Teach Divine Mathematics if you want to… but do it right.

Some religious groups are pushing the teaching of “divine mathematics”: elementary-level mathematics education with a religious slant. This news has been making the rounds on liberal political websites, with the expected combination of horror and mockery. But I don’t think there is anything wrong with including God in mathematics education… as long as it’s done properly.

I first heard about this topic on the David Pakman show, and have since seen it discussed on other websites as well. The general idea of the movement is that some schools are hoping to teach Elementary school students that mathematical equations and laws are not “arbitrary rules” but in fact reflect a divine purpose or plan. An excerpt from a textbook that espouses this perspective is this:

The elementary student does not need to “understand” 2 + 2 = 4 in order to learn it and use it; he will learn the abstract principles later. But the elementary student does need to see his multiplication tables as part of the truth and order that God has built into reality. From the Christian perspective, 2 + 2 = 4 takes on cosmic significance, as does every fact of mathematics, however particular.

On the David Pakman show, they discussed that fact that this mindset could be used to undermine critical thinking. They said that it could be used to indoctrinate people from an early age to “just accept” things instead of thinking them through. They mention that it could be used as a way of shoring up opposition to the inclusion of God in other areas of education, like science. The logic is obvious: if non-creationists object to the teaching on creationism on the grounds that it would make the teaching of science unlike the teaching of other things like math, then obviously the next step is… change the way that you teach math!

All of these fears about the way that “Divine Mathematics” might affect critical thinking and the teaching of other subjects sound very plausible… but they are only speculation.  If you take (for example) the quotation above, from the textbook, at face value, there is nothing about it that inherently is an argument against critical thinking. There is nothing about it that is inherently anti-scientific, or against the principles or spirit of mathematics.

Why not?

One could easily teach mathematics (or science, for that matter) from this perspective: God has created a wonderful and complex universe. Part of our mission as humans on this earth is to discover the rules and patterns and regularities that God has made manifest in this design. The process of science is the process of discovering, through reason and experiment and observation, exactly what structure God has imbued our universe with.

Natural PhilosophyThis was the mind-set of “natural philosophy” in the Middle Ages. Nobody questioned that God was behind everything that happened in the universe. Of course He is!  The question of the natural philosopher was: what are the details?

Of course God made the apple fall from the tree! But what mechanism did He use? We will call it gravity, and then we will study the nature of gravity. We will ask: what are the properties that God desired gravity to have?

Of course God has created all of the colors in our beautiful world! But what is the mechanism that He created that allows us to see them? Study the eyes, study glass and prisms and starlight.

Discovering how white light can be broken down into the rainbow or why different colors of light have different properties wasn’t viewed as contradictory with belief in God. Quite the opposite: they were part of a very spiritual quest to answer the question: “what is the manner in which God has commanded the universe to work?”

Everything from Superstring theory to the details of non-Euclidean algebra can be viewed this way. They are exacting and analytical ways of asking, “What is the nature of this amazing and complex thing that God has created?”

Moreover: there’s nothing wrong with that.

There is nothing about that perspective that inherently limits or cuts off any scientific investigation. If a child is taught that Euclid’s theorem reflects a Divine Plan, it doesn’t mean that the child no longer has to learn the proof of Euclid’s theorem… because learning that proof is a deeper form of enlightenment: it’s learning more of the amazing details of the Divine plan. And if, some day, that child discovers non-Euclidean geometry, there’s no weird conflict in the child’s brain about God being wrong, because non-Euclidean geometry is also part of the Divine plan. And that can lead to the student wanting to learn even more proofs about the nature of that other (Divinely-caused) geometry.

As long as the “Divine plan” is taught with that perspective, there is literally no “harm” to it at all.

The inclusion of “God” isn’t the problem.

Where is the problem?

The problem–as always–is with egotistical, power-hungry people.

The problem comes from human beings who claim to have direct knowledge of God’s divine plan, who claim that they cannot be questioned because they have this special knowledge, and that anyone who disagrees with them is a heretic and is to be marginalized.  The problem is when fallible human beings claim that they know God’s plan and could not possibly be wrong and can never be questioned… that’s when it all falls apart.

That’s when it all falls apart, not only for science and mathematics, but also for institutional religion, by the way. But that’s a topic for another article.

My point here is that there is a right way and a wrong way to teach “divine mathematics,” if that is your inclination.

The right way is to say: “all mathematical laws come from God, and it is the job that we fallible humans have is to struggle to find out what they are!  We are constantly coming up with and testing proofs and hypotheses to get a clearer view of those divine laws. Sometimes we are wrong, but we are striving to learn His plan.”

The wrong way is to say: “We who are writing this textbook have already discovered everything there is to know, and you should believe these divine laws that we write in this book because we know what they are and if you think we might be wrong then you are disagreeing with God and will go to hell.”

That’s the wrong way to teach Divine Mathematics, and that’s the way that liberals fear and make fun of. But I think it’s important to remember that it’s not the only way.

The fact of the matter is, there are actually some very interesting and deep philosophical issues that relate to mathematics.  Why do geometric laws seem universal? Where do they come from? Are they properties that depend on some aspect of our physical world, or are they truly conceptually and logically invariant, belonging to some higher “cognitive” realm (as Plato thought)?  These are great issues to think about, and I think that more students–not fewer–should be encouraged to think about them.

And if it leads them to think about God, then so be it… as long as they are still asking “why” and “how” and “could I be wrong?”