I teach Introductory Psychology at a local junior college. I would like to expand the classroom discussion on religious prejudice during my lesson on cultural influences, but I am unsure of exactly how to go about it. I am a passionate atheist, but would describe myself as being only moderately ‘out’ at work. I proudly label myself as a secular humanist currently and I explain to students exactly what it means when they ask, but I hesitate to label myself as an atheist. My fear is that when I am challenged by a student who is particularly religious, my passion will become so strong that I end up speaking from my soapbox, rather than speaking as a teacher of critical thinking. I’m very aware that the lessons should be for the student’s benefit, not for mine.
However, I think it is particularly important to provide examples of religious prejudice (apparently the most socially acceptable kind), and open some eyes to the discrimination atheists face. Our little college rests in the heart of California’s conservative central valley, and we are swimming in the Jesus. I want to be more confident in discussing this topic objectively with students, without becoming emotional about it. I value your insight and any advice you may have.
Dear Passionate Professor,
Always keep your passion. That’s so precious in a teacher. But you can focus your passion on the thinking skills you’re teaching rather than the thoughts your students are thinking. They will have their whole lives to rethink their thoughts if you have given them the skills. Guide your passion with patience and a willingness to not see the long term results of your work. Humdrum teachers help students learn what the teachers want them to learn. Excellent teachers help students learn how to learn and especially how to unlearn by questioning their old ideas.
They’re young. Most of them will keep their childhood-trained opinions for a few more years, but if you have successfully planted the seeds of critical thinking, those opinions will dissolve if they cannot hold up to inner scrutiny. That might very well happen after they have moved on, so you might never know about it. You have to be satisfied with being good at planting seeds and not necessarily seeing the trees that grow.
I’m very familiar with the Central Valley, having earned my BA at CSU Stanislaus. Sometimes the level of reactionary religiosity in the area could rival the deep South. That was a couple of sedimentary layers ago, but it hasn’t changed very much.
In a junior college, the faculty tends to be less insulated from the local populace and their culture than in a university, and that can be a good thing, but they’re also less protected from harassment and pressure from any locals who might be offended by what they teach. So when you consider self-disclosure about your unbelief and what labels you will use, always practice prudence first. Assess the security of your professional and social positions, so that you don’t become just another awful story about discrimination against an atheist. If you’re fired, you won’t be teaching critical thinking to anyone.
If you want to avoid getting on a soap box, be Socrates. When a passionate speech wants to bubble up, take a couple of deep, slow breaths to calm yourself. Then instead of a speech, ask questions that force the students to reexamine their presumptions. Don’t ask rhetorical questions; they’ll see right through those, but incisive, sharp-edged ones that sit there in their minds making them just a little uncomfortable. Keep a poker face, in both your expression and your tone. If you can maintain a neutral demeanor, then their struggle will be between two opposing ideas in their heads rather than a struggle between them and you.
Challenges from religious students are usually invitations to step into a trap where you work hard and they sit back and gloat. Don’t fall for that. When one asks you for your viewpoint, say something like, “This college is for you to examine, question, challenge, change, and mature your own views. Mine are not important.” Always turn it back on the challenger to justify their claim, rather than you working hard to refute their claim. When they present what they think is a polished and irrefutable argument, play the part of being innocently puzzled about those one or two little presumptions that they glossed over. Gently let them know that if they finish with a shrug of their shoulders, they have cheated themselves, not you.
As a psychology professor, you’re probably familiar with basic counseling techniques, and some could be useful in an analogous way in your teaching. As a counselor, I always made sure that my clients did most of the work to find the solutions to their problems. They’d initially come to me hoping that I’d just hand them a solution, but that would not serve them well in the long term. Instead, I kept turning it back to them, encouraging them that they do have problem-solving abilities, they just need to practice. So they’d struggle, and guess, and take a risk, and stumble, and then start to get some small gains. All the while, I would gently challenge their negative assumptions, and cheer them for their new positive considerations, and eventually congratulate them for the success that was entirely theirs, not mine. That’s the kind of setting aside of your ego that I think will help you to be more effective as an agent of learning the skills of learning, and the courage of unlearning.
I have one suggestion for illustrating the injustice of bigotry against atheists. Find a true account of an incident of egregious bigotry and mistreatment of an atheist at the hands of religious people. Rewrite the whole thing to omit all references to his atheism, and say “They did this to him because of his religion,” or phrases like that. Leave the basic facts of the case the same, but when you read this account to them, let the students assume that the victim was a Christian or a Jew. After several students talk about the unfairness and injustice of the bigots’ behaviors, reveal that the victim was actually an atheist.
Tell them that you had rewritten the story to help them see how the principles that they were championing about fairness, justice, and freedom must apply to everyone or they mean nothing to anyone. We are all free or none of us are free. Some students will “get it” immediately, others will try to rationalize that atheists somehow don’t qualify for the protections they were previously advocating, but some of that group will have had the seed of rethinking their own prejudices planted in their minds. Then all you can do is to hope those seeds will someday sprout.
I wish you good results in your experiments. I think your students are very lucky because you are so conscientious about your ethics as a teacher, but you still have the fire of your personal convictions. I hope that is a constant dynamic balancing act for you for your entire career. It will tire you sometimes, but it will be a great benefit for your students.