Reading, Writing, and Revelation

| 126 Comments

That was the title of an article by Stephen Prothero in the Boulder Daily Camera this morning (March 19). Professor Prothero is the chairman of the religion department at Boston University, and his article was run on the Web site (latimes.com) of the Los Angeles Times under the title, “We live in the land of biblical idiots: Public school courses that promote Bible literacy can enhance our civic life.” Professor Prothero argues in favor of teaching the Bible as literature and the Bible in history. His primary argument is as follows:

Biblical illiteracy is not just a religious problem. It is a civic problem with political consequences. How can citizens participate in biblically inflected debates on abortion, capital punishment or the environment without knowing something about the Bible? Because they lack biblical literacy, Americans are easily swayed by demagogues on the left or the right who claim — often incorrectly — that the Bible says this about war or that about homosexuality.

One solution to this civic problem is to teach Bible classes in public schools. By Bible classes I do not mean classes in which teachers tell students that Jesus loves them or that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, but academic courses that study the Bible’s characters and stories as well as the afterlife of the Bible in literature and history. Last week, the Georgia Board of Education gave preliminary approval to two elective Bible courses designed to teach religion rather than preach religion. As long as teachers stick to the curriculum, this is a big step in the right direction.

As long as teachers stick to the curriculum. There, as Hamlet might have said, is the rub. Can we find enough teachers, especially in the Bible belt, who will not inject their religious or, for that matter, antireligious beliefs into the class? Indeed, given the difficulty of teaching biology in some schools, I wonder whether the students themselves will allow a secular discussion of the Bible or whether teachers will be pressured to teach from a religious perspective.

Whereas I agree with Professor Prothero in principle, I wonder if he is not making the same mistake as those who believe in nonoverlapping magisteria: despite what we think, they overlap.

I am afraid, therefore, that the headwriter at the Daily Camera may have got it right: Reading, Writing, and Revelation. Revelation, unfortunately, is exactly what we do not need in the public schools. I’d be very curious to know what others think of the proposal and especially whether anyone has had first-hand experience with teaching the Bible in the public schools?

126 Comments

What does this have to do with science education? Is bigotry now a course offering at the University of Ediacara?

I tend to think I have an OK grasp on the Bible. However, whenever someone tries to use the Bible to justify a certain action or inaction, I tend to toss those arguments and try to get the person to think “outside the book”. Even if I happen to agree on the person’s political desire of the outcome. Whatever the Bible happens to say about war or homosexuality is entirely indifferent to me. I know this is simply because I don’t believe in the divinity of the Bible, but it’s a stand I promote in any discussion regardless of my friend or foe.

And the fact that fundamentalist teachers would flock to these classes specifically to inject their dishonest, inaccurate views of the subject. The likelihood of this subject being taught honestly in public schools in the USA would be a bit less than the likelihood of getting a gourmet chef in the cafeteria.

We have a push for these courses here in Arkansas. A few districts have rejected the proposal, but others have enacted it. An objective course on the Bible would be great, but as made crystal clear from the statements of those who are promoting the courses, they represent nothing more than an attempt to put conservative protestant teaching in the schools. There is already tremendous pressure on my kids without the official sanctioning that these courses would provide.

“Bigotry” is not a course offering here, and indirectly it has a lot to do with science education. You have to be living with your head wrapped in lead foil and shoved in a box not to understand that the proselytizers of anti-evolutionary and anti-science “education” are at their core overwhelmingly concerned with ensuring that the public schools do not teach anything in conflict with their narrow sectarian views, and hopefully provide a pulpit for converting others to the faith.

Isn’t Prothero one of the bad guys in V for Vendetta?

Indeed, given the difficulty of teaching biology in some schools…

Which public school is it that is currently having difficulty teaching biology? And what does that have to do with a course in biblical literature anyway? I thought this was what the University of Ediacara wanted - the bible taught as ancient literature and out of science class. Is the University of Ediacara not content to stop at that distinction - now feeling it necessary to advocate removal of the bible from all public education?

It’s kind of funny what my reaction was when I first started reading this post:

Professor Prothero is the chairman of the religion department at Boston University, and his article

Oh, great, what “pearls of wisdom” is this religion professor going to tell us?

We live in the land of biblical idiots

Hmm, I agree with that. There are a lot of fundamentalists in this country who have supreme confidence in their own ignorance.

