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Statement from Bible Scholars in Opposition to Bill That Adds 'Bible literacy' Class to Iowa Public Schools.









By Hector Avalos
Professor of Religious Studies
Iowa State University

Kenneth Atkinson
Professor of History
University of Northern Iowa

Robert R. Cargill
Asst. Professor of Classics and Religious Studies
University of Iowa
Editor, Biblical Archaeology Review
January 2018


Click here for article.





Comments (21)


Very well stated. I just hope that those who promote this law will read this carefully and that they will be open to understanding what you are saying. I doubt that they will read it or understand what you said if they do read it.
#1 - Todd Frederick - 01/25/2018 - 02:31



Excellent letter! As usual though, most politicians will do whatever they think will get them re-elected, regardless of right or wrong.
#2 - Bishop A. David Beaman, Ph.D. - 01/26/2018 - 13:54



As a secular person, I can think of few things more relevant today than teaching biblical literacy. Regarding the importance of the content, to quote Dr. Bart Ehrman:

"For most of us, if we had to pick one person to name as the Single Most Important and Influential Figure in the history of Western Civilization, it would almost certainly be Jesus. Who else would it be? There are others that people today might choose – Hitler, Constantine, Caesar Augustus, pick your name. But I think it’s pretty obvious that none of them actually had the historical impact that Jesus has. Not only is he worshiped by two billion people in our world today, nearly a third of the entire human race, but in terms of Western civilization, what is the single most powerful and influential institution, ever, measured politically, economically, socially, or culturally – not to mention religiously? Surely, throughout the past 2000 years, the answer has to be the Christian church. And what is the Christian church? It is the group of people who worship Jesus."

Teaching biblical literacy doesn't equate with regurgitating the dogmatics of faith, and teachers should be trusted to be competent enough to frame the discussion of this subject as fairly as they would all subject matter.

A grade four teacher is not at the same understanding level as a PhD when they are teaching science, but they still do a competent job.

And biblical literacy isn't necessarily beneficial to fundamentalism, as Dr. Avalos' work has often pointed out. For example, the place of truth and lies in biblical texts in no way is beneficial to the fundamentalist's agenda: see my blog post here http://palpatinesway.blogspot.com/

I think teaching biblical literacy is just as noble a pursuit at the public school level as any.
#3 - John MacDonald - 01/29/2018 - 23:56



Dear John MacDonald,
Thank you for your comments. I think that you are defending an issue different from the main claim of our joint statement. Our problem is not necessarily with the value of being biblically literate. Our problem is with HOW biblical literacy will be achieved in our schools.

The proposed bill in Iowa is sponsored by at least one legislator known for wishing to introduce conservative Christian beliefs into our schools. If he had his way, he probably would love to see thousands of religiously conservative teachers allowed the freedom to impose their theological agenda on our children.

There is also little or no oversight. Teachers with conservative religious opinions will be able to say what they wish without much of a challenge from grade school childen who will not know enough to challenge teachers. That is why courts have made a distinction between teaching young children and teaching students in college when controversial religious issues are at stake.

Teaching values and beliefs is not the same as teaching mathematics, which is why the analogy with science teaching is not quite apt.
I certainly disagree with the claim that "[a] grade four teacher is not at the same understanding level as a PhD when they are teaching science, but they still do a competent job."

The fact is that many of our science teachers are not doing a "competent" job teaching science precisely because of the religious backlash they face. Too many science teachers actually teach creationist ideas without much of a problem, especially in areas already sympathetic to creationism.

This regrettable situation with teaching science in our schools has been studied extensively. Here is one report from Science magazine:

"Previously, authors Eric Plutzer and Michael Berkman, political scientists at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), University Park, had conducted research that found 'a pervasive reluctance [among high school biology teachers] to forthrightly explain evolutionary biology.' Only 28% used evolution as a unifying theme in their classes, they reported in a 2011 Science article. On the other end of the spectrum, 13% included creationism or intelligent design in their lessons."

