Who reads the Bible in the US and why?


A new study released earlier this month reveals that those most likely to regularly read the Bible in the US are southern black women over the age of 75, and most of the time they will be using the King James Version.

The Indiana-based Centre for the Study of Religion and American Culture asked 1,551 people questions about how they use their Bibles as part of the General Social Survey of 2012, a data gathering exercise conducted every other year by the National Opinion Research Centre at the University of Chicago.

Across all Americans, the nation is fairly evenly divided. When asked 'Within the last year, have you read the Bible, Torah, Koran or other religious scriptures, not counting any reading that happened during a worship service?', 50.2% said yes and 49.8% said no.

Among those who said they had read scripture of some kind, 95% had read the Bible. Among those who had read it in the last year, 78% said they read it at least monthly, 54% at least weekly, and 17% at least daily.  Overall, 9% of all Americans read the Bible on a daily basis.

When asked why they read the Bible, 72% say they read for personal prayer and devotional time. Sixty-two per cent say they have read the Bible to learn more about religion.

Forty-four per cent have used the Bible to help with decisions about personal relationships – something 46% women say they have done compared to 39% of men. Thirty-six per cent read the Bible to learn about health and healing, and 35% to seek guidance about the future.

Twenty-three per cent have read the Bible to better understand what it says about poverty or war, 22% to learn about how to become richer, and 21% to see what the Bible says about abortion and homosexuality.

Forty-five to 59-year-olds were more likely than any other age group to read the Bible for guidance on issues of relationships, prosperity and health.

The two age groups least likely to consult their Bibles over issues of health, wealth, and relationships were those over 75 and those between 18 and 29 years of age.

Among the young, 37% turn to the Bible for relationship help, 26% read the Bible for help with health issues, and 20% will seek out financial advice. This fits with the overall pattern from other studies of younger generations engaging less with the Bible.

What may be a surprise to many is that among the over-75s, only 25% look to the Bible for relationship advice, 23% for health concerns, and 9% for issues relating to wealth, although this may be connected to maturity of faith or a familiarity with the Bible acquired over their life-times.

As would be expected, for the most part those who read the Bible in the last year viewed it more positively than those who had not. Forty-five per cent of those who had read the Bible in the last year considered it the inerrant word of God compared with 15 per cent of those who had not.

Similarly only 9% of those who had read the Bible in the last year considered it to be just a 'book of fables', compared with 33% of those who had not.

Interestingly, the figures are closer when people are asked if they believe the Bible is the 'inspired word of God', with 46% of those who had read the Bible in the last year agreeing, compared to half of those who had not.

The gender imbalance in Bible reading is striking. Over half (56%) of women asked said they had read the Bible on their own accord in the past year, compared to 39% of men.

The racial divide is similarly stark. Seventy per cent of black people had read the Bible in the last year, compared to 46% of Hispanics and 44% of whites. Among other racial groups, the number dropped to 28%.

Age difference is more gradual, although the trend is clearly towards older groups being more likely to read the Bible. Forty-four per cent of 18 to 29-year-olds had read the Bible in the last year. That figure was 48% for 30 to 44-year-olds, 51% for 45 to 59-year-olds, 55% for 60 to 75-year-olds, and 56% for those aged over 75.

Regional differences are notable, with the most Bible reading area more than one and a half times more likely to be delving into the world than the least scripturally inclined. Sixty-one per cent of Southerners had read the Bible in the last year, compared with 49% of Mid-Westerners, 44% in the West of the US, and 36% in America's North East.

The most commonly used Bible version in the US is the King James version by quite some margin, with 55% of those who had read the Bible in the last year picking it as their version of choice.

The next most popular version, the NIV is read by just under a fifth (19%). This is not surprising when 79% of respondents said their congregations were not encouraged to use the NIV over other translations.

Those who prefer the KJV were also more likely to regard the Bible as the literal word of God (53%), than those who read the NIV (39%).

However, those who read the NIV tend to read their Bible more often, with 70% of NIV readers saying they read the Bible weekly, compared to 54% of KJV readers, although that may be linked to the number of NIV Bibles published with inbuilt devotionals designed for regular use.

Seven per cent favour the New Revised Standard Version, 6% use the New American Bible, and 5% read the Living Bible.

The survey also asked about favourite Bible passages, with Psalm 23 coming out on top, followed by John 3:16, stories like David and Goliath, and Philippians 4:13.

Respondents tended to favour therapeutic passages, followed by more evangelistic passages, and those intended to encourage or support through trials.

Most of those who read the Bible did not feel the need for commentary or study aids to understand what was written. Over half (56%) of those who had read the Bible in the last year did not seek any help.

Of those who sought help, 53% consulted clergy, 51% read Bible study commentaries, and 49% asked their Bible study groups.

Mass media did not fare well in its provision of Bible context and analysis. Only 37% of those looking for help in  understanding the Bible went to television or the radio, and only 29% took to the internet to provide answers.

The Centre for the Study of Religion and American Culture has said that this study is only the start of an ongoing examination of the place of the Bible in US culture.