An Atheist Sees Bias in a Texas Textbook


Ms. Sargent is a 5th-generation Texan, and a proud parochial school graduate. Recently, she presented testimony to the State Board of Education about the textbook she reports on in this article.

Although I am an atheist, born and raised, I attended a private, religious school from nursery school through the 12th grade. I always felt that I received an excellent education and I still feel that way--with one glaring exception, the education I got in history class.

I blame the textbooks we used.

After reading about the Texas textbook controversy, I decided to examine one of the books myself: The American Nation, Beginnings through 1877, published by Prentice Hall. It is supposed to be an 8th grade social studies text, but I have a hard time categorizing it as such. It is a mixture of quite a few different fields and ranges chronologically all over the place, but primarily it is a history textbook.

In most cases, the textbook includes the truth about historical events. However, the truth is often very difficult to discover owing to the manner in which the information is displayed or the amount of space that is given to it. Biased, misleading information is frequently presented first and is developed over pages and pages filled with both text and drawings. The correct information is relegated to one sentence.

These are some examples of the more than 150 incidents I found of flagrant bias, most of which occur in the first 130 pages for some reason:

·The text in various places says that the First Amendment guarantees "Your right to worship as you please…" This sentence should say "'Your right to worship in any manner you choose, or not to worship at all." The First Amendment right to freedom of religion also includes freedom FROM religion.

·In the 1400s, the textbook states, "Islam expanded through trade and conquest. Many people in conquered lands chose to convert to the successful new religion." People who were conquered "chose" to convert? How is "convert or die" a choice? The characterization of a religion as "successful" should be deleted.

·The Crusades: Nothing is said about how many people were killed. The Crusades are presented as only having had positive effects.

·The Pilgrims: The text states that they came over on the Mayflower in search of religious freedom. Really? The Pilgrims were divided between Saints and Strangers. Only the Saints came over so that they could practice their religion freely. The others aboard the ship came to America to improve their fortunes, some even hoping for gold.

·Credit for the idea of "religious freedom for everyone" is given solely to the Pilgrims, but without any evidence:. "Still, the Pilgrims' desire to worship freely set an important precedent, or example for others to follow in the future. Plymouth's leaders announced 'that any honest man may live with them, that will carry themselves peaceably and seek the common good.' In time, the idea of religious freedom for all would become a cornerstone of American democracy." Did the Pilgrim leaders practice what they preached? The third sentence is given as an outgrowth of the first two. I don't think it follows. Just because they wanted freedom for themselves doesn't mean they wanted it for anyone else.

·The Puritans: in the summary of this section the textbook says that Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded for "religious freedom." In the text itself the book asserts that the colonists plan was to build a new society based on biblical laws and teachings. Nothing was stated about religious freedom.

·The summary section of the book says Rhode Island was founded to establish religious freedom. True--but the reason, as explained in the text, was to get freedom from Puritan control. If that was so, then how can both the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay and the colonists of Rhode Island both be said to have believed in religious freedom?

I always blamed my teachers for the biased lessons I learned in history class. But I now believe my teachers weren't lying to me, they were simply teaching from a textbook that was woefully incomplete and blatantly biased (and teaching to the testing standards). I was shocked to learn that almost 30 years later, textbooks still leave out critically important information and are outrageously biased.


comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Paul Bingham - 5/26/2010

One very constructive approach is to take conservative textbook revisionists at their word and actually question American history. This can be a powerful tool against this kind of simple minded political shenanigan. See our discussion of this possibility at http://www.deathfromadistance.com/posts/humane-future/2010/05/an-open-letter-to-the-students-of-texas-public-schools/.

Atheist am I - 3/21/2010

How do you come to that conclusion, Dan?

Atheist am I - 3/21/2010

Every man "ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience."
- George Washington (Letter to the United Baptist Churches in Virginia in May, 1789)

"Question with boldness even the existence of a god."
- Thomas Jefferson (letter to Peter Carr, 10 August 1787)

"When a Religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its Professors are obliged to call for help of the Civil Power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one."
- Benjamin Franklin (from a letter to Richard Price, October 9, 1780;)

"I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of... Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all."
- Thomas Paine (The Age of Reason, 1794-1795.)

