Three-Quarters of Americans Still Believe in the Virgin Birth? Really?


CHRISTMAS APPROACHETH. And how’s the War Upon faring? Well, not too good lately: one study says almost half of Americans are A-OK with Christian paraphernalia on government property. Also, 73 percent believe in the virgin birth. And yet Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas still can’t catch a break.

The Pew Research Center just released a new study on American attitudes toward Christmas and Christian displays like nativity scenes on public property. Generally, they’re all for the baby Jesus:

A new Pew Research Center survey finds that 44% of Americans say Christian symbols like nativity scenes should be allowed on government property even if they are not accompanied by symbols from other religions. In addition, 28% of U.S. adults say that such symbols should be permitted, but only if they are accompanied by symbols from other religions, such as Hanukkah candles. One-in-five (20%) say there should be no religious displays on government property, period.

Too bad, so sad, separation of church and state doesn’t come with a popularity contest clause.

Anyway, the survey starts to look a little funny once it winds around to the topic of attitudes toward the Biblical Christmas story. Specifically:

In total, 65% of U.S. adults believe that all of these aspects of the Christmas story – the virgin birth, the journey of the magi, the angel’s announcement to the shepherds and the manger story – reflect events that actually happened. Among U.S. Christians, fully eight-in-ten (81%) believe in all four elements of the Christmas story. Even among people who are not affiliated with any religion, 21% believe all these events took place, and 37% believe at least one (but not all) of them occurred.

And fully 73 percent believe in the literal truth of the virgin birth of a historical Christ, according to Pew. That… seems awfully high?

Pew’s own numbers on the popularity of various religions (which are drawn from intensive interviews with 35,000 people) says that 78.5 percent of Americans self-identify as Christian of some stripe. Which means that the preponderance of this belief is theoretically plausible, because yes, the virgin birth has traditionally been considered an important tenet of the faith.

But you’re really telling me that in 2014, just 5.5 percent of American Christians are skeptical of that particular plank? If we’re taking into account every skeptical Unitarian Universalist, “sure OK” mainline Protestant and Christmas-and-Easter Catholic, that statistic’s bound to take a dent. Christian fundamentalism exists in no small part because, in the first half of the twentieth century, people were starting to ask uncomfortable questions about things like the virgin birth.

A closer look at Pew’s methodology suggests one possible explanation: They surveyed 1,507 adults, which isn’t exactly an enormous sample size. 605 of them were on a landline telephone; of the 902 who were interviewed on cell phones, 389 had landlines. While the results are weighted for the respective popularity of cells, that’s a lotta landline owners. Obviously those old-time telephones are good enough for them; why not that old-time religion, too?

Image via AP.

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