Teaching 7th graders about atheism!

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.


The big bang as interpreted by 7th graders. They donated this painting and it will hang in our community center!

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!

The colored balls around “ATHEIST” are supposed to be planets. I was informed that a couple planets were lost on the school bus that morning.

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* :-)




This girl was kind enough to pose with us at the last second when we realized we got no pictures of ourselves! Allen (left, SAIU member) and Jessika (right, SAIU President)


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.

13 responses

  • Brienne said on November 21, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    OMG Jessika this is SO COOL. Thank you for doing this. I want to go to their world religions fair.

  • Rick Schmidt said on November 21, 2012 at 3:31 pm

    That is just too cool. I did a few career days at Edgewood and found it very rewarding. Your story is very encouraging since planting the seeds of science and reason at this still formative stage will no doubt have a lasting impact. Nice work!

  • Art said on November 21, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    Good job!

  • GJG said on November 21, 2012 at 4:42 pm

    What a great opportunity. It sounds like a very successful collaboration you had there, hopefully it will continue! Thanks for writing this up and sharing it with the world.

  • Chakolate said on November 21, 2012 at 5:44 pm

    This is great, you did a very good thing here. But may I ask, what did you mean by calling r/atheism a ‘silly’ place.

    FWIW, I found your post via r/atheism.

    • Jessika said on November 21, 2012 at 6:10 pm

      I stopped browsing r/atheism about a year ago because I got sick of the memes and circle jerking. I didn’t figure a 7th grader should be going there and getting that impression of atheism.

  • Gabriel said on November 21, 2012 at 6:07 pm

    Wow, great job, i think that’s really important to their lifes, even being catholics or not, knowing about the others beliefs they’ll not just hate it, like most of the people hate, they’ll respect and recognize it.

  • AG said on November 21, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    This is so cool–thanks for doing this, Jessica. Some day I hope to contribute to efforts like this but being introverted means I have to tread slowly.

    • Jessika said on November 21, 2012 at 10:12 pm

      I am also an introvert! The whole thing was very exhausting but doable.

  • craig gosling said on November 21, 2012 at 7:19 pm

    Wonderful program for the kids! I wish all schools would create such programs. Did the teacher eventually get fired? Kids are not familiar with famous atheists of the past or present so role models must be carefully selected. Such a presentation should be kept simple and not try to cover too much information. Is there a written transcript of the presentation that we can read.

    • Jessika said on November 21, 2012 at 10:14 pm

      This just happened this week and the week before. I’m pretty sure he won’t be fired or anything, their curriculum is approved and what not. He’s a first year teacher so he still has the principal sitting in on about 4 classes a year and what not. The power point and notes are linked at the bottom of the post.

  • Tobias said on November 21, 2012 at 10:14 pm

    Let me add my voice to the choir. I teach high school in South Carolina and I sponsor a free thought club. What a great way to bring reason & understanding to religion (if that’s possible). I would like to know the teacher’s name. He or she deserves some thanks as well. It’s a fine line that teacher’s walk – to educate kids about these matters without preaching. Sounds like she hit it right on the head and enlightened everyone involved. Great job all around. Thanks.

    • Jessika said on November 21, 2012 at 10:37 pm

      Is your freethought club affiliated with the Secular Student Alliance? I highly recommend it if not! I’m not really sure if I should give out his name but I will let him know that many people have expressed gratitude towards what he did :-)

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