Which cities claim to be the most ‘Bible-minded’ not the same as which really are

The Barna Research Group is part of my evangelical Christian world, which tends to give them both an advantage and a disadvantage when studying American religion.

Barna’s intimate familiarity and experience with the evangelical world gives them a deeper appreciation of some of the nuances of evangelical culture, but at the same time it makes them a bit less objective and sometimes a bit too much a part of the home team.

Barna’s research is mostly survey-driven, and they don’t always do a good job at distinguishing between what such surveys can and cannot tell us. Consider their recent report on the most and the least “biblicallly minded” cities in America.

Knoxville, Tenn., RNS photo courtesy Matt Swint via Flickr from Religion News Service’s photo gallery on the “Bible-minded” survey. (Click the photo to go there.)

What’s the scientific unit of measurement for biblical-mindedness? Well, there isn’t one, of course, so Barna cobbled a metric together based on “highest combined levels of regular Bible reading and belief in the Bible’s accuracy.”

OK, then, what’s the scientific unit of measurement for “levels of regular Bible reading”? Well, apparently, they just asked people how often they read their Bibles. Ditto for quantifying the unquantifiable and murkily outlined “belief in the Bible’s accuracy.”

Such surveys tell us something, but they cannot tell us what Barna’s report claims to tell us. If people in Knoxville, Shreveport and Chattanooga say they read the Bible regularly at a higher percentage than people in Providence, Albany and Burlington self-report such behavior, that suggests something about those cities, but it’s not a reliable measure of actual Bible-reading behavior. It tells us about the felt expectations and social obligations of residents of those communities, but that won’t work as an indicator of whether or not people are truly living up to such perceived expectations.

All that we can know for sure from such a survey is that people in Knoxville are more likely to tell a pollster that they read the Bible regularly. That might possibly correlate to higher levels of actual, regular Bible-reading, or it might just indicate that living in Knoxville carries a higher level of the sense that regular Bible-reading is a commendable activity that one ought to report to pollsters. I would guess that the latter is more likely.

Imagine a similar survey inquiring about “levels of regular exercise.” It would be a useful gauge of various cities’ attitudes toward exercise, revealing which communities experience a higher level of expectation or social pressure, or which places seem to instill a greater sense of the value and the obligation to exercise regularly. But it would be useless as a measurement of actual exercise habits and still more useless as a measure of physical fitness.

To measure or evaluate actual fitness or actual exercise, one would need to do something other than ask people about their habits, trusting that their responses were wholly accurate and truthful.

That’s not to say that people consciously lie about things like how often they exercise or how often they read the Bible — although that can happen, too, obviously. But I think questions about such behaviors are more like to produce aspirational answers than objectively descriptive answers. Respondents supply answers, in other words, that reflect the kind of behavior they feel like they ought to be demonstrating more than their actual behavior.

So how can we measure actual Bible-reading practices as opposed to only measuring the level of self-reporting? I have no idea.

But it would be fascinating, if we had a method of doing so, to contrast a measure of such actual behavior with the measure of such claimed behavior that Barna provides. That would allow us to make another Top 10 list — the “Top 10 Most Hypocritical Cities About Bible Reading.”

We don’t have data about actual behavior that would allow us to create such a list, but we know who the top candidates would be: Knoxville, Shreveport and Chattanooga. Whatever else Barna’s surveys suggest about Providence, Albany and Burlington, those cities can at least know that they’re probably not hotbeds of hypocrisy when it comes to “Bible-mindedness.” Without reliable data about actual behavior, Knoxville, et. al., due to their much-higher than normal levels of self-reported Bible-reading, have to be viewed with suspicion.

Good news, then, for Colorado Springs and Wheaton and Grand Rapids and all of the other evangelical hot-spots that failed to make Barna’s list of “Bible-minded” cities. This may not mean that they read their Bibles any less than Barna’s most-praised cities. It may just mean they’re more honest about such things.

 

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    Good news, then, for Colorado Springs and Wheaton and Grand Rapids and
    all of the other evangelical hot-spots that failed to make Barna’s list
    of “Bible-minded” cities. This may not mean that they read their Bibles
    any less than Barna’s most-praised cities. It may just mean they’re more
    honest about such things.

