Atheism and Teaching Religion

Recently, a student, who has taken multiple courses from me, told me that when evangelical students take my courses they assume I’m an atheist. In fact, in my graduate student orientation this week, a student said the same thing to me, “You sound like an atheist.”

Now it’s true I teach comparative religion at a “secular” university. Our university was sued when the college first tried to bring religious studies into the curriculum. So, in part, to appease these concerns, they put comparative religion into the school of international studies and they promised that they would not teach theology, but only teach about religion. Now, for me, this was a fortunate decision all around.

I love teaching religion in a school of international studies because religion is ever relevant not only for present day political conflicts but also to understand the wide stretch of world history. I also like studying religion as a cultural phenomenon. It makes me move around various faith systems like they are precious, foreign objects that must be treated with respect but also with an intense radically empirical perspective. This perspective, as William James said so well, must comprehend a “full fact.” This full fact involves “A conscious field plus its object as felt or thought of plus an attitude towards the object plus the sense of a self to whom the attitude belongs….”

James did not have the European attitude (read Durkheim and Weber) that one’s personal perspective was somehow an illegitimate aspect of one’s study. In fact, I often tell students, as a bow to the school of hermeneutics, that the heart of education is to test one’s pre-understandings or prejudices toward an object as one studies that object. And, of course, that object may be a subject, a “living human document.” This is the case in my own radically empirical sociological perspective. I study people being Christian, how they feel, act and organize themselves in relation to the objects that they worship and love.

But I still wonder whether I should be more upfront about my own religious inclinations. I’ve been teaching for more than a decade at my university and I’m well established and secure. I’ve recently thought, “Well, why not say who I am and then go ahead and teach as I always have using methods and theories from relevant scholars in the study of religion?”

But what rings in my ear is Max Weber’s tortured and authoritative voice. If you have not read Weber’s “Science as a Vocation,” you must. As he says, the spirit of our times is the “disenchantment of the world,” and if one cannot make that “intellectual sacrifice… then the arms of the old churches are opened widely… after all they do not make it hard….” Weber takes no prisoners, science demands disenchantment and this means, for him, the assumption that culture is a human construction, including religion. At times, I find this kind of analysis stultifying and even deceptive or deceiving. Like I said, James argued that we must include our own perspective in what one is studying.

And yet, as someone else told me, “No, don’t say anything. You challenge them to think for themselves by forcing them to make up their own minds, regardless of what you think.” Some walk away from my class actually hating me for my “objectivity” and my unwillingness to share my religious perspective. Perhaps this is the price that one pays. But I remain somewhat dubious that this is my “duty.”

Still other religious scholars would say, “It makes no difference what your personal religious inclinations are, just do your work.” And I think they are right to a point. But I wonder if today’s students are different. To be sure, students today can track down a professor’s biographical record and find out where she or he stands on issues. But they also seem to need to know where the teacher is personally, or at least it seems to me. This helps them decide whether the teacher can be trusted.

Plus, and this may be most important, it shows them that as a “believer” one can stand outside oneself and examine a religion from an outsider perspective. That is, there is nothing to fear to look at Christianity, my own religion, from a Marxist, psychoanalytic, or sociological perspective. These are all simply viewpoints that may or may not reveal and illumine aspects of a religion that might otherwise be hidden from view when only looking at religion as a believer or insider.

Sometimes when I teach Western Religions (I realize a misnomer, I didn’t choose the name), in which we study Judaism, Christianity and Islam, I begin by arguing that each religion exhibits a distinct construction of God. Students occasionally gasp, “Constructions of God, aren’t these given by God?”

And I say, I don’t think so. The constructions are just that, attempts to read ancient texts and sketch pictures of God that are offered, often in quite diverse ways within these texts, in each of these traditions.  And so I argue that these religions are just that, approximations of what humans have thought, imagined and experienced in light of their experiences with this “ultimate reality.” And, of course, as to how close these constructions are to “God” remains debatable and interesting but in the end a matter of faith.

My thinking also echoes my favorite University of Chicago teacher, Jonathan Z. Smith. Smith argued, “Religions are forms of human creativity.” Creativity is the quintessential human capacity, to make something new from the forms and thoughts that we are given.

So, maybe just maybe, by saying that I’m religious and showing that religion is human creativity in action, it frees students to think critically, and frees them to see its beauty and its problems. I sense that if people are free than they will discover what is true about religions for themselves.

These are my immediate conclusions. I really haven’t made up my mind. I begin teaching Thursday. I’m wondering what you all think?

