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Religious beliefs of U.S. adults (1997 to 2014):

Does absolute moral truth exist?

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What does the public think about absolute truth?

Barna Research Group periodically conducts phone surveys of American adults. They found:

  • In 1997, 50% of Christians and 25% of non-Christians said that there are moral truths which are unchanging, and that truth is absolute, not relative to the circumstances.

  • In 2000-JAN, they found that 38% of adult Americans believed that absolute true exists.

  • Later in 2000, 40% of individuals involved in a Christian disciplining process believed that there is no such thing as absolute moral truth. 1

  • In 2001-NOV, another Barna poll showed that adults believing in absolute truth had dropped almost in half -- to 22%. Their poll showed an amazing diversity of belief among followers of different branches of Christianity, and adults of different ages. Barna found that the following percentages of people believe in absolute truth (sorted in order of increasing belief):

    • 13% those born in 1965 or later (aged 18 to 36 at the time of the survey).

    • 15% of adults who are not born-again Christians.

    • 16% of Roman Catholics.

    • 22% of all U.S. adults (24% among women; 20% among men).

    • 24% of those born in 1945 or before (aged 56 or older at the time of the survey)..

    • 28% those born between and 1946 and 1964 (aged 37 to 55 at the time of the survey).

    • 32% of those who attend conservative Christian churches.

    • 32% of adults who are born-again Christians. 2

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Such a rapid change among all adults -- from 38% to 22% within 23 months -- is almost unheard of in the field of morality and religion. The 9/11 terrorist attack on New York City and Washington occurred during that interval; one might speculate that that was the only event that could have caused such a massive shift -- in less than two years -- in basic beliefs about the nature of truth. Barna Research suggested that because of the attack:

"... one might have expected Americans to become more convinced of the presence of good and evil, and that there are absolute moral principles that exist regardless of cultural realities and personal preferences." 2

But the shift is in the other direction -- towards a lessening in belief in absolute truth.

One might speculate that the decrease in belief about absolute truth among the public was due to Americans being shocked into realizing that to the very small minority of devout, dedicated Muslims who represent the extreme, radical, violent and fundamentalist element of Islam, killing Christian non-combatants is a very moral act. They believe that they are carrying out the will of Allah. Thus, they view assassination of innocent members of the public is seen as a noble, honorable undertaking. Simultaneously, it is viewed as the ultimate sin by Americans generally. This small minority of terrorists is living proof that diametrically opposed concepts of moral truth do exist side-by-side in the world.

One factor that might have had a profound influence on the terrorists is their belief that if a Muslim man dies as a martyr to promote the Muslim faith, that he is taken immediately to Paradise and rewarded. The nature of the reward is unclear. If he had not died as a martyr, he would be judged according to his actions while on earth; the outcome of this would be in doubt.

  • In 2002, a report in the Los Angeles Times on Barna Research quoted Barna as measuring a massive age-related difference in belief:

    • 44% of born-again adults were certain that absolute moral truth exists.

    • Only 9% of born-again teenagers believed in absolute moral truth. 3

  • In 2005-AUG, Barna reported an updated survey. They found:

    • 35% of adults believe that moral truth is absolute -- not dependent upon the circumstances.

    • 32% said that morality is always determined by the circumstances.

    • 33% didn't know or did not respond.

Among American adults of various religious world views, the following percentages believed that moral truth is absolute:

  • 70% of Evangelicals. This was the only group in which a majority believed in absolute truth.

  • 42% of non-Evangelical, born-again adults.

  • 25% of non-born-again Christians.

  • 27% of those identifying themselves as Agnostic or Atheist.

  • 16% of followers of non-Christian religions. 4

The polling sample size was 1,002 adults. The margin of error was approximately ~+mn~3.5 percentage points.

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  • In 2009-DEC, Barna published a year-in-review which reported:

    • Only one-third (34%) [of U.S. adults] believed in absolute moral truth. 5

  • In 2014-DEC, their year-in-review reported:

    • 71% of the practicing Christian Millennials believed in absolute moral truth. This reflects the large number of Millennials who have left the church in which they grew up, leaving many orthodox believers attending churches. 6

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. The Barna Research Group has a web page at
  2. "How America's Faith Has Changed since 9-11," Barna Research Online, 2001-NOV-06, at:
  3. William Lobdell, "Pollster Prods Christian Conservatives," LA Times, 2002-SEP-14, at:
  4. "Most adults feel accepted by God, but lack a biblical worldview," The Barna Group, 2005-AUG-09. at:
  5. "Barna Studies the Research, Offers a Year-in-Review Perspective," The Barna Group, 2009-DEC-20. at:
  6. "Year-in-Review: Barna's Top 10 Findings from 2014," The Barna Group, 2014-DEC-30. at:

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Copyright 2001 to 2015 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-DEC-16
Latest update: 2015-NOV-29
Author: B.A. Robinson

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