Yesterday's class discussion got me started thinking about the ways I discuss religion in my classes.
In the first draft of this post, I started off talking about my own loss of faith, and about studying Christianity from the point of view of someone trying to understand the complexity of Christian beliefs and practices in medieval and early modern England.
Like Flavia, I find that non-Christians tend to lump all Christian thought together, while Christians tend to see only their brand of Christianity as valid, without actually understanding how their sect relates to others. And like her, I find that my students don't realize that Chaucer, Herrick, and other writers can be fully sincere, can take Christianity very seriously, and can also question its practices deeply, recognize contradictions and problems in the belief system, and laugh raucously at it.
I distrust Christians who can't laugh at Christianity. Happily, I know a few Christians who can.
I sympathize with Delagar about wanting to preach my faithlessness.
Mostly, what I hope students will do through their college education is question basic assumptions, and think about why they do or believe or think things. I want them to question why they all know how to sit properly in rows in the classroom, to question why they drive on the right side of the road, to question all sorts of things. If we do it right, their questioning should lead to positions that they can reasonably explain and defend.
If at the end of real and serious questioning, they find good reason to believe something different than I do, well, okay. It may be that I'm wrong about something. For example, I think Dryden's a bit of a bore. But I respect some people who think differently. Perhaps I'm wrong? I don't think so, but before I refuse to admit that possibility, I'd have to reread Dryden. Which I'd be happy to do, except that I'm 400 years behind in my reading, and he'd bore me to tears and...
The point I'm trying to make is that the questioning can't all be one-sided. I'm not "done" and settled in everything, or at least I shouldn't be. If I'm not going to change in understanding or SOMETHING, then I should die and be done, and quit wasting oxygen.
If I ask students to be ready to question their assumptions and beliefs, to be ready to explain why they think or act as they do, then I have to be ready to do the same.
At this point, I can explain and defend my atheism sufficiently for myself; but no Christian I've discussed this sort of thing with considers my reasoning adequate to change their position.
I also want my students to learn that asking hard questions doesn't mean someone is mocking them or being mean to them. Asking hard questions indicates that I respect them enough to care what they think and why.