Can a Religious School Properly Teach Students About Atheism?

I have no doubt in my mind that a lot of atheists would be qualified to teach a course about Christianity. Many know the Bible well; many were raised in the faith; many could teach the objective facts about the religion without a problem.

But what about the other way around? Can Christian schools adequately teach students about atheism? Regis College (the theological school of the University of Toronto) is giving it a shot:

The course was created as a response to Canada becoming more secular, [Regis College Dean Gordon] Rixon shared. “This is not a course to villainize but to understand… This is more of a reflecting course that allows us to form a Christian response to atheism.”

The problem is that, when you hear from the professors teaching the course, it seems like there’s already a bias in place. The villainizing has already begun:

Atheism “has become militant, aggressive and proselytizing,” said [Rev. Scott] Lewis, a Jesuit scripture scholar, who teaches the class with three other scholars. “It’s made great in-roads and is now socially acceptable. If you’re young and educated and believe in God, you’re (seen as) a jerk.”

It sounds like the classes are being taught by someone who doesn’t understand the material. Anyone who believes atheism is “militant” doesn’t know the definition of the word. We’re not going door to door trying to unbaptize people, either. We’re just not staying silent when our rights are being trampled upon. We also don’t think smart religious people are automatically jerks.

That’s what I said when the Christian Post asked me to comment on the new course. I added that I thought the course could benefit from the insight of actual atheists:

“… atheists tend to hear a lot of stereotypes about who we are and what we believe thrown around in the Christian world — in churches, popular books, etc. I’ve read a number of books written by Christian apologists and it’s amazing how many mistakes they make when describing atheists. Those are problems that could have been fixed if only they had consulted with an atheist when they were writing! Yet, these ideas get perpetuated throughout churches, homes, and Christian schools.”

“It’s one thing to read a book written by a New Atheist and then have a discussion led by a Christian professor. It’s another to have an atheist in the room willing to (politely) discuss and debate those same ideas.”

I hope the course succeeds because it’d be great if religious people understood atheism. They would benefit from understanding what it entails, who we are, and why many of us are so passionate about the subject. But based on what the professors have said, all I’m expecting is further religious indoctrination.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Mej

    Having an atheist guest in such a class even for one day could make a huge difference. It would be an opportunity for students to meet a person, not a caricature, and for an atheist to explain his/her worldview firsthand.

    Actually, it’d be great if we could do this for most religious studies.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    Warning on that CP article, you might get ambushed by an audio ad after a time delay.

    I have my headphones on and nearly jumped out of my skin when Rachael Ray started talking to me.

  • GodlessPoutine

    Awhile back I made a challenge to my readers to see if we could get some atheists to at least attend the class. Perhaps at least having some there, even as students, is better than the preacher preaching to the choir.

  • Houndentenor

    A class about atheism? Will there also be a club for people who don’t collect stamps? I find it hard to believe that the class isn’t being taught with an agenda and that agenda is probably not to encourage skepticism and critical thinking.

    • 3lemenope

      If the contours and permutations of stamp collecting were considered a really big deal, and everyone in the world but a small group collected stamps, would that small group be notable, and their reasons why they choose not to collect worth some study?

  • http://www.facebook.com/jennlynn1284 Jennifer Albus

    That’s funny. I don’t think you’re a jerk if you believe in god. I only think you’re a jerk when you call me angry, militant, aggressive…etc. I actually almost married a christian. It didnt work out. It fell apart when we were talking about our vows and I refused to make them on gods name. He insisted that I did. I told him he could, but I wasnt going to promise anything on something I don’t even believe in. I still dont quite understand how their brains work.

  • Greg G.

    About 25 years ago, a friend had to do a presentation. He had been talking with me and decided to do his presentation on atheism. He took me for show and tell and to answer questions. They had several questions about the soul.

  • roberthughmclean

    Someone teaching a “christian response to atheism?” The christians don’t have one and that’s their problem.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001731128615 Rip Van Winkle

      They’re typical response is that Atheists are actually Satan worshippers, or worse still, that we ‘know’ there’s a God but cognitively refuse to worship or pray to him. They can’t seem to wrap their brains around the idea that we atheists flat out don’t think there’s a god out there at all. Period.

  • phantomreader42

    The question in the title boils down to “can a religious school tell students the truth?” And it looks like the answer is “NO”.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    it doesn’t have to be this way. the divinity school i went to had plenty of good teachers who were atheists and nonbelievers and skeptics. we were taught about a lot of things, including the history of nonbelief. most religions have a counter-narrative or something like that, in which the skeptics express their issues with the official tradition. this is why there are words like “schism.” schools that teach about a religion should have classes about all of it. including the parts where sometimes, some people reject some/all of the tradition’s claims.

  • Keulan

    Just look at the name of the course. “Responding to 21st-Century Atheism.” Sounds like it’s biased against us already just from that alone. A more balanced class would be called something like “Religion and Atheism in the 21st Century.”

    From the HuffPo article, it seems to me that Rev. Scott Lewis is one of those morons who thinks that open, outspoken atheists are just as bad as religious fundamentalists. Well, you can’t expect priests to tell people the truth.

  • Bdole

    This class reminds me of the scene in Starship Troopers where students are dissecting bugs in a classroom. The teacher talks about the various advantages of the bugs and seems to try to instill respect and greater understanding in her students for the amazing creatures…all so that they can exterminate them more efficiently.

    We are at cross-purposes. There’s just no getting around it. That’s not my preferred perspective, that’s how believers see it.

  • rustygh

    I’ve had this discussion with a friend who went to a religious school. The answer was no! They do not, or will not teach proper science so we can assume with pretty good accuracy that they wouldn’t properly cover atheism either.

  • Rain

    “… This is more of a reflecting course that allows us to form a Christian response to atheism.”

    Assuming that we know what “reflecting course” means, and also assuming that we know what “Christian response to atheism” means, then I think it’s pretty clear that it is not meant to be objective at all. So yeah, assuming we understand what the hell the mealy-mouthed weasel-wordy college dean was saying, it sounds more like an apologetics course aimed at atheism than an actual atheism course.

  • Andy

    I wish we had some sort of atheist class at my college. Maybe I wouldn’t be so hated by my fellow classmates. I did a speech and presentation on the history of the pentagram vs. the history of the cross. You could literally feel the hatred in the room as my classmates eyes bore into me. You should’ve been there for my Philosophy class, I thought someone was going to “jump” me on the way to my next class.

  • JP Curtis

    My question is: How can one who does a scrupulous study of religion remain a believer? I presume a scrupulous education would include the history of religions preceding and leading up to the student’s chosen one. And it would include a timeline of when “sacred” texts were written, and by whom, and how they were incorporated into the orthodoxy. After being presented with that evidence, and NOT rejecting their preconceived faith would be evidence of dishonesty, bias, or ulterior motive. Would it not?


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