It is by no means a new phenomenon that religion finds a way into the classroom. Heck, there’s evidence to suggest that at one point the classroom was nothing but religion, so on top of not being particularly new, its presence is also not particularly surprising. However, as a new teacher entering today’s secular schools (especially as an atheist) I often find myself confronted with religious questions, both intellectual and personal in nature, and almost always posed by the students themselves.
These two-way interrogations always start the same basic way; I misspeak or drop something improper like “Oh, my god” or “Goddammit” or even sometimes “What the hell” if they really feel like leaping at a stretch. A religious student will take any excuse to scope out their instructor for similar beliefs. “You can’t take God’s name in vain!,” they’ll squeak out, usually adding “I’m a Catholic” or “I’m a Christian” or something similar. What it comes down to is that, in every case, they are the ones that invite the situation. I have made a personal decision never to bring up my atheism in a classroom unless directly questioned, both because I don’t want to get into a sticky legal/moral situation and also because I don’t generally feel that it’s any of their business what god I don’t pray to.
But, there are those occasions where talking about it becomes unavoidable. The first time was particularly memorable because of how very “teacher-student” it played out; the dynamic of the conversation was exactly like that of the class, and it was entirely painless (unlike some future discussions). It was a high school classroom and all of the work was done in a 2-period-long lab slot. No one had anything to do, so the only thing to do was to talk. I picked up on the conversation of a group of students who would have seemingly otherwise been disruptive and loud, and in doing so I made myself a part of their discussion. The talk turned quickly, then, to me.
“Mister, where are you from?” A student asked. This isn’t an uncommon question; for one, although I am clearly Caucasian, there are few reliable physical markers of my strange mutt-like origins (a confirmed combination of Lithuanian, Latvian, Russian, and Polish with smaller fraction of Italian, French, and Spanish thrown in with traces of probably five other nationalities). This is conflated with the fact that I just got back from half a decade in the American South which has mutated my once pristine North-Eastern dialect into a sometimes untraceable half-enunciated half-drawl that I wear with a hint of pride. I related all of this to the student, who latched onto the “American South” part.
“So you’re Catholic,” they said.
I paused. Ooooooh, boy, here we go. “Actually, no. I was raised Jewish but I’ve been an atheist for something like a decade now.”
This was greeted with the expected silence and stares, and then the slew of expected questions. “Wait, so you don’t believe in God?” “So you don’t believe in Jesus?” “Where are your horns? Did you lose them when you stopped being Jewish?” “Is your nose so big because you’re Jewish?” I answered them as best I could: No, I don’t believe in God, and certainly not a god as specific and unsupported as Jesus. I never had horns, and for the record I thought that myth died a century ago. No comment about the big nose.
Then came a question I’d actually prepared myself for. “Why not believe in god? Aren’t you afraid of burning in hell forever? Isn’t it safer to just believe?”
Now, I’m a fairly well-read and honestly militant atheist. I was in radio broadcasting for years and although I don’t seem like it I have a powerful gift for delivery and rhetoric. I started my argument.
“See, here’s the thing. I’m not afraid of your Hell, nor should be, because you’re all atheists, too… at least, for every god but your own. I’ll bet that you [the Catholic who had originally questioned me] don’t believe in the Prophet-hood of Muhammad or the enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama. I’d wager you don’t even believe in the Jewish interpretation of god, who is allegedly the same being.”
He nodded in agreement. I continued.
“And do any of you believe in Thor? Amun-Ra? Zeus? Izanagi and Izanami? Zoroaster?” Of course none of them did. “Well, that’s just it. There are countless religions… many hundreds, thousands, more even. And virtually all of those religions have some version of hell. Niflheim and Muspelheim, the Realm of Anubis, Hades, Yomi, The Pit. Tell you, are you afraid of going to any of those places when you die?” And of course none of them were. “So I’m not afraid of Hell, the same way you all aren’t afraid of any of those afterlives. I only believe in one fewer god than you do.”
I hadn’t noticed, but a small group had gathered to listen.
“Ooooooooh! Mister, you just blew my mind!,” One student said.
“I never thought of it like that. No one ever explained it to me before,” The original asker posed.
“Man, you’re, like… a nice atheist. Most atheists I know are, well…”
“Dicks?” I finished for him dryly [tune in some time in the future for my take on cursing in schools]. “Well, yeah. They get too lost in the whole ‘being right’ aspect of it. I don’t honestly care if you share my beliefs, or even if you think I’m right, that’s your business. I only ask that you respect me and everyone else.”
“Wait, mister,” someone asked. “If I’m an atheist for all of those other religions, why do I believe in my religion?”
I stood up and started to back away a little. “I’m not touching that one with a ten foot pole, man.”
While I don’t think it’s my job or my business to change minds about religion, I do think that it’s imperative to make that decision for yourself and not assume that your indoctrinated point of view is correct. See, you can never prove religion, and you can never disprove it. It’s a matter of if you choose to believe it or not. I have a lot of friends who are religious, and a lot of friends who are atheists. None of them are better or worse people for it… dicks will be dicks regardless of faith. I’m thankful that I get to be in a position to enforce that lesson in my students when it comes up- that atheists can be good people and that by the other side of the coin religious people can be some of the worst human beings on the planet (I’m looking at you, pro-lifers who don’t support social services and also rapist priests). The two ideas are not related, though they are constantly conflated (especially by the religious right). Now, with high schoolers, dealing with religion isn’t so hard; you talk to them about it and they listen and then they come to a conclusion. Damage undone. But knowing that religion is subtly taught to students in Lower and Middle schools through social studies and English classes among others (trust me, I’ve listened to a teacher read a story and lecture on the importance of helping the sinful recover their goodness in the eyes of the Christian God), anyone would be remiss to assume that it is not something to be discussed as at least pertaining to schools and the students in them.
As for me, I can’t imagine this won’t come up again at some point… I have faith in it.