So in what has to be one of the most surreal moments of my godlessness I was asked by a close friend of mine to speak to her Sunday school class about atheism. The kids are between 15-17 and "non-denominational." My friend has sworn that this isn't some sort of malicious attempt to convert me, and I trust her on that.
I said I would give the lecture.
So people of ThinkAtheist here's my question for you:
If you could tell young Christians (in the south no less) about your atheism what would you tell them?
RE: "3. Try ask them what they think an atheist is first"
Absolutely excellent suggestion, Lars - that should precede anything else she does. That way, she works to those points, rather than blindly "shotgunning" it.
You should try and make them understand the beauty of truth and an evidence based view of reality. Too many kids have their curiosity and wonder about the universe crushed by the intellectual laziness that religion offers. I would just try to introduce them to skepticism and a evidenced based worldview. It will be a hard thing to do, especially with kids that have been religious for a long time, but I would be willing to bet that at least a couple will take it to heart. Maybe introduce them to philosophy. David Hume comes to mind but that may be a little to heavy. 'Sophie's World' is a great book for an intro to philosophy. I would recommend they read that. These are just ideas off the top of my head I am sure some others will have better.
I would start with a bit of history - how Christianity evolved alongside and with influences from other religions/mythologies. For me one of the biggest things that got me seeing Christianity in a new light was realizing that it isn't unique at all. Religions tend to follow the same narratives, answering the same questions about human life over and over, in largely similar ways. Where did we come from? How do we live in our societies? How do we know why things happen? What is our purpose for life?
I'm sure you heard the whole "Christians are atheist with regard to Apollo and Zeus' thing? Well, I'd explain that I reject Christianity for the same reasons those religious narratives have faded - they no longer offer reasonable, useful, relevant answers. They can and should remain part of our cultural history (much like Greek mythology is), but that humans have evolved beyond the need for ANY of those mythological narratives to be real.
(Very curious to see what other answers you get here! And best of luck - do let us know how it goes!)
If you want them to listen to you, whatever you open with should be used to show them that you are NOT, in fact, their enemy.
Well... the first thing I would do is to be very open to questions.... real questions that is. When I was 13 (and still christian) I had never heard of an atheist before, so when I ran into the first one on a trip with the prestigious and Audition-entry Cincinnati Children's Choir in 2002, I was truly curious. I was rooming with her and another young girl in the hotel and (since there is a lot of religious Christian activity in the Choir) I started asking my roommates about what denomination they were from. It was then that my good friend told me she was an atheist.... and my reaction was humorous.... "what's that?" She did what I think you should do with your kids. She lounged nonchalantly in the room's armchair and told me with a shrug "I don't believe in God." I was intrigued... I had never fathomed that anyone could not believe in God. So I began to ask her REAL questions.
It sounds like your friend wants to bridge the gap between atheists and theists... good for her! The mission of secular humanists like me is often to promote atheist civil rights and educate theists about atheists. You have a unique opportunity.
Definitely pay attention during your class to identify which students are truly curious, which students are too bored to care (hey! teenagers in class! It happens!), and which students are closed-off to you - who may ask questions but they don't really care about the answer nor will they believe you if you give them the "wrong" one. These third type of students are not worth wasting your time on. They are closed off to you entirely. Any questions they ask will be an attempt to reinforce their own pre-conceived notions about atheists.
Tell the kids that the only thing that atheists hold in common is that they don't believe in god. Be careful about refering to any "non-theistic spirituality." Avoid that... you will confuse them. Do debunk myths about atheists: example: We don't worship satan, we don't hate god, we aren't all atheists because something bad happened to us - some of us may be like that but not all of us, we're not sexual perverts, we're not going to hurt believers, atheists aren't nihilists - i.e. we're not pessimists who believe that there is no point to anything and that life has no purpose... we just don't think that any god has "designed" a purpose for us... we create our own purpose., We're don't "secretly believe" - when we say we don't believe... we mean what we say, many of us live happy, successful, fulfilling, productive lives based on love, family, compassion, charity, and living life to the fullest - just because we don't believe in an afterlife doesn't mean that we don't value our lives now., we don't all get along with eachother - in fact I've seen some really viscious fights between atheists, not all people who believe in evolution are atheists - many christians (my family included) do believe in evolution, etc... etc...
Most important of all I believe is to be patient... understanding doesn't happen overnight. The most important thing is to convince the kids not to be afraid of atheists.
Good luck! ^_-
I would point out the many dying resurrecting man-gods of history and the similarities among them. There is little, if anything original in the Jesus story.
I would also inform them of the reality of early church history and how we got the new testament which is likely dramatically different from what they were taught.
You could point out the complete lack of corroboration for the Jesus story outside the New Testament and some of the irreconcilable contradictions within it.
Give them places to look this stuff up for themselves, so they are not just taking your word for it
I would advise you to back out. Don't do it in this setting as nothing good will come of it. The suggestions given by many of the others are good for an open discussion in a neutral forum. Sunday School is not a neutral forum. The parents of these kids are sending them their to strengthen their faith not to have it challenged or to prompt them to ask questions.
Let's put aside the worst case scenario where you're attacked and vilified as I doubt your close friend would invite you if she or he thought you'd be subjected to that though it's always possible your friend has misjudged the situation. Even if you're remotely successful in convincing these kids that you're not evil and give them some questions to think about, once their parents get wind of this, then your friend will be turned upon.
Ask your friend if you could organize an open discussion on the subject on neutral ground and make it optional for the kids. That may turn out to be an interesting discussion, but I would strongly advise against such a discussion at Sunday School class.
Focus on how you're a normal person. Because most of them have probably bullied non-religious kids in their lives at some point or have at least enabled someone else to do so by not helping the one being bullied and just letting it slide.
I might steer away from anything that would make you appear aggressive or confrontational, such as the many contradictions in the bible, comparing christianity to other religions, or pointing out the many dangers of faith itself.
Since we're talking teenagers here, I would appeal to their natural rebelliousness, and without actually telling them to question authority, try to imply it, by asking them to be curious and not just be satisfied with what they've been told about the world, but to seek the answers by themselves, to think on their own.
Appeal to their common sense too, ask them to apply the same logical judgement to everything.
Why should there be subjects (i.e. religion) worthy of special considerations? also, make emphasis on the taboo aspect of it all, that will probably ring a bell both on their curious and rebel sides.
I'd tell them to read their Bibles. Properly and from cover to cover. Not with their favourite "commentary" from some apologist or other, but on its own.
Ask them to ask themselves whether a) the book is self-consistent or b) morally defensible.
Emphasise how the moral Zeitgeist has changed, hopefully for the better, since the Iron Age. Note the fact that it is no longer acceptable to treat women as chattels, to hold slaves, to kill children for cheeking their parents, but that the Bible literally REQUIRES some of these if you are to follow its commandments.
Above all it is important to encourage the use of critical thinking.
I would suggest that you start by making three claims as examples, one obviously false and falsifiable, one less obviously false and NOT falsifiable (Russell's Teapot?) and one not obviously true, but testable to show that it is. For this I use the fact that the electric charge on a plastic ruler is stronger than the gravitational pull of the earth. (Rub the ruler on your shirt, then use it to pick up scraps of paper).
Ask them as an exercise to decide first if each proposition is true, then why they think so.
When, why of religion. From Egypt to Greece to Constantine to King James to Martin Luther to Billy Graham.
Carol the "trick" is that there's no trick and the truth is so complex...