The Bible vs. The Future

Every so often, the Gallup Poll asks Americans whether or not they believe that the Bible is the literal Word of God. As one might expect, the proportion of people saying “Yes” has been declining slowly but steadily over time, and as of June 2022 it had dropped to 20%. Forty years ago, this proportion was around 40%, so one possible implication is that this might track well with the proportion of people who call jeans “dungarees”: the worldview of an older generation that is, perhaps, dying with them.

On the other hand, the Gallup poll points out that, among Evangelical Christians, the proportion of people who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible is twice what it is for the total US population (40%). So it seems likely that there is always going to be a pretty substantial population in the US that holds to this view.

It is worth noting that most Americans do not say that the Bible is rubbish. Most (60%) say that it is the inspired Word of God, but that not everything in it is to be taken literally. Only a relatively small number, 16% of the total population, lump the Bible in with, say, Aesop’s fables and Mother Goose.

It is also worth noting that the Gallup Poll has a separate question about the origins of humanity, asking:

Which of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings?

  1. Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process. 33% agree with this.

2. Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process. 22% agree with this.

3. God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the 10,000 years or so. 40% agree with this.

One question that this statistic raises is: why would 40% of the people in an industrialized country, where there is free — mandatory, for most of us — public education, believe in a set of ideas that are contradicted by really, really basic science?

The answers to many of the questions that children are so adept at asking (things like Where did the Earth come from? When did dinosaurs live? How big is space? Where can I get more chocolate frosting?) can be answered by science (in the case of the last one, science may need to bow to simple retailing). And the answers involve things that have become routine in most grade school textbooks: astronomical measurements, radiocarbon dating, hypothesis testing, and results that can be duplicated. So how is it possible for 40% of Americans to reject and/or ignore all of this?

The easiest way to conceptualize a reasonable answer to this question is to think about ideas like food. What’s more of a meal? On the one hand, you’ve got the idea of the Big Bang and billions and billions of years of swirling gases ultimately resulting in the solar system we know and, eventually, life and, even later, humans. It’s like having Wheaties with no milk for dinner— it may be packed with nutrients, but it’s not comfort food. On the other hand, you’ve got a loving Creator, a Garden of Eden, perfect people walking around in the nude, the fall from grace — all building (in Christianity) to a single act of redemption. It’s like mom’s meatloaf and mashed potatoes!

And, truthfully, for most of us, the origins of the Universe are not a big deal in our daily lives. Very few industrial sectors really depend on an accurate understanding of where this all came from. And, meanwhile, it does very much matter that we have the kind of emotional nourishment that comes from the belief that our lives matter — that there’s a good reason to keep getting out of bed every day.

The Bible exists outside of, but (at least to some degree) informs, everyday experience. It is one of the few sacred things that sits around the average house. There is very little in modern American culture that is not cheapened by profit-seeking, convenience packaging, or the desire for fame and power. It goes without saying that Christianity has been thoroughly “Americanized” in this way — we may recoil against the televangelist, but there is no question that he is one of us. But the Bible itself is like the ocean: it reminds us that we are small and brief, that there is a whole universe outside of our daily grind. Its truths are compelling and uplifting, but also humbling and, at times, absolutely mysterious.

Religion is probably the most powerful lens there is for viewing the world, and in America, we get to choose its shape and color — we get to choose whether we see ourselves as fallen from grace or working our way up from the muck. We get to decide how we see our own intelligence: with each successive century of scientific inquiry, are we getting closer to understanding Creation, or are we learning that we don’t need God? I don’t think it’s the latter — I think that’s what the poll numbers tell us.

Personally, I have wondered for years if there is such a thing as a scientific discovery that would have a significant (negative) impact on religious belief and I’ve concluded the answer is: No. The Gallup poll will probably keep showing a little erosion in literal Biblical belief, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see this trend slow, stop, and even reverse a little in the future. I think “belief” will continue to adapt and metamorphose with future generations because belief is part of our makeup. In 100 years, the questions we ask ourselves might be a little different, but we’ll still be asking: what do we believe?

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Aaron McKeon

Aaron McKeon

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Professional planner, unprofessional writer. Member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. Also, a Sunday School teacher.