Ryan Burge Shares Data on Biblical Literalism Among American Protestants

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Dr. Ryan Burge is a professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University. He teaches in a variety of areas, including American institutions, public administration, and international relations. His research focuses largely on the intersection between religiosity and political behavior, especially in the American context.


The fact that the religious unaffiliated have risen from about five percent of Americans in the mid-1970’s to nearly a quarter of the population by 2018 has all sorts of interesting impacts on what an average church looks like on Sunday morning.

Obviously, one of the most important ones to pastors and denominational leaders is: Does my church look different today than it did a few decades ago? More specifically, what does the average church goer believe about the Bible today and how has that changed over time?

It’s notoriously difficult to assess the theological worldview of an individual through a survey instrument but the General Social Survey has been asking respondents about their view of the Bible since 1984.

The question readsWhich of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about the Bible?

The three response options are:

  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

While we can quibble with the overall measurement validity of these options, it’s fair to say that the first option is a good proxy for an evangelical’s view of the Bible, while the middle one would seem to be more prevalent among mainline Protestants and Catholics, and the last would be chosen by those who aren’t Christians.

How have three views changed over time in the general public?

Well, it’s clear from the above graph that the two outside options are the ones that have seen movement. While the share of Americans who are biblical literalists has dropped by 7.4 percent, those who hold an inspired view of the Bible have stayed incredibly consistent.

On the other hand, the share of Americans who believe that the Bible is a book of fables is up nearly eight percentage points. But, these changes are likely the result of many people choosing to be religiously unaffiliated over the last thirty years. What would happen if the sample was restricted to just people who identify with a Christian tradition?

This portrait is much different.

In fact, there is no statistically significant difference between where these categories were in 1984 versus where they are in the most recent wave of the GSS in 2018. It’s interesting to note that half of all Christians hold to the middle option—the Bible is inspired by God but shouldn’t be taken literally.

Four in ten Christians hold to the view that the Bible should be taken as word for word truth, and just one in ten Christians believe that the Bible was written by men.

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Source: Christianity Today