Ask Richard: Atheist Professor Challenges Students to Examine Religious Prejudice December 12, 2011

Ask Richard: Atheist Professor Challenges Students to Examine Religious Prejudice

Hi Richard,

I teach Introductory Psychology at a local junior college. I would like to expand the classroom discussion on religious prejudice during my lesson on cultural influences, but I am unsure of exactly how to go about it. I am a passionate atheist, but would describe myself as being only moderately ‘out’ at work. I proudly label myself as a secular humanist currently and I explain to students exactly what it means when they ask, but I hesitate to label myself as an atheist. My fear is that when I am challenged by a student who is particularly religious, my passion will become so strong that I end up speaking from my soapbox, rather than speaking as a teacher of critical thinking. I’m very aware that the lessons should be for the student’s benefit, not for mine.

However, I think it is particularly important to provide examples of religious prejudice (apparently the most socially acceptable kind), and open some eyes to the discrimination atheists face. Our little college rests in the heart of California’s conservative central valley, and we are swimming in the Jesus. I want to be more confident in discussing this topic objectively with students, without becoming emotional about it. I value your insight and any advice you may have.

Sincere thanks,
Passionate Professor

Dear Passionate Professor,

Always keep your passion. That’s so precious in a teacher. But you can focus your passion on the thinking skills you’re teaching rather than the thoughts your students are thinking. They will have their whole lives to rethink their thoughts if you have given them the skills. Guide your passion with patience and a willingness to not see the long term results of your work. Humdrum teachers help students learn what the teachers want them to learn. Excellent teachers help students learn how to learn and especially how to unlearn by questioning their old ideas.

They’re young. Most of them will keep their childhood-trained opinions for a few more years, but if you have successfully planted the seeds of critical thinking, those opinions will dissolve if they cannot hold up to inner scrutiny. That might very well happen after they have moved on, so you might never know about it. You have to be satisfied with being good at planting seeds and not necessarily seeing the trees that grow.

I’m very familiar with the Central Valley, having earned my BA at CSU Stanislaus. Sometimes the level of reactionary religiosity in the area could rival the deep South. That was a couple of sedimentary layers ago, but it hasn’t changed very much.

In a junior college, the faculty tends to be less insulated from the local populace and their culture than in a university, and that can be a good thing, but they’re also less protected from harassment and pressure from any locals who might be offended by what they teach. So when you consider self-disclosure about your unbelief and what labels you will use, always practice prudence first. Assess the security of your professional and social positions, so that you don’t become just another awful story about discrimination against an atheist. If you’re fired, you won’t be teaching critical thinking to anyone.

If you want to avoid getting on a soap box, be Socrates. When a passionate speech wants to bubble up, take a couple of deep, slow breaths to calm yourself. Then instead of a speech, ask questions that force the students to reexamine their presumptions. Don’t ask rhetorical questions; they’ll see right through those, but incisive, sharp-edged ones that sit there in their minds making them just a little uncomfortable. Keep a poker face, in both your expression and your tone. If you can maintain a neutral demeanor, then their struggle will be between two opposing ideas in their heads rather than a struggle between them and you.

Challenges from religious students are usually invitations to step into a trap where you work hard and they sit back and gloat. Don’t fall for that. When one asks you for your viewpoint, say something like, “This college is for you to examine, question, challenge, change, and mature your own views. Mine are not important.” Always turn it back on the challenger to justify their claim, rather than you working hard to refute their claim. When they present what they think is a polished and irrefutable argument, play the part of being innocently puzzled about those one or two little presumptions that they glossed over. Gently let them know that if they finish with a shrug of their shoulders, they have cheated themselves, not you.

As a psychology professor, you’re probably familiar with basic counseling techniques, and some could be useful in an analogous way in your teaching. As a counselor, I always made sure that my clients did most of the work to find the solutions to their problems. They’d initially come to me hoping that I’d just hand them a solution, but that would not serve them well in the long term. Instead, I kept turning it back to them, encouraging them that they do have problem-solving abilities, they just need to practice. So they’d struggle, and guess, and take a risk, and stumble, and then start to get some small gains. All the while, I would gently challenge their negative assumptions, and cheer them for their new positive considerations, and eventually congratulate them for the success that was entirely theirs, not mine. That’s the kind of setting aside of your ego that I think will help you to be more effective as an agent of learning the skills of learning, and the courage of unlearning.

I have one suggestion for illustrating the injustice of bigotry against atheists. Find a true account of an incident of egregious bigotry and mistreatment of an atheist at the hands of religious people. Rewrite the whole thing to omit all references to his atheism, and say “They did this to him because of his religion,” or phrases like that. Leave the basic facts of the case the same, but when you read this account to them, let the students assume that the victim was a Christian or a Jew. After several students talk about the unfairness and injustice of the bigots’ behaviors, reveal that the victim was actually an atheist.

Tell them that you had rewritten the story to help them see how the principles that they were championing about fairness, justice, and freedom must apply to everyone or they mean nothing to anyone. We are all free or none of us are free. Some students will “get it” immediately, others will try to rationalize that atheists somehow don’t qualify for the protections they were previously advocating, but some of that group will have had the seed of rethinking their own prejudices planted in their minds. Then all you can do is to hope those seeds will someday sprout.

I wish you good results in your experiments. I think your students are very lucky because you are so conscientious about your ethics as a teacher, but you still have the fire of your personal convictions. I hope that is a constant dynamic balancing act for you for your entire career. It will tire you sometimes, but it will be a great benefit for your students.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Anonymous

    Richard’s scenario about replacing the atheist with someone else is excellent, I’d offer one variation.  Before revealing the truth about the atheist being a part of the true scenario, I’d ask for students’ explicit acceptance or denial of the principle at work being applied to anyone (for instance, it’s wrong to be bigoted against a member of a group).  If they agree to that, then tell them that, in real life, it was an atheist.

