My latest column for Huffington Post Religion explores the findings of PRRI’s latest survey, conducted in partnership with Religion News Service and released just this morning, on the drop in the number of Americans who believe the Bible’s Christmas story is historically accurate:

Americans’ belief in the historical accuracy of the Christmas story — the virgin birth, the angelic proclamation to the shepherds, the star of Bethlehem, and the wise men from the East — has fallen by nearly 20 percentage points during the last decade. In a PSRA/Newsweek poll in December 2004, two-thirds (67 percent) of Americans affirmed their belief that the Christmas story is historically accurate, compared to 24 percent who said they believed it is a theological story written to affirm faith in Jesus Christ. In the December 2013 PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey, the percentage of Americans affirming the historical accuracy of the Christmas story fell to less than half (49 percent), with 4-in-10 (40 percent) saying they believe it is a theological story written to affirm Christian faith.

Upon further examination, the declining belief in the historical accuracy of the Christmas story tracks other related trends, such as a similar double-digit drop in belief that the Bible is the word of God. In 2004, a Pew Research Center survey found that only 13 percent of Americans believed the Bible is not the word of God but is a book written by men, compared to 82 percent who affirmed that the Bible is the word of God. In 2013, a PRRI/Brookings survey found that 3-in-10 (30 percent) Americans now believe that the Bible is not the word of God but a book written by men, compared to 63 percent who affirm that the Bible is the word of God.

As a scholar, it is surprising to find public opinion shifts of this magnitude over a relatively short period of time on any issue. There are clear exceptions — such as the rapidly shifting public opinion on same-sex marriage, which has doubled from 26 percent support to 52 percent support over the same period — but as a rule, such large-scale changes are rare. They are also less expected on a measure that is less about public policy and more about underlying theological beliefs, where changes tend to move at a more glacial pace.

For more on why this shift may be taking place so rapidly, be sure to check out my full piece at Huffington Post Religion. And head on over to our research page for the survey’s full findings, including the topline questionnaire!

2 Comments

  1. So let’s review all those percentage points:

    Belief in the historical accuracy of the Christmas story = down by about 20.

    Belief that the Bible is the word of God = down by about 20.

    Approval of homosexual marriage = up by about 26.

    Chances that America will continue to escape the fate of Sodom if it remains on its current trajectory = down by about 100 !

  2. It remains an honest question regarding the historical accuracy of the Christmas story. It is sufficient for Christian belief that the Son of God (the second person of the Trinity in many sects’ doctrine) came to Earth as a human and that he and his message would be received widely. The story of the birth is a concretizing of this belief, and the story of the Magi is an illustration of this revelation to the wider world.

    The Evangelists were not present at the Birth. How did they learn of this–John doesn’t even record it? Are we to assume that Christ Himself gave the writers these details? There’s nothing in the Gospel narratives to suggest that the writers would have even been concerned about such minutiae.

    Problems arise if we insist on a literal reading of everything in the Bible. The opening chapter of Genesis is a prime example. Here the writer speaks of light and darkness on the first day, but not until the fourth day do we find the creation of the sun, moon and stars. That’s a problem.

    Some of us address these “problems” by considering the stories to be illustrations of more fundamental truths, in the above example that there is a divine source of creation. Do we as believers really need any more?

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