I’m thankful this week that atheism in America is becoming less taboo and beginning to sound a little less scary. And I’m also thankful this week for a particular sixth grade teacher who was willing to speak honestly and openly about it.*
It was just a few days ago—so I’m told—during a new social studies segment on world religions that class discussion turned to the topic of atheism. The teacher explained to her suburban Chicago classroom of eleven- and twelve-year-olds that though Christians win most of the headlines in America, there are actually a lot of atheists here as well. And it was here where she asked her students how many of them personally knew of someone who is an atheist.
As a small scattering of cautious hands slowly drifted upward, my daughter surveyed the crowd around her and thrusted her arm high into the air. As might be expected, the teacher spared those more hesitant in their hand-raising and focused on the one student noticeably not embarrassed, calling upon my daughter. And the teacher asked what her relationship with them might be. “Well…… [drawing out the tension and drama, as is her custom] My DAD is an atheist.” Scanning the room with a smirk of the best gossip on her face, she inhaled the gasps soaring across the classroom.
That’s when one of the girls turned to my daughter and with a face of horrified disgust and shot into the atmosphere: “Your dad’s an atheist!?!?” At least one person in the room clearly and most definitely did not approve.
My daughter paused her story to tell me exactly why this particular classmate’s opinion meant nothing to her. Face beaming, she proceeded with her story.
As the teacher continued, she asked if anyone knew what the top five most popular religions in America were. As might be expected, the first student correctly noted Christianity. The second offered atheism. And here, in another beautiful moment of diligent education, the teacher stepped in clarify that atheism isn’t actually a religion. An atheist is a person that doesn’t believe in gods. Almost by definition, they are someone without religion—at least usually, she said. Apparently, my daughter sat there in her seat, nodding her head emphatically in the affirmative. Her teacher had answered correctly. My daughter approved. And with a knowing smile on her face.
And, yes, I can attest to how regularly this knowing and cocky little smirk of hers does travel its way from cheek to cheek…
I asked her what were the other four religions. She said Islam and Buddhism. And then she thought Hinduism might have been the fourth. But by the time they got to the fifth, apparently her mind had moved on to more pressing matters. Probably lunch.
After class, one of her friends ran to catch up with her and ask more about her father’s atheism. But why? She just couldn’t understand why someone wouldn’t believe in God. What was wrong with him? So my daughter told her about how I used to be a Christian pastor but that eventually I just realized it all seemed to be made up. At which point, her friend looked both surprised and relieved. “Oh. Well, if he used to be a pastor then it can’t be that bad…” And with that, they ran off to lunch.
This story made my day for a couple reasons. First, that my daughter—who grew up in a Baptist church where her dad was the pastor and who knows the Bible better than most adults—isn’t ashamed of her father. That she actually supports him, and that I can see her overflowing pride. A good many of my Comrades for Reason don’t have it as fortunate as I do in this regard. Second, that my kids are in a school system (even all the way out in the right-wing suburbs) where they have a social studies teacher who isn’t afraid to speak honestly and truthfully about atheism. This of course, doesn’t mean her teacher is actually an atheist—she also spoke honestly about religious systems as well. It just means she is a professional whose lessons are steered by facts rather than personal bias. And for this I am appreciative.
May we find an increasing amount of this kind of level-headed educational integrity in America’s coming years. May we find the stigma of atheism erased. And may reason and rationality win the day.
* I must clarify (in case it still remains muddied) that the only eye-witness reporter I’ve spoken with is my twelve-year-old daughter and that though she is incredibly intelligent and skilled in many arts, she is by no means a professional reporter. Therefore, I can only guarantee the facts of this story to the extent that any of you could guarantee the facts of your own middle-school student’s stories. For this reason, I intentionally omit details like names and school systems.