Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Religious Literacy: And Behold, It Ain't So Good

In the past few weeks, both Time Magazine and the L.A. Times have published articles on the need to teach the bible in America’s public schools. One of the most noteworthy spokespeople for this view (and the author of the newspaper piece) is Stephen Prothero, chair of the religion department at Boston University. Part of his sense of urgency is related, no doubt, to his shameless shilling of his new book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t. But he does make a few valid points.

Prothero’s argument is, basically, this: Let there be intellectual light! Despite all the constant go-Jesus hoopla from the religious right, most Americans, pious churchgoers included, are biblically illiterate. Their knowledge of their own religious screed has been weighed in the balances, and found wanting. In fact, their scriptural ignorance busts the scale. This situtation makes them unable to understand the history and literature of Western Civilization, which, for better or worse, is rife with biblical references.

It’s impossible to dispute that assertion. As unhappy as we atheists might be with the fact, there’s no denying that the bible has been a major force in shaping our society. It has played, and continues to play, a huge part in economics, politics, and the arts. Throughout the ages, the sciences have had to respond over and over again to its irrationality; the superstitious voice crying in the wilderness has always striven to outshout reason.

Prothero also points out far more dire consequences of our lack of religious knowledge: “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.” In other words, the truth shall make us free.

Clearly, the last assertion is Prothero’s attempt to dissociate himself from the godpushers. But it’s disingenuous. Can two walk together, except they be agreed? The theocrats would love nothing better than to have their religion taught at public expense. Behold, they stand at the schoolhouse door and knock! The idea of opening that door to a parade of bible-thumpers should be enough to make the hair of anyone’s flesh stand up.

But Prothero claims that he doesn’t necessarily see eye to eye with the Jesus fanatics. He says that his biblical literacy could be taught in a neutral way, neither favoring nor disfavoring the views expressed. The bottom line, though, is that no man can serve two masters, both secular education and the spread of sectarian religion. How could classroom teachers keep themselves out of the clutches of the evangelicals? It’s hard to kick against those pricks. After all, the voice of the fundy is heard in the land.

Is it possible for all things in a biblical literacy class to be done decently and in order? O me of little faith; I doubt it. But at a bare minimum, public schools should be forced to adhere to the following rules for such courses:

  • God should always be referred to as “the god character in this section.”
  • No events mentioned in the bible may be taught as fact or "truth."
  • Morally abhorrent sections of the bible must be liberally included in the course.
  • For every passage of the bible covered, the teacher must relate it to either an important historical event or literary work to which the verses act as a reference.
  • The teacher must point out parallels to biblical stories in other works of mythological literature, as well as in folklore and fairy tales.
  • The teacher must refer to the “author” of each passage studied, and analyze the writing critically in the same way that other texts would be treated.
  • The teacher must use a textbook or other accepted reference work, not his or her personal bible, for all quotes and information.
  • No teacher of the course may wear any religious item of clothing or jewelry.
  • No teacher of the course may attend any outside religious services at which a student in the class might reasonably be expected to make an appearance.
  • A teacher must not, either explicitly or implicitly, endorse the content of any biblical passage.
  • No teacher of the course, either directly or indirectly, may refer to his or her own religious beliefs, nor allow classroom discussion in which students talk about their religious beliefs.

While I’m on the subject, I’d also like to address the age-old mantra that the bible should be taught as great literature. Yes, there are some beautiful passages and interesting turns of phrase in various books, and any cultured person should recognize them. (For those interested in games, see if you can find fourteen biblical references sprinkled throughout the above.) But there’s also plenty of inartistic crap. Could anyone read the dry-as-the-desert rulebooks Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and not be bored out of his or her mind? The first book of Chronicles is loaded with uninteresting lists. Dull minor prophets like Obadiah and Haggai? Who would even look at them today if they were collected in any other volume? The Gospel of Mark is mediocre writing at best. And some of those epistles, like Titus and Philemon, are on a par with junk-mail solicitations.

