Beliefs Culture

The decline of biblical literalism and the rise of secularism in one chart

Graphic: How do people view the BIble?
"How do people view the Bible?" graphic by RNS/Tiffany McCallen

(RNS) America could be experiencing a decline of literalism and the rise of secularism, according to one interpretation of a recent Gallup Poll.

The poll, which measured Americans’ beliefs about the Bible, found that 28 percent of Americans believe the Bible is the literal word of God — close to the lowest point ever found in the survey. About 40 percent of Americans said the same thing in the late 1970s.

Graphic: How do people view the BIble?

“How do people view the Bible?” graphic by RNS/Tiffany McCallen, data by Gallup

Meanwhile, about one in five Americans view the Bible in secular terms, described in the poll as ancient “fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man.” This was up from 10 percent in the late 1970s.

About half (47 percent) of Americans continue to say the Bible is the “inspired” word of God not to be taken literally, which has remained relatively stable over time.

Overall acceptance of the Bible as being the “inspired” or “actual” word of God is about the same percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Christian: 76 percent. At the same time, the 21 percent of Americans who view the Bible in more secular terms closely mirrors the 22 percent who identify with another religion or no religion.

The poll comes after a survey found that a majority of Americans use an older translation of the Bible.

More than half of Americans use a King James Version Bible, famous for its use of words such as “thee” and “thou.” Just 19 percent read the more modern New International Version, according to a recent study by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.

Bibles continue to sell well, with publishers finding new variations on a theme, such as breast cancer or patriotism. Thomas Nelson will publish “The Duck Commander Faith and Family Bible” in October.


About the author

Sarah Pulliam Bailey

Sarah Pulliam Bailey is a national correspondent for RNS, covering how faith intersects with politics, culture and other news. She previously served as online editor for Christianity Today where she remains an editor-at-large.


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  • Thanks! This article was relevant, concise, and clear.

    And, for me, it gives hope for the future of our country, world, and species.

  • Can’t speak for the world and the “species”, (by the way, the evolutionists are still unable to come to agreement on the definition of “species”), but this pitiful nation is messing up fast. This article simply provides more proof.

    America’s life expectancy as the world’s #1 leader is dropping quick. Sure, we’re not quite dead yet, America is still the best in the world for now, but a few more spits in God’s face and it’s gonna be “Curtains” for this backslidden deceived nation!!

  • Sarah – Is there similar statistical information about other areas of the world? I would be interested if there is a trend in terms of level of education and diffusion of technology and infrastructure, and willingness to believe “literally” in a Holy Book (whether the Bible or Quran). My hunch is that as there are increases in overall societal access to education, technology, and infrastructure, the less people lean toward “fundamentalist” or “literalist” forms of religion, and the more they trend toward either liberal, universalizing forms of religion, or toward forms of secularism. I would say that fundamentalist forms of “anti-religiosity” are from a fairly early phase of this shift (as those injured by fundamentalist religion maintain the memory of the wrongs done them). But once this militantly anti-religious generation dies out, I’m guessing that liberal religion or more individualized forms of non-dogmatic spirituality will take dominance in the cultural ethos. I’ve been to urbanized portions of Africa, and they seem a half century behind the US in terms of modernization and religious attitudes (toward the Bible, LGBT issues, etc). And likewise, I’m guessing much of Europe is 20-30 years ahead of the US in these issues. However, I’m not exactly putting forward the “secularization thesis” because I don’t think most people will leave religion or spirituality ultimately. Rather, I think a majority of “hyper-modern” people will remain religious, but in universalized, liberalized, and eclecticized ways. But that’s my guess. I would like to see some longitudinal data from across cultures to see if the trend holds.

  • Anthony, I’m not sure which of your assumptions is the most ridiculous: the idea that this graph reflects what counts as authentic Christian faith or the idea that America’s geopolitical position depends on the numbers on this graph.

  • The interesting thing about the table is the pace of change. Over the two decades from 1984 to 2004, the decline of biblical literalism was just 3%. However, in the next decade, the the decline of biblical literalism was 6%. Similarly, the growth in secular thinking about the Bible was 3% from 1984 to 2004 and 6% from 2004 to 2014. However, the middle ground (that the Bible is inspired but doesn’t always have to be taken literally) remained essentially unchanged.

    A 6% change in 10 years may sound impressive, but even if this rate of change continued for the next 20 years, the proportion of people holding an essentially secular view of the Bible would only be 33% in 2034. This would compare with the 34% of New Zealanders who indicated that they had no religion in the 2006 census.

    New Zealand is an English-speaking country and has not suffered any apparent ill-effects from having one third of the people professing no religion. Similarly, if the same change happened in the United States, the effect on the country would not be all that great.

