Reading the Bible, Who,When,Where,How,Why
May 15, 2008

Reading the Bible, Who,When,Where,How,Why

Online Edition:
May 2008
Vol. XIV, No. 3

Reading the Bible, Who,When,Where,How,Why

by Sandro Magister

A Synod of Bishops on “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church” will be held in Rome from October 5-26, 2008. In anticipation of the Synod, a massive survey spanning thirteen countries was conducted to determine the opinions of people toward the Bible. The initial results on the United States, the United Kingdom, Holland, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Poland, Russia were reported April 30, by Sandro Magister, of L’Espresso’s “www.chiesa”— well-known to Catholics as an impeccable multilingual source of news from Rome. We publish Mr. Magister’s report here with his kind permission. (Visit site at ).


The synod of bishops that will be held at the Vatican in October will address the theme “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church”. The previous synod, in October of 2005, was on the topic of the Eucharist.

In view of the upcoming synod, the Catholic Biblical Federation organized a survey in thirteen countries on “The reading of the Scriptures”. (CBF has affiliates in 127 countries.)

The survey was conducted by GFK-Eurisko, an Italian market-research company, and was coordinated by professor Luca Diotallevi, a sociology teacher at Roma 3 University.

The first data, on nine of the thirteen countries examined, were presented on April 28 at the Vatican press office by Diotallevi, by bishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Catholic Biblical Federation, and by Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, a world-famous biblical scholar and president of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

The data were obtained from 13,000 interviews conducted in the United States, the United Kingdom, Holland, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Poland, Russia. They cover the entirety of the adult population. The data on Catholics alone will be published later.

The four countries in which the survey still continues are Argentina, South Africa, the Philippines, and Australia.

Chief Text of Reference

A first consideration that emerges is that in North America and Europe, the Bible is not only the book of a particular religious group, but a chief text of reference for all.

But the Bible is not present and influential in all countries in the same way. The wave of secularization produces very different effects from region to region. In the United States and in Italy, these effects appear to be more contained than in other countries of Western Europe, among which France emerges as the most de-Christianized nation. And then there is Eastern Europe, with its own distinct cases of Poland and Russia. Each country, moreover, has its own religious history and profile.

For this reason, responses to the survey rarely coincide from country to country.

For example, except in France, where less than half of the people have a Bible at home, in the other countries the great majority of the population possess a copy. In Italy, it is 75 percent, and in the United States, 93 percent.

But to the question of whether the person had read from the Bible in the past twelve months, the answers were widely affirmative only in the United States. There the number is 75 percent, while in Italy it falls to 27 percent, and in Spain, to 20 percent.

People in Germany, Italy, and Poland say that they prefer listening to a homily to reading the Bible personally. In effect, participation at Mass is for many their only moment of contact with the Sacred Scriptures, which are read there.

Praying with the Bible

Praying with the use of the Bible is also shown to be more frequent in the United States, with 37 percent positive responses. And also in Poland, with 32 percent. While in Italy, it falls to 10 percent, and in Spain to 8 percent.

In general, those who read the Bible most are the people who belong to denominations and groups in which this is an established practice. And in turn, those who read the Bible personally are more drawn to participate in these denominations and groups.

To the questions of whether Bible is true or false, real or abstract, interesting or boring, the responses are mostly positive. Even in de-Christianized France, 62 believe that the contents of the Sacred Scriptures are true. The complete table is reproduced further below.

But almost everywhere, the Bible is also considered a “difficult” book, the reading of which must be accompanied and explained.

For the purpose of interpreting the Bible, the definition most widely shared – even in France – is that it is “the inspired word of God, but not everything in it must be interpreted literally, word for word.”

Immediately after come those who say that the Bible is only “an ancient book of legends, historical events, and teachings written by man.” The least agreement to this definition is found in Italy and the United States.

Many fewer define the Bible as “the direct word of God, which must be interpreted literally, word for word.” This “fundamentalist” definition has few adherents, except in Poland, with 34 percent, and in the United States, with 27 percent.

On the knowledge of elementary notions concerning the Sacred Scriptures, the highest levels of ignorance are claimed by Russia and Spain. The top scores go to Germany, Poland, Italy, and the United States. Here more than a third of the adult population respond correctly that the Gospels are part of the Bible, that Jesus did not write any books, that Moses is a character in the Old Testament, and that Paul and Peter are not the authors of Gospels.

Curiously, the fundamentalists show a poorer understanding of the Bible than those who interpret it with a more critical spirit.

Another surprising result of the survey is the wide and almost universal agreement with the idea that “the Bible should be studied at school”, just as the great literary classics are studied. In Russia, for example, those in favor are 63 percent, in Italy 62, in the United Kingdom 60, in Germany 56, while those opposed are respectively 30 percent, 26, 30, and 27. The only country in which these positions are reversed is France, where those in favor are 24 percent, and those opposed 60.

The survey found that most people think that the Bible is true, real, and interesting. But also difficult — as the chart below reveals.

English translation by Matthew Sherry, Saint Louis, Missouri



Sandro Magister