A young atheist looks for input on a proselytizing teacher.

ifyouarentevangelizingyouarentsuccessful1I received this email the other day and thought I’d share it with you. I’ve already sent off my reply, but I offered to post an anonymized version of it if he wanted to hear what others might have to say. He agreed so here it is:

 Hi Les, if you’re reading this, I’d like to say thank you for taking the time to do so. I’m sure you get hundreds of emails every day from fans and freaks alike, so I wouldn’t blame you if you happened to not read some of them.

Anyway, my purpose in writing to you is to share with you a ridiculous religious speech that I was forced to endure in my high school history class. The way my teacher runs the class, there isn’t much actual teaching done on her part (she doesn’t even know most of the material herself) but last week she decided to share some of her “knowledge” with us.

I’m not sure how it actually started, but she got my immediate attention when she said that “Numerous people throughout history have tried to prove the contents of the bible wrong, but always ended up failing or proving it correct and then becoming Christians”. She then continued to say that the bible was a largely important and accurate historical reference and that basically it’s infallible. She said that the reason that the bible has been censored and edited by rulers throughout history was because they were making it closer to the “original” which according to her, was written by the apostles not long after the death of Jesus. Which is obviously completely false. She also stated that there are many examples of contemporary people writing about Jesus when he was alive and that it was “clearly” documented by Pontius Pilate himself. Another false statement.

This entire thing just really got on my nerves, not only because she is supposed to be a teacher (and therefore separating church from state) but because the bullshit that she was telling us was actually believed by my ignorant classmates. I was just wondering what your take on this was.

I don’t know many atheists at my school, I live in the bible belt – so I decided to come talk to you about it because after reading your blog, I’ve realized that our views on most subjects are basically identical and I think you’re a cool guy.

So, what’s your guy’s take on this? What, if anything, do you think our young friend should do about the situation?

15 thoughts on “A young atheist looks for input on a proselytizing teacher.

  1. I would point the teacher to the books of Bart Erhman, especially “Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them).” It might piss her off at least.

  2. I’d bet that there are plenty of closet atheists in his area – we are everywhere! – who have not outed themselves due to fear of the response of the lunatic religionists. It is such a shame that atheists don’t openly make their position public. Or, at the very least, not hide it.

    Here is a young person who is left feeling totally alone in his community because everyone else like him is hidden from his sight and he has no community of fellow atheists to turn to for support and help.

    That teacher deserves to be fired. Yeah, I know it won’t happen in the bible belt, but atheists ought to petition her employer for her dismissal when she does things like that. It is flat out illegal for her to do that in her classroom.

    And THAT is a bloody shame.

  3. If it were me (I live in Canada), I’d start doing some research in my spare time. Read the Bible once through, and make sure you know what’s Old and what’s New Testament, what’s considered core Bible material from what’s considered apocrypha.

    The next time she spouts crap like that, call her on it. It’s not usually necessary to cite sources. If your classmates are, indeed, that gullible (no offense), then simply making a counter-statement should turn it back. Specifically, ask her what she means by proof, and where you can find a copy of the Bible that includes writings from Pontius Pilate.

    Incidentally, there’s a scripture that tells the story from his perspective, but it isn’t part of the Bible, and its discovery is recent. It paints Jesus as a guy who was heartbroken and frustrated and angry with humanity, who was suicidal and wanted to die at a friend’s hand (yes, this scripture suggests that Pontius Pilate was Jesus’ closest friend).

    If and when your teacher tries to get you in trouble, you can make your case to the principal. Even if they’re very pro-Bible, most people who aren’t morons are still pretty anti-bullshit. They could still be morons, though.

    There’s a decades-old note, on the internet, from a teacher, to a parent, complaining that the student corrected the teacher when the teacher said a kilometre is bigger than a mile. The point wasn’t that the teacher was wrong and the student was right, it’s that the correcting of the teacher was undermining their authority and disrupting the class. I got in trouble because I corrected a computer teacher who thought a megabyte was bigger than a gigabyte.

