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Lies to Children

It’s been a while since my last Terry Pratchett reference, so I feel the need to get back on track.  In the “Science of Discworld” books, Terry Pratchett, Jack Cohen, and Ian Stewart put a forward a concept they call “lies to children.”  Basically, these are simplified stories we tell – and not just to children – when we want to begin to explain something, but feel that our audience doesn’t have the background information necessary to understand the “full” story.  These can be anything from “the stork brought you” to “Columbus wanted to prove that the Earth was round” to “atoms look like little solar systems” to “evolution is the survival of the fittest.”

These little white lies have their function, and some of them actually push us on to further study, driving us along a path that leads to better and better answers.  Sometimes, though, we never get beyond the “lies to children” stage, and sometimes there’s somebody with a vested interest in making sure nobody ever does.

Take history, for example.  My son is going into eleventh grade next year in Westport, Connecticut, a town with a pretty good school system.  No student graduates from Staples High School without getting a pretty solid dose of evolution with natural selection.  There are plenty of AP classes, eckcetra (as Granny Weatherwax would say), and on and on.  But looking at the offerings in history, there are some places even Westport won’t go.  Want to study American or European history?  No problem.  Anthropology?  Sure.  What if a student were interested in what was actually going on in biblical times, from an archaeological standpoint?  Forget it.  Not gonna happen.

No school system in this country will touch biblical archaeology with a 10-foot pole.  Now, schools can’t cover everything, but some areas are just off limits.  Especially those areas in which one of our major religions has been teaching a serious set of “lies to children.” 

What in the old testament is corroborated by non-biblical sources?  Parting of the Red Sea?  The burning bush?  The Babylonian exile?  The history of the Kingdom’s of Israel and Judea?  The list goes on.  New Testament, too.

It’s not like that part of the world wasn’t interesting in those times.  Cradle of civilization and all that, you know.  Personally, I find the whole subject pretty fascinating, but not because I learned about it in school.  I studied it on my own, much later.

I’ve been accused of making a big deal out of nothing in the past, and I can certainly see how I could be accused of that here.  My problem is this:  there’s a group of people who don’t want these things discussed outside of a religious setting, because they want to control how people think about them.  Because of this, our public schools consider the very topic to be completely off limits.  Many religionists would go ballistic if their historical ‘truths’ were examined in any way other than as revealed biblical knowledge – and at least the public schools aren’t teaching THAT stuff.  So we all miss out on a big piece of history, and grow up into adults knowing only the lies for children.

I mean, if religions were so sure that they had the absolute truth, why would they be afraid to allow us to examine the real record?  I know, I know, don’t get me started.  But once again, inquiry and truth are the victims of small-minded fear, and this time it’s been done in such an insidious way that we hardly notice.  Why can’t we pull that off for science? 

11 comments to Lies to Children

  • Fiziker

    I don’t think that there should be a specific class about this subject. From what I know of Palestine in that time period it’s just not important. American, 20th Century, &c. histories are much more important. However, another important history is that of ancient civilizations. Biblical archeology should come up in that context but I think it’s still more important to know the history of Egypt, Rome, Greece, and the various other larger civilizations that conquered Palestine than Palestine itself.

  • You have no idea how much I agree with you.

    I was warned by my mother before this year’s Passover seder to not brink up the archaeological evidence for the exodus (or lack thereof).

    I’ve recommended before, and will do again here: get the awesome book The Bible Unearthed to find out how the evidence lines up with the bible.

    Did ya know that at the time in the bible that people were using camels, according to archeology the camel was not yet domesticated? There’s lots of anachronisms like that in the bible. For some reason though, in my ten years at a Hebrew day school I never heard about them :-/
    I did here reasons why Jesus couldn’t be the messiah though, and those arguments remain convincing ;)

  • djbell

    I think there’s been a little progress, Jon. I’m in New York, and I’ve find that for progressive religious folks, it’s generally accepted that the history of the Israelites in the Tanakh is obviously a lot of updated Babylonian stories mixed in with a fragment or two of real history. Even a few priests I’ve spoken to seem at least “agnostic” about their historical belief of every belief of the church besides the New Testament.

    It’s unfortunate that contemporary wisdom is not yet extending to the Christian gospel, which fits into the history of first century Roman Palestine about as well as Moses fit into historical Egypt. Unfortunately, to read these 1st-through-3rd century Greek writings and put them through the lens of actual history will force some questions too difficult for most Americans to ask themselves.

  • Jim Shaver

    jonny_eh:

    Also, evidence suggests that Jesus was not a fire-breathing dragon.

    And Jon:

    When the “cdesign proponentsists” decided to fight and cheat to try to get the Bible into public schools, I don’t think that’s what they had in mind.