  • Brenda Lunger

    If the atheist students think you’re religious and the religious students think you’re atheist, you might be hitting the sweet spot in a secular religion course. Letting them figure it out for themselves encourages them to research and think. That’s not a bad thing. You could do an interesting paper on a survey/poll of the students, getting them to state their religious persuasion and then attempting to identify yours with limited outside information.

    • James Wellman

      Great idea…. it is such a tricky thing… but it’s a fun conundrum.

  • stacey

    Trust Einstein’s quote:

    “In the view of such harmony in the cosmos which
    I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet
    people who says there is no God. But what makes me really angry is that
    they quote me for support of such views. (The Expanded Quotable
    Einstein, Princeton University, page 214)”

    • James Wellman

      Nice. Thanks…. we just don’t know, and any absolute statement makes no sense in the end. The brilliance of the universe is that we are just smart enough to know that we don’t know, and that there are so many dimensions to reality that must then be humble, of the dirt.

      • stacey

        You’re correct, we don’t know, both evolution and creation are theories and each require faith. Since you aren’t teaching either theory but rather religion, consider your students and their perceptions and beliefs. Who are they, atheists, agnostics, believers? Why are they studying religion? Are you worried you will unintentionally influence their belief systems by revealing your own beliefs? This is a religions study course after all and your audience are adults and are there to learn. Divulge who you are trusting that your students are educated enough to make up their own minds.

        • Studying_Nomad

          Define theory.

        • GordonHide

          Evolution by natural selection is a scientific theory. Creationism is not. There is a world of difference. The former is backed by much scientific evidence and is falsifiable. The latter is not.

    • JDM

      Here are some more Einstein quotes:

      “For me, the Jewish religion, like all other religions, is an incarnation of the
      most childish superstitions.”

      “The word ‘god’ is for me nothing more than the expression and product of
      human weaknesses, a collection of honorable but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.”

      Einstein also said that he did not believe in a god that rewards good and punishes evil. At other times, Einstein called the concept of a personal god “wishful thinking.”

  • Mars

    I think it is essential to prompt students to question basic assumptions. One common assumption when studying religion is that there is a dualism between religiousness/theism and atheism. I think that is flawed and unhelpful, as I think many who study religion would agree. If you have students question that assumption, then the issue is not whether you are religious or not, but rather, how you think about religion. And since you are helping students think about religion, it is perhaps not instructionally helpful to declare or summarise how ‘you’ think about religion — until the end of the course, that is, when you could facilitate a wonderful summative discussion about how your students are ‘now’ thinking about religion, and when you can join them as an equal, as a student, which you are as well.

    • James Wellman

      Well put.

  • henk olwage

    About that billboard: was it the child itself who said that, or some adult who put the words in the child’s mouth? See what I mean?

    • Studying_Nomad


      • Robert Hunt

        Teaching a child to “think for herself” is just another kind of indoctrination, one into a particularly individualistic fantasy that ignores the reality that all “thinking” takes place in a language, or mode of discourse, that largely determines the results of said thinking. Language, the only tool available for thinking, isn’t neutral.

  • Ron Mad Smitty Smith

    I had a philosphy of religion prof whom I discovered is a practicing Catholic. He made it a point to not disclose his personal beliefs to keep the class objective. He stated a few times many students come into his course with the assumption it is a Christian course. He squashed that right away.

    I say what you’re doing is good and your approach opens students to consider the role of religion in humanity. keep up the good work.

  • Cranmer

    The Episcopal Church — Scripture, Tradition, and REASON. Don’t leave your brains at the door.

  • Jonathan

    You pose an interesting dilemma should one disclose their belief. Could it damage your status as being seen as impartial? I don,t think so if you express your belief in an open and non discrimatorial way. I believe students would respect you for it.

  • Studying_Nomad

    Sounds to me like you outed yourself in this article. I don’t see the problem. Your personal beliefs are just those and should be left out of the classroom. Students are there to learn about a topic, not about the teacher. Question their assumptions when they make them, but do not bring your beliefs in the classroom as they will only bring the attention to yourself and away from the subject at hand. If you’d like to talk personal beliefs with your students outside of school, cool, but don’t waste valuable classroom time. I don’t see a difference between this issue and a political science teacher talking about their campaign during some election. It’s irrelevant to the teaching of the subject.

  • lacourt

    “So, maybe just maybe, by saying that I’m religious and showing that religion is human creativity in action, it frees students to think critically, and frees them to see its beauty and its problems. I sense that if people are free than they will discover what is true about religions for themselves.”

    When my granddaughter who was leaning toward the “Christian” belief system was angry with me because I criticized her for being disrespectful to her mother, you know what she did?

    She knows I’m an atheist, a freethinker, and her response was, “And I do believe in God, grandma. I’m a Christian.”

