This is about keeping schools secular, not about atheism.


Diversity?I stumbled across a story this week about a school district in Ontario that had decided to disallow free distribution of the Bible by the Gideons in its schools. My first thought was, “Wow. I didn’t even know the Gideons were still in business.”

Then I wondered why anyone was distributing bibles at a secular school in the first place.

The story actually originated in the Toronto Star. The Gideons have been distributing bibles since 1908, and in Canada since 1911. I’ve only seen the New Testament in any hotel where I’ve stayed, but their website says they distribute both “complete” and New Testament-only bibles. By “complete” I assume that the apocrypha is not included, just the Old and New Testaments.

The decision not to allow bibles to be handed out was made by the Bluewater School Board’s policy committee this week. The committee debated the issue for months (which strikes me as very indecisive) but eventually voted to ban distribution of all religious materials at its 53 schools. The other suggestion was to allow any religious organization to hand out literature. That could open the door to all sorts of fringe religious groups, from creationists to Scientologists. None was the better choice.

Well, not for Kevin Larson, chairman of the board’s policy committee. He said he was disappointed by the decision. “I believe open to all is the way we should be going with the increasing diversity in the world.” Duh. I wonder how he would feel if someone was handing out Korans? The Book of Mormon? Dianetics? The Dhammapada? Bhagavad Gita? What about some Wiccan text? Or something by Anton Lavey?

How would he answer all those complaints from parents whose kid brought home a screed from the Satanic Church? Would he tell them they should relax and enjoy the “diversity”?

An opponent of the decision, Dorothy Adams, commented: “It is an atheist thing and they’re doing harm to the children. What are we trying to do? Destroy our children?”

No, just keeping the separation of church and state. You don’t have to be an atheist to believe that religion does not belong in a secular school.

According to the Gideons’ website, “In 1946, Canadian Gideons began the program of presenting New Testaments to all grade 5 students in Canada whose parents consented. These have become commonly known as the “Little Red Bible” by the thousands of people who received them.” If it’s just the New testament, it’s specifically a Christian text.

The Gideons aren’t apologetic, either. They state clearly they are proselytizing for Christianity:

The main reason for this is because our primary goal is to introduce people to Jesus Christ. If we can ask people to read one thing in the entire Bible, it’s the stories that revolve around the character of Jesus and who He is. We want them to start there and then explore the whole story, including the Old Testament, as they dig deeper into the Bible.

Bluewater’s decision is hardly the first: many other school boards have disallowed distribution of the bibles, as well as all other religious material, in public schools. And so they all should.

Obviously this decision didn’t sit well with the religious right, who packed the committee meetings, waving their Gideon Bibles, and when they went home spent time flooding trustee inboxes with with emails, making phone calls and writing letters.

Adams said Gideon supporters would continue to lobby trustees to avoid the decision being ratified by the full board, in April. She told the paper:

“We believe in the children and bringing up children to have a happy life. If they had the Lord in their life, they wouldn’t be tempted by a lot of the things that are out there.”

So if they had Krishna in their life, children won’t be tempted? Or Mani? Ganesh? Avalokiteshvara? Buddha? Mithra? Prince Xenu? Allah? Or just one of the three Christian gods? Didn’t seem to keep a lot of priests from temptation with altar boys.

I somehow doubt Ms. Adams or any of the opponents give a damn about “diversity” – just about teaching children their own faith. And that’s a good enough reason to stop the group handing out bibles to kids in publicly funded schools.

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  1. Haggle

    I remember getting a Gideon bible when I was a kid. Our teacher suggested that everyone in the class sign each others books, which was nice. I still have mine somewhere. Although I’m an atheist I think every kid should read the bible. It is a tremendously important book and a well educated individual should be familiar with it. The account of the life of Jesus is truly one of the greatest stories ever told, whether you attach any supernatural significance to it or not. For these reasons, I have no problem with Gideons distributing bibles in schools. I dont see why this should open the door to other religious groups (especially smaller religions like Wiccans, Mormons and [the particularly dismal] Scientologists). Christianity was hugely influential in the development of western civilization and deserves to be recognised/understood/studied. Other religions not so much. Saying that other religious groups must be given the same access to schools as the Gideons is like saying that, in the interests of fairness, Boyle’s law deserves identical study time to Newton’s laws.

  2. “Although I’m an atheist I think every kid should read the bible. It is a tremendously important book and a well educated individual should be familiar with it.”

    I don’t disagree, because I see the Bible as an important historical and cultural document. But so is the Gilgamesh story. And the Rig Veda. And the Tao Teh Ching. The Dhammapada. The Mahabarata. And many others. None have pre-eminence or moral, or spiritual superiority. I read them all.

