As many Americans think the Bible is a book of fables as that it is the literal word of God


America, that is, the United States of America, has long been a huge exception for the secularization model. Basically as a society develops and modernizes it becomes more secular. At least that’s the model.

In the 1980s Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge wrote The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation. Stark and Bainbridge’s work was predominantly empirical; they looked at survey data to present a model of the American religious landscape. But they also had a theoretical framework, whereby religion was modeled with a rational choice framework on the individual religion, and denominations and sects were viewed as “firms” providing “goods and services” to “customers.”

A whole field emerged over time which attempted to use the methods and models of economics to explain religious phenomena. Larry Witham’s Marketplace of the Gods: How Economics Explains Religion surveys the various scholars in this discipline. I’ve read the book, and what I will say is that like many imperial ventures, this one failed. The predictions of the “supply-side” model of religion haven’t panned out.

In 2004 Samuel Huntington wrote in Who Are We? that the United States likely had a more Christian future than the present. He was actually writing this as a massive wave of secularization was going on in the United States; the second since that of the 1960s had abated.

For a long time, people were in denial about this. After all the United States had been the great exception to the secularization trend in the developed world. Their priors were strong. And the market also provided what consumers wanted; books such as God is Back and Jesus in Beijing catered to the demand. Writing in the early 2000s the author of Jesus in Beijing suggested that 20 to 30 percent of China would be Christian two to three decades, so between 2023 and 2033 (from the publication of the book). Credible statistics in 2017 put the current number of Christians in China at 2 to 5 percent.

In 2009 I took John Tierney of The New York Times to task for dismissing the secularization hypothesis in a column. I emailed him my blog post, and he denied that it showed what it showed. Today I suspect he’d admit that I was more right than he was.

Today everyone is talking about the Pew survey which shows the marginalization of the Anglo-Protestant America which I grew up in. This marginalization is due to secularization broadly, and non-Hispanic whites in particular. You don’t need Pew to tell you this.

At the top of this post you see the response to the GSS query BIBLE, which asks respondents how they view the Bible in relation to whether it is God’s literal word, inspired word, or a book of fables. I limited the data to non-Hispanic whites. In 2016 as many people viewed the Bible as a book of fables as the word of God. In 2000 twice as many people viewed it as the word of God as a book of fables. That is a huge change.

Note: Robert Putnam’s American Grace is probably the best book which highlights the complex cultural forces which ushered in the second wave of secularization. The short answer is that the culture wars diminished Christianity in the eyes of liberals.

9 thoughts on “As many Americans think the Bible is a book of fables as that it is the literal word of God

  1. i read (listened to) American Grace a couple of weeks ago – liked the part where he talks about what percentage of conflicts are “caused” by religion. you’ve done a good job of priming us for that topic so not much in the book surprised me though, i’d say. there did seem to be an unending amount of data/poll references so some of it went in one ear and out the other…

  2. I’m not sure many people distinguish between “word of God” and “inspired word of God.”

    That said, it is evident that there has been a major shift in how practicing Christians interpret the Bible, and many beliefs that used to be held universally by both Protestants and Catholics have simply been dispensed with, especially on the Protestant side. The older ideas about homosexuality are the most obvious example.

    My own family is nominally Roman Catholic on both sides, but hardly any of them are active in the faith, or even accept everything the priests hold true, but they are not yet willing to give up the ties to the Church.

    I think the yellow bar, “The Bible is a Book of Fables,” represents the trends.

  3. the question asked is clear: 120a. Which of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about teh Bible? 1. The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word. 2. The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word. 3. The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men.

  4. My own family is nominally Roman Catholic on both sides

    2. The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word.

    The Catholic teaching is similar (though not identical) to this. The Bible is “A” source of the Church authority, the other two being the Traditions of the Church and the Magisterium, the teaching authority vested by Christ into the Church. The Church is very clear that the Bible IS God’s revelation, but that it ought to be interpreted through the wisdom of the other two elements of the Church authority and God’s revelations. Sola scriptura is a heresy that leads either to literalism or endless schisms and interpretations for personal satisfaction. This is yet another way in which Catholicism is a communal religion in contrast to Protestant heresies.

    accept everything the priests hold true

    I often hear from non-Catholics who are completely ignorant about Catholicism that “Catholics must obey everything the priest [or the Pope] says.” They don’t seem to understand that the Catholic Church is not the Mormon Church and that clericalism is in grave error.

