As a teacher you’re always in front of people who are figuring out what they think about the world. You want to teach them how things work, but you don’t want to brainwash them. In all the teacher-training I was given, the advice was not to give away too much about yourself and your personality in the classroom.
There’s some sense in that, but I think it can be taken way too far. Teenagers are quite capable of disagreeing with someone, and are quite capable of hearing opinions from friends, parents, teachers and politicians without being persuaded. Teenagers aren’t fragile or mindless drones we need to shelter and protect from “other people’s views,” they can make their own minds up.
Sometimes teenagers will listen to the wrong advice and draw bad conclusions but I’ve never seen any reason to think adults are any better at it. I don't think "making bad choices" is a function of being a teenager, I think it's a function of being a human being!
Besides, if we want people to grow up with independent views and the ability to discuss things sensibly, how else are we to do it if we don’t encourage debate and discussion in the classroom?
Sometimes I express my opinion in front of a class and ask people what they think. Sometimes I go off topic and tell stories about something I’ve seen or noticed. Sometimes it will relate to the lesson directly, sometimes it won’t. Sometimes I just have an idea on my mind and I want to see what my students think. I usually hear more sensible views from them than I do from most adults I see interviewed on the news.
Most of my students know bits and pieces about my life story; they know why I became a teacher, what I did my research on, what my favourite band is etc. But there is one issue I deliberately try to keep quiet and not divulge. The subject of religion and, particularly, how I feel it relates to Science.
I do have very clear views about it and I’ve got a small library on the philosophy of religion and Science. I was raised on a missionary compound, my grandfather was a priest and I studied Science at a religious school. I don’t talk about it very much but I am pretty well versed in religious doctrine, theology and debate.
I have occasionally discussed my beliefs with one or two students, but as a general rule I keep it quiet and try to show that I understand both sides of the argument, even though I myself fall very firmly on one side of it. There aren't many other things I tend to be quite so secretive about...
There are lots of reasons I tend to keep this particular view discrete but the most obvious one is that I want every student to feel they can learn from me. In an ideal world my religious stance wouldn’t matter. But, in an ideal world, everyone I taught would come to each lesson fresh as a daisy, cheery as a sunbeam and eager to learn everything I taught them. The real world and the real classroom is full of humans (something else to remember if you’re training to be a teacher…your students are people, not “learners”).
The reality is that a person’s religion is often a core part of their being. They tend to see everything and, therefore, everyone, through the optics of their religious conviction. Much of the time this doesn’t cause a problem but, more than you might expect, people will make assumptions about you based on what your beliefs are.
Religious arguments have a way of getting firey and sour very quickly. For some reason this issue, more than most others, can rile anyone up. Differences in religious opinion matter. They matter in government, they matter in day-to-day life, they matter in relationships and they matter in the classroom. Which is why I try to keep myself out of the debate entirely; not because I have no view on the matter, but because I have a very strong one.
Atheists often see religious people as wooly-minded fantasists who can’t face reality. Tragically self-deceiving, the religious person can seem (to an atheist) as someone incapable of crticial thinking, someone who must be brought to see reason.
By contrast, religious people often see atheists as arrogant and closed-minded. People who refuse to accept even the possibility there might be more to life than the concrete. They worship Science as a religion and reject God because they can’t accept not being the head of their own universe.
People on both sides of the argument see the other side as bigoted and unwilling to see reason. If someone is on the opposite side of the fence to you, it’s difficult to take what they say seriously. This is a real problem if your job is getting people to believe what you’re telling them about the reality of the world.
As a Scientist and Science teacher, my whole job is telling people how things are, and how we figure it out. If I talk about my religious beliefs, then I am sending a message without meaning to. I’m sending the message that, as part of my knowledge about the world, I have come to "conclusion X".
So, I am hoping most people aren’t exactly sure what my religious beliefs are. I keep them ambiguous online, discuss it with few members of staff and even fewer students. I would like to keep it that way (for the time being at least) not out of a desire to spread mystery about myself, but because I think it makes the classroom run smoother. Perhaps one day I will weigh in on the discussion. At the moment I feel I can get more people to learn from me if they don’t see me as belonging to any group.
Thing is, Science and religion are complicated things. Perhaps there is a war between them (many seem to think so) perhaps they are perfectly compatible (more people seem to think so). Whatever your beliefs are, you are entitled to them, as you are entitled to challenge other people on theirs. But there is one, crucial, all-important rule when talking about religion.
Don’t. Be. Mean.
For one thing, being mean never actually helps get your point across. If you want someone to see things from your perspective, you need to remember they obviously don’t see the world in your colours (well, freakin, duh!) making them feel stupid for disagreeing won’t get you anywhere.
I mean, what are you trying to achieve? Are you trying to score points in an argument, or are you trying to help them see things from your side? What approach is really going to help that happen, making snide comments or starting off from a position of understanding?
Have you ever noticed that after you’ve had an argument you always feel bad about it? Even if you won the argument you still feel you’ve somehow lost? That’s because arguments don't settle anything!
There’s healthy debate (where two people who respect each other discuss ideas and try to reach a conclusion), a dialectic (where both people start off from total ignorance and try to work it out together), an argument (where both people are confrontational) and a row (where people get mean). If you want to feel good about yourself, have a dialectic or a debate. And don’t be mean.
For another thing, if you want to bring someone around to your point of view, you need to start by considering theirs. Consider why they believe what they believe, what led them to that stance and why they don't accept your belief? And saying “because they’re stupid and ignorant and don’t want to see the truth” doesn’t cut the theological mustard or help either of you.
As I pointed out in my previous blog post: people aren’t stupid - they're just bad at thinking carefully...and guess what, so are you!
For yet another thing, being mean immediately means you’re trivialising their idea. When you ask someone “do you believe in God?” there’s dozens of different things you could be asking them. Are you asking about a deistic God? Are you asking about a theistic God? Are you asking if they believe in the Christian God? The Islamic? The Jewish? Are you asking if they have faith in God or whether they have evidence for it? Are you asking if they are a member of a religion or just a non-denominational believer?
These questions are complex because the words mean different things to different people. You might ask a person one question and they end up answering a different one without realising it. For example, someone who believes in a creator God who established the Universe and set up the laws of nature but doesn't interact with the running of human affairs is, technically speaking, an atheist! (A-theism meaning "no belief in a theistic being" which is precisely what this person believes). This is an atheist who believes in God.
So when you are talking to someone about one of the most philosophically dense and complicated ideas in history, one which the greatest minds have wrestled with and failed to settle, maybe don’t poke fun, mock, make jibes and trivialise their position.
Richard Dawkins is a witty guy, sure. He’s very clever, very well read and makes some pithy, poignant remarks. But has anyone honestly been brought to atheism because of his acerbic attacks on religion? Do we really think that approach works?
Contrast that with the far more common but less televised people who stand in streets preaching at passers-by. They tell people they will go to hell for not believing and, I even once heard, threaten people’s children with damnation. I ask again: has anyone honestly been brought to religion because of these hellfire and brimstone tirades? Does that approach really work?
When you engage with someone on this topic...and you will...try to remember they are people. They have feelings and they are probably just as confident in their beliefs as you are in yours. Remember they will have a reason for believing what they do, even if you don’t consider it to be a good one. Getting in their face isn't going to make them listen.
Yes call them out on bad thinking, yes challenge them, yes ask questions, yes scrutinise their claim. But don’t try to demean or degrade them as a person.
And don’t be mean.
I love science, let me tell you why.