Theocracy Watch III: Education Edition

Never satisfied with compromise, never willing to accept anything less than complete dominion, the forces of theocracy are again on the attack against the constitutional guarantees that have made the United States of America what it is. In particular, there has lately been a rash of cases targeting those who are most vulnerable – the children who attend our public schools. Nowhere is it more important to be vigilant in defending the wall of separation between church and state than here. As the Supreme Court wrote in Edwards v. Aguillard, “Families entrust public schools with the education of their children, but condition their trust on the understanding that the classroom will not purposely be used to advance religious views that may conflict with the private beliefs of the student and his or her family. Students in such institutions are impressionable and their attendance is involuntary.”

First, a story about one of the religious right’s oldest tactics: lobbying for the banning of books to prevent others from being exposed to ideas that the religious right finds objectionable. This story comes via the blog Street Prophets, where we learn that a group calling itself “Called2Action” is lobbying for the removal of three books from public school English curricula in Raleigh, North Carolina. Although the district already has a policy allowing parents to request alternative reading assignments if they are offended by a book’s content, that is insufficient for this group – they want them removed from schools altogether so that no student has the option to read them, even if that student’s parents don’t object. As one of the group’s action alerts says (source), “These books should not be an option in middle school”. And to magnify the hypocrisy, many of the leaders of C2A do not even have children in public schools. They want to exert control solely over what other people’s children are reading.

We move now to Georgia, where both houses of the Republican-controlled state legislature voted in April to encourage school districts statewide to teach an elective course on the Bible, and provide state funding for that purpose. What makes this especially egregious is that the legislature rejected a similar bill proposed by Democrats, encouraging a Bible course using a textbook called “The Bible and Its Influence”, which was developed and endorsed by a variety of religious and legal groups, including the First Amendment Center, as a constitutionally permissible guide to teaching about religion in a neutral way. (The effort to defeat this bill was spearheaded by evangelist D. James Kennedy, who lied by claiming that the ACLU and Islamic groups had endorsed the book in a move calculated to appeal to conservative voters’ prejudices.) In place of this, the Republican bill uses the Bible itself as the textbook, and supplements it with secondary sources of which most are “from an evangelical Christian perspective”, according to the linked article, and which have been condemned as containing numerous factual inaccuracies.

In juxtaposition, these stories present an interesting contrast. On the one hand, Christians oppose the use of books in public school curricula that contain references to sex, violence, and foul language. On the other hand, they are pushing for the inclusion and teaching of the Bible, which contains far more sex, violence and obscene passages than any of the challenged books, in that same public school system. What would censorship-happy theists say about allowing children to read passages such as this?

Lot and his two daughters left Zoar and settled in the mountains, for he was afraid to stay in Zoar. He and his two daughters lived in a cave. One day the older daughter said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is no man around here to lie with us, as is the custom all over the earth. Let’s get our father to drink wine and then lie with him and preserve our family line through our father.” (Genesis 19:30-32)

What type of wholesome moral lesson will passages like this one impart to young people?

“Moses, Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the community went to meet them outside the camp. Moses was angry with the officers of the army — the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds — who returned from the battle.

“Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the Lord in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people. Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.” (Numbers 31:13-18)

What sort of morality will they learn after reading verses such as the following?

While they were enjoying themselves, some of the wicked men of the city surrounded the house. Pounding on the door, they shouted to the old man who owned the house, “Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him.”

The owner of the house went outside and said to them, “No, my friends, don’t be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don’t do this disgraceful thing. Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish. But to this man, don’t do such a disgraceful thing.”

But the men would not listen to him. So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight.

When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold. He said to her, “Get up; let’s go.” But there was no answer. Then the man put her on his donkey and set out for home.

When he reached home, he took a knife and cut up his concubine, limb by limb, into twelve parts and sent them into all the areas of Israel. Everyone who saw it said, “Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came up out of Egypt. Think about it! Consider it! Tell us what to do!” (Judges 19:22-30)

Personally, I do not support any initiative to teach the Bible in public schools. Such courses have been used so often by evangelical groups as a disguise for attempts to proselytize that any attempt to do must be considered suspect. In any case, there is no shortage whatsoever of opportunity for people in our culture to learn about the Bible; given the abysmal state of science education in this country, the precious instructional time in schools should be used for that instead. (That abysmal state is itself brought about and encouraged by right-wing Christians, of course. That point is made in an excellent editorial from the open-access journal PLoS Biology, Scientific Illiteracy and the Partisan Takeover of Biology, which makes an incisive observation: “The era of nonpartisan science is gone”. The Republican party has been taken over by elements openly hostile to science, as commentators such as Chris Mooney have noted, and if scientists want to continue their work in peace and foster public understanding, they must support efforts to defeat those elements.)