"During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution."
- James Madison

"The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretense, infringed."
- James Madison

Joseph Henson - 3/16/2010

You cannot be serious. How is the history of our nation, and of our founding, irrelevant? By your logic the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and every other important document in our history is also irrelevant. I guess you just don't care about those silly little things which guarantee your freedoms, or care to understand how or why they came to be. I can't imagine you would say Dr. MLK, Jr. is also irrelevant, right? Our Founders, what they did, how they did it, and why the did it are supremely important to our understanding of our own nation and our place in the world. Disregarding this will destroy the principles upon which this nation was founded.

To your reference about the USSC, you state the court establishes the "rule of law." This is absolutely not true. The legislative branch, and by extension the people (the legislature being the people's elected representation) make law. This is the rule "Of the people, by the people, and for the people." The executive branch, in simplest terms, enforces the law, and the judicial adjudicates the law. The USSC specifically deals with matters of constitutional law and other explicitly-defined circumstances under the Contitution. It's called separation and balance of powers, a silly little thing our unimportant Founders dreamt up. It exists to limit the government and protect the people. Didn't you learn this in school?

Finally, to get to your question, "A lot of our Founding Fathers were Christian, but how is that important?" It's important for many reasons, but here's one: being Christian, our Founders wished to acknowledge that every single person is "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights..." This means your most basic human rights don't come from any government, they come from God and therefore may never be infringed upon. If the government gave you your rights, it could also take them away. Maybe you don't believe in any supreme moral authority, but it's certainly a good thing our Founders did.

Sachi Edwards - 7/30/2004

In my opinion, the founder's opinions of how the country should be (religious or secular) are irrelevant. The world has changed since their time. I wouldn't want a white male slaveowner of the 18th century to make legal decisions for me. European nations with no laws regarding separation of church and state nevertheless have become secular, basically because they are more wealthy (and therefore more educated). Our changing into a more secular nation was also caused by increasing wealth. Yes, a lot of our founding fathers were Christian...but how is that important?

-Moses and the 10 Commandments are not prominently featured in the USSC building. Moses is depicted as one of the many important lawgivers, and the 10 Commandments as one of many important legal documents. In Lynch v. Donnelly, 1991, the USSC decided that religious symbols can be included in public displays as long as those symbols are part of a larger work that serves a secular purpose, which the depiction does.
-How is what Adams, Washington and Ames said important today?
-An opinion written by the USSC is in parts. The holding establishes the rule of law as decided on by the Court and as it relates specifically to the facts of the case. The rationale contains the different reasons why the Court decided the case the way that they did. Within the rationale can be comments made by the Court which do not have any bearing on the specifice rule of law and are not binding on future cases with similar facts. These non-essential comments, called dictum, carry no precedential value. In the Holy Trinity case (1892), the essential comments (holding) concern the scope of an immigration law. Whether or not America is a Christian nation was not even at issue in Holy Trinity. The immigrant just happened to have been contracted as a minister in New York City.

J. Caramello - 10/25/2003

I think the confusion over the "convert or die" comes from the fact that when Muslims conquered a new country they would ask the inhabitants to convert to Islam. Those residents who were Christians or Jews (called Peoples of the Book) could retain their religion but had to pay an "unbelievers tax". Those who were not people of the book were considered pagans and were in many instances given the choice to convert or die (slavery was more often the case for those who refused to convert)