  • Clarification- I’m talking about a drift from a supernatural based, scripturally literalist religion. I agree with Nate that this could be replaced by a more individually based, eclectic spirituality – which I suspect would be more reality based and this Earth, this life, centered. Such a spirituality might still use names like Jesus in some way, or not.

  • Michael –

    My guess about the unchanging middle ground is not that they are all staying where they are, but that people live the middle ground to instead see the Bibles as fables, and as people leave the literalist camp, they join the middle ground. Thus the middle ground stays the same as a trainstop, as the leavers are replaced by different people – the joiners coming from the literalist camp.

    While I’m sure that some literalists do drop everything in one stroke and reject their Bible wholesale, I’m guessing that most do so gradually.

  • Jon and Michael – I think there is more to the “middle ground” than it just being a sort of compromise between secularism and religion. Rather, I think it represents a kind of balanced position that leads to a genuine third way, and it can be applied to most scriptural traditions, not just the Bible. “Middle ground” indicates that it is a non-position, and the secular and inerrantist extremes are the “real” positions in this debate. But isn’t that a bit binary and simplistic? Either all in or all out? It’s a way of thinking that comes from an earlier phase of our social evolution and doesn’t effectively integrate the various phases of human development.

    Perhaps it is better to see the major Scriptural traditions as genuine human interactions with, and discoveries of, the Divine Ground of Being. And that the Divine is progressively revealed through time in small steps that are apparent as the texts develop over time. For instance, here’s a brief sketch of the evolution of human knowledge of the Divine over time: First gods. Then God of the gods. Then monotheism. Then moral absolutes. Then universal justice. Then something like universal human rights and dignity.

    Just as we study biological evolution and see the seeds of later developments present in earlier life forms, so also the Scriptures hold within them the seeds of later developments. Thus, no Scripture is flatly rejected as “out dated”. But every scripture is sifted to see how it contributes to the trajectory of our evolving knowledge of the One who is drawing us all into eternal life, love, beauty and truth.

  • Sociologists of religion and culture use polling to extract pro-forma confessions of faith and then compile the results into various crosstabs so they can discern the trends and perhaps prophesy the future by secular means. But we should keep in mind that the sensationalist emphasis on the two trends noted in the June 5th RNS headline (literalism down, secularism up!) may overshadow other factors which have more interesting probative value.

    Therefore, first of all I recommend downloading and studying the two reports (Gallup and Indiana-Purdue) which have links in Ms. Bailey’s article. Two trends I find most interesting are:

    1) the persistence and enshrinement of the King James Bible (1611) as the believers’ version/translation of choice.

    In “God’s Secretaries: the Making of the King James Bible” (2003) Adam Nicholson writes:

    “It is one of the strangest of historical paradoxes that the King James Bible, whose whole purpose had been nation-building in the service of a ceremonial and episcopal state, should become the guiding text of Puritan America.”

    Nicholson further speculates that “Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address … would have been impossible without the King James Bible. The great speeches of twentieth-century America, including J.F.Kennedy’s inaugural address and the series of speeches made by Martin Luther King … are descendants in a direct line from … the [50] divines who gathered in the wainscoted rooms in Westminster, Cambridge, Oxford, and the City of London 400 years ago.”

    2) the unshakeable faith of the black community, whose conservative social values have puzzled, vexed, and dismayed white liberals who, in spite of their humanistic dedication to “social justice,” have so far managed to avoided the charges of racism and cultural imperialism which their contempt of faith implies and deserves. ‘Nuff said on that.

  • Nate, I wish there were more data from other countries – that would be super fascinating. Unfortunately, Gallup just looked at the U.S. Good thinking, though.

  • America is going down because God doesnt think its Christian enough???

    I suppose thats why God is choosing the Chinese and Japanese to take over?

    If God was so great, he would clarify his presence and reality to everybody in an instant, but OOOPS”! has never managed to do that in all of recorded history…

  • There is no confusion in evolution concerning the species. Evolution is a theory, like electricity, gravity, and atomic! Go to n Africa or the middle east, prophets vary but the boogie man is the head groupie for them all.

  • Doc, your assertion that “we’re goin’down quick” because gawd is angry is no different than some ancient witch-doctor demanding we surrender more virgins to throw into the volcano to appease the deity.

    You’re nuts.

  • In order to spit in someone’s face, they must be proven real and not on the same page as Bigfoot and the Easter Bunny…Species is definitely not up for any debates. That has been determined a long time ago by actual scientists. We are not evolutionists, we are logical humans who actually learn to question everything and make our own decisions based on the most clear and concise evidence. Therefore, not completely ignorant.

  • I have to call you up on the nonsense about evolutionary biologists disagreeing about the definition of species. As an evolutionary biology student, I am appalled by your lack of basic understanding of simple terminology.

