Biblical Literalism

by Kieran Healy on June 15, 2004

Eugene Volokh posts a table from a poll showing that about 60 percent of Americans say they believe Biblical stories like the 7-day creation, Noah’s flood and Moses’ parting of the Red Sea to be literally true. This is rather higher than other estimates I’ve seen of Biblical Literalism. Based on GSS data (the GSS is the best available public opinion survey in the U.S. with a long time-series), we know that in 1998 about 30 percent of Americans agreed with the statement “The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word”. This was down from about 40 percent in 1988. (Most of the decline seems to have happened in the late 1980s, however.) About half of Americans agree that “The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word.” And a steady 15 to 17 percent agree that it’s “an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men.” Here’s a graph, I put together of these trends, in pdf format.

Why are the results Eugene cites so much higher than the trend data? Unfortunately, the GSS hasn’t been asking this question recently, so it’s hard to say. There are two main possibilities: First, there really has been a very sharp rise in Biblical Literalism since 1998. Second, reponse patterns may be sensitive to the specificity of the question. People might be more likely to accept the literal truth of the best-known Bible events than to believe the whole thing. This is consistent with the way the GSS frames their question, as the “Inspired word” answer allows for the possibility that some things in the Bible are literally true. So we should expect more believers to switch over to literalism for the really big, important events (e.g., the creation of the Universe).

The second theory explains the very large gap in professed literalism between the specific questions about Bible stories and the general question about the whole book. But there’s also evidence for the first interpretation. In a different poll, conducted in September 2003 and also cited on the Polling Report page about religion, respondents were asked a variant of the GSS question. 42 percent said “the actual word of God”, 37 percent said “Not all to be taken literally”, 14 percent said “Written by Men” and 6 percent said they didn’t know. Data for this poll go back to 2001 and have a roughly similar 42/36 split between literalists and inspirationalists. If there’s no response bias from the wording, and this poll is comparable with the GSS data, then literalism seems to have had a resurgence since 1998 and is back to—and perhaps beyond—levels last reported in 1987. The overall proportion of Americans who don’t doubt the Bible has something to do with God has remained steady across the period at about 80 percent.

It’s hard to say more with just this data. On the face of it, the commitment to literal belief in the Bible is a big step up from saying that it’s not all to be taken as, um, Gospel. So it’s surprising to see people heading back up the hill of belief, if you like. But we should be wary about interpreting survey questions about religion in a purely propositional manner—i.e. simply as belief statements or theses in the philosophical sense. Such statements can also be tags used to express affiliation to social and political groups and might be sensitive to the political and cultural climate.But the apparent upward trend is interesting nevertheless.



asg 06.15.04 at 12:09 pm

Note that the poll says “Fieldwork by ICR.” ICR is probably the Institute for Creation Research. I don’t know what “fieldwork” means in this case, and obviously if the questions are word for word and the sample is legit then it doesn’t matter who did the polling itself. Still, any time ICR is involved in anything, it’s best to take a second sniff.


bc 06.15.04 at 12:09 pm

about 60 percent of Americans say they believe Biblical stories like the 7-day creation, Noah’s flood and Moses’ parting of the Red Sea to be literally true

I wonder what percentage believe that Karl Marx was a prophet?


Andrew Edwards 06.15.04 at 12:16 pm

One thing I noted in Eugene’s poll was the freaming of the quesiton:

Do you think that’s literally true, meaning it happened that way word-for-word; or do you think it’s meant as a lesson, but not to be taken literally?

Ummmm… neither of the above?

Especially for, say, the ark story, which is pretty clearly neither a lesson nor an actual event, so much as a mythologized version of an historical flood in ancient Iraq.


Kieran Healy 06.15.04 at 12:18 pm

ICR is probably the Institute for Creation Research.

Ah, that’s interesting. The second poll I cite from that page (roughly replicating the GSS data) was part of the Virginia Commonwealth University Life Sciences Survey, so I’d trust that, and it’s more consistent with the GSS data. Though it still shows resurgence in literalism compared to the late ’90s.


KN 06.15.04 at 12:21 pm

60% of Americans also say they believe in THE DEVIL.


q 06.15.04 at 12:27 pm

Some surveys appear to show that less only 40% of people actually go to a church each week (“in the last 7 days”). So a large group of respondents appear to be saying that they believe the Bible, but ignore it which seems a bit odd to me – since if I believed every word, I’d be there all the time praying for mercy.


Kieran Healy 06.15.04 at 12:33 pm

So a large group of respondents appear to be saying that they believe the Bible, but ignore it which seems a bit odd to me – since if I believed every word, I’d be there all the time praying for mercy.

