Ted-Ed and Origins of Religion

Have you used Ted-Ed yet? It’s a site that takes awesome Tedtalk videos, or just other wonderful Youtube videos, and allows you to build lessons around them. You can search other educator’s lessons as well, share them with your students online, and encourage them to post in discussion boards. For me, it’s a step towards occasional “flipping” of the classroom, but without the hassle of recording my own lectures and sometimes you can get lucky with what other teachers post.

I have some issues with the “flipping the classroom” model, enough that the topic probably deserves its own post. For the uninitiated, (and those unencumbered by edu-jargon) flipping the classroom is a movement to deliver lectures and content outside of classtime (for homework) and then use class time with the teacher as facilitator for project-based learning, skill development, and research. Part of my concern is that I think history teachers do much of this already–we assign reading that reviews the content, and then aim to work with the material in class. Most “flippers” rely heavily on video lectures as a way to relay content, however, which I question. It limits reading and I think can be just as challenging to focus on (how many times have you had several tabs open on your browser? You probably do right now!).  I also worry that not all of my students have reliable and frequent access to the internet. All that being said, I realize the value of novelty (students get excited by sometimes watching a video) and the help that video can provide when clarifying a challenging topic.

Origins of Religion lesson by Kate Harris

The question of why human societies developed religion is one such difficult topic. Every year, I debate how much I want to teach about this. It’s interesting stuff–why do we see religious beliefs developing in every society, across time and space? What need does it fill? But the answers can be heavily philosophical and often critical. This video does a nice job of outlining what life was like for early humans, and how they perceived the world. It gives the students some content to work with about reasons why religion might develop, and then in class I have the opportunity to guide them through some critiques.

Ted-Ed isn’t perfect–it’s heavily weighted towards science, but there is some social studies and language arts sprinkled through. But it’s quick and easy from a teacher’s perspective and engaging for the students. I will keep posting other useful videos that I find on there–let me know what you find as well!

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.

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Dan Dennett and I agree on a few things…

I was trying to find some easier ways to talk about the origins of religion with my students when I came across this TED talk by philosopher Dan Dennett, where he challenges Rick Warren’s A Purpose-Driven Life, makes a case for teaching world religions to all students (love!), and provides a brief look into the evolutionary aspects of religion.

I decided against using the video in class, as I think presenting the attacks on Warren would be a little unfair without also introducing his point of view, and the discussion of the evolution of religion a bit hard to follow for teenagers. But Dennett’s insistence on teaching all children about the world’s religions (around 4:16) and his statement that good can exist without god truly resonated with me. At the end of his talk, he states:

If you are like me, you know many wonderful, committed, engaged atheists, agnostics, who are being very good without God. And you also know many religious people who hide behind their sanctity instead of doing good works.

Is it wrong to state that one of my goals in this course is to help students learn to see past the labels we place on people (both good and bad) and simply see them for not only what they believe, but what they do?

Has anyone read Dennet’s book, Breaking the Spell? It’s on my list now.