Atheists are the new Christians


It doesn't happen very often, but I have had some kids take religious exemptions to my classroom texts. It even happened with one LDS girl who found me less willing to accept her reasons for refusing to read Slaughterhouse-Five or Nineteen Eighty-four than her other teachers had been. Essentially, she just wanted to make her own syllabus for every class she took and, until me, had little trouble steamrolling teachers.

She's the most extreme (and only Mormon) student I've had who spoke up for themselves on their own initiative to refuse to read books that conflicted with their religious standards. The most frequent complaint has come from my Jehovah's Witness students who don't like reading ghost stories. I now just have an alternate assignment ready to go when I do that unit. They also don't like it when I cover the propositions, but that's usually their mothers who contact me.

Anyway, it's not a regular problem. In fact, it's irregular enough that I often don't recognize it when it's happening. A few days will pass and then I'll think to myself, ohhhhh....... Jaydubs Got it. That's why they talk about current events around the table but don't believe in "things like this." It always confuses me. Part of my job, as I view it, it to make a literate citizenry, and I'm confused when parents don't seem to agree.

The stereotype of this interaction is the crazy liberal teacher upsetting religious conservatives and their fragile values, but in my experience it tends to be one person's insecurity threatened by a text that's outside their comfort zone. It's hard for me (with, granted, my Latter-day Saint bias) to accept that any knowledge is forbidden or that any literature is inappropriate. The world's knowledge is ours and I, as a high-school teacher, am a guide. I teach kids how to navigate this stuff. And the "dangerous" stuff might be the most important for me to cover. Modeling how to navigate letters is a vital part of my job and so I find it deeply upsetting and frustrating when students opt out. I push back then I accept it then I'm annoyed and just try not to think about it. I suppose part of it is that I feel I have somehow failed to build enough trust to be their guide.

Anyway, this past week I had my first interaction with a student as bullheaded about their religious feelings since my Mormon girl who despised reading about violence but had Captain Moroni as her email handle and thought Heart of Darkness would be a safe replacement text. And, friends, the newly nervous group of religionists is the atheists.

With sophomores the last . . . four years, maybe? I've been doing a Greek-myth-and-the-Bible unit. I have a list of forty stories from each tradition. Kids sign up for one of each and give presentations on their stories during the semester. As part of the presentation, they need to a) explain the story, b) show how this story has echos in other mythologies or modern stories or whatever—one-story stuff, and c) find an example of how the story appears in the modern English language (eg, tantalize or the writing's on the wall).

About every other class, one kid asks if the bible isn't verboten and I say no. I say I can't tell them to believe in it, but as a part of our literary heritage, it's pretty dang important. Before last week, this satisfied everyone.

I don't want to risk giving any identifying details about this student and so my story will be pretty bloodless going forward, but the moral is: once again I didn't realize that a kid was bringing me a religious complaint. He came in armed with bad logic and "worries" about lawsuits and an irrelevant Supreme Court case and so I thought he wanted to engage on those terms. It didn't take long before the nature of the conversation changed under my feet and, after it was too late to correct, I realized that was all a cover. The real topic was his feelings. As an atheist, he found the Bible as dangerous as my Witnesses found Poe or my homeschooled Mormon valedictorian found Vonnegut. It was entirely a religious argument. But, unlike Captain Moroni, he doesn't just want to define his own curriculum—he thinks I should cave in and do what he says.

In other words, instead of banning Harry Potter, my righteous atheist wants to ban the Bible.

And he thought his religion had enough local power to terrify me into compliance.

So, in other words, when I say Atheists are the new Christians, it's not a compliment.

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