Sacred History in a Secular Classroom


Someone please explain to me how our educational experts have at the same time decided on the contradictory rules that we shall teach multi-culturalism and that we shall avoid like the plague any teaching about religion. You want little Janey to understand little Fatima's culture so she won't share the American bias against Arabs? Good idea! But good luck explaining Arab culture if you leave out Islam! Yes, multi-culturalism is what we need all right, and therefore we also desperately need public schools to teach the world religions in a purely impartial and descriptive way, simply as part of our cultural heritage. Don't be afraid! Madelyn Murray O'Hare's not going to bite you! She vanished, remember, a few years ago (along with plenty of her organization's funds) in a kind of atheist partial rapture. It would certainly breach the cherished wall of separation between church and state if public school teachers were to indoctrinate students in their religion, as they did when I was a kid in Mississippi, but to teach about religion, about religions, yours, mine, and ours, is no such violation. To the contrary, such teaching, long overdue, will help foster the respectful pluralism that necessitates and guarantees our separation of church and state. The more clearly everyone sees how religiously diverse we are, the less likely any fanatics will ever be successful in imposing their own faith on others. So should we teach the Bible in public schools, as some have recently suggested? You bet! But should we teach the Bible as history, as some also suggest? That's a different story. Here's why.

Everything I have just said about increased knowledge of each other's religions militates strongly for public instruction in the Bible as narrative, i.e., teaching the content of Bible stories. And this is nothing new. "Bible as Literature" is a familiar topic in many secular classrooms. I have taught courses in descriptive, comparative theology in state-sponsored colleges, and I see no reason not to do even this in lower grades, as they already do in Great Britain. So you could even explain biblical (or Qur'anic, or Vedic) doctrines in a secular classroom. The problem comes in teaching that the stories of the Bible are all historically accurate. For example, if a public school teacher tells the kiddies that Moses did actually part the Red Sea exactly as in the Charleton Heston movie, not just that the text says so, then we have a problem. Why? Simply because such claims are faith claims, not historical assertions.

If you are experiencing a sense of deja vu right about now, it is because what seems to be brewing is a messy situation precisely parallel to the "Scientific Creationism" debate. You know, the can of worms about whether literal, theistic, seven-day creation should be taught instead of (or alongside of) evolution in public schools. Creationists show a singular lack of understanding of scientific method when they say you only believe in evolution if you arbitrarily exclude belief in God. Isn't it a prior "naturalistic" rejection of the possibility of miracles that forces "unbelieving" scientists to fall back on an explanation like evolution? Not at all! Science began when Thales and other ancient thinkers decided it just wasn't enough of an explanation to say, for instance, that it rains when Zeus turns on the faucet. Thales and company weren't unbelievers; they just knew there had to be traceable causes. Ever since, scientists have made progress only by refusing, when faced with a gap in our knowledge of how things work, to throw up their hands and say, "It's a miracle!" To plug God in like an ace up your sleeve is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "the God of the gaps," and sooner or later, when scientists do manage to figure the puzzle out, poor God gets put out of his job by automation! Many or most scientists are believers in God. They just have enough faith in the created order to believe it is a created order, i.e., that it makes sense within itself like a machine or an organism.

Now it may be that God did step in and, let's say, create a platypus when nobody was looking. One minute it wasn't there, and the next--poof! it was! But if so, we can never know it. Science can never trace or detect that kind of thing. If you are going to believe such a thing happened, you are going to have to believe without evidence, since there isn't any. And that is why we call that sort of belief faith. The same goes for history. Historical research works by means of traceable causation, by analogy with the experience of the present day. When we find in an ancient document a report that a single man killed a thousand men in a battle with no more weapon than a donkey's jaw bone (what did they do--line up?), we have to reject such a report as improbable. Why? Not because we have epistemological certainty that wonders cannot happen, and not because we were there and saw it not happening. Rather, just because, if we don't use the analogy of present events as our criterion of plausibility for evaluating ancient reports, we will have no criterion of historical plausibility at all. If an ancient text says someone turned into a werewolf, we'll just have to believe it, won't we?

Now what's at stake in the recent demands that public schools teach not just Bible stories, but Bible as history? The same thing as in demands to teach "Creation Science." We are going to hear people charge that one would only flinch at teaching that Moses actually parted the water only if one were a nasty philosophical naturalist with a dogmatic distaste for miracles. Only God-deniers, we will be told, would strain at miracles in the historical documents before them. I have just tried to show why this is an utter failure to understand historical method, just as "Scientific Creationism" is an utter failure to grasp scientific method.

And in fact the shoe is on the other foot, because, I contend, it is not a dogmatic assumption that prevents people from taking ancient miracle reports seriously. On the contrary, only a prior dogmatic assumption, that of biblical inerrantism, enables any reader to take ancient miracle stories seriously. The quickest and easiest way to see the truth of this is to ask the fundamentalist, the miracle-believer, if he or she believes all ancient reports of miracles, say, those attributed to Hercules or Asclepius or the Buddha or medieval alchemists or of Circe in The Odyssey. Of course not. He doesn't even bother claiming that they did happen but were "Satanic counterfeits." All these the fundamentalist dismisses with the scorn of a Strauss or a Hume. It is only the miracle stories of the Bible that the fundamentalist believes, and that because the Bible tells him so.

And what this means is that to teach the biblical narrative as history, i.e., as actually having taken place, the flood of Noah just as literally as the conquest of Nebuchadnezzar, is not to teach descriptive history, but rather to teach inerrantist dogma. Public school classrooms will become catechism halls. That we do not need. Imagine the reaction of the fundamentalist if someone started demanding that the Hindu Ramayana be taught as history and you'll see how the rest of us would feel.

So here's what I would like to see. "Boys and girls, the Bible says Moses parted the Red Sea to let the Israelites escape their enemies. Yes, Suzie? Did it really happen that way? Some people believe so; others don't. It's a matter of faith. Why don't you ask your rabbi (or minister or priest or parent)? Next time we'll be talking about the story of the Prophet Muhammad and his ascent to heaven."

So says Zarathustra.

Robert M. Price
June 2006


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