    I also feel every Western individual should be familiar with the history of how the canon was created, how what is orthodox today was challenged and won its case by force and politics, not necessarily by faith or truth. I believe everyone should read the Gnostics – both their works and their history and be educated in the.story of the development of the early church and the often bloody battles over the canon. The New Testament should be read beside the Nag Hammadi library.

    “For these reasons, I have no problem with Gideons distributing bibles in schools. I dont see why this should open the door to other religious groups…”

    In an open, accountable democracy, if you allow one, you have to allow all, or we’re back to Tea Party/Taliban ethics. If you allow the Gideons to distribute New Testament tracts, then you HAVE to allow the Satanic Church to do so, or whatever cult wants to. If you don’t you’re just promoting one narrow, religious view. It’s the same argument about sex education: you have to teach that there are homosexual relationships, and these are as natural as heterosexual, otherwise you’re being dishonest. But if you let one group promote its viewpoint, you’re just the Western Taliban.

    Religion should only be taught in schools in historical and social context, not in the context of faith and belief.

  3. Haggle

    Ian, there are a limited number of hours in the day and it is impossible to study everything. So, given the choice between Christianity and ancient Sumerian religions we should choose to teach kids about the former. Its a question of relevancy. Even as an atheist I acknowledge that the way I live my life, and the social structure I live it in, is hugely influenced by the religious history of the West.
    And I really dont see why that should open the door to every tin-pot religious group to come into schools and indoctrinate kids.
    Let me provide an example. If the class is studying ancient Egyptian history and – by a happy coincidence – there is an expert living locally who offers to come in and do a talk, then a school would likely take up the offer. If at the same time it gets an offer from someone who wants to come in and talk about the Dhammapada (whatever that is) then it could politely refuse. The Dhammapada – interesting though I’m sure it is – is not on the curriculum and, as I said earlier, time is limited.
    So, I’m not sure how allowing the Gideons to hand out bibles while not providing the same opportunity to other religious types makes us like the Taliban.
    I would argue the same point against your assertion that “it’s the same argument about sex education: you have to teach that there are homosexual relationships, and these are as natural as heterosexual, otherwise you’re being dishonest”. I disagree. If a student was doing a three-year dissertation on sexuality then no doubt homosexuality would be included. For the 30 minute sex-education talk that we got when I was at school it was ok to leave it out. It isn’t about ‘honesty’. I go back to my Boyle’s Law vs Newton’s Laws analogy.
    Anyway, it seems the Bluewater School Board agrees with you. They apparently decided that their only options were to allow all religions to distribute their texts or none at all. Sad that.

  4. Haggle

    Yes, I see some attention to this story in The Star today. I do think it is a shame that the Board has decided to halt distribution of this educational material from the Gideons. I often agree with you Ian, but I think you are incorrect on this issue. The Board appears to believe that they must open up to all religious material or ban it completely, and you appear to agree. So, when Creationists (or Alchemists for that matter) want their beliefs taught in school science lessons, are we to respond by completely ending the teaching of science in schools? The Bluewater Board should simply accept the Gideon bibles and tell other religious groups (politely) to go away. I see no legal or ethical issue.

  5. We disagree,and I don’t see the logic of your argument.
    I believe that, in secular, publicly-funded institutions, religion and faith-based issues should not be taught or even encouraged. Teaching science is appropriate, but teaching creationism alongside evolution is like teaching astrology alongside astronomy, and phrenology alongside psychology.
    Teachers are not employed to argue the morality or truths of various faiths. The intrusion of religious perspectives into secular institutions will only confuse students. Every idea, every hypothesis, every story is not true, is not equally valid, is not always on the same footing as empirical evidence.
    if you allow the Gideons, you have to, by my standards, allow prince Xenu of the Scientologists. Since teachers are not employed to debate the silliness of Scientology, they can only present it as a valid argument to complement the other myths.
    We should argue this over a beer sometime. Next time we see each other in the Huron, let’s pit our wits…

  6. Haggle

    “If you allow the Gideons, you have to, by my standards, allow prince Xenu of the Scientologists”

    Well, I hardly think Xenu is an appropriate character to allow in front of a class of school kids, although he may well come up with a radical but effective solution to the problem of increasing student/teacher ratios!
    Seriously though, I think we perhaps have two separate arguments going on here. I’m offended by the notion that all religions must be given equal billing, even those that have had little cultural or historical impact in Canada and the Western World. Political correctness gone mad!
    The other argument pertains to whether religion should be taught in our schools at all. I think there is a good argument there, although that argument should not be based on fairness to minority religions (ie we have to teach all or none so lets teach none). At the same time isn’t Christianity important enough to get some coverage in our schools? Is – say – knowing about the French Revolution more important than knowing the story of Christ’s life? Remember I speak as an atheist myself.

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