Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Bible in Schools

The news that Democrats in 2 Southern states are pushing bills on Bible Study raises my hackles, but I'm not sure it isn't smart politics.

The curriculum being promoted by Democrats in Alabama and Georgia is from the Bible Literacy Project, and is a more literary approach than that taken by the Texas school district we mentioned a while back. In poking around, I do see some thoughtful critiques of the approach taken.

A review at the Society for Biblical Literacy finds a lot to enjoy in the treatment of the Bible in literature, and the discussion of how Biblical phrases have entered the vernacular.

The flaw that the reviewer finds is that the book does not deal with historical analyses of the authorship and scholarly interpretation of the Bible's history, apparently omitting discussion of parallels between the Bible and Mesopotamian legends, or any discussion of the multiple authorship of various books. Modern scholarship of the Bible has to address the multiple authors of Genesis, the possibility that the final chapter of Job is Bowdlerization, and the evidence for certain common source material shared by the authors of the Gospels. The only pass at this sort of analysis favors the reading common among Evangelical Christians, while ignoring the view common among Catholics, liberal Jews and mainline Protestants. This favor given to Christianity, and to Evangelical views more specifically, was not restricted to that one instance.

Teaching a course on comparative religion, or even on the Bible in particular, is not a bad idea. I took a comparative religion class in high school and loved it. I don't know anyone who had a comparative religion class and doesn't look back fondly at that exploration of the different ways people see the metaphysical. I wish the Kansas Board of Ed hadn't spiked a proposed set of standards for teaching religion in public schools.

I think that it's a wise idea for Democrats to get out ahead of this issue and propose very specific policies. Then, if Republicans shoot down the proposal, they look anti-religion. That's the sense in which I think the legislators are being smart.

It raises concerns for me because I don't know one can turn the Wedge Document back on itself. The NCSE's Wes Elsberry, being interviewed at DailyKos, describes the basic agenda:

[Creationist Philip] Johnson had a choice about what to try to do about the situation as he saw it. He could have advocated improved rigor in theological circles, and done grass-roots activism to increase the relevance of theology to day-to-day life, and thus affected a cultural change. But that's not what happened. Instead, Johnson has been at the helm of a movement whose aim is to first saddle science with a guiding philosophy that is pretty indistinguishable from how things were in the late 18th century. Once that is accomplished, then the remainder of the program seeks to make "intelligent design" the dominant view in all parts of the culture, including literature and the arts.
Is the solution to take the path he abandoned? Advocate improved rigor in theological circles, even in public schools, and increase the relevance of theology to daily life?

Katskee, Case, Krebs, and Harvey (obscured)
At yesterday's forum on "Intelligent Design, Kansas Science Education, and the Law," math teacher, science standards committee member and KCFS president Jack Krebs suggested that it would be better for society if we all discussed spiritual points openly, and didn't hide our theological views behind scientific language. This was part of an extended discussion between audience members and panelists, which included the NCSE's Eugenie Scott, science standards committee chair Steve Case, Richard Katskee, from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Eric Rothschild and Steve Harvey, the Dover Lawyers.

I managed to miss substantial chunks of the event due to my own stupidity, but managed to catch the tail end of the event, then have dinner with 16 like-minded individuals and Dr. Steve Steve of the University of the Ediacara.

The panel was asked specifically about the right way to teach religion in school, and Richard Katskee of AUSCS explained that it's not only possible but necessary to discuss religion in school. You can't explain history or teach literature without providing a religious context for events and references. What you can't do is advocate religion. You can explain how a religion sees an issue, but when a person with the government's authority says that something is true because a religion sees it as true, that's when you need to call his organization.

This leaves a wide range of opportunities for serious discussions of religion with no fear of the ACLU or the AUSCS.

The conversation moved on to the importance of not mixing religion and politics, and not being wooed by the argument that a majority, or even near unanimity, supports a given religious viewpoint. That situation creates even deeper coercion on whatever hint of dissent might other have existed to make a community richer. Teaching controversies, in science and in other settings is a common practice in schools and the panel agreed that while it is a common practice, there are new techniques which would let it be used even more.

The lawyers from Pepper Hamilton who represented the parents of Dover were especially interesting to listen to on this point. Did they think the issue of creationism and IDC would have to go to the Supreme Court? "It already did," explained Rothschild, and he's convinced that IDC is no different than the creationism or scientific creationism which the Supreme Court ruled on years ago. But even so, he prefers to see the issue resolved through the political process, through discussion and the open airing of views.

Eugenie Scott, on the same theme said that "Lawsuits, from my standpoint, are a sign of failure. We're hoping the lessons of Dover can be communicated throughout the rest of the country."

And that comment leads us back to Jack Krebs's comments about the importance honestly discussing "the nature of spiritual reality," distinct from the scientific reality we can manipulate in a test tube. While he showed the similarities between the parts of the Dover policy which the judge specifically found unconstitutional and the changes forced through by the Board's radical majority, Krebs made it clear that a lawsuit is a worse option than honestly discussing religion when that's what's at issue, and not trying to sneak religion into various disguises. On that point, the panelists were in striking agreement.

Video and audio from the event, as well as the Powerpoint the speakers used, should be available from KCFS in the next few days.