Biblical Literacy and Christian Privilege
There has been some talk in the blogosphere about a new report that shows people don’t know much about the Bible. Jim West posted a link to Philip Davies’ post, which has all the details and a bit of commentary.
I’ve seen arguments like these before—Stephen Prothero wrote an entire book dedicated to a consideration of Religious Literacy (by the way, there was a really interesting symposium on that book in the April issue of the CSSR Bulletin). In sum, the argument is that even non-religious people should know something about the Bible, because it is such a huge part of Western culture.
My general response is that no, people don’t need to know about the Bible, any more than they need to know about Homer’s Odyssey or Plato’s Republic. As Craig Martin notes about Stephen Prothero’s book,
Prothero’s grave concern about religious illiteracy seems to be invalidated—or at least attenuated—by his own argument. On the one hand, he argues that Americans don’t know much about religion anymore and, on the other hand, that this ignorance prevents them from understanding religious references in popular culture, political speeches, etc. However, if people don’t know much about religion, won’t those references slowly disappear, in which case there’s no need to worry about the matter? There is a part of me that wants to summarize Prothero’s central concern like this: “Americans don’t any longer know about this important part of their culture that’s no longer important.” This formulation is unfair—Prothero’s argument is not this superficial—but I think that there is something to it that is right.
I’m inclined to think that if we stop making such a big deal about the Bible it will just go away—the evidence of these polls shows that it’s already going away.
Let me make a few additional comments, particularly about Davies’ post. First, he says that Hector Avalos is “the only non-religious scholar I know of that actually seems to hate the Bible.” Really? Maybe he meant that Avalos is the only non-religious Bible scholar? I know plenty of scholars of religions other than Christianity or Judaism who think the Bible is crap. Maybe Davies doesn’t know any of them? Perhaps his view of religious stuides is very narrow.
Perhaps Davies doesn’t know of many scholars who openly oppose the Bible because it’s unpopular to do so. If this is the case, we should ask ourselves why. Think about it: it seems to be perfectly okay for me to say that I hate Plato, or I hate Kant, or I hate Scientology (in fact, I do hate Kant). Why can I hate Kant but not the Bible? Is it unpopular for one to say one hates the Bible because there is special privilege awarded to it not awarded to other texts or traditions?
In the middle of his post, Davies asks the question, “How bad are things” (i.e., how bad are things with respect to illiteracy about the Bible)? This question made me jump, and revealed to me the fact that he’s working with a partisan frame I do not share. I would have said “How good are things?” The fact that “How bad are things?” will seem like the natural question to most of his readers reveals the privilege awarded to the Bible. I don’t know anyone asking how bad it is now that students don’t come to college with an adequate grasp of Cicero any more.
There was a time when this would have been a chief concern; I can picture a white guy in a suit with a bow tie mumbling to his colleague, “these kids can’t even conjugate in Latin anymore. What’s the world coming to!?” We would, of course, today recognize that concern as reflecting the presumption of a certain type of white, bourgeois, upper-class privilege. That was a system designed in a way that ensured that students coming to college from elite prep schools would have a a greater possibility of success than students from working-class families.
Why would we stand around mumbling about how “these kids don’t even know who Moses is. What’s the world coming to!?” What forms of privilege are we maintaining when doing so? Are we reproducing a system that puts non-Christians and non-Jews at a disadvantage in our schools?
Davies asks us to “Imagine a national art gallery without any biblical scenes.” Okay, so what? I’m fine with that! The next sentence is this: “The history of western culture collapses without the biblical backbone that keeps it erect.” This is false, not least of which because it is an absurd essentialist claim: cultures do not have backbones. There are many cultural threads feeding into western culture—we could remove that one thread without causing the weave to collapse.
And, in fact, that thread is already fraying. It was a worn out thread anyway.