Changing Views of the Bible Point to Polarization

Featured Image Credit: Huffington Post

By Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

There are many ways to measure religiosity in the United States, but one of the simplest and most well measured approach over the last forty years is how an individual views the Bible. That number has become sort of a bellwether for how religiously conservative the United States is and how much religious pluralism there is in the US.

Gallup, a well-respected polling firm has asked a question about the Bible on surveys going back to 1976 and just released a report that indicates that 24% of Americans believe the Bible is the literal word of God. Their data indicate that this is the lowest number recorded since Gallup began asking the question. So, if there are fewer Americans who believe that the Bible is literally true, then what do they believe now? According to Gallup, the answer is that they have moved to the most liberal option: The Bible is a book of fables.

pic1

In looking at a question like this it’s always nice to compare to other data sources. Arguably the most appropriate data source is the General Social Survey, which has been conducted on a regular basis since 1972. Unfortunately, they did not begin to ask a question about the respondents’ view of the Bible until 1984, but this still allows us to get a glimpse of 32 years of change. The question for the GSS was asked in a slightly different way than Gallup, however. The question wording for the Gallup is in the graphic above, however the GSS is slightly different. It reads, “Which of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about the Bible?” and gives three options.

  1. The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word
  2. The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word
  3. The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men

view_bible

I plotted the data points from the GSS and used a technique called LOESS smoothing to plot a line that visualizes the trend in the data. The darkened areas around the lines represent the confidence intervals so that we can statistically assume that the true result falls somewhere in that darkened area.

The GSS picture is significantly different than Gallup’s. The most noticeable departure is that Gallup has the “inspired” line and the “literal” line intersecting in their most recent data. The GSS does not show this. In fact, the GSS indicates that the number of Americans who believe that the Bible is literally true has stayed remarkably steady since the mid-1990’s.

However, American’s view of the Bible has shifted. According to the GSS, the percentage of people who believe that the Bible is inspired, but not literal, has declined significantly. At the same time, the percentage of those holding the most liberal view of the Bible has risen. In 2000, 48% of respondents chose the “inspired word of God,” option. That number dropped to 44% in the 2016 wave. While the “book of fables” response item rose from 16% to 22% in the last sixteen years.

The GSS data reinforce a narrative that is widely shared among observers of American religion: mainline churches (which have traditionally held to the view that the Bible is inspired, but not literal) are declining because their members are leaving religion altogether. Recent research published indicates a significant number of individuals left their churches over politics in 2016 and that was driven by political disagreements. The GSS paints a picture of an American religious landscape where the conservatives are holding steady and the number of religious liberals is on the rise, with fewer and fewer being stuck between. This cannot help but exacerbate social and political tensions.

Full coding syntax for this analysis is available on my Github.

Ryan P. Burge teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website.

 

 

 

 

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