Ask Richard: Bigoted College Teacher Focuses on Atheist Student

Hello Richard,

I’m an atheist in a mostly Christian, republican state trying to get through college with my sanity intact. I graduate next semester, and thought I’d manage to get through this without any serious repercussions due to my unpopular views. Unfortunately my business law teacher this semester might break that record. The first class set off alarms when he said he couldn’t call gay marriage real marriage because Christians defined marriage for centuries already, but I didn’t want to start conflict on the first day. Now, with the end of classes only a month away I’ve come to my breaking point. Any topic that touches on religion or equal rights (for any minority) sets him off in a very bigoted direction, even arguing how it isn’t unethical for women to be paid less because of the threat of pregnancy leave. Now it’s gotten personal too. It became known in the class that I don’t believe in god, and so this last session he began rattling off how god has to be involved in government, it’s what the founding fathers wanted, and atheism is a religion too, because you can’t disprove god and it all involves belief. As he ranted on all this he stared directly at me the whole time. I don’t know what to do. I was so angry when I left that there were tears leaking down my cheeks. I feel helpless, and I hate it. Do you have any idea how I can settle this, or at least deal with this frustration? Outside of these topics he seems like a fairly nice teacher. Is it possible he doesn’t realize what he’s doing?

Thank you for your time,

A Frustrated Senior

Dear Frustrated,

I think he knows what he’s doing. You don’t need to find him a way to avoid the responsibility for his actions. If you don’t yet have the confidence to stand up to him, that’s okay, you’re young. But you don’t have to feel intimidated by him either. Look at him from a different perspective. You’re reacting to his asinine rants as if they’re a personal assault on you.

Actually, they are a candid confession by him of how helpless and intimidated he feels.

The world is changing, and his sense of Christian white male preeminence no longer feels invulnerable to him. The ground that he took for granted as solid is moving under his feet, and he feels insecure. He wouldn’t behave this way if he felt comfortable and confident. His blustering is not the roaring of a lion claiming his territory as far as his roar can carry; no, it’s the wailing of a dinosaur shortly before its extinction.

You will soon go on to a successful career, and you have within you the social attitudes of acceptance and equality that will fit well in the new world that is even now burgeoning around you. Your teacher will remain where he is, perpetually surrounded by a constant flow of students who each semester will be younger and younger than him, and more and more a part of that new world. His obsolete, bigoted views are rapidly becoming unacceptable by society, and they will make him a less and less popular teacher, a less and less effective influence on young people, and a less and less relevant member of his academic community.

In your kinder moments, you might even feel a little pity for him.

But don’t worry about it if you don’t feel much of that. His sermonizing is inappropriate for that class, what he’s saying is inaccurate, and he’s misusing his authority as a teacher in an unprofessional manner. Even in the unlikely case that you are the only atheist in that college class, I’m sure you’re not the only one who thinks he’s out of line about all those other issues. Don’t be fooled by his hollow attempt to bully you. You are not helpless here. You are the ascending one, the one whose power is growing, and you can begin to feel that power by doing what students do. They listen attentively, they take notes, and sometimes they ask questions. When he goes into one of his tirades, take careful notes of his remarks. Document him. Then you can go either of two ways:

With less than a month to go in that class, you might decide that it’s not worth fighting a foe whose time is coming to an end anyway, and perhaps you should concentrate on passing. If necessary, you can use those notes to defend yourself if he gives you a grade that is lower than what you deserve. After your grades are posted, if you wish, you can compose a nice letter to the Dean of his department, who might want to know about this man’s inappropriate haranguing. You should also warn future students by writing a review of him on Rate My Professors.

If on the other hand you feel up to resisting him in class, after he’s gone on a diatribe for a while you could raise your hand and calmly say, “Excuse me, Professor, I don’t understand what all this you’re saying has to do with business law.” Then read his exact words back to him, showing that you’re recording them, and finish with, “I wonder if maybe you’re on a tangent.” If he turns on you with personal attacks, interrupt him again and say just as calmly, “Excuse me, Professor, I don’t understand what you’re saying about me has to do with business law.” Again, read your exact quotes, and finish with, “I wonder if you’re on a tangent.”

Whether you fight him or not, for the remaining few class sessions breathe deeply and slowly, and relax in your chair, gazing impassively at him. He and his mentality are on their way out, and they will not be missed. You will soon move on, leaving him in the dust that will become his sedimentary layer.

At the beginning of my response I said, “If you don’t yet have the confidence to stand up to him…” because eventually you will have that confidence. There will be other bullies and bigots of new species who will try to daunt and dismay you. This teacher of yours is simply a training for you to learn how to keep your cool, to bide your time, to look for their vulnerabilities, to gather your resources, and at the right moment, if all attempts for a productive resolution have failed, to seriously kick bully ass. Enjoy your era. You are well-suited to the new environment.


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About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.