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State of the Bible 2021: 5 key findings

Since 2011, the team at Barna has worked alongside American Bible Society to track the State of the Bible, representing one of the largest data sets on how Americans perceive and engage with the Bible.

This year, American Bible Society and Barna collaborated to collect and analyze the most-recent data. They discovered five connections between the Bible and the broader story of faith in America.

The following article offers five notable findings from American Bible Society’s State of the Bible 2021 report.

Bible users in the U.S. increased in 2021

The proportion of people using the Bible in the United States has remained fairly constant for the past decade. In typical years, approximately half of American adults reach for the Bible at least occasionally. In 2014, our team estimated that an all-time high of 53 percent of American adults were Bible Users, and the low point of 48 percent was reached in 2019.

In January 2020, we estimated that Bible Users – defined as individuals who read, listen to, or pray with the Bible on their own at least three or four times a year outside of a church service or church event – had reached a 10-year nadir, registering only 48 percent of Americans.

However, in June, as COVID-19 took hold, we recorded a drop in the proportion of Americans who never use the Bible. That figure fell from 35 percent in 2019 to 31 percent in the summer of 2020. As of January 2021, the proportion of American adults who never use the Bible has fallen to 29 percent, its lowest point since 2016. Along with the drop in “nevers,” we observed a modest rise in Bible Users.

Americans largely believe the nation would fare poorly without the Bible

More than half of U.S. adults (54 percent) believe that America would be worse off without the Bible, which is actually a five-percent increase since last year (49 percent in 2020). One in seven Americans (14 percent) believes the nation would be better without the Bible. While the proportion with a more negative view remained about the same, there has been a shift from last year for those in the middle. One in three American adults (33 percent) believe America would be the same with or without the Bible. Five percent of those who were ambivalent last year have moved to a more Bible-affirming view in 2021.

Over half of U.S. adults say the Bible is without error

Interestingly, most descriptions of what the Bible actually is still fall within the realm of Christian orthodoxy. One-quarter of respondents (26 percent) believes the Bible is the actual Word of God and should be taken literally. Three in 10 (29 percent) hold the view that the Bible is the Word of God and, though it does not have errors, parts of it can be interpreted both literally and symbolically. Sixteen percent say the Bible has some historical or factual errors but is still the Word of God. Taken together, seven in 10 Americans claim a view that regards scripture as the God’s Word (71 percent). More than half of American adults (55 percent) hold what is known to be a “high” view of scripture, which deems the Bible without error.

A much smaller proportion of Americans holds lower views of the Bible. One in eight (13 percent) indicates the Bible is just another book that contains stories and advice. One in 10 (9 percent) holds the view that the Bible is not inspired by God, but rather reveals the writers’ understanding of the principles of God. Some Americans (10 percent) take a hostile stance toward the Bible, believing the Bible was written to control or manipulate people.

Half of Americans affirm the Bible contains the keys to living a meaningful life

A slight majority of Americans agrees that Scripture’s message is particularly helpful; 54 percent say the Bible contains everything a person needs to live a meaningful life. This view has fallen significantly since last year when over two thirds of adults (68 percent) affirmed the Bible as an important source of wisdom.

One in six U.S. adults reads the Bible most days during the week

Data reveal that over 181 million Americans opened a Bible in the past year. This number is up significantly (7.1 percent) from 2020, when 169 million adults used the Bible at least occasionally. In 2021, we estimate that 128 million American adults reach for the Bible with regularity.

Just over one-third of U.S. adults (34 percent) reads the Bible once a week or more, while half (50 percent) read the Bible less than twice a year (including “never”). In between these two extremes, we find those who read the Bible more than twice a year, but not on a weekly basis (16 percent). Overall, one in six U.S. adults (16 percent) reads the Bible most days during the week, up from 12 percent in 2020.

Some of the nuances of these perceptions and habits surface in tracking American Bible Society’s Scripture engagement categories, which determine levels of Scripture engagement using three important factors:

  1. Frequency of interaction with the Bible
  2. Spiritual impact of the Bible on the user
  3. Moral centrality of the Bible in the user’s life

In this year’s State of the Bible reporting:

  • Scripture Engaged refers to anyone who would have been classified in prior reports as either Bible Engaged or Bible Centered.
  • Movable Middle refers to those who were previously labeled as Bible Neutral or Bible Friendly.
  • Bible Disengaged refers to the same group as prior reporting and therefore carries the same name.

Since 2018, the percentage of the population that scores Scripture Engaged has largely remained the same. The major shift, meanwhile, is happening in the form of an exodus from the Bible Disengaged to the Movable Middle. In 2018, over half of the population was considered disengaged (54 percent). For the next two years, the population of the Disengaged remained similar: 47 percent in 2019, and 46 percent in 2020. This year, however, the number of Bible Disengaged people has dropped sharply to 39 percent. Those who once were disengaged have moved to what we are now calling the “Movable Middle.” This middle group has jumped up since 2020, from one-quarter of the population (26 percent) to over one-third (37 percent).

It’s clear that hearts are being softened to the Bible. But will this willingness to open Scripture – even if infrequently – evolve into a deeper engagement with the message? Or will middling Bible usage satisfy a need for “just enough?”

To learn more about Scripture engagement profiles and trends, emotions surrounding Bible use, how the generations view the Bible and other topics, check out American Bible Society’s State of the Bible 2021 research and download the free ebook, from which this article was adapted. The first full chapter of State of the Bible 2021 is also available on Barna Access Plus.

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