Can the Bible Make People more Liberal?

July 25, 2011

A recent blog at the Huffington Post by David Briggs titled "Frequent Bible Reading Tied to Social Justice, Openness to Science" is inspiring some controversy.

Briggs describes how Aaron Franzen, a Baylor graduate student in sociology, recently mined the data from the 2007 Baylor Religion Survey and found a positive correlation between more Bible reading and more liberal views on social and moral issues.  Franzen's work has probably been submitted for publication, but in the meantime, Briggs has seen the work and offers his take on its significance. 

Part of the controversy surrounds the natural question of why greater familiarity with the Bible could cause a tendency towards liberality.  Briggs has little to say to answer this question.  It’s a hard problem, after all.  There's plenty of material in the Bible for supporting just about any view, from genocide and slavery to feeding the poor and loving thy neighbor.  And many Christians have relied on the Bible over many centuries to be as conservative as possible.  What is going on today, then?   

Briggs writes in his blog, 

"In many cases, Franzen found frequency of Bible reading was one of the most powerful predictors of attitudes on moral and political issues. Consider some of the findings:

The likelihood of Christians saying it is important to actively seek social and economic justice to be a good person increased 39 percent with each jump up the ladder of the frequency of reading Scripture, from reading the Bible less than once a year to no more than once a month to about weekly to several times a week or more.

Christian respondents overall were 27 percent more likely to say it is important to consume or use fewer goods to be a good person as they became more frequent Bible readers.

Reading the Bible more often also was linked to improved attitudes toward science. Respondents were 22 percent less likely to view religion and science as incompatible at each step toward more frequent Bible reading.

The issues seemed to matter more than conservative-liberal tags. In the case of another major public policy debate, same-sex unions, nearly half of respondents who read the Bible less than once a year said homosexuals should be allowed to marry, while only 6 percent of people who read the Bible several times a week or more approved of such marriages.

Among other issues, more frequent Bible readers also were more likely to oppose legalized abortion, the death penalty, harsher punishment of criminals and expanding the federal government's authority to fight terrorism."

Could the Bible be causing liberalism?  Are atheists just factually wrong if they suppose that the Bible is a major cause of conservative thinking?  There are some clues to help answer these questions. 

Briggs does add that, "In the Baylor Religion Survey, less than a quarter of respondents said they read Scripture weekly or more." So we are talking about a minority of Christians here.  Evidently churches do not promote Bible reading that much.  And the issue of which Bible to read is always a big headache for Christians.  There is no such single uniform thing as "The Bible", and translations of the Bible are a huge conflict point (see how conservatives want their own prejudicial translation of the Bible).  

People who read the Bible frequently don't sound like people just doing whatever they are told to do by their churches.  Churches are apparently not primary encouragers of Bible reading -- not surprisingly, one hears in a typical church just whatever the priest or minister has to say, perhaps backed up by Bible passages selected only by the leader in the pulpit, not the laypeople in the pews.  No, people reading the Bible frequently for themselves are apparently people trying to think for themselves, which already makes them interestingly different from just any church-goer.  Churches are more frequently the inhibitors of actual thinking.  

What sort of Christians would heavy Bible-readers be like?  Research shows how conservative religiosity is linked to psychological inflexibility, inability to deal with change, and dogmatic thinking.  If heavy Bible readers are generally somewhat more intellectually curious and independent-minded, then there would be a small positive correlation between more Bible reading and more liberality.  Bible readers are actually thinking for themselves in the first place.  And people already disposed towards more liberal views could find passages in the Bible to support their moral and social stances.  Christians fighting against slavery and oppression and fighting for human dignity and equal rights, for example, have long been able to obtain plenty of help from the Bible.  The Bible is an inexhaustible resource for justifications of practically anything that people have wanted to do to each other, both good and evil. (That's why the Bible itself cannot be trusted as an ethical authority.)  Good people will use the Bible to do good deeds; evil people will use the Bible to do evil things. 

Are atheists wrong to blame the Bible for unjustifiably conservative and hateful thinking?  No, of course not -- the Bible has long been the foundation to some truly evil religiosity.  So have churches, by and large, over the long history of Christianity.  We should look to see whether heavy church-going is still correlated with more conservative thinking (a reasonable bet).  The deeper problem lies with any institution, like institutionalized religion, that diminishes the capacity of people to think for themselves.  

