Religious Beliefs Remain Constant But Subgroups Are Quite Different

March 19, 2004 – Americans apparently establish a system of beliefs early in life and hold on to them for life. That’s one of the conclusions supported by the latest annual tracking survey from The Barna Group regarding the religious beliefs of Americans.

Upon examining a dozen belief factors measured annually over a ten-year period, Barna’s research indicates that surprisingly few people have altered their spiritual perspectives during the past decade.

The study also revealed, however, huge differences in beliefs across various demographic and religious subsets of the national population.

What Adults Believe

The survey examined a dozen religious beliefs that have been tracked by The Barna Group for two decades. Here are some of the key findings: 

  •  Nearly nine out of ten adults (87%) claim that their religious faith is very important in their life today. Three out of four adults strongly affirm that idea.
     
  •  Overall, roughly three-quarters of all adults (77%) are associated with the Christian faith. One out of eight (12%) are atheist or agnostic, while the remaining 11% are aligned with some other faith group.
     
  • Americans possess many views about God. About seven out of ten (69%) believe that God is the “all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the universe who still rules that world today."
     
  • Six out of ten adults (60%) believe the Bible is "totally accurate in all of its teachings." However, less than half (44%) strongly agree with that notion.
     
  • Six out of ten adults also contend that Satan does not exist but is merely a "symbol of evil." Only one-quarter of all adults (24%) strongly reject the idea that the Devil is only symbolic.
     
  • Slightly more than half of all adults (55%) say that a good person can earn a place in Heaven. Only one-fourth of the population (28%) strongly disagrees with the concept of salvation by good deeds.
     
  • Half of all adults (52%) agree that they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs with other people. Only one-third (35%) firmly believes in that responsibility.
     
  • Among those individuals who are associated with the Christian faith, only half (50%) rate themselves as being "absolutely committed" to the Christian faith.
     
  • Just less than half of the country (44%) believes that Jesus Christ committed sins during His time on earth. Forty-eight percent disagree with this contention. Two out of every five adults (39%) strongly oppose this idea.

     

    When compared to data from a decade earlier, there have been few changes in these factors. Since 1995 there has been an increase in the percentage of adults who say they have a personal responsibility for sharing their faith with others (up from 48% to 52%, while the proportion who reject that responsibility has dropped from 50% to 44%). There has been no other statistically significant change in these factors.

     

    Beliefs Have Remained Consistent Since 1995
    (Percent who "agree strongly" or "agree somewhat" with the statement)

     
    1995
    1996
    1997
    1998
    1999
    2000
    2001
    2002
    2003
    2004
    BELIEF STATEMENT
    -
    -
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
    the Bible is totally accurate in all
    of its teachings
    63%
    58%
    58%
    58%
    56%
    60%
    60%
    62%
    62%
    60%
    you, personally, have a
    responsibility to tell other
    people your religious beliefs
    48
    48
    46
    47
    44
    48
    51
    51
    53
    52
    your religious faith is very
    important in your life
    87
    85
    87
    83
    83
    85
    84
    83
    84
    87
    the devil, or Satan, is not
    a living being but is a
    symbol of evil
    58
    60
    62
    61
    59
    58
    58
    61
    67
    60
    if a person is generally
    good, or does enough
    good things for others
    during their life, they will
    earn a place in Heaven
    57
    54
    52
    56
    52
    51
    51
    54
    56
    55
    when He lived on earth,
    Jesus Christ was human
    and committed sins, like
    other people
    42
    42
    40
    43
    42
    39
    43
    44
    44
    44


    Evangelicals, Born Again and Notional Christians

    One of the tracking measures used by Barna relates to the percentage of people who fit into one of three categories: evangelical Christians, non-evangelical born again Christians, and notional Christians.

    Evangelical Christians are a subset of the born again Christian population, meaning that they say they have made a personal commitment to Christ that is important in their life today and believe they will experience eternal salvation because they have confessed their sins and accepted Christ as their savior. (The term "evangelical" is not used in Barna surveys; people do not self-identify as "evangelical." 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. In the survey, being categorized as "evangelical" was not dependent upon any church or denominational affiliation or involvement.

    The survey discovered that evangelical Christians constitute just 7% of the adult population, which is statistically equivalent to the 6% measured in 1995.

    Non-evangelical born again adults have made a personal commitment to Christ that is important in their life today and believe they will experience eternal salvation because they have confessed their sins and accepted Christ as their savior. (The term "born again" was not used in Barna surveys; people did not self-identify as "born again" and being categorized as "born again" was not dependent upon any church or denominational affiliation or involvement.) Born again adults do not, however, possess the other theological views of evangelicals. This size of the group has remained unchanged from a decade ago: 31% today, compared to 30% in 1995.

    The aggregate born again population - that is, the evangelicals plus the non-evangelical born again niche - represents 38% of the total adult population. That is equivalent to the proportion measured a decade ago.

    Notional Christian are neither evangelical nor born again, but are affiliated with a Christian church. This group is the majority of those who are labeled "Christian," representing 39% of the adult population. This segment, too, is roughly the same proportion of the adult population as was the case ten years ago.

     

    The Born Again and Evangelical Segments Have Been No-Growth Groups for A Decade
    (Percent who "agree strongly" or "agree somewhat" with the statement)

     
    1995
    1996
    1997
    1998
    1999
    2000
    2001
    2002
    2003
    2004
    All born again adults
    36%
    39%
    43%
    39%
    40%
    41%
    41%
    40%
    38%
    38%
    Evangelical adults
    6
    8
    7
    6
    7
    8
    7
    5
    6
    7
    Atheist or agnostic
    9
    12
    9
    11
    8
    7
    9
    13
    11
    12


    Demographic Patterns Show Differences

    Upon evaluating more than four-dozen different demographic segments in the adult population, the survey revealed several dramatic patterns.