…Public school courses that promote Bible literacy can enhance our civic life

Oh, he means “Biblical idiots” in the sense that not enough people know their Bibles. (roll eyes)

Anyway, I don’t really think Biblical literacy will do much to benefit anything. The only thing Biblical literacy seems to do is make people ignorantly confident in their own preconceived ideas. Further, it reinforces the idea that the Bible is relevant to politics. (I’d like to see a lot less of it in politics.) What’s the Bible’s stance on issues like war, homosexuality, abortion, capital punishment, or the environment? You can probably find verses that support whatever you want (and then claim infallible, Biblical backing for *your* ideas).

For example, what about war? God told the Israelites to kill lots of people. Whenever Israel lost a war or was invaded, it was always claimed that it was their punishment for immorality. What does that tell us? That leaders who get the country into a losing war are not to blame? That defeat is just part of God’s plan to punish us for immorality (and therefore, Christians need to go on crusades against porn and homosexuality in order to make the country “right with God”)? On the other hand, Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God”, and “Put your sword away: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” So, which is it? Is God pro-war or should we take Jesus words seriously when he says, “for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword”?

What about the environment? The book of Genesis can be construed as saying that mankind should be good stewards of “God’s creation”. It has also been turned around to be interpreted as saying that we can do whatever the hell we want with the earth. And, quite a few Christians think that Jesus is going to return within their lifetimes anyway, so taking care of the environment shouldn’t even be a priority. Recently, there was a Christian meteorologist claiming that we don’t need to worry about Global Warming because God will make sure we don’t mess up the earth too badly. James Watt, who was Ronald Reagan’s first secretary of the interior, “told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. In public testimony he said, “after the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.”” So, what does the Bible tell us about taking care of the environment?

Abortion? The Bible doesn’t say anything at all about abortion, although there are some verses in Psalms about “knowing you before you were born”, which could easily be turned into a pro-life platform.

Ultimately, the answer to “what the Bible says about x” is something that really depends much more on what parts of the Bible they choose. Creating a curriculum just adds another layer to the whole “the Bible agrees with me!” “No it doesn’t!” battle. I have very little confidence that this curriculum could even be written “accurately” because there’s simply too many ways to spin it, and there are too many people claiming authoritative opinions about what the Bible says.

I think perhaps a sociology course in high school that focuses on multiple religions and how they influence people would be a better idea. I don’t buy the “Let’s teach about the bible (but just the bible) because other people believe it provides the answer to an issue” argument. Why aren’t they calling for a course on Islam in particular because of the “War on Terror?” I agree with Matt in that it would be used by many teachers for something completely different from what this person is saying it should be for.

“We live in a land of social idiots” might be a better quote - there are far too many people just acting on what influences them without thinking about the broader implications of those actions.

As a warning to others: Please don’t feed the *cough*chunkdz*cough* Troll.

hmmm. maybe it’s a good idea: i doubt that many of the people who cite the bible as their reference for moral behavior actually know what’s in it. contradictions (starting with genesis 1 and genesis 2); genocide; rape; fratricide; intolerance. the hierarchy had good reason for keeping the actual text of the bible away from the flock for 1500 years (by this, i mean ensuring that it was written in latin so only the clergy could read it; and not any of the (few) literate people). perhaps when people do analyse the bible, they’ll understand that it is certainly not the kind of document that can be used as a guide for ethical living.

Because they lack biblical literacy, Americans are easily swayed by demagogues on the left or the right who claim — often incorrectly — that the Bible says this about war or that about homosexuality.

How does he know what it “often incorrectly” says. The only way to make it “correctly” say something is to selectively pick out whatever you want. Everybody already does that. Give me a break.

While I generally agree with Matt Young that such courses would, in practice, be difficult to staff with adequately objective teachers, I think that it’s unfortunate really.

I’ve personally witnessed how effective a superior knowledge of the bible can be when arguing against some of the more aggressive fundamentalist types. (Mind you that this was not my own (limited) knowledge; I was observing someone else debate.) Specifically, when a person’s superior knowledge of biblical verse becomes evident, the cornered opponent inevitably invokes the biblical reference that Satan himself can quote scripture. Of course, this leaves the opponent in an odd philosophical predicament. Since their entire argument is based on biblical verse, how can we, the bystanders, be sure they themselves are not Satan or the Satan analogue? We can’t be. In short, once someone has been accused of being Satan, the argument must move away from verse-tossing. This can lead to either silence, which is golden, or a more fruitful line of discussion.

A Bible course? No, this is a bad idea. However, a religion course would be an excellent idea. Students graduating from high school would be much better prepared if they understood the similarities and differences among the world’s major religions. They should understand Hindu beliefs, the differences between the Shiite and Sunni branches of Islam, and the common roots of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths.

