A biennial survey of Americans’ attitudes about theology revealed great uncertainty in many areas, even among evangelicals, a group long known for strict adherence to core Christian tenets.
More than two years after the COVID-19 pandemic forced many churches to close to in-person services, 66% of Americans now believe worshipping alone or with one’s family is a valid substitute for in-person church attendance, up from 58% in March 2020.
Separately, 56% of Americans said they don’t believe every Christian has an obligation to join a local church, with just 36% saying it is mandatory.
Adherence to such doctrines as the authority of Scripture, belief in the Trinity, and the idea that only those who trust in Christ will be saved is undergoing a sea-change in this country, the research indicated.
According to the “State of Theology” study conducted by Southern Baptist-affiliated Lifeway Research, beliefs about the Trinity — or one God expressed in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — are equally confused.
A little more than half, 52% either somewhat agree or strongly agree that “God learns and adapts to different circumstances,” the study found, which contradicts traditional understandings of an omniscient God who isn’t surprised by what happens in history.
Nearly 3 out of 5 said the Holy Spirit is not a personal being, but rather an impersonal force.
When it comes to understanding Jesus, whom the Nicene Creed says is the “eternally begotten” Son of God, 53% of Americans surveyed said he was “a great teacher but not God,” while 55% of Americans said Jesus was the first “created being,” a belief held by 73% of those who claim to hold “evangelical beliefs,” as Lifeway defined it.
“Many Americans think about God as if He had only revealed himself in a vague, nondescript way. They seem to fill in the gaps with whatever they want to believe. This creates sharp contrasts between what Americans believe about God and how He revealed himself in great detail in the Bible,” Lifeway Research executive director Scott McConnell said in a statement.
Confidence in the Bible as God’s word is also variable, the study showed.
More than half of Americans, 53%, said the Bible “is not literally true” but comprises “helpful accounts of ancient myths.” The idea that modern science disproves the Bible was held by 40% of respondents.
Responding to separate questions, 51% said the Bible is fully accurate “in all that it teaches,” while 52% agreed the Bible has the authority to tell people what to do.
“As a society, views on the Bible probably best summarize how split Americans are when it comes to theology,” Mr. McConnell said. “Half see Scripture as dependable and authoritative while half see it as fiction. Higher numbers acknowledge the story it tells, but more than half also give weight to their personal opinions.”
The survey also addressed social issues, with 78% saying God “created male and female,” although 42% said “gender identity is a matter of choice.”
Thirty percent of Americans say Christians should stay silent on political issues, up from 24% two years ago, while 61% disagree.
The survey, which has a sampling error of 1.9 percentage points, resulted from a canvass of 3,011 American adults in January of this year. The full results are available online at the Lifeway Research site.