This post is from Mike Clawson, the occasional Christian contributor here at Friendly Atheist.
I just wanted to highlight for you all an interesting article in the Huffington Post: Frequent Bible Reading Tied to Social Justice, Openness to Science.
Aaron Franzen, a recent graduate from Baylor’s Masters program in sociology (I’m personally pursuing a PhD in Baylor’s Religion Department, but I’ve heard good things about their sociology program as well) found that increased Bible reading among Christians reading correlated positively with an increased degree of what we might call social progressivism (though not on all issues). For instance, the Huff Post article notes that:
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.
Of course, it’s important to note that this study only shows a correlation, not causation. Nevertheless, these findings are interesting and somewhat counterintuitive for many on all sides of the issues. For instance, many of both my conservative evangelical and my liberal atheist/secularist friends would likely assume that the more one reads the Bible, the more socially and politically conservative one is likely to be — and while that must be the case for some, apparently for others, reading the Bible could just as easily be a sign of more liberal attitudes, at least on some issues (though, sadly, not on abortion or gay marriage).
On the other hand, perhaps this shouldn’t come as quite such a surprise, at least for Christians like myself who followed precisely the path described in this study — the more I read the Bible, the more socially progressive I became. And in my case at least, it was a matter of causation. I was a very conservative Republican evangelical as a teenager and young adult, existing mostly within a very closed conservative Christian bubble. It wasn’t any outside liberal influences, then, that pushed me to become more open to science, more concerned about economic justice and issues of social equality, and just more liberal in general. No, (and I often find my atheist and conservative Christian friends quite incredulous on this point, but I assure you it’s true) I became a “liberal” precisely by reading the Bible more intensely and closely. I was struck in particular by the overwhelming attention to economic justice and concern for the poor in the Bible (around 3000 verses), especially in comparison to the much more meager number of references to issues of sexual morality (around 40 verses). This then led me to begin questioning much of my conservative political ideology.
Likewise, I was led by my studies into the historical and literary context of the biblical writings to become much more flexible in my understanding of them, and thus far more able to see them as compatible with scientific truths. The more I came to understand the kind of literature the biblical documents actually are (a diverse collection of various types of Ancient Near Eastern literature), and began to read them as such, the less likely I was to demand that they be what conservative Christianity wants them to be (i.e. inerrant historical and scientific texts). So, for instance, I came to embrace a form of theistic evolution (i.e. the belief that evolutionary processes are not incompatible with God’s existence), not because I was convinced by the science and then tried to make the Bible fit it. Rather, I was first convinced through my study of scripture that Genesis 1 simply wasn’t scientific or historical writing in the first place, and that to attempt to read it as such just misses the point.
Anyhow, I bring this up not because I’m interested in debating these particular subjects here, but simply to illustrate how the findings of Franzen’s study might play out in the lives of individual progressive Christians like myself. In my own case, I have continued to go even further than many of the subjects in his study. My ongoing study of scripture (along with other things) has pushed me to become, for instance, fully supportive of LGBTQ rights and women’s reproductive rights (though I would like to see abortion kept safe, legal, and rare). Indeed, I would venture to guess that my ongoing reading of the Bible has made me even more “liberal” than a good many folks here – especially regarding socio-economic issues, about which I embrace a form of social democracy known as Christian Marxism (a la Cornel West). But that’s a whole other discussion!
At any rate, I’m always interested in studies like this that defy the conventional wisdom – especially when they suggest that folks like me perhaps aren’t as rare as I once feared (as this other article also does).