See: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2015/02/politics-science-and-public-attitudes-what-we-re-learning-and-why-it-matters

Again, our problem is not necessarily with having a biblically literate populace. Our concern is primarily with HOW this literacy will be achieved.
#4 - Dr. Hector Avalos - 01/30/2018 - 09:28



Hi Dr. Avalos,

Dr. Avalos said:

"There is also little or no oversight. Teachers with conservative religious opinions will be able to say what they wish without much of a challenge from grade school childen who will not know enough to challenge teachers. That is why courts have made a distinction between teaching young children and teaching students in college when controversial religious issues are at stake."

Speaking as an elementary school teacher, I'm not familiar with your state, but these are issues that are solved with the government instituting a common curriculum and common teaching resources that outline for teachers what they are and are not to teach (in Literacy, Numeracy, Social Studies, Science, etc.). This is how things are done in Canada, for instance.

One of the goals of education is to create a Cultural Mosaic, not a Cultural Melting pot. In terms of teaching religion, students should learn about World Religions, including the secular point of view. These are important issues in our world and should be studied.
#5 - John MacDonald - 01/30/2018 - 18:04



Mr. MacDonald,
Thanks for your response. I agree that world religions are important and should be studied. That is not our complaint.

Our complaint is that there are no safeguards to ensure that indoctrination is eliminated. There are really no peer review processes to monitor teachers who wish to indoctrinate students.

It does not help matters when there are sustained and repeated attempts to introduce such laws by legislators who are openly for teaching creationism in schools.

See: https://ncse.com/news/2017/03/antiscience-bill-iowa-0018479 ----Note that this pro-creationist bill is sponsored by
the same Skyler Wheeler and company who are for the Bible literacy bill.

These legislators know that any safeguards will be met with a wink and nod by anti-science and religionist administrators, especially in smaller communities. I personally have fought that problem repeatedly in Iowa over the last 25 years.

Common curricula and standards don't work when you have small rural schools, for example, where the community might be sympathetic to creationism.

As you saw from that study reported sin Science, about 13% of teachers are teaching outright creationism in their lessons. According to that report, "[o]nly 28% used evolution as a unifying theme in their classes."

How has any "common curriculum" or standard prevented that situation? Could you answer that question for us?
#6 - Dr. Hector Avalos - 01/30/2018 - 18:45



Hi Dr. Avalos

In a pluralistic society, there is nothing wrong with teachers exposing children to what creationism is, and the fact that many people believe in it, as long as this is done in a "World Religions" educational context, and not as part of the Science curriculum.

Dr. Avalos said: "Our complaint is that there are no safeguards to ensure that indoctrination is eliminated. There are really no peer review processes to monitor teachers who wish to indoctrinate students."

This ties in to the government producing a "Standards of Practice" document outlining what Best Practice is in terms of Planning, Assessment, Instructional Strategies, Differentiation, etc. Principals need to make clear to their teachers that indoctrination is counter to Best Practices in a pluralistic educational environment and, if continued, should result in the termination of the teacher. If the principal is not managing this administrative job properly, then it is up to the superintendent to intervene.

Dr. Avalos said: "Common curricula and standards don't work when you have small rural schools, for example, where the community might be sympathetic to creationism."

Again, I can't speak for how things work in Iowa, but I have taught at both inner city schools and rural country schools that belong to the same school board, and the experience inside the classroom in those schools was basically the same because the curriculum was mandated by the government, the school board provided common teaching resources/guidelines, and the Standards of Practice were clear, concise, and understood as expectations.
#7 - John MacDonald - 01/30/2018 - 20:43



Dear Mr. MacDonald,
Thanks for your response, but my question addressed to you was not about schools in just Iowa. My question pertained to the general situation in science education in America.

Please address the issue I mentioned: Science reports that about 13% of teachers are teaching outright creationism in their lessons, and "[o]nly 28% used evolution as a unifying theme in their classes."

