Secular mandate: why to teach the Bible

Last October, by a margin of six to three, the school board of Dover, Penn., voted to add references to “intelligent design theory” into its schools’ biology classes. If the advocates of this change had any idea of the national scrutiny they were about to bring to their little town — it’s fair to say that Dover hasn’t received so much attention in its entire history — then they were perhaps wise to choose as the leader of their movement Mr. Bill Buckingham, who used his official position as chair of the school board’s curriculum committee to complain about a pedagogy in science that was “laced with Darwinism.” Buckingham’s rationale for introducing ID to Dover High School — that “[t]his country wasn’t founded on Muslim beliefs or evolution — This country was founded on Christianity, and our students should be taught as such” — ought to clear up any lingering doubt over whether Buckingham and his allies’ intentions had anything to do with enriching the science education of Dover students.

Nevertheless, the primary reason not to teach ID in biology class isn’t that ID is (poorly) veiled creationism, but rather that ID is unfalsifiable speculation into metaphysics, and hence is neither scientific nor a theory. (As a metaphysical concept, furthermore, ID is perfectly consistent with an evolutionary account of biological speciation.) Given the increasing politicization of the argument over what passes muster as an appropriate subject for public-school study, even the most innocuous suggestion for curricular reform — the Dover proposal was hardly innocuous, to be sure — is subject to hysterical accusations of bad faith from extremists on either side.

In truth, a rational mind ought to be able to maintain the following two thoughts simultaneously: First, that Darwinian natural selection is the only legitimate contender as a scientific account of the origin of species; and second, that it’s simply impossible to understand the literature, philosophy and history of our civilization without understanding the history of religion and religious ideas in our civilization (which is a far broader history than the so-called “Judeo-Christian” tradition).

It might not be terribly surprising that educational policy-makers at the local level, through fear of lawsuits, or, as in Bill Buckingham’s case, a plebeian rejection of science, are unable to craft public-school curricula reflecting both of the foregoing propositions. The victims of this sclerosis are neither the fundamentalists who would replace physics class with a seminar on the Genesis story of creation, nor their counterpart extremists who equate critical examination of biblical text with endorsement of religion, but, of course, the students who are denied a fully rich education. I’m going to assume, reasonably I think, that most YDN readers don’t need to be told the various reasons why biblical literalism has no place in science class. So I’ll restrict myself to explaining why the Bible does indeed belong in public school as a part of the curriculum in literature.

First of all, there are portions of the Bible that are worthy of study purely on the basis of their literary merits: the Book of Job, the Book of Ecclesiastes, Daniel, Ezekiel, to name a few. Beyond that, much of the Western canon itself is impossible to appreciate fully without a grounding in the biblical tales and allegories that recur so often throughout our literature. Finally, any examination of our history that didn’t take into account the influence of religious thought or historical reactions to religious ideas would be every bit as woefully inadequate a reckoning as one that omitted any acknowledgement of socioeconomic or material factors in historical development.

The great error of the proponents of a public-school program entirely bereft of education in religion is the notion that study of the Bible or other religious texts, uniquely among all the fields of the humanities, necessitates some official judgment, an endorsement or rejection, on the part of the educator and the educational institution involved. Remove yourself from the passions of our fractured and inflamed culture wars and it shouldn’t be difficult to see how plainly preposterous this conclusion is. Reading “Gilgamesh” in a high school English class, as I’m sure many of us did, imposed no requirement on my teacher to declare either in favor or against the literal and/or metaphorical truths of the epic. Likewise with any other work of art, it seems, except for one.

There would be several ancillary benefits to the literary study of the Bible that most secularists, among whom I count myself proudly, have failed to notice. Much of the popular support for creationism in public-school education comes from the sentiment — one we secularists haven’t done much to combat — that even thinking about religious ideas is anathema in any public setting. By incorporating the Bible into literature curricula, some non-negligible portion of the persecution complex at the heart of creationist and ID advocacy could be ameliorated.

No less importantly, a proper study of the Bible as literature would necessarily point students toward the inconsistencies in the text and the vast scholarship on the Bible’s human authorship. (How many young evangelical opponents of gay equality, just to take a particularly pertinent example, are aware that the prohibition in Leviticus on homosexuality bears exactly as much weight as such imperatives so relevant to modern society as those on mutual ox-goring?)

By all means, teach the Bible — and the Quran, and the Vedas and the Avesta — in public school, as literature. Not just literature, but every other area of education as well only stands to improve as a result.



Daniel Koffler is a junior in Calhoun College.

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