As long as Emo Phillips gets to teach:

I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said “Stop! don’t do it!” “Why shouldn’t I?” he said. I said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!” He said, “Like what?” I said, “Well…are you religious or atheist?” He said, “Religious.” I said, “Me too! Are you christian or buddhist?” He said, “Christian.” I said, “Me too! Are you catholic or protestant?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me too! Are you episcopalian or baptist?” He said, “Baptist!” I said,”Wow! Me too! Are you baptist church of god or baptist church of the lord?” He said, “Baptist church of god!” I said, “Me too! Are you original baptist church of god, or are you reformed baptist church of god?” He said,”Reformed Baptist church of god!” I said, “Me too! Are you reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1879, or reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1915?” He said, “Reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1915!” I said, “Die, heretic scum”, and pushed him off. – Emo Phillips

In principle I think that this is a great idea. Look to the Scandanavian countries and you’ll see pretty good education in relgious literacy. I think that the addition needs to be made though to make this about global religious literacy and therefore at least the other major religions of the world - Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism - need to be covered as well. I don’t believe this out of a sense of “fairness” per se because fairness can’t justify everything. IDiots cry for fairness. It’s out of a sense that young people today (and yesterday) in the U.S. are woefully equipped to understand the clashes of culture on the world stage and many of those have to do with the major religions mutual untenability next to one another. By learning about them, students can much more honestly understand the doctrines of individual religions and therefore act accordingly. Simple Biblical literacy is not enough in the face of the massive presence of the global religions. No doubt fundies will go bananas at this suggestion. And he is making part of the same error as NOMA. In theory this is a nice belief, but in practice it can only work by partitioning your beliefs. I would actually think that my above suggestion would erode fundamentalism and lead to either more agnosticism and/or ecumenicism.

Nearly half of teens think Sodom and Gomorrah were married.

Prothero isn’t guessing about ignorance of Biblical proportions. He gives a quiz and collects statistics, as recently reported in USA Today and Christian News.

It’s plausible that more knowledge could make it harder to mislead people by claiming Biblical authority. But in practice, the US may already have too many nuts for religious education to work.  I’ve heard that some public schools do it sensibly though.  Personal experience of this would be a good addition to comments here.

There is another argument in favor of the type of Bible course described here. Such literacy is indispensible to fully understand and appreciate much of Western art and literature.

When I was in grad school I had a house mate who was in the French department. One day she commented on her struggles to write an essay on some 17th century narrative about a man swallowed by a big fish. When I commented on the similarity to Jonah and the whale, she just looked at me blankly. She had grown up in a religion-free household and had no knowledge of the basic storyline or characters of the Bible. So she went off to the library to fill the gap in her education.

Having said this, though, I agree with other posters that it would be hard to maintain neutrality on this subject in a public school classroom, even if the curriculum was very carefully laid out.

Matt, my thoughts are as follows: Yes, this sort of thing could be done and have salutary results, but you need two things for this to be so:

1) a really, really, REALLY skilled instructor;

2) an explicit contract between the teachers, parents and students that sets limits on the freedom of religious expression for the purposes of the course

I might add that anything that exclusively looks at the Bible is vulnerable to sectarian manipulation or being perceived as the result of same. A general survey in philosophy and comparative religion would be much easier to defend, and to teach, IMO.

He was on the Daily Show last night and made some good points. He wasn’t claiming that Biblical literacy doesn’t make you a better person, he just says it makes you a more informed one. Whether you like it or not, this is pretty much a Christian society we live in, but even most Christians don’t really know the bible very well. The general population often make decisions that are based (or at least they think are based)on the Bible that are flat out wrong. Our elected officials are just as bad, if not worse. They then go on to make decisions about other cultures with other religions that they know absolutely nothing about. His goal isn’t so much Biblical literacy, it’s religious literacy in general.

A comparative religions class, done properly, would go a long way towards clearing up a lot of misconceptions people in this country have, but that’s the last thing fundamentalists of any strip want.

If you want your students to read something, all you have to do is ban it…if you want ‘em to ignore it for the most part, assign it as reading.

The author was on The Daily Show last night and he mentioned also learning about Islam and Hinduism.

He noted that most American leaders knew nothing about Sunni and Shi’ite.

In theory, Prothero makes a good point. In practice, however, as others here have already pointed out, such Bible classes would, inevitably, be packed with the very kind of intolerant activists that Prothero thinks would be debunked by the classes. The minute a “Bible class” was offered, every church would scramble to force THEIR interpretation of the Bible into it, because neither one could trust “others” to give the kids a fair and balanced picture of what the Bible is “really” about.

