Posted August 16, 2011 by The Underground Staff in Commentary and News

How Christians interpret the Bible is influenced by education level of church members, study says

A new study reveals that the way a person interprets the Bible can be influenced by the level of education of the co-parishioners in one’s church. 

The study, Education and Religion: Individual, Congregational, and Cross-Level Interaction Effects on Biblical Literalism, is the work of Samuel Stroope, a sociology student pursuing his doctorate at Baylor University.

Stroope’s paper won the Robert J. McNamara Award for Outstanding Student Paper, awarded by the prestigious Association for the Sociology of Religion.

According to the study, which culled data from the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, churchgoers who have a greater frequency of contact with co-parishioners who attended college, are less likely to interpret the Bible literally, regardless of their own educational level.

Stroope explained that when a churchgoer hears a college educated person discussing the Bible analytically as opposed to literally, it can influence his own understanding of the Bible.

Stroope based his study on data that was gathered in 2001 from 387 congregations nationwide, with more than 100,000 parishioners. He examined the effect that the interaction of parishioners with different educational background levels had on each other.

In conclusion, the study noted that regardless of the educational background of an individual, his or her approach to the interpretation of the Bible tends to be less literal when a larger number of co-parishioners had gone to college.

“When you go to Sunday school and everyone is talking about the cultural and historical background of a passage and its literary genre-a way of reading often learned in college-it’s likely to rub off on you,” Stroope said.

Stroope added that the findings of his study show that social influences inside a church congregation can shape the way that people read the Bible.

Stroope chose this topic of study because of another recent research paper that indicated that there is a strong relationship between the level of education that a person has, and that person’s view of the Bible.

He is referring, here, to a study by Philip Schwadel, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociologist, who learned that for every additional year of education one has, one’s likeliness to go to church is raised by 15 percent, and one’s tendency to read the Bible is raised by nine percent.

Stroope noted that based on the Schwadel study, no one had yet explored the impact that the level of education of fellow churchgoers could have on an individual parishioner.

For this reason, he chose to investigate the social dynamics of churches and how it can influence the way that a churchgoer reads and interprets the Bible.

Stroope’s paper will be presented on August 20 at the 73rd annual conference of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, which will be held in Las Vegas.

The paper will also be published in the journal, Social Science Research. The edition will be released in the fall.

“I am not at all surprised to learn that Sam Stroope has won a national student paper award,” Dr. Charles Tolbert II, who heads Baylor’s department of sociology, told Science Blog.

“It has been a pleasure to watch him develop as a scholar and to collaborate with him,” Tolbert told Science Blog. “You can see the passion he has for his research and the tenacity with which he digs in.”

“This award reflects well … also on the trajectory of our doctoral program,” Tolbert told Science Blog. “For a number of years, our students have been winning paper awards from regional professional associations. Now, Sam’s accomplishments show that we can compete with the very best nationally.”

Dr. Rachel Kraus, chair of the reviewing committee, said Stroope’s paper “examined an interesting topic and had a strong discussion of the findings and implications.”

Kraus, who is also an associate professor of sociology, Ball State University, Muncie, Ind., said Stroope’s paper also had a “strong social structural component to the analysis. [It] moves beyond description in an attempt to explain social phenomena.”