Texas Bible Courses: 'Racial Origins Traced from Noah' (continued)

When we published Reading, Writing & Religion II: Texas Public School Bible Courses in 2011-12, we expected pushback from some of the districts we discussed. But no one has protested more vigorously than the minister who authored the Amarillo Independent School District’s Bible curriculum and currently teaches its course. This teacher has complained loudly and repeatedly to the local press that we seriously misrepresented his materials–basically, that we broke the commandment not to bear false witness.

Actually, we just did with the Amarillo course materials exactly what we did with those from other problematic classes: we quoted from them verbatim and pointed out ways in which they fell short academically or unconstitutionally promoted one religious viewpoint over others.

When it comes to Amarillo’s Bible course, we found a lot of problematic elements, but the one that has the received the most attention is a chart titled “Racial Origins Traced from Noah.”


A test question shows that students were expected to know the chart, asking: “Shem is the father of a) most Germanic races B) the Jewish people  C) all African people.”

Our report cited this approach as a red flag: “The idea that racial diversity can be traced back to Noah’s sons has been a foundational component of some forms of racism. The belief that Africans were akin to Canaanites and subject to the ‘curse of Ham’ placed by Noah (Gen. 9:18, 22, 25) undergirded nineteenth-century defenses of slavery and is still cited in racist theory.”

We emphasized that Amarillo’s course materials did not explicitly refer to the “curse of Ham” tradition, but we also noted that they did not reflect “any familiarity with the tragic role played in American history by literalistic interpretations of the sort they advocate, either.” We discussed the chart as an example of the type of pseudoscience that is found in some courses.

The Amarillo teacher has insisted to reporters that he not only does not teach that people of African descent are subject to the “curse of Ham” but that in fact he teaches against that view. We’re glad to hear it and have no reason to doubt him at his word.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t solve the problem that the claim that racial origins can be traced to Noah is a religious belief that should not be presented as mainstream scholarship in a public school classroom.

The pertinent biblical passage is Genesis 9-11, which does indeed claim that after the Flood, Noah’s sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth became the ancestors of seventy peoples. There’s certainly nothing wrong with studying this or any other biblical passage as long as it’s done with a scholarly eye.

Where the Amarillo course goes astray is when it abandons the passage’s references to ancient tribes and locations and replaces them with modern geographical terms like “Western Europeans” and the language of race (“African races,” “Oriental races,” and “Caucasians”). The seventy groups named in Genesis don’t begin to fall into the Amarillo chart’s neat groupings. The greater problem, however, is the obvious point that the biblical passage says nothing about race. How could it, since “race” in this sense is a completely modern concept? Once the language of “race” is introduced, we’ve left the Bible far behind and have moved to the modern period. (Unfortunately, the Amarillo chart also doesn’t reflect an up-to-date understanding of race or awareness that some of the terminology used in decades past is now considered insensitive. Who still uses terms like “Oriental races”?) The teacher does not seem to be able to recognize the difference between what the text actually says and the race-focused interpretation he’s imposing on it.

The Amarillo course appears to be trying to trace modern racial differences (whatever that means) back to the sons of Noah. In doing so, it treats the passage as straightforward science and literal history. That’s a religious approach, and in a public school, that’s a problem.

In addition, any interpretation that lumps together “African races” with biblical bad guy Canaanites is disturbing. It supports the belief in three main racial groupings that allowed the “blacks suffer from the Curse of Ham” belief to develop and flourish in the first place–intentionally or not.

Discussing the idea that the races originated with Noah’s sons, the teacher told a reporter recently: “We weren’t teaching that, Genesis 10 teaches that. Our kids didn’t have to believe it, I don’t think some of my teachers believe it, they just had to know that’s what Genesis 10 says.”

What does the law say about this type of rationalization?  According to a 1996 court ruling about a Mississippi public school Bible course, “the daily teaching of the content of a book of religious proclamation does not become secular instruction merely by informing students that the content is only what the Bible says; indeed, for many students, that may well heighten the religious effect of the course.” The judge also commented that the “district’s argument that the course can be saved (no pun intended) by prefacing each discussion of a biblical event with ‘The Bible says…’ or noting that not everyone believes the Bible, is without persuasion” (Herdahl v. Pontotoc County School District, 933 F. Supp. 596-597 [N.D. Miss. 1996]).

If a court wasn’t persuaded by this argument in 1996, why would one be persuaded by the exact same argument in 2013?