    That is, in all possible honesty, the only argument your teacher has. The principal might decide to run with that, too. There are, unfortunately, lots of Liars for Jesus™ out there, who care more about the fact they’re promoting Christianity than whether or not they have to lie to do it.

    Personally, I’d be satisfied if it caused my classmates to start questioning my teacher’s authority. If I’m right about them, it shouldn’t take much.

  4. This youngster has a right to question or correct this teacher but I see nothing but trouble for him if he does it. The teacher may have the backing of the principal, even the school board. I wish I could suggest a solution but I don’t see one.

  5. Since I am a Minister, the teachers actions are wrong and alienating at the least.
    I have many Atheist friends and acquaintances. I have found that for every one Christian who tries to live in accordance with The teachings of Christ. There are 9 more who call or list themselves as Christians whom are nothing but bad news. These 9 out of 10 give Christians a bad name and reputation. Always spouting some off the wall scripture or quote that does not exist. For the most part their teaching is from misguided self serving individuals who have nothing in their lives. Only empty hopes, misguided conversation, and are a waste of time.

    God, Christ and eternity are a matter for each individual to ponder and choose one way or the other. The individual choice should be respected. Questions answered in a logical way if asked. If asked……not shoved down the throat of the questioner.
    I have found that there are many ‘NUTS’ out there and most are under the guise of Christian. Wanna be leaders or teachers who have no grasp of life, only looking for a title to hang in front of their name.

    I know that I will probably get a lot of hate mail in reply. Treat each individual as you would like to be treated….. that is what Jesus taught. I never found hate and name calling, or innuendos in the scripture.

    I have communicate with Les on and off for a while. I do not think I have ever gave him a sermon. I respect his views and thoughts. I do not feel attacked because he does not ‘BELIEVE’. The quickest way to turn someone against something is to force them to accept it. Les has never belittled me or removed, edited any of my few reply’s in this forum.

    Remember, more things in this world are done in the name of religion that cause pain and suffering including death. For the Young man writing the comment to Les.
    Do as you will do. Treat each person as you would like to be treated. Consider the source when confronted. Not every Christian is going to preach your doom and destruction. Some of us will actually sit and have a conversation. Please judge us one out of ten Christians by our actions and lives. Do not include us in the 9 out of ten group of misguided self serving whiners.

  6. RE: James
    Not only are the teacher’s remarks

    wrong and alienating at the least.

    She has also set herself up as your competitor. That shows her attempting to “serve two masters”, i.e., the public school and Christ. It is wrong on so many levels! Also, illegal.



  7. Bring a crucifix to class, and break it into little pieces in front of the teacher, drop the pieces on the floor, stomp on them & grind them to dust!!!

  8. Ugh.

    As a history wonk, a former teacher, Christian, and card-carrying ACLU and AU member … this is just plain wrong. Wrong from a separation of church and state perspective (how would Ms. Smith react if the history teacher in the next class were preaching the infallibility of the history in the Koran?), wrong from an historical perspective (which the correspondent recognizes), and wrong, I would argue, from Christian perspective (among other things, Jesus taught from a perspective of powerlessness, not as an authority figure with a captive audience).

    The question becomes what to do about it.

    1. STAY QUIET: The easiest answer, but it does a disservice to any other closet non-believers out there and, arguably, to the believers as well (faith is not strengthened by pious falsehoods).

    2. CONFRONT: Difficult, and dangerous. Confrontationally picking out all the errors and mistakes, not to mention the unconstitutionality of what Ms. Smith, is not going to end well or easily, especially since I doubt she will engage in a vigorous debate but will instead draw on rules designed to keep kids from confronting school authority (being disruptive, being a trouble-maker, interfering with the teaching process). It also runs the risk of drawing the other kids into an us-vs-them (or us-vs-him) situation, as they feel emotionally bound to defend their own faith from attack. That hardens hearts and will make for even more trouble.