  • KeithJM

    I think you are trying to start a fight here. Certainly, schools teach about ancient Egyptians. Is it really necessary to point out there is no evidence that Jewish people served as slaves during that period? Can’t we just teach what is true, without going out of our way to pick a fight with people who believe something that’s extremely hard to disprove and isn’t really relevant to history?

    Another example: schools teach about the Roman empire around the beginning of the Common Era. Augustus was emperor, everyone’s learned about it. We don’t mention an empire-wide census because apparently none took place. That’s all fine. I think it’s inappropriate to go out of our way to mention censuses (censi?) that didn’t happen just to anger some Christians.

  • I agree on the silence in public schools, but would also like to point out that that same silence just gives more credibility to the religionists; for example”If the Bible stories weren’t true, wouldn’t they teach that in school?”

    The apparent cowardice on one hand feeds the boldness of the other, I fear.

  • djbell

    I think jonny_eh’s point was that Jesus is to the Jewish Messiah as Halle Berry’s Catwoman is to the original Catwoman. It’s a pretty interesting observation, and one that appears at a mere glance of first century Roman history, that the super fire-breathing dragon was based on a completely different, heroic natural lizard.

    Unbiased historical archaeology will never, ever, ever be allowed to get into a grade school classroom.

  • James Fox

    As a respectable academic field of study I suppose it’s called ancient near and middle eastern history and archeology. I find it fascinating when what the academics hold up as evidence, as reliably determined by facts, and compare it against the “biblical” record. How religions have developed and defined history is more than a valid academic exercise. Also putting religious writings in their cultural, mythological, historical and anthropologic context with reliable archeological evidence is how it ought to be done. The cradle of civilization is also the cradle of religions and the better we understand this history the better we understand how we got to where we are today… for better or worse.

    I suppose ones perspective when engaging in this study is your issue and that religious folk have often hijacked certain areas of study. However I doubt the 19th centaury Oxford and Cambridge Egyptologists who went to study along the Nile were all that interested in showing there really was an exodus involving Moses and the Hebrews as opposed to learning the facts and securing patronage.

  • Jon Blumenfeld

    KeithJM – Trying to start a fight? Moi? But really, if we learn about the ancient Egyptians, and the ancient Greeks and Romans – whose religions, by the way, we treat as amusing delusions – why not learn about what James Fox calls “ancient near and middle eastern history and archaeology”?

    It’s not necessarily about exploding religion’s myths, or purposely trying to anger religionists, but on the other hand, we all grow up hearing these stories that are presented as revealed truth. How about giving us a chance to look at the record? Do we look at Egypty, Rome, and Greece through the filter of religion?

  • Howdy

    Other posters have asked as to the relevance of studying this period and I have to say I agree with James Fox. The actual archaeolgy may be sparse and not of the scale of Egytian or Roman finds, but in terms of cultural significance for the West, in particular, and the world in general I can see no argument for not doing this. On the other hand early Greek and Roman history is much more important in the explanation of philosophy, science and governmental structure, so it probably deserves more time.
    I’m not from the US and so maybe can’t appreciate all the fuss. Are you saying that there are Christian groups blocking this type of archaelogy? That seems counterintuitive.

  • gwenwifar

    I know I’m coming late to the discussion, but I just joined a few days ago, came across this while exploring the blog, and I really had to add something to this.

    Do I believe we should talk about biblical archeology in school? Absolutely. We don’t really stop to think about it much, but the bible and the religion(s) that come attached are so much a part of daily life in the world as we know it that it influences how we speak, what we consider to be signs of good or bad luck, what we celebrate, when he celebrate it, what we value and hold in contempt. The Egyptians, Romans, or Greeks left us a lot of things. They are important. But not nearly as important as a cultural force that hasn’t left us at all. It continues to control people’s lives, and is so ingrained in “western” culture that it gets even to those of us who see the bible for what it is.
    Maybe if we took the time to look at how legitimate some of these claims are, more people could actually think for themselves. Maybe homosexuals would stop getting harassed and persecuted, maybe the concept that any one race can be superior to another would finally vanish, maybe the world might actually find out there is nothing in that book worth dying for.

    When? No earlier than high school. Preferably college. For many reasons. The students would be able to examine things more critically and come to their own conclusions, which is always best when a topic threatens established beliefs. We wouldn’t have to openly confront the bible. The students wouldn’t be so completely under the influence of parents who are closed to the topic, who would fight against the truth. Heck – parents couldn’t come in dictating what their children can and cannot learn.
    I guess my point is: it’s more than academic. The influence of that period, and claims being made about that period, is pervasive and in many cases toxic. An archeology class won’t fix it like pixie dust, but it would be a great start. Once you get people thinking for themselves they like it and want to keep it that way.

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