    As someone who’s head hits the pillow in Wheaton most every night and whose ass hits a chair in Chicago three or four days a week, I found their methodology…suspect at best.  It surprises me not at all that Chicago would end up down around the lower quartile.  There are a lot of people here, after all, many of whom aren’t even (gasp!) Christians and many other who are most certainly not the right kind of Christian for Barna’s purposes.  But, man, the collar counties?  There’s lots of Jesus all up in those areas.

    I’m also deeply surprised that Madison, WI and Portland, OR were actually above Chicago on the list.  And that Phoenix and Green Bay/Appleton WI and Cedar Rapids/Waterloo IA were lower.

  • Jeff Weskamp

    I think the term “Biblical Accuracy” is code term for “Biblical Literalism,” which is another indication of how much Fundamentalism has hijacked Evangelicalism.

  • Becca Stareyes

    I remember reading somewhere that walking someone through a day (say, what dod you do yesterday/this morning?) gets a more accurate idea of how much time they spend doing X. 

    I also know I over-report how much time I spend on ‘wholesome’ activities like brushing my teeth and exercise because asking me about them usually gets me realizing that I don’t do them as much as I should, so I give my ‘intended answer’ (Sure, I walk into work every day when the weather’s nice) rather than what I actually do (I walk maybe twice a week, and only between April and October).  

    Now, I’m likely to give an honest answer about the Bible, but because I’m an atheist and comfortable with that status.  If I was a Christian who thought she should be reading a Bible verse every day before bed, but usually forgot except on Saturdays when setting the alarm for Church… well, I’d probably say ‘most days’ rather than ‘well, once or twice a week’.  

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    If you asked me how often I read the Bible, I’ll respond either “Oh, all the time” or “I never read it anymore”, depending on how I’m feeling at the time. And neither would be true.

    Reason being, if you spring that question on me unannounced, I’ll answer the question I think you’re asking.

    If you are an Upstanding And Holy Person who begins conversations with a compassionate look and the question “So, how are you going with God?”, then I’ll assume that the question “How often do you read the Bible?” is really “Are you in a good relationship with your Lord and Saviour, and Living In His Grace? Or are you a fallen heathen in need of prayer and restoration?” and I’ll tell you that, yes, I read my Bible all the time (and hence am a Good Christian who you should not target for in-group evangelism).

    If you are a more sceptical Christian of the Harry Potter-reading, wine-drinking, sense-of-humour-having variety, I’ll assume that the question “How often do you read the Bible?” is really “Are you an Upstanding And Holy Person who’s going to attempt in-group evangelism the moment I reveal what I actually think? Or are you okay with me actually having doubts?” and I’ll tell you that, in fact, I barely read my Bible these days (and hence am happy with you not being a YEC).

    If you asked me how often I read the Bible and really meant just that… I’d have to think about it for a while. Off the top of my head, I haven’t a clue.

  • Carstonio

    It tells us about the felt expectations and social obligations of
    residents of those communities, but that won’t work as an indicator of
    whether or not people are truly living up to such perceived
    expectations.

    I agree. I might have assumed that the list reflected not Bible readership but degree of social and political influence by the religious right.

  • Jurgan

    It would be easy enough to measure Bible-reading by simply recording how many hours a week a person spends reading a Bible.  The problem is the Heisenberg Effect- if the subjects knows they are being observed, even by themselves, their behaviors are likely to change.  That can be a good thing if your goal is to motivated yourself to do better (if I keep a record of how much I exercise, I may realize it’s too low and force myself to do more), but it doesn’t reflect normal behavior, and it certainly isn’t representative of a larger community.  Perhaps we pick a set of people randomly from a city and have someone else (spouse, child, etc.) record their Bible-reading hours without telling them what they were doing?  That would be tough to do accurately and secretly, but it might eliminate some of the bias.

  • Drive-By Poster

    Speaking as someone who grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana, I can attest to the fact that “Bible-reading” would very much be a socially commendable activity that one ought to report to pollsters, along with “voting Republican (read: Tea Party)” and “attending ‘pro-life’ rallies.” The Religious Right Force is strong with them. 

