Teaching religious n00bs and skeptics

I read Jolyon Baraka Thomas’ piece “Teaching True Believers” last week and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. In it, Thomas discusses the difficulty of getting students to think critically about religious belief. Here’s a taste, but I encourage you to read the entire piece.

We do not tell our students what to believe, nor do we tell them not to believe, nor do we deny the importance of their familial traditions or personal convictions. But we help them see that it does not have to be this way or that. We encourage them to move beyond the obfuscatory personal example, and to speak about religion as a social construction or an anthropological conceit or a legal category bearing geopolitical effects. We help them see that “religion” is historically bound and culturally contingent. Together, we acknowledge that there are lots of different ways that people interact with non-obvious beings and empirically unverifiable realities. We show that ideas like karma, sin, heaven, a chosen people, and rebirth are all articles of faith and figments of the irrepressibly fecund religious imagination. We train them to not assume that everyone operates within the same imaginaries.

What this piece really made me think about was the fact that in teaching – and often in my scholarship – I encounter problems not with the true believers, but with the students and scholars who have little framework for understanding religion or belief but nonetheless have very fixed ideas about how religion operates.

I teach in New England, where fewer people attend religious services than in other parts of the country, and where I’d also say people are “quieter” about it. As such, many of my students who did not grow up in a religious tradition have virtually no framework for understanding the major religions of the United States or how to talk about religion.  Moreover, many of my students simply don’t believe in belief. They think people in the past were simply stupid and superstitious. As a result, a few things happen pretty consistently, especially when I’m teaching the first half of the U.S. survey

  • I draw chart after chart of Christianity. Students often struggle to name any Protestant denomination beyond Congregationalism, and that is only because they’re from New England. That makes teaching U.S. history rather difficult at times.
  • I have to repeatedly emphasize that Catholicism is a form of Christianity. Sometimes students are making a theological point with this, most of the time they are not.
  • We talk about contemporary popular concepts of things like “evangelicalism,” “fundamentalist,” “revival,” and “biblical literalism.” Sometimes I am able to historicize them, sometimes I am not.
  • I have to draw attention to and personally footnote lots of references in the material we read; they can look words up in the OED, but Biblical references confuse them.
  • Invariably there are complaints that we talk about religion too much.  All I can say is that I definitely don’t talk about it enough, given how important it was to the people we’re studying.

Despite not thinking religion is important to study or understand, they bring a lot of ideas about religion to the classroom, and I work to problematize those as well. Among the most common are:

  • Before some nebulous point at which “modernity” began, everyone was religious and had absolutely no capacity for individual thought at all. 
  • Religion isn’t really a thing anymore. No one believes in that stuff. If pushed, students often articulate the Reformation as the turning point for this, for reasons I’ll discuss below.
  • Religion is mostly just a cover for racism, economic competition, sexism, etc. It reflects other views but has no capacity to shape those views in return.
  • Religion and science are diametrically opposed, you can never be a believer and a scientist, and at some point science took over and fixed inequality that religion had created and perpetuated.
  • Religion is inherently repressive.

Trying to teach students with these views about religion who also lack the conceptual framework to discuss religion is really daunting, and I struggle with it constantly in my teaching.

I’ve had to abandon a document set I used to use that featured Cotton Mather extolling the virtues of inoculation and science and a trained physician decrying inoculation. Students either told me that inoculation was clearly bad because the doctor said so, or told me that the documents said the exact opposite of what they did because it simply did not compute that a minister would be saying science was a gift from God.

As a TA in western civ classes, I got hundreds of blue books over the years that told me that Catholics believed in predestination and Protestants believed in good works because Catholics are stricter than Protestants.

I teach from John Winthrop’s diaries every year to show the importance of signs and proper order in Massachusetts Bay society. When Winthrop marvels that a hurricane swept through and destroyed the new houses but spared the old, rather than try to see what Winthrop would have seen in this odd occurrence, students often write that this happened because people back then didn’t know how to build houses. I point out that they are doing what Winthrop did – using their understanding of the world to make sense of a strange thing – but also have to remind them of ships and cathedrals and that “they didn’t know how to build things” makes less sense than “God did it.”

Now students come in with all of these ideas and we work hard to disrupt them. But I’m not sure we actually do work that hard. Is it any wonder that students think people stopped being religious centuries ago when western civ classes don’t talk about it beyond the Reformation and the “Scientific Revolution?” Or that they think Luther was the first person ever to question the Church when we start with him and never really discuss any other controversies before or after? And when we start with Luther, talk about “science,” and then never talk about religion ever again, is it any wonder that students sort of think that Luther told everyone they could read the Bible, they did, realized it was hooey, and stopped believing in God, heralding the dawn of a modern, progressive age?

