Respectful Insolence

One third of Americans?

A new Gallup poll shows just how bad things are for science and reason:

PRINCETON, NJ — About one-third of the American adult population believes the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally word for word. This percentage is slightly lower than several decades ago. The majority of those Americans who don’t believe that the Bible is literally true believe that it is the inspired word of God but that not everything it in should be taken literally. About one in five Americans believe the Bible is an ancient book of “fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man.”

Belief in a literal Bible is strongly correlated with indicators of religion, including church attendance and identification with a Protestant or other non-Catholic Christian faith. There is also a strong relationship between education and belief in a literal Bible, with such belief becoming much less prevalent among those who have college educations.


Here’s a graph of the results:

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On the other hand, perhaps one could look at it this way: “I’ve got some good news and some bad news for you. The good news is that the percentage of Americans who believe that the Bible is word-for-word the absolutely inerrant Word of God to be taken literally, each and every word, has fallen slightly since the late 1970s/early 1980s. The bad news is it’s still nearly 1/3 of the population.”

Its’ also not particularly surprising that Catholics were less likely to say that the Bible should be taken completely literally, and the negative correlation between taking the Bible literally and education, with 40% of people with a high school education or less believing in its literalness, compared to only 11% of those with postgraduate educations, was consistent with many other polls that suggest that education negatively correlates with fundamentalist beliefs.

One thing I’ve never been able to understand is how one can take the Bible literally, given how many internal contradictions are there. After all, even the Gospels do not agree on many points about Jesus’ life. Back in Catholic school, even as a teenager I could see that it was a self-contradictory book in many places. I can see believing that the different authors responsible for the text were somehow inspired by God, but how does one convince oneself of such a belief that it is all inerrant?

Comments

  1. #1 TheBrummell
    May 29, 2007

    How does one convince oneself of such a belief?

    Presumably by not actually reading the book. Ask a literalist if they’ve read the bible, and they’ll almost certainly say “yes”. Then ask them if they remember reading some randomly-chosen passages. They’ll probably still answer “yes”, but I expect one would see some hesitation or tentativeness in those answers.

    That is, if they don’t immediately short-circuit the discussion by chanting a mantra like “it’s completely true!” or “you have no faith!” or by a priori claiming that anyone who sees contradictions in the bible is fooling themselves.

  2. #2 Elf Eye
    May 29, 2007

    The Brummell:

    You have a point about lack of familiarity with the Bible. I teach English and World Literature to college students, and, believe me, they haven’t read the Bible, even though most of them are nominal protestants, and conservative ones at that (the college is located in southwestern Virginia, near Roanoke).

  3. #3 speedwell
    May 29, 2007

    Hmmph, I’m on board as a Gallup poll respondent, and I never got asked this.

  4. #4 speedwell
    May 29, 2007

    I thought I remembered hearing something, and I finally ran it to ground: George Gallup Jr., the son of the Gallup Organization’s founder and a longtime executive of the firm, is said to be “a devout evangelical Christian.” For what it’s worth. See here for example: http://ctlibrary.com/11949

  5. #5 speedwell
    May 29, 2007
  6. #6 Gork
    May 29, 2007

    The norm for the christians in the US is to say they believe the bible is literally true, and to say they are regular churchgoers. But if you check Sunday mornings, you’ll see that their fundamental norm is to lie, lie, lie.

    They don’t take themselves seriously, so why should you?

  7. #7 CL
    May 29, 2007

    I get the feeling that people who have read the entire bible would actually believe in it less than people who haven’t read it. But I can’t prove that.

  8. #8 Warren
    May 29, 2007

    1/3 isn’t surprising. Bush’s approval rating is near enough 1/3 that I more or less already knew the quantity of goddishly deranged in the US.

    What troubles me is the possibility of the decline reversing, since homeschooling and baptard-versities such as Liberty U. permit one to go from cradle to early 20s in a shroud of delusional stupidity.

  9. #9 Tanta
    May 29, 2007

    Did anyone first ask the respondents if they knew what the word “literal” means?

    I have a fair amount of experience with highly literal-minded people. One thing I have discovered is that it is hard to get them to understand the phrase “literal-minded.”

    I would bet my next paycheck you could get 31% of Americans to define the term “literal” in way that would literally give you a heart attack.

  10. #10 Ginger Yellow
    May 29, 2007

    “Belief in a literal Bible is strongly correlated with indicators of religion, including church attendance and identification with a Protestant or other non-Catholic Christian faith. ”

    In other news, oranges tend to be orange.

