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Americans Draw Theological Beliefs From Diverse Points of View

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October 8, 2002

(Ventura, CA) - Nine out of ten adults own at least one Bible and eight out of ten consider themselves to be Christian, but you'd never know it from the smorgasbord of religious beliefs professed by most people. A new nationwide survey conducted by the Barna Research Group indicates that a large share of the people who attend Protestant or Catholic churches have adopted beliefs that conflict with the teachings of the Bible and their church.

Adopting the Classics

There are some fundamental Christian precepts that most Americans have held on to. The new survey reveals that more than three-quarters of all adults adopt each of three classic Christian beliefs. For instance, the concept of the trinity - "God is one being in three separate and equal persons - God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit" - is deemed to be a reality by 79% of adults. Women are considerably more likely than men to accept the Trinity as real, by an 85% to 72% margin, but few members of either gender doubt its existence.

The idea that "every person has a soul that will live forever, either in God's presence or absence," is also embraced by 79% of American adults. Again, women are more likely than men to hold this view (82% of women compared to 72% of men).

The third perspective is that "the Bible can only be correctly interpreted by people who have years of intense training in theology." This argument, which goes back to the Protestant Reformation of several hundred years ago, was rejected by 76% of adults. The segments most likely to agree with this idea were African-Americans and Hispanics (24% of each group) and Catholics (22%). Even among those segments, however, less than one-quarter believes that accurate comprehension of the Bible is beyond the capacity of the average person.

Straying From the Text

In response to most of the other nine theological statements evaluated, a majority or large minority of Americans expressed points of view that conflict with the Bible. Three of those matters dealt with the nature of spiritual beings.

Six out of ten Americans (59%) reject the existence of Satan, indicating that the devil, or Satan, is merely a symbol of evil. Catholics are much more likely than Protestants to hold this view - 75% compared to 55% - although a majority of both groups concur that Satan is symbolic.

The rejection of Satan's existence seems to conflict with the fact that a slight majority (54%) also contends that, "a human being can be under the control or the influence of spiritual forces such as demons." People 57 or older were the group most likely to doubt Satan's existence (64%) and also emerged as those least likely to accept the notion of demonic influence (39%, compared to 55% among Baby Busters and 62% of Baby Boomers).

A slight majority of adults (51%) believes that "praying to deceased saints can have a positive effect in a person's life." Not surprisingly, there is a massive difference between Protestants and Catholics on this matter, with Catholics twice as likely to embrace this idea (80% versus 41%). What is surprising is the large share of Protestants that believes in praying to dead saints, a notion dismissed by most Protestant churches. Amazingly, one out of six evangelicals (16%) and half of the non-evangelical born again Christians (50%) also believe in praying to dead saints. Six out of ten Hispanics possess this belief.

More than one-third of the public (35%) also believes that it is "possible to communicate with others after they die." This perspective is related to a person's age: half of all adults under age 38 endorse this view, compared to one-third of the Boomers (mid-thirties to mid-fifties) and just one out of seven older adults. Three out of ten non-evangelical born again Christians believe in communication with the dead. Once again, Catholics were more likely than Protestants to embrace this view (45% of Catholics, 26% of Protestants).

Sin and Salvation

Although most adults are aligned with either a Protestant (54%) or Catholic (22%) church, a large minority of Americans believes that when Jesus Christ was on earth He committed sins. Currently, slightly less than half of the public (42%) holds this view, while half (50%) say Jesus did not sin. The people groups most likely to contend that Jesus sinned include people under age 38 (49%), notional Christians (51%), and atheists and agnostics (62%).

Protection from eternal condemnation for one's sins is widely considered to be earned rather than received as a free gift from God. Half of all adults (50%) argue that anyone who "is generally good or does enough good things for others during their life will earn a place in Heaven." Although that view is generally considered to be Catholic doctrine and is one of the core beliefs over which the Protestant Reformation was waged, four out of ten Protestants accept this view of salvation ensured by good deeds. Almost half of the non-evangelical born again Christians also adopt this view, in spite of the fact that they have prayed for the forgiveness of their sins and asked Jesus Christ to be their savior - actions which they believe were the basis of their assurance of salvation. Apparently, large numbers of the non-evangelical born again adults believe that people have a choice of means to salvation, either the grace-alone or the salvation-though-works approaches.

