What I Wish I’d Said: A Lament from an Atheist and Former Teacher

What I Wish I’d Said: A Lament from an Atheist and Former Teacher June 30, 2015
photo John Keane (CC BY-SA 2.0)
photo John Keane (CC BY-SA 2.0)

As I’ve alluded to in previous posts, my background is in education, specifically English language arts. Until last May, I was an English teacher at a very small, rural school teaching sophomores, juniors, and seniors, a position which I held for five years. It was work that I loved doing much of the time, even though it was an incredibly taxing job and, as teaching often is, frequently thankless and emotionally exhausting. I won’t use this space to go into my reasons about why I left; if you’re curious about that, I invite you to read the post-mortem that I wrote for my now-dead education blog.

When I started that career path, I was a Christian. By the time I hit what would be the halfway point in my short teaching career, I had deconverted and found myself now a non-believer in an environment where religiosity was the default. Like many deconverts, I found myself somewhat disoriented and out of place in my workplace, but now I had to worry not just about colleagues but also about my students – and frankly, they were what I worried about the most. If my colleagues found out that I was an atheist, I might suffer some ostracism at worst; if my students found out, it could disrupt the learning environment that I was working so hard to maintain.

I have long told myself that regrets are worthless because they demand that we continue to hold ourselves hostage for actions we can no longer change. But with more than a year and a fair amount of emotional distance between me and my former career, I have found that there are some things that I regret not doing when I was an atheist teacher.

[Note: All of the names in my anecdotes from teaching have been changed out of respect for the privacy of my former students.]

Neutrality is Great, Except When It Supports the Status Quo

When I began teaching, I went into it with the noble idea that I would try to remain staunchly neutral. I made it a habit to tell students that I would not answer questions about my religion, politics, or favorite sports teams. (The last was a joke. I don’t like sports.) There is precisely one time I can recall where I answered questions related to my views on religion: A student asked me if I believed in evolution (to which I said that yes, I believed that evolution is the best explanation for the diversity of life) and if I believed in God (which I answered in the affirmative – true at that time – adding quickly that it wasn’t a relevant question to my teaching). Otherwise, I said that those questions were off-limits.

So when I deconverted, I already had a principled stance in place: complete neutrality. Since I was already apprehensive about coming out to students, it was easy for me to maintain that stance whenever the question was raised.

It was easy, but now I don’t think it was necessarily the right move.

One of the weirdest aspects of this stance is that none of my colleagues had a similar stance – at all. Even when I was a Christian among many other Christian teachers, I was the only one who was willing to go to this length to be neutral. If a student asked one of my colleagues if they were a Christian or went to church – and if the student didn’t already know because the teacher went to church in their community – the teacher would just answer. Students could easily figure out if most of their teachers were religious.

Except me. I was the black box. I was the one who looked like he had something to hide. (Which I did, later on, but they didn’t necessarily know that anything had changed.)

That didn’t stop students from presuming such, of course. I once had a student call me a “good Christian man” (intended entirely as an honest compliment), and although I think I gave the student a bit of a weird look, I didn’t do anything explicitly giving away that the descriptor “Christian” was off. All I did is uphold the status quo.

I do think that neutrality was an important position to hold. When I taught literature, including literature that had religious themes (Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” for its use of metaphor and the influence of Calvinism on early American literature, Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, and so on), it was important that I remain neutral in my treatment of those themes and ideas. But being so radically neutral wasn’t a way of shielding my students from possible bias; in truth, it may as well have been a tacit admission that my positions regarding religion and theism needed to be hidden. What my neutrality amounted to was not impartiality but silence – and I now think that there are good reasons not to be silent.

Models That Challenge Preconceptions

In general, presumptions of religiosity (or at least a loose theism) were common at my school, both toward teachers and other students. At one point, very early on in the days following my deconversion, I had a student who just bluntly said, “I don’t understand how someone can not believe in God.” I was ready to apply my best diplomatic treatment to that statement – something like “Some people don’t think there’s enough evidence to make that kind of claim” – but another student (incidentally, a friend of the first student) just said, flatly and plainly, “I don’t believe in God.” Before I could even worry too much about this open admission – which I was kind of freaking out about! – the first student turned and said, “Really? Huh.”

That was one classroom and one student. I’d like to think that that one student’s boldness in asserting that they didn’t believe did something to challenge some stereotypes and misconceptions, but then I wonder what I could have done if I had been so bold.

Which is not to say that I didn’t have the opportunity to do so.

