Teaching about Atheism Is Hard

Well, not so much the main concept: atheists don’t believe in god. Got it?

Let’s not move on so fast, though. In a country where more people would refuse to vote for (or let their child marry) an atheist than any other subgroup, I think it’s important to expose students to an atheism that is open and nonjudgmental. This can be difficult when so many of the big name atheists out there don’t aim to be quite so friendly (see R. Dawkins and his Tedtalk on militant atheism). Or simply do a search for atheists on Youtube). Atheism can seem, at the very least, cold and judgmental. For many, it seems to carry with it an attack on religion or others’ beliefs.

It’s also a hook–kids want to know about atheists. Especially kids raised in the South, in primarily Christian areas. They want to know about atheism in the same way that they want to know about Satanism, heavy metal, light drugs, and other things their parents disapprove of. And so I hit it first, just after we’ve discussed what religion is, and then think about what it means to live entirely without it. We also consider the rights and protections that religion has in the United States (thanks, First Amendment!), and debate whether atheism also deserves the same.

Morgan Spurlock’s show, 30 Days, has a great episode on an atheist mother who goes to live with a Christian family. It’s awesome–she meets with their bible study group, then they go visit with a group of Secular Humanists who describe ways in which they feel discriminated against. The two mothers bond over being mothers, and when the kids visit, they all head to a Christian rock show. It sheds light on the other things that make teaching about atheism difficult. After you establish that there’s no god or afterlife, students start to wonder how that affects the way an atheist lives his or her life. The woman on the show reveals an atheism that emphasizes morality, caring, and appreciation for this world. She’s relatable and helps us to begin answering those questions as a class.  Her statements, and the opinions of the family whom she lives with, always lead to a good discussion after the show ends.

One of the questions that always intrigues the students is brought up by one of the Secular Humanists whom she and the Christian family members meet with. In a scene that is in some ways painful to watch, the humanists ask Michael, the father, what he would think if the dollar bill said “There is no god”–instead of “In god we trust.”  In the clip, Michael seems incapable of even considering the question. As a class, when we revisit that question after the show ends, you can see that some students have the same struggle envisioning what that would look like, and the same struggle to understand why the current phrasing might offend some people. This offers a good opportunity to then consider whether atheism is a belief system that is discriminated against, and needs protections like other religions, or if it is just simply a belief. Our next days are spent reading perspectives, listening to testimonials, and talking about that same idea.

So is atheism a religion? While I don’t think it meets the definition of a religion, I do believe that a) it is acquiring many of the characteristics of religions and b) that it deserves the same protections–the right to believe is just as important as the right not to. I tell my students that I don’t know the right answer, thought, and as a result I get to read lots of student opinions. My students read and report back on the editorials gathered by the New York Times in response to the question, and they watch a few more videos by “The Atheist Voice” (who seems to be one of the friendlier atheist faces out there). We compare it to our definitions and test it against our checklist. There’s never a consensus, but I think that’s a good thing. If anything, starting off with atheism, something that challenges so many of their preconceived notions about religion and what others believe, and getting to have this debate, is simply a way to model what debate and discussion in this classroom will look like. In the end, they each get to voice their opinions, and then we move on, ready to learn about other modes of believing in a way that doesn’t criticize, but does encourage thinking critically.

Have you addressed atheism with your classes? How does it go?

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2 thoughts on “Teaching about Atheism Is Hard

  1. This is an extremely important topic and you’re presenting it to your students in a way that gives them space to think, explore and consider. Thought is the single most important and also most neglected skill, especially on topics normally shrouded in dogma and status quo. Exploring systems of faith and spirituality, either within religion or without, expands the mind and makes space for creativity. It also gives students the opportunity to identify the golden thread in what all people believe and expose the beliefs that are nothing more than limiting superstition (again, both within religion and without)

    I’ll be following your blog with peaked interest from now on! 🙂 Thanks for the important work you do.

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    • Hi eaawilson! Thank you for your kind comment. The fun of teaching social studies is that you get to torture your students with so many opportunities for critical thinking and challenging what they think they know. Funny how that feels a little subversive, when really it should be a priority for all educators. I enjoyed reading through some of your stories this afternoon–in a similar way, they flip the script. Keep at it!

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