Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Bible Faith and Bible Understanding

This fall, I administered a questionnaire (as per guidelines of our Institutional Research Board) to my classes. I have tabulated the results from my evolution class. I work at a small regional university in the jewel at the middle of the buckle of the Bible belt. This year, I kept two groups of questionnaires separate: those who accept the Bible as a, or the, holy book, and those who do not.

You probably expect that the class had a lot of creationists. But, when you think about it, you realize that this is unlikely to be the case, since the class is an elective and creationists tend to stay away from it. Even within this class, I have noticed that one student who expressed a distaste for the subject (maybe he thought it would be an easy A) signs his name on the attendance sheet and leaves (and seems to think I don’t notice). Not only does this suggest that he does not want to deal with the evidence, but he is being dishonest by taking credit for attending a class when he was not there after the first minute. On the other hand, I have had some very smart and honest creationists in the class over the years. Still, one should not be surprised at the makeup of the class. Of those who accept the Bible as holy, about 75 percent are theistic evolutionists (who believe God created the world through the process of evolution). Only one respondent identified him or herself as a young-earth creationist. Of the non-believers, three of five said evolution was responsible for the world being the way it is. My class is hardly polarized at the extremes; most people are somewhere in the middle.

First, those who consider the Bible to be a, or the, holy text. Eighty-two percent said that they know a lot about the Bible, and 45 percent said they had read the entire Bible at least once. Sounds like these people should know their religion, at least. However, they did not do so well on the general questions about Biblical knowledge. These questions included:

  • Who David was, or who Abram was
  • How many tribes of Israel there were, or how many plagues of Egypt there were
  • About how many books are in the Bible
  • That the prophets of the Old Testament called for the rich to stop oppressing the poor
  • That the Old Testament prohibits eating shellfish

I also included, in the general Bible questions, a couple that should have been very easy to answer: about whether the Catholic and Protestant Bibles have the same books, and whether the Bible was originally written in English. This last questions sounds really strange, and in fact all respondents knew the Bible was not originally written in English, but there is a church right outside of town that considers the King James Bible to be the inspired Bible—not the earlier versions.

I also asked some specific questions that are very interesting and relevant to modern issues.

  • The Old Testament commands agricultural land be left fallow every seven years, a practice known as the “Sabbath of the fields.” That is, the Old Testament commands sustainable agriculture.
  • The Old Testament commands that all debts be forgiven and all land returned to its original owners every fifty years (a practice known as Jubilee). If this command were really carried out, it would mean the collapse of the capitalist system. Can you imagine Bank of America doing this? Not only will they not forgive debts, but they make sneaky policy changes to trick customers into having even more debt. Thanks, Moses.
  • The Old Testament permitted slavery and it actually says, regarding the slave-owner, “The slave is his money.” Guess what: the Confederates (who still fly their flags proudly in Oklahoma) believed that black slaves were not people, but property. Thanks, Abraham Lincoln.
  • Most religious people consider abortion to be murder. Inconveniently, the Old Testament says that if a man injures a woman such that it causes a miscarriage, this is not treated as a murder but as what we would call a misdemeanor, requiring monetary restitution.
  • The Old Testament specifies certain rights that foreigners residing within Israel have; it does not prohibit foreigners from living in Israel.

Second, the students who do not consider the Bible to be a holy text. Two-thirds of them said they know a lot about the Bible. And 38 percent of them said they had read the Bible at least once. Some of these, at least, were raised in a religious tradition and then left it.

This chart summarizes the differences between the Bible-believers and the non-believers, first in terms of general knowledge then knowledge of the specific questions.

Percent correct responses

General knowledge: mean
General knowledge: range
Sabbath of the fields
OT permits slavery
Killing a fetus is not murder
OT does not prohibit aliens

These results indicate that (if these students represent the general population) the non-believers know just as much about the Bible as the believers do. In fact, when it comes to Bible passages that are relevant to modern issues such as agriculture, economics, slavery, abortion, and refugees, the non-believers know more about the Bible than the believers do, sometimes by a wide margin.

The tentative conclusions I draw are the following:

  • Believers believe the Bible but are no more likely to know what it says than non-believers, in terms of general Biblical knowledge that is not directly relevant to modern issues.
  • Believers know less than non-believers about those parts of the Bible that address modern issues. This may be because their preachers actually feed them misinformation, proclaiming that the Bible champions capitalism and prohibits aliens from living in God’s land (which many of them consider to be the United States). That is, I suspect that preachers have actively led their followers to believe more wrong things about the Bible than do non-believers. Conversely, non-believers are more likely to know things about the Bible that are embarrassing to modern believers.

My main recommendation, from these responses, is this. If you base your political and scientific opinions upon the Bible, you should read it first.

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