    I said, “Well, honey, before you make up your mind, do me one favor. Read the bible from cover to cover, and then talk to me about what you believe.”

  • Lothar Lorraine

    Hello James.

    First of all I really like that part:

    “The constructions are just that, attempts to read ancient texts and
    sketch pictures of God that are offered, often in quite diverse ways
    within these texts, in each of these traditions. And so I argue that
    these religions are just that, approximations of what humans have
    thought, imagined and experienced in light of their experiences with
    this “ultimate reality.”

    As I pointed out here

    we cannot view the Bible as being, in principle, more inspired than other religious books.

    Evangelicals students having been home-schooled or in a Christian college have rarely heard an objective description of the world. It is difficult for them to make a difference between hostility and neutrality.

    But with good teachers they can learn it ;-)

    And the fact people construct their own view of God does not mean they never get Him right. And it does not prevent God from having shown His human face through a first-century preacher.

    Friendly greetings from Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    • James Wellman

      Well put, hostility vs. neutrality.

  • LogicGuru

    Perennial question also in teaching ethics. I don’t see the problem. I note that these issues are controversial, that experts and other smart people who’ve done their homework disagree, and that the aim is to work through the machinery of the various positions, the arguments pro and con, the glitches and fixes, etc. I’m up front and say that I plonk for Christianity, and for Utilitarianism, or whatever, but that it’s still up for grabs. We are all agnostics now.

    This poses the question of what it is to plonk for Christianity–as an educated, non-evangelical. And I suppose my view, which I’m happy to share with students, is that it means there may be some supernatural or other, that Christianity is my culture religion, and that Christian theology is the machinery I like to play with.

    I confess I have a hard time with Evangelicals.

    • James Wellman

      I’ve studied evangelicals, and for the most part have grown to respect them and enjoy them…. but, there are limits! The limit of not accepting any other point of view!!!

      • LogicGuru

        I don’t. Evangelicalism seems to be religion at its worst: dogmaticsm, conservatism, the emphasis on the Word, and the absence of elaborate ceremonies and aesthetic goodies. In the past evangelicalism was the religion of the lower classes. When they over up they took up something else. But nowadays the megachurches have moved up market an this has been devastating. Arguably, the only chance we have to save religion is by destroying Evangelicalism.

        • Steve

          I’m not an Evangelical at all, but I think that Christianity is supposed to be a religion of the lower classes. Camel through the eye of the needle and all. But I don’t think “low man’s religion” should at all equate to “shameless demagoguery”.

        • Robert Hunt

          I’m quite shocked at the hostility toward something called “evangelicalism” that in my experience doesn’t appear to exist except in the fertile imagination of self-identified progressives. I wonder if you could provide a kind of scientific survey (empirical sociological study) that would justify associating evangelicalism with terms like “dogmatism” that are more emotive than descriptive? Moreover, the belief in the legitimacy of multiple points of view with regard to something like the nature of God is in itself a particular point of view. It is an unjustified universal claim, one made more bizarre by being logically inconsistent with the claim that there are multiple legitimate points of view. And apart from logic, what makes the failure to accept any other point of view less morally valid than your demand that they accept multiple points of view? In my own experience neither progressives nor evangelicals have a monopoly on saying and doing things that are destructive of humanity and faith. Assuming you buy my definition of humanity and faith. Which you might not.

          • Lila Wagner

            As an Evangelical, let me sorta “quote” (more paraphrase than quote) from Ephesians: The Church (as a whole, not as a fragmented, broken mirror) shows the many-faceted Glory of God (Eph. 3:10). In other words, the Church as a whole can show forth God’s splendour to the rulers of this present age–to the zeitgeist if you will.

          • LogicGuru

            Evangelicalism more than anything else has turned people off of religion because it makes demands and doesn’t provide anything of value. Dogmatism isn’t what concerns me, but rather evangelicals understanding of religion is a matter of teaching and, in particular, Biblical teaching. In a “world come of age” we, educated adults, do not need to be taught. Evangelicalism is the religion of the Word–blather, blather, yap, yap, yap–and this is something we neither want nor need. In addition, and more importantly, evangelicalism does not provide ceremony, aesthetic experience or mysticism. Just blather, blather, yap, yap, yap sermons, teaching and garbage–Bible, Jeeeezus, crap, crap, crap.

            So what is religion for? to provide elaborate ceremonies, music, art, architecture and the stuff for religious/mystical/aesthetic experience: a window in to the other world–intensity, pleasure, the woo-woo and spooky. And for those of use who are interested, a metaphysical sandbox to play in, where we can monkey around with the doctrine of the Trinity, the Real Presence doctrine and other logic puzzles.