Yes, atheists are right to blame the Bible and many Churches for ethical failures and anti-intellectualism.  Our message to Bible-reading Christians is this: Your ability to favor liberality and progressivism lies not in your Bible, but in yourselves.  Shrug off reliance on scripture, trust your own mind, and join humanists for a better tomorrow. 



#1 jerrys on Monday July 25, 2011 at 11:18pm

“Part of the controversy surrounds the natural question of why greater familiarity with the Bible could cause a tendency towards liberality.  Briggs has little to say to answer this question.  It’s a hard problem, after all.  There’s plenty of material in the Bible for supporting just about any view, from genocide and slavery to feeding the poor and loving thy neighbor. “

What is described is a correlation.  The causation might go in the opposite direction or there might be a third factor that leads to both more reading of the bible and more liberal views. 

One plausible hypothesis (at least to me)  is that these people have more education than others in the sample and that causes both more reading and more liberality.


#2 Jennifer W (Guest) on Tuesday July 26, 2011 at 5:18pm

I would like to see follow up on the denomination of the respondents. My sense is that churches that encourage their members to read the Bible are also those that have a more liberal and less dogmatic view and see religion as an instrument of social justice. In my anecdotal experience, the more fundamentalist a person is, the less of the Bible they actually know.

#3 gray1 on Tuesday July 26, 2011 at 8:57pm

Oh, this ties in nicely with the “literal believers” who seemingly have little reading and comprehension skills.  Maybe it is simply my own biases which lead to such a conclusion.  Those who don’t bother to even read their very own “word of God” very much probably do not enjoy taxing themselves in such a manner but are more comfortable relying upon long held doctrine and dogma even when (or perhaps because) such doctrine often flies in the face of what is actually found within scripture.

Not to mention any names, but certain early Christian leaderships forbade or discouraged laypersons from attempting to understand the bible by actually reading from it.  That’s a job for professionals!

#4 Pau (Guest) on Wednesday July 27, 2011 at 3:37am

I believe that reading the bible and taking literally is more a result than a causeMost people that read the bible regularly
, already have a predisposition to look for ready made and find in it a confirmation of their needs. It is early infancy when we form attitudes for the absolute dogma or the relativity of our truth.
A need for the absolute is a prerequisite for reading the bible
,created such a long time ago and choosing which of the many versions to adopt.
Of course these excludes those who read the bible as an interesting phase of civilization.

#5 Tradition Of Progress on Thursday July 28, 2011 at 8:31pm

I was already liberal before I read the Bible.  When I was a liberal Christian, I was always finding passages to support liberal ideas.  After reading the whole thing several times, I had acquired a list of questions, such as: “Why do two of the 4 canonical gospels have conflicting genealogies for Jesus?” and “Why doesn’t Paul mention any virgin birth or Divine parenthood in his Epistles?”.  I found the answers, and these as well as other observations of absurdity in the Bible certainly helped me let go of Christianity and become an atheist.  I am pretty sure that comedian/actres Julia Sweeney and I are not the only two people whose study of the Bible led to atheism.  If I recall correctly, it was Col. Robert Green Ingersoll who said: “If you want to believe in the Bible, do not read it!”

#6 Charles F. (Guest) on Friday July 29, 2011 at 11:10am

“Are atheists just factually wrong if they suppose that the Bible is a major cause of conservative thinking?”

This whole article is an exercise in hand-waving, trying to cling desperately to this conclusion in the face of contrary evidence.  Seems like not all fundamentalists come sporting Bibles.

Let’s look at a rather visible conservative point: being gay is bad because it says so in the Bible.  Here’s a liberal point: a moral society takes care of the oppressed, the weak, the sick and the poor.

Let’s say you are handed a Bible and asked to support one or the other of these views.  You are to do so without the aid of any automated searches or guides to the Bible—or any pre-knowledge.  Let’s say it’s a book you’ve never encountered.

In order to support the conservative position, you would have to find one or more of 4-6 verses that appear to denounce homosexuality.  Supporting the liberal position would be easier as the Bible contains THOUSANDS of passages urging believers to take care of the needy, oppressed and weak.  Prophets go on at length, psalms put these ideas into verse, and the Gospels repeat it enough that you know it’s going to be on the final.

I am dumbfounded that this essay manages to make it from start to finish without bothering to examine what’s actually in the book.

Not that that would do any good.  In order to understand the contents, you also have to understand the culture that produced the documents.  For example, “Tradition of Progress” asks, “Why do two of the 4 canonical gospels have conflicting genealogies for Jesus?”