However, if the Bible is to be taught, it must be done through a course that treats the subject matter in a neutral fashion that does not prejudge the accuracy of the claims it contains. The course suggested by the Democratic lawmakers was better in that respect, which makes it no surprise that the Republicans scuttled it. For all the reasonable-sounding Christian requests for “fairness”, or to “teach the controversy”, when push comes to shove it is made clear time and again that the only thing these theocrats really want is for their religious beliefs to be treated as absolute truth and for all others to be shut out.

Other posts in this series:

Atlas Shrugged: Bring Me a New Black Guy
Atlas Shrugged: The Rapture of the Capitalists
The FLDS Cult Is Unraveling
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    Wait, what’s wrong with teaching the bible? I took a bible class myself. Using nothing except the bible, along with a concordance, we read threw several gospels, epistles, Genesis, Exodus, and a handful of the endless kings and judges and profits. We learned quite a bit and I obtained nothing except about 100 more reasons to remain an atheist. (I wish I had had the Skeptics Annoted Bible at the time; would have made for some good discussion!) I think any kid in the western powers should know about the bible itself; should be able the references rife within documents and writings, should understand the faith surrounding them. I wasn’t the only atheist in there either. As long as it’s an optional class that is clearly marked as a literature course (it was Bible as Literature, technically), I think it’s a good thing. Studying it’s influence specifically merges more with history. I would have taken both.

    Don’t get me wrong, I understand the thrust here; I just think that we shouldn’t oppose anything that do when some ideas are good. I was regretful that I couldn’t take a class on the Quran or other religions (even though there were several Muslims in the bible class!), but that doesn’t mean it’s all bad. Lots of variety is good.

  • Lillymon

    BlackWizardMagus: I think Ebon has few problems with teaching about the Bible (its influence on society and culture) but he does have problems with teaching the Bible itself (i.e. Christianity). The Democratic proposal would’ve done the former, while the Republican proposal is clearly designed to do the latter.

    I have no problems with people learning about the Bible either, but there’s learning and then there’s indoctrination. We need to be careful about which the next generation of people are getting.

  • andrea

    There’s nothing wrong with studying the Bible but it must be the whole Bible, not just the “nice” parts (and it should be taught with the other holy books). Then people can make a true choice of whether to believe it or not. If it’s not the whole things, it’s just propaganda and recruitment. There might be a few people who actually understand it may be supposed to be a “literature” course, but most won’t.

  • Dominic Self

    Our education system is slightly strange in this respect. Technically, there is a requirement for daily Christian worship although this is largely ignored by many schools, and, in fact, my area has it lifted altogether in favour of ‘broadly based collective worship’ which translates to assemblies about littering.

    The result is that we are left with RE (Religious Education) lessons which consist of a broad, dull meander through various religions noting the holy days, festivals, key stories of each. I remember a worksheet which once asked ‘Draw the creation of the universe according to Scientific and Christian beliefs.’ Hence I turned the Big Bang into a Batman-style BANG! in the middle of a blank page before our teacher realised that this pushed the bounds of stupidity too far and told us we didn’t have to do it.

    In fact, I opposed the idea of adding atheism on the grounds that RE plays a valuable part in making children utterly bored and disillusioned with whatever is taught in those silly lessons. :)

  • Ebonmuse

    I wouldn’t mind seeing the Bible taught if it were done in a neutral way, such as the Democratic bill would have done. In fact, I’d be happy for students to learn all the important theories and discoveries relating to it – the various Christian and Jewish sects through history and their differing interpretations of the text, the documentary hypothesis for the origin of the Torah, archaeological findings regarding the historical veracity of the Old Testament, the mythicist theory of the New Testament, and so on – though I suspect that would cause heads to explode among the fundy set. (Think I can get funding from the Discovery Institute to support my “teach the controversy” plan?)

