December 29, 2014 – Every December, Barna Group compiles its top findings and trends from research conducted in the past year. From legalizing marijuana to increasing secularization trends to America’s complicated relationship with sports—2014 was an interesting year.
1. Bible Skepticism Is Now Tied with Bible Engagement
For the first time since Barna Group and American Bible Society’s Bible engagement tracking began, Bible skepticism is tied with Bible engagement. The number of those who are skeptical or agnostic toward the Bible—who believe the Bible is “just another book of teachings written by men that contains stories and advice”—has nearly doubled from 10% to 19% in just three years. This is now equal to the number of people who are Bible engaged—who read the Bible at least four times a week and believe it is the actual or inspired Word of God.
Digging into the population segmentation of Bible skeptics, we find that two-thirds are 48 or younger (28% Millennials, 36% Gen-Xers), and they are twice as likely to be male (68%) than female (32%). They are more likely to identify as Catholic than any other single denomination or affiliation (30%) and are the segment most likely not to have attended church (87%) or prayed (63%) during the previous week. They are also most likely not to have made a commitment to Jesus that is important in their life today (76%).
2. Young Adults Question the Value of Their College Degree
The traditional commencement speech platitudes that welcome students into the opportunities of adulthood—“the whole world is before you”; you just have to “follow your dreams” to “make a difference”—now ring hollow to many young adults, given the uneven, unpredictable economy. Hundreds of thousands of graduating Millennials are discovering the world is not their oyster, and jobs are much harder to find than anyone expected. As such, it’s easy to question the value of higher education. Only four in 10 twentysomethings would say they need their college degree for their current job (42%) or that it’s related to the work they’re doing (40%), and the same number wish they’d chosen a different major altogether. In the end, fewer than half of Millennials (47%) would strongly agree their degree was worth the cost and time.
The degree-to-job disparity seems to bother parents most of all. While only about one-third of Millennials believe universities “have my best interests at heart,” that’s nearly twice as many as Gen-Xers (15%) and four times as many as Boomers (8%). Considering most Millennials remain optimistic about someday achieving that “dream job”—52% believe it’s within reach in the next five years—they seem to believe the degree will pay off at some point.
3. Global Poverty Is on the Decline, but Almost No One Believes It
Did you know that the percentage of people in the world who live in extreme poverty has decreased by more than half over the past 30 years?
If you said no—if you thought the number had gone up; that more people, not less, live in extreme poverty—you are not alone. More than eight in 10 Americans (84%) are unaware global poverty has reduced so drastically. In fact, more than two-thirds (67%) say they thought global poverty was on the rise over the past three decades.
Similarly, while both child deaths and deaths caused by HIV/AIDS have decreased worldwide, many Americans wrongly think these numbers are on the rise: 50% of U.S. adults believe child deaths have increased since 1990, and 35% believe deaths from HIV/AIDS have increased in the past five years.
Despite the incredible progress, more than two-thirds of U.S. adults (68%) say they do not believe it’s possible to end extreme global poverty within the next 25 years. Sadly, concern about extreme global poverty—defined in this study as the estimated 1.4 billion people in countries outside the U.S. who do not have access to clean water, enough food, sufficient clothing and shelter or basic medicine like antibiotics—has declined from 21% in 2011 to 16% in 2013.
4. Millennials Want a Church to Feel Like a Church
When it comes to the next generation of believers—who, leaders worry, will continue their journey away from regular church involvement—does the building itself have anything to do with their resistance or attraction to the church? When asked to choose between contrasting words to describe their vision of the ideal church, a majority of Millennials chose the following (for more word pairing choices, as well as visual pairing, see the full report):
• Community, 78% (chosen over privacy, 22%)
• Sanctuary, 77% (auditorium, 23%)
• Classic, 67% (trendy, 33%)
• Quiet, 65% (loud, 35%)
• Casual, 64% (dignified, 36%)
• Modern, 60% (traditional, 40%)
While “sanctuary,” “classic” and “quiet” are more often associated with traditional church buildings, fewer than half of survey respondents preferred the word “traditional” over “modern.” And herein lies a cognitive dissonance common to the young adults interviewed in the survey. Many of them aspire to a more traditional church experience, in a beautiful building steeped in history and religious symbolism, but they are more at ease in a modern space that feels more familiar than mysterious.
5. Protestants Like Pope Francis, Too
One year into his papacy, Pope Francis received positive marks among a majority of U.S. adults (54%). About one-quarter (26%) said their opinion of the pontiff is neutral; fewer than one in 10 (7%) view him unfavorably; and 14% said they don’t know enough to have an opinion. More than half of all American adults (54%) said Pope Francis is an improvement on his predecessor (among practicing Catholics, it’s a two-thirds majority). When asked to identify how well certain words describe the current pope, nearly nine out of 10 Americans said he is very or somewhat honest (87%), compassionate (88%) and intelligent (86%).