  11. #11 Gerard Harbison
    May 29, 2007

    I asked a literalist once about the various conflicting genealogies of Jesus that appear in the Bible. It was clear he simply had never checked them against each other, and realized they don’t agree. Once he was forced to acknowledge they are in fact different, he searched the web, and found some bizarre apologetics page that explained the discrepancy by someone adopting a grandson as their son – “see, it doesn’t say biological son of, just son of…”. It was clear the pinciple of literal truth was so important to him, he’d adopt whatever twisted reading of the text made it possible to retain the claim that the text was literally true, even if only in a tortured sense.

    So the principle of Biblical literal truth trumps even content.

  12. #12 DuWayne
    May 29, 2007

    Tanta -

    I have a fair amount of experience with highly literal-minded people. One thing I have discovered is that it is hard to get them to understand the phrase “literal-minded.”

    I would bet my next paycheck you could get 31% of Americans to define the term “literal” in way that would literally give you a heart attack.

    You aren’t kidding. There is a fair contingent in my church, who would easily define themselves a biblical literalists. Yet when confronted with the notion that the earth is billions of years old, many of them accept that as true. When you then point out the inconsistency of that position, with literal acceptance of the Genesis creation account, they say it is merely a matter of interpretation. I have even talked to some, who’s position on evolution is very close to my own, who still consider the bible to be a literal truth.

    I mean, I quite literally, think I’m probably right in assuming the bible is quite literally, in all probability, a fairly accurate rendering of the truth. . .I don’t know if I’m due for an attack, but I’m literally having what are likely, heart palpitations.

  13. #13 PennyBright
    May 29, 2007

    I’m in with The Brummel and Elf Eye on this one — most people who claim a literal belief in the bible haven’t read the whole thing.

    Really, I think most people who claim any kind of belief in the bible haven’t read the whole thing, because – frankly – it’s not an easy book to read.

    And I’ll back up CL on thinking that people who have read the whole thing are less likely to believe it at all — though I think this may be because those of us who don’t have any vested interest in the “Truth” of the text have an easier time reading it. I’ve heard Christians actively advise one another *not* to read the bible on their own, but to get pastoral guidance on what to read and what it means.

  14. #14 CL
    May 29, 2007

    To be fair, I’m probably swayed a lot by Julia Sweeney’s experience, which is rather extreme (taking bible study classes at her Catholic church and becoming atheist because of it).

    PennyBright has a good point about “pastoral guidance”. Look how popular annotated bibles are. I presume the annotations are necessary because it doesn’t make sense without them.

  15. #15 Aureola Nominee, FCD
    May 29, 2007

    Sorry, I just fell from Stavromula Beta… wasn’t one of the main points of the Reformation for believers to be able to read the Bible for themselves, as opposed to the Catholic Church’s insistence that it required pastoral guidance by a hierarchy of trained “interpreters”?

    Also, has any of you a spare irony meter that I could borrow?

  16. #16 carey
    May 29, 2007

    If you want to put someone to the test, ask them to read just two (2) books in the bible: Exodus and Leviticus. If after reading them, they continue to believe these books are the literal and eternal word of god, then you should ask them why they have not recently killed a witch, or a spirit medium, or a disobedient child, or ANYONE who works on the Day of Atonement, or … – each of these offenses must be punished with death, according to the good book. Clearly there is a lot of killing we need to catch up on if this is to become a Xian nation.

  17. #17 blf
    May 29, 2007

    I once had a very frustrating discussion with some door-to-door biblefiends–I’ve no idea which cult they were with as this was via the entryphone and I bloody well wasn’t going to open the door–about the requirement to kill witches. Even when I read the passage to them, they refused to believe it, first saying I was making it up, and later some gibberish about metaphysical woo (something about exorcising evil influences or something). They steadfastly ignored the issue of the millions of medieval European woman slaughtered due to those few words.

    This happended in England. Where some of those witches were tortured, burnt, and otherwise abused. ‘Cuz the bible says it must be done.

  18. #18 Vandychick
    May 29, 2007

    In the weekend edition of the Post, there was an absolutely terrifying article about a “creationist museum” opening in Kentucky. It has all kinds of exhibits featuring dinosaurs and man together–along with all kinds of “science” proving the earth is only 6,000 years old. It cost $27 million to build an edifice whose sole purpose is to spread ignorance.

    Imagine how many starving people that could have fed.

  19. #19 sharon
    May 29, 2007

    blf: To be pedantic, witches weren’t burnt in England. They were burnt in much of Europe (and Scotland, I think), but in England, they were hanged.

