Sunday, September 17, 2006

Are the Gospels Trustworthy?

BeliefNet excerpts a portion from a book by prominent New Testament scholar N.T. Wright talking about the historical trustworthiness of the four canonical Gospels. Wright explains why the Gospel of Thomas, pace Dan Brown's claims in the DaVinci Code, fails to be reliable history.

Against those who claim that the Gospels were written long after Jesus' death and are therefore unreliable, Wright points out that:

What is more, those four canonical gospels must all have been written by about AD 90 at the very latest. (I am inclined to think they are probably a lot earlier than that, but they cannot be later.) They are known and referred to by Christian writers in the first half of the second century.... And they incorporate, and are based on, sources both oral and written which go back a lot earlier, sources from the time when not only most of Jesus's followers were still alive and active within the early Christian movement, but when plenty of others--bystanders, opponents, officials--were still around, aware of the new movement as it was growing, and ready to challenge or contradict tales that were gaining currency.

There's more in the excerpt at the link.

The Four Gods

Baylor University has recently released the results of a survey it conducted on religious belief in America. The Baylor Religion Survey is a project focused on improving understanding of American religion and is "the most extensive and sensitive study of religion ever amassed". A story about the survey can be read here. The survey itself and its results are here.

The Baylor Religion Survey documents that:

A third of Americans (33.6 percent), roughly 100 million people, are Evangelical Protestants by affiliation.
The majority (62.9 percent) of Americans not affiliated with a religious tradition believe in God or some higher power.
More than a quarter have read Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, but likelihood of reading the book decreases with church attendance.

One of the interesting questions the survey asked had to do with the kind of God people believe in. What researchers found was that the type of God people believe in is a better predictor of their political and moral attitudes than is their religious tradition.

Researchers also found that none of the "Four Gods" dominated among believers. The data showed that:

Individuals who believe in an Authoritarian God (Type A, 31.4%) tend to think that God is highly involved in their daily lives and world affairs. They tend to believe that God helps them in their decision-making and is also responsible for global events such as economic upturns or tsunamis. They also tend to feel that God is quite angry and is capable of meting out punishment to those who are unfaithful or ungodly.

Believers in a Benevolent God (Type B, 25%) tend to think that God is very active in our daily lives. These individuals are less likely to believe that God is angry and acts in wrathful ways. Instead, the Benevolent God is mainly a force of positive influence in the world and is less willing to condemn or punish individuals.

Those who believe in a Critical God (Type C, 16%) feel that God really does not interact with the world. Nevertheless, God still observes the world and views the current state of the world unfavorably. These individuals feel that God's displeasure will be felt in another life and that divine justice may not be carried out in this world.

Believers in a Distant God (Type D, 23%) think that God is not active in the world and not especially angry either. These individuals tend towards thinking about God as a cosmic force which set the laws of nature in motion. As such, God does not "do" things in the world and does not hold clear opinions about our activities or world events.

Atheists are certain that no God exists. Nevertheless, they may still hold very strong opinions concerning the morality of human behavior and ideals of social order, but they have no place for the supernatural in their larger worldview.

Other demographic relationships and religious effects surrounding the "Four Gods" include the following:

There is a strong gender effect in belief in God. Women tend towards very engaged images of God (Types A an B) while men tend towards less engaged images (Type D) and are more likely to be atheists.

Region of the country is significantly related to the four types of God. Easterners tend towards belief in a Critical God; Southerners tend towards an Authoritarian God; Midwesterners believe in a Benevolent God; and the West Coast believes in a Distant God.

Individuals with lower educations and lower incomes tend towards more engaged images of God.

Individuals with more engaged images of God (Types A and B) are more likely to attend church weekly and pray several times a day.

God's anger alone does little to inspire religious participation such as prayer and church attendance.

Catholics and Mainline Protestants tend towards belief in a more Distant God. Evangelical Protestants and 53.4 percent of Black Protestants tend towards belief in a more Authoritarian God.

Jews tend towards belief in a Distant God and over 8% of Jews in our sample report being atheists. Over 40% of Americans who are not affiliated with a church, synagogue or mosque are atheists.

Individuals who feel strongly that God is a "he" tend towards belief in an Authoritarian God.

The Four Gods have a significant effect upon abortion attitudes. Approximately 12 percent (12.2%) of the American public believe that abortion is wrong in all circumstances, however those who believe in an Authoritarian God are nearly twice as likely (23.4%) to believe that abortion is always wrong. Those who believe in a Distant God are much less likely to condemn abortion (1.5%).

The Four Gods are also significantly correlated with other issues related to marriage, such as gay marriage, premarital sex, and divorce.

"This is a very powerful tool to understand core differences in the United States," one member of the research team said. "If I know your image of God, I can tell all kinds of things about you. It's a central part of world view and it's linked to how you think about the world in general."

Indeed, the results run to 74 pages and are a rich mine of information that will probably take years to exhaust. Check it out.