Teaching the Letter “A”
A little known secret about academia (and a serious flaw, I might add) is that many university professors receive little to no training in how to teach. Sociology poses a unique challenge because the entire discipline is built on deconstructing that which we take for granted as normal or even natural. As such, sociology professors must regularly engage particularly sensitive subjects like race, gender, sexuality, and religion.
As an inexperienced Ph.D. student, being thrown into a classroom of 50+ students for my first Introduction to Sociology course felt very similar to my short stint as an emergency social worker with Child Protective Services. By day two, Social Services had me conducting home visits to discuss child abuse with parents who were quite offended (or even angry) at such a suggestion. All I had to prepare myself was a quick debriefing from my supervisor and an 8 inch thick protocol to read on my first day at work. My university didn’t even grant me that much. This is scary stuff. Shouldn’t I have been more prepared?
How does a professor present particularly sensitive topics to an audience with years of ingrained oppositional beliefs? No one wants to be called on their privilege (nor does anyone want to be accused of child abuse!). How can one engage critical thinking without offending?
Religion is especially tricky because, as a scientist, I recognize that the supernatural claims made by spiritual leaders and their believers are unlikely to be true—there is little to no evidence to support them. However, as a social scientist, I recognize that the consequences of what we believe are indeed real.
Race is fluid, for instance. It changes by historical era, by culture, and by individual interpretation. The biological evidence for racial differences is scant and extremely insignificant. However, we know that being perceived as “white” or a “person of color” will differentially impact one’s life chances and opportunities. Our reality may be socially constructed, but it is “real” nonetheless.
Sociologists, then, recognize that religion has meaningful impacts on individuals and their groups. Religion can structure moral codes, create community, or foster social movements. However, religion is not the only social institution capable of achieving those social goods. A founding father of sociology, Émile Durkheim, for instance, suggested that the educational system and patriotism could perform the same functions.
So, this is where I grounded my lecture on religion. How is religion socially constructed? What function does it serve? What other institutions perform similar functions? What are the pros and cons of religion? And, finally, what about atheism? In stumbling to address it, I found myself revealing my personal atheism out of nervousness over the subject matter, not even sure if it was necessary to do so.
I must be honest, “confessing” to your students that you are an atheist is a frightening experience. Will I be reported? Will the students dismiss my authority and expertise in the classroom? Will I be receiving angry phone calls from parents? These are real threats…something I’m sure that my religious colleagues never even have to think about.
While some students noted in their reflection papers that my discussion of atheism was off-putting, many of them also expressed a genuine interest in exploring the fluidity of religion. One student gleefully announced that he was an avid Richard Dawkins fan. Okay, so I have at least one student who isn’t disgusted!
I found that teaching religion in my Gender Roles class some time later was much easier. Unlike my Introduction to Sociology class which amounted to me throwing an entirely new topic at the students each week only loosely related to previous ones in order to give them a broad understanding of the wide array of sociological study, Gender Roles allowed me to slowly build a case for social construction and power relations.
When the week on religion approached, the students were already well versed in the role of social institutions in upholding inequality. Therefore, breaching the topic of religious oppression was not so painful. Of course, I was careful not to single out any one religion. Unfortunately, given that all major religions systematically subjugate women, I could really have my pick.
One caveat: atheism was not exempt. At the end of the lecture, I had the sad task of informing my students that even the secular community has played its part in disempowering women. With a large photograph of Richard Dawkins on the projector screen, I explained “Elevator Gate” and the feminist backlash plaguing atheism.
Strangely, this time, I was not so apprehensive about identifying as an atheist. Instead of positioning myself as an atheist in opposition to religion, I was creating a more inclusive conception of religiosity/non-religiosity. Both are socially constructed and subject to the prejudices of the privileged individuals who organize and lead the communities.
However, there is one important difference between the two—the role of critical thinking. Power and privilege may rule the day, but critical thinking (oftentimes the antithesis to faith) is the key to combating social oppression. Regardless of my personal beliefs or those of my students, students leave my classroom valuing the importance of questioning, reasoned discourse, and critical inquiry.
Teaching the letter “A,” then, may be less about debunking religion and more concerned with providing students with the tools to deconstruct those social realities with harmful consequences. Perhaps my personal disclosure also helped to dissuade any misconceptions about atheism and might have encouraged any atheist and atheist-curious students in my classroom. If anything, I have yet to receive any angry phone calls.