Do You Read the Bible? Why?

Do you read the Bible?  Regularly?  If you do, you’re in good company.  Or at least you have lots of company.  Results from a survey have been published by the Center for the Study of Religion in American Culture at Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis, fondly known as Ewee-poohee.

The survey-meisters attached Bible-related question to two large-group surveys, the General Social Survey and the National Congregations Study.  The authors suggested a few key findings:

*   There is a 50/50 split among Americans who read any form of
scripture in the past year and those who did not. Among those who did,
women outnumber men, older people outnumber younger people, and
Southerners exceed those from other regions of the country.

*   Among those who read any form of scripture in the past year, 95%
named the Bible as the scripture they read. All told, this means that 48%
of Americans read the Bible at some point in the past year. Most of those
people read at least monthly, and a substantial number-9% of all
Americans-read the Bible daily.

*   Despite the proliferation of Bible translations, the King James
Version is the top choice-and by a wide margin-of Bible readers.

*   The strongest correlation with Bible reading is race, with African
Americans reading the Bible at considerably higher rates than others.

*   Half of those who read the Bible in the past year also committed
scripture to memory. About two-thirds of congregations in America hold
events for children to memorize verses from the Bible.

*   Among Bible readers, about half had a favorite book, verse, or
story. Psalm 23, which begins, “The Lord is my shepherd…” was cited most
often, followed by John 3:16.

*   Bible readers consult scripture for personal prayer and devotion
three times more than to learn about culture war issues such as abortion,
homosexuality, war, or poverty.

*   There are clear differences among Bible readers consulting scripture
for specific reasons. Age, income, and education are key factors.

*   Those reading the Bible frequently consult it on culture war issues
more than two times the rate as those who read it less frequently.

*   Less than half of those who read the Bible in the past year sought
help in understanding it. Among those who did, clergy were their top
source; the Internet was the least cited source.

*   Among Bible readers, 31% read it on the Internet and 22% use

*   Bible reading differences among religious traditions followed
predictably the historic divides between Protestants and Catholics, and
between white conservative and white moderate/liberal Protestants.
However, reading practices defy some stereotypes about certain groups.

What can we take away from these headlines?  First, for those of us who don’t read the Bible regularly and who don’t really care about what the Bible might say about any given social issue, this report serves as a reminder that many Americans see the Bible very differently.  For instance, if I read the above numbers correctly, about a quarter of respondents told interviewers that they thought it was important to memorize chunks of the Bible.  Also, those who do tend to read the Bible also tend to use the Bible to prove points on social issues.  For example, I do not find the Bible to be relevant to the issue of gay marriage, but many Americans do.  Finally, we see yet another reminder that religious divisions do not neatly match political ones.  African Americans, for example, tend to vote Democratic.  Yet they also tend to read the Bible more often than other groups.

Yet moving past the headlines, we also see some confirmation in this report of stereotypes about the Bible.  For instance, the authors found that Bible-reading was much more common among old people than among the young.  Of those over 75, 56% reported reading the Bible in the past year.  Of those between 18-29, only 44% did so.  Also, Bible-reading was most prevalent in the South (61%) and least prevalent in the Northeast (36%).

Yet even the body of the report contains intriguing surprises.  For example, of those who said they consider the Bible the “inerrant Word of God,” a significant percentage did not read the Bible at all in the past year.  If we add in respondents who said they believed the Bible was the “divinely inspired Word of God,” we get an astonishing result: Those Bible-lovers made up 65% of the people who said they had never read the Bible in the past year!  That’s right: of the people who said they had not read the Bible in the past year, 50% still thought the Bible was divinely inspired, and 15% thought that the Bible was inerrant.  Clearly, Bible-reading does not correlate with theological convictions about the importance or status of the Bible.

And, of course, people read the Bible for all sorts of reasons.  It was no surprise to find that the most common reason people give for reading the Bible is prayer and personal devotion.  But large numbers of respondents also claim to read the Bible to find out how to make more money, how to heal themselves, and how to predict the future.  As the study concludes, these uses of the Bible correlate strongly to levels of formal education.  People who have gone to college tend to use the Bible less for these sorts of purposes.  As the authors put it, “those with less education read the Bible at twice the rate of someone with a college degree for the purposes of learning about culture war issues, health and wealth, and what the future holds” (24-25).

So what can this survey tell us?  The IUPUI researchers asked prominent scholars for their opinions.

As prominent historian of religion Mark Noll commented, one hoped-for result of this survey was to add needed complexity to public discussions about the Bible.  “These IUPUI surveys,” Noll suggested, “should bring sanity back into journalists’ reporting on religion, at least to the extent that they show how important non-political use of scripture continues to be in modern American life.”

Professor of African American Studies Sylvester Johnson added a different take-away message.  This survey, Johnson noted, demonstrates the persistence of “the dominant reality of biblical fundamentalism in Black churches.”  Many observers, Johnson said, have long attributed a social progressivism to African American churches that simply doesn’t match the cultural reality.

In any case, whether it is used as a symbol of cultural identity, a source of clues to the future, or a dusty tome on a shelf that is left alone to molder, Americans still care about the Bible.


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1 Comment

  1. I go in and out with reading the Bible. It’s Lent, so I am making an effort to read the Liturgical readings during this season. Three years ago I decided to read through the whole Bible, b/c I hadn’t done that for awhile. I only made it through the OT, so I decided to read the NT the following year. But, I didn’t. When I do read the Bible, it’s to refresh my memory about where things are. I used to know chapter and verse for many doctrines or stories, but I got away from that. I have mixed views on the Bible now. I don’t believe it is inerrant. I don’t believe the stories in the OT are necessarily true. I don’t believe in a literal Adam & Eve, the story of Noah’s Ark, or Job, or Jonah, or Sodom & Gomorrah. But I appreciate a culture that is rich with vivid illustrations and stories about greater moral truths. The Bible has lots of comforting passages, like the Psalms. As I become more progressive in my faith, it becomes harder to figure it all out.


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