  • Marta L.

    As a New Yorker and a Christian, I found this statistic quite surprising, since where I live (in the Bronx) the churches really are the heart of the neighborhood. Something like 70% of New Yorkers are members of a house of worship compared to 50% nationally, and at least those I know are quite likely to actually go to worship services and spend time in other church/synagogue/mosque activities. But the majority of that 70% are Catholics and Jews, who might answer “no” to the question of whether the Bible is accurate depending on how it was phrased. If it sounded like they were asking whether the Bible was literally true, I might answer no myself – and I’m very much a Bible-believing Christian. (If anyone’s interested, I blogged about this poll and NYC religiosity here.)

    As for better polling, I can think of a few ways. For instance, if you could get people to use an electronic Bible, like an app on their smartphone or computer, you could have that record how much time they actually had the program open. You could also ask them to focus their reading on a specific part of the Bible and then quiz them on comprehension. Finally, you could first do the self-reporting Barna did, and then expose them to something that made them think they weren’t expected to answer affirmatively (perhaps a letter in the name of a well-respected figure questioning literalism) and then ask the question again. There should be tools to get better data. And I’m not even a social scientist – I just read their blogs. :-)

  • Jim Roberts

    At church on Sunday, I mentioned the notion of letting mercy triumph over judgement. The person I was talking to, an adult Sunday School teacher, laughed and said, “Well, sure, if you don’t use the Bible to guide your actions, you could do that.” James. James 2:13. And, frankly, the book of James, the whole thing, is pretty much variations on that statement.

    Reading the Bible does not mean you know it.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    My hometown is not even in the bottom ten?  

    Seattle, I am disappoint.  

  • esmerelda_ogg

    I suspect the survey would look somewhat different if we had the raw data of how often people claimed to read the Bible, without that thumb on the scale of “belief in the Bible’s accuracy”. As it is, Barna has pretty clearly rigged the results to make sure that only heavily fundamentalist cities make the upper reaches of their survey. Someone who makes a habit of reading the Daily Office (which includes a multiyear cycle of several scripture passages every day) but doesn’t take Every Word, Preferably Of The King James Version, As Literally True would probably be classed as a heathen non-Bible-reader. (But I speak as a heathen Episcopalian.)

  • Victor

    (((Reading the Bible does not mean you know it.)))

    Most would agree with ya Jim Roberts but that’s not why “I” don’t read The Good Book NOW! Hey ya still haven’t told me, myself and i  if you’re that Mr Hockey STAR that I’ve heard so much about when I was a hockey fanatic in the seventies and eighties?

    Don’t tell Jim! :)

    “IT” is OK sinner vic cause I just came to thank Fred Clark for all those beautiful pictures cause believe “IT” or not some of our spiritual reality country cells love those country people from Ten…. if ya know what “I” mean?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xfHVXx11P8s

    Peace

     

  • Renee

    I would love a study to figure out people’s attitudes towards the Bible by taking a large number of relatively important passages of the bible (places evangelicals themselves would find important, to be fair) and finding out what they think about them. Options:

    1) This passage doesn’t look familiar to me.
    2) It seems familiar, but I don’t know what it means.
    3) It means [insert literal taking-it-at-face-value interpretation of passage].
    4) It means [insert interpretation that explains away the passage or interprets it non-literally].

    The results of this study would be interesting, not so much for their correlation with geography (seriously, who cares?) but for correlation with people’s self-described belief in a literal bible.

  • Jim Roberts

    Sorry, Victor, didn’t catch your question earlier – while I am from Canada, I’m not a hockey star. Never played anything beyond a house league.

  • Marta L.

     I quite agree Renee – now *that’s* a survey I’d buy the full results of.

    I actually do care about geography because different geographical regions do have different “flavors” to how religion is practiced, and as a scholar in philosophy of religion I find the way that manifests itself to be pretty interesting. More relevant may be the type of communities you’re involved in. For instance, I’d love to see the results gathered by what % of neighbors are non-Christian and what % of Christian neighbors are non-Protestant. I’d also love to look at the urban/suburban/rural divide  and other related questions, like whether you live in an apartment, multi-family house (duplex etc.) or single-family house, as those all have very different lifestyles. That’s more interesting than whether you’re from New England or the Bible Belt to me. But the regional question is interesting, too.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    Reading the Bible does not mean you know it.