Hence the last couple of sentences of my post.


PZ Myers 06.15.04 at 1:18 pm

I doubt that it is the Institute for Creation Research — they don’t do big, formal surveys. More likely it is International Communications Research, a company that specializes in surveys.


Ayjay 06.15.04 at 1:46 pm

Polls like this drive me crazy, because they are so ill-formed as to be worse than useless. As far as I can tell, they are formulated by people who are thoroughly ignorant of the place of the Bible in historic Christianity and wish to remain so. The statement “The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word” is not one to which any orthodox Christian, including the most rabidly and narrowly fundamentalist, can give a meaningful response. The success of the Left Behind books (like that of Hal Lindsay’s biblical prophecy books in the 70s) is predicated on the obvious fact — obvious to every fundamentalist — that much of the prophetic literature in the Bible is not literal at all, but rather a thoroughly symbolic and perhaps allegorical discourse. That’s how people like Lindsay and Tim LaHaye make their money: by telling people what this symbolic discourse means. They need to do that because its literal meaning is so evidently not its true meaning. Fundamentalists haave spent so much time trying to figure out who “Gog, of the land of Magog” is (in Ezekiel) because they know that there isn’t literally a land called Magog.

So when they are faced with poll questions like the one cited above — which so flagrantly disregards this central aspect of fundamentalist Biblical interpretation — what do they do? My guess is that they assume that what the question really means is, “Do you take the Bible seriously? That is, do you think you’re supposed to obey its commands even when you don’t like them?” And to that they say yes.

But I’m just guessing here. I have to guess, though, because the question is so hopelessly vague. And it’s vague because the people who formulate such polls don’t want to understand fundamentalists, they just want to find simple ways to categorize them. Unfortunately, even fundamentalists are a complicated lot.


Matt McIrvin 06.15.04 at 2:23 pm

Gallup has a poll they take every so often about beliefs regarding evolution and Genesis, and their poll shows amazing stability in the numbers over the past twenty years. Now, this poll specifically asked about evolution/creation of life and humanity, not about Biblical literalism in general, so it’s possible that that accounts for the difference.


JamesW 06.15.04 at 3:40 pm

To Andrew Edwards: there’s a fascinating new account of the origins of Noah’s Ark. Around 8000 BC, a barrier across the Bosphorus broke and the Mediterranean flooded into the Black Sea, raising the level by a hundred feet or so. There are beaches at depth with freshwater mollusc shells; the layers of salt and fresh water havn’t mixed to this day.
From here on it’s pure speculation, but the flood, accompanied by violent weather, would have threatened early humans (early farmers and pastoralists) on the coast. Imagine a survivor, stranded on a peninsula that turned into a submerging island, who managed to get his family, goats, sheep and dogs on a raft. The survivors would have remembered the cataclysm in myth, much more than the regular and easily survivable floods of Mesopotamia; and they would have located it north of the Fertile Crescent.
If you don’t imprison yourself in literalism, the Bible is much more interesting and true.


JP 06.15.04 at 4:09 pm

Great post, ayjay. Even John Calvin believed that Job was probably some sort of allegory. Another example of non-literalism is that no one takes it literally when, for example, Jesus commands you to pluck out your eyes if they cause you to sin. It’s understood that he’s using hyperbole. So “literal” is definitely the wrong word to use in this kind of analysis.

It would have been better if the survey asked people whether they took certain specific accounts literally – the ones that have always been taken that way throughout the interpretive tradition. For example, the Garden of Eden account is so foundational to Christianity that no fundamentalist, or evangelical for that matter, could ever take it as anything other than literal. Basically, if there’s no Fall of Man, the entire religion, including its moral lessons, would become pointless.


william 06.15.04 at 4:21 pm

jamesw: do you have a link?


Jacob T. Levy 06.15.04 at 4:24 pm

The discrepancy doesn’t seem especially puzzling to me.

1) The Pentateuch claims to have a special status. Believing in the tales told therein doesn’t commit you to believing every word in the subsequent histories. One could coherently think that soem parts of the Bible were directly divinely inspired or coauthored and other parts were not, so you’d say no to the general question but yes to the specific ones.

