Survey: Evangelicals, Atheists Consistent in Faith and Practice

A new Barna report on the self-image of Americans revealed that the small minority of evangelicals stand out from the rest of the Christian community as more spiritual and active in faith, at least in their own perspective.

Compared to non-evangelical born-again Christians, evangelicals – which constitute 8 percent of the American adult population, according to The Barna Group's criteria – were more likely to see themselves as fulltime servants of God; deeply spiritual; and more likely to seek to persuade others to adopt their views. Evangelicals were also less likely than non-evangelical born-agains to have an open mind toward alternative moral views or to admit to adapting easily to change, according to the study released Monday.

"There are important distinctions between evangelical Christians and other segments within the Christian community," stated George Barna, who directed the study, in the report. "That small 8 percent segment of the public is substantially different from others in how they apply their faith principles to every dimension of their life.

"The only other faith group demonstrating similar consistency between faith and practice were atheists, whose fundamental dismissal of social conventions and participation in favor of more self-centered views and behaviors helped them to stand out from the crowd in a different way."

The study found a large gap between the born-again population - both evangelicals and non-evangelical born-agains – and Americans aligned with a non-Christian faith. The born-again group was twice as likely to view themselves as fulltime servants of God, and significantly more likely to say they are deeply spiritual, very concerned about America's moral condition, and to be convinced they are right about things in life.

Moreover, the born-agains were more likely to see themselves as making a positive difference in the world, being less stressed, less lonely, and less flexible in the midst of change than were people of other faiths.

Comparing born-again adults with people of no religious faith (atheists and agnostics), the study found that the former group was much more likely to see themselves as servants of God; deeply spiritual; supportive of traditional family values; concerned about American morality; being active in their community; believing that they are making a positive difference in the world; and having greater clarity about the meaning and purpose of their life. They also see themselves as less likely to be turned off by politics and much less adaptable to cultural change.

The study further found a gap between Catholics and Protestants and the way they view themselves. Protestants were more likely to see themselves as fulltime servants of God, slightly more likely to say they are deeply spiritual, and a bit more likely to say they are clear about the meaning and purpose of their life. Catholics were somewhat more likely to be very open to alternative moral perspectives.

Overall, two-thirds of the general American public describes themselves as deeply spiritual and a large majority says that their religious faith is very important in their life today. Seven out of 10 adults claim to have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is important to them. More than four out of five adults claim to have a clear sense of the meaning and purpose of their life.

While 75 percent of Americans say they are "very open" to alternative moral views, 92 percent support traditional family values and 86 percent claim to be concerned about the moral state of the nation. At the same time, only one out of four adults is concerned enough to try to convince other people to change their views on such issues.

"We have consistently found that Americans have a hierarchy of self-perceptions," Barna explained. "Although more than four out of five adults say they are Christian, they do not consider their faith to be their primary defining attribute. They are more likely to see themselves as Americans, consumers, spouse and parent, and even employee than to describe themselves primarily in terms of their faith commitment."

He also noted, "The research suggests that people are open to discussion about values and lifestyles, but they are not as open to changing what they believe to be acceptable behavior or policy. They remain worried about the moral condition of the nation precisely because they see things moving in a direction that scares them."

Other findings revealed that 71 percent of the American adult population thinks of themselves as leaders; 81 percent believe they are well-informed about current events; 95 percent view themselves as independent thinkers, and 98 percent see themselves as loyal and reliable people. Most Americans also say they are able to easily adapt to changes and four out of five people believe they are making a positive difference in the world. About half admit to being turned off by politics and claim to be active in the community – participating in churches, non-profit organizations and local sports activities. Half of the adults also say they are "very convinced" that they are right about things in life.

Only 13 percent of adults admit to being in serious debt; 12 percent say they have an addiction of some type; 34 percent say they are stressed out; and 40 percent say they are still trying to develop a few good friendships. The born-again population was nearly twice as likely to be dealing with an addiction, but only half as likely to be in serious debt compared to people of other faiths.

Research is based on a series of four nationwide surveys conducted from January through September 2006. Each survey included 1,003-1,005 adults ages 18 and older.