Wednesday, January 29th, 2014
The American Bible Society does an annual survey related to what they call “bible mindedness.” The latest results were just released and I was surprised at the amount of media airplay it got, including sites like Time Magazine and Likecool. But perhaps it should be easy to see as this is the type of analysis that can appeal regardless of where you stand on God.
But I found their results and methodology questionable in terms of supporting the conclusions the media drew from it. Here’s the chart (click to enlarge):
Time called this a list of “the most godless cities in America” but in fact it is nothing of the sort. The survey measures instead “bible mindedness,” which they measure using frequency of reading it and a degree of belief in its accuracy. In order to be considered “bible minded” you have to have read the bible within the last seven days and strongly agree that it’s accurate.
This immediately raised a caution flag to me. Obviously it is Christian oriented (though the question set is designed to capture Jewish scripture reading). But the bible minded definition is clearly Protestant-centric. Perhaps I generalize, but historically even devout Catholics tended not to read the bible regularly. My Italian grandfather may have been the most devout Catholic I ever met. Until his very old age he went to mass every single day, said the rosary three times a day, and other things like that. But I never once saw him read a bible.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that the least bible minded metro in America in this survey is Providence, because Rhode Island is either the first or second most Catholic state in America, depending on the survey you use. Whereas the most bible minded city, Chattanooga, is in the least Catholic state. (See this HuffPo piece for some stats. Pew says Rhode Island is 43% Catholic, though how many are practicing is another question).
Practicing Catholics believe in the bible, but don’t generally interact with the text in the same way Protestants do. As a result, surveys that focus heavily on personal bible reading shouldn’t be used as a proxy for Christian religiosity in general, hence most of the conclusions that have been drawn from it are likely wrong.