As a full-time biology teacher and frequent sex educator, I am naturally poised for religious conflict. While I have previously written on the linguistic barriers separating my students and I, there are bigger gulfs that separate us other than their belief that “idk” is a perfectly fine abbreviation to use in a formal essay and their calling me “Meestur” despite my insistence that I have a name.
Surprisingly, very few students have made a point-blank inquiry about my religious beliefs. Whenever they do, I answer honestly that I am an atheist. The first time it happened, the questioning student’s jaw dropped with something approaching awe. “Wow!” she said, beaming, “An atheist? I’ve never met an atheist before!”
Last week, some students were having a religious debate in class. One boy in my class was infuriated to discover that his neighbor believed in God as a sort of nebulous spiritual force, but didn’t accept Jesus Christ. “Can you believe it?” he demanded, turning to me. “She doesn’t believe in Jesus! You believe in Jesus, right [Mr. N]?”
When I responded that I didn’t believe in anything, the indignation vanished, replaced by curiosity. “Oh,” was all he could say, looking away, then back, as if to indicate “Well, shucks, I’d never thought of that before…”.
Some teachers would balk at my openness about my [absence of] religion, but transparency is my approach to essentially everything in the classroom. I am on the receiving end of outlandish sex-related questions almost every day, and (assuming it’s asked in a way that’s tangentially related to the topic at hand, at least) I answer everything. Students have learned that they just can’t get me to blush, nor laugh, so it’s no longer a game of Let’s-say-a-naughty-word! – they just have nowhere else to turn.
In addition, I also think that familiarity paves the way to tolerance. Before meeting me, my students likely thought of atheists as some kind of intangible force for evil discussed on Fox News. Now they think of me, which, for at least some of them, is a positive development.
Admit it -- we look great in loincloths.
My students are devoutly religious, but have very little knowledge of their own religion. I recently overheard the following remark, verbatim – “No, I’m not Christian, I’m Catholic! It’s different. We believe in Jesus, and stuff.” Sadly, all of them can readily cite the passage of the Bible that calls homosexuality an abomination, and often do this when I throw them out of my classroom for using the “other” f-word (little do they know that seafood is also an abomination; oh well).
Later this week and into the next, I am preparing a series of posts on religion in my classroom, highlighting abortion and homophobia. Stay tuned – it’s sure to be juicy.