When Texas passed H.B. No. 1287 in 2007, which allowed for the “academic study” of the Bible, they must have seen this coming.
According to a recent report (“Reading, Writing & Religion II: Texas Public School Bible Courses in 2011-12”), while some school districts are offering successful, academic courses on the Bible, many were of “mixed quality,” and a “fair number of courses are blatantly and thoroughly sectarian.” In some cases, students are being taught racist theories of human origins, young earth creationism, and a host of other ideas ripe for a challenge in the courts.
The study done by Mark A. Chancey, Professor of Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University for the Texas Freedom Network, demonstrates that many schools are far from presenting “the Bible in an objective, academic manner that neither promotes nor disparages religion, nor is taught from a particular sectarian point of view,” as the bill requires.
According to the Texas Freedom Network, Bible courses suffer from factual errors and religious bias.
For example, students are being taught a theory of racial origins that would make antebellum American slave owners dance. Noah's sons, Japheth, Ham, and Shem are, according to one school district, the genealogical lines that provide racial diversity. This argument was the basis for racist claims that Ham's curse (Gen. 9:18, 22, 25) was the reason for black skin and justification for African enslavement. The Eastland ISD curriculum includes the long-lived urban legend that scientists discovered that time was missing a day, and that this "corroborates biblical stories of the sun standing still (Joshua 10:8) and moving backwards (2 Kings 20:1-11).”
Education is not Indoctrination
The study concludes that while not all districts failed to meet state standards, those that did “were unprepared to offer courses about the Bible's influence in history and literature.” In some cases the bias in the classroom came across as “intentional,” but in many instances, it was the result of poor training and preparation.
Intentional or not, indoctrination is dangerous. If it is intentional, then there are Christians within these districts who are unable to respect the differences of students and their families within the classroom and are opportunistically proselytizing. If it is unintentional, then there are Christians who are very much unaware of other approaches to the Bible, even within their own faith, and need better training.
Eustace ISD, for example, taught young earth creationism and encouraged students to identify which views of Genesis represented either a "Biblical Perspective" or a "Secular Perspective."
Similarly, “several courses reflect a significant preoccupation with eschatology (the theology of the 'end times’),” says the report, “with course materials that synthesize the contents of Revelation and other biblical books into very detailed eschatological schemas.” Students are being taught that “they themselves may be living in the last days,” are provided details of the end of time, and are watching the "Left Behind" series, a fictional series on the last days that are biased toward a Christian subgroup known as dispensationalists. This is far from an unbiased approach to religion.
Respecting the Bible’s Complicated Role in Religion
“In every course in which religious bias is present,” concludes the TFN “instruction reflects a Protestant -- most often a conservative Protestant -- perspective, including a literal interpretation of the Bible.” For example, when engaging the apocrypha students in some districts are taught that these are “Books that Didn’t Make the Old Testament Cut,” which is a decidedly Protestant bias, completely ignoring Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions.
This bias, however, affects more than Christians of other traditions. Understandably, a teacher might (depending on his or her faith) unintentionally let the words “Old Testament” slip, but as a matter of pedagogy, to refer to the Hebrew scriptures (or Tanak) as the Old Testament misses the point that Jews do not read their sacred text in contrast to the New Testament, since they do not accept the Christian scriptures. This curriculum defines the Jewish tradition through Christian eyes.
Similarly, when one district used materials from raptureready.com in their curriculum it involved an interpretation of the book of Daniel which implied that Jews were collectively responsible for deicide -- a longstanding accusation that served as a foundation for oppressing the Jewish people for centuries, especially during the Crusades and through the Catholic Church in World War II Germany.
When a narrow form of Christianity takes over the curriculum, it becomes imperialistic.
A Better Way
This is not to say, however, that a healthy, academic study of religion is impossible, and the TFN study offers several excellent solutions. It is no secret what an academic study of religion looks like. For Texas to offer this, rather than the Sunday school lessons that seem to be occurring, it should include something more interdisciplinary, examining the literary, cultural, historiographical, and social aspects of religion.
Training lay persons to do this is possible, but may I suggest a fresh resource of already trained individuals. Those with degrees in religious studies are trained to bring in a nonsectarian viewpoint, as Texas originally intended. There are also plenty of starving qualified graduates in religious studies who would love a paycheck and can fairly teach an academic religion course without a religious agenda or indoctrination.