The Bible continues to be the world’s most-read book of all time with more than 5 billion copies sold, but the latest research shows that Americans’ skepticism and interest in Christianity’s holy book continues to drop drastically — even with its increased access through Bible apps and other electronic means.
“The steady rise of skepticism is creating a cultural atmosphere that is becoming unfriendly to claims of faith; the adoption of self-fulﬁllment as our culture’s ultimate measure of good is re-orienting moral authority; and the explosive growth of digital tools such as Bible apps, daily reading plans, study resources and online communities offer unprecedented access to the Scriptures,” the Barna Group deduced from its continuing studies over the decades.
According to Barna, unprecedented changes have taken place in the United States over the past six years alone — in regards to the way Americans interact with the Bible.
“Nearly a quarter of a century ago in 1991, 45 percent of American adults … [indicated] they read the Bible at least once a week — in 2009, 46 percent reported doing so,” Barna reports. “These percentages were remarkably consistent over the course of nearly two decades, [b]ut since 2009, Bible reading has become less widespread — especially among the youngest adults.”
The most drastic changes are due to the youngest generation of American adults, the Millennials (born between 1984 and 2002), who continue to lower the national average of those who read their Bible weekly.
“Today, about one-third of all American adults report reading the Bible once a week or more,” researchers divulged. “The percentage is highest among Elders [born in 1945 or before] (49 percent) and lowest among Millennials (24 percent).
The Bible’s role and influence on American society has been regularly recorded by Barna for more than three decades, and its latest enterprise over the past six years — working in partnership with the American Bible Society — has highlighted constant changes regarding American’s faith and adherence to the Scriptures over time by examining more than 14,000 American adults and teens. The results have been recently unleashed through Barna’s annual "State of the Bible" reports, as well as through its recently published The Bible in America.
A few uplifting notes about the Bible
Despite the fact that Americans are decreasingly looking to the Bible as an authority to guide their lives, the latest study uncovered some positive feedback on adults’ attitudes regarding the importance and influence of the holy book.
“Most Americans — including a majority of young adults — believe the Bible has been more influential on humanity than any other text,” Barna disclosed. “A majority — also including young adults — believes the Bible contains everything a person needs to know in order to live a meaningful life.”
It was also noted that a large percentage of American society holds the Bible in high regard.
“Two-thirds of all Americans hold an orthodox view of the Bible — that it is the actual or inspired word of God,” the report states. “Nearly half read the Scriptures at least once a month, [and] fidelity to the Bible is strong among practicing Christians of all ages.”
Skepticism rising over past six years
Faith in and reliance upon the holy books of several major religions in the U.S. has remained relatively unchanged over the years, and the Bible continues to outrank the Torah, the Koran and the Book of Mormon as America’s number one choice. Yet an increasing number of Americans are not choosing any of these as the sacred book by which they identify their spiritual beliefs.
“[T]he percentage of Americans who opt for ‘none of these’ has doubled in six years, from 7 percent in 2011 to 14 percent in 2016,” the research shows. “This increase is mostly thanks to Millennials (22 percent) and Gen-Xers [born between 1965 and 1983] (18 percent), who are significantly more likely than Boomers [born between 1946 and 1964] (8 percent) and Elders (7 percent) to say none of the options qualifies as a holy book.”
There is also an American trend that is falling away from the Bible as being the source of one’s fulfillment.
“Similarly, there is rising skepticism about the Bible as a sufficient guide for living a meaningful life,” those conducting the study explained. “The percentage of people who strongly agree with the statement has contracted in six years from 53 percent in 2011 to 45 percent in 2016 — and the percentages of those who disagree strongly or somewhat have increased over the same time frame, from 23 to 33 percent.”
The Bible’s reliability is also being increasingly questioned, as it is no longer being trusted a trustworthy source by a majority of Americans.
“Barna first asked American adults in 1991 if they agreed or disagreed that ‘the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches,’” researchers noted. “Twenty-five years ago, 46 percent strongly agreed — close to half — but today, one-third of Americans say so, [a]nd the percentage of those who strongly disagree has nearly doubled in six years.”
And as regard for the Bible drops, Americans are becoming increasingly concerned that society is losing its sense for right and wrong.
“Millennials, Gen-Xers, Boomers and Elders — Americans 18 years of age and older — are worried that moral behavior is becoming a thing of the past,” Barna added.
