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Most adult US Christians don't believe Holy Spirit is real: study

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Parishioners of Lakewood Church led by Pastor Joel Osteen pray together during a service at the church in Houston, Texas, on September 3, 2017. |

Of an estimated 176 million American adults who identify as Christian, just 6% or 15 million of them actually hold a biblical worldview, a new study from Arizona Christian University shows.

The finding was published by the Cultural Research Center of Arizona Christian University in its recently released American Worldview Inventory, an annual survey that evaluates the worldview of the U.S. adult population. Conducted in February, the survey included a nationally representative sample of 2,000 adults.

The study shows, in general, that while a majority of America’s self-identified Christians, including many who identify as evangelical, believe that God is all-powerful, all-knowing and is the Creator of the universe, more than half reject a number of biblical teachings and principles, including the existence of the Holy Spirit.

Strong majorities also errantly believe that all religious faiths are of equal value, people are basically good and that people can use acts of goodness to earn their way into Heaven. The study further showed that majorities don’t believe in moral absolutes; consider feelings, experience, or the input of friends and family as their most trusted sources of moral guidance; and say that having faith matters more than which faith you pursue.

“Too often, it seems, people who are simply religious, or regular churchgoers, or perhaps people who want a certain reputation or image embrace the label ‘Christian,’ regardless of their spiritual life and intentions,” George Barna, the lead researcher at the Cultural Research Center, explained in a statement. “'Christian’ has become somewhat of a generic term rather than a name that reflects a deep commitment to passionately pursuing and being like Jesus Christ.”

A closer examination of the data on Christians showed that while some groups of Christians, like self-identified born-again Christians and self-identified evangelicals, hold views that were more closely aligned with a biblical worldview, the survey still found errant beliefs among the groups.

“From a sociological standpoint, self-identified born-again Christians are the siblings of self-identified evangelicals. There is tremendous overlap between the two niches: in fact, roughly seven out of 10 consider themselves to be part of both segments,” the study noted.

While the groups aren’t considered “interchangeable,” Barna found that there are slightly fewer self-identified evangelicals, 28%, than self-identified born-again Christians, 35%.

“Despite using different terminology to identify themselves, self-identified born-again and self-identified evangelical Christians possess nearly identical views on most of the beliefs evaluated. Across more than a dozen attributes studied, the average difference was only 2 percentage points, with the largest gap being only 4 percentage points,” he noted.

Some 62% of self-identified born-again Christians contend that the Holy Spirit is not a real, living being but is merely a symbol of God’s power, presence or purity. Another 61% say that all religious faiths are of equal value, and 60% believe that if a person is good enough, or does enough good things, they can earn their way into Heaven. All these positions challenge a biblical worldview.

The study identified another group of self-identified Christians who were more closely aligned with a biblical worldview known as the “Theological Born-again” but only Christians identified as “integrated disciples” were classified by Barna as having a biblical worldview and that group represented the 6%.

“As the groundbreaking American Worldview Inventory surveys have demonstrated, just 6% of U.S. adults possess a biblical worldview. Labeled ‘Integrated Disciples’ for their demonstrated ability to assimilate their beliefs into their lifestyle, this group consistently —  albeit imperfectly — comes closest to reflecting biblical principles into their opinions, beliefs, behaviors, and preferences,” Barna explained.

More than 99% of this group “believe that the Bible is the accurate and reliable words of God, believe that God is the all-knowing, all-powerful and just Creator of the universe who still rules the universe today” and “say they have a unique, God-given calling.”

Significant minorities still held beliefs that challenge the biblical worldview. These include: 25% say there is no absolute moral truth; 33% believe in karma; 39% contend that the Holy Spirit is not a real, living being but is merely a symbol of God’s power, presence, or purity; 42% believe that having faith matters more than which faith you pursue; and 52% argue that people are basically good.

 “The survey results clearly demonstrate how careful you have to be when interpreting data associated with a particular segment of people who are labeled as Christians,” Barna warned. “Political polling, in particular, may mislead people regarding the views and preferences of genuine Christ-followers simply based on how those surveys measure the Christian population.”

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