A recent Gallup poll on Americans' views of the Bible got fairly broad media attention, though it wasn't entirely clear what made the poll newsworthy. Was it that "Most Americans see the Bible as the Word of God"? Hard to see the news there—that's been true for as long as Gallup has been asking the question, and it remains true of 75 percent of the country.
But New York Times columnist Charles Blow still said he was "shocked and fascinated" by the religious literalism found by the poll. "What worries me is that some Americans seem to live in a world where facts can't exist," he wrote.
Others noted the poll's uptick in those who say, "The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man." The 21 percent of Americans who agreed with the statement is up from 17 percent in 2011, but matches the number from 2008 (and all of that falls within the poll's 4% margin of error).
"The 21% viewing the Bible in secular terms nearly matches the combined 22% who identify with another religion or no religion," the Gallup release said. But further down, in discussing a new way the polling firm is starting to ask its Bible questions, it noted that only half of non-Christians agreed with the description of the Bible as "an ancient book of fables."
And then came something truly "shocking and fascinating": 11 percent of non-Christians say the Bible "is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word."
Before we get to this strange group of people who think the Bible is the literal word of God but don't identify as Christians, we need to take a closer look at the question.
Generally, CT hasn't reported much on answers to the poll item, which is used more or less verbatim among many social science surveys, not just Gallup's. It always struck us as strangely worded, attempting to divide those who view the Bible as "the actual word of God, to be taken literally word for word" and those who view the Bible as "the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally."
Gallup claims their question
touches on two ongoing debates in Christian theology. One is about whether the words of the Bible came directly from God—essentially using the writers as scribes—or if they are the words of men, but guided by divine inspiration. The other debate involves the meaning of the words: whether they should be taken literally, or be viewed partly—or merely—as metaphors and allegories that allow for interpretation.
Except that it doesn't really touch on those debates, because those debates aren't terribly live ones. No evangelical seminary teaches that the Bible's authors mechanically transcribed the Holy Spirit's dictation. And no evangelical pastor teaches that "everything in it should be taken literally." Everyone allows for parables, figures of speech, poetic exaggeration, and the like. Yes, there's live debate over certain passages, but the word "everything" obliterates all nuance, and no evangelical leader would be terribly happy identifying with one statement and criticizing the other.
Gallup is now trying an additional option: "the Bible is the actual word of God, but multiple interpretations are possible." The new answer doesn't solve a whole lot. Debates aren't over whether the Bible has passages that are up for interpretation, but over specific interpretations of specific passages. Still, what's notable is that non-Christians love this answer: 21 percent agree with it. If offered among the choices, those saying the Bible is the "actual word of God and should be taken literally word for word" drops from 11 percent to 6 percent. Those saying the Bible is "the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally" drops from 30 percent to 19 percent. By a small margin, non-Christians would rather say it's the actual word of God, open to interpretation, than that it's the inspired word of God with some non-literal stuff in it. When given this new response as an option, even the "ancient book of fables" number drops among non-Christians, from 55 percent to 51 percent.
A Gallup spokesperson told us that their sample size is unfortunately too small to do more analysis of the non-Christians who think the Bible is the "actual" or "inspired" word of God. Fortunately, one of the most important sociological surveys in the country has been asking essentially the same question for decades. Like Gallup, the General Social Survey (GSS) has found an uptick in the "book of fables" response and about three quarters of Americans siding with one of the two "word of God" responses. And like Gallup, it found a lot of non-Christians who think the Bible is the "word of God." Of the 39 percent of non-Christians who think the Bible is the "word of God," 77 percent think it's the "inspired word" and 23 percent think it's the "actual," literal, word-for-word, word (that's about 9% of non-Christians overall).
Now, it's true, only 101 out of about 4,800 total American respondents are non-Christians who have a literal, word-for-word view of the Bible (that's about 2.1% of the U.S. population). But keep in mind that there are an awful lot of Christians out there, and survey magic (and the size of the GSS) means that even with a margin of error of about 9.7 percent we can still find statistically significant descriptors.
So who are these people?
