Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Is Salt Lake City the “most godless” city in America? Try again

BibleThis week reported that Mormon-dominated Salt Lake City ranks among the lowest of US cities in Bible reading. The metropolis is therefore, according to Time, one of the “most godless” and least “Bible-minded” cities in America.

Um, say what?

The magazine’s claims were based in two recent studies. Bible Gateway found that SLC was 100th out of 100 cities it tracks for usage of its software, and the American Bible Society ranked the city 87th without giving much detail about where that number actually came from.

The Mormon Newsroom is crying foul — and I’m right there with them. Bible Gateway, if you’ve not used it before, is a fantastic website and app that has multiple translations of the Bible online. I use it several times a week to cut-and-paste NRSV quotes, for example, for some of the projects I am editing or writing. The mostly Protestant publishers I work with tend to license either the NRSV or the NIV, and Bible Gateway is a wonderful one-stop shopping resource to find what I need.

But I don’t know any other Mormons who regularly use Bible Gateway, because as the Newsroom points out, the LDS Church has its own app and its own authoritative translation of the scriptures online. There Mormons can cross-reference their preferred KJV translation with additional LDS scriptures like the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants.

[tweetable]It’s inaccurate to claim that a predominantly Mormon city is “godless” just because it uses its own Bible study resources.[/tweetable] And it’s not just Mormons who are being unfairly stigmatized by the “godless” label. Cities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the two most Catholic states in the US, were also branded in this way, with Boston and Providence appearing right with SLC at the bottom of the pile.

Maybe a more accurate reading would take into account how much people actually know about the Bible. In Pew’s 2010 Religious Knowledge survey, Mormons edged out other Christian groups, answering 20.3 of 32 questions correctly. White evangelical Protestants were next, with 17.6 correct. (Atheists and agnostics, by the way, had the highest levels of knowledge of any group.)

Moreover, even the facile equation of “godlessness” with “lack of Bible reading habits” reveals a peculiarly Protestant bias, as though biblical literacy were the end-all of a grace-filled life. So much for charity and other devotional practices. Sola scriptura, indeed.

There are legitimate questions to be raised about how Mormons read the Bible; too often it involves simple proof-texting to demonstrate Mormons’ own alleged doctrinal superiority rather than a deep engagement with the richness that is ancient Scripture. (For a recent podcast discussion of how Mormons read and teach the Old Testament, click here.)

But if the issue is simply whether Mormons are reading the Bible, then the surveyors need to take a step back and look carefully at their biased criteria.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • The 2008 PEW Forum on Religion & Public Life / U.S. Religious Landscape Survey reports on page 49:
    Scripture reading Outside Religious Services – Weekly+
    1 Jehovah’s Witness 83%
    2 Mormon 76%
    3 Evangelical 60% tied with Hist. black churches 60%
    5. Muslim 43%
    6 Buddhist 28
    7 Mainline churches 27%
    8 Hindu 23%
    9 Orthodox 22%
    10 Catholic 21% tied with Religious unaffiliated 21%
    12 Jewish 14%
    Time Inc. won’t like these numbers because the groups listed choose other holy writings.

  • Eureka,
    Barna, a great research group out of Ventura Calif., published Dec. 17, 2001, “The Year’s Most Intriguing Findings”.
    Under the sub heading of “The 7 Most Controversial Statistics”:
    1 about divorce
    2 “Mormons are more likely to read the Bible during the week than are Protestants or Catholics.” [Not the Book of Mormon!]
    6 “Although one-third of all born again adults claim to tithe their income, only 12% actually do so.
    Barna is so much more scientific than a single website usage rate.

  • I wonder if these surveys don’t measure ‘biblical literacy’ in a superficial way. The ‘biblical literacy’ tests I have seen and taken for fun ask mostly questions about people’s names, matching names with objects or places or stories, and naming books of the bible. They don’t ask about what in my opinion is more important to know about the bible: overriding themes, who wrote a particular book, who they wrote it for and what were they trying to communicate, how certain themes recur throughout the bible (example: exile, redemption), how symbolism and imagery are used to make points, what are the different literary styles in the bible and how would that impact how we read a book. As such, biblical literacy tests can emphasize the less important over the most valuable. I’d be much more happy if my kids could compare how Christ approaches forgiveness of sin versus how John the Baptist did, than if they can name John’s mother. That Pew survey you referenced seems to provide some evidence of that: mainline Protestants and Catholics do worse than everyone else on their test, but I suspect would do very well if asked to write an essay on the relationship of faith, works, and grace.

