Monday, August 01, 2005

Bible "As Literature"

I've long been a proponent of comparitive religion studies in high school curriculum. Familiarity with the basics of world religions helps us understand how principles become politics, and ensuring that students are somewhat conversant in global religious perspectives will arguably produce better societal and political leaders.

As such, I've generally been ok with intergration of Biblical study into curricula when it's presented from an academic standpoint. My thinking has been "Well, at least it's a start". For example, if we want to understand American "entitlement" as it relates to our sense of being inherently deserving of success, wealth and happiness, it helps to understands the Biblical "God wants this for you" source of these attitudes. If we want to understand the American outlook on environmentalism, it helps to understand the whole "man shall have dominion over the earth" thing. Conservatives raise a valid point when they say that this country has roots in Christian ideology (even if what they mean to point to is strictly the warm & fuzzy elements, at the exclusion of the more bloody, merciless and vindictive qualities). I would extend their proposals to include studies of the Torah and the Koran, as well as Hinduism and Buddhism, however, since failing to include these perspectives does little to bolster a more circumspect world view. As you might presume, this suggestion has gone over like a lead balloon.

That being said, however, I've had my suspicions about how Biblical material would be presented in public school fora. Call me a cynic, but I have a hard time trusting the Christian right when it comes to "balance" or "objectivity". As it turns out, my suspicions have been confirmed. Check out this NYT article "Bible Course Becomes a Test for Public Schools in Texas", about the course proposed for inclusion by the Odessa, TX school board.

Here are some of the more alarming highlights:

But a growing chorus of critics says the course, taught by local teachers trained by the council, conceals a religious agenda. The critics say it ignores evolution in favor of creationism and gives credence to dubious assertions that the Constitution is based on the Scriptures, and that "documented research through NASA" backs the biblical account of the sun standing still.

Some of the claims made in the national council's curriculum are laughable, said Mark A. Chancey, professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, who spent seven weeks studying the syllabus for the freedom network. Mr. Chancey said he found it "riddled with errors" of facts, dates, definitions and incorrect spellings. It cites supposed NASA findings to suggest that the earth stopped twice in its orbit, in support of the literal truth of the biblical text that the sun stood still in Joshua and II Kings.

Tracey Kiesling, the national council's national teacher trainer, said the course offered "scientific documentation" on the flood and cites as a scientific authority Carl Baugh, described by Mrs. Kiesling as "an internationally known creation scientist who founded the Creation Evidence Museum in Glen Rose, Tex."

I hear many moderates say that they don't have any particular problem with the introduction of "Intelligent Design" into science curriculum, evidently believing that proponents are only saying "God started Evolution". If that was true, I'd be less likely to criticize. After all, there's no reason to believe that's not an accurate statement, if you're inclined to believe in a higher power. However, this is far from their only goal. Examples like those above are only a small few of thousands.

My point? While banging away at the notion that they're "persecuted", the religious right is increasingly successful in their attempt to appeal to our sense of political correctness. By selling us on the idea that they only want to "teach the controversy", they deflect attention from their true purpose: To inject decidedly fundamentalist views into the public school system (never mind the irony that they're also pulling their kids out of public schools in droves). As in the case of the Odessa school board, they appear to be masking a starkly sectarian agenda by claiming that the proposed Bible courses are purely academic, and intended only to teach students about the philosophical origins of American society.

The lesson to be taken from this? Whether you have children or not, get involved with the PTA, get informed about what your local and state school boards are up to. The only reason we'll ever see academic standards compromised by religious dogma is that we failed to pay attention. While these kind of curriculum changes are happening at the local level, the "separation of church and state" is being challenged at the national level. If you think this is coincidental, you might want to visit your optometrist. There are a plethora of treatments for myopia these days.

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