Preposterous Universe

Thursday, April 28, 2005
Teaching the Bible

News out of Odessa, Texas, is that they want to start teaching the Bible as "history/literature" in high schools. (See Salon, via Media Girl guest blogging at Rox Populi, and see also Lorraine's diary at Daily Kos -- ain't the internet grand?)

Now, in the real world, this is just a thinly-disguised attempt to teach Christianity in the public schools, and will doubtless run into all sorts of First Amendment troubles. But let's indulge for a moment in fantasy-world, where words actually mean what they appear to mean. The history of the Bible is a fascinating and informative story. You can read for example Richard Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible? and The Bible With Sources Revealed. These books will explain how the Pentateuch was not written by Moses, but rather assembled by editors from a set of several pre-existing texts by different authors -- J (who refers to God as "Yahweh"), E (who uses "Elohim"), P (the priestly author), and D (who wrote Deuteronomy). This understanding will be very useful, as it explains (for example) why the beginning chapters of Genesis include two completely separate, and mutually incompatible, creation narratives. The students should probably also read something like Karen Armstrong's A History of God, so they can learn how the early Hebrews were not actually monotheistic, and how Yahweh evolved from one god among many (in charge of storms and battle) to the only deity in the pantheon. This will help them understand, for example, why in Psalm 82 God is found talking to a bunch of other gods.

Of course, there are some interesting side effects of such knowledge. When Shadi Bartsch and I taught our course Moments in Atheism last year, students in the class came from a wide range of backgrounds and religious beliefs, which we found to be no hindrance when talking about Aquinas's proofs for the existence of God or Hume's objections to the argument from design. There was only one part of the course that seemed to bother some people -- the honest history of the Bible. It certainly wasn't our intention to bother anyone, and many of the leading scholars of biblical history are religious themselves. But it seems to be the case that simply talking about the true history of religious practice can cause people to question their beliefs in a way that philosophical debate never will. Of course, I would argue that the real goal isn't to cause people to question their religious beliefs -- it's to train people to think critically and rationally about whatever sets of preconceptions they may have, and evaluate them according to standards of reason and evidence. If we can do that by talking about the history of the Bible, then why not?

But sadly the real world doesn't quite work like that, and I don't imagine that the course I have in mind is the one being planned in Odessa. It's the same issue that PZ Myers talks about in the context of evolution and creationism. "Teaching the controversy," as creationists like to encourage us to do, is a great idea, if you actually do it. By comparing the standards of argument of creationists to those of real scientists, students can both learn a lot about biology and about how to be independent critical thinkers. This is of course not what is intended by the creationists.

The upshot is: when we really "teach the controversy," we win. How do we guarantee that "really"?

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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