Those analyzing the surveys note that there are some positive and negative takeaways from the results.
“The national shifts in these three perceptions — 1) the Bible is sacred literature, 2) is sufficient as a guide for meaningful living and 3) is reliably accurate — are the clearest indicators that skepticism about the Bible is gaining a stronger cultural foothold,” Barna observed. “Thus far, however, growing skepticism seems to have had minimal impact on Americans' definitions of the Bible.”
Interpreting the Bible
Even though the way Americans define the Bible has not changed drastically over the past six years, Barna anticipates that as the number Elders dwindles in the U.S. and the Millennial population swells, the Bible’s mark on society will increasingly diminish.
“Millennials (14 percent) are half as likely as Elders (29 percent) to believe the Bible is the actual word of God and twice as likely to believe it is a manmade book of teachings and advice (20 percent vs. 11 percent among Elders),” the numbers show. “[However], among practicing Christians, the distance between generations on this question all but disappears.”
Despite this descent, however, it is stressed that the Bible shows no signs of going away.
“It may be that the ongoing consistency we see in Americans’ definitions of the Bible is due at least in part to its ubiquity,” those conducting the survey impressed. “Skepticism is on the rise, but a physical copy of the Bible is still a nearly omnipresent feature of American life — nearly nine out of 10 adults and teens report owning a Bible … a proportion that has held steady over six years.”
Picking up the Word
Even though most American own a Bible, most do not read it regularly.
“About one-third of Americans read the Bible at least once a week, and this proportion has remained fairly stable,” Barna researchers found. “Likewise, the two out of five American adults who read the Bible less than once a year or never has thus far proven to be a stable proportion.”
It is anticipated that the relatively low numbers will continue to drop.
“Unless something dramatically changes among Millennials, however, Barna researchers expect reading frequency in the general population to trend downward in coming years as Elders become a smaller share of the total — half of Elders read the Bible at least once a week (49 percent), compared to one-quarter of Millennials (24 percent),” the report states.
It was also found that Americans read the Bible for different motives.
“When it comes to the reasons people read the Bible, a relatively consistent majority of people does so because it draws them closer to God, though significant minorities in 2016 also point to a need for comfort (16 percent) or direction (16 percent),” the results indicate. “A majority also expresses a desire to read the Bible more than they currently do — about six in 10 American adults.”
The Christian research group says that these findings should spur believers to seize the opportunity to share their faith with those who are searching.
“This desire is a window of opportunity for leaders who care about increasing Bible engagement,” the research experts assert. “Similarly, the ‘felt needs’ that people bring to Bible reading represent an opportunity to help them engage more deeply with the Scriptures.”
Interpreting the results
Barna President and Director of Research sums up his organization’s latest study with a word of caution to alert Christians that their sacred Scriptures are in danger of being phased out if they continue to let secular society and its pop culture become a greater influence in Americans’ lives than the Bible.
“Even in just the few years Barna has been conducting ‘State of the Bible’ interviews, the data is trending toward Bible skepticism,” Kinnaman pointed out. “With each passing year, the percent of Americans who believe that the Bible is ‘just another book written by men’ increases. So too do the perceptions that the Bible is actually harmful and that people who live by its principles are religious extremists.”
He maintains, however, that there are positive indicators — of Americans’ continued interest in having a relationship with God rooted in the Bible.
“Of course, a healthy dose of skepticism means that people are still asking questions of faith, of Christianity and of the Bible,” Kinnaman added. “I believe those questions, when asked and answered honestly and from a biblical point of view, can lead to the Spirit’s work in people’s lives.”
Even though New Age beliefs and progressive ideals are replacing biblical beliefs in society, the research guru is confident that God’s Word will remain an influential force to uphold the backbone of society.
“Thankfully, the data is not all bad news,” Barna inserted. “In fact, our researchers continue to find bright spots that demonstrate the Bible’s cultural staying power and persistent hold on people’s hearts.”
However, the Christian leader warns Bible believers to not be complacent about sharing their faith, as the dwindling number of Americans relying on the Scriptures for strength and guidance can have dire consequences in the near future.
“Each of these realities, among others, is a window of opportunity open to leaders,” Kinnaman concludes. “But these windows are not likely to remain open forever, so we must take full advantage to advocate today for the Bible in our skeptical, self-centered, highly connected world.”