Oct 21, 2007

From the Archives

Most Americans Take Well-Known Bible Stories at Face Value

Americans may be skeptical about the claims of politicians, but they remain confident that some of the most amazing stories in the Bible can be taken at face value. A new nationwide survey conducted by The Barna Group shows that six well-known Bible stories are accepted as literal truth by an average of two out of three adults.

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How People Read the Stories

Survey respondents were asked if they thought a specific story in the Bible was “literally true, meaning it happened exactly as described in the Bible” or whether they thought the story was “meant to illustrate a principle but is not to be taken literally.” Six renowned Bible stories were then offered to adults for their consideration.

Surprisingly, the most significant Bible story of all – “the story of Jesus Christ rising from the dead, after being crucified and buried” – was also the most widely embraced. Three out of four adults (75%) said they interpreted that narrative literally, while only one out of five (19%) said they did not take that story literally. The more highly educated respondents were, the less likely they were to take the story literally, although even two-thirds of college graduates (68%) believe the resurrection narrative is literally true. One of the most substantial differences of opinion occurred between mainline Protestants (83% of whom take the resurrection literally) and non-mainline Protestants (among whom 95% accept the resurrection as fact). Overall, 82% of Catholics embrace the resurrection narrative as being true. Black adults were much more likely than either whites (74%) or Hispanics (80%) to consider the resurrection to be true.

The account of the prophet Daniel surviving in the lion’s den was deemed to be literally true by two-thirds of adults (65%). There was a huge regional difference of perspective. About half of the residents of the Northeast (51%) and West (55%) adopted a literal view of the story, compared to about three-quarters of those living in the South (78%) and Midwest (71%). There was a huge gap between Protestants (81%) and Catholics (51%) taking a literal view of this event. The ethnic gap persisted, as well: 85% of blacks, 66% of whites and 56% of Hispanics adopted a literal view of Daniel’s experience.

Two out of three Americans (64%) believe that Moses literally parted the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to escape from the Egyptians. Regionally, almost four out of five southerners (78%) accept this story as literal truth, while less than three out of five adults from other regions hold the same view (59% in the Midwest and West, 57% in the Northeast). Similarly, four out of five Protestants (79%) and three out of five Catholics (60%) embrace a literal interpretation of the Red Sea story.

The Bible says that the young shepherd boy, David, killed the giant warrior, Goliath, with stones and a sling shot. Nearly two-thirds of Americans (63%) accept that story as accurate. However, only a minority of all Catholics (46%) embrace that incident as having happened just as described in the Bible. In contrast, 68% of mainline Protestant adults perceive the story to be literally true and a robust 86% of Protestants attending non-mainline churches concur. Blacks again emerged as the ethnic group most likely to interpret the story literally (81%, versus 64% among Hispanics and 61% among whites).

The story of the apostle Peter walking on water with Jesus was considered to be literally true by 60% of adults. People who did not graduate from college were more likely to view this story as literal truth than were those with a college degree (65% versus 50%), and people in the South (75%) were far more likely than adults from other regions (54%) to embrace this as literally accurate. There was a huge Catholic-Protestant split on this issue: just half of Catholics (53%) believe this story is literally true, compared to three-quarters of all Protestants (75%). Blacks (79%) were substantially more likely than either whites (58%) or Hispanics (62%) to see the event as something that actually happened.

The Bible opens with the description of God creating the universe in six days. That report is accepted as literally true by 60% of the adult population. This passage brought out major distinctions across people groups. For instance, while 73% of the adults who did not attend college believe this account to be literal, just half as many college graduates (38%) hold that view. About half of the residents of the Northeast (52%) and West (50%) hold a literal view of the creation account, compared to 62% of those in the Midwest and 72% of those in the South. Again, the Catholic-Protestant divide was sizeable: half of Catholics (52%) and three-fourths of Protestants (74%) have a literal interpretation of creation. More than four out of five blacks (83%) are literalists on this matter, versus 64% of Hispanics and 59% of whites.

There were very consistent patterns related to people’s political inclinations. Of the six stories examined, just one story (the resurrection of Christ) was considered to be literally true by at least half of all liberals. In contrast, among conservatives, only one of those stories was taken literally by less than 80% (the 76% who embraced the six day creation as absolute truth.) Similarly, the data showed that Republicans were more likely than either Democrats or Independents to accept each of the stories as literally accurate. For all six narratives, Independents were the voting group least likely to hold a literal interpretation, an average of twenty percentage points lower than the norm among Republicans.

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Americans Continue to Wrestle with Truth

The survey findings suggest that Americans are continuing to wrestle with the concept of truth, the nature of God, and the value of the Bible in personal decision-making.

Many people who do not embrace a literal interpretation of the scriptures nevertheless accept some of the Bible’s more sensational stories. “Not only do most Americans believe in the existence of God, but they believe in His power and in the miracles He performs,” commented researcher George Barna, who directed the study. “Holding back the seas, walking on water, rising from the dead, surviving in a lion cage, and killing a skilled and armed warrior with a sling shot are examples of God doing extraordinary things in the lives of ordinary people. These and other Bible stories inspire people to believe that their personal trust in that powerful God is warranted. Although some people may dismiss such writings as fairy tales for children, the data indicate that the typical American has adopted these accounts as the foundation of a valued faith in God.”

But Barna also noted a significant disconnect between faith and practice. “While the level of literal acceptance of these Bible stories is nothing short of astonishing given our cultural context, the widespread embrace of these accounts raises questions about the unmistakable gap between belief and behavior. On the one hand we have tens of millions of people who view these narratives as reflections of the reality, the authority and the involvement of God in our lives. On the other hand, a majority of those same people harbor a stubborn indifference toward God and His desire to have intimacy with them. In fact, a minority of the people who believe these stories to be true consistently apply the principles imbedded in these stories within their own lives. It seems that millions of Americans believe the Bible content is true, but are not willing to translate those stories into action. Sadly, for many people, the Bible has become a respected but impersonal religious history lesson that stays removed from their life.”

About the Research

This report is based upon a nationwide telephone survey conducted by The Barna Group in August 2007 among a random sample of 1000 adults, age 18 and older. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.

“Mainline Protestant” churches were those associated with the American Baptist, United Church of Christ, Episcopal, United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Presbyterian Church in the USA denominations.

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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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