In all the to-and-fro we’ve had in the last couple of weeks, some people have maintained that very few people—and almost no theologians—see the Bible as literally true. If you live in the US, you’ll know how ludicrous that is. While I agree that Americans who take the whole document as the literal word of God aren’t in the majority, most believers (indeed, most Americans) see parts of it as literally true. My own aphorism, which is mine, goes as follows:
“Some believers are literalists about nearly everything, but nearly every believer is a literalist about some things.”
I like that, and and hope it will become a meme!
But first, the latest data on how many American see the entire document as the literal word of God. This is from a 2011 Gallup Poll (article by Jeffrey Jones):
It’s 30%, and, although fluctuating, has dropped 8-10% since 1977. Still, only 17% saw the Bible as a book of “legends,” while 79% thought of it as either literally true or “inspired,” in which some but not all of it should be taken literally. As expected, belief in the Bible as either partly or wholly true increases with increasing church attendance, is higher among those with less education, and is higher among Republicans than Democrats. Protestants show a higher degree of literalism than Catholics (see the original article for the data).
There are non-negotiables for most believers, at least in the U.S, which, for many Christians, include the divinity of Jesus and our redemption from sin through his crucifixion, resurrection, and acceptance of Christ as our personal savior.
But (at least in 2004) there were far more non-negotiables than this (we need a more modern survey , since this kind of belief has probably declined). These data are from an ABC News poll, which one should take with a bit of salt because of the small sample size (a bit over 1000). Here are are the 2004 data for what they’re worth, as reported in the conservative Washington Times (my emphasis):
God’s creation of the Earth, Noah and the flood, Moses at the Red Sea: These pivotal stories from the Old Testament still resonate deeply with most Americans, who take the accounts literally rather than as a symbolic lesson.
An ABC News poll released Sunday found that 61 percent of Americans believe the account of creation in the Bible’s book of Genesis is “literally true” rather than a story meant as a “lesson.” [JAC: note that here they’re asking about the creation story in Genesis, not the entire Bible as reported in the Gallup Poll above.]
Sixty percent believe in the story of Noah’s ark and a global flood, while 64 percent agree that Moses parted the Red Sea to save fleeing Jews from their Egyptian captors.
The poll, with a margin of error of 3 percentage points, was conducted Feb. 6 to 10 among 1,011 adults.
. . . The levels of belief in the stories, however, differed among Christians.
The poll found that 75 percent of Protestants believed in the story of creation, 79 percent in the Red Sea account and 73 percent in Noah and the ark.
Among evangelical Protestants, those figures were 87 percent, 91 percent and 87 percent, respectively. Among Catholics, they were 51 percent, 50 percent and 44 percent.
The stories still proved somewhat compelling among those who had “no religion.” A quarter said they believed in Creation, almost a third said Moses parted the Red Sea, and 29 percent believe in Noah.
Remember, this was a survey of a sample of all Americans, not just Christians or even believers.
But this next part I find really funny, but also a bit sad:
“These are surprising and reassuring figures — a positive sign in a postmodern world that seemed bent on erasing faith from the public square in recent years,” said the Rev. Charles Nalls of Christ the King, a Catholic-Anglican church in the District.
“This poll tells me that America is reading the Bible more than we thought. There had been a tendency to decry or discount Bible literacy among the faithful,” he said.
“But this indicates a strong alliance among Americans with the inerrant word of God, as opposed to simply the inspired word of God, as viewed in the context of faith tradition,” Father Nalls said.
I don’t know what a “Catholic-Anglican” church is, but I thought both of those denominations were supposed to be less literalistic than American Protestants. Still, an American reverend in that Church finds the widespread belief in miracles “reassuring,” for they show Bible literacy. But the distressing thing is that a.) they don’t really show much Bible literacy (everyone knows about creation, Moses, and the Ark), and b.) they show not literacy but literalism. As we all know, atheists show more familiarity with what’s in the Bible than do believers, so, for a reverend, literacy is not something to be especially proud of!
I document more recent surveys in my book—not only of Christianity, but of Islam and other faiths. And there is a surprisingly large tendency to be literalistic about some parts of the Bible, even among UK Christians. For Islam, literalism is a given; it is not kosher (excuse the pun) to see the Qur’an as a metaphor rather than as the words God dictated to Muhammad.
