In early November a 7th grade teacher in a neighboring town emailed SAIU asking if a representative would like to teach his class about atheism and nonreligious beliefs for the world religions unit of social studies. I wasn’t sure what I was reading at first. A 7th grade teacher, in Indiana (Southern Indiana even), wants to include atheism in their religion unit for social studies, and contacted a group of college students about it…!
The 7th graders had five presentations throughout the week, one for each of the five major world religions. Apparently, atheism (or, nonreligious) counts as the fifth as far as percentages go (yes, everyone understood that atheism isn’t actually a religion). I found someone who could go with me and started forming an outline for the presentation. The project asked students to know the major beliefs, major leaders, major events, and practicing population for each of the religions presented. I made it clear that, while atheism is not a religion, it is important to look at when studying religions because it is an alternative.
So, within these guidelines for the project, what should I be telling these kids? The first requirement was easy: atheism is a lack of belief in a supernatural being or beings. I provided a couple definitions with varying vernacular, but the gist of it is that atheists don’t believe in god. I made clear the distinction that belonging to a religion often means you subscribe to a particular set of beliefs and behaviors, but atheism is only unified by this single concept. I emphasized this by explaining that some people think atheists are bad people or do not have morals (something many SAIU members recommended including in the presentation), but that we derive morals just like everybody else: through our parents, teachers, culture, and introspective thought. I also addressed the idea that someone who considers themselves to be nonreligious may not necessarily be an atheist, they just do not subscribe to an organized religion.
The “major leaders” section was a bit more tricky. In religion, not only is it clear who the leaders are, but those leaders have a very important and authoritative role in the lives of religious people. I presented on a Friday and knew that the students just had four days of presentations on religion, I wanted to be careful to make the distinction. If someone who is considered a leader in atheism makes a statement, not only will not everyone agree, there will be plenty if people outright challenging that statement or idea. This is quite different from a religious leader.
As I made a list of writers and scientists who could be considered leaders in atheism, I realized that the first ten names where men… I decided to also include the gender issues with atheism. I clicked through photos of these men on my presentation, providing their names and general contributions, and then asked the students what everyone on the slide had in common. They got it right in all three of the groups for which I presented. I told then that in the past, the atheist movement has been a bit of a boy’s club but that its changing! I then showed several women who are important in the movement right now. I liked the look of “challenge accepted” on a few of the girl’s faces. (I later found out there were several atheists in the audience, but more on that later!) In addition to people, I included organizations which are important to the atheist movement. Many of the students ended up being very interested in the Secular Student Alliance.
Next we have major events. Also a bit difficult since we didn’t have crusades or anything of that nature. I explained that there has been a gradual increase in atheists (or, at least atheists who come out). I explained that the idea of atheism has been around as long as the idea of theism and talked briefly about the 19th century movements of rationalism and freethought.
For practicing population I showed the top and bottom 5 countries for god belief (Seen here). I also talked about how now 1 in 5 Americans are “nonreligious” and that it has grown 25% in the past 5 years (as seen here). I also included some demographics about atheism. It’s mostly made up of old, white men and organizations like African Americans for Humanism and Women in Secularism are trying to change that.
The question and answer portion was great! The common questions which were asked in all three groups were: what do atheists think happens when the die, how do atheists think the world started (or in one case “who do atheists think made the world”), do atheists go to church, and do atheists celebrate holidays. In one group I got several rephrasings of “how do you start a secular student group”? I also had one girl raise her hand and just say “in scice we trust!”. And I’ll neevr forget this one “so I go to this website called reddit and on the atheism part they talk about Neil DeGrasse Tyson a lot, so what is he?”. I answered that with “first, r/atheism is a silly place,” and explained Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s views based on this video. No one was angry (or, if they were they did not say much). I think having little ol’ me presenting this broke some of the misconceptions they had about people without a religion.
We were invited to come back on the day of their “world religions fair” to see their end products. Some students made tri-fold posters, some had a slideshow playing on their iPad (this is a one-to-one school and each kid has an iPad), a couple even created a webpage through google! Across the three classes, about 10 groups presented on atheism. My favorite was a pair that made a poster and also painted the big bang!
As you would expect, there was a wide variety in quality of the projects. A couple groups pretty much wrote with pencil on some construction paper while others brought in food somehow related (someone showed the big bang with cupcakes, I missed this one unfortunately), one girl had her grandpa make a tablet out of Indiana limestone with a star and crescent, which was then a gift for the person who gave a presentation about Islam.
Overall I was very impressed with the projects and am so happy to see students being exposed to religion through an educational platform. Not only is studying religion in a social studies class important to studying the cultures, but learning more about something makes it harder to hate it. Even the teacher explained that before seeing the Islam presentation, he had some misconceptions about Islam and Muslims and learning about the religion and meeting a Muslim changed that. He also had an atheist student thank him for not leaving atheism out, and that it meant a lot to her *tear* :-)
By request, here is the power point presentation I used on dropbox. Also, the notes I used had more info than what is on the slides, and the word doc is here on dropbox.