    3. SUBVERT: Ask for more detail. Where did she learn that bit about Pontius Pilate? Where did she hear about the dates of the writing of the Gospels? This ties into the idea of educating himself in what she’s simply parroting from her own indoctrination. Asking respectfully and with an apparent desire to learn might draw her out into demonstrating (to the other kids, perhaps, or maybe even to herself, though that seems less likely) she’s talking out of her hat … but may do so in a way that there’s not an obvious way for her to retaliate. Alternately, if the questions make her uncomfortable (as they may if she’s as shoddy a teacher as it sounds), it make cause her to back off. The problem is, this is a long game, it has the risk of being turned into (or considered) a confrontation, and it doesn’t necessarily help the next class of hapless students.

    4. REPORT: This was mentioned above, and is a variation of the Confront idea — not attacking the teacher’s faith or information, but simply her legal right to be spewing this nonsense. Especially if he’s asked Ms. Smith (respectfully and non-confrontationally) about whether she’s allowed to teach about the holy truth of Bible to them, he *should* be able to then go to the school authorities and raise the matter. (“Asking” often comes across less aggressive as “telling”, and is harder to criticize coming from a student. Doing the homework about recent cases of this sort in that locality or state or region is good back-up ammo. Something as simple as, “Principal Skinner, is Ms. Smith allowed to teach us about the Bible and how it will bring us to Jesus? I read about a court case over in Beulahland PSD where the school district ended up in a big law suit, and I’m worried that might happen here” might be all it takes to have Principal Skinner put a stop to it. If not, then raising it to the next level might be necessary — and, even there, framing it as what’s legal, not what he’s offended by (or considers bullshit) is the least likely to draw fire back.

    I do believe the right thing to do is for the correspondent to take some sort of action — but I can very well understand why he might be afraid to. It’s easy to say he’s not alone with Internet support, or even with the hypothetical support of other students in his school, but addressing this kind of thing is fraught with peril. I do wish him luck in whatever course of action he takes — and, as a teacher, Christian, and fellow citizen, he has my apologies that this kind of crap still happens.

  9. I’m late to the party but Dave covers your major options. You are in a tough spot the teacher had no right (I mean literally, no legal right) to put you in. But likely the teacher will have the backing of her boss all the way up to the school board.

    It sounds like you are thinking very clearly about this which is more than I did in high school. Though our situations are different; I was a Jesus Freak which was considered (back in the early ’70’s) weird and unpopular. But crucially I had a core of friends who believed the same way I did so I did not feel alone. Now I’m in my 50’s and well-known to be an atheist, which is fine. Only the years of transition from one to the other were ever difficult for me.

    There is, indeed, safety in numbers and you said you don’t know many atheists in your school. There may be more but – no one can tell you if you should come out or not. It is your decision if you want to take on being a leader and an activist. It is a good thing to do but a lot of adults with positional power over you won’t see it that way.

    It’s OK to take time to think about your next step and do some research. You won’t have much luck getting into a counter-fact war with the teacher; she will trust her own sources more than she will trust yours. It is an argument you can’t win, and there is too much of a power differential between her and you. Which is precisely the ethical reason she should not take advantage of her position to preach at you.

    If you do confront the teacher, one possible approach is to say that you do not feel it is right for her to preach that the Koran is infallible in class. When she corrects you, it is an opening to say; “My point, exactly. Legally they are the same thing.” I’m pretty sure “the infallibility of the bible” (or the Koran) isn’t in the state curriculum.

    Hemant Mehta, a high school math teacher and known online as “The Friendly Atheist” has just published a book for people in your situation. It is called The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide, Helping secular students thrive. I’ve heard him speak in person and he is very thoughtful and on your side. His book is definitely worth your time to read before taking action.

    Please let us know how you are doing and how it’s going.