M. Kinnell - 8/8/2003

Mr. Bob Puharic has said that the idea that the founding fathers wanted this to be a Christian country is revisionist history. Consider this:
- The Ten Commandments appear over the bench where the U.S. Supreme Court Justices sit, thus showing the source from whence our laws and the government power of the state are derived.
- When signing the Declaration of Independence, Samuel Adams, the "Father of the Revolution", said, "We have this day restored the Sovereign to whom all men ought to be obedient. He reigns in heaven and from the rising to the setting of the sun, let His kingdom come."
- Massachusetts Congressman Fisher Ames, who proposed the wording for the First Amendment, said, "We are spending less time in the classroom on the Bible which should be the principal text in our schools." Does this sound like the present interpretation of the First Amendment?
- In his "Farewell Address" of Sept. 19, 1796, George Washington said, "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports."
- Sept. 11, 1777, the Continental Congress adopted a resolution to import 20,000 Bibles from Holland and Scotland.
- Andrew Jackson, May 29, 1845 - "The Bible is true. The principles and statutes of the Holy Book have been the rule of my life, and I have tried to conform to its spirit as nearly as possible. Upon that sacred volume I rest my hope for eternal salvation through the merits and blood of our blessed Lord and Savior, Jesus Chrust."
- On Feb. 29, 1892, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision that has never been overruled, cited 66 organic authorities which show the Bible's singluar influence on America: "There is no dissonance in these declarations. There is a universal language pervading them all having one meaning: they affirm and reaffirm that THIS IS A RELIGIOUS NATION. These are not individual sayings, declarations of private persons; they are organic utterances; they speak the voice of the entire group. These authorities were collected to support the historical conclusion that 'no purpose of action against religion can be imputed any legislation, state or nation, because THIS IS A RELIGIOUS PEOPLE. This is historically true. From the discovery of this continent to the present hour, there is a single voice making this affirmation we find everywhere a clear recognition of the same truth: THIS IS A CHRISTIAN NATION'" (emphasis mine).
The historical revisionists are the ones that have tried to erase the role Christianity has played in our nation's history (not always a good role, I admit). Removing religion and Scripture from public society is a blatant attempt to cover up our nation's heritage. And as I have shown in this brief list of primary sources, is unequivicably FALSE!

Bob Puharic - 10/25/2002

It is unfortunate that, today, many Islamic societies haven't lived up to their noble predecessors. Today in many Islamic countries, it IS conversion or death (e. g. Saudi Arabia, or the Sudan, which has killed a million people who haven't converted).

Islam has a glorious past. Its present is often enthralled to fanatics, as was Christianity centuries ago. We do no service either to Islam or history by pretending this isn't so.

Bob Puharic - 10/25/2002

M. Young's patronizing defense of his religious beliefs is one reason why religious fanaticism is on the rampage across the world today. He seems to think that we atheists were never theists. He seems to think only he has the intellect to come to a conclusion about GOD.

The fact is we atheists choose atheism generally in the same way theists choose their belief. Unlike theists, we do not believe in forcing our views on others (e.g. the "Pledge of Allegiance" controversy). Unlike him we are not historical revisionists. If the founding fathers wanted this to be Christian country they would have put that in the constitution. They didn't. Get over it.

Secular democracy is the only government in the history of humanity which has produced equal rights for all. Not one Christian govt. in history ever defended the rights of Blacks, Jews, atheists or other non-believers. And not one Islamic republic today does either. Religious governments are always failures. That's why the idea of secularism evolved; because religion can not guarantee human rights.

James Wilson - 9/1/2002

I was not born and raised an atheist and had a miserable public education. The only history class I had during that time that was remotely worthwhile was Advanced Placement History in my junior year of high school. I had been arguing with teachers about history since I was seven years old, and had been told approximately 27 gazillion times that I didn't know what I was talking about and just follow the textbook. In AP history the textbook was Hofsteder, who's biased enough, but there was so much debate in that class that we all learned like mad. I disagreed with almost everthing that the teacher taught--but I wasn't penalized for it so long as I could support my argument pretty well. That is how I see history to this day--as an argument. Since we don't know what was in the hearts and minds of the people in any one of those examples you cite, we can't really say what exactly happened. Records can be falsified, and diaries, autobiographies and political pamphlets can get blurred together with the greatest of ease. This all before we take into account the subjective nature of every single person that lived on Earth and the constant attempt by nearly all to self-justify. I'm content to argue the point based on what I think is likely. In this case I think your problem is that you don't take their veiw of freedom into consideration. You assume that they believed freedom meant what you think it means--anything goes. They were certainly trying to escape from religious persecution the likes of which has never been seen in the US, excepting the Missouri period of Mormon history. The Puritans all agreed that they would live they way they did, and dissenters had agreed at some time, though of course the children weren't really given too much say in the matter. Both the Pilgrims and the Puritans were early examples of socialism, albeit one based on religion rather than pseudoscience. The Puritans thought that if their children were raised in a near perfect environment they would in turn create an even more perfect environment, making the same mistakes that many brands of socialism have made. They were trying to deny freedom, but learned the hard way that freedom is harder to restrict than they thought. Puritanism didn't last very long, and the religion the Pilgrims brought over lasted even less time, because the new folks coming over didn't come to be persecuted again. You might say they learned the lesson. America's claim to fame comes from the fact that many of the founders and many before them accepted freedom as a fact of life rather than a wild and crazy idea. Naturally everyone everywhere resisted and resists to this day. Lots of people don't want to be free in the sense that they are responsible for themselves. They just want to do anything they feel like and be consequence free. That isn't freedom, religious or otherwise. Nonetheless that is exactly the mistake made by the Puritans. They assumed that they could mold their children by environment and fix up Zion on Earth. Since salvation was preordained the rest was left to them, and it really didn't work. The lesson learned is backwards from what the textbook says, but there's a modified saying in my industry. Those who can't write write manuals. That goes for textbooks, too.

