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Sunday, 12 July 2009

How well do you know your Bible?

Bible knowledge is on the decline in Britain. Fewer than one in twenty are able to name all of the Ten Commandments, and a number of youngsters thought the Bible “old-fashioned”.

Well, it is, I suppose. It’s been around for quite a while now.

A survey, according to the Reuters story linked to above, says that 40 per cent “did not know that the tradition of exchanging Christmas presents originated from the story of the Wise Men bringing gifts for the infant Jesus, while 60 per cent could not name anything about the Good Samaritan, the Durham University study found”.

Not sure about that: gift giving on special occasions is as old as the hills, but let’s let it go. It could be right.

The story continues:

Atheists, however, were not unduly worried about the decline in the Bible’s popularity.

“It shows really that religion is becoming less important to people,” said Pepper Harow, campaigns officer at the British Humanist Association.

“The fact that people have little knowledge of the Bible perhaps suggests that it’s becoming less and less relevant to people in the 21st century,” she said.

Despite the lack of enthusiasm about the Bible among the 900 respondents, three-quarters said they owned one and almost a third said it was significant in their lives

I’m only half celebrating here. Although I’m a nontheist, I find that so many phrases, aphorisms, adages, maxims and mottos crop up in other literature, including Shakespeare, that a knowledge of where they came from adds to the enjoyment of the place we’re now finding them.

Rational-minded people tend to eschew the Bible as a source of useful fact, yes, but it’s nonetheless a collection of writings that make interesting reading, just as those from any religious tradition might make interesting reading to those who care to study them – theists or not.

The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, likewise, make interesting reading and often have morals embedded, but no one is going to pretend that Rumpelstiltskin, Snow White, the Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel or the Frog Prince existed in real life.

It’s a pity that it can’t be taught as part of literature lessons, without all the need to believe in the God stuff. As it is, it’s pushed down kids’ throats as part of boring old RE, which many older pupils opt for because it’s an easier ride than, say, Eng. lit. or physics, and younger ones have no choice in the matter, anyway.

If it were taught in a way that makes it interesting, makes the words enjoyable in themselves, perhaps more people would have a reasonable knowledge of it.

It’s hard to believe, too, that there are people walking about probably aware, vaguely, of the phrases “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not steal”, without knowing they’re two of the Ten Commandments (the shortest two, as it happens).

Or that the oft-used phrases “graven image” and “sins of the fathers” are be found in the second Commandment; or “honour thy father and they mother” in the fifth (in the Anglican tradition, anyway).

And that’s only about the Commandments.

And there’s nothing to make us think that a lack of knowledge of the Bible denotes a movement away from religion in all cases, because so many people follow like sheep and know jack shit about what lies behind their blind faith. They perhaps can’t quote a Commandment or tell you whether Exodus is the first, second or third book of which testament (assuming they know it’s split into testaments), but they’ll be out there demanding special privileges for religion – specifically their religion.

That said, the idea of cramming, as happens in madrassas, where kids are force-fed the Koran and made to memorise it, is just pisspottery. They end up able to quote it – uselessly – but that in itself doesn’t make them any better able to understand what lies behind it.

It’s ironic, I suppose, that many secularists and nontheists know more about the Bible than many professing Christians do. I have a brother who, while admitting knowing less about the Bible than I do (and that’s not a lot), professes Christianity; and, if I’d thought of it when he declaimed it in a conversation a few years ago with the words “Well, I’m a Christian”, I’d have said, “How do you know?”

Ah l’esprit d’escalier, eh?

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