Teaching the Bible, Texas Style

A new report from the Texas Freedom Network warns that some public schools in Texas are teaching religion.  Not all religions, but the Bible-loving, apocalypse-watching, evolution-denying type of conservative evangelical Protestantism.

How do these public schools justify it?  According to the TFN report, public schools fold these sectarian doctrines into their Bible courses.  Public-school courses about the Bible are explicitly constitutional.  US Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark made very clear in his majority opinion in Abington Township v. Schempp (1963) that public schools can teach the Bible, if they did so in a non-devotional way.  As Clark specified,

“Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”

However, the TFN report argues that many of the Texas school districts are using Bible classes to teach religious doctrine, including the notion that the Bible demands a young earth.  The report’s author, Mark A. Chancey of Southern Methodist University, reports that the courses are generally poorly taught, with low academic rigor, by underprepared teachers.

Professor Chancey includes excerpts from some of the teaching materials.  In the Dalhart Independent School District, for example, one student information sheet included the following information:

“Since God is perfect and infallible, an inspired book is absolutely infallible and errorless in its facts and doctrines as presented in the original manuscript” (pg. 28).

In the Bible courses of Lazbuddie, Texas, students will read the following:

“We should have an understanding of what happened in Noah’s day if we are to know when the coming of our Lord is near.  What are the similarities between the days of Noah and the days preceding the coming of Jesus Christ (Matthew 24:37-39)?” (pg. 32)

In Dayton schools, students watch the Left Behind movie, fundamentalist author Tim LaHaye’s dramatization of the rapture and final days (pg. 19).

As Chancey points out, these doctrines are intensely sectarian.  They teach a specific interpretation of the Bible as eternally true.  Students in these public school classes would be told that the doctrines of conservative evangelical Protestantism are the correct and only interpretation of the Bible.

Are we shocked?

We shouldn’t be.

Here’s why not:

First of all, the numbers of schools and students involved is very small.  Professor Chancey found 57 districts plus three charter schools who taught Bible courses in 2011-2012, a small percentage of the 1037 districts in Texas.  Not all of these districts taught the Bible in such heavy-handed sectarian ways.  And of the districts that reported their student numbers, only three had more than fifty students enrolled in Bible class.  Six districts had fewer than five students in Bible (pg. 5).

Second, the practice of teaching sectarian religion in public-school Bible classes has a long and surprisingly uncontroversial history.  As I explored in my 1920s book, while public attention was focused on anti-evolution laws, between 1919 and 1931 eleven states quietly passed mandatory Bible-reading laws for public schools.

Finally, even after the anti-Bible SCOTUS ruling in 1963, many public schools simply continued the practice.  As political scientists Kenneth Dolbeare and Philip Hammond found in their survey of schools in a Midwestern state, the Supreme Court rulings against public-school Bible reading made absolutely no difference in school practice.  Where students had read the Bible before, they continued to do so, without raising any controversy.

So Professor Chancey’s findings that a few students in a few public schools in Texas learn a sectarian interpretation of the Bible should come as no surprise.  As Chancey notes, similar Bible classes go on in several other states as well (pg. v).  Moreover, as political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer have convincingly argued, public school teachers usually teach ideas that are locally uncontroversial.  In some places, that means teaching creationism as science.  In others, it means teaching the Bible as history.

 

 

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16 Comments

  1. ChazIng

     /  January 25, 2013

    Dr. Laats, do you personally believe that the bible is in some areas historically accurate? Also, do you agree with Chancey that the teaching of modern human biodiversity as derivatives from Noah’s three sons is the equivalent of ‘race theory’ (p. 52)?

