Avalos on Biblical Relevance

A few days ago, I was having lunch with a few people from the skeptical and scientific blogging world — Rebecca, Joshua and Jared were there, along with a few others — and I mentioned that I’d twice had nightmares about science blogging. “Bad Astronomy had been taken over by lawyers. There were libel suits everywhere, and all the comment threads were full of trolls. . . . I woke up sweating. . . then I realized what I had been dreaming about and I really panicked.

Normally, when the infighting and the boundless despair about American society which keep cropping up in science blogging start to get to me, I just write something abstrusely technical and take refuge in my own, private ivory tower. However, this week my technical-writing circuits will be occupied by a paper I need to finish for a book of conference proceedings. With all this to contend with, I’ll be taking off for a few days. If I make good progress on other stuff, I should be able to return in time to have an entry in the blogswarm about the Expelled movie.

(My plan, if anybody would like to beat me to the punch, is to summarize what happened to Steve Bitterman, Alex Bolyanatz, Richard Colling, Chris Comer, John Jones, Paul Mirecki, Nancey Murphy, Gwen Pearson and Eric Pianka when they stood for truth against mysticism. All this information is public, but so little of it gets collected and summarized in a convenient place.)

Anyway, it goes against my nature to vanish without leaving some food for thought, so here is a video of Hector Avalos speaking to the Minnesota Atheists last October. The talk, “How Archaeology Killed Biblical History,” summarizes chapter 3 of his recent book, The End of Biblical Studies (2007). I personally found this chapter the toughest material in the book, so an informal exposition which identifies the high points was rather valuable.

Part 2, containing the question-and-answer session, is also available:

A more detailed accounting of the Biblical literacy statistics which Avalos mentions at the conclusion of his talk can be found starting on page 18 of TEoBS. To summarize, Gallup polls in the 1990s found that “eight in ten Americans say they are Christians, but only four in ten know that Jesus, according to the Bible, delivered the Sermon on the Mount.” A 2005 poll by the same organization showed that “[f]ewer than half of Americans” can name Genesis as the first book of the Bible (an omission they could rectify by reading the Preacher comics, which have the advantage that the hero has a gun-toting girlfriend and a vampire sidekick). These figures are not just the product of a dumbing-down America: in 1954, Gallup could only find 34% of respondents who knew that Jesus is credited with the Sermon on the Mount. For that matter, in 1942, roughly 41% of Americans hadn’t even read from the Bible during the entire previous year.

If you feel like twisting the knife in the wound, you could turn to Ian Markham’s studies, of which Avalos writes,

In October 1990, some sixty-five first-year students in theology at Exeter University and King’s College in London replied to a questionnaire. In one of the questions, students were asked to place five biblical events in chronological order, the correct sequence being: flood, exodus, reign of king David, reign of King Solomon, and exile. Only 27 percent of these students could place all events in the correct sequence, and 20 percent failed altogether. In short, even those who are expected to have an interest in the Bible exhibited poor results.

Markham’s theology students are, thus, roughly comparable to Bob Altemeyer‘s respondents — ordinary college kids in Manitoba, and their parents — among which even the devout fundamentalists have read, on average, a third of the Bible’s books. (Altemeyer’s students also thought that Samson was written up in Acts — maybe because he was such a hard-core action hero?)

When interpreting such survey results, one must be wary of deceptive survey questions. For example, last December a religious policy group called Theos published a study which claimed that only 1 in 8 British adults know the details of the nativity story. However, as John Wilson notes, the questions were basically rigged: instead of testing knowledge about what the canonical books actually say — never mind issues of apocryphal books, translation problems and all that — they test knowledge of the homogenized, artificially harmonized combination of bits and pieces taken from different books which Theos wants to pass off as the “nativity story.” Distressingly, this deceptive result was uncritically cited by Polly Toynbee, Guardian columnist and British Humanist Association president, as evidence that English blokes are culturally illiterate, lacking the knowledge base necessary to understand art and history and so forth. This is a plausible and a distressing possibility, but we require better evidence than that. Name one king who based his divine right of kingship upon the claim that Jesus and John the Baptist were first cousins once removed. . . .

See you in a few days.

8 thoughts on “Avalos on Biblical Relevance”

  1. Hell, I could have told you that most American “Christians” don’t know their own theology. They’ll go off about “an eye for an eye” from the Old Testament and forget that

    You have heard how it was said: Eye for eye and tooth for tooth. But I say this to you: offer no resistance to the wicked. On the contrary, if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well[.]

    (Matthew 5:38-39, for those following along at home)

    They quote the Mosaic law (Leviticus is popular) over and over, forgetting about the time Paul said

    We who were born Jews and not gentile sinners have nevertheless learnt that someone is reckoned as upright not by practising the Law but by faith in Jesus Christ; and we too came to believe in Christ Jesus so as to be reckoned as upright by faith in Christ and not by practising the Law: since no human being can be found upright by keeping the Law.

    (Galatians 2:15-16)

    The conclusion I draw is that the people atheist weblogs should be calling out are these annoying fundamentalist types who don’t even know their own beliefs, and not the silent majority of believers who find a middle ground to believe in science and rationality for the physical world and their religion for the spiritual, and who don’t begrudge you your own (dis)belief — even in the very existence of a nonphysical world. The judgmental hypocrites are your real enemy, for like Paul said:

    [N]o matter who you are, if you pass judgement you have no excuse. It is yourself that you condemn when you judge others, since you behave in the same way as those you are condemning. We are well aware that people who behave like that are justly condemned by God. But you — when you judge those who behave like this while you are doing the same yourself — do you think you will escape God’s condemnation?

    Or are you not disregarding his abundant goodness, tolerance and patience, failing to realise that this generosity of God is meant to bring you to repentance? Your stubborn refusal to repent is only storing up retribution for yourself on that Day of retribution when God’s just verdicts will be made known.

    He will repay everyone as their deeds deserve. For those who aimed for glory and honour and immortality by persevering in doing good, there will be eternal life; but for those who out of jealousy have taken for their guide not truth but injustice, there will be the fury of retribution. Trouble and distress will come to every human being who does evil-Jews first, but Greeks as well; glory and honour and peace will come to everyone who does good-Jews first, but Greeks as well. There is no favouritism with God

    (Romans 2:1-11)

    I love using Scripture against those assholes :D

  2. The conclusion I draw is that the people atheist weblogs should be calling out are these annoying fundamentalist types who don’t even know their own beliefs, and not the silent majority of believers who find a middle ground to believe in science and rationality for the physical world and their religion for the spiritual

    I think the point is that the silent majority deserves to know about Avalos’ findings, not “har har, believers are stupid”.

    PS. Can someone explain the joke about Scandinavian Lutherans? Is it that as a former pentecostal, Avalos is a more vigorous presenter than they are used to?

  3. Thanks (I asked because most jokes about Lutherans don’t translate well between US and Europe, but this one does!)

    PS. About your prediction on Dawkins and Doctor Who (Cue the complaints that atheism is a cult of personality in 3. . . 2. . . .): even crazier than you expected.

  4. Does the book use the set of quotes that Avalos started off with? I ask because some of them sounded suspicious, as if the writer were setting out a problem to be addressed. Darwin’s famously abused quotation about the evolution of the eye is the canonical example. I would hate to think Avalos would resort to such a strategy, but I’d hate even worse to be taken in by it.

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