Sep 27, 2010

From the Archives

Survey Finds Lots of Spiritual Dialogue But Not Much Change

The explosion of communications devices and technology in the past decade has substantially expanded the amount of public dialogue related to all kinds of issues, including religion. Yet, even though Americans spend lots of time discussing and debating religious beliefs and spiritual practices, a new survey by The Barna Group shows that all of that interaction has translated into very little change in people’s faith life.

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Few Admit to Changes
People’s political beliefs change occasionally, as they are confronted with new information or creative policy options that address public problems. But among the adults randomly sampled for the nationwide survey, just 7% said they could think of any religious beliefs, practices, or preferences they had altered during the past five years.

The types of people most likely to have shifted any religious positions or practices included 13% of young adults (18 to 26 years old), 12% of registered voters who are independent of a political party, and 11% adults who describe themselves as “mostly liberal” on social and political matters.

The segments of the adult population least likely to have changed any of their religious standards included people 65 or older (just 3% acknowledged any changes), registered Republicans (4%), and sociopolitical conservatives (6%).

Adults who belonged to religious segments such as evangelicals, born again Christians, atheists and agnostics, and unchurched adults were neither more nor less likely than the national average to have changed their religious perspectives or behaviors in the past five years.

Changes Specified
The specific shifts in religious life identified by the 7% who acknowledged any kind of change was dominated by people’s sense of commitment to their faith. Less common transitions related to positions on political matters affected by their faith interpretations; new insights into morality; and increased tolerance for other’s views.

On the one hand about one-third of adults who experienced any change at all mentioned an increase in some aspect of their faith commitment. Fourteen percent said they had stepped up their commitment to the Christian faith, in general; 12% cited an increase in their religious activity; and 9% indicated their commitment to God had grown.

On the other hand 16% said they had moved away from Christianity; 11% noted that their feelings about or perceptions toward churches had deteriorated; and 8% admitted to decreasing their religious activity. Another 8% claimed to have changed churches or denominations during the past five years. Among those whose appreciation of or respect for churches declined, a majority specified the sexual abuse scandals within the Catholic church as the dominant factor in their change of heart.

Roughly one out of every ten people who recalled making a change noted that their faith experiences had led them to either switch their position related to homosexuality (evenly divided between those who went from opposition to support, and the other half undergoing the opposite shift) or they had changed their position on some other political or social issue due to their religious convictions. Two out of every three people who claimed to have changed such a point of view indicated that the change related to their stand on homosexuality.

A related set of changes were those mentioned by 6% who realized some of their understanding about morality had transitioned. In addition, 5% claimed to have become more tolerant of people with different spiritual views than they held.

No other shifts registered at least 5%.

Note that when the proportion of adults who made any religious changes in the past five years is computed among all adults – not just among the 7% who admitted to any change – none of the shifts described had been made by more than 1% of the aggregate adult population.

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Patterns of Interest
George Barna, founder of the Barna Group, analyzed the results and observed several interesting patterns from the data.

The most obvious result was that according to adults, they have experienced very little, if any, change in their religious life over the five-year period. That raises questions about the impact of church-related activity – not so much whether or not impact can be achieved, but if the courses of action currently pursued are capable of facilitating and reinforcing significant change. These results are consistent with a pattern identified in Barna’s studies over the years: most of the religious beliefs, behaviors and expectations that define a person’s life have been developed and embraced by the age of 13; relatively little changes after that time. The current study underscores how little movement there is in people’s religious thinking once they become an adult.

Second, one of the most unusual outcomes of the study was the balance in the nature of changes related to people’s religious commitments. The percentage of individuals who experienced increased commitment to Christianity was nearly identical to the percentage of adults who underwent a decrease in their commitment to the Christian faith. This suggests that there is more change happening than may be apparent by simply observing the end result in the nation’s faith views and actions; some of the transitions cancel out each other’s effect. Yet, given the fact that only 7% of adults could think of any instances of change in their religious life, the larger conclusion that might be drawn is that religious leaders are not provoking people to think deeply and practically about the major issues of life and culture from a religious perspective. The data reflected relatively generic shifts that had occurred in lives, without much evidence of a deeper level of intellectual or spiritual struggle taking place.

Third, people’s emotion and devotion related to religion represent the areas of the greatest change, while the least amount of movement is exhibited in relation to the integration of faith into every dimension of life and the recalibration of personal biblical interpretation or spiritual perspectives. It also appears that when theological views are altered, such shifts are largely due to having wrestled with the personal and moral implications of a high-profile, real-world issue, such as abortion or homosexuality.

Fourth, because the survey revealed that more than two-thirds of adults say their religious faith is very important in their life, and a large majority regularly talks to others about matters of faith, the nature of their religion-focused reflection and discussions may not be as substantive or thoughtful as some observers might imagine. People do not appear to be turning to religion as often as assumed for answers to troubling questions. Adults do not seem to spend much time pondering the relationship of their faith to current cultural challenges and developments. Much of the personal reflection and even conversation related to faith relate to deriving a greater sense of comfort and support from their religious beliefs, traditions, and relationships.

Additional Reading and Resources

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About the Research
This report is based upon telephone interviews conducted by The Barna Group with a random sample of 1,000 adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older, August 16-22, 2010. The interviews included 125 among people using cell phones. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.

The survey question on which the data in this report is based was: “Has anything related to your religious beliefs, practices, or preferences changed in the past five years?” Among those who said “yes,” a follow-up question was asked to determine the specific details of the changes they had undergone. Interviewers probed those responses for clarity.

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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