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Meet the Non-Christians Who Take the Bible Literally, Word for Word

A recent Gallup poll on Americans' views of the Bible got fairly broad media attention, though it wasn't entirely clear what made the poll newsworthy. Was it that "Most Americans see the Bible as the Word of God"? Hard to see the news there—that's been true for as long as Gallup has been asking the question, and it remains true of 75 percent of the country.

But New York Times columnist Charles Blow still said he was "shocked and fascinated" by the religious literalism found by the poll. "What worries me is that some Americans seem to live in a world where facts can't exist," he wrote.

Others noted the poll's uptick in those who say, "The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man." The 21 percent of Americans who agreed with the statement is up from 17 percent in 2011, but matches the number from 2008 (and all of that falls within the poll's 4% margin of error).

"The 21% viewing the Bible in secular terms nearly matches the combined 22% who identify with another religion or no religion," the Gallup release said. But further down, in discussing a new way the polling firm is starting to ask its Bible questions, it noted that only half of non-Christians agreed with the description of the Bible as "an ancient book of fables."

And then came something truly "shocking and fascinating": 11 percent of non-Christians say the Bible "is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word."

Before we get to this strange group of people who think the Bible is the literal word of God but don't identify as Christians, we need to take a closer look at the question.

Generally, CT hasn't reported much on answers to the poll item, which is used more or less verbatim among many social science surveys, not just Gallup's. It always struck us as strangely worded, attempting to divide those who view the Bible as "the actual word of God, to be taken literally word for word" and those who view the Bible as "the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally."

Gallup claims their question

touches on two ongoing debates in Christian theology. One is about whether the words of the Bible came directly from God—essentially using the writers as scribes—or if they are the words of men, but guided by divine inspiration. The other debate involves the meaning of the words: whether they should be taken literally, or be viewed partly—or merely—as metaphors and allegories that allow for interpretation.

Except that it doesn't really touch on those debates, because those debates aren't terribly live ones. No evangelical seminary teaches that the Bible's authors mechanically transcribed the Holy Spirit's dictation. And no evangelical pastor teaches that "everything in it should be taken literally." Everyone allows for parables, figures of speech, poetic exaggeration, and the like. Yes, there's live debate over certain passages, but the word "everything" obliterates all nuance, and no evangelical leader would be terribly happy identifying with one statement and criticizing the other.

Gallup is now trying an additional option: "the Bible is the actual word of God, but multiple interpretations are possible." The new answer doesn't solve a whole lot. Debates aren't over whether the Bible has passages that are up for interpretation, but over specific interpretations of specific passages. Still, what's notable is that non-Christians love this answer: 21 percent agree with it. If offered among the choices, those saying the Bible is the "actual word of God and should be taken literally word for word" drops from 11 percent to 6 percent. Those saying the Bible is "the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally" drops from 30 percent to 19 percent. By a small margin, non-Christians would rather say it's the actual word of God, open to interpretation, than that it's the inspired word of God with some non-literal stuff in it. When given this new response as an option, even the "ancient book of fables" number drops among non-Christians, from 55 percent to 51 percent.

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