In yet another break from biblical teaching, three-quarters of adults (74%) agree that, "when people are born they are neither good nor evil - they make a choice between the two as they mature." In other words, the concept of original sin is rejected by most Americans in favor of a rational choice approach to human nature. At least seven out of ten members of every demographic segment examined accepts the notion of choice over that of original sin. Unexpectedly, the survey data reveal that a slight majority of evangelicals (52%) also buy this notion.

Sources of Truth

If the patterns underlying these views seem inherently contradictory that may be at least partially explained by people's willingness to draw from a variety of conflicting theological sources. This is perhaps most clearly evident through the finding that a plurality of adults (44%) contends that, "the Bible, the Koran and the Book of Mormon are all different expressions of the same spiritual truths." Just 38% of Americans reject that idea. The only population segments at odds with this view are those who are 57 or older (35% accept the notion, 36% reject it, the remaining 29% are not sure); evangelicals (10% agree with the statement, 84% disagree); non-evangelical born again Christians (40% agree, 45% disagree), and adherents of Protestant churches (39% agree, 47% disagree).

Taking matters a step further, the survey discovered that most Americans believe "truth can be discovered only through logic, human reasoning and personal experience." A majority of Americans (54%) embraces this perspective, which is at odds with both the traditional Protestant belief that the Bible is the source of truth and the Catholic perspective that the Bible and papal authority convey truth. Men were more likely than women to buy into this viewpoint (57% compared to 49% of women). Protestants and Catholics also differ considerably on this matter: 46% of Protestants agree with the notion compared to 62% of Catholics.

Homosexuality Addressed

The final perspective addressed in the survey dealt with the issue of homosexuality. By a two-to-one margin, Americans reject the idea that, "the Bible does not specifically condemn homosexuality." It is important to note, however, that while 53% disagree and 27% agree with the statement, a large proportion (20%) said they do not know. Often, such a large share of people expressing ignorance is indicative of uncertainty even on the part of those individuals who expressed a point of view. In this case, just 15% said they "strongly agreed" with the statement while nearly three times as many (41%) "strongly disagreed."

Reflections On the Outcomes

The results are a reflection of a nation whose theological views are increasingly inclusive of many faith traditions, according to the director of the research. George Barna, author of numerous books about the religious beliefs and practices of Americans, including The State of the Church: 2002, was not surprised by the findings.

"Over the past 20 years we have seen the nation's theological views slowly become less aligned with the Bible. Americans still revere the Bible and like to think of themselves as Bible-believing people, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Christians have increasingly been adopting spiritual views that come from Islam, Wicca, secular humanism, the eastern religions and other sources. Because we remain a largely Bible-illiterate society, few are alarmed or even aware of the slide toward syncretism - a belief system that blindly combines beliefs from many different faith perspectives."

Barna indicated that the passing on of a Christian heritage from one generation to the next appears to be rapidly dissipating in America. "Our continuing research among teenagers and adolescents shows that the trend away from adopting biblical theology in favor of syncretic, culture-based theology is advancing at full gallop." Citing a wealth of statistical evidence drawn from his books on teens lifestyles and religious beliefs, Real Teens, Barna noted that, "relatively few adults are alarmed by this trend, since teens and adolescents are merely reflecting the trail that their parents and teachers have already blazed."

Research Methodology

The data described in this report are based on a national telephone survey among a random sample of adults (age 18 or older) living within the 48 continental states. The survey included the responses of 630 people and was conducted in August 2002. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate national sample is 4.1 percentage points at the 95% statistical confidence level. (The sampling error for subgroups may be higher because the sample size of those segments is smaller. There are other types of error besides sampling error that may also be present in surveys.) All of the interviews were conducted from the Barna Research Group telephone interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. The distribution of the survey respondents coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. adult population according to Census Bureau estimates. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable sample of adults.

"Born again Christians" were defined in these surveys as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as "born again."

"Evangelicals" are a subset of born again Christians in Barna surveys. 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; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all of its teachings; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical has no relationship to church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church they attend. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as "evangelical."

"Notional" Christians are defined as individuals who consider themselves to be Christian but either do not have a "personal commitment to Jesus Christ" or do not believe that they will experience eternal favor with God based solely on His grace and mercy. Consequently they do not fit the "evangelical" or "born again" classifications.

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. This research was funded solely by Barna Research as part of its regular tracking of the social, religious and political state of the nation and its churches.