6 thoughts on “Texas Bible Courses: 'Racial Origins Traced from Noah' (continued)

  1. After the “red men” of the New World were discovered by Cristobal Colon in 1492, the European church got really disturbed and held a special international meeting to try to decide where this odd sort of man with red skin came from. It apparently was considerd to be a “nonfit” with the sons of Noah. I do not recall how the meeting resolved this issue or if it did.

    However, from our studies of geology, primate and human paleontology, and biological anthropology in general, we know for certain that none of the so-called “races” descended from Noah or his sons because humanity originated in Africa and fanned out from there. There was never a worldwide flood. The story of Noah is most likely a parable, one of the many that God and Jesus gave to us to teach us some important spiritual lessons (but not scientific or historical ones). Noah and his sons most likely never existed.

  2. Sorry, TFN. I posted this yesterday in the wrong blog column. I meant to post it here.

    Gene Shelburne, the Amarillo minister/high school Bible course instructor, has an excuse: “We weren’t teaching that, Genesis 10 teaches that. Our kids didn’t have to believe it.” Thus he considers himself blameless of the charge of racism for using a chart of Biblical racial origins traced from Noah. Shelburne continues: “He [Prof. Mark Chancy, author of TFN’s report on the misuse of the Bible curriculum in Texas] assumed the worst. He assumed that we were just ignorant, that we were bigoted, that we were misusing the public class room.” I doubt these were Prof. Chancy’s assumptions.

    I believe that when discussing Genesis 10 with students, the Rev. Shelburne didn’t tell them that there is no scientific evidence for human races. That the concept of human races is an ancient idea that has been totally displaced by modern genetics. That when you observe the diagram showing the Biblical origin of races derived from Noah’s sons that you should not believe it, because there is no evidence for it. And you should not believe in Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, Jesus, and dozens of other Biblical individuals since there is no evidence for them, either (this would be anthropological, archaeological, and legitimate historical evidence; Biblical myths don’t count). And there is no evidence for the Garden of Eden, the Expulsion, Flood, Exodus, parting of the Red Sea, voice from a burning bush, Ten Commandments written on stone tablets, virgin birth, Last Supper, crucifixion, rising from the dead, etc.

    These names and stories are not history; they are myths and religious faith beliefs. Subsequent literature and poetry written about these mythical individuals and events could be topics of a secular Bible course, but students must be told that there is no empirical evidence for them and most scholars doubt them. To not do this is to commit unethical academic acts of omission–as bad as acts of commission, such as deliberately telling students that the stories are true–since either will leave the students ignorant, misguided, and confused. But that’s the point of all the Bible courses in Texas, isn’t it, to present Bible stories as literature and history without scholarly contradiction so that the faith beliefs they got elsewhere will be implicitly confirmed and reinforced by teachers in a setting they respect–the public school classroom. So yes, Rev. Shelburne, if you didn’t proactively and explicitly inform students of the true evidential status and presumed veracity of all the well-known Biblical stories and legends they studied and allowed them to believe they were true without comment or contradiction, then in my opinion you are ignorant, bigoted, and misusing the public school classroom. The Bible curriculum is just another example of the foremost goal of Texas public school education, to promote ignorance among our state’s youth, and the history of its origin documents that (read my essay on Texas Citizens for Science). Briefly, the official TEA Texas Bible curriculum was deliberately written to be as ambiguous, non-specific, and content-free as possible, so the various Bible curricula then in use that promoted Fundamentalist Christian proselytizing could continue to be used and additional school districts could develop or buy their own that had the same goal. I doubt that there is a truly secular, scientific, and historically-accurate Bible curriculum used in any Texas school district, since such a curriculum would have the effect of contradicting much of what Texas children are told in churches, Sunday schools, and homes. Bible course teachers would no doubt think such a responsible and accurate course would confront and possibly impugn students’ religious beliefs by being honest with them. Isn’t that the purpose of education?

    What about human races? Although once an accepted cultural and valid scientific concept, since approximately 1970 that status has been abandoned. Race today is known to be a social concept, not a scientific one. Folk grouping of essential types of human individuals based on physical traits is termed “essentialism,” and biological essentialism is obsolete. Today educated people are discouraged from applying racial explanations to human individual or group differences. Modern anthropologists and biologists view race as an invalid genetic or biological designation. What we used to call “races” is replaced by other terms, such as populations, ethnic groups, peoples, or communities depending on context or specificity. Over a century ago, science considered human races to be different varieties and even sub-species of Homo sapiens, but as scientists learned more about species population diversity that idea has been dead for at least 80 years.

