Americans and the Bible

Thanks to David Judd for gathering this data. Is Australia different?

The Bible in American Life

This is the title of a very comprehensive and detailed study done by The Centre for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana-Purdue University Indianapolis. It is a 44-page document which can be viewed at A brief summary appears below. The figures are for the USA and perhaps Australia is different?

Scope of the study: This included which versions of the bible, whether the memorisation of passages is encouraged, favourite books and stories, personal reasons for reading, sources of help for understanding and interpreting the bible, religious traditions and the extent to which the internet and electronic devices are used. Some conclusions:

Those who read scripture in the past year: The initial question was whether people had read the Bible, Torah, Koran or other religious scriptures during the past year. 50.2% said Yes, with 49.8% saying No.

Ages of those reading: Not too surprisingly the highest percent was in the over 75s where 56% said they had read scripture during the past year. The lowest was the 18-29 group with 44%.

By region: Again not too surprisingly the highest percentage came from the South with 61% followed by the Midwest with 49%. The West was 44% and Northeast 36%.

Word of God? 45% said they believe the bible is the inerrant Word of God. 46% believe it is the Inspired Word of God while 9% consider that it is a book of fables.

By race: Not a question which arises much in Australia but in USA blacks were the group who read the bible most at least once in the past year – 70% of all blacks. Among Hispanics 46% of them read it, with 44% for whites and 28% for others.

Frequency of reading: Among those who had read in the past year, 78% read at least monthly, 54% weekly and 17% daily.

Which version? Here the results were dramatic with a whopping 55% favouring the 400 year-old King James version, despite the explosion of new versions in the last half-century or so. Second was the NIV at 19%.The full details appear on page 12 of the report. Is this an indication that 55% consider that the KJV corresponds to the literal word of God? Does God speak in King James English? [It should be noted that the question does not arise in other languages, or certainly not to anywhere near the same degree. In French for example the main versions are La Bible de Jerusalem (1954, revised 1973, popular with Catholics) and the Louis Segond or “Protestant” one (1880, revised 1975-78), plus many modern versions.]

Bible memorisation: Congregations who encourage children to memorise scripture came in at a surprising 64%. Private readers who memorised any bible verses came in at 48%.

Reasons for reading: Topping the list here was “For personal prayer and devotion.” Full details and graph on p.22 of the report.

Other: Other interesting figures look at bible reading by gender, age, economic or educational status and so on. One conclusion was that people with a high school education or less tend to read at twice the rate of those with a college degree “for purposes of learning about culture war issues, health and wealth, and what the future holds.”

Help in understanding the Bible: Just over half (53%) still turn to clergy for this, with 51% going to published commentaries. Other sources of help included bible study groups, radio and TV, and the internet.

The internet: Not too surprising here is that the group using the internet and e-devices most are the 18 to 29-year-olds (40%). For those 75 and over the figure was down to 7 or 9%.

Religious tradition: This clearly influences the extent to which people use the bible (or any other scripture). Topping the list were Hispanic and black Christians, followed by conservative white Protestants, moderate/liberal white Protestants, then Catholics.

Favourite passages: Not too many surprises here, with the 23rd Psalm and John 3:16 topping the list. The conclusion drawn is that people turn to passages that offer consolation and encouragement. The researchers were surprised that not many cited Paul’s letters or even the story of Jesus’ birth. The book of Revelation was mentioned very infrequently “despite the popular imagery surrounding the apocalypse.”

Concern: Reference was made to a Gallup poll conducted in 2005 which indicated that less than half of the American teenagers surveyed knew of the story of Jesus turning water into wine at the Cana wedding and nearly two-thirds could not identify a quotation from the Sermon on the Mount. About one in ten thought that Moses was one of the twelve disciples. The ratio is probably at least the same in Australia, if not maybe even higher.

Conclusions: The report concludes by saying that there is still a lot of work to be done to further our understanding of the matter. They point out that there is evidence of a “seeker mentality” even among those who did not show much interest in the bible. This is further borne out here in Australia for instance in the latest census figures which show increasingly less interest in organised religion (roughly one-third of the population) but a rising interest in “spirituality.”

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