    Reply
    • @ ChazIng: I feel as if I’m being set up here, but yes, I personally believe that the Bible is often historically accurate. To pick just one example (I opened up my Scofield at random), the nativity story told in Luke 2:1 bases the story on Caesar Augustus’ tax policy. Seems like a reasonable part of both Biblical and non-Biblical history to me.
      As for racism and the origination of races from Noah’s sons, if I read Chancey correctly, it seems Chancey is saying that rhetoric about “Sons of Ham” and the “Curse of Noah” has often been used as justification for racism. And I think Chancey is correct in saying so. I don’t believe, nor do I think Chancey argues, that every belief in racial origins that cites Noah’s three sons is necessarily racist. That is, someone who believes that racial differences came from Noah’s direct progeny is not necessarily racist for thinking so. However, many racist theorists did think so. Sorry if I can’t spit that out more clearly…

      Reply
      • ChazIng

         /  January 25, 2013

        Maybe I am being overly prickly, but I sometimes feel you don’t call out evolutionists when they make non-scientific claims. If you believe that some things in the bible are historical, then there is no reason for that to not be taught as history. Chancey is against this (p. 27) as it “blatantly crosses the legal threshold.” That is absurd. It is clear (to me) that Chancey is biased in trying to associate racism with Noah’s 3 sons while not mentioning that evolution has been used, and is currently being used, by “race realists” for racist purposes.

      • @ ChazIng, Oh, I see your point. I can’t speak for Professor Chancey, but I think most people–myself included–agree that teaching the Bible as part of history, literature, culture, and comparative religion is perfectly constitutional and even necessary in public schools. How can you understand Shakespeare without knowing the Bible?

  2. I have to disagree…the bible is a book that contains some historical facts, but if you want to learn history then get a history book.

    If the Earth is only 6000 years old (or thereabouts) then please answer these:
    Why are there no cave paintings of dinosaurs?
    How does carbon dating therefore suggest age ranges of tens or hundreds of thousands of years for some biological samples? Atomic decay cannot lie.
    How can a species go from one man (Adam) with presumably one language…to billions of people with thousands of languages in that short space of time? Are you really suggesting humans went Neanderthal –> CroMagnon –> Stone Age –> Bronze Age –> Dark Ages –> Renaissance –> Industrial Revolution –> Digital Revolution in just 6000 years?? Come on…that’s just preposterous.

    Check out my ongoing blog for a more realistic and plausible set of theories.

    Reply
  3. I have been to a few but couldn’t see any answers to these specific questions – could you do me a favour and post them here? I’d be very interested to know how you decry radiocarbon dating for a start…

    Reply
  4. Dinosaurs
    As has been said, “Paleontology (the study of fossils) is much like politics: passions run high, and it’s easy to draw very different conclusions from the same set of facts.”

    Maybe, but they all agree on one thing – fossils are very OLD.

    The lines are dotted because there is no fossil evidence
    …yet. Fossils are hard to find and not very common you know.

    I see a few articles on blurred paintings, things that could be one thing or another…which is odd when there are plenty of other cave paintings that are clearly a recognisable animal, yet none that are unequivocally recognisable as dinosaurs.

    “This means that the dinosaurs must have died after sin entered the world, not before. Dinosaur bones could not be millions of years old because Adam lived only thousands of years ago.”
    Really? That’s your argument?? ‘It’s true because the bible says so’ is what I am getting from that.

    http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/nab/what-happened-to-the-dinosaurs#fnList_1_26

    “At the end of the Flood, Noah, his family, and the animals came out of the Ark (Genesis 8:15–17). The dinosaurs thus began a new life in a new world.”
    So what did Noah feed his dinos on exactly? And how big was this Ark – I think the bible says it will be 300 cubits long, 50 wide, and 30 high. That’s roughly 137x23x14 meters…are you really suggesting two of every animal in the world (oh and plants and fungus too) fitted in that space? You couldn’t even fit a a pair of Brontosaurus in that space. Unless the bible is wrong about the dimensions of course?? Oh, but the bible can’t be wrong, ever, so therefore Noah managed to fit himself, his family and two of every other living thing in a space no larger than an average size town hall did he???
    Only a complete moron would believe that.

