Friday, 30 August 2013

RIP Elaine Morgan

I've only just heard Elaine Morgan died a couple of months ago. She made it to 92, which is a good run
and not something to be desperately sad about. But we have a particular  fondness for her in our house.

Morgan wrote a book in 1972 called 'The Descent of Woman' which explored the idea that our pre-human ancestors went through an aquatic phase, and that this has left us with features that make us different from our near cousins such as walking upright, hairlessness etc.

She was particularly keen to explore how features of the female of the species turned up. All of the standard narratives concentrated on 'man the mighty hunter' who climbed down from the trees, grabbed a stick to use as a spear, and ran off across the savannah pursuing antelopes.

The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis is a controversial theory, and when I say controversial I mean it is largely dismissed by professional anthropologists. Whenever I hear it being dismissed I find myself unconvinced by the dismisser, but I'm no anthropologist. They may be right. Morgan herself was a writer rather than a scientist, but she was a very good writer, and her book caused quite a storm at the time. She pursued the theory with more books over the years.

Our particular fondness comes from our courting days. Mrs and I were a couple of geeky kids (perhaps the only two geeky kids in our small town) who found each other not very long after Morgan's book came out. Mrs had a biology teacher (yes, still at school) who was happy to loan her books so we spent our dates reading things like Morgan and Goodall and talking about them. Happy days!

But a bit more than that. Until around then I had been pretty much only interested in physics. Not that I was very good at it, but it is what I liked. Mrs had interests in biology and actually a ton of other stuff I had never given a thought to. So Morgan's book, for me, represents a general leap in awareness of things that don't involve rockets or electrons but do involve evolution and Jane Austen.

I like to think the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis has merit, but even if it doesn't I feel I owe much to Elaine Morgan. Mrs and I still share our geeky books over 40 years later.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

How many moderate Christians are there?

I did some digging on this when responding to a G+ post here and I find myself referring back to it and having to search (again). So I've turned it into this blog post. The G+ post was talking about the number of people who say they believe everything in the Bible and yet don't actually read it, which would be an odd way to go about things.

But here I'm just wondering how many Christians actually do believe the Bible is the unerring word of God? Whether they read it or not.
One of the links on the G+ post pointed to something that said this:
"The survey showed the Bible is still firmly rooted in American soil: 88 percent of respondents said they own a Bible, 80 percent think the Bible is sacred, 61 percent wish they read the Bible more, and the average household has 4.4 Bibles." 

Now, that isn't the same as asking if they think the Bible is the unerring word of God. I'd answer 'yes' to a question about the Bible being sacred. But 'no' to an 'unerring word of God' question. And I have 4.4 Bibles :)

It took some digging to find an appropriate survey but I found one here. The stats quoted are from US surveys.
Since it is on the Internet I assume it is perfectly accurate :) and it tells me:
"58% believe that the Bible is "totally accurate in all its teachings"

There it is, a bit more than half, but not much more. Some of the ra-ra noises the media makes you'd think it would be more. Well, there are the numbers. it isn't.

But there is more information in that second link. It also refers to a poll in 1987 of American clergy. They were asked whether they believed that the Scriptures are the inspired and inerrant Word of God in faith, history, and secular matters:
95% of Episcopalians,
87% of Methodists,
82% of Presbyterians,
77% of American Lutherans, and
67% of American Baptists said 
Wait for it....

"No."

Remember these are the people who preach to the Christians who actually turn up on a Sunday. You might expect their congregations to at least roughly accept the views of the clergy who preach to them. 

There's a discrepancy in the numbers, from 58% of everyone to 67% of Baptists, the lowest number. It would be explained by more people belonging to the Baptist churches, and the more fundamentalist ones being bigger, but also note there aren't figures for Catholics here. So we're in pretty woolly territory and everything is approximate. Also I am a little suspicious of the 58% figure because people who don't really think that much about Christianity may have answered yes because they thought it was the right answer.

I am using the term 'moderate Christian' here to contrast with 'fundamentalist Christian'. I don't quite like the term 'moderate'. It is not as if our love for Jesus is necessarily moderate, just that we don't think the Bible trumps everything when there is any question of any kind to answer. We use the Bible as a guidebook for getting to know God rather than a body of legislation. We know it was written by men (no, there aren't any women writers in there, sadly) who were embedded in a culture different from ours and we know that we are allowed to make progress in our thinking about God. So when St Paul comes across as misogynistic and seems comfortable with slavery we can just shrug and say he didn't know any better. And that's okay. When we read some Psalm that rejoices in the hope that God will smite the writer's enemies it's much the same. And when we read about the world being created in seven days that's really not a problem. It was never a science textbook and those early writers were not scientists.

The odd thing is that the people who say they believe absolutely every word of it also pick the bits they like and ignore the bits they don't care for. They don't like gays because it says in Leviticus that they have to be put to death. But they don't want them actually put to death (that's good, actually). Same with adulterers. That could get awkward, couldn't it? There are some seriously heavy words about divorce in the New Testament where Jesus points out that the Old Testament divorce laws (that allowed divorce) were a kind of cop out, and not strict enough. I am reminded of the line in 'Pirates of the Caribbean'. They're not rules, they're guidelines.

There might be some rare exceptions but by this definition all Christians are moderate. It's just that some of us admit it and some don't.