Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Literal Word of God?

Huffington Post has an article up today reporting the results of an ongoing Gallup poll of American's beliefs regarding the Bible. The poll has been taken since the 1970's, and found that belief in the Bible as the "literal word of God" is at its lowest point since that time.

Twenty-six percent of Americans view the Bible as “a book of fables, legends, history and moral precepts recorded by man.” And Gallup found that roughly half of American adults say the Bible is “the inspired word of God” but that it shouldn’t be taken literally.

Gallup polled a random sample of 1,011 adults, aged 18 and older and living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, between May 3-7, 2017.

The survey revealed that the number of Americans who view the Bible as the literal word of God has dropped from 38 percent in 1976 to 24 percent today. The percentage that defines the Bible as a book of fables and stories has doubled since then.

This has coincided with a larger shift in the American religious landscape in recent decades. Belief in God has wavered, and the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian has dropped from over 90 percent to roughly 70 percent. More and more Americans are religiously unaffiliated, meaning they do not identify with any formal religious group.

In fact, the idea that the Bible is the "literal word of God" is kind of ridiculous. The Bible contradicts itself in many places, and it only takes one counterexample to disprove such an absolute statement. The idea that the Bible is a holy book inspired by God, but which should not necessarily be taken literally, is a far more robust belief. As you can see above, the percentage of Americans who view the Bible that way has barely budged.

What I find most interesting is that as the literalist position declines, the increase shows up in the "book of fables" percentage. Some of this likely has to do with an increase in members of minority religions who don't follow the Bible, at least on the surface it seems that what's going on is not "literal" changing over to "inspired," but "literal" transitioning to "fable." Maybe if you're raised as a literalist, once you discover contradictions in the text you can't unsee them.

Still, it seems a little surprising to me that instead of transitioning to more liberal forms of Christianity, literalists might instead reject the Bible altogether as a holy text. To be clear, without a breakout of Christians versus members of other religions, you can't necessarily draw that conclusion from the poll. That's just what it looks like from a surface reading of the results.

Another possibility is that "literals" are transitioning to "inspireds" at the same rate that "inspireds" are abandoning Christianity for other religions and therefore placing the Bible in the "fable" camp. Or there could be some even more complex set of dynamics at work. It's good to see the literalists on the decline for whatever reason, even though 24% still translates to a lot of people who would be fine with killing me just for being a non-Christian - or, I suppose, are hypocrites about the whole thing.

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Magenta Griffith said...

It's not really fair to imply that everyone who thinks the bible is "the literal word of God" is in favor of killing non-Christians, just for being non-Christians. I have (or at least had) relatives in the "literal word of God" camp, and most of them were nice people, not generally in favor of killing anybody.

(using Magenta's acct.)

Scott Stenwick said...

I suppose so. Is it better with the postscript there? The Bible does literally say that unbelievers should be killed, after all.

That's just another example of what I mean when I say literalism is a ridiculous position. Your nice relatives may have said that they believe the Bible is literally true, but basically that has to either apply to the whole thing or all bets are off. And there's some pretty not-nice stuff in there.

Charles R said...

Isn't it part of the problem that to talk of "the Bible" as a unified entity is misleading? After all, even Martin Luther, who was no liberal, said that the Epistle of St James was a "right strawy " epistle, since it seems to endorse a salvation by works rather than the Pauline doctrine of salvation through faith.Certainly the earlier parts of the Old Testament can be pretty bloody and downright unpleasant, but passages in the New Testament, even if it is not always in accordance with our liberal democratic views ( slavery, or homophobia anyone?), nevertheless, in many ways show a marked improvement on the earlier views.

Scott Stenwick said...

Yes, that is true. The idea of treating the whole Bible as totally, literally true is actually a pretty modern idea. It only dates back to around the early 1800's, so it's quite far removed from the original Christian religion. For the most part, it was a reaction to the rise of empiricism and the scientific method during the 1700's. Much like "Biblical archaeology," the idea was that religion could only compete with science if it was equally "true" in an empirical sense.

And that's just silly. Obviously, some parts of the Bible are more inspired than others, and I'm pretty sure that some are intended to be taken more literally than others. Religion and science don't even try to answer the same kinds of questions. "Meaning" and "physical reality" are quite distinct, even when in fuzzier areas like cognition and consciousness. But when the Ken Hams of the world talk about how if evolution is real, it disproves God, they're making a big mistake. So are atheists who make the same assumption but take the side of evolution.

Basically, my point is that the for the most part the "inspired" position is right and the "literal" position is wrong. I can't necessarily prove it with mathematical certainty, but there definitely is a preponderance of evidence on my side.