Now, I’d normally be the last person to criticize school systems for trying to teach ineducable louts about important cultural achievements. The bible is certainly one of these. However, it's by no means the only one. Nor is it the most important, unless you already come to the table with a predigested notion that every word was inspired by you-know-who. Lots of the bible is tiresome and/or repugnant — badly written, morally reprehensible, unhistorical hogwash. To civilize our kids, we need to expose them to Greek philosophers, Shakespeare’s plays, Beethoven’s symphonies, Rembrandt’s paintings, and the actual texts of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. The latter contains a little something forbidding the government from establishing religion.

If Prothero were completely honest — which he’s not — he would also be making a fuss that public school students are taught next to nothing about Greek/Roman mythology, world drama, classical music, fine art, and the history of science. Shouldn’t those subjects be mandated in the public schools as well?

So why is he worried specifically about religious literacy? Anyone who reads blogs regularly — or ever listens to the president — knows how poorly many Americans communicate their ideas. What we really need to teach in this country is just plain old unadorned literacy.


BlackSun said...

Good post! I was going to discuss this but not enough time. Thanks for carrying the ball on this one.

Did you notice how at the end of the Time article, the author also put in a shameless plug for enforced patriotism?

The Exterminator said...


Yes, the last paragraph -- no longer part of a merely biased news report, but blatantly the religio-fascistic opinion of the author (David Van Biema, TIME's senior religion writer) -- is really scary.

And, oh yes, there should be one faith test. Faith in our country. Sure, there will be bumps along the way. But in the end, what is required in teaching about the Bible in our public schools is patriotism: a belief that we live in a nation that understands the wisdom of its Constitution clearly enough to allow the most important book in its history to remain vibrantly accessible for everyone.

Anonymous said...

I think your rules for teaching the subject are great aspirations, but completely unrealistic. This sounds more like a graduate course than anything that could work in high school or the lower grades (for example, "For every passage of the bible covered, the teacher must relate it to either an important historical event or literary work to which the verses act as a reference;" a very high standard to reach in middle school.

And your very last sentence, "What we really need to teach in this country is just plain old unadorned literacy," has any attempt to impart the bible's cultural relevance vaulting over the head of where we are in reality.

And speaking of reality, in the current climate can you truly imagine more than a tiny fraction of teachers being able to maintain that level of objectivity when teaching what is likely to be the foundation of their own religious dogma?

Me, neither.


Anonymous said...

Let's worry about teaching evolution, first. Being religiously literate is like being "Star Trek" literate and knowing a lot of crap about a crappy TV show--not very practical.

Anonymous said...

Awesome post, I hadn't seen Prothero's LA Times article, I'm gonna have to write another piece like the one I did for van Biema's Time article. His last name is so funny, I always want to read it as Protohero, the prototypical hero for the bible thumping teach it in the classroom type.

Here's my take on the Times article. The Time article, from the front page, is a really bad piece of writing when you read it carefully.

To the anonymous poster, it's either follow those reasonable guidelines (most teachers have gone to teacher's college and I should hope understand and can adhere to those guidelines), or don't teach it at all. Simple.

The Exterminator said...


I look forward to seeing what you have to say about Prothero. (Funny, I always read it as "Pro-theo.")

tielserrath said...

We were taught in this way in the UK. In fact, our teacher concentrated on explaining the miracles - manna was mushrooms that sprouted overnight, the bread and fishes is in fact a story about those who had brought a packed lunch sharing with those without. We even discussed the bonkers stuff of Von Daniken, which we all rushed off and read, then believed for a while. But we grew up. I have no idea of the religion of the teacher. It just wasn't relevant.

Anonymous said...

you're assuming he's talking about public schools. bible stuff shouldn't be taught at all in public schools. but in private schools, people can teach it however they like, and they will, whether you or I like it or not. why are you wasting time on this?

Maria said...

I have no idea of the religion of the teacher. It just wasn't relevant.
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