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Are progressives missing an opportunity with their opposition to teaching about creationism in public schools?

holy bible

It is a particularly American shibboleth that the antidote for bad speech is more speech. The theory underlying this idea is similar to the concept “give a man a fish you feed him for a day – teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Teaching children to think about Biblical illogic and internal contradictions in schools, rather than to be obedient and to not think, as they are taught in for-profit corporate churches, might well end the grip of religious intolerance on one of America’s political parties within a generation.

The Fundagelicals who now run the Republican Party have had huge success by preying on fears and tribal inclinations of the least literate and most poverty stricken members of the white population. While some people assert that the Tea Party Republicans want to take America back one hundred years, or even back to the 18th Century, the reality is quite different.

The Tea Party Republican Fundagelical program wants to return America to pre-Gutenburg days – when few, even among the nobility could read, or had anything to read. To a time when people were told, by their religious leaders, what the “truth” was, and how to behave.

But there is a different approach to the Bible. Harvard College was originally founded to ensure that students read and understood the Bible. Because they knew the Bible and knew about its various interpretations and disputed meanings, men like Cotton Mather were both passionately religious and passionate scientists. Cotton Mather brought an end to the smallpox epidemics that used to ravage whole colonies. He did it by respecting scientific observation and reasoning, without abandoning, or even questioning, his devout Biblical faith.

For Mather, it was important to learn and to know. It was Biblically commanded: “A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels” Proverbs 1:3. Mather made a life’s work of learning and trying to understand the world around him.

Consider a classroom discussion of Creation Science. The creationist lesson will start with the Book of Genesis (even though some scholars assert that Genesis was one of the last of the Old Testament books to be written). Genesis tells us that “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” Genesis 1:1-2.

What happens when some well read student asks, “Was there anything else there, before God created the heaven and the earth?” To the creationist, the answer is simple: “No, there was nothing else there.” But the well read student might then ask, “What about Proverbs #8?”

The well-read student might know that in Proverbs 8:23-30 Wisdom details her history:

“I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water. Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth: While as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world. When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth: When he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep: When he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment: when he appointed the foundations of the earth.”

From everlasting”? Wisdom goes on to explain this: “I was by him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him.” Proverbs 8:30. How many students might ask, “What?! Brought up with God? Who raised God and Wisdom?” Suddenly, the decision to force schools to teach ‘biblical’ science opens the door to students understanding that they may think critically about the Bible. Fundagelicals might suddenly be confronted with the law of unintended consequences.

Other students might ask about conflicts between the chapters of the book of Genesis. Genesis 1:8-28 says that God created plants first, then animals and created man after creating the plants and animals. But Genesis 2:8-20, says that God created man first, then created all the plants and then created the animals.

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For a religious text, with no need for consistency or logic, there needn’t be any conflict in these two inconsistent stories. But for a science class, learning about using facts and logic, such contradictions are evidence of unreality. Similarly, creationists don’t deny the existence of dinosaurs, but they assert that they existed along with the biblical patriarchs. So students might ask why dinosaurs are never mentioned in the Bible and why Noah didn’t seem to bring them along on his Ark.

Students might want to ask about Genesis chapter 4, in which Cain, after slaying his brother Abel, gets married and starts fathering children. Who did Cain marry, and where did she come from? Who did Cain’s children marry? If Adam and Eve were the only original humans, is the book of Genesis teaching us that incest is OK?

Students are the same everywhere. Once intrigued, they are relentless. So students are bound to move on to Genesis book 6, which tells us: “the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.” Genesis 6:2. And: “There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them,” Genesis 6:4.

How many students will start asking questions like: “If the Bible is right, and there were sons of God in Genesis, how come people claim that Jesus was the only son of God?”

Students who learn about the Bible from preachers who have a profit interest in commanding blind belief and obedience are simply told not to think about such questions. But students who learn about the Bible in real schools, where they are encouraged to think and question, will quickly see that the Bible has a vast number of inconsistencies and factual conflicts. Less than a day of class should be enough to get students considering whether the Bible is in any way reliable as a science text.

Similarly, the Bible is full of salacious stories and contradictions about life. The salacious stories are not sections of the Bible that most Fundagelicals encourage children to read. But, since Fundagelicals claim that all parts of the Bible are holy, shouldn’t schools encourage students to understand that holiness includes salacious and ribald people and activities?

The Republican Party is pushing a man for President who wants to legally define marriage as one man and one woman. Shouldn’t students be reminded that even the sons of Adam and Eve had multiple wives? Are Fundagelicals now claiming that Adam and Eve’s children were violating God’s law on marriage?

By casting the Bible out of schools, progressives and intellectuals have ceded to it a mythic status that encourages exploitation and misrepresentation. They have allowed a generation of for-profit, un-Christian charlatans to paint themselves as ‘defenders’ of a higher truth. They have simultaneously suggested that they have no intellectual ability to deal with the Bible, or to reconcile it with science.

Cotton Mather, Roger Williams, and Isaac Newton were all theologians who believed that science and Biblical faith were inevitably linked. They would see today’s for-profit Fundagelicalism as heresy and an affront to the God that they worshipped. Yet today’s progressives have abandoned Newtonian certainty that knowing about the Bible made science make more sense. Fundagelicals have staked out a position that makes our Pilgrim and Puritan forebearers seem like Satanists.

The proper response to Fundagelical demands for creationism in science classes is to integrate a study of the Bible into basic studies, and encourage students to think about what it really says, rather than what preachers claim.

Tom Hall

The result would be to break the stranglehold that the Biblical poseurs currently have on so much social and political thought.

Tom Hall

Posted: Friday, 18 May 2012