How has any "common curriculum" or standard prevented that situation?
#8 - Dr. Hector Avalos - 01/31/2018 - 06:15



Hi Dr. Avalos

I thought I did answer your question, but I'll try again. Current Common Curriculum and Standards of Practice did not prevent this unfortunate situation, so it would seem Curriculum needs to be revised to make it very explicit that Creationism is NOT to be taught as part of the Science Curriculum (creationism certainly can be introduced as part of a discussion that is framed as involving "World Religions and Mythologies."), and the government needs to issue a mandate to Principals that they are not to tolerate their Teachers discussing Creationism in an indoctrinating manner with the students. As I said, Teachers that defy this warning and continue to try to indoctrinate students in their religious biases should have their employment terminated, and Superintendents should be vigilant in seeing that their Principals enforce these Standards of Practice.
#9 - John MacDonald - 01/31/2018 - 15:41



Mr. MacDonald,
Thanks for your reply. In areas where creationists dominate a school district, I am not sure that standards are that meaningful. What I see is a lot of "looking the other way," which is how the situation reported by Science has been allowed to develop to such a great extent.

In any case, I appreciate any efforts you put forward on behalf of a good science education.
#10 - Dr. Hector Avalos - 01/31/2018 - 16:30



Dear readers,
The Des Moines Register, the largest newspaper in Iowa, has published our joint statement online (it may be in print on Saturday): https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/iowa-view/2018/01/31/professors-biblical-studies-we-oppose-bible-literacy-bill/1080808001/

Note that a quote previously attributed to state senator Brad Zaun is now correctly attributed to Drew Zahn, a spokesperson for the Family Leader, a conservative Christian organization in Iowa.
#11 - Dr. Hector Avalos - 01/31/2018 - 16:32



Hi Dr. Avalos

Dr. Avalos said:

"In areas where creationists dominate a school district, I am not sure that standards are that meaningful."

This bizarre over-generalization is offensive to me as a professional teacher. Are you even aware of what the guidelines are in your district for teachers sharing personal faith matters with students? A far more likely answer is that teachers are simply unaware of the damage of uncritically promoting faith issues in a classroom can be, so the answer in the vast majority of the offending cases is Professional Development. If the Ministry of Education or its equivalent in question mandates that teachers are to not, for instance, teach Creationism as Science, I am confident the teachers will adhere to this Standard of Practice. We are professionals, and the vast majority of us conduct ourselves as such. Being an elementary school teacher who has taught grades 2-8, as well as first year University seminars, there is an enormous amount of accountability - to students, parents, the principal, your grade team, Standardized Tests, etc. It's been my experience that that teachers who have more of a multicultural makeup of students tend to be less uncritical when sharing their personal belief system with the class.
#12 - John MacDonald - 01/31/2018 - 17:41



One of Dr. Avalos' comments that I strongly disagree with was "In areas where creationists dominate a school district, I am not sure that standards are that meaningful." This is very unfair. Whether liberal or conservative, teachers are still professionals. In cases where personal beliefs conflict with delivering content (such as teaching creationism in science class), what is needed is Professional Development. Teachers may simply be unaware that what they are doing is detrimental to student learning, and the overwhelming majority of teachers would not teach creationism in science class if their "Standards of Practice" document forbid them to do so.
#13 - John MacDonald - 02/01/2018 - 19:11



Mr. MacDonald,
I am aware of some of the guidelines in some Iowa schools because I have been consulted about teaching evolution and the Bible by some local schools. I have met with some administrators and teachers. I have met with parents with complaints about how their schools are not listening to them about good science education.

My broader statements are not overgeneralizations. They are based on actual studies, and I mentioned the one in Science. Note again that about 13% of teachers are teaching outright creationism in their lessons and only 28% used evolution as a unifying theme in their classes. That would not be happening if accountability is as good as you claim on a broader scale.

On the other hand, I don't see any scientific or sociological studies on which you are basing your claims.

Saying that you are "confident the teachers will adhere to this Standard of Practice" is not the same as evaluating results based on empirical research.

Saying that you don't like my claims is not a substitute for claims based on scientific or sociological studies of American education.

