Rick Warren’s Illiteracy Problem

The Christian Post reported recently that megapastor Rick Warren has discerned a significant problem among American Christians: Biblical illiteracy. In the face of this, he’s launching a new Bible study called “40 Days in the Word.” In a year-end webcast he plugged the new study, insisting that “Americans are biblically illiterate. They just don’t know the Word of God… Our parents’ generation knew the Word of God pretty well. My generation knew a little bit. The next generation knows none of it.”

He may be right. Over the last several years it has become clear that American Christians know little about the Bible, and in 2010 Pew study atheists and agnostics performed better on a test of basic biblical knowledge than did Christians. It’s a problem. Christians should know more about the book they profess to love. They should not be biblically illiterate.

But there are other kinds of illiteracy. There is, for example, scientific illiteracy. It too is a problem in America. And there is evidence that it is related to religious beliefs. This is hardly surprising. When one is raised to see science as the enemy of faith; when churches actively work against science education; when a literal understanding of Genesis is a requirement for faculty at major seminaries, scientific literacy suffers.

It is easy to blame extreme anti-science people like Albert Mohler and Ken Ham for this problem, and some responsibility does fall on them.

But I suspect more moderate leaders like Warren have a lot to do with it. Warren’s own views on evolution, while less hysterically expressed than those of Mohler and Ham, are not finally distinguishable from them. In a 2007 Newsweek debate with Sam Harris, Warren declared, “Do I believe in evolution[?] The answer is no, I don’t. I believe that God, at a moment, created man… Did God come down and blow in man’s nose? If you believe in God, you don’t have a problem accepting miracles. So if God wants to do it that way, it’s fine with me.”

In his opinion on evolution, Warren displays his own considerable scientific illiteracy. That in itself is not too big a deal; one man rejecting evolution is not news. But when that man is Rick Warren, a major Christian figure who has, despite his conservative credentials, pushed the evangelical envelope on a number of environmental and social issues, the rejection carries a lot of freight.

Warren has, for the most part, been quiet about evolution ever since his debate with Harris. Does this diminish the importance of his opinion? Hardly. It is not true that the more loudly and earnestly one opines on a topic, the more his opinion will be adopted by others. In fact, it often works the other way around.

Maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree. Warren has never been big on factual knowledge. His task is different; he says that his new Bible study has as its goal nothing less than the transformation of lives: “The Bible says that God’s word was given to transform our lives, not simply to inform our lives. It wasn’t given to increase our knowledge, but to change our lives.”

But increases in knowledge can lead to personal transformation. It happens all the time. This aside, someone with Warren’s intelligence and experience should know that it never pays to reject entire branches of knowledge without qualification. He listened to scientists on climate change; why not evolution? Because of the Genesis thing?

His new venture may assist in solving the biblical illiteracy problem, but by overlooking his own scientific illiteracy and insisting that evolution is false, Rick Warren has done nothing but hurt science and religion dialogue in America.

Here’s hoping he’ll come around one day.

paul@psnt.net'

Paul Wallace is a freelance writer who is currently teaching physics at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga. He recently received his MDiv with a concentration in historical theology from Emory University. Formerly a department chair and professor of physics and astronomy at Berry College in Rome, GA, Paul lives in Atlanta with his wife and three children. He blogs at psnt.net.