  • Montu

    You know, I just want public schools to start teaching a decent world history class that doesn’t favor the oil barrons of ol’. If they could do that in a way that makes it exciting or forces these kids to think critically about our world, then maybe, JUST MAYBE, they can walk into a Bible study class and know how to think critically about that, as well. Wait, no, I just want public schools to teach ANY class that forces the students to think critically about the world, and not just except that what the teacher is saying is true. If critical thinking was a required part of the whole ciriculum, then the Bible study issue would be moot. That’s probably the number one biggest problem with public schools, the kids are simply never taught to think outside the lessons they’re being taught. No wonder all these Christian parents are getting scared that their kids are reading books that have “profane language” and mature content, they know their kids have never been given the tools to truly analyize the text (they’re sure as shit aren’t getting them at home…). And by teaching the Bible in a non-critical manner, these kids can continue to have their “knowledge” spoon fed to them, using the tax payers dollar. At least there are some parents out there that are able to teach their kids to use their brains and not believe everything Teacher says…

  • BlackWizardMagus

    I still don’t see the problem. Studying the EFFECTS is an entirely different class than studying the bible itself. I mean, it IS literature, no? It’s no different than Shakespeare to the atheists and the muslims that were in my class. The teacher I had was a Christian, but never made that an issue; he always taught about how the bible is on a literature scale. I would like at least the Quran taught as well, but still, teaching what’s IN the bible is useful. Everyone should at least know OF the major stories, and have read one or two Gospels and Epistles for some context.

  • andrea

    But it’s not good literature, except maybe for the Song of Solomon. Unless it hase the illusion of divine work behind it, it’s not that long lasting or universally applicable like most “good” literature is.

  • Oz

    In all fairness, I don’t think the story of Lot’s daughters is presented in the Bible as an example to follow.

  • Archi Medez

    Part of a student’s well-rounded education is learning about religions, perhaps most importantly the dominant religions that are most likely to have an impact on one’s life. And it is better taught in a public school, where there is some opportunity to frame the perspective in a scholarly way instead of from the perspective of the believers.

    That said, there are things in the Bible and Quran which are just not appropriate for young children. Some stuff will scare the hell out of them. Other stuff they may not know how to handle. In fact, every major crime known to humankind is either committed, recommended, ordered, or carried out by the God of the Bible and the Allah of the Koran. (Anyone can verify this in about 5 minutes by looking through the skeptics annotated bible and quran; these are not just descriptions, they are prescriptions for how people should act).

    I guess my attitude is, if this is going to be taught, both the believers’ perspective and the disbelievers’ perspectives of those texts should be taught also. It should not be taught until the child is at an age where they can handle all the criminal activity that those religious books order the believers to carry out. It should be taught from the scholarly frame of reference, not as texts whose contents must be believed.

    It does present some practical problems: How for example, does a teacher answer this question from a student: “Will I be punished simply for not being a believer?” The teacher can say some variation of yes, no, or maybe, and in each case has committed to a position. So, I suppose, due to the popular trends in our relativistic (postmodernist, i.e., post-factual, post-moral) society, the teacher might try to be “fair” and present all views, without taking one. But that kind of “neutrality” is not really neutral. To do anything other than condemn the punishment of the disbelievers (who have committed no crime except disbelief) is morally indefensible and indeed dangerous. We are basically giving religion a free pass because we’re scared of what believers will do to us if we don’t give it a free pass. If this stuff is going to be presented, students should be allowed to carry out a full unapologetic critique of the religion. None of this “can’t criticize religion” nonsense. If it can’t be criticized, it doesn’t belong in a school.

    Nevertheless, not too much of the curriculum time should be wasted contemplating the absurdities and immoralities of those books. There is the problem of teaching children scientific thinking, logic, ethics (without the corruption of divine command theory amorality), and critical thinking skills–the very tools needed to evaluate claims and behaviours including religious ones. There’s only so much time in the day.

  • Ebonmuse

    In all fairness, I don’t think the story of Lot’s daughters is presented in the Bible as an example to follow.

    That’s true. (The children conceived through those incestuous matings become the ancestors of the Moabites and Ammonites, two rival tribes to ancient Israel; the whole story was really just a veiled put-down of their enemies.) On the other hand, the mere existence of sex and violence in other books, regardless of whether or not it is presented in a positive light, is generally enough to trigger demands for censorship from groups like C2A. To be consistent, they should oppose the Bible as well on the same grounds.

  • Philip Thomas

    Bible teaching at secondary school level, preferably optional, is one thing. Bible teaching at primary school level is quite another: I remember being taught bible stories age 6 and 7 from sanitised Children’s Bibles. I’m not sure it helped much. Anyway, there is more than one version of the Bible, so any version you use will be biased from someone’s perspective.

    In Religous Studies one shouldn’t study Atheism: it isn’t a religion and anyway the material of its belief wouldn’t take more than one lesson. I’d like to see RS become “Ideological Studies” so it could take in Communism, though.