And perhaps most important, is it any wonder, given how lots of courses and popular depictions describe religion and science, that students panic when confronted by scientific racism, eugenics, and a hundred other scientific topics in the 19th and 20th centuries? In general, the response I get from my students to science that is not liberatory, from a modern perspective, is “that’s not science.” We can’t control popular depictions, but I think it’s important for scholars to think about how their courses reify problematic ideas about religion, modernity, progress, and science.

All of this is to say that teaching religion is probably the hardest thing I do, and I don’t even teach a course that’s focused on religion. I know – you read all the way to the end of this and I have no solutions! Honestly, the one semester I think students changed how they thought about religion was the semester where I had a student identify himself as Pentecostal early on in a discussion. By putting himself out there as a believer, he opened students up to thinking about belief in new ways. But I can’t have that every semester! Instead, I just keep trying and hoping, but I would love to know any thoughts people have on how to approach these issues: course design, assignments, thought puzzles, interpretive dance, etc.

[I think studying religion and justifying its integration into “regular” history is difficult and frustrating in other ways, but that’s another post!]





16 responses to “Teaching religious n00bs and skeptics”

  1. Tom Avatar

    Teaching HS in SC is interesting. The school is in the Episcopal tradition. We have chapel once a week. Most of the kids are in youth groups, and I’d think nearl all attend church regularly with their parents. They are certainly believers, the proclaim their Christian identity freely. That said, when it comes knowing basic doctrine or theology, they don’t have much background. It’s hard, because they have a lot of religiosity internalized, but little broader context or deeper understanding of creed and the like. It’s interesting. I also have to discuss how Catholics are Christians.

    1. Erin Bartram Avatar
      Erin Bartram

      “That said, when it comes knowing basic doctrine or theology, they don’t have much background. It’s hard, because they have a lot of religiosity internalized, but little broader context or deeper understanding of creed and the like.” That’s fascinating and rings very true. I remember a colleague at UConn having an extended discussion with a student who was Catholic and swore up and down that the Catholic Church believed in consubstantiation.

      1. Rob Forbes Avatar

        The “consubstantiation” kid could have started an entire new branch of Christianity if he had lived in the fourth century.

  2. Craig Gallagher Avatar

    This was a fantastic post. Thanks for sharing it. I am a TA at Boston’s biggest Catholic university and will soon be teaching my own classes there, and I can tell you this problem manifests just as much among students who you would think would be more religiously-inclined than most college students. In particular, the idea that religion defined life in the pre-modern age remains elusive to them as anything other than a negative value, although sometimes I get an interesting variant on this that holds that the *Catholic* church was backwards and it took the challenge of the Protestant Reformation to create the Jesuits and modern religious values today.

    I am a partisan for talking about religion beyond the Reformation as well, and am perhaps spoiled that many people I work with at my university are modern historians whose focus is religion. But even then, you get the sense that they feel marginalized within 20thC U.S. history circles, for example. It’s definitely a problem, and I plan to share this far and wide in the hopes of generating some discussion about a solution!

    1. Erin Bartram Avatar
      Erin Bartram

      “the idea that religion defined life in the pre-modern age remains elusive to them as anything other than a negative value” – this absolutely nails it, Craig.

      And I agree about the marginalization one feels as a historian of religion. I am well familiar with the eyes-glazed-over look from “regular” historians when I reveal that is part of what I study. That being said, I’ve also had many historians of religion brush off the parts of my research that are about gender and status, so it can go both ways. I get a sense that there’s a younger generation of scholars of religion – especially of Catholicism – who really refuse to think about their work in such narrow terms, but getting others to disrupt their ideas about the place of the history of religion in the broader field is a challenge.

  3. Corinne Avatar

    Most of my teaching experience is largely dealing with trying to get students to understand that non-Christian religions are just as complex and divided as Christianity, and that no one religion has a monopoly on oppression. As someone from the midwest, who grew up surrounded by conservative evangelical Christians (we got told condoms don’t work, were told to sign abstinence pledges, and prayed in band), I’ve honestly found that using some of my own experiences has been useful for helping break through to students in New England. The realization that people get better sex ed in Iran than I did in high school suddenly makes them feel a little less superior.