    1. The Papal Infallibility only pertains to matters of morals and doctrine, and only when the Pope speaks ex cathedra. In other words, not everything a pope says is objectively true (e.g. he may be offering his personal opinion) or must be followed.

    2. Priests are sometimes wrong, either willfully or unintentionally. An old confessor of mine, a very orthodox priest, used to say with some frequency, “There must be many priests in hell – for those who ought to and do know better, but think and behave otherwise are surely judged more harshly.”

    3. At the end of the day, the Pope is not the Church. The clerical hierarchy is not the Church. Rome is not the Church. Buildings are not the Church. The whole body of the faithful is the Church. It is the Church that endures, come good Popes and priests or bad (or, worse, evil).

  5. The Bible is “A” source of the [Catholic] Church authority, the other two being the Traditions of the Church and the Magisterium, the teaching authority vested by Christ into the Church.

    3. At the end of the day, the Pope is not the Church. The clerical hierarchy is not the Church. Rome is not the Church. Buildings are not the Church. The whole body of the faithful is the Church.

    I cannot reconcile those two statements. At least without converting the Catholic Church into a loose Protestant one. If Christ vested “teaching authority” in “[t]he whole body of the faithful”, well, that’s not the Catholic Church I know.

  6. The Bible is “A” source of the [Catholic] Church authority, the other two being the Traditions of the Church and the Magisterium, the teaching authority vested by Christ into the Church.

    This is NOT a suggestion that the Catholic Church is a democracy (neither are families – more on that below). Popes and bishops wield apostolic authority and are heirs to the early Church fathers. FATHERS.

    3. At the end of the day, the Pope is not the Church. The clerical hierarchy is not the Church. Rome is not the Church. Buildings are not the Church. The whole body of the faithful is the Church.

    This is to say that the Church is literally the whole body of the faithful, rather than buildings (churches), the clerical hierarchy or the various popes.

    At least without converting the Catholic Church into a loose Protestant one.

    You’d have to explain what you mean. The Church is like a family. Popes and bishops are like fathers of families. They are important members and leaders of families (and learned carriers of Traditions and Magisterium), but do not, by themselves, constitute the whole families.

    well, that’s not the Catholic Church I know.

    The Church is… regardless of what you do or don’t know.

  7. No doubt I was being too literal. If “the Church” is “the WHOLE body of the faithful” and if “the Church” has teaching authority, then everyone in the body has teaching authority. Everyone gets to decide what the true teaching is. That’s what I meant by loose Protestant (strict Protestant would require adherence to a comprehensive dogma).

    What I now think you meant was that only part of the body gets to decide: the brain, in this case the officers of the Church.

  8. If “the Church” is “the WHOLE body of the faithful” and if “the Church” has teaching authority, then everyone in the body has teaching authority.

    No. You are making an unwarranted leap. If a family has authority over some property, does “everyone” in the family have that authority?

    What I now think you meant was that only part of the body gets to decide: the brain, in this case the officers of the Church.

    Please don’t change the analogy and attribute it to me. The one I used is that of family. The Church is akin to a family – it is indeed a spiritual family. The pope (or the bishop of one’s diocese or the parish priest) is the father of that spiritual family. Fathers are not the “brain,” with the rest of the body doing its bidding. Of course, I should spell out that the ultimate father of us all is God – pater noster qui es in caelis – “Our Father who art in Heaven…” as the Lord’s Prayer goes.

    Furthermore, it’s not that the clerics “get to decide.” Bishops are the guardians of sacred Tradition and Magisterium that Christ passed onto Peter the Rock. God already decided. Matters of morality and dogma are already “set” if you will (which is another difference between the Catholic Church and the Mormons – we Catholics don’t get new revelations that change fundamental dogma every time it’s politically or culturally convenient; Catholic popes, bishops, and priests are NOT living prophets, with the power to alter fundamental things). It is the job of those entrusted with the Tradition and Magisterium to pass on the teachings of Christ authentically to the next generation.

    To the extent that the Pope and the bishops get to “decide” things, they concern matters less fundamental than doctrinal, to put crudely in mainstream terms “styles” or “fashions” of the operations and practices of the Church… which can change over time (whether priests can be married or not, for example, is under this broad rubric, and can vary over time and place… even today). And these are usually not done tyrannically, but in consult with all the fathers of the Church and through them the entire body of the faithful.

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