The Bible has been making its way onto box office screens and home TV screens over the past year: from Noah to Son of God, people have been watching the Bible. But are they still reading the Bible? And do they still believe in the Bible?
Each year, Barna Group partners with the American Bible Society on State of the Bible, a comprehensive study of Americans’ attitudes and behaviors toward the Bible. Asking a national representative sample of adults the same questions year after year allows us to track the country’s shifting perceptions of Scriptures.
This year’s research reveals six trends in Bible engagement: from the Bible’s continued role as a cultural icon, to increased digital Bible reading, to a rise in skepticism toward Scripture, particularly among Millennials.
1. Bible skepticism is now “tied” with Bible engagement.
This year’s research reveals that skepticism toward the Bible continues to rise. For the first time since tracking began, Bible skepticism is tied with Bible engagement. The number of those who are skeptical or agnostic toward the Bible—who believe that the Bible is “just another book of teachings written by men that contains stories and advice”—has nearly doubled from 10% to 19% in just three years. This is now equal to the number of people who are Bible engaged—who read the Bible at least four times a week and believe it is the actual or inspired Word of God.
Digging into the population segmentation of Bible skeptics, we find that two-thirds are 48 or younger (28% Millennials, 36% Gen-Xers), and they are twice as likely to be male (68%) than female (32%). They are more likely to identify as Catholic than any other single denomination or affiliation (30%) and are the most-likely segment not to have attended church (87%) or prayed (63%) during the previous week. They are also most likely not to have made a commitment to Jesus that is important in their life today (76%).
Not only are Millennials more likely to be skeptical toward Scripture, they are also less likely to read the Bible (39% say they never read the Bible, compared to 26% of all adults), less likely to own a Bible (80% compared to 88%) and less likely to believe the Bible contains everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life (35% compared to 50%). Given the increase in Millennials who don’t believe the Bible is sacred and the decrease in Bible awareness among Millennials, Bible skepticism will likely continue to rise in the next five years.
2. Despite the declines, most Americans continue to be “pro-Bible.”
While the percentage of Americans who believe the Bible is sacred has fallen in recent years, from 86% in 2011 to 79% in 2014, it’s still a sizable majority of all adults. In general, Americans continue to view the Bible very positively. More than half of Americans (56%) are “pro-Bible”—meaning they believe the Bible is the actual or inspired word of God with no errors. Most adults say the Bible encourages forgiveness (91%), generosity (88%) and patience (89%) while discouraging war (62%), slavery (60%) and prostitution (82%). Nearly nine in 10 households own at least one Bible (88%) and the average number of Bibles per household is 4.7.
Being pro-Bible doesn’t necessarily mean Americans use the Bible regularly, however. Only 37% of Americans report reading the Bible once a week or more. Among those who have read Scripture in the previous week, not quite six in 10 (57%) say they gave a lot of thought to how it might apply to their life. While the Bible’s place in America as a cultural icon endures, it’s not always perceived as a transformational text. Even as Bible ownership remains strong, readership and engagement are weak.
3. Distraction and busyness continue to squeeze out the Bible.
So what keeps people from reading the Bible they own? Like all other forms of analog media, the Bible is pushed to the side in part because people are just too busy. Among those who say their Bible reading decreased in the last year, the number-one reason was busyness: 40% report being too busy with life’s responsibilities (job, family, etc.), an increase of seven points from just one year ago.
Other factors Americans cite as reasons for less time reading Scripture include a significant change in their life (17%), becoming atheist or agnostic (15%), going through a difficult experience that caused them to doubt God (13%) and seeing that reading the Bible made very little difference in someone else’s life (8%).
These relatively smaller percentages reveal that Americans don’t often turn away from the Bible over ideological or emotional conflicts. Indeed, on the whole Americans say they want to read the Bible—62% wish they read Scripture more—they just don’t know how to make time.
4. The age of screens has come to stay in the Bible market.
One antidote to the distraction of the screen age is to put the Bible onscreen. And this past year certainly saw the Bible come to more screens than ever—from smartphone apps to primetime TV—and Americans responded. Of adults who increased their Bible readership last year, one-quarter (26%) say it was due to having downloaded the Bible onto their smartphone or tablet. More than one in 10 (12%) credit their increased Bible reading to podcasts or streaming church services. And an additional one in 10 (11%) say watching The Bible miniseries on TV inspired them to read Scripture more.
In just a handful of years, use of tablets and smartphones for Bible searches has skyrocketed, from 18% in 2011 to 35% in 2014. That said, a strong majority still prefer to read the Bible in print (84%); the same holds true even among Millennials (81%), who are most likely to use the Internet to read Bible content (62% compared to 44% of all adults).
5. Increasingly, people come to the Bible for answers or comfort.
While the majority of people still come to the Scriptures to connect with God, their number is shrinking, from 64% in 2011 to 56% in 2014. Today, people are increasingly likely to come to the Bible for more pragmatic needs: nearly one-third (up from 26% in 2011) say they read the Bible for comfort or to help them address life’s questions. This increase is consistent with last year’s study, which showed that Millennials in particular want to know how the Bible connects to everyday matters like parenting, finances, the workplace, and so on. They are the generation most likely to read the Bible for direction or answers to a problem (25%, compared to 19% of Gen-X, 16% Boomers and 11% Elders).
6. People are less likely to link moral decline with a lack of Bible reading.
Eight in 10 adults believe the values and morals of America are declining—but perceptions about the reasons for the decline have shifted over time. Compared to 2013, people are more likely to blame declining morals on movies, music, and TV rather than on a lack of Bible reading. Additionally, while half of all adults would say the Bible has too little influence on society, only 30% of Millennials believe this.
Bible skeptics are less likely than other segments to say the values and morals of America are declining. It’s not clear whether this belief informs their skepticism or their skepticism informs this belief—or a complex dynamic of both. Millennials, as well, are less likely than the national average to say morals are on the decline (74%). Among young adults who agree there is a moral decline, just 17% blame a lack of Bible reading, compared to 26% of all adults.