Saturday, September 16, 2006

Christianity questions in class

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.


  1. What a good post. The material I teach sometimes deeply challenges my Christian students, so it really resonates with me.

  2. This is one of those states, the Bible Thumpers State, and sad to say, their children, who may or may not have lived what they were preached, come to the universities with this set of ideas, their world view is so warped and when it begans to get challanged or they see it crumbling and they panic and some, well some, become very violent in their discussions, in class discussions, and it is hard for the professors to maintain order when you have a Bible Thumper, who has lost it. While I am not a professor, yet, I have been in classes where some of those students just go nuts trying to turn the class and the professor to their world view, to save their religious views, and most of those students are not just fighting with their class mates, they have that internal struggle that is where it all comes from and it's really sad to see their world view desconstruct. Religion and politics are the most volatile subjects, yet, most literature is filled with politics and religion and there is no getting around the subjects. I bow to those professors like Delagar and the Other Liberal Professor, and The Shy One, and a few up here on the hill that I have met, who keep it together in class and outside of class. My hats off to you guys.

  3. An atheist writes...

    The best modern analogy for belief over here in the UK is the way people feel about the football team they support. Dedication to the club may be absolute and often life-long, although individual poor performances or questionable management is criticised. Sometimes an entire fanbase will demand the resignation of the chairman.

    For any Liverpool fan, discovering their child secretly supports Everton would be a cruel blow. Players who switch sides to a particularly detested opponent can receive a harsh welcome when they return for a fixture.

    Sometimes there is a little too much sectarian crossover. Glasgow Rangers are traditionally protestant, and Glasgow Celtic are traditionally catholic. Things can get a little tempestuous in an Old Firm derby.

    It's worth remembering that many brands of religion specifically exclude questioning any tenet as a fundamental part of the faith. The punters have to take the basics 'a priori', and merely concern themselves with their own application of it, as mediated by their 'elders'/'priests' etc. Few religious faiths are in any way democratic, thus making them seem even more anachronistic.

    Once you step outside it, the whole religious belief thing just appears rather quaint and bizarre.

    You may have to be more careful in the US. Considering the Bible simply as a text in translation, although apt, may be regarded as unacceptable to some folk.

  4. Once you step outside it, the whole religious belief thing just appears rather quaint and bizarre.

    I hope it's just a phase, clanger. Maybe one of Bardiac's classes could help.