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Values to Build a Life On – Part II

Dedication to Religious Traditions Updated with Democratic Values

Few Millennials or Centennials read books. Freshmen in my history classes prefer online assignments with video clips, diagrams, cartoons, and very short narratives. They like online textbooks with chapters that are short with links to interesting visuals. They read books only when they must. The Bible is something that hardly ever interests them at all. Having grown up a Protestant in the Old South’s Bible Belt, it’s hard to believe how knowledge of the Bible and Judeo-Christian history have declined since the mid-20th century.

The first semester of world history covers the origin of major religions of the modern world and their scriptures. My diverse student population includes new arrivals from Africa and many whose parents came from an increasing variety of Asian, Central American, South American, and Caribbean nations. It is often easy to identify students who are Muslim, but not Hindus or many variations within Christianity. Those from Central America, South America, or Caribbean nations are usually Roman Catholic. I must be careful not to imply deep knowledge of scriptures of non-Christian religions or show knowledge of the Bible in a way that tends to privilege it over other traditions. Nevertheless, students often recognize a different approach to the Bible in my comments and ask to hear more about my approach as a historian and Christian.

The wisdom of many religions is found in ancient scriptures. Muslims are clearly dedicated to the Quran. When asked to interpret or explain, they usually quote with the expectation the holy words stand alone. I have yet to hear students quote or refer to sacred writings of other Asian traditions. Except for Muslims and Jews, young Americans of non-Christian religions have shown little awareness of sacred writings of their traditions.

I have been astonished to see the extent to which students born in America and raised in apparently Christian traditions know very little about the Bible. The fact that 21st century Americans must be sold on reading the Bible is shocking. This is especially true because of the variety of Protestant groups that still make the Bible an essential guide for their beliefs. Furthermore, this surprising reality may have existed long before the start of Gallup’s polling on religion. My impression of the extent of biblical knowledge when I was growing up in the mid-20th century may not be correct.

We know that Luther’s theses in 1517 struck a hole in the dam of the medieval church bursting forth multiple streams of religious reform, thanks in part to the printing press spreading Bibles in vernacular languages. Protestant groups since then have claimed the Bible as central to the Christian life. Nevertheless, we don’t have polling evidence before the 20th century to verify widespread reading or knowledge of the Bible.

David Gibson described polling by Gallup and others in the article “We Revere the Bible .., We Don’t Read It,” published at the end of 2000. The title was taken from George Gallup’s conclusions from a poll in October 2000, which found that only 59% of Americans said they read the Bible occasionally. They were mostly “women, nonwhites, older people, Republicans, and political conservatives.” Gallup noted this percentage represented a decline from 73% that was documented in the 1980s.

How effectively Americans read the Bible was also called into question because half of Americans couldn’t name Genesis as the first book of the Bible, Jesus as the person who gave the Sermon on the Mount, or Easter as the holiday celebrating the Resurrection. Gibson went on to cite another poll: “A 1997 Barna Organization poll found that 12 percent of Christians think Noah’s wife was Joan of Arc. The poll also found that 80 percent of born-again Christians believe it is the Bible that says, ‘God helps them that help themselves.’ Actually, Ben Franklin said that.”

Assumptions that earlier times would produce better results may not be well founded. Problems existed in the 1950s when I was growing up in the Bible Belt.

As long ago as 1954, according to Robert Hinde in his thoughtful book Why Gods Persist, a Gallup poll in the United States of America found the following. Three-quarters of Catholics and Protestants could not name a single Old Testament prophet. More than two-thirds didn’t know who preached the Sermon on the Mount. A substantial number thought that Moses was one of Jesus’s twelve apostles. That, to repeat, was in the United States, which is dramatically more religious than other parts of the developed world.

If fewer Americans are reading the Bible and if even less know basic information from it, then why should they read and understand it?

A surprising answer is given by Richard Dawkins, the scientist known as a champion of the New Atheism. In his attack on all forms of religion, The God Delusion, Dawkins argues that religious education is a necessary part of Western culture. He preceded the above quotation about 1954 Gallup results by saying: “I must admit that even I am a little taken aback at the biblical ignorance commonly displayed by people educated in more recent decades than I was.”

Dawkins goes on to argue that the Bible is “a major source book for literary culture” because there are so many direct or indirect references to “biblical, or Bible-inspired, phrases and sentences that occur commonly in literary or conversational English.” Then he provides two full pages of words and phrases to illustrate the point. He ends the discussion by referring to a book that counted more than 1,300 biblical references in Shakespeare’s works and a Templeton Foundation publication in which teachers of English literature argue that biblical literacy is necessary for understanding their field.

