Saturday, January 25, 2014

Bibles and places

Aunt Clara kept her Bible right next to the phone
In case she needed a quote when she talked to someone

Christians in Cedar Rapids got a shock this week, if they were paying attention, when the American Bible Society ranked our city 96th out of 100 in "Bible-mindedness." Used to thinking of ourselves as a typical, upstanding, not-terribly-exciting slice of middle America, we find ourselves sharing space with such bastions of liberalism as Boston and San Francisco, down the list from Las Vegas and New York City. And we're below Madison? Seriously??

The American Bible Society was founded in 1816, and appears from its website to have an evangelical orientation. "Bible-minded" is a crude measure of fundamentalism. According to the post on the ABS website, the survey was done of 46,274 households between 2006 and 2013. Respondents were classed as "Bible-minded" if (a) they had read the Bible in the previous seven days, AND (b) they responded "strongly agree" to question(s) about the "accuracy" of the Bible. Cities are ranked by the percentage of respondents who thereby qualify as Bible-minded  Chattanooga led with 51 percent, followed by Birmingham (50 percent), and Roanoke (48 percent). Cedar Rapids scored 17 percent. At #100, with a mere 9 percent, is Providence.

It's a pretty low threshold for Bible reading. It doesn't say whether you read it for an hour, or half an hour, or half a minute, just that you read it. That would produce interesting data in itself, of course, but what separates the occasional reader from the "Bible-minded" is not degree of devotion but interpretation of Scripture.

"Accuracy" is a highly problematic word in this context. What does it mean to say the Bible is "accurate?" A scale is accurate when it gives a precise measure of weight, but is that any kind of standard for a religious text? I Kings 7:23 has Hiram designing the Temple with circles whose circumference is three times the diameter, which would look like the kinds of circles I draw. The 16th century Church's insistence that the Book of Joshua provided a scientifically accurate depiction of the universe terrified Copernicus such that he delayed publication of his findings about the solar system until after his death. Did Methuselah actually live 969 365-day years? Was Sarah actually 99 years old when she bore Isaac? I think one could be quite sincere in their religious beliefs without affirming the accuracy of these numbers. What then is accurate? The interpretation of God's laws? The historical fact of the stories? The translation from the original language?

Are Goya's paintings "accurate?" I find a lot more truth in The Third of May 1808 than in a lot of well-meaning social science or journalism.

Assuming--I can't tell from the report--the question on accuracy was stated more or less as above, the meaning of the word "accuracy" is up to the respondent, which is a dangerous thing in survey sampling. My hunch is most people took it to mean some manner of factual accuracy, and so most of the people who "strongly agree" are fundamentalist Christians.

So we wind up with a map of fundamentalism in the United States. There are better measures out there, and less showy to boot. But the results are mostly what you'd expect. It is hard to tell what is the unit of analysis. The article refers to "cities," but they clearly mean some definition of metropolitan area. "Cedar Rapids/Waterloo" is not a city, they are two cities 50 miles apart. Nor are they part of a single metropolitan statistical area as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau. They are part of the same media market, but not near the top 100 in size. So how is Cedar Rapids, or "Cedar Rapids/Waterloo," even on this list?

Oh well, I quibble. To the map! Of the 32 cities in the first column of rankings, all are in Southern or border states except 4 (Wichita, Bakersfield, Indianapolis and Grand Rapids). That is not surprising for any measure of fundamentalism. The Midwest, Texas and Florida populate most of the middle column. The last column has a number of west coast cities, a lot from the northeast, and of course Cedar Rapids. Defining the northeast as Maryland and Delaware on up, only Johnstown/Altoona and Philadelphia appear in the middle column, with 15 cities in the last column. From the West Coast states, besides Bakersfield, there are three cities (Spokane, Portland and Sacramento) in the middle column, and six in the last.

How to account for Cedar Rapids's place on the list? They may have tapped into something I haven't; my hunch is that there was either too small a sample size or computational error. Cedar Rapids isn't the weirdest anomaly, though. How is Salt Lake City #87?

What difference does fundamentalism, or being "Bible-minded," make to the places people live? Someone should try correlating this list of Bible-minded cities with one of those lists of great places to live.

SOURCE: "The Most (and Least) Bible-Minded Cities in America,"

1 comment:

  1. Meanwhile, here in Bible-minded Madison, UW-Extension has just removed all the Bibles from the small hotel it runs.


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