Therefore, you seem to be the one overgeneralizing from your local or personal experience. You may be doing a good job, but you need some actual empirical data to express the sort of confidence you do on a broader level.
#14 - Dr. Hector Avalos - 02/02/2018 - 08:19



Hi Dr, Avalos,

Good to hear you are familiar with the curriculum documents and are not just making blanket, unsupported statements. Since, in general, you consider teachers to be so unprofessional and you are familiar with the curriculum documents, please cite a page number in the Science curriculum documents where it says creationism is not to be taught in Science class. If you can do this, I will concede your point that the teachers are being unprofessional (which they certainly may be). Also, please cite the page in the Science curriculum document that says teachers are to teach evolution as a unifying theme in their classes.
#15 - John MacDonald - 02/02/2018 - 16:22



Mr. MacDonald,
RE: "please cite a page number in the Science curriculum documents where it says creationism is not to be taught in Science class."

Your question does not apply to my claims. My main claim is that the empirical evidence presented by Science shows that the dire situation we face in science education has not been improved by any standards you can name.

Any standards saying that creationism cannot be taught will not explain the data I presented. It is the ENFORCEMENT of those standards that is more to the point. That enforcement has much to do with the local community and environment in which teachers, even well intentioned ones, work.

As you surely must know, in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) the Supreme Court declared the teaching of creationism in science classes as unconstitional in primary and secondary schools.

Therefore, there should be no science standards in public schools entailing your request: "cite a page number in the Science curriculum documents where it says creationism is not to be taught in Science class."

The Supreme Court decision should render your question unnecessary, not to mention irrelevant to my claims.

Edwards v. Aguillard was prompted by Louisiana's "Creationism Act" which "forbids the teaching of the theory of evolution in public elementary and secondary schools unless accompanied by instruction in the theory of "creation science.'"
https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/482/578

Ever since that decision, creationists have tried new ways to put creationism back into the science curriculum.

Nevertheless, general guidelines for science education in Iowa can be found here: https://iowacore.gov/iowa-core/subject/science

A more specific example of some of the science standards, including evolution, used in Iowa can be found on p. 72 here: https://iowacore.gov/sites/default/files/9-12standards-evidencestatements.pdf

However, please also note Question 5 on p. 17 posed in this 2015 report issued by the Department of Education in the State of Iowa:

"Should biological evolution be the only theory utilized in the Next Generation Science Standards?"

See: https://www.educateiowa.gov/sites/files/ed/documents/2015-08-06ScienceStandardsReviewTeamReport.pdf

This question, in turn, is tied to the efforts of the same Skyler Wheeler (and other creationists) to push the Bible literacy legislation. Wheeler introduced another bill (HF 480) in 2017 that states the following:

"If a teacher provides instruction relating to evolution, the origins of life, global warming, or human cloning, the teacher shall include opposing points of view or beliefs relating to the instruction."

https://www.legis.iowa.gov/legislation/BillBook?ba=HF480&ga=87

This would force teachers to teach some form of creationism in science classes.

Overall, I think you are still missing the point that these creationist and bible literacy bills are being promoted systematically all over the country. You seem to be oblivious to this fact.

I recommend you read about how a new generation of Bible literacy and anti-evolution bills are part of a conservative Christian strategy after the Kitzmiller v. Dover decision in 2005. Please note this article in Science (351:6268, January 1, 2016):

"Summary
Political attempts to denigrate and dilute the teaching of evolution in science classrooms have been a feature of the U.S. educational scene for 90 years (1). These may be classified into three major waves (2). Bans on teaching evolution were enacted in the 1920s (and unsuccessfully challenged in the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial) and persisted until ruled unconstitutional in 1968. When bans were rescinded, creationists (3) began to lobby for "balanced treatment" for creationism whenever evolution was taught, first trying biblical creationism, then "creation science," and finally "intelligent design" (ID). Each strategy was ruled unconstitutional (table S1), in part due to court attention to creationist origins. Creationists did not give up with the defeat of ID in Kitzmiller v. Dover, decided in U.S. District Court on 20 December 2005, but instead shifted political efforts to the third wave of antievolutionism, "stealth creationism" (2): legislation that avoids mentioning creationism in any of its varieties but advances creationist antievolutionism with an evolving collection of strategies (table S1). I use a phylogenetic tree to show how antievolution legislation has evolved, and at times succeeded, in the 10 years since Kitzmiller."
http://science.sciencemag.org/content/351/6268/28


To understand the systematic nature and enormous funding behind these efforts, you also might read Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby by Candida Moss and Joel Baden.
See: https://www.amazon.com/Bible-Nation-United-States-Hobby/dp/069117735X
#16 - Dr. Hector Avalos - 02/02/2018 - 17:53



Hi Dr. Avalos

Dr Avalos said

"Ever since that decision, creationists have tried new ways to put creationism back into the science curriculum."

