.
“Notional Christians” are individuals who consider themselves to be Christian but who are not born again, based on the criteria described above.
The four generations identified in the report include the Builders (born 1927-1945), Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), Baby Busters (born 1965-1983) and Mosaics (born 1984-2002).
The Barna Research Group, Ltd. is an independent marketing research company located in southern California. Since 1984, it has been studying cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. If you would like to receive regular e-mailings of a brief overview of each new bi-weekly update on the latest research findings from the Barna Research Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna Research web site (www.barna.org).
© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009.
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