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Durham University

Durham University News


Knowledge of the Bible is declining, researchers say

(12 July 2009)

Knowledge of the Bible is declining with fewer than one in 20 people able to name all Ten Commandments, according to a Durham University survey*.

Sixty-two per cent didn’t know the parable of the Prodigal Son and 60 per cent couldn’t name anything about the Good Samaritan, initial research findings from The National Biblical Literacy Survey 2009 showed.

Forty per cent didn’t know that among Christians the tradition of giving Christmas gifts came from the story of the Wise Men bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus.

While only five per cent of people could name all the Ten Commandments, 16 per cent couldn’t name any.

More than 900 people, from faith and non-faith backgrounds, were surveyed at various locations throughout England and Wales about their knowledge of the Bible.

The research, carried out on behalf of CODEC (Communication in the Digital Environment), at St John’s College, Durham University, will be presented at a symposium, “Christianity in a Digital Space”, at St John’s on Tuesday, July 14. The study was funded by a consortium of national churches, charitable trusts and Bible agencies.

The initial findings formed part of the evidence behind the Methodist Church's decision to designate 2011 as the Year of the Bible at its annual conference earlier this week (Wednesday, July 7).

The survey also showed that despite the success of the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, 57 per cent knew nothing about Joseph and his brothers.

One respondent said David and Goliath was the name of a ship while another thought Daniel – who survived being thrown into the lions’ den – was “The Lion King”.

The researchers say their findings show that the Church and politicians can no longer make assumptions about people’s knowledge of the Bible, which in under-45s is in decline.

Half of under-45s could not give accurate information about Samson and Delilah compared to a quarter of over-45s.

Similarly 33 per cent of under-45s couldn’t name anything about the Feeding of the 5,000 compared to 12 per cent of over-45s.

Younger interviewees told the researchers that the Bible was “old fashioned”, “irrelevant” and “for Dot Cottons” – in reference to the church-going EastEnders’ character.

* Slightly weighted to reflect the UK population

Church-goers who were surveyed also showed a lack of Biblical knowledge with 72 per cent knowing nothing about Daniel in the Lions’ Den and 57 per cent unable to talk accurately about The Stilling of the Storm when Jesus calmed the Sea of Galilee.

Reverend Brian D Brown a Methodist minister and Visiting Fellow in Media and Communication at St John’s College, Durham University, said: “We can no longer take it for granted that Bible stories which are part of our national heritage, and many assume are learned from the cradle, are known by the majority.

“The Church and political leaders should take serious note of the findings and recognise that we can not make the assumptions we used to make about the Bible and its place in contemporary people’s lives and culture.”

Reverend Brown added that “all was not doom and gloom” as, for example, 75 per cent of respondents knew about Moses and almost 70 per cent could talk about Judas.

Three-quarters of respondents said they owned a Bible and 31 per cent said the Bible was significant in their lives today.

“Many respondents said they still turn to the Bible for support and guidance at key moments,” Reverend Brown said.

“The Bible remains a hot topic of interest and there was an unexpected willingness of respondents to give over half-an-hour of their time to be interviewed on sensitive personal issues such as the Bible and religion.

“This counters the prevailing view that people are unwilling to talk about religion and faith.”