            This issue isn’t point of view or tolerance for dissent. It is religion as such. And Evangelicalism is detestable, worthless, stinking trash and yap that undermines the survival of religion that’s worthwhile: high church religion, elaborate ceremonies, mysticism and aestheticism.

          • James Wellman

            Fascinating, again…. to put this up for grabs would be appropriate, yes, that is, what determines or who determines who gets to speak or what opinions or options are worthy…. I was debating someone who blamed our recent problems of religious fundamentalism, I then proceeded to make the argument that modernity (utilitarianism, industrialization, nation states, modern war) has done more damage than religion could ever hope to do, and it may end our species, climate change etc… my interlocutor was dumb founded, as they should be, fundamentalism as scapegoat is as bad as any witch hunting could have been in the past or present.

        • Yeshuratnam

          That’s a foolish suggestion born out of jealousy and bias. Evangelism has shaped historical events
          The Wesleyan movement protected England from the horrors of French Revolution.Even today the platform for Evangelists is freedom in every sense of the term. Any encroachment on freedom – political, economic, morality- will be stoutly opposed.

  • wbthacker

    “when evangelical students take my courses they assume I’m an atheist. ”

    I’d take that as a compliment. It means you’re presenting the topic without any bias toward one religion. And in comparative religion, isn’t atheism the obvious neutral, clinical position from which to describe the others?

    Further, I don’t think it would do any good if you open the class by telling students you’re religious. Evangelicals in particular have the knack of saying, “You claim to be religious but I know you aren’t, because you aren’t doing something my faith says is crucial.” E.g., “You aren’t a true Christian because you believe in Evolution.” So even if you tell them your faith, they’ll just assume you lied, and you’re really a subversive atheist trying to trick them.

    So I think you’re doing it right. I wonder if you may feel conflicted because your faith tells you to be a visible witness for your beliefs and you clearly aren’t doing that in the classroom. If so, avoid that temptation. It leads to fanaticism.

    You might even go so far as to ask on the student evaluation at the end of the class, “What religion do you think Dr. Wellman practices?” If too many students answer correctly, you’ve revealed too much.

    • James Wellman

      You made me laugh, yes, I’m a fanatic! A fanatic for truth, beauty and the good! Ha ha!

  • A.Yeshuratnam

    All atheusts finally turn to God. Darwin and Russell were struggling on their deathbeds to reach out to the ‘Immortal and Invisible’ God. But Churchill was prepared to meet God but doubtful whether God
    would be plleased to meet hiim. Atheism is a ridiculous ideology.

    • JDM

      First, Darwin was not an atheist.
      Second, I’m an atheist, and my will says not to say prayers for me or have any religious service when I die.

    • Yeshuratnam

      Mobile typing has caused some errors.
      ‘atheists,’ not atheusts.
      ‘pleased,’ not plleased.

    • GordonHide

      Atheism is not an ideology. It’s just a lack of belief in gods. Doubtless there are some ridiculous ideologies which are also atheistic but I don’t think a lack of belief in gods can guarantee ridiculousness.

  • Robert Hunt

    You articulate a problem for all of us who teach in religious studies and have religious convictions. Yet I have concern for the insider taking an outsider perspective. The ability to do this is itself founded in form of self-understanding that is quite distinctly modern, and is found neither at the founding of most religions nor among most religious people outside the West. To be honest in teaching religion I think it is necessary to say this; to say that most religious people do not understand themselves and their religion in the way that even religious people in the West understand themselves and their religion. We are a historical anomaly. As importantly the value placed on “objectivity” in the human sciences is a value not necessarily found in non-modern religious traditions, and when taken for granted leads to the kind or moral hubris so characteristic of the Western academy. It is not a given that the scientific study of religion has more utility in guiding human interactions or characterizing them truly than approaches located within the different religious traditions. Of course making a judgment in this matter would require not an objective view, but one of omniscience (and they should not be confused.) I might add – the idea that students can be somehow led to independently evaluate and make their own choices is nonsensical. Decision making cannot be removed from the social matrix in which they find themselves. If they find your objectivity appealing then you have moved them in a specific direction toward a specific kind of self and religious understanding.

    • James Wellman

      Yes, you nail a piece of this that I have been thinking of…. modernity, the perspective of objectivity is an illusion and yet expected… to push a neutral position from which the ‘seeing eye’ can then make the ‘correct’ interpretation. But then, what is the answer. I say to the students, as I did yesterday, we all have pre-understandings, a history of effects, we risk them in the act of interpretation, and so it goes, we all start from somewhere, there is nowhere, the illusion of nowhere is the place of power, where privilege has created a mt. olympus moment.

