The Peaceful Atheist, a Wheaton graduate who lost her faith early in her time at the Evangelical college describes being alienated by Wheaton professors using anecdotes of their former students who’d left the faith as “cautionary tales”:
While I was at Wheaton I only came out to 2 professors, and it took both an extremely long time and a big leap of faith for me to trust them with my story. What a shame, because most Wheaton professors are kind, intelligent people with whom I would have really liked to discuss my deconversion. The reason why I didn’t talk to more of them was because of the demeaning way in which many of my profs talked about past students who had fallen away from Christianity. I’m talking about students who went to their professors with serious questions of faith, and five hours or five years later, those professors turned that serious matter into a cautionary tale or an exercise in mockery in front of a class. Whenever possible, a story of a fallen-away student would be accompanied by a story of a stoner student, one who gave everything the finger and didn’t give a damn enough to even care about whether Christianity was true or not. This would give the impression that serious questioning and flippant disregard were analogous, and the storytime would end with everyone glad that they were better off, and the implication that as long as you were paying attention, you would never end up like that.
To make it even worse, this happened most often in bible and theology classes. The very people who were most knowledgeable about faith and doubt were the ones who themselves ensured that they were the last people I would ever talk to about it. But even less-pompous professors undermined my trust in other ways. The most common was the prayer request for a student or former student who was questioning or leaving Christianity. These prayers were inevitably accompanied by pitying tones and entreaties that we never end up like that. More to the point, if I revealed something to a professor in confidence, I would be mortified if it became a prayer request to the entire audience of his next lecture, even if no names or details were given.
The irony is that now that I’ve gone public with blogging, I probably will become a cautionary tale. I hope at least that when bible professors mock me, some student will inwardly cringe and be embarrassed for me. And I hope even more that people at Wheaton who read this will see me not as an object of ridicule, but as a resource and a voice for the ridiculed.
I try to keep my cautionary tales to my students limited to the opening lecture and they involve no specific students or details but just vagueries about stupid ways people have cheated or broken other sensible common sense class rules. I even hesitate before telling them that there are no stupid questions except the one stupid question that one student asked one time. Even with that internally I question myself—will that remark get taken out of context to undermine my larger 5-10 minute plea to them to open up and share their ideas without hesitation?
So with all that in mind, I cannot imagine turning other students’ psychologically and/or existentially exhausting personal struggles into anecdotes for other students. And if any of my former students reading this do remember such a time and feeling alienated by the anecdote, you have my sincere apologies…