In U.S., 3 in 10 Say They Take the Bible Literally

by Jeffrey M. Jones

Plurality view Bible as inspired word of God but say not everything in it should be taken literally

PRINCETON, NJ -- Three in 10 Americans interpret the Bible literally, saying it is the actual word of God. That is similar to what Gallup has measured over the last two decades, but down from the 1970s and 1980s. A 49% plurality of Americans say the Bible is the inspired word of God but that it should not be taken literally, consistently the most common view in Gallup's nearly 40-year history of this question. Another 17% consider the Bible an ancient book of stories recorded by man.

Views of the Bible, 1976-2011 Trend

These results are based on a May 5-8 Gallup poll. The high point in the percentage of Americans favoring a literal interpretation of the Bible was 40%, recorded in 1980 and 1984. The low point was 27% in 2001.

Among most major U.S. subgroups, a plurality or majority holds the view that the Bible is the inspired word of God, rather than the actual word of God or a book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts. Highly religious Americans and those who have less formal education are exceptions to this general pattern. A majority, 54%, of those who attend religious services on a weekly basis believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, more than twice the percentage of those who attend church less often.

Views of the Bible, by Frequency of Church Attendance, May 2011

Belief in a literal interpretation of a Bible declines as educational attainment increases. Forty-six percent of Americans with a high school education or less take the Bible literally, compared with no more than 22% of Americans with at least some college education. The majority of Americans with at least some college education believe the Bible to be the inspired word of God.

Views of the Bible, by Education, May 2011

Gallup has consistently found strong differences in views of the Bible as the "actual word of God" by religiosity and education. The current poll also finds significant income differences, with 50% of lower-income respondents believing the Bible is the actual word of God, compared with 27% of middle-income and 15% of high-income respondents. These income differences are larger than what Gallup has measured in the past, with a higher percentage of low-income Americans believing the Bible is literally true.

Protestants Most Divided in Interpretation of Bible

Protestants (including those who identify themselves as "Christian" but not Catholic or Mormon) are the most likely religious group to believe the Bible is literally true. Forty-one percent of Protestants hold this view, while a slightly larger 46% take the Bible to be the inspired word of God.

Two-thirds of Catholics believe the Bible to be the inspired word of God, while 63% of those without a religious affiliation think the Bible is not the word of God at all. Other U.S. religious groups are too small in number to reliably estimate from a single poll.

Views of the Bible, by Religious Preference, May 2011

Belief in a literal interpretation of the Bible is especially pronounced among churchgoing Protestants, as two-thirds of Protestants who attend church weekly hold this view.

Conservatives, Republicans More Likely to Take Bible Literally

Given the strong link between religion and politics in the U.S., it is not surprising that views of the Bible vary by party identification and ideology. The poll finds 42% of Republicans, compared with 23% of independents and 27% of Democrats, saying the Bible is literally true.

Conservatives are much more likely than moderates and liberals to believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. In fact, conservatives are as likely to believe the Bible is the actual word of God as to believe it is the inspired word of God.

Views of the Bible, by Partisanship and Ideology, May 2011

Implications

The percentage of Americans taking a literal view of the Bible has declined over time, from an average of 38% from 1976-1984 to an average of 31% since. However, highly religious Americans -- particularly those of Protestant faiths -- still commonly believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible.

In general, the dominant view of Americans is that the Bible is the word of God, be it inspired or actual, as opposed to a collection of stories recorded by man. That is consistent with the findings that the United States is a predominantly Christian nation and that Americans overwhelmingly believe in God.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted May 5-8, 2011, with a random sample of 1,018 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample includes a minimum quota of 400 cell phone respondents and 600 landline respondents per 1,000 national adults, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents for gender within region. Landline telephone numbers are chosen at random among listed telephone numbers. Cell phone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.

Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, adults in the household, and phone status (cell phone only/landline only/both, cell phone mostly, and having an unlisted landline number). Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2010 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

View methodology, full question results, and trend data.

For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.

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