2) The claim to believe every word probably strains more people’s credulity than the claim to believe in the underlying events. The same events are reported differently in different Gospels. One could reject the literalist claim that both are simultanoeusly true and still believe that the underlying event did, really, take place, and is not merely metaphorical or allegorical. Similarly, one can come to terms with the reality of multiple translations, semantic drift, second-hand accounts, and so on, and thereby deny the doctrine that’s referred to as literalism, while still believing in the truth of the events. I don’t believe in the literal truth of what I read in the newspaper. There are conflicting accounts that I accepts as conflicting accounts rather than truths that must be reconciled. There are people quoted as if they spoke in English when they didn’t. There’s witness bias and reporting bias. All of those are claims that the literalists deny about the Bible. But I believe that the events being reported on in the newspaper really did take place, and many non-literalist believers hold the same about the Bible.


Chris in Boston 06.15.04 at 4:25 pm

Note that the poll says “Fieldwork by ICR.” ICR is probably the Institute for Creation Research…Still, any time ICR is involved in anything, it’s best to take a second sniff.

No, according to ABC website, it’s ICR-International Communications Research of Media, Pa.


Jeremy Osner 06.15.04 at 4:32 pm

William — here is a link to the story. The source is evidently William Ryan and Walter Pitman, “Noah’s Flood: The new scientific discoveries about the event that changed history,” Simon & Schuster, (1998)


Jim Harrison 06.15.04 at 5:10 pm

I doubt if a prehistoric flood had anything to do with the Mesopotamian flood myth. How, exactly, do preliterate people pass down the information that a flood was not simply a bad flood—lots of floods kill people to this day–but the flood? And how are preliterate people supposed to know that a flood is universal or even widespread? Did they get cable news on Mt Ararat?

Even folks who are skeptical about the theological validity of myths have a hard time getting it through their heads that myths are not explained by their origins. What makes a myth a myth is the way it is transmitted and the meaning it acquires in the process.

So there.


Andy 06.15.04 at 5:16 pm

“Especially for, say, the ark story, which is pretty clearly neither a lesson nor an actual event, so much as a mythologized version of an historical flood in ancient Iraq.”

How is that inconsistent with its being a lesson? Myths are supposed to explain something; that’s why people tell them, and why we don’t call them just “stories.”


jdw 06.15.04 at 5:23 pm

I’d like to meet the 4% of people who would say: “Well, yeah, Moses literally parted the Red Sea so the Jews could escape from Egypt. But that Noah’s ark stuff — people who believe in that are nuts.”

Following Volokh’s link, I thought it was interesting that the polls seem to indicate that Catholics are more opposed to the Catholic Church involving itself in politics than non-Catholics.

Also, 8% of respondents believe that all Jews bear responsibility for Jesus’s death.


q 06.15.04 at 5:28 pm

I find it fascinating that someone would pay to find out how many people thought “Moses’ parting of the Red Sea is literally true”.

We’ll never find out, so it’ll always be a mystery, and it doesn’t have a direct bearing on any current issue.

…or maybe I am wrong. Next week we’ll hear Kerry say: “I am going to lead the way to financial prosperity, just like Moses parted his way through the Red Sea”.


JBJ 06.15.04 at 5:56 pm

The belief that *Moses* parted the Red Sea may indicate a problem with basic reading skills. (“And the Lord caused the sea to go back . . .”)


Jim Harrison 06.15.04 at 5:59 pm

It isn’t quite true that we’ll never know if Moses parted the Red Sea. He didn’t.

People can’t part deep bodies of water by lifting up a stick.

Just thought you’d like to know…


Ted 06.15.04 at 6:35 pm

Thismay be a comment for Language Log, but here’s where I’ve always tripped when trying to get through this “literalism” discussion. (I’m the son of a conservative Lutheran minister, so I’ve probably spent more time than the average person having my nose rubbed in this stuff.) Look at the word “literal.” Latin root, “to read.” To read: to interpret, analyze, decipher symbols. Is there really any way to talk meaningfully about such an oxymoron as a “literal reading?”


pepi 06.15.04 at 7:22 pm

ted: the root is not really “to read”, but the word “littera”, letter – as in “ad litteram”, to the letter. So, “literal reading” is not an oxymoron, though of course, you need to read each letter to… read something, but that would be taking the phrase “literal reading” a bit too… literally :)


DocG 06.15.04 at 7:30 pm

I rather agree with Joseph Campbell and William S. Burroughs, who both saw Literalism as the single greatest problem with monotheism. And I’d go further and add, literal monotheists are one of the greatest plagues upon the rest of humanity.


