The Divinity of the American Individual

Each year, the American Bible Society commissions a study it calls “The State of the Bible.” The Barna Group conducts the polling and data collection and the survey segment is American adults, 18 and older. This year’s survey reveals some very interesting results.

The majority of respondents (56%) said they believe that the Bible has too little of an influence on American society, far outnumbering those who believe the Bible has too much influence (13%). This obviously means that the majority of citizens believe the Bible should be more of an influencing factor in society than it is currently; they desire to see the Bible and its teachings take on a greater, rather than a lesser, role. Happily, this desire is a distinct possibility since 88% of American homes possess at least one copy of the Bible, with the vast majority owning two or more copies. It would seem that the only thing preventing the Bible from having more influence is people actually reading it, believing it, and acting accordingly. And this is precisely where the data gets most interesting.

66 percent of those surveyed agreed with the following statement: “The Bible contains everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life.” This sounds like good news on the surface. The major proportion of American adults hold the Bible in high regard; such high regard, in fact, that they believe it is all a person needs to find meaning and purpose in life. However, Barna also found that 58 percent of the same respondents said that they personally were “not interested in receiving input and wisdom of any of the topics listed.” The topics listed included: family conflict, parenting, sexuality, dating, divorce, technology, and illness/death. So, while 66 percent believe that the Bible is vitally important and necessary to meaningfulness, 58 percent are unwilling to listen to what the Bible has to say. Even if we make the generous assumption that this 58 percent included the 34% who did not agree that the Bible “contains everything” needed for a meaningful life, it still leaves an overlap of 24% between the two. This means that at least a quarter (experience informs us that it is likely much higher) of Americans think the Bible is necessary and important for others, but it is not necessary and important for them. There is a word for such people: hypocrites.

There is story about Voltaire, the French writer, that he told his mistress: “Don’t tell the servants there is no God or they’ll steal the silver.” Whether this is a real statement or an apocryphal one, the sentiment is accurate of what Voltaire wrote elsewhere. He believed that God, or the concept of a God, is necessary for some (most) because they require the threat of punishment in order to be “good.” God, for Voltaire, was necessary because of his belief that many were incapable of living virtuous lives without an all-seeing eye watching their every move; it’s the equivalent of a lifelong parent for a society of lifelong children. Voltaire was convinced of his own superiority and abilities, yet was unconvinced about everyone else’s. Many Americans would agree.

If “The State of the Bible, 2013” shows us anything, it’s that Americans (or at least a quarter of them) are really humanists, not Christians. Henry Grady Weaver, in The Mainspring of Human Progress, defines pagans as being “controlled by some authority outside themselves… either a living god or some exalted person… endowed with divine or supernatural attributes.” Further, he writes:

When his faith begins to waver, he is more likely to change the name of the imaginary authority—or to assume that it controls everyone except himself—than to accept the nonpagan view that human beings are self-controlling.

In this regard, many Americans have left “paganism” and embraced “humanism,” the idea that “man is the measure of all things.” And not just “man” in general, mind you, but man specifically, such that each man measures everyone else by himself. Americans have taken their individualism to such an extent that they have come to believe that while the Bible is good for others, it is unnecessary for them. They prove this by not reading it, even though they own many copies of it. It has become nothing but a talisman, a house god, a good-luck charm. Until Americans understand that it is not “everyone else” that is the problem, America will only slide further into moral decay.