One of March’s media stories has been the success of the History Channel miniseries, “The Bible.” The first episode, which premiered on March 3, had 13.1 million viewers, according to Nielsen, making it the highest entertainment (read: non-sports) broadcast of 2013.
The interest in a cable series makes it clear the American public is certainly interested in the Bible. But what do Americans actually think about the Bible? Do they believe it to be sacred, authoritative or merely nonsense? Do they try to follow its exhortations, or do they regard the Bible as antiquated literature? Does the Bible still matter—besides television ratings—to Americans?
A recent survey from the Barna Group, commissioned by the American Bible Society, provides some insight into these questions. From the results, it’s easy to see why the Bible remains a cultural force in the United States. Yet, its future role looks very different than its past.
The Bible’s place in society
If the Bible has such resonance with television viewers, then it stands to reason the awareness of the Christian Scriptures is high in America. And indeed, nearly nine out of ten (88%) Americans actually own a Bible. Despite such a high number, that’s declined since 1993, though only slightly, when 92% of Americans owned a Bible. On average, American Bible owners have 3.5 Bibles in their home, and one-quarter of Bible owners (24%) have six or more.
In terms of demographic breakdowns, about eight out of ten (79%) Mosaics (people aged 18-28) own a Bible, compared with nearly all (95%) Elders (who are ages 65-plus). And while it might not be surprising that religiously devoted Christians own Bibles, the study finds that six out of ten Americans (59%) who have no faith or who identify as atheists own a Bible. Despite many aspects of society that are secularizing, penetration of Scripture remains high in 2013.
Add to that, eight out of ten (80%) Americans identify the Bible as sacred literature, without any prompting from interviewers. That proportion has also dipped from 2011, when 85% of respondents affirmed this perspective of the Bible. Americans’ overall belief in Scripture’s sacredness may also explain why almost two-thirds (61%) of American adults also say they wish they read the Bible more.
Compared to the large number of people believing the Bible to be sacred, fewer than one out of ten Americans (8%) said they thought the Koran was sacred, and only half that many (4%) identified the Torah as holy literature. Perhaps connected to the swelling ranks of the religiously unaffiliated, one out of eight adults (12%) do not regard any book to be sacred text. This percentage has nearly doubled in two years, when the proportion was 7%.
Does society need the Bible?
So, how does the broad base of the Bible’s awareness play out on the national stage of public opinion? For many, the moral stature of the country as well as political realities are determined based upon Bible engagement. Just over three-quarters (77%) believe “the values and morals of America are declining.” And when asked what is to blame for this “decline,” one-third of Americans (32%) attribute that shift to a lack of Bible reading. This is a greater percentage of people than point to the “negative influence of media” (29%) or “corruption from corporate greed” (25%). Similarly, nearly six out of ten adults (56%) believe the Bible has too little influence in American society—that’s more than four times the percentage of people who think the Bible has too much influence (13%).
Millions of people also believe the Bible’s moral teachings will help the next generation. Nearly half (46%) of adults believe the Bible doesn’t have much impact on American youth. Perhaps that explains why two-thirds (66%) think public schools should teach values found in the Bible. The main reason for holding that viewpoint? Three-quarters (75%) of those supporting this believe “the Bible teaches moral principles that are badly needed in society.” Still, even among those who contend public schools should teach about the Bible, almost half (45%) say they would be concerned about “favoring one religion over another.” One-quarter of adults who support teaching about the Bible in public education (25%) say there is no legitimate reason not to teach the Bible in public schools.
Despite the perception that Scripture hasn’t impacted the nation’s young people, Mosaics (ages 18-28) actually tend to show more interest in what the Bible has to say on certain issues than do older adults. Four out of ten Mosaics (40%) say they are interested in the Bible’s wisdom on dealing with illness and death, compared with about one-quarter of all adults (28%) who say the same. More than one-third of Mosaics (35%) are interested in the Bible’s perspective on dating and relationships, and four out of ten (42%) want to know what Scripture says about parenting—both of those percentages are much higher than the norms.
Despite a clear cultural interest and awareness of the Bible, the research also shows that neutral or negative attitudes toward the Bible are becoming more commonplace. In 2011, more than half (53%) of adults said the Bible “contains everything a person needs to live a meaningful life.” In 2013, that percentage dipped below half of the population (47%). And although the 61% of American adults who want to read the Bible represents a majority of Americans, it’s a step down from the 67% of adults who said the same in 2011. Furthermore, the percentage of adults who believe the Bible contains everything a person needs to live a meaningful life has declined substantially from 75% to 66% in the last two years.
Additionally, despite a generally high number of Americans who think the Bible is sacred, there’s also a fairly high proportion of Americans who at least somewhat agree the Bible, the Koran and the Book of Mormon are all different expressions of the same spiritual truths. Nearly half of Americans agree with that statement (31% of Americans agree somewhat, while 16% agree strongly), which hasn’t significantly changed since 2011.
Overall, there has been a decrease in people who are friendly or neutral toward the Bible—those people in the “middle” who are neither engaged with Scripture nor who actively dislike the Bible. Since 2011, the number of American adults who are engaged with Scripture—people who believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God with no errors and who read the Bible four times a week—has stayed about the same (staying relatively constant from 20% in 2011 to 21% in 2013).
However, the number of American adults who are friendly–or, those who believe the Bible to be inspired and infallible but don’t read the Bible as often—has gone down (from 45% to 39%). Those who are neutral—the people who rarely read the Bible and believe the Bible to be inspired but containing errors—numbered 25% of American adults in 2011, and is about the same in 2013 (23%). The biggest jump of any group are those American adults who are antagonistic to the Bible, meaning they believe the Bible to just be a book of stories and teachings written by men, and they rarely or never read the Bible. That group stood at one in ten adults (10%) in 2011. In 2013, their ranks have grown to 17% of all U.S. adults.
The Bible Miniseries
The collaboration between Barna Group and American Bible Society also explored the recent hit television show “The Bible,” which aired on the History Channel. The research shows that a majority of Americans have heard of the series and 42% of adults report watching at least a portion of the programming. Although active Christians are among the most likely group to watch the miniseries, the study shows that 27% of non-Christian adults have tuned in to some part of the series.
Overall, seven out of ten viewers (69%) say the miniseries gave them a “surprise or new discovery” about the Bible that they didn’t know before watching. Among those segments most likely to report such insights are Mosaics, or young adult, viewers.
What the research means
David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, pointed to several conclusions from the study:
- Most Americans esteem the Bible and have access to it. However, even if there’s a baseline of respect, people aren’t sure how to apply the lessons of Scripture to public life or society, particularly in an increasingly pluralistic nation.
- The middle ground related to the Bible seems to be disappearing. The decrease of Bible-neutral and Bible-friendly people and the increase of Bible-antagonists suggest that more people are picking a side. It echoes the rise of religiously unaffiliated Americans—these changes are perhaps less about the decline in belief and more about there being less cultural baggage to identifying as skeptical or disbelieving.
- There’s a healthy cultural respect for and fascination with Scripture, which helps to explain why millions have tuned into “The Bible” series. People seem to be open to experiencing ancient scriptures in new ways.
- Mosaics—a generation often called millennials—are very intrigued by the role of the Bible in providing guidance and wisdom. It is a surprising expression of openness to Christianity amidst a generational cohort that is increasingly post-religious.