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.