  20. #20 Justin Moretti
    May 29, 2007

    I sometimes suspect biblical literalists have a few screws loose up top; either born that way, or undone with the Consecrated Screwdriver of Brainwashing (a bit like the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch – equally destructive but more subtle).

    I remember one in particular, who liked Simon and Garfunkel’s song Mrs Robinson because of the lyrics “Jesus loves you more than you will know” and “Heaven holds a place for those who pray”, while he would not listen to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, not because of any angst over Freddie Mercury being gay (I doubt he knew), but because the song mentioned Beelzebub. And if a rock song mentions Beelzebub, well, that can’t be good, can it?

    Of course Mrs Robinson is, if I recall correctly, about an adulterous hag who shags her daughter’s boyfriend, whilst the mention of Beelzebub in Bohemian Rhapsody is in the context of the protagonist imagining his eternal torture in hell for the sin of murder. He was very displeased when I corrected his misconceptions. And this guy was high-functioning enough to get through medical school (sigh).

  21. #21 Alison
    May 29, 2007

    What the 1/3rd of Americans believe is actually what their church leaders tell them. They might THINK they’ve read the bible, but they’ve really just read the parts that were on the agenda for the Sunday sermons they attended. It’s lazy, but these people like to be told what to do, say, and think – so if pastor bob tells them all the good parts, explains what they REALLY meant, and plants the idea that they are people of faith who take the bible as the direct word of god, then that’s what they believe. Good thing, too, since they don’t have time to read the bible, can’t understand that weird language, and don’t want to debate about interpreting the bible not actually being the same as taking it literally. I was just googling this afternoon to find some choice nuggets from Ham to blog about, and found a teen site called “Dare 2 Share”, and it looks just like a training manual for telephone salespeople, with questions to ask, snappy comebacks, customized proselytizing for other religions. . .a whole script that completely negates any need to actually know what the bible really says. At the same time, it asserts that what it’s saying is the truth of the bible, so anyone reading this might indeed come to the conclusion that they are literalists regardless of their scriptural ignorance.

  22. #22 tim gueguen
    May 29, 2007

    The most amusing thing about supposed literalists is they’re usually the same people who believe in some form of Rapture theology, which requires a boatload of interpretation to draw out of Revelation. Not to mention the antigay ones who quote Leviticus, but then express the belief that Jesus waived the requirements of Leviticus on all sorts of other things, like kosher.

  23. #23 Jud
    May 30, 2007

    “How does one convince oneself of such a belief that it is all inerrant?”

    Coming from a Conservative (*not* conservative) Jewish background, I’d sum up that tradition as follows (**Oversimplification Warning**):

    Each week in synagogue, a Torah (first 5 books of the Bible) portion is discussed. In the synagogues I’ve attended, lively discussion extending to dispute and disagreement is encouraged, in order to try to tease out the meaning(s) of the section. Such discussions of the Torah have been ongoing for centuries, embodied in texts like the Talmud, which centrally display a Torah portion surrounded by rabbinic commentaries on its meaning (see a photo of a Talmud page here: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/2/28/Talmud.jpg ). The Torah is considered the “inerrant” word of God, but it’s hard to see how non-omniscient beings can claim a perfect understanding of it. That sense of searching to understand what God means to say (rather than claiming to know, finally and perfectly) is baked into Jewish tradition to an extent. It helps to minimize, though not entirely eliminate, the number of Jewish people who claim (1) that there is a simple, “literal” understanding to be had, and (2) that they have this understanding.

  24. #24 Phobos
    May 30, 2007

    Ask a literalist if they’ve read the bible, and they’ll almost certainly say “yes”. Then ask them if they remember reading some randomly-chosen passages. They’ll probably still answer “yes”, but I expect one would see some hesitation or tentativeness in those answers.

    I have a hunch that a “yes” answer usually just means “yes, I’ve heard many Bible stories and listened to a wide variety of cherry-picked quotes from preachers”. Like carey said, actually reading books like Exodus and Leviticus straight through is a very different experience than a Sunday sermon.

  25. #25 Prometheus
    May 30, 2007

    Rather than reading Exodus and Leviticus, just point your favorite believer in biblical inerrancy to Genesis – it’s the first book, for the literalists who can’t remember that.

    In the very first chapters, Genesis has two startlingly difference creation stories – one where Adam and Eve pop up together and one where Eve gets made from Adam’s rib.

    I’d like to see how the average biblical literalist would reconcile those two stories (actually, the whole Lilith confabulation is an older attempt to do just that, but you don’t have to tell them about it).

