Over the years, Gallup has asked Americans if they believed the Bible was the "actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word." In 1977, 38 percent of Americans identified themselves as Biblical literalists – rejecting the poll's other options that the Bible is "the inspired word of God" or "an ancient book of fables" – but by 2011 this response had declined to 30 percent. The decline was not perfectly linear. The number of Biblical literalists increased to about 40 percent in the early 1980s and declined to a low of 27 percent in 2001 before rising slightly again.
Gallup found that Biblical literalists were more likely to claim that they were Protestant Christians, attended church weekly, were political conservatives and/or Republicans, had only a high school education or less, and had low incomes. Additionally, Rasmussen found in 2005 that they are slightly more likely to be female and over 40. (Among atheists and agnostics, by contrast, men clearly outnumber women two-to-one, according to the Pew Religious Landscape Study in 2008.)
When Americans are asked in a general way if they will affirm the truth of the Bible, the majority do so. Rasmussen found in 2005 that 63 percent of Americans agreed that "the Bible" – without having been asked to limit their response to specific stories within the Bible – was "literally true." This figure is twice as high as Gallup's.
Of course, it is possible to believe that some, and not all, statements in the Bible are true. When people are given options to declare belief in specific parts of the Bible, it generates a more nuanced picture of belief. ABC News Primetime poll in 2004 found that over 60 percent of Americans were literalists about certain Biblical events such as the creation of the world, Noah's ark, and Moses parting the Red Sea. Those who described themselves as "evangelical Protestants" were more likely than other Protestants to have these literalist beliefs. A CBS news poll later that year found similar results, with 55 percent claiming to believe in the creation of the world as described in the Bible. Yet another poll found that 40 percent believed that God created humans "pretty much in their present form" several thousand years ago (Gallup, 2010).
William Saletan argued for Slate that, while Gallup has found in a dozen polls between 1982-2014 that at least 40 percent of Americans claim to believe that God created the Earth less than 10,000 years ago, a new 2014 study by the BioLogos Foundation found that, when people are pressed to be more specific about their beliefs and allowed to express uncertainty, only 15 percent of Americans maintained such a position.
Americans' beliefs differ so widely by geography such that it is hard to generalize about what Americans believe. In the U.S. states of Alabama and Arkansas, 75 percent believe the Bible is literally true, while in Vermont and Massachusetts it is only 22 percent (Rasmussen, 2006).
Polls have returned an assortment of more dramatic, specific beliefs. Over three-quarters of Americans believe in angels. (Scripps Howard / Ohio University, 2001) From 1975 to 1995, 140 children died of curable diseases in the United States after their parents refused medical treatment for religious reasons. A Pew survey in 2006 found that a third of black Protestants and a third of white evangelicals believe that the "Second Coming" (the return of Jesus to Earth) will occur during their lifetimes.
And although nearly a quarter of Americans don't expect to have a religious funeral (American Religious Identification Survey, 2008), nearly half of Americans said they would disapprove of their child marrying an atheist (University of Minnesota Study, 2008) and 60 percent think the nation benefits when politicians make public expressions of faith (Newsweek, 2002).
Update: In 2020, a third of self-identified evangelicals in the United States agreed with a statement that Jesus was a good teacher, but not God. (The study from Ligonier Ministries was conducted by LifeWay Research.) In addition, two-thirds agreed that Jesus "is the first and greatest being created by God." Both of these positions are inconsistent with "evangelical teaching and most historic Christian doctrine," according to Relevant Magazine.
This article was originally posted to Helium Network on July 30, 2011.