Last week, I put up a brief summary of some recent findings on “The State of the Bible 2012.” These findings are the result of an in-depth survey commissioned by the American Bible Society. (You can download a PDF of the study results here.) Today, I want to offer some reflections on this survey.
First, I’ll put up my standard gripe about how surveys like this one ask questions in ways that are frustrating and potentially misleading. Consider, for example, the first question of the survey: “To start with, what books, if any, do you consider sacred literature or holy books?” People can give more than one answer. The results for all adults were: the Bible (82%); the Koran (10%); Torah (6%); Book of Mormon (5%); other (3%); none (11%); not sure (3%). Given that I am a Bible-believing Christian, why do I have a problem with this question? Because it doesn’t make it clear whether I’m to list books that I “consider sacred literature or holy books” for religious people in the world today, or for myself alone. The Bible is a unique holy book for me. But as one who has a Ph.D. in the “Study of Religion,” I know that the category of “sacred literature” includes other books, such as the Qur’an, the Book of Mormon, the Bhagavad Gita, and so forth. I may not claim all of these as holy books for me, but I recognize that they are for others. So, I wouldn’t know how to answer the first question of the survey.
I’m sure that others shared my confusion. For example, 14% of Mosaics (18-27 years old) considered the “Koran” to be a holy book. 9% of Mosaics thought the same of the Book of Mormon. It’s likely that most of these people were neither Muslim nor Mormon. Rather, they were showing an awareness of what religious people in the world believe. Perhaps some Mosaics hold many books to be sacred for themselves; perhaps they were simply honoring the beliefs of others. We don’t know. Yet, at the same time, 14% of Mosaics answered “none” when asked about books they consider as sacred literature. I expect they took the question to mean “sacred for you personally” rather than “sacred for some people.” So, the results don’t really tell us what Mosaics think about sacred books in general or about which books they personally consider sacred. The question was not specific enough.
I’m not going to keep on making this gripe again and again throughout my reflections. But the limitations of this survey make it consistently difficult to know exactly what people believe and do not believe, and this is frustrating to me.
Perhaps one of the most striking results of the Bible survey, though not a particularly surprising one, is the difference in views of the Bible among generations. The survey divided adult respondents into Mosaics (18-27), Busters (28-46), Boomers (47-64), and Elders (66+). Many answers to questions showed distinct differences among these groups, with the Mosaics generally the most distinct. For example, considering the following:
The Bible contains everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life:
Strongly agree: Mosaic (34%); Buster (44%); Boomer (54%); Elder (62%)
Do you think the Bible has too much, too little, or just the right amount of influence in US. society today?
Mosaic (too little – 37%; just right – 33%; too much – 25%; not sure – 5%)
Elder (too little – 54%; just right – 26%; too much – 10%; not sure – 10%)
Differences between Mosaics and Elders fit the cultural trend toward less religious activity among younger adults (though not necessarily less spiritual interest). Yet, at times the survey results proved to be surprising in this regard. For example:
How many Bibles, in total, does your household own?
1 – Mosaic (24%); Elder (16%)
2 to 3 – Mosaic (33%); Elder (35%)
4 to 5 – Mosaic (22%); Elder (21%)
6 or more – Mosaic (21%); Elder (28%)
Do you wish that you read the Bible more or not?
yes – Mosaic (55%); Elder (59%)
no – Mosaic (42%); Elder (41%)
Yes, there is a gap between Mosaics and Elders, but it isn’t very substantial when it comes to Bible ownership and a desire to read the Bible more.
Some differences between Mosaics and Elders might have as much to do with different seasons of life as with views of the Bible. For example, those who had read the Bible in the past week were asked if they “gave a lot of thought to how it might apply to your life,” the discrepancy between Mosaics and Elders was wide: Mosaic (44%); Elder (67%). This shows that Bible-reading Mosaics don’t seem to care about applying the Bible to their lives, right?
No, not necessarily. Perhaps Mosaics and Elders have different perceptions of what constitutes “a lot of time.” Perhaps Mosaics are just a wee bit more honest about how much time they actually spent applying the Bible to their lives. Or, perhaps Mosaics simply didn’t have as much time to think about anything as Elders, the vast majority of whom would not be working full time and/or going to school full time. Thus, when people were asked if they “gave some thought” to how the Bible might apply to their lives, Mosaics rose to the occasion: Mosaic (52%); Elder (24%). In fact, when you add up both the “gave a lot of thought” and “gave some thought” results, it turns out that more Mosaics applied the Bible to their lives than any other generation (Mosaic-96%; Buster-94%; Boomer-95%; Elder-91%).
There is, as one would expect, a giant gap between Mosaics and other generations, especially elders, when it comes to the relationship of Bible reading and technology. I’ll weigh in on this in my next post in this series on the Bible in 2012.