More Americans Than Ever Before See the Bible as a Book of Myths

The Barna Group recently ran a study commissioned by the American Bible Society to find out what Americans really think about the Bible.

While much of the report shows that the Bible is still a “cultural force” in that we all own one (I own about 19 myself) and many find it sacred, one bit of information is particularly striking:

The number of people who are “antagonistic” toward the Bible — that is to say, the number of people who think of it as a book of myths — is at an all-time high, nearly doubling from just two years ago!

The biggest jump of any group are those American adults who are antagonistic to the Bible, meaning they believe the Bible to just be a book of stories and teachings written by men, and they rarely or never read the Bible. That group stood at one in ten adults (10%) in 2011. In 2013, their ranks have grown to 17% of all U.S. adults.

“Antagonistic” is the wrong word. That group should really be labeled “Enlightened.”

What does the sharp increase mean? The Barna Group’s president, David Kinnaman, explained it this way:

The middle ground related to the Bible seems to be disappearing. The decrease of Bible-neutral and Bible-friendly people and the increase of Bible-antagonists suggest that more people are picking a side. It echoes the rise of religiously unaffiliated Americans — these changes are perhaps less about the decline in belief and more about there being less cultural baggage to identifying as skeptical or disbelieving.

Or maybe — just maybe — more people are realizing that the Bible is an occasionally decent reference book mixed in with a whole lot of anti-scientific, anti-women, anti-gay, dishonest nonsense that we’re better off ignoring altogether.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Gus Snarp

    Heartening as it is to see people turning away from the Bible, three years does not a trend make. Too few data points.

  • curtcameron

    Their terms don’t really make sense to me. I would say that someone who is “Bible-Friendly” would be someone who thinks the Bible was inspired by God, but “no errors”?!?

    People who say the book is inerrant I thought were the old-fashioned hard-core fundamentalists. They’re 40% of the US? That just doesn’t fit within my preconceptions. Hell, I live in Texas, and not that many people even here would say that the Bible is inerrant.

    • Slow Learner

      Remember Barna Group *are* Evangelicals. If you’ve ever seen Fred Clark over at Slacktivist talking about Barna, he can explain their bias better than I could.

      • Baby_Raptor

        I highly recommend Fred Clark. He’s one of the few Christians I’ll listen to and actually agree with.

    • Amandatheatheist

      I had an issue with the “antagonistic” category – never or rarely read the Bible? I’m pretty sure a lot of people that feel “antagonistic” don’t qualify for the category because they’ve read it in its entirety.

    • Gus Snarp

      The terminology is awful, it’s clearly designed to reflect their ideological leanings. Look at neutral. It includes The Bible is inspired by God but not without error – something I’m sure a lot of Christians believe – and The Bible is not inspired but tells how writers understood ways of God – something a hardened atheist like myself could agree to, depending on interpretation. And antagonistic is that the Bible is just a collection of stories and advice? That’s not antagonistic, that’s neutral. Antagonistic is: the Bible is an obscene work of fiction describing a god who sanctions genocide, rape, slavery, and blood sacrifice.

      Oh, and if we’re to take the results seriously, it’s 60% who say the Bible is inerrant, not 40%. 60% of Americans are fundamentalist literalists? Or maybe they just don’t really think about what “without error” means and say, uh, sure, I guess so, while thinking, but it’s like metaphors and stuff, right?

      • Art_Vandelay

        It’s almost as if they have some type of fear-driven purpose for being dishonest.

    • RobMcCune

      The company that conducted the study caters to christians, it’s no wonder the their terminology is so slanted.

      What is the history of Barna Group?

      Barna Research Group was founded in 1984 … it primarily served Christian ministries, non-profit organizations and various media and financial corporations. …developing one of the nation’s most comprehensive database on spiritual indicators.

      http://www.barna.org/about

      • Pseudonym

        And not just any Christians, if these categories are anything to go by.

  • Art_Vandelay

    Anybody who really thought that the bible was the infallible words of the creator of the universe and the greatest moral guide we have would probably be either in jail or will be soon enough. 60% of the country are either liars or psychopaths.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/EYZCDG3OAPGD3PDG7XD7SM7OAM ElizabethS

    I read the Bible often (some weeks I read it everyday), but I think it is Myth. Where do I fit in ;-)

    • Gill Bill Gates

      I dont read the bible, and think all religion is a myth, to control mindless masses.

      Where do I fit in?

      • Aegis

        According to those guys? Probably under ‘terrorist’.

  • Rain

    “Antagonistic” seems to be such an odd and out of place term for it, that I must wonder if the “Barna Group” aren’t a tad bit from the kook side of town. It is so odd and out of place, that only fundamentalist provocateurs could possibly be so stupid.

    • RobMcCune

      About the group that conducted the study

      It conducts primary research, produces media resources pertaining to spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries.