As you have not demonstrated any familiarity with the Science curriculum documents for your district, and creationists are finding "new ways" to get creationism back into the curriculum, the way forward is clear. The Science curriculum documents need to be updated (as they frequently are) in order to make clear that creationism is not to be taught in Science lessons. That is how change in the public school system happens. You would understand that this is the proper way forward if you had more than a simplistic understanding of how education works at the elementary and secondary level. Have a PhD in the Old Testament and being a university instructor in no way suggests you are qualified to pass judgement on the public school system Science curriculum.
#17 - John MacDonald - 02/02/2018 - 18:22



Mr. MacDonald,
I have quoted and cited a number of documents about science education in Iowa, and so I am not sure how that renders me unfamiliar with primary and secondary science education in Iowa. I've dealt with creationist issues for nearly 25 years in my state at every level, from primary to university levels.

On the other hand, you still have not cited a single document or study to support any assertion you have made about science education in Iowa or in America. You declare being offended, but that is not sufficient to explain the data provided by Science quoted above.

In comment #5, you stated: "I'm not familiar with your state..."

I am not sure that I can add to what you have already conceded.
#18 - Dr. Hector Avalos - 02/02/2018 - 20:31



I just wanted to thank Dr. Avalos for the lively debate. In summation, I would like to recapitulate my 2 points:

(1) Teachers clearly should not be teaching creationism in Science class (except perhaps as it pertains to the history of Science). To remedy this, the different districts should make changes to their science curriculum documents to reflect this prohibition. The Science teams for each district should send a letter to the various schools to inform them of the updates. As the vast majority of teachers reflect the characteristics of professionalism, they will adhere to the new guidelines regardless of their faith systems.

(2) Regarding the proposal in Iowa to introduce classes in literacy of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition: As I said, far from opposing such a class, this should be adopted, and, in fact, expanded, to include in-depth studies of the various world faith traditions (including reflecting students with secular worldviews), to promote multiculturalism and inclusion.
#19 - John MacDonald - 02/03/2018 - 00:28



And one last note to the readers here regarding Dr. Avalos if you are not familiar with his work. Dr. Avalos is known to sometimes gravitate toward fringe atheist positions, like the idea that Biblical Studies should end, and that Jesus never existed. For instance, in his signature book, Avalos writes "Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle outlines a plausible theory for a completely mythical Jesus." (Avalos, 'The End Of Biblical Studies,' pg. 197)
#20 - John MacDonald - 02/04/2018 - 16:33



Mr. MacDonald,
I think you are not familiar with my work or with this website. My idea of what the "end" of biblical studies means for me has been discussed extensively, including on this very website.

See: http://www.bibleinterp.com/opeds/resplem357927.shtml

The End of Biblical Studies now is being used to study biblical studies methodologies at, among other respected institutions, Marquette University, which is not known for promoting fringe biblical scholarship:

See: http://www.marquette.edu/theology/documents/6120_101_Hills.pdf

I am also not a Jesus mythicist if that is what you are implying.

My position on the historical Jesus is agnosticism. I don't think we have enough data to establish historicity or mythicism. I have been very clear and consistent about this agnosticism since 1999, when I wrote Health Care and the Rise of Christianity (1999).

This book is published/distributed by Baker Academic, a conservative Christian publisher, which usually does not promote fringe atheist scholarship.

See: https://bakerbookhouse.com/products/health-care-and-the-rise-of-christianity-9780801045509

Please do familiarize yourself with these scholarly discussions about my work before trying to use decontextualized quotes to dismiss the data about science education that you still have not explained adequately.
#21 - Dr. Hector Avalos - 02/04/2018 - 21:00






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