Tracy F. Munsil, Ph.D. | April 21, 2023 | CRC | AWVI 2023, George Barna
From the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University
New findings from the first national post-pandemic study confirm what we have long suspected—the COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the very foundations of faith in the United States.
Not only has the incidence of the biblical worldview dropped from 6% to 4% since the start of the pandemic, but substantive changes also occurred in more than a dozen religious beliefs and behaviors of Americans, according to a new report from the American Worldview Inventory 2023 from Dr. George Barna and the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University.
When it comes to faith in America, the research found positive and negative changes in this rapidly shifting spiritual landscape.
More people are embracing absolute truth, while fewer say they are “deeply committed to practicing” their religious faith. More are siding with the Bible when it comes to sexual morality pertaining to marriage and personal honesty, at the same time a majority are less likely to embrace the view that human life is sacred. Since the pandemic, Americans are less likely to identify as Christian and are attending church in smaller numbers.
And all of these significant shifts have occurred in the short three-year span since the COVID lockdowns began in early 2020.
These new findings are especially significant because, unlike changes related to politics, entertainment choices, and lifestyle preferences, shifts in religion are highly unusual. As Barna explains, religious changes of this magnitude typically only occur as the result of a major life crisis. Based on the new findings, the pandemic clearly fits that description.
“Most religious beliefs change over the course of generations, not a few years,” Barna said. The exception to this, he explained, is during major life crises, such as economic calamity, loss of job, death of a loved one, or acrimonious divorce or relationship ending.
“The pandemic was certainly a life crisis for our nation,” Barna said, “so even though this magnitude of spiritual shift was not expected, it is feasible given the physical and psychological effects of COVID along with the economic, relational, and lifestyle effects of the government’s drastic policies.”
ACU President Len Munsil said the findings point to both challenges and opportunities for people of faith. “This is a great time to take biblical truth to the people around us. Obviously for us, this starts with our students.”
“But Dr. Barna’s research shows that our culture has been deeply shaken by the experience of COVID-19,” Munsil said. “People are feeling unsettled and are looking for answers. Even people in the church are questioning their foundations.”
Munsil continued, “That’s a great opportunity to share the answers that only God’s truth can give—peace, a sense of meaning and purpose, hope, and stability in an uncertain and changing world.”
Specifically, the AWVI 2023 report found that the biggest statistical change between 2020 and 2023 among U.S. adults was a staggering 20-percentage point decline in those who believe they have a unique, God-given calling or purpose for their life. Before the pandemic, two-thirds of adults (66%) embraced that point of view, compared to slightly less than half of adults (46%) today who do.
Another double-digit decline was in the number of adults who believe human life is sacred. A minority of Americans (39%) held that view in 2020, but that number has plummeted to just 29% in 2023.
Ironically, while there was a large jump in the number of people accepting the idea of absolute moral truth, there was a drop of 6-percentage points in the number of adults who believe that God is the basis of all truth.
Increases were posted in specific religious behaviors, including an increase in adults who believe sexual intercourse between two people who are not married to each other is morally unacceptable (38% compared to 27% in 2020). While the increase is unusually large (up 11 percentage points), less than two out of five adults (38%) side with the Bible’s teaching.
The other positive shift was a 6-point increase in adults agreeing that intentionally lying in order to protect your reputation or best interests is morally unacceptable. The 2023 survey was the first time since the start of the American Worldview Inventory that a majority of adults agrees that lying is wrong.
Interestingly, the research revealed that born-again Christians experienced an unusually high number of changes in 13 worldview areas, including two shifts that Barna described as “quite astonishing.”
A stunning decline came in the number who believe they have a unique, God-given purpose or calling—dropping 42 points from 88% of born-again believers to less than half (46%) in 2023. Another significant drop was among those who described themselves as “deeply committed to practicing” their religious faith—dropping from 85% to just half (50%) of all born-again believers.
The research also showed a 4-point drop in the number of adults overall who identify as Christian. That number slipped from 72% in 2020 to 68% in 2023—a continuation of a decades long pattern.
One of four unfortunate behavioral transitions concerned whether people describe themselves as “deeply committed to practicing” their religious faith. Prior to the start of the pandemic, six out of 10 adults (60%) made that claim. Today, that number is less than half (48%).
Lastly, one of the most frequently measured religious behaviors is that of church attendance, which the AWVI 2023 found has declined since the start of the pandemic by nearly six percentage points. Just one out of three adults (33%) now attend a church service during a typical week—a decline representing the loss of about 15 million churchgoing adults each week.
However, among the more than four dozen beliefs and behaviors evaluated, four particular beliefs showed significant movement toward biblical thinking.
- In 2020, only one-third of the adult U.S. population dismissed the idea that there are no moral truths that are the same for everyone. In 2023, the proportion of those who rejected that notion rose to almost half (46%).
- Another similar and sizable shift towards biblical thinking occurred in how many adults now reject the belief that eternal salvation can be earned through good works. That number jumped to just under half of adults (45%) from the one-third (35%) who denied that possibility just three years ago.
- The research also showed a 7-percentage point increase in the number of adults who accept the idea that the purpose of life is to know, love, and serve God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength—one of the Seven Biblical Worldview Cornerstones.
- The final significant positive change was a 5-point increase in the number of adults who contend that the Bible is the true and completely accurate word of God. Since the start of the pandemic, that proportion has climbed closer to the halfway mark, with 46% now holding that belief.
Much of this surprising change, Barna explained, is attributable to the fact that most popular worldview among American adults is Syncretism, which combines beliefs from a variety of worldviews into an unpredictable, customized blend that satisfies the emotional needs of the individual.
“Syncretism does not rely upon logic or consistency,” Barna said. “Over time, many people struggle with the conflicts inherent in their syncretistic belief system, and the strange jumble of behaviors that emerge from those beliefs, but for the foreseeable future it is likely most people will ignore their incompatible philosophies and make do the best they can. They are seeking comfort and security more than spiritual and intellectual consistency.”
The full American Worldview Inventory 2023, Release #03: “How the Faith of Americans Has Shifted Since the Start of the Pandemic,” is available here.