Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Teaching religion at a public school

She quoted The Bible? BURN HER!!!
Did you hear the news? They've announced the plot to God's Not Dead 2. For those of you who don't know the first one, it basically featured a heroic Christian defeating a strawman. The plot for the second one promises more unwarranted persecution complexes and strawmen (straw-women?) so Christians can feel not only that they're right but that everyone who doesn't believe what they believe either secretly DOES believe what they do and/or is a horrible person.

This plot interests me a little bit more than the first, although I don't think that I'll be able to bear to actually watch it. This one features a high school teacher getting sued for making a Bible reference. That gets my attention because I happen to be a high school teacher who makes a hell of a lot of Bible references.

If I had things my way, I'd be teaching a comparative religions class. Maybe I can eventually make that happen, but as of right now I'm simply an English teacher. I teach both freshmen and seniors, and while I hardly mention The Bible with the freshmen, I do a lesson on it with the seniors. In fact, I cover a lot of religious topics simply because it comes up in so much of the literature that we read: Beowulf, Siddhartha, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and more provide me with the opportunity to cover Norse paganism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. And let's not forget the Biblical allusions in Macbeth and Hamlet. Essentially, religion is the foundation of much of literature in general, and The Bible plays an especially big part in all of that.

Now, I've never been sued, although I once had an anonymous parent complain to the administration, insisting that I apologize for one of my lessons. (The administration took my side, and while they related what was said to me, there was no direction given to me about apologizing.) From what I gather, one of the biggest points of contention was that I told the class that I am an atheist. I do this because I want to let them know where I stand so they can suss out any bias that they might detect. Apparently it's bad for me to even say that, I guess.

Hopefully the sequel can also offer rebuttals
to complaints that nobody makes.
The other problem was an exercise I call "Bible or Crap" where I give a bunch of passages and the students have to determine whether it's a Bible quote or a bunch of crap that I made up. The results are funny sometimes, as I include messed up passages from The Bible that they don't expect to be in there, and once they think they've figured out that everything horrible is from The Bible, I throw them off with a passage where Jesus strangles a puppy. (Spoiler alert - that's crap I made up.) When I conclude the lesson, I point out that I have provided no context for any of the passages I gave them and if they care to know what it all means, they have to read those parts for themselves. So, it's an exercise in how people can pull things out of context to further their own agendas, and it concludes with me encouraging them to read The Bible. I guess that's bad, 'cause I use the word "crap" - even though the "crap" is the stuff that's NOT The Bible.

I wasn't even upset about the whole thing though. I just wished that the parent and/or student could have come to talk to me. I'm not interested in making my students feel marginalized or uncomfortable, and I've had plenty of Christian kids get a kick out of that particular exercise. In fact, when I posted about this story on Facebook, some of the comments defending my lessons came from Christian kids. One even said that it made his "blood boil" to think that they wanted me to apologize. Oh well, can't please everybody.

Anyway, with all of that said, here are some things that I've noticed. Obviously, I'm only one teacher, and even if I did the same thing in a different part of the country, I might have a completely different experience with this. For the record, I live and teach in the San Francisco Bay Area, in an area that's probably more conservative than S.F. or Berkeley, but is still pretty liberal. So, here goes:

1. You have to start by clearing up some misconceptions. - I blame people on the right and the left equally for this, but too many people think that you're not even allowed to discuss religion and The Bible in a public school. I always point out that I can teach about it all I want; I just cannot preach for or against it.

2. Religious affiliation doesn't necessarily affect the attitudes of the students. - I have had Christian, atheist, agnostic, Muslim, Buddhist, etc. students who have reacted really positively to my lessons. One Muslim student this last year even told me that my lessons affected him in a profound way. I've had atheist/agnostic students tell me that they appreciated getting to learn about all of this stuff without having it preached to them. Believe it or not, I've had Christian students tell me that I made them want to get more serious about their faith and go back to church. (Dammit! Just kidding. Kinda.)

Likewise, I have all kinds of students who react extremely negatively toward it. Oftentimes these attitudes come from the nonbelievers, as they don't even want to hear about religion. I can talk about Odin and Zeus all I want, but if I get into things that people actually believe to this day, I'm placing too great of a burden on them. I guess they figure that they might accidentally convert if they hear the word "Jesus" enough times. However, I get this attitude from believers as well. I've had Christians ask me when we're finally going to be done with it. Sometimes it's clear because I introduce a lot of ideas that they don't normally hear in church, and there's probably a lot of cognitive dissonance going on when I discuss Jesus in the same terms as I would Hercules.

This makes me think that maybe it's not so much a question of theists versus atheists in this country, but we seem to have a lot of apatheists. Some people just want to believe or disbelieve what they want, and they don't want to talk about it or even think about it any more.

3. The best compliments aren't compliments. - I had a student complain about my Bible test because it was hard. She informed me that she used to go to a private Christian school, and there they simply told her what to believe. "But with you, you're always saying that some people think this, and some people think that." Excellent.

Of course I hate Jesus! He's not the real son of Zeus like me!
4. I can be subtly subversive - I really try and bend over backwards to not offend anybody, and whenever I say something like how there are a growing number of scholars who doubt that Jesus was even a historical figure, I make sure to tag on something like, "But you shouldn't just believe that because I've said it." Still, I can do subtle things like how on the test I have a multiple choice question asking them to circle which story is NOT in The Bible. I then list off some of the more absurd ones - like Samson losing his super strength with a haircut and Jonah getting swallowed by a "whale". The one that's NOT in The Bible is an nearly-invincible man who's killed when he gets hit in his only weak spot - his heel. (That's Achilles I'm talking about.) Anyway, there's nothing wrong with the question, but it is fun to put the Achilles story in the same context as a bunch of other obvious myths just to highlight how they're all pretty absurd if you believe they literally happened.

5. They still don't learn a damn thing. - I'm probably not giving myself credit, but it's amazing how even after beating them over the head with my particular pet peeves, they still get it wrong. One example is how I'll still hear students talk about Catholicism and Christianity as though they're two completely different religions. I practically yell at them that Catholicism is one form of Christianity, just as beagles are one breed of dog. All Catholics are Christians, but not all Christians are Catholic. Yet, I'll still hear them say, "Yeah, he's Catholic, unlike me, as I'm Christian." Ugh.

Another example was just from this year when I had a student visit a synagogue as part of a "cultural excursion" project. In his presentation, he talked about how Jesus is important to the Jewish faith. I nearly plotzed.

I even had a former student share on her Facebook wall a meme about how The Bible isn't allowed to be read in public schools. I practically lost my mind. I commented, wondering how she could post that when she did an entire Bible lesson in my class. She then sheepishly suggested that I was trying to make her "feel small". Ugh. No. I just wonder why the hell I bother doing anything sometimes.

So, that's what I've got. Any other teachers out there have similar experiences?

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