Today is a day that will be dominated by news from the polls. I have chosen to comment instead on news from different polls.
A survey recently conducted by Lifeway suggests that some deep confusion about Christian doctrine may be found in the American populace. The data, published in full here, came from interviews of 3000 U.S. adults, and could be summarized as a series of “good news-bad news” statements.
Good news: Most Americans believe in God. In fact, in this survey, 70% claim belief in the specifically Christian Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Bad news: Unfortunately, on digging deeper, it appears that peoples’ views aren’t actually very Christian. About half say that Jesus is a created being, and two thirds believe that God accepts the worship of other religions. 77% believe that human efforts contribute to one’s own salvation.
Good news: People think God wrote the Bible (58%) and that it alone is the word of God (52%); Furthermore, a whopping 64% believe in the accounts of Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead.
Bad news: A majority (51%) believe that the Bible was written for each person to interpret as he or she chooses, and less than half believe that the Bible is 100% accurate. About half recognize the Bible as an authority, “to tell us what we must do”.
Good news: Americans admit that we are all sinners (65%)…
Bad news: However, sin isn’t seen as a big deal. 65% say that humans are basically good, and 64% seem to agree that everyone goes to heaven. Only 40% believe in hell as a place of torment for sinners. Only 19% agree that a small sin is grounds for eternal punishment.
All of this matches up with other surveys. The most recent Gallup polls indicate that a solid majority of Americans still believe in God, but that this belief is eroding. 80 percent feel sure there is some kind of God, down from 96% in 1944. Those who clearly disbelieve in God have risen from 2% to 10% in the past ten years.
The Pew Reseach Center similarly sees a shift in “unaffiliated” from 15 to 23% of the population in the past ten years. Among millenials, that number rises to about 35%. The youngest generations, representing our future, are the most likely to be atheist or agnostic.
The pollster George Barna finds that 73% of Americans identify as Christian, and 20% as “no faith”; a tiny fraction are other religions. Regarding God, the majority (57%) choose the view that God is the all-powerful, all-knowing, perfect creator of the universe who rules the world today.
While the number of believers is encouraging, on digging deeper, only 31% attend a religious service at least once a month and say their faith is very important in their lives. Furthermore, as in the Lifeway survey, most Americans, despite their beliefs, are heterodox with respect to Christian doctrine: Most (55%) agree that if a person is generally good, or does good enough things for others during their life, they will earn a place in heaven.
An older (2009) survey by Barna has indicated that only 9% of Americans hold a biblical worldview. That number is significantly lower than average among young people, liberals/democrats, Catholics, and residents of New England. A biblical worldview is defined in the following way:
For the purposes of the survey, a “biblical worldview” was defined as believing that absolute moral truth exists; the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches; Satan is considered to be a real being or force, not merely symbolic; a person cannot earn their way into Heaven by trying to be good or do good works; Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and God is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the world who still rules the universe today.
To a certain extent, the lack of clarity on biblical doctrine is unsurprising. Why shouldn’t there be some confusion about doctrine and erosion of faith given that there exists similar confusion among clergy? The survey of US pastors conducted by Barna in 2004 found that only 51% endorsed a biblical worldview, as defined above. The Barna organization has also surveyed the “nones”, and found that 2/3 of atheists and agnostics used to attend church when they were young, and that distrust of church is a big factor in their current lack of belief:
According to our research, however, it seems the three primary components that lead to disbelief in God’s existence are 1) rejection of the Bible, 2) a lack of trust in the local church and 3) cultural reinforcement of a secular worldview.
All these polls are more interesting and shocking to me than the other polling which is taking place today. On the one hand, belief or at least receptivity to the idea of God, though weakening, remains high in our country. Our youngest people appear to be the most lost right now, and may be foretelling our eventual lurch toward a post-Christian society, resembling the widespread atheism of northern Europe. We should pray for revival, while taking heart that no matter how awful things seem to get, we are promised that the gates of Hell shall never prevail against the church.
The polls also suggest what many feel–that many men (and women) of the cloth are as lost as their flocks. Many are burned out, misled by their seminary training, or merely struggling (as we all do) with doubts–they need our prayers. In some cases there may indeed be wolves in sheep’s clothing, evil pastors who are in it for malevolent reasons. They should be avoided.