The Atheist Academic

The Atheist Academic: My First Day of Teaching Bible Lit

I walk into the classroom, already defensive. A room packed with pious-looking students stare at me, holding their thick Bibles in their hands. Nervous, I stand in front of the room and stammer that I’m teaching the Bible… as literature. I tell them that we won’t be engaging in philosophical discussion. The students start yelling and holding up crosses. I melt into an atheist puddle on the floor.

That’s… not really how today went… but that’s how I feared it might be. I didn’t know what to expect. What kind of kid chooses “Bible as in Literature” when filling out course requests? Would they all be evangelical Christians, hell bent on disproving evolution? Would I have to keep directing them away from “We love Jesus” speeches? What could I do to prevent those things from happening?

The first thing I did was carefully craft my syllabus. I listed teachings that we’d read, and then I showed different ways that they have been used in literature. I used the course description of the class – a study of the literary aspects of the Bible – and made sure to mention that a student’s own personal religion didn’t play a part in this class.

The second thing I did was start the class off with an article which explained just how often The Bible is used in literature. We read it together, and I feel like it really set the tone for the class.

Finally, I gave the students a story about my best friend who, when entering a non-religious college, was baffled by the religious references that were in her everyday classes. She was raised atheist, and she had never read the Bible, so she had no background when a professor mentioned the Sermon on the Mount . I explained that she would have benefited from a class like this, simply because people need to know the stories in the Bible, no matter what their religion.

To their credit, my students nodded and smiled, laughed at my jokes, and seemed to really respond to me. It’s also nice that I know a lot of students in that class from previous classes, so there isn’t too much awkwardness.

I have a feeling that a number of my Atheist Academic posts this semester will be about this class. Maybe I’ll mention how my colleagues and even some of my students seemed to chuckle when they heard that *I* was the one teaching Bible Lit. Or maybe something crazy will happen in class that I’ll let you guys know about.

No matter what, I think this will be a memorable semester.

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Tori Parker

Tori Parker

Tori is a high school English teacher from Ohio (insert cheerleader kick here)! She is emphatic! She is skeptical! She is nifty! Her boyfriend says that they can get a potbellied pig someday and name him Bacon. She has a little boy whose pseudonym is SC, although he has recently asked that his name be changed to Henry. When asked for a comment to add on this bio, he asked, "Why do we sound like a bad '70's cop show?" So there's that.


  1. August 17, 2013 at 4:06 pm —

    The most comprehensive and unbiased discussion of religion was a class on “Comparative Religions” taught at a British Military School (HMS Conway, Wales) by the school’s resident priest, who was Church of England (Episcopalian) .. You don’t have to be dogmatic, nor preach your stance to provide a great learning experience….. Although a good Jesus joke now and then might liven up the class and generate more conversations with parents. 😉

  2. August 18, 2013 at 6:51 pm —

    It seems to me that an ideal outcome in this sort of situation would be if, at the end of the class, both the teacher’s and the students’ actual belief status remained unknown, as this would mean that discussions stayed on-topic and relevant to the readings and debates, and that individual arguments remained couched in “a believer might say x” types of statements (which involve less emotional attachment than “I believe x” types of statements).

    The story about your best friend missing biblical allusions is a good one to bring home to students the importance of familiarity with religious traditions and their pervasive influence on the culture of believers and non-believers (or religious minorities) alike. In Medieval/Renaissance music we have to teach students quite a lot about the Catholic (and later also Lutheran) liturgy just to give context, and growing up with some version of it (even post-Vatican II) really gives some people a leg up on understanding how things fit into services and when they were performed.

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