Skip to main content

Religion in World History Textbooks

By Karen Garst ~

Some aspects of culture are readily apparent to everyone: we live in different countries, we speak different languages, we wear different clothes, we eat different foods, etc. However, culture also reproduces itself by means that are much less apparent, but just as powerful. Ron and Scollon and Suzanne B. K. Scollon wrote a fascinating paper on the differences in communication styles between the Athabaskan and English speakers in Canada.[1] None of his analysis involved language per se. However, the different cultural norms of these two different groups showed up in how conversations got started, who spoke first, and the pauses between speakers. He showed that the Athabaskans paused about a second and one half between speakers and the English about a second. The impact of this minor difference caused the English speaker to speak again when his one second pause had passed, not waiting another half second for the Athabaskan to feel comfortable. This is a more extreme example than the one I am going to explore in this post, but it nonetheless shows how culture can perpetuate itself in ways that we are not consciously aware of.

After reading Norm’s paper, I got the idea to explore a textbook from our local high school regarding world history. I wanted to see how religion played a role and whether there was subtle support for Christianity over other religions. After calling the high school to seek permission to review the textbook they used, I drove over and spent an hour going through World History: Journey Across Time: The Early Ages written by Jackson J. Spielvogel, PhD. It was published by McGraw Hill in New York in 2005. Here is what I found. To make reading easier, I have not indicated page numbers. If you want to check the quotes out, I would gladly provide these to you.

The textbook was well laid out and much more attractive than any textbook I encountered in my high school years in the 1960’s. It started out with a section on tools which attempted to explain how historians research their material. It indicated the following: “Historians generally find evidence in primary sources and secondary sources. Historians examine sources for credibility and truthfulness.” Let’s keep this in mind when they talk about various religions.

How dates are calculated
At the beginning of the book, the author explains the dating system that is used – BC and AD. BC is defined as “before Christ” and AD as the Latin phrase that indicates “in the year of our Lord.” He credits a monk in 500 AD as having set up the system. He further indicates that “Western nations begin their calendar on the year in which Jesus was thought to have been born.” He then contrasts that with the Jewish and Muslim calendars. From the start, this history of the world will be portrayed using the “Christian calendar.” Further, the writer assumes that Jesus was a real person that everyone knows. He does not define who he is at this point in time. This dating system colors and shapes our perception of everything that occurs in history by making the dates correspond to the mythology of Christianity. Toward the end of the 20th century, a more neutral dating system was established that uses BCE and CE to indicate “before the current era” and “current era.” While both systems are pegged to the same starting date, the second does not explicitly refer to a man called Christ. This new system is now becoming the norm. Its first use can be traced back to the 17th century. More books and textbooks are now using this system. It is interesting to note that the Kentucky School Board left the decision to local boards in 2006 when it considered the matter. There were media reports in 2011 that the Australian textbook system might change to the new system. The pushback from citizens and politicians caused them to keep to the old system. Change is never without controversy.

Gods versus gods
One of the most pervasive and subtle differences in the textbook is the capitalization of the word God. When discussing Babylonian or Greek religion (often referred to as mythology in the textbook), neither the word god or goddess is capitalized. However, when referring to Christianity, it is capitalized. A subtle way to indicate which religion relies on the “one true god.” It is interesting that the book treats all the Abrahamic faiths the same and capitalizes God for both Jewish and Islamic references as in the following - “Jews, Christians, and Muslims also believe that God spoke to people through prophets.” One cannot attribute this capitalization to references to monotheism. When the book discusses the short period of monotheism in Egypt under the pharaoh Amenhotep, it continues to refer to the single god, Aton, using a lower case “g.”

The Biblical Stories
The textbook refers to events involving the Israelites as actually happening. It denotes dates for example for Abraham – 2000 BC – and implies that the Exodus from Egypt took place and that the Israelites spent 40 years in the desert. There are no credible Biblical historians who believe that the Exodus as described in the Bible actually took place. There have been no archeological finds that would indicate a 40 year sojourn in the desert. Yet this textbook, presented in our public schools, assumes these events took place and even dates them to a specific period in history.  There is no caveat whatsoever that there is no mention of these events or people outside the Biblical record.

