A Skeptic's Guide to Bible Study for Christians - Introduction

There is a very good chance you are a Christian. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's World POPClock Projection, the world's population is just shy of 6.6 billion people. Of these, about 2.1 billion identify Christianity as their chosen faith (see adherents.com). In other words, about 31% of the world's population is Christian. What percentage actually practice their faith is, of course, subject to debate.

If you live in the United States, the likelihood increases exponentially. Approximately 75% - 85% of its population identifies as Christian, making the United States home to one of the highest concentrations of Christians worldwide (followed closely by Brazil at about 66%). This means that about 10.5% - 12% of all Christians live in the U.S.. Therefore, regardless of what the Founders' intentions may have been, the U.S. is inarguably a Christian nation. At least from the perspective of demographics. As with the aforementioned world statistics, what percentage of American Christians are practicing their faith is subject to debate. Even among those that claim to actively practice their faith, there is much disagreement over what constitutes valid practice.

But this isn't about whose practice of faith is more valid or worthy. This is about Christian beliefs and the source that informs them; the Bible. More specifically, biblical literacy - or lack thereof.

If experience is any kind of teacher, many Christians profess to be Bible-believing yet seem to lack knowledge of the most basic character of their scriptures. There are, of course, many who claim to know the Bible. Indeed, Christians are often able to speak in generic terms with regard to certain teachings considered to be important. However, when pressed for details and/or critical analysis of a particular position, most founder and are given to simply repeating what they've already asserted. This is perhaps understandable in the context of today's culture, where soundbites and info-tainment style news reports have usurped previously held values regarding disciplined study. Yet it is disturbing because many of these same people cast votes for or against public policy decisions and/or government representatives based on the idea that they are acting in accord with biblical teaching. Since such policy decisions influence large numbers of people, something more than passing familiarity seems called for.

Recent research by the Barna Research Group seems to confirm the apparent lack of biblical knowledge among Christians. According to a 2003 survey, only 9% of self-described, born-again Christians (or 4% of U.S. adults) have what some consider to be a biblical worldview. Some stratification was apparent among religious classifications, with 7% of Protestants, 2% of mainline Protestants, and less than one-half of 1% of Catholics adhering to a strict definition of what constitutes a biblical worldview. Non-denominational, Pentacostal, and Baptist denominations produced the highest proportion of believers with this worldview (13%, 10%, and 8% respectively).

Not surprisingly, the news was considered alarming at best to many ministry groups. Each lamented the dichotomy that seems to exist among many Christians, who apparently deal with the world around them much as their secular counterparts while trying to live as Christians in their personal lives. Many recommended that churches do a better job of instruction. Others complained that the teaching of evolution is at least partly to blame. Some Christian groups considered the findings so disturbing they started projects to reverse it. For example, the public policy group Focus on the Family started what they call The Truth Project, which is a DVD-based series of 12 one-hour lessons directed at small groups.

As a secular humanist and skeptic, I don't usually find myself in agreement with Christians when it comes to the Bible. In fact, I find myself somewhat encouraged by the findings of the Barna Group survey. This is because the definition of what constitutes a biblical worldview was rather strict and one-sided. For the purposes of their research, the Barna Group used the following definition:

"...a biblical worldview was defined as believing that absolute moral truths exist; that such truth is defined by the Bible; and firm belief in six specific religious views. Those views were that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life; God is the all-powerful and all-knowing Creator of the universe and He stills rules it today; salvation is a gift from God and cannot be earned; Satan is real; a Christian has a responsibility to share their faith in Christ with other people; and the Bible is accurate in all of its teachings."

To my mind, the fact that a majority of American Christians reject some or all of this definition is positive news. If the trend of living more or less in harmony with others continues, that can only be a good thing. That some ministry groups want to reverse this and reinforce one of the many things that divide us as a people seems backward, elitist, and counter-productive.

On the other hand, I already intimated that I think Christians who claim to espouse the faith propounded in the Bible should know what it's all about. In that sense I agree with those ministry groups that would like to see an increase in biblical literacy. Many Christians cast their votes in a way consistent with the positions taken by prominent Evangelical leaders, thinking they're doing the right thing. Perhaps they believe these leaders know the Bible and take the right position for today's world based on its teachings. Also, I think that if a person asks the right questions and considers other options while studying their Bible, that it will lead them to reject its relevancy today. In other words, I think that many Christians remain ignorant of the kind of book they claim to base their faith on, and given their otherwise secular approach to life would reject the Bible as incompatible if they knew.

So it is in the spirit of ecumenical conciliation and amateur scholarship that I present this guide. I originally planned to post just one article, but there is far too many topics and questions to address in so small a space. Critiques of the ideas presented is desired and encouraged. My hope is that others will benefit from my experience, for it was good study habits and methods that led me to appreciate the Bible as something other than a divine source for moral and ethical wisdom.

Happy studying!


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