    Species definition: a group of living organisms consisting of similar individuals capable of exchanging genes or interbreeding. The species is the principal natural taxonomic unit, ranking below a genus and denoted by a Latin binomial, e.g. homo sapiens

    I think you should actually do a basic Google or bio search before making such absurd statements. Shame on you.

  • Dualism is a failed philosophy. The mind develops and decays with the body. Natural laws rule the universe. Everything has a cause, not a reason. Life has the meaning you give it. You can’t hide the truth forever. The incorporeal is immaterial. Free your mind.

  • Reason there are so many gawds (imaginary dictators) is that the texts are highly interpretative causing a splintering of the ideologies. On the other hand the number of theories of natural systems converges to one due to the scientific method and peer review process.

  • I am pleased to read that more American’s are taking the bible less literal. It is a great thing to hear that people are opening their eyes and stepping away from the pulpit to find the truth and the answers for themselves. It’s a good thing when people are free to make up their own damn minds about something instead of having a country or a government telling them what to believe in. We live in a world where we need evidence if we are to believe something to be substantial. We no longer throw our faith and belief so blindly into things anymore. We are truly evolving!

  • Religion is a disgrace to humanity.

    It promotes ignorance & fear and rejects free inquiry.

    The only joy it brings is blasphemy; I don’t know where I’d be without ‘goddammit’.

  • 1. The King James Bible is treated by most of its die-hard literalist readers much like the Koran is used in non-Arabic speaking nations. A text given a great deal of reverence but whose readers are completely divorced from diction, form and grandiose archaic language employed.

    It makes one sound important and grand when making public statements. The KJV and Shakespeare are about the only English language works from the Elizabethan era which are widely read today. Shakespeare doesn’t work well for political speeches and didn’t have the familiarity with the hoi polloi KJV has.

    Much of the subtleties of the Koran’s poetic Arabic is largely lost on most non-Arabic speakers. The word choice, structure and interpretation of text of the KJV served a purpose in the 17th century which is lost on modern readers. [Such as the deliberately anti-catholic interpretations of the text]

    2. As for the “unshakeable” and “conservative” faith of the black community. That is largely fiction. Said community is extremely splintered when it comes to religious faith. It is the area where Islam has made the most inroads in American society. The Baptist majority of the group of the past is giving way to many smaller sects that run the gamut with political orientation.

    Conservative “family values” almost never translates into conservative political support despite the best efforts of the GOP. Given the links between conservative Christianity and “big money politics”, it is obvious why such efforts largely fail. Lack of social mobility have meant the politics of religion have not overridden socioeconomic class politics.

    The problem with pronouncements about the future literalism is that it fails to note how cyclical such belief is. Usually in stressed economic/political times, religious belief is intensified and polarized. It wanes as conditions stabilized. Literalism has always been a measure of national fear and apprehension.

  • Why does the word Faith exist if God is not real… have a LOT more faith than I do to believe in no God….how did we get here? How was the universe that is so full of intricate plant, insect, animal life, etc…..even the sun rise & sunset? How about how a little baby that is conceived? How did that just happen if a being didn’t create it? When there is a creation…..there is a creator….and His name is GOD..& one day we are all going to,acknowledge it weather we believe or not…..sorry to burst your bubble 🙂
    I wish you peace & blessings 🙂

  • @Shikolatte,

    “How did we get here….if there is no god?”

    1. All of the elements of our bodies (Oxygen, hydrogen, sodium,etc) were created in stars. We know this through exact measurements of exploded stars. We know EXACTLY which elements comprise the human body.
    2. We know how our solar system formed. It is explainable.
    3. We know how our species evolved from older, more primitive and simpler species. DNA alone proves that evolution is a fact.

    Science answers these questions.
    To say ‘god did it’ answers nothing.

  • You would think an all-knowing god would be a better communicator. Imagine a book that translates itself automatically into whatever language you know best whenever you open its pages and look at it? THAT is the type of book that a god would create! It seems that if there is a god, then, it doesn’t actually care what beliefs we have.

    My linked page is all about this kind of stuff – God’s communication issues!

  • it dont matter if This nation turns on God and attacks him like it has been. The Bible says

    Revelation 18
    “18 After these things I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority, and the earth was illuminated with his glory. 2 And he cried mightily with a loud voice, saying, “Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and has become a dwelling place of demons, a prison for every foul spirit, and a cage for every unclean and hated bird! 3 For all the nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have become rich through the abundance of her luxury.”
    4 And I heard another voice from heaven saying, “Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues. 5 For her sins have reached to heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities. 6 Render to her just as she rendered to you, and repay her double according to her works; in the cup which she has mixed, mix double for her. 7 In the measure that she glorified herself and lived luxuriously, in the same measure give her torment and sorrow; for she says in her heart, ‘I sit as queen, and am no widow, and will not see sorrow.’ 8 Therefore her plagues will come in one day—death and mourning and famine. And she will be utterly burned with fire, for strong is the Lord God who judges her.”