    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/dinosaur.html?c=y&page=3

    This drives Schweitzer crazy. Geologists have established that the Hell Creek Formation, where B. rex was found, is 68 million years old, and so are the bones buried in it. She’s horrified that some Christians accuse her of hiding the true meaning of her data. “They treat you really bad,” she says. “They twist your words and they manipulate your data.” For her, science and religion represent two different ways of looking at the world; invoking the hand of God to explain natural phenomena breaks the rules of science. After all, she says, what God asks is faith, not evidence. “If you have all this evidence and proof positive that God exists, you don’t need faith. I think he kind of designed it so that we’d never be able to prove his existence. And I think that’s really cool.”

    I’m not sure what the article on ‘Nessie’ is about. I think it’d be great to have a plesiosaur or something in Loch Ness, hell maybe there is, that’s been trapped in a small ecological microcosm for a long time…but I just don’t buy it. And nothing, sadly, has even been seen on sonar or depth radar or anything. There was a big expedition a few years back, well maybe about 15 years now, but it found no evidence of anything in the Loch.

    C14
    The crux of your argument here seems to be this:
    “1.If, as many creationists propose, there was a vast water vapour canopy around the Earth before the Flood, then this would have shielded the atmosphere from much of the cosmic radiation. Therefore, the amount of C14 in the pre-flood world would have been very small, perhaps even negligible.”
    This is poor science. Cosmic rays (high energy x-rays, gamma rays etc) can go through water without any trouble. They can pass through pretty much anything because they have so much energy.
    Also, the highest rate of C14 production occurs in the stratosphere (above about 10km height) whereas 99% of all the water vapour in the atmosphere (clouds etc) is sat in the troposphere, below about 8km. So the vapour, if it were ever there, wouldn’t have got in the way at all.

    “After 1.5 million years, the ratio is diminished by a factor of 21500000/5730, or about 1079. This means that if one started with an amount of pure 14C equal to the mass of the entire observable universe, after 1.5 million years there should not be a single atom of 14C remaining!”
    Carbon dating is only reliable to about 70000 years old…other processes (geology etc) are used to determine approximate ages older than that. Talking in ranges of millions of years is therefore pointless because it is outside the scope of C14.

    Genetic Diversity
    “In the 1972 study “The Apportionment of Human Diversity”, Richard Lewontin performed a fixation index (FST) statistical analysis using 17 markers including blood group proteins. His results were that the majority of genetic differences between humans, 85.4%, were found within a population, 8.3% of genetic differences were found between populations within a race, and only 6.3% was found to differentiate the various races which in the study were Caucasian, African, Mongoloid, South Asian Aborigines, Amerinds, Oceanians, and Australian Aborigines”
    and
    “Of the 709,816 genetic variants found in European-Americans in the study, more than 81 percent arose in the past 5,000 years, the researchers determined. African-Americans in the study collectively carried 643,128 genetic variants, more than 58 percent of which are less than 5,000 years old. That may seem like a long time, but it’s only about 5 percent of the time humans have existed in modern form, says study coauthor Joshua Akey, a geneticist at the University of Washington in Seattle.”

    Less than 5000 years old not because of any biblical reason, but simply because agriculture started to be developed around this time. Controlled farming allowed human populations and communitites to support far larger numbers than ever before, orders of magnitude larger, and therefore all this human intermixing led to an explosion in genetic diversity. Nothing to do with a flood.

    Not enough people?

    http://creation.com/where-are-all-the-people

    Poor logic here. It assumes that the rate of growth is pretty contstant, goes on about sizes growing by set percentages every year etc. Well this isn’t what happened. Prior to large scale agriculture, humans existed in small groups. There was only enough food to feed that small group (no arable or livestock farming) so a small group was all that could be maintained. Since the advent of agriculture though (arguably the largest contributor to human population growth) humans have been able to sustain far larger communities and so reproduce far quicker. It’s just coincidence that the agricultural revolution happened about the same time you creationists believe the flood happened.
    “If there were 10 million people, it would mean 40 billion bodies buried in the earth” – oh come on, like everyone who died back then was buried. Also, there probably are vast amounts of artefacts out there to be discovered…but we’d have to dig up most of the planet to find them – it’s just not going to happen.

