A new poll released by Gallup shows that less than half of self-described evangelicals, or born-again Christians, believe that the Bible is literally God’s Word.
According to the random telephone survey of 1,007 American adults, taken May 2-22, only 40% of those identifying as evangelical hold the entire Bible as the “actual word of God” while 51% consider only parts of the Bible as the “inspired word of God.” Surprisingly, 8% of evangelicals stated the Bible was “an ancient book of fables, legends, history and moral precepts recorded by man.”
Among all U.S. adults surveyed, just 20% say the Bible is the literal Word of God, an all-time low according to Gallup. In 2017, the last time the research firm queried Americans about their views of the Bible, 24% of respondents accepted it as the actual Word of God.
A record-high 29% of Americans now say the Bible is merely a collection of “fables, legends, history and moral precepts recorded by man.”
Biblical literalism holds that “except in places where the text is obviously allegorical, poetic or figurative, it should be taken literally” as God’s Word, according to Got Questions Ministries, which holds this view of the Bible.
Gallup’s Frank Newport noted that this survey shows for the first time that there are significantly more Americans who say they believe that the Bible is not divinely inspired than there are who say they believe that the Bible is the literal Word of God.
The percentage of Americans who say the Bible is the “actual word of God” has declined gradually in the last decade, from 30% in 2011 to 28% in 2014 to 24% in 2017 and 20% today. Concurrently, the percentage of Americans who say the Bible is just a book of history and fiction has risen, from 17% to 21% to 26% and to 29% today.
Meanwhile, the middle-ground option in the poll rose – from 47% in 2017 to 49% in May: “the Bible is the inspired word of God, but not everything in it should be taken literally.”
Owen Strachan, senior fellow for the Family Research Council’s (FRC) Center for Biblical Worldview, cited the dangers of rejecting a literal interpretation of the Bible.
“Either the whole thing is God’s speech, God’s revelation, God’s testimony of Himself and His ways and His works and what He has done in history through His people, or else you’re just doing theological buffet, and you’re just slicing and dicing like Thomas Jefferson did hundreds of years ago,” Strachan observed. “You’re literally taking a pair of scissors and you’re snipping out the parts that you don’t like from the Bible and giving yourself your own understanding of the Bible as a product.”
In 2015, just under 60% of evangelical churches espoused a literal interpretation of Scripture, data from Pew Research showed. In 2019, Pew Research also noted that some 61% of Southern Baptists, who tend to express higher levels of religious commitment than Americans overall, accepted the Bible as the literal Word of God. This share exceeded the share of those who hold this belief among all U.S. adults—31%—and among other Evangelical Protestants, which had fallen to 53%.
The recent Gallup data shows that only 30% of Protestants say the Bible is literally true, while just 15% of Catholics do. Almost two-thirds of Catholics view the Bible as the inspired Word of God.
The data from the Gallup poll comes less than a year after a study from Arizona Christian University found that, of an estimated 176 million American adults who identify as Christian, just 6% or 15 million of them actually hold a Biblical worldview.
The study found that while a majority of America’s self-identified Christians, including many who identify as evangelical, believe that God is all-powerful, all-knowing and is the Creator of the universe, more than half reject a number of Biblical teachings and principles, including the existence of the Holy Spirit.
Also, significant majorities errantly believe that all religious faiths are of equal value, people are basically good and that people can use acts of goodness to earn their way into Heaven. The study further showed that majorities don’t believe in moral absolutes; consider feelings, experience, or the input of friends and family as their most trusted sources of moral guidance; and believe that having a faith matters more than adhering to a specific faith.
This shift in beliefs about the Bible has come “as a number of indicators show a decline in overall religiosity in the U.S. adult population,” Gallup’s Newport wrote.
“Americans’ interpretations of the Bible are important, because the Bible is often used as the basis for policy positions on moral and values issues, including such things as abortion and gay and lesbian relations,” Newport wrote. “Some more conservative Protestant groups use a literal interpretation of passages from the New Testament as the basis for their belief that women should not be in positions of religious leadership in churches. Gallup’s data show that the use of a literal interpretation of the Bible as the basis or justification for social policy positions will likely resonate only with a declining minority of the overall U.S. population.”