Do have a look at Julian Baggini’s surveys of UK Christians. Baggini used to disparage New Atheists for criticizing strawmen, and for saying that religion depends on belief in empirical truths. Then he did his own surveys (granted, not very systematic ones) and found to his surprise that some literalism was ubiquitous even in British Christians. As he noted in his Guardian piece on the surveys:
Nevertheless, it is essential to stress that I take these surveys to be no more than indicative. And as the survey was exclusively about Christianity, what we can extrapolate about the likely beliefs of people in other religions is especially limited. So I see these results as being no more than highly suggestive and would like to see more rigorous work done to test what the reality is. I want to thank the various Comment is free readers who have already pointed me to other research. I’ve still got to work my way through a lot of it but I have yet to see anything that achieves quite what I’d like to see.
So what is the headline finding? It is that whatever some might say about religion being more about practice than belief, more praxis than dogma, more about the moral insight of mythos than the factual claims of logos, the vast majority of churchgoing Christians appear to believe orthodox doctrine at pretty much face value. They believe that Jesus is divine, not simply an exceptional human being; that his resurrection was a real, bodily one; that he performed miracles no human being ever could; that he needed to die on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven; and that Jesus is the only way to eternal life. On many of these issues, a significant minority are uncertain but in all cases it is only a small minority who actively disagree, or even just tend to disagree. As for the main reason they go to church, it is not for reflection, spiritual guidance or to be part of a community, but overwhelmingly in order to worship God.
This is, I think, a firm riposte to those who dismiss atheists, especially the “new” variety, as being fixated on the literal beliefs associated with religion rather than ethos or practice. It suggests that they are not attacking straw men when they criticise religion for promoting superstitious and supernatural beliefs.
Baggini, an atheist himself, was intellectually honest enough to admit that he was wrong. I give him kudos for that.
Now we know that stuff like the Ark, Adam and Eve, and the parting of the Red Sea are fiction, so believers who see them as fictional are clearly right. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t underestimate the number of people who see other parts of the Bible as historical truth. Which parts are those? The parts that science hasn’t yet, or can’t (because of lack of data) refute.
What about the Sophisticated Theologians™ who claim that throughout history, neither Church Fathers, nor early theologians, nor believers themselves, saw Scripture as historical truth? I think that is largely a bogus argument constructed by theologians who want to rewrite history to pretend that the scriptural literalism decried by New Atheism is a recent development.
My response is that this is simply wrong for lay religionists, and theologians never show otherwise. Historical truth of the Bible has been a constant strain in Christianity: it’s what you see portrayed in the stained-glass windows of medieval cathedrals.
As for the theologians themselves, I’ve shown already how the supposed Kings of Biblical Metaphorizing—Aquinas and Augustine (as well as other theologians before the 18th century) were literalists about many things, although some believed one could read a metaphorical meaning into scripture as well. But for Augustine and Aquinas, the historicity of things like Adam and Eve, Paradise, heaven, angels, and so on, was never in doubt, and their empirical reality took precedence over interpretation.
Further, even Sophisticated Theologians™ see parts of the Bible as historically true, especially the whole Jesus story involving his status as both God’s son and God at the same time, his crucifixion and resurrection, and the value of that sacrifice for saving humanity. Now, given the absence of extra-Biblical evidence for that tale, on what grounds do theologians see that as credible but the Genesis stories as metaphor? Only because science has disproven Adam and Eve (and the creation story in Genesis) as false, but hasn’t been able to scientifically examine the Jesus story. What we know is that there is no extra-Biblical evidence for a historical Jesus figure, much less for his divinity or the crucifixion and Resurrection stories.
On what grounds, then, do theologians buy the Jesus myth as true but reject much of the rest of scripture as “not a textbook of science” (i.e., “not true”)? Only because the Jesus story hasn’t yet been disproven! The only criterion for what theologians see as metaphor is what reason and science has failed to confirm. There are no other criteria for the theological acceptance of some parts of scripture as historical and other parts as fable, allegory, or metaphor.
Finally, how much should we care about what theologians believe versus what laypeople believe? It is, after all, mostly the laypeople who do the harm inflicted by faith. It is laypeople who try to get the Genesis story taught in public schools. It is lay Muslims, not imams, who riot and kill—and they kill not just non-Muslims, but each other. And much of that killing is based on literalism, either of the Qur’an, or of the hadith. Catholic opposition to abortion is based on the dogmatic claim that a fertilized egg has a soul, and their insistence on procreation (and their discourage of condoms, even in AIDS-ridden Africa) is based on the claim that God wants every act of sex to potentially produce a child.
In the end, the question to ask the Theologians Who Love Metaphor is this:
“On what grounds do you know that some parts of the Bible, like the divinity of Jesus, are true, while others, like the creation story of Genesis, are false?”
An honest theologian would give this answer: “Because science hasn’t yet falsified the Jesus stories.”
Sadly, there are few intellectually honest theologians on tap. (And if I weren’t feeling charitable, I’d replace “few” with “no”.)