While practicing Catholics take the lead in giving him high marks (an overwhelming 98% had a favorable view of the Holy Father), nearly half of practicing Protestants (45%) expressed a very or somewhat favorable opinion. However, among non-mainline Protestants, one-third reported a favorable view (37%).
6. Americans Favor Legalizing Pot but Believe It’s Morally Wrong to Use It
While a majority of Americans (58%) now think smoking pot should be legal, most still say it’s not okay to use it. Fewer than half of U.S. adults (47%) believe it’s morally acceptable to smoke marijuana for recreational use.
This is most pronounced among practicing Christians, particularly non-mainline Protestants: Fewer than one in seven (13%) say it is acceptable to use marijuana for recreation. Mainline Protestants (40%) and Catholics (33%) are also less likely than the average (47%) to say recreational weed is acceptable.
Perhaps surprisingly, Millennials (48%) are no more likely than Gen-Xers (48%) or Boomers (49%) to say marijuana is morally acceptable. Elders, as one might expect, are less likely than younger generations to accept the morality of pot use (35%).
7. Practicing Christian Millennials Maintain a High View of Scripture
When it comes to Scripture, practicing Christian Millennials—self-identified Christians who attend church at least once a month and who describe their religious faith as very important to their life—are quite orthodox and hold the Bible in very high regard. In fact, nearly all of them believe the Bible contains everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life (96%). The same proportion claim the Bible is the actual or inspired word of God (96%). Among these young adults, a plurality agree, “The Bible is the actual word of God and should be taken literally, word for word” (46%). An additional four in 10 say it is divinely inspired and has no errors, though “some verses are meant to be symbolic rather than literal” (39%), while 11% say the Bible is the inspired word of God, “but has some factual or historical errors.”
Additionally, practicing Christian Millennials cite the Bible as their greatest source for moral truth. Of the practicing Christian Millennials who believe in absolute moral truth (71%), four in 10 point to the Bible as the main source from which they have learned or discovered absolute moral truths and standards (39%). This far outpaces any other source, with church coming in second at 16%, followed by parents at 14%.
8. Americans Say They Care Too Much About Sports
Sports and the culture surrounding them are a pervasive part of the American experience. More than four in 10 adults (43%) strongly agree that sports are an important part of American culture; when you factor in those who also “somewhat agree”—an additional 46% of adults—it’s nearly nine out of 10 Americans (89%).
But do Americans care too much about sports? Two out of three adults think so (67%).
While men make up a larger viewing audience for sports and are more likely to play than women, they are also more likely to believe Americans care too much about sports: 72% of men believe so, compared to only 61% of women. Millennials are the most likely generation to say Americans care too much about sports (75% vs. 65% of Gen-Xers, 61% of Boomers and 70% of Elders). Downscale Americans (58%) are less likely than upscale Americans (68%) to think Americans over-prioritize sports. Practicing Christians, at 69%, are in line with the average adult.
9. Moms Are Stressed Out and Tired, but Satisfied
For the FRAMES project, Barna Group surveyed American women to find out exactly how they feel about their commitments to family, church, career and community, and about the tensions that seem to pull them in opposite directions. Three-quarters of women (76%) told us they are satisfied with their lives . . . but when we dug deeper, we found more complexity beneath the surface.
For instance, six in 10 women (59%) are dissatisfied with their balance between work and home life. Among moms with children still at home, the rate is higher (62%). Eight in 10 moms (80%) feel overwhelmed by stress (compared to 72% among all women), and seven out of 10 (70%) say they do not get enough rest (compared to 58% of all women).
American moms are stressed, tired, overcommitted and not sure how best to navigate work and family. Yet they are even more likely than women who aren’t mothers to report they are satisfied with their lives.
10. Secularization Is on the Rise
In 2014, Barna Group conducted a major study on the U.S. unchurched population, drawing on more than two decades of tracking data and reported in Churchless, a new book from veteran researchers George Barna and David Kinnaman. The study revealed that nearly two-fifths of the nation’s adult population (38%) now qualifies as post-Christian (measured by 15 different variables related to people’s identity, beliefs and behaviors; read more about Barna’s post-Christian metric here). That includes 10% of Americans who qualify as highly post-Christian. Another one-quarter is moderately post-Christian (28%). Examined over time, our research shows that the proportion of highly secularized individuals is growing slowly but steadily.
In other words, in spite of “Christian” self-descriptions, more than one-third of America’s adults are essentially secular in belief and practice. If nothing else, this helps explain why America has experienced a surge in unchurched people—and presages a continuing rise in this population.
As you might expect, the data show some striking generational differences when it comes to secularization. The pattern is indisputable: The younger the generation, the more post-Christian it is. Nearly half of Millennials (48%) qualify as post-Christian compared to two-fifths of Gen-Xers (40%), one-third of Boomers (35%) and one-quarter of Elders (28%).