M. Young - 8/29/2002

I feel deep sorrow for Laura Sargent. To travel through life never knowing, feeling or comprehending the existance of an awesome, loving GOD. To have hope only in oneself or in mankind. To experience only the grace and mercy extended by faultfill humans. To never know the unconditional love of a GOD who has known her since before she was born. To rely upon her own understanding about all things. Certainly mankind has been a pitiful example of GOD's desire for the lives of his people. We as "religious folk" have cause more damage and hindrence to GOD's work than any non-believers. But no matter what we do, no matter what we believe, no matter how awful we are, GOD is still there, He still loves us and still wants to help us know and one day understand Him and His ways. No Laura, we religious zealots have not been very good examples throughout history, but today as well as in the past, history tends to chronicle the negative performed in the name of religion. Many religious accomplishments for the good of mankind are only studied within the walls of our churches and then by only a few barely interested individuals. It is true, some of our early settlers were way out there with the practice of their religion, but if we review the historical documents written by our founding fathers for the development of this country I believe there is little doubt of their intent that GOD be an intergral part of our lives and our future. Sure we are to be tolerant of non-believers, but it is they who should be learning to live with us not we who must conform to there wimful crys of being offended. I don't believe our founding fathers wanted to eliminate GOD from every public arena, building and document, if that was their purpose no mention of GOD would be in any of their documents. You see GODless people have twisted and manipulated the interpretation of portions of these documents taken totally out of context, for GOD is proudly metioned throughout them all. Freedom of religion is not freedom from religion, you make a choice whether you acknoledge it or not. If you choose not to be religious, fine for you, but don't make every effort to hide the availibility of choice from other people. If you cannot be tolerant with religions who teach love, values, kindness and care for the less fortunate, then the problem is with you, not with religion.

Clayton E. Cramer - 8/29/2002

I don't think Ms. Sargent should be so proud of her parochial school education. There are so many things wrong here.

1. Islam did conversion at swordpoint on the battlefield, not afterwards. As others have pointed out, a variety of discriminatory laws "encouraged" conversion. High taxes on your wealth were one reason, of course. Laws that degraded the status of non-Muslims were another. The Ottomans, for example, prohibited non-Muslims from riding horses (it being a "noble" animal), or carrying swords or guns. There is also a fairly unpleasant history of occasional massacres under the Ottomans that might have been an incentive for conversion. For a few centuries, Islam had a commendable record of tolerance, and Moorish Spain was really quite good in this area. Ottoman Islam, however, has a much less attractive record.

"The Pilgrims: The text states that they came over on the Mayflower in search of religious freedom. Really? The Pilgrims were divided between Saints and Strangers. Only the Saints came over so that they could practice their religion freely. The others aboard the ship came to America to improve their fortunes, some even hoping for gold." Generally, those who were religious (the Saints) are considered Pilgrims, and yes, they came over for religious freedom, at least for themselves. There were limits to how far they were prepared to extend that freedom, but quite a number of Strangers managed to live among the Saints without a problem.