For the most part, we're talking about the "nones." The cohort of religiously unaffiliated has grown sharply in recent years. It has been the hot topic among religion reporters, researchers, evangelists, and others, all of whom have been eager to note that the "nones" rarely identify as agnostic or atheistic, and often believe in God, pray, and attend church. More than four out of five non-Christian literalists are "nones" (81%). About 10 percent are Jewish. The remaining 9 percent identify with other non-Christian religions.
Most of the non-Christian literalists essentially never attend church or other religious services (55% go less than once a year vs. 32% of the overall American population). But about a fifth of them still attend services weekly, along with a quarter of the overall U.S. population.
Non-Christian literalists are more likely to have been raised with no religion—23 percent, compared with 7 percent of the total population—and more likely to firmly believe God exists: 73 percent say they do, compared with about 58 percent of all Americans.
There's no statistically significant difference in gender between non-Christian literalists and other Americans. Nor do we see any geographic differences—there's no regional quirk that would account for non-Christians liking the Bible. But we do see some other important differences.
For starters, non-Christian literalists are more likely to have never been married, with 39 percent saying that's true of them (vs. 25% of other Americans). They're a little on the younger side: 23 percent are ages 18-29 (vs. 14% of Americans overall), and only 20 percent are over age 60 (vs. 30% of Americans overall).
They're also mostly non-white. Non-Christian literalists are more than twice as likely to be African American (36% vs. 15% overall), and 16 percent identify as something other than black or white (vs. 8% overall). In a country that's 77 percent white, this group's 44 percent whiteness is fairly remarkable. They are more likely to have two parents born outside the U.S. (25% vs. 14% of other Americans).
Non-Christian literalists are also significantly less educated than Americans overall. More than two-thirds have only a high school education or less (something that's true of only 42% of Americans overall). They're more than twice as likely to have left high school (35% vs. 12% of other Americans) and very unlikely to have a bachelor's or graduate degree (12% vs. 30% of other Americans).
They may be poorer, but it's hard to tell from the data.
Politics and Social Views
Michael Weisskopf's 1993 description of the followers of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as "largely poor, uneducated and easy to command" has been worn to death. Forgive us for breaking it out one more time, because so far you're likely to have a similar notion in your head when envisioning non-Christian literalists.
But these less-educated literalists aren't some sort of religious right remnant. In fact, while the percentage difference falls within the margin of error, they lean to the left of the overall U.S. population, with 8 percent more liberals than the U.S.' 28 percent. A quarter identify as "extremely liberal," along with 17 percent of other Americans.
Finding the Non-Christian Literalists in the Real World
In the end, it's hard to create a profile of the non-Christian biblical literalist. Taken as an average, they're, well, pretty average. There's nothing really to unify this group. You wouldn't be able to identify a member by walking down the street or by visiting some enclave. They're too diverse and the data just isn't rich enough to create a robust description.
The demographics of this small portion of the U.S. population—2 to 11 percent, depending who you ask—also serve as a reminder that imprecise survey items like the literalism question can introduce confusion. Uncovering the characteristics of a slightly-liberal, God-believing, non-white, non-religious fraction of the U.S. population is still a process subject to human error at many levels, and the closer questions get to measuring what they try to measure, the more sure we can be that populations like this represent meaningful groups rather than statistic aberrations.
It's unlikely that we'll see much missiological attention given to this cohort, or any targeted evangelism at a group that seems to be low-hanging fruit (though it may be an incredibly difficult group to attract to Christianity; we don't know why they don't identify as Christian).
But like flamingos at a deadly Andean lagoon, or red flat bark beetles living in Alaskan winters below -72°F, there's surprisingly robust life where you'd least expect to find it. If 2.1 percent of the U.S. is non-Christian biblical literalists, that's about 6.7 million people—the population of the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. And if nearly half of non-Christians think the Bible is the word of God, "literal," "inspired," or otherwise, it may have profound implications for evangelism, outreach, interfaith cooperation, social justice advocacy, and a host of other issues that are often divided too neatly in public discussions.
Either that, or some awkward survey questions really need a makeover.
Ted Olsen is CT's managing editor for news and online journalism. Ruth Moon is a freelance reporter and contributing editor for CT. She has a master's degree in political science and is finishing another in communication. (She can actually do regression analysis but this isn't an academic journal so we just ran some simple crosstabulations.)