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.