Religious freedom is a relative matter. Rhode Island was more than tolerant than Puritan Massachusetts (whose goals were freedom to establish their own theocracy, instead of being victims of Jacobite Anglican oppression), but even Rhode Island had some limits of what they would accept. We don't accept human sacrifice today--I guess we aren't a very tolerant society. :-)

Clayton E. Cramer - 8/29/2002

One of the surprises I found in looking at the history of
Plymouth Colony was that they executed three Englishmen for
robbing and murdering an Indian. I was also surprised to find
that Indians pursued criminal charges against members of
Plymouth Colony in Plymouth courts, and won. A distant relative of mine named Francis West was convicted, and ordered to return a hog and a gun that he had stolen from an Indian.

Steve Russell - 8/29/2002

American Indians had difficulty telling them apart. Homicide is homicide. Theft is theft. And both are easier to see than motives.

Trevor Getz - 8/29/2002

I agree with Marjorie. It is inaccurate to portray the Muslim expansion as a case of 'Convert or die'. In fact, one would argue that in this day and age it is a dangerous and inflammatory inaccuracy. In the 7th-15th centuries, for example, jews were accepted (and protected) members of multi-ethnic Caliphates, whilst being persecuted in Europe. There are many similar examples.

don kates - 8/29/2002

I guess I always did have difficulty telling them apart. thank you for the correction.

Marjorie - 8/29/2002

Laura Sargent criticizes a textbook for this passage:


Actually, although the process of Islamization has been much simplified -- it is a textbook, after all -- the passage is not inaccurate.
First, Ms. Sargent assumes that conversion after a conquest automatically equates to forced conversion. That is not at all necessarily true, as is shown by the process by which conquered populations of the Roman Empire adopted the Roman religion. The Romans cared very little about what religion their subjects followed.
Then Ms. Sargent makes the assumption that conversion to Islam was always a matter of "convert or die." "Convert or die" was, in fact, not generally true of Islam, although I don't doubt there were instances of it, particularly in the early days when the Arabic armies first emerged from the Arabic peninsula.
As Islamic rule spread, however, the populations which came under its control converted, for the most part, in a peaceful process. Not all did, however, and, for many centuries, Islamic societies contained people of different beliefs, co-existing in a fairly civilized way. (This was not a trait characteristic of Christian Europe.)
That Islam was not a religion that relied to any great extent on "convert or die" may be seen in the history of the Balkans. Of course, many inhabitants of the Balkans converted to Islam not out of religious fervor but for economic and political advantage. But a great many did not convert, and they were not forced to do so. When the Ottoman Turks finally were driven out of the Balkans, the Christian community was intact. If Islam had relied on forced conversion, this could not have been true.
Up until fairly recent times, it was Christian societies, not Islamic societies, that forced the populations under their control to convert, flee, or die. There was an intact Christian community in the Balkans when the Ottomans left; there were no Muslims (or Jews) left in Spain.

Marjorie - 8/29/2002

Don Kates writes:


You're confusing the Pilgrims and the Puritans. It was the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony who executed Quakers and banished Anne Hutchinson -- not the Pilgrims of the Plymouth colony.
They were two distinct groups. They didn't even like each other very much.

Dan - 8/29/2002

There is no such thing as an atheist.

don kates - 8/28/2002

1) Though there are doubtless many exceptions, Islam did not generally enforce conversion by threat of death. Indeed, that would have been counter-productive sicne the rulers' finanial interest was the reverse: under Islamic law special taxes may be placed on unbelievers; and they were. Given that the tax burden on believers became very onerous as the centuries passed, the burden on unbelievers was truly unendurable. This and other discriminations adequately account for conversion to Islam.
2) So far were the Pilgrims from endorsing religious freedom that they not only expelled dissenters from their colony, they threatened those who returned and tried to preach with death -- and they actually did execute contumacious Quakers. Though they did not execute Anne Hutchinson, they first banished her and then, when she and her daughters were killed by Indians. the Puritans joyfully sent the news back to England, declaring that it was a consummation richly deserved and ordained by God.