Huffpost Religion
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

David Briggs Headshot

Who Reads the Bible -- and Why

Posted: Updated:

About half of Americans read the Bible on their own, and four in five people who read it as part of their personal lives open it at least once a month.

And far and away the No. 1 reason they pick up Scripture is for personal prayer and devotion.

A major new study on American Bible reading may disappoint the culture warriors in politics and the media who tend to see religion in terms of its perceived impact on issues from same-sex marriages to federal budget battles.

Instead, the just-released study on "The Bible in American Life" offers insights into how, why and when Americans read the Bible outside of worship.

"People have spiritual questions," said Arthur Farnsley II, a lead researcher and associate director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, which conducted the study.

"They look for meaning in their life."

The center commissioned questions that were asked on two of the most highly respected data sources for American religion - the 2012 General Social Survey and the 2012 National Congregations Study - for the wide-ranging study.

It turns out Americans have a high opinion of Scripture - whether or not they open the book at home.

Nine in 10 Americans who read the Bible on their own consider Scripture to contain the literal word of God or the "inspired Word of God." But nearly two-thirds of people who do not read the book at home have the same view of the Bible.

Many of the 48 percent of Americans who make Bible reading part of their lives, however, do so on a regular basis. More than half reported reading the Bible at least weekly; 17 percent said it was part of their daily lives.

The top two reasons respondents said they read Scripture were for personal prayer and devotion and to learn more about their religion -- with at least six in 10 citing each factor. The third most popular reason was to seek guidance in personal decisions and relationships with spouses, parents, children and friends.

The least likely reason, among the eight choices offered, was to learn about abortion and homosexuality; just two in 10 Bible readers, including 15 percent of those younger than 45, said they consulted Scripture for guidance on those issues.

Traditionally disadvantaged populations seem to find particular value in personal Bible reading, the study suggested.

For example, 70 percent of black respondents, compared to 44 percent of white respondents, said they read the Bible outside of worship in the past year. The study also found people with lower incomes were more likely to read the Bible on their own.

Other interesting study findings include:

• The King James Version remains the overwhelming top choice of Bible readers. Fifty-five percent of Bible readers said they most often read the King James Version. The second most popular choice was the New International Version, favored by 19 percent of readers.
• People no longer just open the pages of the Good Book. Thirty-one percent read it on the Internet and 22 percent used e-devices.
• Young adults were less likely than older Americans to read the Bible on their own, but still 44 percent of people ages 18 to 29 said they read Scripture outside of worship.

For all the popular attention paid to bizarrely unrepresentative congregations such as the funeral-picketing Westboro Baptist Church, you might think that many Bible readers' favorite verses would relate to controversial texts on sexual morality and divine judgment.

You would be wrong.

Two of the most frequently cited verses were Philippians 4:13, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me," and the story of David and Goliath, where the underdog is lifted up by God.

No. 2 on the most popular list was the Gospel of John, especially John 3:16.

And the most popular book for personal Bible reading was the Psalms, in particular Psalm 23: "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want."

What the study on the Bible in American life may do best is take readers into the world of American religion as it is lived, researchers said.

"Political uses of the Bible have never been their most important uses," said Mark Noll, a project adviser and history professor at the University of Notre Dame. "These IUPUI surveys should bring sanity back into journalists' reporting on religion, at least to the extent that they show how important non-political use of scripture continues to be in modern American life."

David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.