There are several reasons for this, but what’s really important to understand is that no attempt was made to reconcile these accounts because the factual differences weren’t considered important.  Nowadays, we care about this kind of stuff, but back then quibbling about discrepancies would be see as “missing the point.” 

That’s also true today.  We know, for several reasons, that the nativity story is fiction, and it’s quite possible that early Christians also knew it wasn’t factual.  The important things were not what happened, but what they said about Jesus.  Was He born in a manger?  Who knows, but it’s important to know that he was born in humble circumstances.  Did kings visit Him?  Almost certainly not—people who have remembered THAT and He would have grown up a celebrity.  What’s important about that aspect is the highlighting of certain Babylonian astrological signs that reinforce Jesus’ divine nature.

Reading the story through modern eyes, we miss a lot of the meaning behind the imagery and are left assuming that we’re supposed to be reading a factual retelling of events.

So, did it ever occur to anyone at the Center for *INQUIRY* to ask a religious anthropologist about this?  I used to have the same questions and you know what I did?  R-E-S-E-A-R-C-H.

#7 Tradition Of Progress on Friday July 29, 2011 at 7:37pm

I won’t dispute Charles F’s criticism directed at the original post.  If the post had been an actual article in Free Inquiry, it might have included more depth and discussed the proportion of “liberal” passages to “conservative” ones.  If there were not more passages suggesting “liberal” views, then the conservatives in the United States would not be trying to have the Bible retranslated or rewritten to reduce the amount of “liberal bias” in the Bible.  The post does provide a link to one web page on this subject:  There is actually some public objection to this project:
Now, to defend my comments:  I have done my “R-E-S-E-A-R-C-H” and I know the answers to those two questions that I mentioned, which is why the next sentence I wrote began with the words: “I found the answers,…”.  It was not what I was questioning, that lead me to atheism, but it was the answers I found.  First of all, in the first question, the fact that the genealogies of Jesus are conflicting is not the point.  It is the fact that two of the gospels actually include a bloodline from David to Joseph, which makes one wonder why that is even included at all if Jesus is not the son of Joseph but is the son of God.  I steer the reader in that direction with the next question about the absence of divine parenthood and virgin birth in Paul’s epistles.  For those who do not know the answers, it is that when Paul wrote the epistles, the virgin birth and divine parenthood were not yet part of Christianity.  Christianity started out as a messianic sect of Judaism, and in the early years, Jesus was not completely and literally deified.  That half-god business was not and is not part of the Jewish idea of the Messiah.  The story of the resurrected virgin-born human-deity hybrid was appropriated from Egyptian mythology.  That is the answer that leads one to atheism, or if you don’t want to go that far, to Unitarianism.  Actually to be fair, and include some more fact, there are even members of the Episcopal Clergy who acknowledge this.  That is likely where Charles F is coming from.
I had previously ignored question: “Are atheists just factually wrong if they suppose that the Bible is a major cause of conservative thinking?”.  It is a good thing that the conditional “if” is included.  Many atheists do not claim that the Bible itself is the major cause of conservative thinking at all.  What atheists do point out is that it is Religion that is the cause.  Many people who call themselves Christian actually have never read the whole Bible, but instead simply say “Amen” to what is preached.  In the Roman Catholic faith, they have a supreme member of their political hierarchy who has the responsibility of providing interpretations of the scripture that the faithful are not supposed to dispute.  I believe the title for that is “Pope”.  This has been this way for centuries.  So one needs to be careful with this statement: ”. . . and many Christians have relied on the Bible over many centuries to be as conservative as possible”.  Have they done so, or have the relied on a supreme member of their group to provide the choice passages to reinforce their conservative beliefs?
While we can admit that the Bible does have plenty of passages commanding believers to take care of the needy, oppressed and weak, this call for social justice is not unique to Abrahamic religions.  Should one take care of the needy, oppressed and weak in order to avoid damnation, or should one do so because he wants to live in a community whose members are compassionate?  There are ways to arrive at “liberal” values without religion.  The Bible starts out with a creation myth and ends with that apocalyptic nonsense (which seem to be the most read parts), and these are things we can do without.

#8 Simon (Guest) on Monday August 08, 2011 at 12:51pm

If that is “liberal” I’d hate to meet what he calls a conservative.

#9 Toff on Thursday August 25, 2011 at 2:47am

Interesting, but aren’t there some conservative Christians who do regularly, thoroughly read the Bible?

For them, and for the liberal Christians, I wonder how one could study *how* they’re reading the Bible.

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