      Also their about page has fundie written all over it.

      http://www.barna.org/about

      • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

        They’re a bit more empirical than most fundies (which isn’t hard). That said, their reports definitely have a slant, their questions are often primed or seem loaded in wording, and they seldom bother even with basic things like cross-tabs. There’s other problems in the reporting — the categories of the question here appear to be sloppily linearizing two separate concepts — attitude on the Bible, and frequency reading it. Some of their work is interesting, but the results require a higher sodium intake than peer-journal research. David Kinneman’s “You Lost Me” is worth checking out from the library, though not worth buying. And here, claiming the middle is “vanishing” based from these results is absurd; a 2%
        drop is barely to the 95% confidence threshold for their
        sample size, and does not appear to have a sustained trend.

        Looking at the GSS-2012, there definitely looks to have been an increase since the 1980s in the number of people who consider the Bible “a book of Fables” rather than the “Inerrant” or “Inspired” Word Of God. The uptick looks to have first started being noticeable circa 2004. However, it’s now only about a third again what it was in the 1980s (going from circa 15% to circa 20%). There’s some trend, but it doesn’t yet seem to be worth clutching pearls over. It also appears to be lagging the trend to religious disaffiliation (the “Rise of the Nones”), suggesting an effect rather than underlying cause.

    • jdm8

      It has persecution complex written all over it. If you’re not for them, you’re their enemy.

    • http://twitter.com/OtherSideReflec Tim

      Not to mention that the group labelled “neutral” still includes people who think the Bible is the inspired word of God, albeit with errors. The categories for this study are pretty screwed up.

    • Ignorant phuck

      You are a racist ignorant sexist closet homosexual who needs to be put down like a rabbid dog and I would love to be the one too do it. What makes it great is that while you f*ck others in your gain of “heaven” I treat people well and know when I die all is done and over and my energy is given back to the universe. O and I do not rape my daughter. It is in your book after all.

    • Pseudonym

      Yeah, it irks me that the categories seem to be what a fundamentalist would think up.

      By these definitions, most mainstream Christians are at least partly “antagonistic” to the Bible. What the hell would you call someone who actually thinks the Bible is bad?

  • Stev84

    It’s terrifying to read that 60% of Americans think the book has no errors. The sheer stupidity is mind boggling.

    • Valancy Jane

      They think that because they’ve been told that’s how it is. If they read it, they’d see very quickly that there’s no way to reconcile the truth with the Bible.

  • Artor

    I take exception to their classification of “Antagonistic,” as “rarely or never read the Bible.” I did read the Bible, cover to cover. That’s a big part of WHY I am antagonistic toward it, and I know I’m not the only one.

    • SeekerLancer

      Indeed, I thought that was silly as well since it implies non-believers just never read the Bible. The opposite is likely closer to the truth and for many people is the very reason they’re so called, “Antagonistic.”

    • C Peterson

      I think they mean “read the Bible” in the sense of those who read it regularly for inspiration, guidance, whatever. You know, the nutters who go to Bible study groups and carry around Bibles. The sort of folks with a large repertoire of quotes at hand, but very little depth of understanding.

  • GeorgeLocke

    The problem isn’t merely terminology. There is no place for liberal Christians who see the book as divinely inspired but not inerrant and yet read four times weekly.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    crappy poll, crappy wording.

    i used to read the bible daily, for school (divinity school) i was pretty much an agnostic by that time and the more i studied it, the more i understood that it was a work of men and had little to do with any deity except the made up ones described in it.

    and i think there are far fewer americans today who will, when pressed in a straight up debate, argue that it is totally inerrant and contains no flaws. that’s actually pretty easy to do, when you’re arguing with one. shellfish, mixed fibers, adultery, slavery, genocide… there are still some who will be all like “fuck yeah!” to those parts, but most will hem and haw and spew out some wishy washy justification for why those things don’t matter today and they are still good believers. mostly, they go with, “jeebus! he said i don’t to worry about that anymore!”

    it’s harder for them to explain jeebus and the pigs and his hatred of fig trees, but a lot of them haven’t even ever read those parts.

  • Ken

    “Or maybe — just maybe — more people are realizing that the Bible is an occasionally decent reference book mixed in with a whole lot of anti-scientific, anti-women, anti-gay, dishonest nonsense that we’re better off ignoring altogether.”

    It is also very much so anti-survival of the fittest, anti-hate, anti-pride, and anti-American Dream. I think this is also important to mention because the Bible can’t be true because it isn’t what our culture is like.

    I did quite a poor job, but I was attempting to be sarcastic. 1, The Bible never sought to be a science book. Even though a lot of “Christians” don’t get that. 2. Anti-women? Yeah, just wrong. A majority of the early followers were women and they LOVED it. 3. Anti-gay isn’t probably the best term. The Bible is pro survive, and homosexual behavior doesn’t work for that. Now I am not going to say Christians are justified at all in the way they act toward homosexuals, that needs to change big time. But, it is not just anti-gay because they hate those people, it’s that way for a reason.

    • Valancy Jane

      Christianity’s message was about elevating those who were marginalized. You don’t get much more marginalized than women in that era. All we really know about how the early church functioned was stuff in books written decades and generations after the fact, making their truthfulness suspicious anyway, after women saw whatever gains they’d made dissipate. By the third century it would have been simply unthinkable to have a woman in a position of authority in the burgeoning religious hierarchy. But that ended pretty quickly. I would be hard-pressed to spot major trends of equality in Christianity. We can’t go off what we imagine it used to be like. We have to go by what it is *now*. *Now* it is an insanely misogynistic worldview. Complementarianism and patriarchy are just the new codewords Christians use for “rape culture.”

