American attitudes toward the Bible, whose language and teachings suffuse the country's founding documents and history, are fragmenting, according to a survey released this week, driven largely by negative attitudes of those in their 30s and younger.
About as many Americans are "engaged" with the Bible — reading it four or more times a week and believing it's God's word — as there are those who are somewhat or highly skeptical of the scriptures' validity, the American Bible Society reports, marking a major shift in U.S. attitudes.
For the first time, the group said a survey conducted on its behalf by The Barna Group research organization found both "Bible engaged" and "Bible skeptic" numbers stand at 19 percent each. That marks a near doubling of the skeptic number, which was 10 percent in 2011, the American Bible Society said.
"With four years of data from American Bible Society’s State of the Bible research, we are now able to see trends in attitudes about and behaviors around the Bible," Roy Peterson, president and CEO of the American Bible Society, said in a statement. "The increasing polarization in attitudes about the Bible has implications for us as a nation and for our churches and families."
According to the survey, so-called "millennials," the generation born from the early 1980s to the early 2000s, are driving the rise in negative views of the Bible.
Millennials' attitudes toward the Bible are markedly different, the survey found: Nineteen percent of millennials believe no literature is sacred compared with 13 percent of all adults. Only 64 percent of the group say the Bible is sacred literature, while 79 percent of all adults do.
And where 50 percent of all adults believe "the Bible contains everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life," that number drops to just 35 percent of millennials.
An initial Bible Society announcement of the survey results used the phrase "Bible antagonists" in place of "Bible skeptics," but that document was quickly withdrawn and reissued with the gentler term. No reason other than the statement of a name change for the category was given.
Speaking with the Deseret News, Peterson said his group wants to reach a generation he said is confronting "tons of brokenness" in their lives.
"One of the things we want to do is begin to use scripture engagement tools with this next generation," he said. "There are issues of brokenness and we want to find touchpoints where young people are looking for answers."
Peterson said that while the number of people who "love God's word has stayed steady the alarming thing is that today, one out of five does not share our esteem and value and might even be concerned antagonistic. They don't see its value in the culture."
Others who study and write about the Bible are equally concerned at the reported trend of skepticism about scripture.
"The thing that jumped out at me was that in three years, the percentage of people antagonistic to the Bible grew by over 72 percent," said Larry Stone, a noted Christian author whose 2011 book, "The Story of the Bible," traces the history of scripture. "That is an astounding increase."
Stone added, "When our nation started, the Bible was really important to us. Early Americans had differences, but we really treasured the Bible. If they only had one book in their home, it was the Bible. Even those of us who have it and read it aren't really sure of what it says."
Bob Hostetler, an evangelical pastor and author of "The Red Letter Life: 17 Words from Jesus to Inspire Simple, Practical, Purposeful Living," cites what he called a misuse of scripture in recent decades as part of the problem.
"I love the Bible as much as anyone, but when we use it as weapon sometimes, and expect conformity to it from people who don't value it, we're using it for purposes other than what it was intended for, to find (Jesus), and to point to Him," he said.
Hostetler said the Barna results reflect that abuse of holy writ. "I think it's kind of to some extent, the chickens coming home to roost," he said.
Biblically illiterate generation
Mormon blogger and author Jana Riess, whose 2013 "The Twible" summarizes every chapter in the Bible in Twitter-sized messages of 140 characters, isn't surprised by the American Bible Society survey results, given that a different poll revealed "apparently 10 percent of people surveyed believe Joan of Arc was Noah's wife."
Riess said, "This generation in particular is, well, biblically illiterate. The statistics are kind of alarming about Bible reading in America at all: Two-thirds of Americans believe Bible is inspired, but in terms of basic biblical literacy, (they) fail in all sorts of categories."
Tweeting short chapter summaries may be one way to get younger readers to engage with scripture, she said.
When announcing "The Twible," Riess stated "her interpretive question in approaching the text was 'What would The Onion say about this passage,’ ” suggesting that referencing a satirical newspaper would be a bridge to younger readers less likely to be engaged with the Bible. It appears, she said, to have worked.
"I've had a number of experiences where people bought ("The Twible") for a teenager, or someone in their twenties or thirties who did not have a great relationship with organized religion," Riess said in a telephone interview. "They're saying they are enjoying and sharing it with their friends. In some cases, these people are going back to the original, because it's pushing people to read the Bible in its original form."