    The good news is that – according to the poll – 19% of the population “gets it”. That’s higher than I would have guessed.

    Prometheus

  26. #26 Prometheus
    May 30, 2007

    Rather than reading Exodus and Leviticus, just point your favorite believer in biblical inerrancy to Genesis – it’s the first book, for the literalists who can’t remember that.

    In the very first chapters, Genesis has two startlingly difference creation stories – one where Adam and Eve pop up together and one where Eve gets made from Adam’s rib.

    I’d like to see how the average biblical literalist would reconcile those two stories (actually, the whole Lilith confabulation is an older attempt to do just that, but you don’t have to tell them about it).

    The good news is that – according to the poll – 19% of the population “gets it”. That’s higher than I would have guessed.

    Prometheus

  27. #27 Jurjen S.
    May 31, 2007

    TheBrummell wrote:

    Ask a literalist if they’ve read the bible, and they’ll almost certainly say “yes”. Then ask them if they remember reading some randomly-chosen passages. They’ll probably still answer “yes”, but I expect one would see some hesitation or tentativeness in those answers.

    Of course, to really spice things up you could toss in a few fabricated passages written to sound like the KJV, and see if they spot the fakes.

  28. #28 sophia8
    May 31, 2007

    bif is an example of a Pagan literalist – one who believes that lovely 1973 song “The Burning Times” is literally true and that 9 million women were burned to death for beign witches.
    I’m a pagan and I got so irritated by this attitude that I did some research and wrote an article debunking it. The facts are that somewhere around 50,000 were executed in Europe under witchcraft and heresy laws, over three centuries; that about a quarter of those executed were men; that many were heretics (such as Cathars), homosexuals, recusant Jews (in Spain) and political and social radicals (such as the Lollards).
    And the Bible doesn’t say to burn witches; in Britain, witches were hanged (and sometimes burned after they were dead).

    Justin: the Simon and Garfunkel song is actually about an old person being taken into a home and has no mention of what the middle-aged housewife in the film gets up to; even though it was written for the film, the title is actually the only connection to it. The “Jesus loves you” and similar lines are comments from other residents that she is greeted with. It’s a fine, mournful elegy on the tragedies of growing old.

  29. #29 Daryl McCullough
    June 1, 2007

    A rule of thumb for public opinion polls is that no matter what the yes/no question is, there will always be 1/3 of the public that will answer yes. For example: Is George W. Bush doing a good job?

  30. #30 Pierce R. Butler
    June 1, 2007

    sophia8: The facts are that somewhere around 50,000 were executed in Europe under witchcraft and heresy laws, over three centuries…

    The real fact is that the documentary record is neither complete nor reliable, and historians disagree on the numbers. Most of those I’ve read would find your estimate much too low:

    Take Robin Briggs, Witches & Neighbors: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft: … the most reasonable modern estimates suggest perhaps 100,000 trials between 1450 and 1750, with something between 40,000 and 50,000 executions, of which 20 to 25 per cent were of men. (pg. 8)

    Or Olwen Hutton, The Prospect Before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe, 1500-1800: Between 1560 and 1660 it is estimated that about 100,000 witches were condemned , of whom about 30,000 were from Germany, with a particular emphasis on small states with a troubled religious record. (pg. 343)

    How about Philip Ball, The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science: At the height of the witch hunts, between 1580 and 1650, there were around one to two hundred thousand prosecutions brought in Europe. (pg 310)

    Anne Llewellyn Barstow’s Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts notes: Working on the statistics of witchcraft is like working with quicksand. … Claiming two hundred thousand accusations (a conservative estimate, I believe) and using a death rate of 50 percent of those arraigned, one reaches a figure of one hundred thousand dead – exactly what Voltaire estimated. (pp. 21-23)

  31. #31 Ruby
    December 27, 2007

    I get the feeling that people who have read the entire bible would actually believe in it less than people who haven’t read it. But I can’t prove that.

  32. #32 sohbetyap
    December 27, 2007

    sohbetyap sohbet

  33. #33 haber
    December 27, 2007

    haber news Of course, to really spice things up you could toss in a few fabricated passages written to sound like the KJV, and see if they spot the fakes.

  34. #34 sohbet
    December 27, 2007

    tatil, arkdas, Ask a literalist if they’ve read the bible, and they’ll almost certainly say “yes”. Then ask them if they remember reading some randomly-chosen passages. They’ll probably still answer “yes”, but I expect one would see some hesitation or tentativeness in those answers.

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