Gallup’s questions have been at a more superficial level than Dawkins’s reasoning as to what the Bible is good for. In the October 2000 poll, 65% of those responding agreed that the Bible “answers all or most of the basic questions of life.” This overall figure was then broken into 72% with high school education or less and 46% with postgraduate degrees. Bible readers consider it a book of answers! In my opinion, the high percentage of people with postgraduate degrees who view the Bible at such an elementary level represents a dramatic failure of the quality of American education.

How is it that people who read the Bible, and those who don’t read it, consider it a book of answers to life’s questions? The problem lies in the perpetuation of attitudes reflecting the authoritarian societies which produced the Bible. Modern adoption of democratic governments transformed normal ideas of acceptable treatment of authority figures, yet everyday political behavior hasn’t transformed common attitudes toward the Bible.

Nearly all cultures prior to the Industrial Revolution were authoritarian – ruled by kings or emperors whose legitimacy was usually based on right of birth as a form of divine selection for authority. Anyone who claims that Jesus’s authority depends on descent through the royal line of David is appealing to this ancient standard. Kings and priests, who were anointed to show God’s approval, gave commands that had to be obeyed.

Obedience to commands is at the heart of the Torah. Its origin was a command to leave Egypt for Canaan. During the journey Israel received Ten Commandments which were elaborated into what are considered 613 commandments in Torah. Efforts to summarize the Torah led to formulation of the Golden Rule by Rabbi Hillel and a reduction into commandments to love God and neighbor which Jesus affirmed.

The Christian belief that the Bible is the inspired “Word of God” conveys an emphasis on its authority, a divine guide to be followed without question. As historical study of the Bible emerged from Protestant dedication to scholarship that began with the Reformation, some evangelical churches began to object to questioning biblical content in light of scientific and critical discoveries. The demand for literal interpretation became a modern effort to extend authoritarian use of scripture by denying the validity of scientific evidence for evolutionary discoveries of physics and biology. Many evangelical Christians believe they must accept a state of cognitive dissonance by enthusiastically using technological products of science while denying that old religious commands should be questioned or adapted to modern conditions because of science.

We live in an industrial-capitalist age in which constitutional democracies became prevalent after World War I. Authoritarian governments had subjects, some of whom were privileged as religious or military nobility, but constitutional democracies have citizens with rights. Citizens vote for political officials and hold them accountable as opposed to traditional expectations of submission. Laws require obedience, but there must be due process through which validity of laws and their methods of application can be challenged.

Reading scripture democratically means engaging it in conversation rather than expecting mindless obedience. Posting copies of the Ten Commandments in court houses sends a message of thoughtless obedience counter to the due process that is expected of American justice. Courts interpret and enforce laws after hearing challenges from plaintiffs, defendants, and other parties who have an interest in the outcome. Courtroom arguments do not undermine respect for the law. Neither do demonstrations outside the court that express public objection to various laws.

Traditional attitudes toward the Bible are out of step with normal democratic behavior. Christians are citizens under God’s Ultimate Rule, not subjects of a kingdom. What’s wrong with speaking up against old religious or moral rules? In my book Talking Back to the Bible, I argue that interactive conversations with the Bible show respect and seek to understand ancient wisdom in ways that are valid for our time. Bishop Spong has gone to the extent of exposing The Sins of Scripture, intending to overcome authoritarian, patriarchal, and homophobic commandments. I hesitate to use language that judges past cultures by our present values, yet I concur that it is past time to free ourselves from bondage to authoritarian compliance to scripture.

It seems to me that Islam and Christianity share the problem of converting authoritarian use of scripture to constitutional and democratic modes of thought. I suspect the same may be true of Hinduism and other Asian religions. My purpose is not to speak for traditions other than the Judeo-Christian stream to which I belong, but I suspect that Americans of non-Christian traditions will also have to find their way to accommodate authoritarian practices to the constitutional-democratic way of life.

Nevertheless, I have concluded, based on my life journey, that a value to build a life on includes embracing the wisdom of a religious tradition. In my case, it is the Progressive and Protestant branches of the giant tree of Judeo-Christianity. The challenge to longevity of my tree, as with trees of other ancient traditions, is adjusting old authoritarian roots and base to modern concepts of citizenship and human rights. This is something worth doing to have a life that is meaningful and improves the world for those who come after us.

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006), 341-344.

George Gallup, Jr., The 2000 Gallup Poll: Public Opinion, Gallup Polls Annual (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, June 2001), 349-350.

David Gibson, “We Revere the Bible … We Don’t Read It,” Washington Post, December 9, 2000,

John Shelby Spong, The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love (New York: HarperOne, 2006).

About the Author
Dr. Edward G. Simmons was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1943. A graduate of Mercer University, he earned both an M.A. and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. He is retired as an expert in the field of organizational management through thirty-four years of service for the Georgia Department of Human Resources. He returned to his original career by teaching history part-time at Georgia Gwinnett College and Brenau University. An energetic speaker and presenter of sermons and educational programs, he is the author of Talking Back to the Bible: A Historian’s Approach to Bible Study.

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