The Decline of Moral Absolutes

New research from Barna reveals growing concern about the moral condition of the nation, even as many American adults admit they are uncertain about how to determine right from wrong. So what do Americans believe? Is truth relative or absolute? And do Christians see truth and morality in radically different ways from the broader public, or are they equally influenced by the growing tide of secularism and religious skepticism?

According to a majority of American adults (57%), knowing what is right or wrong is a matter of personal experience. This view is much more prevalent among younger generations than among older adults. Three-quarters of Millennials (74%) agree strongly or somewhat with the statement, “Whatever is right for your life or works best for you is the only truth you can know,” compared to only 38 percent of Elders. And Millennials (31%) are three times more likely than Elders (10%) and twice as likely as Boomers (16%) and Gen-Xers (16%) to strongly agree with the statement.

When it comes to religion’s impact on this question, active Christian faith is associated with greater disagreement on the above moral sentiment: The proportions of practicing Christians who disagree (59%) and agree (41%) that the only truth one can know is whatever is right for one’s own life are the inverse of the general population (44% disagree, 57% agree). The difference is even more pronounced when practicing Christians (41%) are compared with adults of no faith, two-thirds of whom agree (67%) that the only truth one can know is whatever is right for one’s own life.

A sizable number of Americans see morality as a matter of cultural consensus. About two-thirds of all American adults (65%) agree either strongly or somewhat (18% and 47% respectively) that “every culture must determine what is acceptable morality for its people.” Again, Millennials (25%) are more likely than Elders (16%), Boomers (14%) or Gen-Xers (16%) to strongly agree with this view.

While most American adults agree that culture plays some role in establishing moral norms, a majority also agrees “the Bible provides us with absolute moral truths which are the same for all people in all situations, without exception” (59%). There is broad agreement across age groups, which is surprising when one considers the notable generational differences on other questions related to morality. When it comes to faith groups, practicing Christians (83%), as one might expect, are much more likely to agree with the statement than others, especially those with no faith (28%). In fact, more than half of practicing Christians strongly agree (56%).

Two-thirds of American adults either believe moral truth is relative to circumstances (44%) or have not given it much thought (21%). About one-third, on the other hand, believes moral truth is absolute (35%). Millennials are more likely than other age cohorts to say moral truth is relative—in fact, half of them say so (51%), compared to 44 percent of Gen-Xers, 41 percent of Boomers and 39 percent of Elders. Among the generations, Boomers are most likely to say moral truth is absolute (42%), while Elders are more likely than other age groups to admit they have never thought about it (28%).
Practicing Christians (59%) are nearly four times more likely than adults with no faith (15%) to believe moral truth is absolute. Those with no faith (61%), meanwhile, are twice as likely as practicing Christians (28%) to say it is relative to circumstances. Americans who adhere to a faith other than Christianity are roughly on par with the national average on this question.

How can we survive the decline of this Moral Absolutes? Can we find a way to resolve this issue that is greatly evident? This is a generation that has forgotten God. Only one can deliver this generation from the decline of moral absolutes.

About the Research

August 2015 study: The study on which these findings are based was conducted via online surveys from August 17 to August 21, 2015. A total of 1,000 interviews were conducted. The sample error is plus or minus 3.0 percentage points at the 95-percent confidence level. The completion rate was 66% percent.

July 2015 study: The study on which these findings are based was conducted via online surveys from July 3 to July 9, 2015. A total of 1,237 interviews were conducted. The sample error is plus or minus 2.6 percentage points at the 95-percent confidence level.

(The “new moral code” material is adapted from David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Good Faith: Being a Christian When Society Thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2016).

Research Releases in Culture & Media • May 25, 2016 –© Barna Group, 2016.


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