U.S. vs. Canada: Different Reads on the Good Book

by Josephine Mazzuca, PhD
Senior Staff Writer, Toronto Bureau

In terms of sheer religiosity, few Western countries can compare with the United States. Certainly, Americans are more likely than their Canadian neighbors to identify with a specific religion (most often a Christian denomination), attend church frequently, and attest to the importance of religion in their lives. But do Americans view the primary sacred text at the heart of Christianity -- the Bible -- differently than Canadians do? Are Americans more likely than Canadians to accept the word of God as the word of God?

In recent surveys, Gallup gave respondents in both countries* three options and asked them to choose the one that came closest to their views: 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"; or 3) "the Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man." Twice as many Americans as Canadians believe that the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally -- 34% vs. 17%, respectively. About half of both Americans (48%) and Canadians (51%) agree that the Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally. Fifteen percent of Americans believe the Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man, while 29% of Canadians agree.

One might think that these philosophical differences of opinion about the Bible are related to the fact that Americans are more likely than Canadians to attend church. Almost two-thirds (64%) of Canadians say they seldom or never attend church or synagogue, compared with 42% of Americans, while Americans are twice as likely as are Canadians to attend church every week (35% compared with 18%). But that is not necessarily the case.

When looking at opinions by frequency of church attendance in each country, there are differences. In the United States, 46% of those who attend church at least monthly think the Bible is the actual word of God, as do just 32% of Canadian weekly and monthly church attendees. Conversely, Canadians who do not attend church are more likely than Americans who don't attend to believe the Bible is a book of fables. Forty-one percent of non-attending Canadians think the Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man, while only 28% of non-attendees in the United States hold this belief. 

The churches that Americans and Canadians attend and their stances on whether the Bible is the actual or inspired word of God might explain the differences among regular churchgoers in each country. Half of Americans claim affiliation with a Protestant branch of Christianity, of which several major denominations adhere to a literal interpretation of the Bible. Twenty-four percent of Americans identify themselves as Catholics, and the Catholic Church supports the idea that the Bible is the inspired word of God. In Canada, according to Census figures, 46% of Canadians are Catholics and 18% are Protestants.

Among all U.S. Protestants, 45% say that the Bible is the actual word of God, compared with 19% of all U.S. Catholics. Sixty-three percent of U.S. Catholics say that the Bible is the inspired word of God, compared with 46% of U.S. Protestants. Gallup didn't collect Protestant and Catholic demographic information in the latest survey in Canada, but it is possible these differences among Catholics and Protestants would exist in that country as well.

Bottom Line

Americans are more regular in their church attendance and more literal in their interpretations of the Bible than are Canadians. The two findings may be indirectly related, though it would be difficult to say whether more literal views of the Bible encourage church attendance, or higher rates of attendance change perspectives on biblical scripture. But whether they attend church regularly or not, Americans are more likely than Canadians to believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, and less likely than Canadians to view the Bible as a book of fables and history recorded by man.

*Results in the United States are based on telephone interviews with 1,003 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Dec. 5-8, 2004,  with 1,016 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Nov. 7-10, 2004. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.  The survey was conducted by Gallup USA.

Results in Canada are based on telephone interviews with 1,004 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Dec. 6-12, 2004. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. The survey was conducted by Gallup Canada.

For results based on 555 U.S. adults who attend church at least monthly, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points. For results based on 450 U.S. adults who seldom or never attend church, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.

For results based on 357 Canadian adults who attend church at least monthly, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±6 percentage points. For results based on 645 Canadian adults who seldom or never attend church, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

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