One of my small mistakes as a closeted atheist teacher was to put my full name on my Meetup profile, which was also tied to the freethinkers group I was a part of (the group which I now lead). One student in particular decided that I was too mysterious and started Googling me – and came upon that profile.

Things didn’t come crashing down all at once, but questions started coming up. During one class that had some structured work time, I inadvertently used the phrase “that’s against my religion” ironically, and so the question of my religious beliefs came up again. One student, Madison, guessed that I was a Southern Baptist (not a horrible guess given my background, but pretty far off the mark for me at the time).

Then another student, Lisa, threw down the gauntlet: “I think you’re an atheist.”

My head was spinning by this point, wondering if this was going to be the way I was outed. And at this point, I could have just said, “You’re right.”

Instead, Jennifer, who had just walked into the conversation, said, “That would be ironic.”

“You know,” she added, “because I’ve never met a considerate atheist. It’s like an oxymoron.”

This overshadowed Lisa’s bold declaration in my mind. “You’ve never met a considerate atheist?”

Ultimately, I turned completely to Jennifer’s point, saying that I had friends who were considerate atheists, and the larger question was dropped. I didn’t get outed that day. And while I have no way of knowing whether it would have turned out badly for me, I kind of wish I had been.

The essential problem, you see, is that my neutrality policy was about trying not to unduly influence my students, about trying to eliminate a source of bias in my teaching. But it would be a lie to say that I didn’t want to influence my students, and I think part of that influence is in being a model that can challenge such preconceptions.

I had the perfect chance: Jennifer already knew me as a “considerate” person. She just didn’t know me as a considerate atheist. And what if she had? Wouldn’t that have been a positive influence on her? I mean, just being out as who I was wasn’t going to make her into an atheist, not by itself, but it would have been another data point – possibly a very significant one – that would allow her to recalibrate her understanding of others.

And in not doing so, I deprived her – and every other student of mine – of the opportunity to learn something about atheists.

I had my reasons, of course, especially in the years before I got tenure (which I achieved my last year). And I took baby steps, joining the Secular Safe Zone program as an ally during that final year. But not being out made even that a sort of jumbled mess, and I wavered in being too upfront about what it was. (I wasn’t a very good ally.)

Finally Making It Right

photo Carmelo Speltino (CC BY-SA 2.0)
photo Carmelo Speltino (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I didn’t entirely cut ties when I left my teaching position. Social media has been a great way of keeping contact, and I have tried to maintain connections with former students (and now former colleagues) through Facebook.

Since leaving teaching, though, I’ve been increasing my work with secular issues, both as leader of a freethought group and individually. I knew that the issue might come up at some point. So I decided to start dropping hints, and last December, I posted pictures of the solstice display that our group has set up in the Illinois Capitol Rotunda for the last few years.

Finally, on Openly Secular Day this year, I posted this message:

Today is Openly Secular Day, a day in which atheists, freethinkers, agnostics, humanists and nonreligious people are encouraged to be open about their beliefs.

I am a secular American. I am a freethinker. I am a humanist. I am an atheist.

For too long, I was too afraid to tell other people about this. I knew what people think of nonreligious people, especially those who self-identify as “atheist,” and I didn’t want to poison relationships with others – friends, colleagues, students – for the sake of being open.

I’m ashamed to admit this now. The world needs more people to open about their beliefs, even if there are risks involved. I assumed that people would react badly – and certainly, some people would; I have seen anti-atheist bigotry from people who didn’t know that I was an atheist – but I didn’t give enough credit to those who would be supportive and accepting.

No more. I have no doubts that some of you will react negatively to this and possibly even unfriend me as a result, but I urge you to remember that people like me, who hold a view of the world not centered in religion or dogma, exist and live all around you, even if you don’t always know it.

And if you too are secular, I urge you to tell others if you can, even just one person. (And if you can’t, send me a message – I’m here to support anyone who feels like they can’t be forthcoming about their beliefs for fear of retribution.)

Not only were all of the responses I received positive, but one former student even took my message and personalized it to her own situation – and those responses were also overwhelmingly positive.

There are times where I wish I was still able to make an impact on students’ lives like I did as a teacher, and I will miss that as long as I remain engaging in work outside a classroom. I’m grateful now, though, to understand how important it is, if at all possible, to be open and honest with others about who you are. It is how we are able to make little impacts on people around us, and while we may not be able to have quite the impact of a teacher, we can do our own part just by refusing to stay in the shadows.

[Former and current teachers who are also unbelievers: I’d love to hear about your experiences, fears, concerns, triumphs, etc. in comments!]

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