TCS Daily

Philistines at the Gate

By Lee Harris - June 1, 2005 12:00 AM

In a recent meeting of the Board of Education in the city of Artichoke, Alabama, it was decided to ban the reading of Homer's Illiad and Odyssey in the classroom. The grounds given for the exclusion of these towering masterpieces of ancient literature is that reading them in a public school violated the first amendment's guarantee of the separation of church and state. Wallace Nobrainer, the attorney for the Artichoke school system, explained that "the Homeric texts are obviously designed to promote the polytheistic view of the Greeks," and hence they should be looked upon in the same light as the reading of the Book of Psalms in a public school. "We don't want taxpayer dollars being spent in order to proselyte children into praying to Zeus and Apollo," remarked Debra Klewless, the chairperson of the Board of Education. "If we forbid the teaching of one religion, we must be consistent and forbid the teaching of all religions."

Okay -- you got me. There is no Artichoke, Alabama -- at least, I don't think there is. And no one (so far) has demanded that Homer be taken out of the classroom. It is okay for our children to read stories about Hera and Athena, Aphrodite and Poseidon, all of whom were once the objects of superstitious veneration among the Greeks; but it is not okay to read about Adam and Eve, or Joseph and his brothers. In short, kids can enjoy the myths and stories that have come down to us from The Illiad, but they cannot be permitted to enjoy the myths and stories that have come down to us from The Book of Genesis.

The only possible reason for this dissimilarity of treatment is that the pagan religion is as dead as Mr. Dickens' proverbial doornail, while the religions that are associated with the Bible are still practiced by millions of people in America and the world over. True, the Greek pantheon might once have been a potent force in shaping the daily life of human beings, but today it has all the vitality of a wax museum, full of mannequin divinities, frozen in their timeless splendor, but long since unable to inspire warmth of affection or devotion.

The last gasp of the old pagan religion occurred when the Roman emperor known as Julian the Apostate attempted to reverse his predecessors' embrace of the Christian faith and to roll back the clock to the long vanished era in which men and women still worshipped at shrines dedicated to Apollo and Diana, and still heeded the artfully ambiguous oracles of Delphi. The apostate failed, and the once vibrant gods of Greece degenerated until they became mere rhetorical flourishes that permitted learned poets, like Milton, to ornament his verse with their euphonious names.

On the other hand, the myths and stories of the Bible continue to provoke not merely warmth, but a great deal of heat -- consider the role that the continuing belief in the fable of Adam and Eve has on the debate over the teaching in public schools of Darwin's theory of evolution. People still take the Bible stories seriously -- they live by them, and guide their lives by them.

So that is the explanation for the different treatment received by Homer and by the Bible. Homer's gods are dead, but the god of the Bible still breathes. We can trust our children not to be carried away by Dionysus; but the same cannot be said about Jesus of Nazareth.

Yet there is still hope. Man's future may well turn out to fulfill the British biologist Richard Dawkins' most cherished dream: we may all stop believing in religious superstitions completely, and cease to take seriously all this nonsense about supernatural beings. Christianity may die out, along with Islam and Judaism, whereupon the peoples of the world would unite around the banner of detached scientific objectivity and enlightened rationality.

If we were all atheists, then the Bible would become as harmless to read as the poems of Homer. And if all of our children became atheists, too, then there would no longer be a reason to keep them from reading the Bible from time to time, even in public school, just as today they are allowed to read Homer.

Indeed, the day may come when the current attempt to suppress the reading of the Bible in public school is looked upon as being no less hysterical than the efforts of the good town of Artichoke to repress the reading of Homer in their public schools. Why have conniption fits over the retelling of stories that have charmed listeners for several thousand years? Why not ban the Arabian nights as well, along with all the fairy tales that men and women have handed down to their children?

There is something unspeakably philistine about those who wish to forbid the reading of the Bible in public school. And if you don't know what the word philistine means, just thank the ACLU.

(Hint: The Philistines were the baby-sacrificing enemies of the ancient Hebrews, but in the nineteenth century the word philistine came to represent a crass and materialistic insensitivity to the aesthetic, imaginative, and spiritual side of human existence.)

Lee Harris is the author of Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History.


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