    Some of the studies I have read about suggest that the people who assert the Bible as authoritative and inerrant the loudest tend to be people who have not read the Bible in its entirety   Rather, they tend to be people who only read selected passages, typically recommended to them by some authority figure like a church leader or a theological pundit.  

    No wonder so many of them seem so, well, unbiblical.  

  • http://snarkthebold.blogspot.com/ Edo

    Someone who makes a habit of reading the Daily Office… but doesn’t
    take Every Word, Preferably Of The King James Version, As Literally True
    would probably be classed as a heathen non-Bible-reader. (But I speak
    as a heathen Episcopalian.)

    As someone who does pray the Daily Office, I was actually wondering whether that would count as “time spent reading the Bible.”

    (And as a fellow Episcopalian, don’t knock the KJV. Evangelicalism has many translations to its name and credit, but the Authorized Version is ours, and has been since 1611. Besides, fundamentalists favor the ESV nowadays.)

  • esmerelda_ogg

    Some fundamentalists probably wouldn’t count the cycle of lectionary readings as “reading the Bible”, maybe because it’s somewhat tied in to the church year (which they aren’t comfortable with). And I like the KJV – much of it is beautiful – but I don’t like the fundy tendency to fetishize it. (There’s a little church in my town that advertises themselves as holding strictly to the “defined” King James Bible.) Beauty is good, but so is clarity.

  • LL

    C’mon, Yankee church doesn’t count. 

  • Marta L.

    So obviously they’re using “bible-minded” in a kind of war is peace, freedom is slavery sense? Because the NYC Christians I know are as least as bible-minded as the ones I grew up around in the Carolinas…

  • http://snarkthebold.blogspot.com/ Edo

    Some fundamentalists probably wouldn’t count the cycle of lectionary
    readings as “reading the Bible”, maybe because it’s somewhat tied in to
    the church year (which they aren’t comfortable with).

    I don’t doubt it; I’m not sure I count it as “reading the Bible.” Reading for study is a different experience than reading for Evening Prayer. (Not that the survey cares about the distinction.)

    And I like the KJV
    – much of it is beautiful – but I don’t like the fundy tendency to
    fetishize it. (There’s a little church in my town that advertises
    themselves as holding strictly to the “defined” King James Bible.)

    Agreed. (One of them moved into my hometown too. Still less worrisome than the second megachurch that’s setting up shop…)

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    The question itself is a profoundly Protestant one. If you’re a Catholic who goes to church once a week you’re listening to 4 separate readings from the bible (not to mention all the parts of the liturgy that draw from the bible as well). Very few of us would count going to mass as “reading the bible” even though, for a text that was largely designed to be read (or sung) aloud, the end point is at least as worthy.

    In addition, “read your bible” is not near the top of the list of practices devout Catholics demand of themselves or others. It’s not that we don’t do it–plenty of churches have bible study groups these days, and plenty of Catholics will read from the bible in private–but it’s not put up as one of the top three things you must do to be a good Catholic. Very devout Catholics I know are more likely to emphasise attending mass, saying the rosary or doing the daily office than sitting down and reading the bible. But I do hear from my Protestant friends that reading your bible is an essential marker of faith in many of their churches.

    The other big difference that jumps out to me is that bible reading, as a Catholic, is usually framed in the context of prayer. Lectio divina is often recommended, committing passages to memory or going over Paul’s theological treatises much less so. In my experience the bible is much more a liturgical instrument than an instruction manual.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Reading the Bible does not mean you know it.

    My God, yes, exactly this, a thousand times.

  • banancat

    I read the Bible every day because I am set up with an e-mail thing so that I will read the whole thing in one year.  And I’m an atheist.  I wonder how I would rate on such a poll.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Isn’t Colorado Springs where Focus on the Family is based? It must be rather embarrassing for them that they can’t even have an effect on their own home city…/snark

  • Keulan

    According to the Barna Group, my hometown is in the top ten least “Bible-minded” cities. Which is good, since it seems to me that this survey reflects how much influence the Religious Right has in various cities in the U.S. more than the actual beliefs of people in these cities. Pretty much all of the top 25 most “Bible-minded” cities are in the Bible Belt, while most of top 25 least “Bible-minded” are outside of it.