Of course, a skillful and audacious politician could really raise Hell, merely by getting fundie support for a Bible class, then putting a mainstream Catholic, Lutheran, or – horror of horrors! – a Unitarian in charge of the class, and watching the class’s supporters scream bloody murder and possibly start killing each other.

A “comparative religion” class is a much safer idea (although it does pose many of the same risks): as long as we’re dealing with Biblical idiots, why not deal with Koranic, Talmudic, and other idiots as well?

He noted that most American leaders knew nothing about Sunni and Shi’ite.

That is f’ing disturbing. Also that they don’t seem to know a hell of a lot more about their own religion…

A comparative religions class, done properly, would go a long way towards clearing up a lot of misconceptions people in this country have, but that’s the last thing fundamentalists of any strip want.

Agreed, but in my experience you’re much more likely to find folks who will “do it properly” at the college level, rather than in public schools. Which is unfortunate - by the time they get to college, a lot of students themselves seem too indoctrinated to approach the material objectively.

The minute a “Bible class” was offered, every church would scramble to force THEIR interpretation of the Bible into it, because neither one could trust “others” to give the kids a fair and balanced picture of what the Bible is “really” about.

Definitely could see that happening, at least in areas where everyone isn’t of the same denomination. Even churches of the same denomination have vastly different interpretations of what it’s “really” about, which is amusing.

Revelation, unfortunately, is exactly what we do not need in the public schools.

Even in ancient literature studies? And you base this assertion on… ???

Indeed, given the difficulty of teaching biology in some schools…

What school are you talking about, Matt? And what does this have to do with ancient lit?

Can we find enough teachers, especially in the Bible belt, who will not inject their religious or, for that matter, antireligious beliefs into the class?

Good question. Is there any polling data on the subject? Any research to support your claim that we don’t need this course in public schools?

…despite what we think, they overlap.

We shouldn’t teach the bible as ancient literature because religion and science overlap?!? I don’t follow the logic here.

Good grief, Matt. You are a respected author. How can you make this assertion that seems to be based on nothing more than a “can’t trust those fundies” argument? Is this really how we want to represent the University of Ediacara?

A comparative religions class, done properly, would go a long way towards clearing up a lot of misconceptions people in this country have, but that’s the last thing fundamentalists of any strip want.

Uh, Prothero wasn’t talking about a comparative religions class. He was talking about Bible class. (Notwithstanding the lip service he pays on whatever talk shows. Go read the article.) He thinks not enough people read the Bible and he wants more people to read the Bible. He’s afraid that not enough people are reading the Bible. I’m not saying he wants to promote his religion or anything, I’m just saying that he fears that not enough people know enough about his religion and so he would like more people to know lots more about his religion so that they can make the “correct” decisions based upon the religion to which he is religious about.

Prothero: “Because they lack biblical literacy, Americans are easily swayed by demagogues on the left or the right who claim — often incorrectly — that the Bible says this about war or that about homosexuality.”

If they want to know “correctly” what the Bible says about things, then they should ask the experts. For example: Al Sharpton, or the Pope, or Martin Luther, or Calvin, or the Archbishop of Canterbury, are all Biblical experts and so they all know the what the Bible correctly says about a whole lots of stuff.

I think it is a little disingenuous to say you want to teach the bible so your opponents would be better prepared for the debate!

I mean.…let’s send military equipment and advisers to Iran and China so when we finally go to war with them they are able to prosecute the war in a proper military manner!

If they want to know “correctly” what the Bible says about things, then they should ask the experts. For example: Al Sharpton, or the Pope, or Martin Luther, or Calvin, or the Archbishop of Canterbury, are all Biblical experts and so they all know the what the Bible correctly says about a whole lots of stuff.

Problem is they disagree on several key points (cf. Rowan Williams vs. Pope on homosexuality), and none of them has any more evidence than the other that they’re right and others - including e.g., Westboro Baptist Church - are wrong.

Syntax Error: not well-formed (invalid token) at line 5, column 12, byte 450 at /usr/local/lib/perl5/site_perl/5.12.3/mach/XML/Parser.pm line 187

One basic problem is, few people study the Bible unless and except their personal faith causes them to see merit in spending the necessary time and effort. Which, we seem to agree, would tend to disqualify them as disinterested instructors of the historical or sociological implications of Biblical-type beliefs.