    For instance, across all of the beliefs examined, those who held perspectives most closely aligned with the Bible were evangelicals, born agains, Republicans and Protestants. The groups whose views were least likely to correspond to biblical teaching were residents of the Northeast, Asians, Catholics and those who are registered to vote but do not have a party affiliation (i.e., Independents).

    Age patterns were evident as well. The youngest adult generation - the Baby Busters - was generally less comfortable with biblical beliefs than were older adults. Most surprising, in fact, is that Busters were 18% less likely than their elders to claim that their religious faith is very important in their life. Busters, the group presently between the ages of 20 and 38, were also twice as likely as adults from the Boomer, Builder and Seniors generations to describe themselves as atheist or agnostic.

    The major racial segments of the population hold divergent faith views on many of these factors. Blacks were consistently the group that was most likely to hold views that correspond to biblical teaching, while Asians were the group least likely to do so. Among the largest gaps were those concerning the accuracy of the Bible (two-thirds of blacks strongly affirmed the Bible’s accuracy, compared to less than half among the other three racial groups), views of God (eight out of ten blacks held an orthodox view, compared to two-thirds of whites and Hispanics and just half of Asians), and the holiness of Jesus Christ (maintained by half of black adults but just one-third of the other racial groups).

    The study also noted that women were, on average, some 23% more likely than men to hold positions consistent with biblical teaching.

    The theological gap between Protestants and Catholics was unmistakable. The average gap between the two groups on the core measures was 22-percentage points. For example, Protestants were twice as likely to strongly affirm the accuracy of the Bible (61% - 31%), a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs with others (47% - 22%), the holiness of Christ while He was on earth (52% - 26%), and the existence of Satan (31% - 14%). Protestants were five times more likely to strongly reject the idea of salvation by works (41% vs. 8%) and they were three times more likely to be born again (58% vs. 21%).

    Implications Given The Changing Ethnicity of America

    Using Census data to build projections, Barna also described the likely contours of America’s faith in 2050. The Census Bureau expects the national population to balloon from the current 293 million people to nearly 420 million in 2050. Its projections show that the white population will drop from 69.4% of the population to 50.1%; blacks will increase from 12.7% to 14.6%; Hispanics will rise from 13% to 24.4%; and Asians will jump from 3.8% to 8%.

    Using its own tracking figures and the Census projections, Barna then provided some rough estimates of the proportion of the born again population each ethnic group will comprise in 2050 compared to its share today. Hispanics will double in market share, from 10% today to 19.9% in 2050. Asians will also double their relative presence in the born again constituency, going from 1.3% to 2.7%. Blacks will rise more gradually, going from the current 15.2% to about 18.6%. The big loser in share will be white born again adults who are expected to plummet from 72.9% of the born again pie to just 55.6% in 2050.

    Observations About Beliefs

    George Barna, whose company has been conducting this research for more than twenty years, commented, “The consistency of people’s religious beliefs over time is a tribute to the fact that beliefs are formed when people are young and maintained for the duration of life. Recent studies we have conducted show that the beliefs a person holds at age 13 vary little during their adult years. The most effective way to influence such beliefs is by teaching people when they are young and still in a spiritually formative stage. Our studies find little impact from preaching, adult Sunday school and adult small groups upon the beliefs of adults."

    Barna also responded to questions about the changing ethnicity of the Church. "If the projections by us and the Census Bureau hold true, the total number of born again adults will not only increase by about 20% by mid-century, but the nature of that segment will be radically reshaped. The three largest ethnic communities will gain 15 points while the white population will give up 17 points. That’s a huge swing and will result in massive transitions in the national faith arena. A new group of spiritual leaders will emerge, different language and communication styles will be embraced, the emphasis in facilities and construction will change, church planting will move in a different direction that that which dominates the scene today, the funding of global missions will be affected, and the community outreach efforts of Protestant churches will be quite different. Even the Christian media will be greatly impacted by the transition in the born again make-up. Of course, should there be any type of significant spiritual awakening in this country before then, those changes become even more apparent."

    Asked to correlate the current data with his recently released figures on the upswing in religious behavior in the western states, the California-based researcher stated that the same pattern was not evident. "People’s religious behavior changes more frequently than does their belief set. Westerners are more active in religious practices today than they have been in the past, but they still possess the same unorthodox blend of biblical and non-biblical views that have fostered the confusing and inconsistent theological contexts that permeate the West. We found no evidence of significant changes in the beliefs of people in the western states."
    Barna, whose most recent books have focused on the development of spiritual beliefs - Think Like Jesus and Transforming Children Into Spiritual Champions - also noted that only a minority of people hold intense beliefs. "Less than half of the public is strongly convinced of the position they hold on most of the core spiritual perspectives we evaluate. For instance, although three out of five adults say they believe the Bible is totally accurate in the principles it teaches, only two out of every five strongly hold that view. This is significant," he continued, "because views that are not held firmly have less influence on a person’s thinking and behavior. If you examine the intensity of people’s religious beliefs, the clear pattern is that there is not much that Americans believe with unshakable confidence. Most beliefs are loosely held - they are guesses more than convictions - which explains why such beliefs do not seem to have much impact on people’s choices."

    The data for the annual religious beliefs and behavior tracking survey by The Barna Group are based upon telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 1014 adults conducted in late January and early February of 2004. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All non-institutionalized adults in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of respondents coincided with 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 ethnic and gender proportions. Households selected for inclusion in the survey sample received multiple callbacks to increase the probability of obtaining a representative distribution of adults.

    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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