Ruth and Naomi
As a literary cut-out, the textbook states that “To show the importance of family love and devotion, Jewish girls learned about the relationship between Ruth and Naomi.” Ruth’s husband dies and she vows to stay with the family of her mother-in-law Naomi. What this short story misses is that someone, usually the brother of the deceased husband, must marry Ruth in order for her husband’s property to be retained. Naomi advises Ruth to basically go into the threshing floor and sit by a man’s genitals and that he will tell her what to do. She ends up marrying Boaz, the man on the threshing floor and he gets Ruth’s husband’s property. Not the best story for young girls to learn that they are simply property in a patriarchal society and cannot own anything themselves and must have a man to survive.

Promotion of the Message of Jesus
The textbook introduces Christianity by stating that “During that period, Jesus began preaching a message of love and forgiveness.” Remember when the author explained about using primary and secondary sources? There is no mention of a person named Jesus outside the Bible. Period. There is no mention of this in the text. In terms of the characterization of “love and forgiveness,” the author is forgetting the verse in Matthew 10:34 - "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” The text also states that “Jesus was born humbly in a stable, beside barn animals, in the town of Bethlehem.” The author assumes that because the Bible portrays this in Luke (note that there is no narrative of Jesus’ childhood in any of the other gospels or in Paul’s epistles), it is a fact of history.

Crusades and Inquisition
I was initially curious to see if several of the genocidal events perpetrated by the Catholic Church, primarily in the Middle Ages, would be mentioned. The book did discuss both the Catholic Church’s Inquisition and the Spanish Inquisition. The Crusades are portrayed as a way to help the Byzantine Empire fight the Muslims. It describes Pope Urban II speaking before a crowd in 1095 with the people chanting, “It is the will of God. It is the will of God.” The text does not speak to its role to eliminate or bring back in the fold, the many different and opposing Catholic groups, or the fact that the Catholic Church often kept the property seized and did not return it to the Byzantine emperor. Crusaders killed thousands of people in the name of their faith. It explains the rationale for the Catholic Church’s Inquisition as follows: “Church leaders feared that if people stopped believing Church teachings, it would weaken the Church and endanger people’s chances of getting into heaven.” So it tortured and killed these people instead. The Church’s own manual stated the following: "... for punishment does not take place primarily and per se for the correction and good of the person punished, but for the public good in order that others may become terrified and weaned away from the evils they would commit."[2] It really didn’t matter if the person killed was guilty or innocent. The Spanish Inquisition is discussed as well but is not accurate in stating that most Jews left the country. Most of them were forced to convert to Catholicism and were referred to as conversos.[3]

Emphasis on Western Civilization
While the textbook does explore civilizations in Ancient Egypt, the Americas, China and Japan, it focuses most of its pages on those civilizations that gave rise to Western Civilization: Greek, Roman, and Europe in the Middle Ages. While my perusal was not long, I did have the index copied. There is no chapter on Russia as if its place in the world is not important. There is also no chapter on Northern Europe. It would be interesting to examine a world history book from Norway or Russia to see how they treat civilizations other than their own. I would also like to get a copy of a world history textbook from the 60’s to see if the focus of it was the same. Anyone have one?

Men to emulate
The book touts the great work of St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. There is no critical view of St. Augustine’s rampant misogyny in establishing the concept of original sin and the guilt laid upon women as a result. The author says of Martin Luther – “[He] became one of the most famous men in history.” This is the same man who said - “The word and works of God is quite clear, that women were made either to be wives or prostitutes.” 

On a final note, it is interesting to see where the teachers who reviewed the textbook hail from. Of the twelve listed, two were from Georgia and three were from Alabama. It does seem that Bible Belt states might have been overrepresented.

Karen L. Garst

September 2, 2017

[1] Ron Scollon and Suzanne B. K. Scollon, Athabaskan-English Interethnic Communication (Fairbanks, AK: University of Alaska, 1979)
[2]  Directorium Inquisitorum, edition of 1578, Book 3, pg. 137, column 1. Online in the Cornell University Collection.
[3] Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1999), 29-31