      • HWiers

        THAT is well put!

  • Mal

    One of our most effective teachers in high school used to take extreme or bizarre positions in order to stimulate thought and debate. We did not know what he really thought so we had to think for ourselves. That irritated us so much we tried to have him removed! Afterwards we acknowledge him as the most gifted teacher we had.

    As a theology student, I am grappling with the idea of ‘divine revelation’ which I would rather term as ‘human discovery’, a human construction that we as humans should take responsibility for rather than put the responsibility on God.

  • HWiers

    Check out Parker Palmer, /The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life/ (1997) then see where you’re at on this.

  • HWiers

    I’m the one that recommended Parker Palmer’s /The Courage to Teach/. The book changed my own thinking on the to-reveal-or-not-to-reveal question. I’ll say a bit more.

    I have found it liberating no longer to have to keep my biases and experiences to myself. However, I am VERY careful how I share them. I wait long before a subject has been fully investigated, critiqued, nit-picked, etc., AND I wait until all exams and papers involving the subject have been handed in. And then I still will only say what I think or share my experience IF ASKED. And not just if one student asks. If a student asks, I then ask the rest of the class if they would like to know what I think, or feel, or hear a story that will inform the investigation at hand. And if the consensus is yes (and it always is) then I say my piece. (I’ve yet to have a student say, “No, I’d like to take a pass on your point-of-view this time.” When that happens, I plan to honor the request and remain silent. But I will ask the student why take a pass?)

    Feedback from students has been positive, to the tune of “Even though he’s a Christian he’s pretty tough on Christianity” and “If he had not have told us he was a believer I would have sworn he was an atheist,” and the like.

    Thanks for sharing your stuggle with us.

    • James Wellman

      Thanks. Well put.

  • Carol

    The problem with mixing sectarian religion with religious studies in a secular university or any secular setting is the question of whose religion belongs in the mix.

    This post illustrates how relying on Revelation rather than reason can actually diminish our credibility among secular people and people of faith who do not share the uniquely Judeo/Christian worldview:

  • Ian

    But they also seem to need to know where the teacher is personally, or at least it seems to me. This helps them decide whether the teacher can be trusted.

    That there is the heart of your task, it seems to me. To break the evangelical assumption that only those who agree with a particular form of confession are trustworthy sources of learning. It might make you feel better to play that game with “its okay, trust me, I’m a believer too”, but it would ultimately short change those caught in that mindset, I’d suggest.

  • R Vogel

    A story from my own past – I studied Philosophy in a small college, and there was one prof whom I particularly liked. It was a small college, so there were only 3 Philosophy profs, so you ended up taking many classes with each of them. I enjoyed his class because he let us explore the philosophies we were studying. If we went astray he would guide us back mostly with questions, letting us find the way ourselves. After I graduated and got to spend some time without outside the classroom, I learned more about his own personal philosophy, which was very different from my own. Yet in 4 years of studying under him, I never once got a sense of that. I really appreciated that. Growing up in a religious environment, including school, you were expected to accept and internalize whatever teachings you were given, not to think and work things out on your own. I think Profs and teachers need to be very careful not to be either foil or guru. It hinders the learning process. You either spend you times fencing or reinforcing whatever biases you have in common. I think you approach is perfect, and the comment from the student is a compliment that you are doing it right!

    • James Wellman

      Thanks, very helpful.

  • Jeff

    Thanks for a thought-provoking article. I commend you for your approach. I am an adjunct instructor of Religious Studies at Penn State University and teach all the lower level intro to world religion courses. I am also a full-time Lutheran pastor. I always get high marks from my students for my objectivity. I do share with them in the very beginning of each course that I have been on a long spiritual journey that started in a Christian upbringing, but which led to a ten year period of atheism, which later led me back to belief. I do tell them I am an ordained minister, but also tell them I consider myself a student of all religions and that I have learned much of value from each that I have studied. I also emphasize I respect whatever religious or philosophical background they have, because I have probably been there at some point in my life. I encourage then to share their own personal perspectives in class discussions and this leads to a high level of trust.

  • GordonHide

    Well I’m an atheist and, reportedly, a terrible teacher so my opinion on this is possibly not worth a lot. I would have thought that you should trust someone on the basis of their previous actions rather than what they say they believe in. Perhaps it would be better if your students learned that before they sought to judge your trustworthiness.

    I have read all the posts so far and enjoyed them so thank you everybody.

  • Nicolas Ostapchuk

    Proverbs 22:6 (American Standard Version)

    6 Train up a child in the way he should go, And even when he is old he will not depart from it.