  10. Wow. Just wow. I don’t know what I would do if lived in an area where they ACTUALLY preach in class. I’m usually not afraid to say what I believe, or don’t believe in, but if I had to endure this I would snap. I would start citing my sources, ask the hard questions and point out simple truths. I would never want to call someone out like that for their beliefs, but when you start preaching your(wrong) views to impressionable minds, you need to get set straight.

    I sometimes get a disgusting look when someone or people find out im an Atheist. Which, I don’t understand at all. I’m an atheist, but i’m happy people have their beliefs. I don’t judge you for it, so why judge me? Everyone needs something to believe in. When I was younger, it was The Justice League haha

    Also, religion scares the shit out me. So much of the Bible, Koran and others are open for interpretation. Meaning, what you may think it says could mean something completely different to another person. Hence why we have minor/major factions in different religions. Some dangerous, some help a lot of people, and some just want to have faith. Whereas science deals with discovering the facts.

    Well, those are my two cents. There isn’t much flow to my writing(i’m an accountant) haha

  11. Here’s the reply I sent:

    I get hundreds of emails, but most of them have nothing to do with the blog. That generates a small, but steady stream of emails usually of the “comment needs moderating” sort. I’m happy to reply to your missive.

    Your history teacher is proselytizing to the class and it’s definitely a violation of the First Amendment. Unfortunately, that sort of thing happens all the time in the Bible Belt. It’s definitely the sort of thing that should be challenged, but doing so can come at a cost, both monetary and social. If you have some form of evidence, such as a recording of the speech, then you could probably contact the ACLU and they’d probably take action on your behalf. Another good organization would be the Freedom From Religion Foundation (http://ffrf.org/) which also often gets involved with issues such as this.

    Before doing so, however, you may want to read up on Jessica Ahlquist (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jessica_Ahlquist) and what she went through in having a religious prayer removed from her high school. Those events took place in Rhode Island, hardly the Bible Belt, and will give you an idea of what to expect if your name is publicized. There’s also the question of whether you have come out to your family about your status as an atheist. If you haven’t already then this is probably not the best way to let them know.

    If it were me I’d probably raise a ruckus about it, but then I’ve always been a bit of a trouble maker. My status as an atheist is pretty well known by anyone who knows me and I come from a fairly liberal family that would support me because they agree in the separation of church and state.

    If you think your Principal may be a reasonable person you could start by voicing your concerns to him/her. It is the sort of thing that can generate lawsuits so sometimes just talking to the administrators in a reasonable manner and explaining what the problem is and why it’s a problem is enough to get them to tell the teacher to cool it. If they are unsympathetic or ineffective then you can consider how much further you wish to take things. If you do decide to push the issue then be sure you’ve read up on other similar cases and what the decisions of the courts were in each one. Armed with facts is the best way to deal with it.

    Don’t waste time on debating the claims the teacher has made (those who tried to prove the Bible wrong became Christians, etc.). It doesn’t matter if those are true or not. The fact is she is proselytizing to her class and that’s a violation of the First Amendment regardless of the truth of her claims.

    Whatever you decide to do, know that you are not alone and your situation isn’t unique. Also make the decision that’s best for you. Good luck and keep me informed in how things go.


  12. Subversion … gather evidence, if possible, record audio/video of the teacher proselytizing.
    Without some kind of evidence there is no way that anyone who can effect change to the status quo will have grounds to do so.

    Agree with ***Dave re the options.

    There is another option which is to try to start a debate with the teacher, though it must be in a non confrontational manner, about the First Amendment and record it, chances are she will put her foot in it, so to speak.

    You could straight out ask about the 5 pillars of Islam and if the teacher replies that it is inappropriate/unsuitable (or any other reply that attempts to deny a debate) then ask why it’s any more appropriate to do so when it’s Christianity.

    Even without any kind of evidence Les’s suggestion of contacting the ACLU may be the way to go so at least there is a record on file with them.

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