  • JayemGriffin

    I have several devout Catholic relatives, and they probably read from their own Bibles as frequently as I do for my godless academic pursuits. 

  • MaryKaye

    The metric seems made-up.  Who cares how a made-up metric is distributed?  They took two measures of two different things and somehow combined them (how?) to get a single score.  That procedure’s so flexible that they could get any answer they wanted.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Is that lots or hardly ever?

  • JayemGriffin

    Definitely on the “hardly ever” side of things. I just find it amusing that we’re polar opposites theologically (and politically), but we have about the same level of familiarity with the text. As banancat said above, Bible reading is not a very accurate measure of one’s religiousness. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/ericrboersma Eric Boersma

    I find the argument that Barna had already internally ranked the cities and designed a metric which ranked the cities the same way they did pretty convincing. I mean, there’s no way that they called a representative sample of people in each city in the US; that would require something like 100K+ respondents, which is a *lot* of phone calls. Much easier to design an easy poll in which the conservative cities get the title of “most biblical” so that they can somehow use that as a metric for…something else, I don’t really know who these people are.

  • Wednesday

     Wouldn’t we also want to include “fake” passages (ie, things not from the bible — they could be written for the study, taken from non-canonical books, or things like “spare the rod and spoil the child” that people think are from the bible but aren’t)? That way they could say “This passage doesn’t look familiar to me” more honestly, without feeling like it’s an admission of Insufficient Christianness.

  • Carstonio

    things like “spare the rod and spoil the child” that people think are from the bible but aren’t

    That’s a good idea for a poll to emphasize Fred’s point about what many people believe to be “biblical.”

  • AnonymousSam

     To be fair, Proverbs 13:24 is really close- “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.” The aforementioned probably derived from this line. Variations of it have been in use since at least 1377.

    What about people who read the Bible, but don’t believe it has divine origins (or attributes its divinity to another religion altogether)? I doubt the pollsters wanted to make any points about that…

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    “God helps those who help themselves.”

  • Light_Sleeper

    I wonder why they’re attempting to collect this data. Seeking sponsorship data for the Bible a la Neilsen?

    Gathering the data they _seem_ to want seems possible: Ask local poor, “How much unsolicited charity do you receive from your neighbors?” Correlate with Christian % of local population.

  • http://twitter.com/petedayton1 pete dayton

    Even though I live in Knoxville and happen to read (really read, as in daily morning quiet time) the scriptures daily, I wouldn’t put too much emphasis in this study as per the previous comments. However, the trends in the study reveal what most of us Southerners already knew; that we are in a Bible Belt and take our Christianity seriously; more so than other areas of our country. I worked in New England off and on for 5 years and never did find an Evangelical church in the Cape Cod area!

  • Theguessworks

    So how can we measure actual Bible-reading practices as opposed to only measuring the level of self-reporting? I have no idea.

    There are studies that address this sort of bias with respect to church attendance, by asking the question very indirectly.  If you ask people on Tuesday whether they can remember what they did three days ago, starting when they woke up, they’ll tell you about having breakfast, mowing the lawn, watching the game, etc., and indirectly reveal that they didn’t go to church.

    An even but more expensive methodology is a “beeper study,” where you equip people with a beeper that goes off at random intervals, and tell them to write down what they’re doing when it goes off.

    It turns out that with those methodologies, it’s clear that people can’t be going to church nearly as much as they say they do—in the US anyhow, where self-reports inflate church attendance by a factor of about two.

    In Britain, where not going to church isn’t stigmatized nearly as much, people don’t overestimate their church attendance by much at all.

    I would guess that within the US, there’s a similar inflation dependent on local community standards and expectations, which inflates differences between markets—in places like Chattanooga, where not being churchgoing is A Bad Thing, people overreport even more, and in places like Portland, they overreport much less.


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