The Death of Biblical Literacy

Part of my Avalos Series

In a comment in my post earlier today, Hector Avalos (the author himself) directs us to his excellent, short article which was published today:  “The Praise of Biblical Illiteracy“.  There, as in his book, he clearly states:

My main point is that biblical illiteracy should not always be regarded as a bad thing.
-Hector Avalos

I agree with him strongly.  Certainly the vast majority of believers will disagree.  But I am going to wager that many atheists and even agnostics are going to also disagree with him.  And perhaps I understand why they would defensively disagree.  For  I, like many of them, even though an Atheist, have lots invested in the Bible.  I know a fair bit about it.  I know how it ties into history and literature.  If literacy died, my knowledge would become largely useless.

It seems a human reflex to preserve that with which we are familiar.  There are movements to preserve languages, cuisines, customs, music and even technologies.  We make museums like tombstones for those things that do succumb.  I have had several mini-deaths in my life where I had to give up whole areas of knowledge: Hindi, Japanese, Homeopathy, Acupuncture …  I use to have a rather large sum of knowledge in all these yet I gave them up as I pursued other knowledge and activities, that knowledge, without its necessary nourishment, has withered.  It is sad to see a familiar thing die.  But all things die. (See my mini-death post)

Avalos’ fine article lays out many reasons to support his desire,  I have just added my two cents to help others see their own psychological reflexes which may block them from hearing some of Avalos’ fine insights.  Please to give his article a read if you don’t plan to read his book.


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11 responses to “The Death of Biblical Literacy

  1. Ian

    To me this question is related to the question of literacy of any cultural artifact. Are we poorer for a lack of Shakespearean literacy? What about literacy of Homer? Or how about for the lack of literacy of non-western religious literature?

    I think the answer to these is absolutely yes. But that has to be balanced against the fact that, when acquiring one’s literacy in Shakespeare, for example, one is not doing something else that may be equally or more useful.

    It is somewhat easy for those of us who have a good biblical literacy to pontificate on what others should or shouldn’t have. For my point of view biblical literacy is significant only in so far as it opens up a large body of western cultural and historical awareness. That is clearly diminishing, however.

    I think it is just as patriarchal to say “there there, don’t worry about educating yourself about our history and culture, it isn’t relevant”, as much as it is to say “our particular holy book is so important that everyone has to know it intimately.”

    The drop in biblical literacy is significant and worrying, afaic, in as much as it is an indicator of a drop in historical and cultural awareness generally.

  2. Ian

    Another angle on this, of course, is the issue of malevolent Christianity.

    I could also make a good argument to say that, among those who don’t share a craving for imminent Armageddon, biblical literacy is an important rhetorical and political tool against extremists in our midst.

    There is a sector of Christianity that is malignantly targeting our culture and democracies. I wouldn’t want to say that anyone should be ignorant of the basis on which they do that. Admittedly they aren’t motivated by the bible, but they do use it as their totem.

  3. @ Ian
    “those of us .. to pontificate …”
    “I think it is … patriarchal to…”
    — Did you feel Avalos or I were doing that?
    Did you look at Avalos’ article?

    Some push that public school should include formal classes in non-sectarian religious education. Do you agree?

  4. Ian

    @sabio – To a certain extent, but I’d include myself along with you and Avalos. I think deciding what others should and shouldn’t know, or what others should or shouldn’t find important is a parochial adventure.

    I think your question about formal religious instruction is different, I think, to biblical literacy. I am very strongly in favor of formal religious education, because religion is such a significant force in our world, and often to our detriment.

    I agree with Dan Dennet that a comprehensive fact-based religious education for all is the best way to neuter religion in our culture. I certainly think that not encouraging people to know about religion is dangerous, because the religious ideologues can move into virgin territory.

    On the other hand, I am also realistic enough to know that trying to get a RE curriculum in the US state school sector would be a train-wreck. Because there are so many powerful religious voices who know full well it will castrate their ability to indoctrinate a whole generation.

    Fortunately, over here, comprehensive mandatory RE is a requirement in state schools. Though that is under severe threat from certain special interests, as you can imagine.