    1. Erin Bartram Avatar
      Erin Bartram

      This is why I think that having that student publicly identify himself as Pentecostal made such a difference. It not only made belief real (and simultaneously cut off the mockery of religion I usually have to quell), it revealed to them that there were other religious worlds right under their noses. I can’t provide that to them personally like you can, but I’d like to find a way to achieve the same effect.

  4. […] less the seeming hardcore variants like Calvinism. (Erin Bartram made this point well in a post here.) While students balk at the doctrine of “Limited Atonement,” the doctrine that many […]

  5. Henry Avatar

    “Before some nebulous point at which “modernity” began, everyone was religious and had absolutely no capacity for individual thought at all.”

    I think this is (as you say) probably the Reformation, and I think it’s bound up in loose set of connections that American students seem to make between the Protestant Reformation and some kind of American-ness. I don’t think the connection is always considered or explicit, but the grade school story of the pilgrim fathers fleeing religious oppression* seems to be doing a lot of work here. If there’s an attachment to the notion that the Reformation represents the moment when Martin Luther taught the people to finally think for themselves, it seems that in an American context it’s partly because students connect Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers to familiar narratives about the origins of the American nation.

    So I think that in some way, the unteaching/reateaching of ideas about religion are tied up in many of the usual problems of teaching US history (at least as I understand them). There are obviously particular considerations when it comes to religion, but I think there’s value in considering them as part of this larger whole – students approach what they perceive to be “their” history very differently than they do the history of “others” (variably defined). US history for American students is part of the construction of the self (even if students only do this implicitly), and I think it’s useful to consider why certain narratives about religion are attractive to students in this project.

    (and as others have pointed out, there are probably important regional differences here)

    *That the religious conflict the pilgrim faced in early 17th century England was not between primarily with Catholics but rather the state Protestant church is unsurprisingly not something many students can articulate.

    1. Erin Bartram Avatar
      Erin Bartram

      I have to say, I’d never really made this connection, despite constantly banging on about the problematic narrative of Massachusetts Bay as a land of religious freedom. It might be interesting to consider student views on religion in U.S. history given their usually-unspoken view that the U.S. has always been about the separation of church and state. I imagine some of them don’t see the point of learning about it if they think it was always cordoned off from the political realm, which many students still think is mostly what they should be learning about.

      1. Henry Avatar

        I think students’ notions about “American-ness” or the history of America, insofar as they’re relevant here, are fairly syncretic, and rarely articulated or examined (by the students) in their totality. It’s also true that students concept of the past is often rather telescoped – 1776 follows almost immediately from the first colonists (there’s probably a regional difference here?), which complicates things further. This leads them to be able to hold positions like: America was founded by people for whom religion was so important that they engaged in a very dangerous voyage into an uncertain future, but religion is not an important force in American history because the Constitution says that it shouldn’t be. There are, obviously, many things about this that are incorrect, but since it’s rarely actually articulated as such (and obviously I’m simplifying a bit, though not much, based on some of the work I’ve seen over the years) there’s very little opportunity for instructors to unwind the assumptions. And again, I think that in teaching American history to Americans, we also encounter the difficulty that unwinding those assumptions can for a significant number of students be incredibly uncomfortable – it’s unwinding some part of themselves, after all.

        1. Rob Forbes Avatar

          And there’s nothing between 1776 and 1860 except for the Gold Rush. Wish Lin-Manuel would do the Early Republic.

          1. Erin Bartram Avatar
            Erin Bartram

            Every time I teach Bacon’s Rebellion, and they read Bacon’s declaration, I get the argument that you can see “the seeds of the Revolution.” Time in the past is just collapsed.

            1. Henry Avatar

              I don’t think it’ s just collapsed, although that’s the way it manifests itself most clearly. I think people in general have difficulty imagining time beyond a certain point – think how much more difficult it is for us to recall the sequence of events in our own lives from ten years ago as opposed to last year, and so on. This shows up for students most commonly as a tendency to lump all things beyond a certain point together as “ye olden times,” but they also go the other way, and put *more* time in between certain things than is really the case (students often have no sense, for example, of how close together the two world wars really were).

  6. Rob Forbes Avatar

    Erin, I find that my best entry point into religion is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Beecher Stowe is appealing to her readers’ belief that they have eternal souls, and that eternity counts for infinitely more than this fleeting life. If you believe that, tiny incidentals like race just melt away. Universalizing chapter headings like “The Mother,” “The Husband and Father,” drive this point home.

  7. […] I have written on some parts of this before: […]

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