Jacob T. Levy 06.15.04 at 8:20 pm

Further to my comment above about people who do not subscribe to literalism and yet believe that the events described in the Bible are true:

One description for some such people is “Catholic.” A description for some others is “Jewish.” Literalism of the “each and every word” variety is a distinctively Protestant, and mostly a distinctively American Protestant, belief. Jews and Catholics believe the Bible to be true but that the truth often requires interpretation in order to understand — which is *not* the same as saying that the stories are fables or moral allegories.


Lance Boyle 06.15.04 at 8:27 pm

60% of some other clot of survey-takers thought GWBush was doing a bang-up job.
Profile those respondents!

More pertinent is the meta-note, that, regardless of the actual percentage of actual people in present-day America who actually believe in the literal truth of the actual words in their particular versions of the Bible, this frivolous subject is being discussed seriously, in a relatively serious forum at a most serious time.


joe 06.15.04 at 8:30 pm

“_So a large group of respondents appear to be saying that they believe the Bible, but ignore it which seems a bit odd to me – since if I believed every word, I’d be there all the time praying for mercy._”

There is no contradiction in believing the Bible and also instinctively realizing that the Sunday Praise Assembly crowd are a bunch of losers it is better to avoid. God will surely understand.


Carlos 06.15.04 at 8:32 pm

Another example of why polls are a crude tool, made for specific, simple answers, not complex ones. Deep religious or political beliefs are usually too complex to be captured by polls with accuracy.


eudoxis 06.15.04 at 8:34 pm

The polls regarding literalism select for those who adhere modern evangelical fundamentalist denominations that pride themselves on a literal interpretation when, even they, take a great deal of the text allegorically. A better measure of belief would be a poll identifying denominational affiliation. There is no single exegesis that is fully literalist.

The poll regarding specific events is likely overcounting those who believe in the events as literally described in the Bible because alternatives are not given and the answers may be somewhat defensive.


Alex R 06.15.04 at 9:10 pm

Given the widespread misuse of the word “literally” as a general-purpose intensifier (e.g. gas prices “have literally gone through the roof”), perhaps the results of this poll don’t at all mean what they seem to mean…


(On a more serious note, I strongly suspect that there are a lot of what Daniel Dennett might call “closeted brights” out there — or at least folks with “bright” tendencies — who might not be willing to fess up to a pollster that they don’t really believe everything they learned in Sunday School.)


Jim Harrison 06.16.04 at 12:31 am

Years ago my father announced to me, “You know that Timothy Leary is literally a bastard!’ When, in perfect innocence, I asked him how he knew Leary’s parents weren’t married, he thought I was being sarcastic.


W. Kiernan 06.16.04 at 1:16 am

jdw sez: I’d like to meet the 4% of people who would say: “Well, yeah, Moses literally parted the Red Sea so the Jews could escape from Egypt. But that Noah’s ark stuff — people who believe in that are nuts.”

That would be me. Hi! I disbelieve in the existence of “God,” whichever “God” you choose. I believe Pat Robertson is a lying swine. I disbelieve in the Devil and the afterlife. I disbelieve almost all the miracles reported in both Old and New Testaments. I believe the Book of Revelations is a disgusting load of pure bullshit.

However, with all that, I do believe that the Nazarene once walked on water, because, you know, that’s exactly the sort of thing He’d do.


jdw 06.16.04 at 3:32 am

w. kiernan:

… Alright.


Greg Hunter 06.16.04 at 12:20 pm

The Bible can be taken absolutely literally, because it is open to interpretation. Look the Hebrew, Greek; KJV translations leave a lot of room for everyone.

For instance.

Most people believe that Eve ate an apple and brought sin into the world.

I believe she had sex with the Devil and her first-born son, Cain is his offspring.


pepi 06.16.04 at 1:49 pm

I believe there is medical treatment for such beliefs.


Greg Hunter 06.16.04 at 2:35 pm

The Frances Farmer treatment?

Lobotomy gets’em home!!!


JamesW 06.16.04 at 4:24 pm

Thanks to Jeremy Osner for the Black Sea flood link – better than mine, as I was just going on the old National Geographic article. I used the theory in Armenia as a parable for their history of disasters and comebacks in a toast to “Noah, the first Armenian”, which was well received!


pepi 06.16.04 at 4:37 pm

Actually, Frances Farmer would most likely not have been institutionalised if she’d only been a Christian visionary instead of an eccentric atheist. She might have even become a saint. She wasn’t lucky.


Nicole Wyatt 06.16.04 at 11:29 pm

Even ‘literally’ is not always used literally.

Incidentally, Orson Scott Card has a short story based on the black sea thesis. Find it here:


Dave F 06.17.04 at 11:46 am

I guess Jesus was the only one who knew about the stepping stones.

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