Bible reading and social progressivism?

I recently became aware of a new paper (still in review) that looks at the relationship between frequency of Bible reading and several other variables. David Briggs has written about some of the findings over at the Huffington Post, and Mike Clawson of the Friendly Atheist has given his take on it, as well.

The paper was written by Aaron Franzen of Baylor University (originally for his thesis), and purports to show that reading the Bible has a “liberalizing effect” on Christians, making them more concerned with civil liberties and more open to science. These conclusions were based on results from the 2007 Baylor Religion Survey, which asked respondents about their views on a number of religious and social issues. According to Briggs’ report, Franzen found that for Christians, frequency of Bible reading was positively correlated with:

  • saying it is important to actively seek social and economic justice to be a good person
  • saying it is important to consume or use fewer goods to be a good person
  • seeing science and religion as compatible
  • opposing same-sex marriage, legalized abortion, the death penalty, harsher punishment of criminals, and expansion of the federal government’s authority to fight terrorism

I had reason to take pause after reading these results, for several reasons.

First, if you’re going to claim that reading the Bible has a “liberalizing effect,” as Franzen does, or that reading the Bible “may help American Christians become more concerned about issues of poverty, conservation and civil liberties,” as Briggs does, how do you square this with the finding that Christian Bible readers were more likely to endorse the denial of civil liberties for women and gays?

Second, the findings of this study regarding openness to science are not at all consistent with previous research, which has shown that the more religious a person is, the more likely they are to say that science is in conflict with their religion, and this is especially true when it comes to evolution.

Of course, these conflicts are most apparent when a survey asks specific questions about scientific truths. It’s one thing for a person to claim that their religious beliefs are compatible with science – it’s quite another for them to answer unequivocally that they accept the theory of evolution. Any survey worth its salt would ask specific questions such as these, and not leave respondents to create their own definitions of science.

So imagine my surprise when I found out that the Baylor Religion Survey did ask very pointed, specific questions. Lots of them.

Regarding science, the survey asked how much respondents agreed with statements such as “Humans evolved from other primates over millions of years,” and “If we do not change things dramatically global climate change will have disastrous effects.”

Regarding civil liberties and progressive values, the survey questioned respondents on the morality of things such as divorce (with and without children), physician-assisted suicide, and abortion if the pregnancy was the result of rape. The survey also asked if homosexuals should be allowed to marry, and “If your party nominated a racial minority for President, would you vote for him or her?” Lastly, the survey asked respondents how much they agreed with statements such as, “Most men are better suited emotionally for politics than most women,” and “It is God’s will that women care for children.”

Now these are the questions that will tell us what people really believe about science and civil liberties! If frequent Bible-reading Christians are more open to science and more concerned with civil liberties than less-frequent Bible readers, then we should see it reflected in their acceptance of evolution and global climate change, as well as in their support for women’s and minority rights, gay rights, the right to die, and so on.

But we don’t. From what has been reported so far, frequent Bible-reading Christians are less likely to support same-sex marriage and legalized abortion. And on subjects such as evolution, climate change, support for minorities, and support for physician-assisted suicide, Briggs (and, presumably, Franzen) has been completely silent.

Could it be that Franzen and others are leaping at the opportunity to paint Christianity and/or the Bible in a favorable light, and looking only at the survey results that would allow them to do so?

In a word, yes. Researchers at religious institutions have been guilty before of allowing their religious beliefs to dictate their scientific findings, and Baylor University is no exception. In 2009, the Council for Secular Humanism called out the university’s Institute for Studies of Religion for their dishonest analysis of the Baylor Religion Survey. The abstract to their 26-page report on the matter said the following (full text available at the link above):

A growing body of research by sociologists and major survey organizations shows that the population of the United States is becoming significantly less religious. Other first-world nations have secularized even more extensively. Yet this year Baylor University, a conservative Christian institution, released another installment in its series of widely cited studies contending exactly the opposite. Baylor researchers declare that America is as religious as it has always been, and that belief in religion is a universal characteristic displayed by all peoples around the world. These findings contradict those of many other social science practitioners – and in a direction favorable to Baylor’s interests as a Baptist institution. A close look at the way relevant statistics have been handled by Baylor and its premier researcher, Rodney Stark, suggests that key data is being presented in a way that misrepresents significant social trends and may serve to mislead the public.

In addition, the Baylor Religion Survey itself is funded by the Templeton Foundation. This is a foundation dedicated to promoting religion and blurring the line between religion and science, an agenda that Jerry Coyne has written about extensively (some informative examples are herehere, and here.)

So the concern about bias in this case is quite legitimate!

I will be interested in reading Franzen’s full paper if and when it is published, but the apparent dearth of evidential and logical support for his conclusions, as well as the well-founded concerns about bias and dishonesty in Baylor University research, do not fill me with confidence in his results.

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