Americans unanimously denounced the September 11 terrorist attacks as a textbook example of evil, suggesting that there is a foundational belief in an absolute standard of right and wrong. Subsequent research, however, has shown that in the aftermath of the attacks, a minority of Americans believes in the existence of absolute moral truth. Even more surprising, the data from a pair of nationwide studies conducted by the Barna Research Group of Ventura, California showed that less than one out of three born again Christians adopt the notion of absolute moral truth. The surveys also found that few Americans turn to their faith as the primary guide for their moral and ethical decisions.
Truth Is Relative, Say Americans
In two national surveys conducted by Barna Research, one among adults and one among teenagers, people were asked if they believe that there are moral absolutes that are unchanging or that moral truth is relative to the circumstances. By a 3-to-1 margin (64% vs. 22%) adults said truth is always relative to the person and their situation. The perspective was even more lopsided among teenagers, 83% of whom said moral truth depends on the circumstances, and only 6% of whom said moral truth is absolute. . . .
So, how are Evangelical Christians doing compared to the general population?
Not surprisingly, born again Christians were more likely than non-born again individuals to accept moral absolutes. Among adults, 32% of those who were born again said they believe in moral absolutes, compared to just half as many (15%) among the non-born again contingent. Among teenagers, there was still a 2-to-1 ratio evident, but the numbers were much less impressive: only 9% of born again teens believe in moral absolutes versus 4% of the non-born again teens.
The surveys also asked people to indicate the basis on which they make their moral and ethical decisions. Six different approaches were listed by at least 5% of the teenagers interviewed, and eight approaches were listed by at least 5% of adults. In spite of the variety communicated, there was a clear pattern within both groups. By far the most common basis for moral decision-making was doing whatever feels right or comfortable in a situation. Nearly four out of ten teens (38%) and three out of ten adults (31%) described that as their primary consideration.
Among adults, other popular means of moral decision-making were on the basis of the values they had learned from their parents (15%), on the basis of principles taught in the Bible (13%), and based on whatever outcome would produce the most personally beneficial results (10%).
Teenagers were slightly different in their approach. One out of six (16%) said they made their choices on the basis of whatever would produce the most beneficial results for them. Three alternative foundations were each identified by one out of ten teens: whatever would make the most people happy, whatever they thought their family and friends expected of them, and on the basis of the values taught by their parents. Just 7% of teenagers said their moral choices were based on biblical principles.
So 13% of American adults and 7% of teens base their moral decision-making on biblical principles. And among those who self-identify as "born-again" only 32% of adults and 9% of teens believe in moral absolutes.
I want to make two points.
First, it is not as bad as it looks. In surveys like this the separating out of practicing, serious Christians is often rough and ready. As you go deeper into the details to the point where you are examining data on regular church-attending teens from Evangelical churches you find the percentages of those who believe in moral absolutes and make decisions based on the Bible going up.
Second, it is still really, really bad. The world is corrupting our youth effectively and co-opting them for a pagan worldview and we are losing the overall war for truth and morality. The issues of abortion, homosexuality, divorce, promiscuity, euthanasia, etc. are issues because of people having pagan, corrupt minds. Of course, corrupt thinking leads to sinning and more sinning leads to a more deeply corrupted mind and there is a negative feedback loop going on. But my point is that there is a great deal of difference between someone knowing right from wrong and falling into temptation only to repent and seek forgiveness, on the one hand, a person whose mind has been darkened according to the process Paul describes in Roman 1 to the point where he can no longer distinguish between good and evil - which is what moral relativism is.
I think we are in a war and people's lives are being destroyed by moral relativism. Babies are being born out of wedlock, children go fatherless, poverty increases, the elderly are warehoused and euthanized etc. There are real life, harsh consequences of this kind of lazy, pagan thinking, which is infiltrating the Church.
The Church needs the Christian college and seminary to do its part. We teach students at a critically formative moment in their lives. Our mission statement should be to increase the percentage of teens and adults who believe in absolute truth and if we want to measure our effectiveness how about keeping statistics on that?
If I was a donor or parent of a prospective student I would like to know if graduates of Tyndale are statistically more likely to believe in moral absolutes and make moral decisions based on the Bible than the general population.
If we surveyed our graduates, I wonder what we would find. Would we dare?