    The real history of the world is recorded in the Bible, the Word of the Creator-God who was there in the beginning. This record shows that the world was deluged and destroyed (Genesis 6–9, 2 Peter 3) so that all people living today came from those who survived aboard Noah’s Ark. A study of population growth clearly supports this biblical record.
    The bible might record it, but that doesn’t make it true. Psalm 104:5 says “the Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.” and Ecclesiastes 1:5 states that “And the sun rises and sets and returns to its place” – yet both those statements are false. The Earth is constantly moving for a start. Just because it’s in the bible doesn’t make it true.

    You have also failed to address the language issue, and the ‘how did we come so far in such a short space of time’ issue too. If all the ‘survivors of the flood’ spoke the same language then there would have been no need to invent any others. So why do we have so many? It’s because the ‘flood’ story is just that – a story. There is no proof whatsoever of a world-covering flood about 5000 years ago, yet there’s plenty of evidence for a meteor strike 60’odd million years ago (layers of iridium for example, in moutain sides, that are inconsistent with the layers above or below).
    There are approximately 7000 unique languages spoken in the world today. To make the maths easier we’ll make it 6000. So that’s one new language every year since creation.
    Firstly, why? It seems a pointless exercise given that everyone spoke the same language anyway.
    Secondly, how? I would struggle to make up a new language, learn it and then teach it to others inside a year. Hell, ten years would probably still be a squeeze, but you seem to believe this happened (on average) every year since the flood. Does that really make any sense??

    Also how / why do we share 96%+ DNA with chimps and other primates? I’ll tell you why, since you clearly don’t believe we evolved from them. The reason is because we *were* evolved from them. Something or someone (and you can call it a God if you prefer, they certainly were God-like) evolved us from monkeys. They came along, tinkered with just a little bit if the DNA code (increase brain size etc) and here we are. This was done a few hundred thousand years ago and since then we’ve been more or less left to our own devices. That’s why we have all these weird and wonderful myths and legends (Gods, dragons etc). We’ve been left on our own with our imaginations for too long, nothing more. I have as much ‘proof’ for this as you do for your beliefs…but at least mine make a lot more sense, and fit with observation.

    …and can you provide any source that isn’t from a Creationist organisation?

    Did you read my blog entitled ‘We’re on our own?’ How do you reconcile the utter injustice of that rapist winning the lottery then? According to you, God did that. He allowed it to happen, he was happy with someone who had broken sacred laws to be given a huge amount of money when he could have easily have made that money go to someone who actually deserved it.
    We ARE on our own. I know it, you know it and deep down, everyone knows it. Most people just don’t want to face it, and that’s cool – it’s not a pleasant though – but sadly it is true.

    Reply
    • Please note these are not my personal arguments but simply what some creationists propose. I don’t necessarily agree with them.

      Some issues on your points though: Only if you believe in inerrancy does the original autograph become free of error. No one is saying that the present bible does not err. It has been speculated that the animals on the ark may have been small or babies so as not to take up much space and reduce on feeding burden. Thus a large brontosaurus would be unnecessary. They may have all drowned instead and not have been on the ark.

      Homology does not necessarily mean common descent. In science, especially engineering, homology means common design or in this case, a single designer. No I have not read your post and don’t plan to. I was simply posting links as to the creationist responses to your questions because it seemed that you were saying that your questions were so novel that they could not be answered or have not been answered. There is very little in the origin of life (OOL) debate that has not been answered in some form. If you desire a better understanding of YEC beliefs (or simply to get answers), AIG and creation.com regularly answer submitted questions.

      Reply
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