Back in the early nineties, when I was living in Western Massachusetts, Gallup or someone did one of those “name recognition” polls that seem to pop up all the time. As you might expect, in Massachusetts Teddy Kennedy scored off the charts. By then, he had been a senator for thirty year or so and was Mr. Massachusetts. His name recognition score was 95%, way higher than that of any other Massachusetts politician. But I remember saying to myself, “My God, does that mean that when I am walking in Boston, every twentieth person or so I pass on the street has never heard of Teddy Kennedy? What rock have they been living under?”
Google tells me that roughly 9% of Americans over the age of 12 use illegal drugs. That means that when I am driving down the highway at 75 mph, passing cars coming in the other direction at 75 mph, so that we are passing each other at 150 miles per hour, roughly one in eleven of those people rushing by me uses illegal mind-altering drugs! If I think too much about that, I just want to go back home, crawl into bed, and eat take-out.
Statistics are like that. We look at the numbers and forget that each percentage point represents a lot of real people. This thought crossed my mind yet again yesterday when I came upon a report of a series of Gallup polls about the religious beliefs of Americans. You can read the details here. The question that caught my eye was the one about how you think the Bible should be understood. As of last May, 28% of respondents said the Bible was the actual word of God and should be taken literally, word for word. [This is down 10 percent from forty years ago.] Now, the population of the United States is estimated to be about 320 million, so if Gallup is to be believed, there are maybe one hundred million people[RW1] living in this country [not counting little babies who can’t be held responsible quite yet for the nuttiness of their parents] who believe that the Bible should be taken as literally true, word for word. [We have to assume that all but a tiny handful of these folks mean the Bible in English, by the way.]
What am I to make of this statistical datum? It would be comforting, but probably wrong, to suppose that this is just a consequence of the social dynamics of poll-taking [a subject about which I have written before, with reference to a classic essay by David Riesman.] People understand that the answer one gives to a question may not really be a statement of one’s beliefs, but may rather be an occasion for self-identification as a certain sort of American. Thus, if Gallup were to ask a cross-section of Americans whether Barack Obama has horns, a non-negligible percentage would say yes, but that does not mean they would be genuinely surprised if they were to meet him and find that he does not. They would understand that the question really being asked was “Do you hate Obama?” and their response to that implied question would indeed be accurate.
But I think there probably really are about one hundred million Americans who think that the Bible [in English] is the Word of God and should be taken literally, word for word. How can this possibly be?
I brood on things like this a lot when I am not actively engaged in something more useful, and I think I have an answer. Look, these hundred million men and women are almost certainly averagely intelligent, averagely competent people. They get through the day, they hold down jobs, they drive, they know how to turn lights on and off, most of them are literate. And nothing it says in the Bible interferes in any way with this quotidian functionality.
But now let us suppose that Leviticus 5:17 said “Tweets can be no longer than seventeen characters.” Whoa! That would call for some serious textual interpretation, because these faithful Fundamentalists know perfectly well that tweets can be 140 characters long, and save for some technologically clued-in Amish, who tend to walk the walk as well as talking the talk, they are not going to cut their tweets short at 17 characters just because the Bible says so. The same descent into exegetical interpretation would be required if Matthew 6:17 said “Le Bron James is a lousy basketball player.”
But the great thing about the Bible is that it doesn’t say anything at all about the simple facts that simple people know. Oh, it says Jonah was swallowed by a big fish and lived there for three days until the fish belched him up. But few if any of those hundred million have actually seen a whale close up, and believing the Jonah story in no way interferes with their daily rounds.
I mean, when I was a boy my father wrote a high school Biology text which, among many other things, said that there are 48 chromosomes in the human cell. I lived quite comfortably for many years with that piece of misinformation until I found out that early staining techniques had resulted in a miscount – there are actually only 46.
Of course, believing nutty things for religious reasons has real world consequences – it leads these people to support politicians who pass genuinely awful laws designed to impoverish people and blight their lives, so it matters a good deal that one hundred million Americans are Inerrantists. But holding that belief does not make them dysfunctional in any immediately manifest fashion.
The residential and social self-segregation of American life results in my almost never meeting one of these Fundamentalists. Even though I live in North Carolina, which is pretty benighted, I don’t get out of Chapel Hill much, and as I have often observed, in Chapel Hill you can go for quite a while without hearing a Southern accent. So I may be all wrong. Maybe Gallup could do a poll.