Maybe we could have a rule that no bible instructor’s personal religious faith can use or reference the Bible in any way, since this produces observed guaranteed bias. But how many such people know anything about the Bible at all, or speak English, or understand the history the Bible has influenced, enough to trace that influence without being influenced by it? How many Americans can even identify what Hindu scripture even IS? AND understand Hindu-influenced history, AND speak the primary languages, yet are not Hindus themselves?

Good grief, Matt. You are a respected author. How can you make this assertion that seems to be based on nothing more than a “can’t trust those fundies” argument?

The fundies themselves have proven, time and again, that they can’t be trusted; so that seems a reasonably strong basis for an argument.

It may be irrelevant what anyone thinks as this Time article says that many hundreds of schools (perhaps a few thousand within a year or two) are already doing this. Prothero is featured.

Paul

Where’s your evidence that fundie lit teachers threaten science?

If you actually read what’s in this blog – and has been in it for years – you would not have to ask for evidence of fundie activists threatening honest science or science-education. Would you like me to repost all 100,000+ comments here on this thread to make them easier for you to read?

As for lit teachers specifically, if the creationists can insert a teacher – in any class – who then uses the class to bash evolution, then (in addition to threatening the kids with the usual fire-and-brimstone rhetoric) the “cdesign proponentsists’” PR machine could spin that as: “Look, not all teachers support evolution – there’s a raging controversy, and we should teach the controversy!”

Sounds like good old fear mongering to me.

Yeah, I’m sure the people who blame “Darwinism” for eugenics and the Holocaust – and made death-threats against some of the plaintiffs in the Dover trial – can tell us a LOT about “good old fear mongering.”

Even among one-track creationist trolls, chunkdz, you’re monotonous and boring. It must really suck to be you.

“Where’s your evidence that fundie lit teachers threaten science?” - chunkdz

“If you actually read what’s in this blog — and has been in it for years — you would not have to ask for evidence of fundie activists threatening honest science or science-education. Would you like me to repost all 100,000+ comments here on this thread to make them easier for you to read?” - raging bee

So, umm, raging bee, where’s your evidence that fundie lit teachers threaten science?

As for lit teachers specifically, if the creationists can insert a teacher — in any class — who then uses the class to bash evolution, then (in addition to threatening the kids with the usual fire-and-brimstone rhetoric) the “cdesign proponentsists’” PR machine could spin that as: “Look, not all teachers support evolution — there’s a raging controversy, and we should teach the controversy!”

Hmmm. Are you advocating screening out Christians from teaching positions? Or are you content with simply eliminating bible lit class? If, as you say, this threat can occur in any classroom, then truly no classroom is safe from the dangers of Christianity. Please clarify your position. Is it Bible lit class that has to go, or Christian teachers? (In the name of science education, of course)

Sounds like good old fear mongering to me.

“Yeah, I’m sure the people who blame “Darwinism” for eugenics and the Holocaust — and made death-threats against some of the plaintiffs in the Dover trial — can tell us a LOT about “good old fear mongering.””

Well, thanks for the tacit admission to fear mongering!

Even among one-track creationist trolls, chunkdz, you’re monotonous and boring. It must really suck to be you.

That was hurtful.

Chundz: The concern is with fundamentalist evangelists and their dishonest PR machine.

Some people have a problem with Christianity in general, personally I think there’s good and bad in it like any other creed, but the specific concern here is the Liars For Jesus, anti-knowledge camp.

If you don’t believe that there is such a thing, and that they have their sights set on elementary schools where you live, you haven’t been paying attention.

Are you advocating screening out Christians from teaching positions? Or are you content with simply eliminating bible lit class?

Does anything I’ve written really make you think I support either position? Or are you just making up assertions and connections out of thin air?

If, as you say, this threat can occur in any classroom, then truly no classroom is safe from the dangers of Christianity.

IS that what I say? Or are you drawing a bogus conclusion from a false premise?

Please clarify your position.

Why should I clarify anything for the “benefit” of someone who is so clearly determined to misrepresent what I say and fog everything up again?

That was hurtful.

Tough shit, Skippy – if you insist on spewing idiotic and dishonest statements, and misrepresenting what we say, then you’re going to get called on it. If you don’t like our reaction, change your action.

PS: chunkdz, if what I said was “hurtful,” it’s probably because, deep down at some level of your conscience, you know my “hurtful” statement was the truth, and can’t bring yourself either to admit it or to change your act.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Matt Young published on March 19, 2007 7:21 PM.

The deniers of science Part 2 was the previous entry in this blog.

Oregon teacher fired after veering from evolution textbook. is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Categories

Archives

Author Archives

Powered by Movable Type 4.361

Site Meter