    Why was the race concept abandoned by science 40 years ago? Modern genetics discovered that there is more genetic variation within different human “races” than among them and that so-called “racial” traits overlap and vary both genetically and physically across gradients without discrete boundaries. Modern human interbreeding among formerly continentally-separated ethnic groups is quickly blurring the distinctions of former human “racial” groups even more and physical boundaries will eventually disappear. Increasingly, modern youth are ignoring former racial distinctions just as they are increasingly ignoring human sexual orientation distinctions. In the future, due to better education, racism and homophobia will be things of the past . . . unless, of course, the Texas Legislature and State Board of Education continue to have their way.

  3. Good statement on race and genetics Steve. I was going to write that myself last night, but just felt too tired to do it. I disagree about Jesus because there are independent and fairly contemporary historical accounts of him. Some of the other, more ancient Biblical characters are probably up for grabs.

  4. Thank you, Charles. I happen to agree with you that Jesus was a real person, a Palestinian Jewish prophet, if you will, but only because elements of the Gospel stories describing him are so idiosyncratic and his message was so radical (not the one taught today by organized Christian churches). As you must know, Charles, modern New Testament scholarship has shown that most of the stories about Jesus and the words put into his mouth by later writers are little more than orthodox Christian propaganda, but a small number of parables and sayings are considered original and genuine by legitimate secular scholars. Jesus, of course, was attempting to reform Judaism in a changing world, not create a new religion. Paul and his followers created Christianity by synthesizing Jesus and his message with congenial elements of other contemporary pagan religions, and along the way considerably revised and distorted that message.

    As for “independent and fairly contemporary historical accounts of him” you allude to, I’m sorry but there are none. There are several historical accounts of contemporary Christians who claimed to follow a person they called Christ (but never actually met) and the famous paragraph in Josephus long known to be a later Christian interpolation, but absolutely no historical descriptions of Jesus written by contemporaries who knew him (completely unlike the many contemporary accounts of Buddha and Muhammad written by people who personally knew them; no one doubts that they were real people). The gospels were written many decades after the described events by individuals who were not alive when the events supposedly occurred and did not witness them. During the intervening decades, oral legends and memorized teachings of Jesus were augmented by additions created by individual fantasy and wishful thinking. There are legitimate scholarly methods to discover and identify the pass-along legends and spurious additions (a primary one is not to accept the reality of miracles!), thereby pruning away the non-original excess and revealing the core of Jesus’s true teachings.

    Needless to say, Biblical Higher Criticism is not taught or even mentioned in Texas Bible courses. But I don’t advocate even teaching this. I have long advocated giving Texas students an opportunity to take a Comparative Religion course so they wouldn’t be so ignorant and intolerant about other religions, thus perhaps lessening many Texan’s need to hate and kill (or evangelize if possible) people in other countries who are not Christians.

    But perpetuation of ignorance rather than education is the goal of Texas legislators and public school officials–they don’t want Texas students learning about other religions in a secular, informed, and unbiased environment for fear that they will stray from the extreme forms of Christianity they are taught at home, church, and Sunday school. Any competent and valid comparative religion course would also, of course, evaluate Christianity with the same scholarly and historical scrutiny, skepticism, and even-handedness that it would use to evaluate other religions, and our political leaders–all advocates of extreme forms of Christianity–just don’t want to see that happen. So ignorance is their policy for comparative religion, while misrepresentation is their policy for Biblical history and literature. Is it any wonder Texas students leave school with such poor educations and lack the skills of critical thinking.

  5. It’s not much wonder for me, but I never had the “benefit” of a rotten education to inform me. I was summa cum laude twice—sorry to say.

  6. By the way Steve. I have a cousin who is a professor of math at a college. My cousin has college students who have graduated from high school and still do not know how to measure an object with a ruler. In other words, they do not understand the graduations on the ruler, what they represent, and how you use the little wood and ink “straight” to take a measurement.

    I went to the meat section in my supermarket one day. They had whole pork loins, and I asked the meat cutter to cut it into 1/4-in. slices. He took it back. Turned on the meat saw, and brought it back to me. Each slice was 1 in. thick. Nada. So he took it back and tried again. Then he brought back slices that were 1/2 in. thick. No. Take it back and do it again. On the third try, he got it right.

    My dad never went to school past the 8th grade, and my mom quit school when she was in 6th grade. Nonetheless, my dad was a master of arithmetic and geometry, which were staples of his trade as a cabinet maker. My mom was very good with language and words. Now, I ask you. If they could do that, why do we now have high school graduates and even college students who are functionally illiterate and unable to do simple math?

    I lay this all at the feet of Babs Cargill and request an answer.