Discussing Atheism in the Classroom

Last week I had my 7th graders listening to a podcast on This American Life about kidnapping for ransom and the guest who worked for a K+R firm said that one of the ways to survive a kidnapping in Mexico is to ask your kidnapper for a bible because it creates a relationship between you and the abductor (because of the Catholic nature of Mexico) . After the podcast one of the students raised her hand and said, "Well that doesn't make sense at all. Why would the kidnapper want to give you a bible. Most likely the kidnapper would be an atheist. A religious person wouldn't do that."

I let it go for the moment and after a lot of thinking about it over the weekend brought it up again on Monday. We had a good debate among the students about whether religious people are inherently good while atheists are inherently bad; what their motivations are for doing something good, is it just because god is watching?; whether people need religion in order to not just go around killing people left and right;and a whole slew of other things.

There were a few students advocating for tolerance all around and some debating that if you didn't believe in god, any god, then you were just not a good person. One girl even said to her friends directly, "even though we've been friends for three years, I couldn't be friends with you if I found out you were an atheist." A few students said, well I know an atheist and s/he's nice.

Luckily I was able to manage the whole conversation without them asking me my beliefs. Kind of shocking actually in a country where everyone knows everyone's religion and the class was probably split about 50/50 with Muslims and Christians (perhaps a few Druze sprinkled in for good measure).

I felt like it was a good conversation for them to have because I doubt they've ever had one like it before. It was really interesting to hear the opinions of my students for the first time.

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Comment by Lindsay M on March 19, 2012 at 5:06pm
Would love to play Act Two of this This American Life podcast for my class but it definitely would not fly at school. http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/290/godless-...
Comment by Raymond Baker on March 20, 2012 at 4:51am

It's an interesting approach, I had no conversation during school regarding belief and morality in terms of religion.  As a child all I ever heard of atheists was from sunday school (very young), and upon hearing my friends mother was an atheist I was scared for her soul, not distrustful of her.  I wonder if the message to children from their parents and religious leaders about atheism has become more hostile. However, honest and open discussion should only help to ply some young minds open enough to question their upbringing, if not at least make them a little more tolerant to other ways of thinking.

Comment by Lindsay M on March 20, 2012 at 1:44pm

Yeah, some of the students definitely had the idea of atheist=bad person or devil worshiper or something bad like that.

I would never hope to change my students' minds about religion, that's really not my place, but I DO hope to have them be more tolerant of each other. Especially in a country like Lebanon.

Comment by Karen Loethen on March 20, 2012 at 11:28pm

What an interesting and provocative situation to be in as a teacher!

Well, good for you for bringing the subject up and for allowing the brave in the class to say that they "know a good guy" who is an atheist.  Baby steps, indeed.

I remember being this age and just KNOWING I was right.  Seems OK to me to allow education to happen naturally.

In the meantime, I always enjoy hearing what the kids are saying!  Thanks for the post!


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