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.