      I’d also say that the view of progressive Christians that the Bible’s supposed anti-gay verses were really more about other matters than the strict forbidding of homosexuality itself is probably closer to the truth than how so many Christians use those verses today to justify their bigotry. I don’t know where you land on the spectrum on either of these two issues, women’s or gay rights, or if you even identify as Christian, but even a simple and cursory examination of objective history would quickly raise some major objections to your oversimplified and apologetics-laden post.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=782376094 Lamont Granquist

    actually we don’t all own one… growing up neither of my parents owned a bible, i’ve never owned a bible, and i’ve never read the bible, and i wish i knew less about the bible, rather than wishing i could read it more…

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=782376094 Lamont Granquist

      and i wish i had time to read keynes, i wish i had time to learn abstract algebra and group theory, i wish i had time to play with some of the cool cross-platform 3d game libraries coming out that you can program in javascript and lua, i wish i had time to learn erlang and go, i wish i could brush back up on my quantum mechanics and learn QFTs and learn tensor calculus and general relativity, i wish i had the time to do more cave diving in florida, and i need more dive time on my rebreather. i’d need at least another dozen lifetimes of free time before i got down to the bible and religious studies on my list of things to study…

  • SeekerLancer

    It’s a trend that gives me some hope. The non-religious people are starting to speak up while fundamentalists are getting louder and more disjointed in response. In a choice between the rational people and the crazy people it’s not entirely shocking that more of the middle-grounders are choosing to take the rational side. Really, fundamentalism is its own worst enemy.

  • Valancy Jane

    I’m not “antagonistic” toward the Bible. I know it’s not a factual accounting of history, a valid moral guide, or even an accurate recounting of a divinity’s desires, demands, and agreements with humanity, but I’m not antagonistic toward it. I am however very antagonistic toward those who use that error-laden mythology book to muscle their various bigotries and repressive social views onto the rest of us. I end up reading it fairly often to make sure I’m quoting something correctly or to double-check someone else’s claims, so I probably read it more often than the average Christian does. I wonder where I’d land?

    PS: I wonder, does the ABS take into account that self-reporting typically inflates positive values? I’m *SO SURE* that 20-21% of the population reads their Bible that often. What this poll is really saying is that 20-21% of the population is *saying* they do this, which is totally a different thing. That it has remained so static in an age when Christianity is absolutely *bleeding* membership is rather suspicious to me.

    • Pseudonym

      If you’re not an evangelical, Bible-believing, gay-hating, abortion-protesting, gun-toting Christian, then you’re “antagonistic” to the Bible. I hope this helps you in your personal spiritual journey.

      Yours sincerely,
      Barna Group

      • Valancy Jane

        That explains everything!

  • Loren Petrich

    I’m reluctant to draw any strong inferences from a trend over only a few years. I think that trends over recent decades are much more reliable. They also, however, show a clear trend toward secularization.

  • Harty

    Thought: I’m antagonistic, but have read the Bible, and continue too for historical study. Just because I know its all a myth doesnt mean I cant read it

  • Friendly_Autist

    It’s a decent book, if you read it like, say, The Silmarillion.

    • midnight rambler

      The Silmarillion is a good analogy, actually, especially if you’re a believer – they’re both overly long works by authors who have done much better elsewhere; with occasional interesting bits, but mostly extremely dull with lots of names and genealogies thrown around for no apparent reason; and you’d like to just stop reading but you feel like you have an obligation to slog through the whole thing.

      • Friendly_Autist

        I like The Sil, personally ( stop makin war on my beliefs), but I understand how dull it is. I don’t demand that it be taught in schools, or make Facebook posts about how awesome Manwë is.

  • Amakudari

    Is this deliberately excluding the sizable number of Americans who fall under “The Bible is the actual Word of God or inspired Word with no errors. Rarely or never read the Bible.”?

    I’m sorry, but given the well-known history of religious affiliation correlating with lies about church attendance and low performance on tests of religious literacy, I don’t even know how to interpret these results.

  • rhodent

    The linked web page states margin of error is ±2%, and over the last two years the number of “neutral” people has dropped 2%. How on earth does that constitute “the middle ground is shrinking”? Granted, the percentage of people who are “friendly” has dropped significantly, but the text explicitly states that they are defining “middle ground” to mean those categorized as “neutral”.

  • Heisenberg

    It seems like there’s some bias built into the interpretation of the results. Reading the legend to the chart, it sounds like the main reason people doubt the Bible is that they aren’t reading it four times a day.

    I don’t read the Bible every day; in fact, I rarely crack it open any more. However, I spent almost three decades studying the Bible. I know what it says; I don’t have to constantly have my nose in it.

    The only reason to read it four times a day is as a devotional reading, and skeptics certainly aren’t going to be doing that.


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