Why Religion in Education Matters: Basic Science Literacy

I posted about this photo below a while back. (Larger photos at the album linked below.)  The web is oddly ambivalent about whether this is really part of a science textbook; even Snopes won’t come down and confirm it. (http://message.snopes.com/showthread.php?t=62120) So I held my nose and ordered a (used) copy. What I got was actually the ‘Home Teacher’s Edition.’ I am very sorry to report that this image IS an actual page in the “Science 4 for Christian Schools” textbook. 

The Teacher’s Edition (TE) shows an image of the same page above the suggested guidelines for how parents are to teach the unit on electricity (Pg. 51 of the Teacher’s Edition). The question given to start the unit reads: 1. Can you see electricity? (no) Where does electricity come from? (No one knows for sure.) The answers are given in italics, in case the parents aren’t sure of the proper response. (See the second photo; larger version at the album linked at the bottom of the article.)

From there, the unit progresses in a relatively accurate discussion of atoms, protons, neutrons, etc. Now, I must admit, the last time I sat in a science class was a while ago, but this seems to accord with what I recall.

However, the discussion concludes with the teacher asking the students what makes atoms stay together. The teacher is instructed to tell them that “scientists have many ideas but we do not know for sure because nobody has ever been inside an atom.” The teacher is then to direct students to read a Bible verse, Colossians 1:16-17. I will quote the text that follows, but it’s in the third photo below (go to the album if you can’t read the text in the thumbnail here).

“Everything is held together by the power of Christ Jesus. Without His preserving power, the universe would fly apart. While those who are unsaved struggle to find out why atoms stay together, we as Christians know that God does it. (Bible Promise: I. God as Master)”

This is a somewhat surprising move, even among the more extreme curricula I have seen. After all, there is no inherently religious reason to call into question the nature of electricity. Electricity is essentially ideologically neutral, and inserting “God did it” into this discussion seems an awkward fit. But that last bit after the paragraph holds the key. These “Biblical Promises” are a series of core doctrinal statements that serve to define God, his nature, and his supposed role in creation.

The entire book, and from all evidence (though I don’t have other books in the series in hand), the whole series is geared around ‘demonstrating’ or proving this list of “Biblical Promises.” But as anyone even basically familiar with logic can likely see, this is begging the question. By definition, begging the question, or circular reasoning, refers to an argument in support of a claim that relies upon the truth of the claim itself in order to prove the claim is true. By setting out this list of ‘promises,’ and then making sure that the text always fits those promises, they are begging the question. The entire enterprise then becomes an exercise in proving a claim made at the beginning. The goal is not teaching science (which this text seems to be in little danger of doing), but rather supporting a religious ideology, distorting or changing facts as they see fit. However, since the core aim of the curriculum is ideology, not science, every piece of it must be crafted to point back to the ideology. Scientific accuracy or even accuracy about the very nature of reality is simply a casualty along the way.

Furthermore, this kind of ideologically based education does have consequences in the world. How many other seemingly innocuous facts of not only science are being re-tooled in this way? For example, this book’s entire first chapter discusses the Moon as emblematic of ideology, dismissing commonly held cosmological theories with confidence because the Bible tells us God spoke and the Moon was created. There is an entire lesson (Ch.1, Lesson 4), devoted the the “purpose” of the moon, which, of course, is to glorify God. And in the future, this science lesson teaches, the purpose of the moon will be to warn people of the end of the world. (Pg. 15, Discussion question 7.)

Science is not alone in being subject to this kind of treatment. We know history has fallen victim to such revisionism as well. Consider Oklahoma’s recent efforts to do away with the “unpatriotic” AP History course. As Orwell famously said, “who controls the past controls the future.” Losing the facts of history unmoors us from basic truths about the world in which we live, and the loss, therefore, of factual history is indeed dangerous. But the loss of scientific literacy may be even more so. What place does an adult thus trained have in the 21st Century? I am tempted to resort to sarcasm, and say “Congress” but that answer is neither as far-fetched or as funny as we might prefer. Clearly this curriculum is not producing scientists (or historians). Given the nature of such disciplines, we must assume it is also not producing engineers, doctors, likely not even innovators—how can one innovate when one lacks a fundamental understanding of how the world works? One hopes that mathematics at least, is free of ideology, but one wonders. What sort of population would we have fashioned, were these curricula to become mainstream?

The book quoted and shown in this piece is “Science 4 for Christain Schools Textbook; Home Teacher’s Edition”  ©Bob Jones University Press

Larger photos of the actual book: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10152723922576169.1073741830.610751168&type=1&l=b565ce6ff1)

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