  • Suffice it to say that the Times article was poorly researched, substantiated, and poor journalism. . . .

  • To your last point — Some Protestants and Catholics would no doubt submit very thoughtful responses, but I think you’re being overly optimistic about the depth of faith engagement of most people in America, regardless of denomination. When Christian Smith et al indicted America’s youth for “Therapeutic Moral Deism,” they could have just as easily been talking about our adults.

    But I totally agree with you about the difference between factual knowledge of the Bible (a thing that Mormons, with our early-morning seminary for high school students, high percentage of people serving full-time missions, and Sunday School lasting through adulthood) tend to have in spades, and the overarching themes and questions the Bible raises about the human condition.

  • Interesting! Here is a link, if anyone is interested:

    And here is a link to the 2008 Pew Forum that Dean also referenced:

    It’s worth pointing out, though, that in the latter study Pew doesn’t break down what it defines as “scripture,” so the Mormons who reported their scripture reading could also have been reading the BOM, etc. in addition to or instead of the Bible.

  • Jana, a very slight correction on the Pew study you cite: the study included Bible literacy questions (name the four Gospels), U.S. constitutional law questions (does the First Amendment permit Bible-as-literature classes in public schools?), and world religion questions (what is the dominant religion of Pakistan, etc.).

    If I recall correctly, Mormons got the highest score of any group on Bible literacy. Atheists and agnostics got the highest overall scores not because of their Bible literacy, but because of their performance on other parts of the survey.

  • Jeff, I agree that learning the core of the theology is more important than knowing the names of peripheral characters.

    That said, the Pew survey was asking questions like “name the four Gospels,” and large majorities of Protestants were unable to answer correctly. I highly doubt that people who can’t name the Gospels have spent anything like enough time reading them to be able to answer the sorts of questions you’d ask.

  • The religious ignorance in America is appalling.
    If all the people who appear so indifferent to the details of their religion simply dropped out of church we would have a nation of atheists in no time.

  • Thanks for that clarification. Here’s a relevant paragraph about the ways “religious literacy” was broken down, if anyone wants more detail.

    “On questions about Christianity – including a battery of questions about the Bible – Mormons (7.9 out of 12 right on average) and white evangelical Protestants (7.3 correct on average) show the highest levels of knowledge. Jews and atheists/agnostics stand out for their knowledge of other world religions, including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism; out of 11 such questions on the survey, Jews answer 7.9 correctly (nearly three better than the national average) and atheists/agnostics answer 7.5 correctly (2.5 better than the national average). Atheists/agnostics and Jews also do particularly well on questions about the role of religion in public life, including a question about what the U.S. Constitution says about religion.”

  • Max, some people are spiritual enough that they will not deny the feelings they have about God. They may not be motivated to do much about it and live a life quite unlike a very active Christian’s life: but they will not deny that God exists.
    I have visited with many people who take that position and my own son was in that same position.
    I can remember as an 8 to 10 year old, quietly trying to read the bible, by myself, in my room. I did not understand very much but I had this spiritual feeling inside of me about God. That was real to me. It was 13-15 years before I did much about it.


    You said, “they will not deny that God exists.”

    Well, neither do I.
    God may exist – who knows?

    But there isn’t the slightest reason to think God is real and there are many reasons to believe the natural impulses to look toward a ‘godlike’ figure or ‘spiritual’ realm is coming from our biology and has evolutionary roots.

    Science tells us that we are born with a yearning for a “mommy/daddy” for survival purposes. But this really needs to be abandoned in early in our maturity.

    Regardless of whether a God exists, the silly rituals of religion keep one intellectually stunted and child-like in the face of life. This is not constructive for anyone, especially grownups.

  • Wait….so their data/logic/conclusion train consisted of: 1) we looked at people who looked at OUR online Bible, 2) SLC IP addresses (or whatever tracking method) ranked low, therefore 3) people in SLC don’t read the Bible?

    Suddenly, I’m even more concerned about the state of education in this country.

    Thanks for pointing this out and calling out the absurdity.