I’m noticing that the blog pieces I’ve written so far about God’s Not Dead have really touched a chord in folks, so I wanted to talk a little bit today about what happened when I actually did run across a professor who was nastily anti-theist.
As Christians themselves are saying left and right, yes, obviously there are a few professors out there like the nasty, mean-spirited, egotistical, arrogant, tyrannical, beyond-abusive Dr. Radisson. Yes, I’m sure there are. That doesn’t mean this movie’s representation of him is anything less than a straw man though; the movie is shamelessly pandering and evangelical in scope, and they want audiences to believe that Dr. Radisson is somehow representative of atheists or professors in general.
But you see, even there, the characterization fails on every level, because even if Dr. Radisson really existed, the confrontation would probably not work the way the movie insists it would. And I know this personally.
Set the Wayback Machine for about 1989. I don’t remember exactly what year it was, freshman or sophomore. My memory paints the class as an intro archaeology course with quite a few students, though maybe it was sociology. The professor was a lean, leathery fellow who really, really, really did not like Christianity, and he took my appearance in the class (remember, I wore the Fundie Burkha, so I was as obvious as an Amish girl at a video arcade) as permission to rag on Christians up and down at every opportunity. He never missed a cheap shot–every opportunity he got, he said something snarky and snide, always while giving me specifically the side-eye.
His decision to act this way was, to say the least, baffling.
Let’s remember, please, that even though “Nones” are the fastest-growing religious demographic in America at present, even today most students on a college campus will be Christian. But as a recent commenter astutely noticed, movies like God’s Not Dead–and the Christians who like this type of glurge and dreck–all seem to think that the only version of Christianity that exists is the fundagelical kind. Therefore, even if a student identifies as Christian, it won’t be the right kind of Christian or the fervent enough sort of Christian. He had absolutely no reason to think that his classroom wasn’t drenched in Christians, even if they weren’t as out-there as I was.
It stressed me out enormously to hear him talking so disrespectfully, and I knew other students were uncomfortable as well because I saw their reactions from my seat, but I didn’t want to be one of those reactionary Christians who freaks out over every little thing. It actually took a lot for me to say something. Still does. Plus, this was an intro course and I was very new to college, as were the vast bulk of my peers in that class, and we still felt a little insecure about challenging authority figures. And I had not said a single word about Christianity during this class because nothing they were talking about was really relevant to that subject. (I wasn’t ever a young-earther, remember, so not much I ran into at college was a real problem.) But he went over the line one day about something. I don’t remember exactly what, just that it was fairly early in the course. I just knew that I’d had about damn enough of his attitude.
After class, I went up to him and waited till he wasn’t surrounded by students so we could talk privately. I told him that I was sure he could guess that I wasn’t pleased with his criticism of my faith system, but moreover, I was confused because his criticism seemed to have nothing to do with either the subject of the class nor of the topic he was discussing today. In fact, his critical words seemed to be nothing but his own vindictive need to snipe and snark against me personally. I told him I’d vastly appreciate it if he kept his religious opinions to himself and just teach me the subject I was paying him to teach me, and in return, once the semester was over, I promised never to darken his doorway ever again and then we would all be happy.
He looked at me for a long while. I had not threatened to do anything. I just had said he needed to quit being nasty. And I wasn’t backing down. Finally he nodded and said he was sorry, and thanked me for being so understanding.
That didn’t entirely curb his nastiness–this guy really did not like Christianity, especially the sort I embodied–but it did help a lot, and we got through the semester without any further kerfluffles. I actually made a good grade in the class. It’s worth noting that he was the only, only, only professor I had who was even vaguely critical of Christianity–out of many dozens over the years. I also worked at the university so brushed up against educators in all sorts of colleges associated therewith, and did not meet any professors like him in that capacity either. I’ve never met any non-believer like him who abused captive audiences like that–usually that’s Christians, not non-Christians! So he was an anomaly, to be sure. I’m noticing in the God’s Not Dead blog posts around the net, a number of other educators are speaking up about how weird and anomalous the villain of the movie really is, all of them bearing out and confirming my own experiences and observations.
And that, I reckon is how things usually work.
Are there professors like Dr. Radisson out there? Yes, there are, though I doubt any are brazen enough to call themselves the gods of their classrooms or do the stuff that character had his intro Philosophy students doing (in my direct experience, I can tell you that intro Phil courses are usually about wedge-in, wedge-out proof styles and learning to argue, maybe stuff about particular highly-regarded philosophers and their schools of thought, not high-end examinations of religious systems or “trials by jury” of religious claims). But I bet the vast majority of these anti-theistic professors bend pretty quickly when a student protests and requests greater civility.
But that wouldn’t make nearly as cool of a movie, would it?
There is something else I would like to mention.
I do not remember a single thing this snarky professor said about Christianity.
Not a single thing.
Nothing he said made an impact then, either. I certainly didn’t go all wide-eyed and suddenly realize what a fool I was being. If anything, his snideness only made me more defensive and more determined. I did not get curious about what he was saying. I did not even consider that he might have some kind of point. He was offensive for the sake of being offensive. He had no interest in a discussion; he didn’t care about anything I had to say. He was using his platform as a professor and my status as a student to force me to listen to him, and all it did was make me resentful.
The reason I bring this facet of the story into focus here is because I think it could be helpful to both Christians and non-believers of all stripes. Christians think that if they can just force non-believers to sit there and listen to their indoctrination, that they’ll convert people, just as this professor (and quite possibly other non-believers, though I’ve only ever met the one who thought this way) thought that his captive audience would hear what he had to say and deconvert.
Being nasty and sarcastic to people does not make them more willing to listen to whatever we have to say. Now, it doesn’t automatically invalidate whatever they’re trying to prove. Tone trolling is not acceptable. But spirituality is more about emotions than it is facts. People don’t believe in religions because there’s evidence for any religion’s claims. They believe in them because these ideas feed them somehow, for good or ill. Making people defensive is just not a good way to bring them to a safe headspace where they can freely examine their ideas and ask big important questions. And forcing them to sit there and listen is not ever going to do anything but backfire.
Remember the professor I discussed last time, the M.Div. who taught the literature class? He did so much more to make me question my beliefs and bring me to that safe headspace than this snarky professor ever did. He didn’t coddle me or blow sunshine up my butt, but I still remember the stuff he said and did 20+ years later. I don’t even remember exactly what class the snarky dude taught anymore. I hope that tells y’all as much as it tells me.
Next time, we’re going to talk about polyamory and how the Religious Right is starting to abuse polyamorous people now that they can’t compare gay people to pedophiles without getting major flack for it, and it’s time we began noticing this behavior and calling it out for the nosy, meddlesome privilege-enforcement that it is. I hope you’ll join me.