Monday, April 02, 2007

It Ain't Necessarily So

In a column in Saturday’s New York Times, Stanley Fish discusses a recent Time Magazine article on public schools’ teaching of the Bible as a secular subject. Fish doesn’t take sides as to whether it should be permitted. Rather, he questions the value in it, given that the First Amendment prohibits public schools from teaching students that the Bible is true. “The truth claims of a religion—at least of a religion like Christianity, Judaism and Islam—are not incidental to its identity; they are its identity,” he writes. “[I]f you’re going to cut the heart out of something, why teach it at all?”

The priority Fish gives to truth claims is supportable as to some religions, at least if you would rely on the views of practitioners. Many Protestant Christians would presumably concur, for example. Not very many practicing Jews probably would, though, and while there’s no telling what Fish means by religions “like” Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, he’d certainly be mistaken as to many religions.

Even to the degree that the Bible’s truth claims are Christianity’s identity, it doesn’t follow that there’s no point in teaching the Bible unless it’s taught as true. Familiarity with the Christian Bible is an aid, arguably a prerequisite, to understanding the histories, literatures, and societies of half the world, including the United States. To benefit in this sense from reading the Bible, it’s helpful to know that Christians generally believe that it’s true, but you don’t have to believe it yourself. Some schools evidently can’t come up with teachers who can keep their own views well enough in check to teach the Bible as a secular subject. Other schools ought to teach the Bible.


Tam said...

Question posed by Fish at the end: why should we teach religion if we're not going to assess the veracity of its claims?

Answer: because in many instances, it's valuable to know simply that others hold certain beliefs, without assessing whether they're true. It's analogous to why we allow out of court statements into evidence when they're not being offered to prove the content.

I really don't see the dilemma.

Garth said...

in order for schools to teach the bible in a secular manner will be offensive to many believers.

in order to teach the bible it would require that the teacher remove their views of the validity of the truth and either failing to do so or succeeding in teaching the bible like philosophy or history; ie. demeaning it in the eyes of some believers.

ultimately, i think worship should be private and the study of the religous mysteries left private pursuit. schools are free to explore religion's impact on the world, but i think it is expecting too much for it to be able to teach from religous texts and should be prohibited as a matter of policy as more prejudicial than probative.

egarber said...

Is there not a point where teaching the bible, even in a secular sense, crosses the line into proselytizing because it can be so lop-sided?

What if the ONLY religious text taught in history courses is the bible in some school? If no other religions are ever studied, is that not tantamount on some level to "endorsement" of Christianity?

I'd feel better about it if all religions were studied in a comparative sense.

PG said...

There's a difference between studying the Bible due to its religious significance, versus studying the Bible for its literary and artistic significance. As has been pointed out before, museums now have to put up long explanations of what is being depicted in scenes like "The Last Supper," because fewer people are aware of what this incident -- whether real or fictional -- is. Professors of English literature are continuously frustrated by current students' ignorance of what is referenced in works ranging from Canterbury Tales to Song of Solomon. Despite not having been raised as a Christian, I probably knew more of the King James version than most of my Baptist high schoolmates because I read a lot of 19th century novels.

This is true for non-Western culture as well. I would want to read up on Shintoism and Buddhism, as well as Japanese history, before visiting Japanese museums. You will get more out of a performance of Indian classical dance if you know something about Hindu mythology.

And some disciplines demand the ability to think about and understand a religion without deciding whether it is true. Bioethics, for example, has to recognize what people believe, even if that belief goes against secular norms. Do non-Christians in the average American college's comparative religious course -- where the professor is likely to be either Christian or nonreligious -- feel insulted by having their religion discussed absent questions of its "truth"?

Carl said...

I'm skeptical about the possibility of drawing any hard and fast distinction between a work's artistic or literary merit and its claims about the way things are. The difference seems to be one of presentation rather than substance. If this is case, however, then it's impossible to separate consideration of the bible's artistic properties from the truths it attempts to express in them.

On the other hand, I agree that a fairly strong distinction can be drawn between considering the claims a work makes about the world through whatever form of expression it adopts (be it scientific or artistic) and endorsing those claims. Whether that is enough to satisfy establishment clause fanatics is another question, I guess.

PG said...

OK, this is proof that we need to do a better job educating Americans about Christianity -- Iranians know more about the topic than U.S. news outlets do.

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