With nearly 2.3 billion adherents, Christianity is the world's largest organized religion. Special emphasis is given by the religion on the life and teachings of Jesus, a first-century Jew standardly believed by Christians to have been the incarnation of god on Earth. Not only is Jesus's moral character thought to have been impeccable, his resurrection after death is believed to have made our redemption from sin in the eyes of god a possibility for all.
What do Christians around the world actually believe and value, though? After all, merely because the Bible says something does not mean that Christians widely believe it.
Our first look will be to the United States, which is the world's largest Christian nation by population. The figures below have been calculated from data in a 2008 study by the Pew Research Center and represent the beliefs and values of more than 251 million Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah's witnesses, and Orthodox Christians.
The United States
The idea that the Bible is the word of God and is something to be understood literally is highest among Protestants (46%) and Jehovah's witnesses (48%), and lowest among Catholics (23%). Mormons hold a particularly strong commitment to the idea that the Bible is the word of god but is nonliteral in its meaning (50%).
Slightly more than two-thirds of U.S. Christians (67%) are pluralists and hold that there is more than one true way of understanding the Bible. Catholics are the most likely to express this perspective, with 77% doing so. Just over a quarter (28%) hold the opposite viewpoint and believe that there is one and only one true way of understanding its religious teachings. The later is strongest among Jehovah's witnesses (77%) and Mormons (54%).
76% of US Christians percent believe angels and demons are active in the world
U.S. Christians are roughly split on whether abortion should be legal or illegal. "Pro-choice" attitudes are highest among Orthodox Christians as a percentage (62%), while "pro-life" attitudes are most common among Jehovah's witnesses (77%).
Attitudes towards homosexuality are even more finely split. The most disapproving attitudes exist among Jehovah's witnesses (76% discouraged), while the most accepting attitudes are found among Catholics (58% accepted).
While "speaking in tongues" is most commonly associated with Pentecostals, Catholics, Orthodox, Mormon and Jehovah's Witnesses all have nonzero percentages of people who report speaking or praying in tongues on a weekly, monthly, or yearly basis.
All in all, some 47 million Christians (19%) talk or pray in tongues at least once a year, with 22.3 million (9%) doing it on a weekly basis (including almost 7 million Catholics).
Latin America is home to 520 million of the world's Christians. Of these, 406 million are Catholic and 114 million are Protestant.
A clear majority of Latin American Christians regard the Bible as both the word of god and as intended to be understood literally. This percentage is significantly higher than what was seen for Christians in the United States.
Despite the Catholic Church's official position on avoiding contraception, 70% of Latin American Christians believe that its use is moral.
The moral views of Latin American Christians can be compared with Pew polling that looked at the moral beliefs of roughly a billion Muslims. While the Christians and Muslims represented have essentially the same percentages of moral disapproval on the question of abortion (80% Christian against, 78% Muslim against), fewer Christians than Muslims see immorality in alcohol consumption (54% Christian against vs. 84% Muslim against), unmarried sex (50% Christian against vs. 88% Muslim against), suicide (68% Christian against vs. 86% Muslim against), and homosexual behavior (65% Christian against vs. 89% Muslim against).
According to the official position of the Catholic Church, the bread and the wine offered to Catholics during communion is transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ. This means that the bread and wine are not simply symbols for Jesus's body and blood; rather, the bread and wine literally become Jesus's body and blood (in a way that cannot be seen). While this would technically make communion an act of vampirism and cannibalism, receiving communion is an important aspect of worship and remembrance for hundreds of millions of Christians around the world.
So far as the beliefs of Latin American Christians are concerned, 83% believe that the bread and wine really do transform into flesh and blood. Just 14%, or 73 million people, believe that no genuine transformation takes place. Protestants are slightly less inclined to believe in the transubstantiation of the bread and wine than Catholics are, with 75% of them believing it compared with 86% of Catholics.
For comparison, a poll was carried out by the Irish Times in 2012 that found that only one-quarter of Irish Catholics polled believe that transubstantiation really occurs, while two-thirds believe that the bread and wine are symbolic.
Of Latin American CHristians believe Jesus will return in their lifetime
Sources and Notes
The statistics appearing on this page were based on data published in the following studies by the Pew Research Center:
- "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey." Pew Research Center. June 2008. Available here.
- "Religion in Latin America." Pew Research Center. November 13, 2014. Available here.
- "The Global Religious Landscape." Pew Research Center. December, 2012. Available here.
Information concerning the total population of the countries surveyed was taken from the CIA World Factbook (here).
Note that the percentages don't total to 100% in most of the graphs because it was possible for someone to say they didn't know, to offer a different answer than those that the surveys were prepared for, or to refuse to answer a question. More information about the sample sizes and the margins of error can be found in the Pew publications themselves, along with information concerning the methodology employed and difficulties encountered. However, for the Pew study that looked at Christians in Latin America, the sample sizes ranged from 1500 to 2000, and had margins of error between ± 2.8 (Nicaragua) and ± 4.0 (Peru and Paraguay). For the U.S. study, the sample sizes ranged from 18,900 for Protestants to 215 for Jehovah's witnesses, and had margins of error between ± 1.5 points for Catholics and Protestant subdivisions to ± 7.5 points for Jehovah's witnesses.
In interpreting the numbers found on this page, be aware that the fact that a belief or value x exists for a given subset of Christians does not by itself show that Christianity is wholly or even partly responsible for that being the case. By themselves, the statistics on this page say what is the case, not why.
Be also aware that someone might respond to a question with a particular answer not because they genuinely believe it, but because they think that is how they should answer it. For example, a Catholic might answer that they believe the bread and wine in communion literally transform into the flesh and blood of Christ not because they actually believe it does, but because they believe they should believe it. Polls like those carried out by Pew find answers to what people believe based upon what people report believing, not what they actually believe, and the two needn't be the same.