  5. Ian

    I did read Avalos’s article, yes. I enjoyed it, but I found it missed the points I thought important. It rightly challenged the lie that we were once a Christian society where everybody loved the Lord and knew their bibles. That is a myth that is too often trotted out.

    But if you’re addressing questions about what should be, I find answers concerning what has been to be a bit irrelevant.

  6. @ Ian :
    It takes a minimal of Qu’ranic literacy to understand what to tolerate from the various Islams out there. It takes almost no Vedic, Mahabharatic or Upanishadic literacy to know how to handle the various political and societal agendas of those that follow them, it takes very little Zoroastrian, Confucian, Shinto or Mayan knowledge to know how to handle these things. We are all immensely ignorant. It would be no loss to not know the Bible except for the bare minimum to handle perversions thrown at us. Some say the best way to undo religion is to ignore it and keep destroying their Spackle god with science and watch the tribal gods and magic gods reorganize as society gets use to the change. Best yet, bring stability and prosperity and gods seem to naturally disappear without propagating religious literacy.

    I am just agreeing with Avalos that we need not lament loss of biblical literacy. I am not saying people should not study whatever suits their fancy.

    My cry is not prescriptive but it is against those who scream for us to preserve the past in just the ways they were familiar.

  7. ummm… interesting. i think i sorta agree. i don’t like apologetic takes on the bible as offered by NT Wright and scholars such as he, but he is much better than the Lee Strobel’s style of apologetics. i like my training here at LTS with historical-critical models and such, seeing what literary and anthropological findings can reveal about scripture. however, i don’t see the bible as irrelevant, but in fact more relevant in light of these findings. it means that people were still struggling with many of the same things we were. namely “how can we best live together?” and “what makes us, us, and gives life meaning?”

    my tradition helps me with that. others find various paths, but we all have methods and systems to answer these questions. some are more consistent than others…

    i’m more open to Avalos than before, however, the first post has colored my opinion that i can’t quite shake.

  8. Ian

    Yes, sabio, I think we’re vehemently agreeing.

    Would I lament a decline in biblical literacy? Yes.
    Would I lament a decline in Shakespearean literacy? Yes.
    Is biblical literacy more important than Shakespearean literacy? Yes, because of its importance to large groups of the population.
    Is either more important than scientific literacy. Not even the same ball-park.
    Critical thinking? No, not close.
    Given an hour of the curriculum, what would be better for children to study? Erm… How about a curriculum in Googling?


  9. societyvs

    “It seems a human reflex to preserve that with which we are familiar. There are movements to preserve languages, cuisines, customs, music and even technologies. We make museums like tombstones for those things that do succumb” (Sabio)

    I guess here is the thing: has the ‘wheel’ ever gone out of fashion? If not, why?

    Some things are wheels, some things are not.

  10. Sabio

    @ Society

    I guess you are saying “Some things are worth hanging on to and thus the conservative reflex does have an adaptive side.” Right?
    If so, I agree.

    The trick is to ALWAYS be able to question, doubt and transcend when possible. If we were too hung up on the wheel, we wouldn’t be flying today.

    Avalos’ contention is that the Bible is not one of those wheels and I absolutely agree. It may be someone’s favorite culture book, but that is different from a wheel — sticking to your analogy.

  11. societyvs

    “The trick is to ALWAYS be able to question, doubt and transcend when possible. If we were too hung up on the wheel, we wouldn’t be flying today.” Sabio)

    True, we need to be able to…let’s hear it everyone…’modernize’!!!

    We move from the wheel to planes, but even planes have wheels for ‘safe landing gear and take-offs’. We build on one thing to bring about the invention of something much different – but in the same class (in this case transportation).

    “Avalos’ contention is that the Bible is not one of those wheels and I absolutely agree. It may be someone’s favorite culture book, but that is different from a wheel — sticking to your analogy” (Sabio)

    True, and it’s a contention I can understand why many people hold these days. However, I think faith does get modernized and like many of the fields I mentioned (like philosophy) can still be very useful tools in the hands of the right people.

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