The State of the Bible 2012 – Some Reflections

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.

Generational Differences

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.

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  • TomB

    Dear Mark:

    Is a Mosaic anyone in that age bracket, or a Christian in that age bracket?  I’ve never heard the term before.  

    I suppose they’re not familiar with fender skirts.   🙂



  • Mark:

    As someone who works in research of complex business issues I found this survey to be entirely shallow in its premises and research methods.  It seems to me that the questions were designed with a rather profound bias in mind – this is easy to determine by the way the questions are asked.  

    For example, “The Bible contains everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life”.  In this day in age, really?  Everything?  The assumption of this question is nearly mind blowing, and exposes all sorts of things about the mindset of either those doing the research or the client of the research project.  Arguably, if the survey respondents lived in the Middle Ages, perhaps this question would have relevance.  But today?  A positive response to this question would imply that, any other published book or periodical is either unnecessary or irrelevant to modern life.  So then, lets just throw out Chesterton, Lewis, Buechner, Shakespeare, Poe, Dickens, etc. as non-essential peripheral reading.  Sounds like a great college curriculum.  Please.

    What our complex post Christian world demands is careful, thoughtful, in depth research about the real impact of the Christian Scriptures on American life.  These are deep subjects, requiring rigorous, disciplined, exhaustively thorough research.  I found nothing of the sort here.

    I am left wondering what isolated and magically detached corner of the world the American Bible Society has been living in.  But wait, their mailing address is on Broadway in New York!  Now I am entirely confused.

    I am also quite confused as to the technical and academic research capabilities of the Barna Group.  I can only find two employees on the Barna web page.  My experience in business would have me then wonder about the structure and motives of this research.  I wonder if the American Bible Society would be be willing to share with us the Scope of Work as requested from Barna, as well as the fee paid for services.  That might be very enlightening to the consumers of this information.

    Without knowing more, I am left confused as to whether this survey was not inexpensively prepared in order to reach comfortable conclusions for the client / consumer of the report.  Perhaps the client received just what they paid for – little of any real research merit.

    One final thought.  For what purposes will this report be used?  I hope and pray it is not to be used as solid evidence for commentary about the pagan state of American culture.  If so, this work will serve as an inadequate intellectual foundation for any claims of sociological merit.

    Thanks for the heads up on this. 

  • markdroberts

    Mosaic is a term used by George Barna and associates. Usually, they’re called Millenials.

  • markdroberts

    Thanks, Steve, for this comment. You make several good points.