    Babylon The Great has Been known as America and God has promised to destroy it when judgment has come. he will wipe it clean with fire plagues and more. it wont matter how far America back slides its judgement is coming. not only for amercia but the whole world.

    Ezekiel 25:17
    “I will execute great vengeance on them with wrathful rebukes. Then they will know that I am the Lord, when I lay my vengeance upon them.”

    God is going to detroy Babylon The Great because it has backslide like it has not because it keeps mocking God and trying to remove him because they do not fear him.

    Proverbs 1:7
    “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”

    This verse has lot of truth in it just as the entire Bible people dont fear God and dont seek true knowledge but instead seek false knowledge. people are trying to play God. this false wicked science this nation has developed trying to create living things its an abomination. they are trying to remove God because they are offended they are offended because they feel conviction so they make their on ways so they dont have to feel offended by the truth.

  • Faith: strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.

    Belief: an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.

    I’m sorry that you have no understanding of your own religious doctrine, yet alone science. Faith was invented as an excuse for why no one ever saw or heard god (except those that are mentally unstable).

    All your examples of “scientific faith” are just stupid & you would never accept or understand any explanation, but faith in the sun rise and set?!!! Do you actually believe that the day you forget to pray for the sun to rise, god will forget to make it happen?

    If you had to pick a dumber example of something sciences can’t explain, I can’t think of what it could be. Your book tells everyone the sun was hanging from a dome over a flat Earth (and that it was created on the fourth “day”) and science has no proof?

    This is why you’re losing followers: knowledge and understanding negate the need for faith.

  • Well, there are plenty of nations who also do not believe in the Bible, as God’s word for liberty, equality, and justice… like… N.Korea, China, Russia, Cuba, all Islamic States, most Hispanic states (socialist communist with catholic peppering), the EU is pretty much secular, so yah… plenty…

    Now which nation do most want to immigrate to again? For freedom? Equality? Opportunity?

  • Atheist Max is using the long overused blind statements which carry no weight in light of true observational science.

    His is strictly wishful thinking. Nothing is known in his statements which refer to the theory of evolution.
    Only Scripture records how things came into being. It does not have to change. Truth is Truth.

    Francis Crick hoped to disprove God in his study of DNA. He was hoping for junk. Outstanding evidence to the contrary was found by the ENCODE Project.
    Max, the next time you need a transfusion, ask for simian blood. See what happens.
    DNA is evidence against evolution.

    Please explain your theory of how things came about. Please be careful – it gets tricky.

  • Religions are man made . Christianity is following God’s absolute authority.
    God’s Word – not man’s word.

  • There will always be a remnant of true believers.

    There will be far more in hell than in heaven.
    Hell will be a lonesome and miserable place. The ones in hell will be forgotten forever by those in heaven since there is no sadness in heaven.
    The occurrence of Lazarus and the rich man. Lazarus was remembered and made whole.
    The rich man had lost his name. To be forgotten for eternity.

    Those who reject God-do so at their peril.

  • I used the wrong term when referring to evolution.

    It is not a theory- it is an hypothesis since it cannot be tested or observed to be taking place.

    It is basically an unobservable “guess”.

  • @ Max

    1. We know exactly what elements make up the human body and we have a good idea what stars are made of. That’s science. One came from the other? That’s an unproved hypothesis (at best).
    2. The nebular hypothesis actually predicts that none of our planets should exist. Go figure!
    3. Evolution requires mutations that add new, coherent information to DNA. A single-celled organism has approx. 1 million base pairs. Humans have 3,000 million base pairs. If humans evolved from a single-celled organism, mutations have to explain the addition of some 2,999 million base pairs coding for all the different cells in the human body, all in the right place (and not in the wrong place). Scientists have yet to find a SINGLE EXAMPLE of such a mutation.
    Every new person has between 100 and 300 new mutations more than his/her parents. ALL of these mutations cause a loss of information in the genome. The increasing mutational load, referred to as genetic entropy, means that our species (and every species on the planet) is rapidly heading for extinction. DNA actually supports the Biblical account of a perfect Creation that has been rapidly decaying since the Fall.

  • WhenCitiesBurn.

    Scripture does not state that the sun is hang from a dome over a flat earth.
    Isaiah 22: ” It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth.”

    God says the earth is circular. This predates our “modern technology”.

    Evolutionists paint themselves into a corner when the try to explain their hypothesis. It is a blind faith.

    Science (knowledge) supports Creation.

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