  • Brad

    As a former psych prof, I have taught many, many, many sections of Intro Psych. I never even considered bringing up my atheism, and I don’t really see how it fits into a typical Intro Psych curriculum. I suppose it might fit in with a section on social categorization. To avoid proselytizing, though, I would deliberately steer clear of my own biases and focus on other examples that are available in the professional literature. There are lots of examples there that allow for a passionate, vibrant discussion among your students.

  • Rebecca Sparks

    Maybe advice from other atheist professors in the area?  My former CSUS Phil. prof is very openly an atheist-does speaking engagements, currently writing a book “The case against Christ”.

  • Valhar2000

    Dear Passionate Professor,

    You have 2 options: rub some lube around your anus, or get fired.

  • Passionate

    It is part of a section on Culture and Social Identities, we discuss ways in which people identify their In-tribe vs. Others.  The students do an activity where they have to identify all the different cultural groups they belong to.  I use some of my own as examples to get them started.  It’s about 2-3 minutes of discussion, tops.  The aim is to get students to consider their own prejudices across all groups.  I’m not focusing specifically on religion, but it is one of the most pervasive, and therefore most interesting, prejudices.  Thanks for the comment.

  • SJH

    Are you trying to make them realize their own prejudices in order that they might abandon such prejudices? If so this seems like you are using your class as a tool to promote moral change as opposed to an opportunity to teach science. Teaching morality does not seem to be within the scope of a science class.
    Or perhaps you are trying to point out that we all have prejudices and that they part of our natural tendency to group ourselves and create defense mechanisms against the groups to which we feel we are in opposition? Perhaps the discussion should be about the underlying purpose/function of prejudice in our mind as it pertains to our relationships and our mental health. This seems like an amoral discussion which seems more appropriate.

  • I’m afraid I’m a bit confused by your response. I didn’t see any mention of morality before you brought it up, and don’t know what it has to do with the subject at hand.

    Meanwhile, part of science is actually consistency in tests. If you have a certain test or criteria for one classification, but a different test for others, you’re engaging in bias. What is being proposed here is displaying the difference between reasoned decisions and emotional ones, such as whether to be prejudiced against people of certain skin colors, or recognize that skin color is a trivial difference within our species.

    If anyone’s religious attitude runs afoul of such exercises, well, a closer look is probably warranted. The same could be said for allegiance to a sports team, or whether it is sacrilege to put ketchup on hot dogs.

  • Valhar2000

    I think it would be even better if he brought up 2 examples, one of mistreatment of an atheist and another of mistreatment of a Christian (which do exist), and then changed the descriptions to make the atheist christian and vice-versa.

  • Thin-ice

    Passionate Professor: As a Bible-thumping 21-yr-old, heading to the mission field, the seeds of my de-conversion 46 years later were first planted by a community college professor of philosophy. He challenged us to think critically, and although he was an atheist, and I interpreted that as a warning that I should be a better-prepared apologist, I never forgot how he surgically sliced through my feeble belief system (and inferior intellect!).

    Keep up your good work on behalf of reason and rationality!!

  • SJH

    It seemed that he is particularly emotional about the prejudice against atheists so I am questioning his motives. Since I am not sure what his motives are, I am asking for clarification and also providing a suggestion. I think if the discussion he is hoping to have remains scientific it should help prevent emotions from getting involved. If the students get emotional about the issue then it is up to him to bring the discussion back too science.

  • Mairianna

    Exactly, exactly, Richard!  Teach the students to THINK CRITICALLY and they WILL find their way out of the indoctrination!  

  • I would like to hear how this pans out.

  • Psyguy88

    There are all kinds of recent psych studies of atheist prejudice in general and related to that, the topic of attributions of morality in specific. they are directly relevant to psychology in the domain of the psychology of morality and in/out group bias. For example, Will Gervais has several recent studies on atheist prejudice. Luke Galen ditto.

  • Anonymous

    Perhaps terror management theory gives an interesting background to the question?

  • I think Richard nailed it on this one but I also like the advice given by Valhar2000 about providing two examples and switching the belief systems. This is also excellent advice to those of us who are not professors and run up against similar discussions with believers on a regular basis. I’ll certainly be keeping this in mind when I schedule my group’s next Ask An Atheist group.

  • Anonymous

    Many of the studies that support TMT do use religion and the lack thereof as part of the study(making Christians read a passage from Dawkins, for example), and some of them do measure things like willingness to inflict pain on others.

    There are reasons to critique the theory also, and it could lead to interesting discussions on all sides.

  • Psyguy88

    In this study identical targets were rated as being less moral by christians when the target was portrayed as atheist than when portrayed as christian.

  • You also might make a point of noting the evidence of non-trivial religious ethnocentricism among atheists; see the Hunsberger/Altemeyer book “Atheists” (ISBN 1591024137).

    What’s particularly interesting is that Altemeyer’s RWA metric and Sidanius’s SDO metric tend to be associated with religiosity and prejudice; however, Atheists tend relatively low on the RWA scale. That’s probably more suitable for a more advanced course than an intro, of course.

    My guess is there’s may be a tie about the difference between ethnocentrism and prejudice — if a black person has systematically been insulted, assaulted, and discriminated against by southern white “good ol’ boys”, how much is their enthnocentric bias against men of that culture “prejudice”, and how much is more “postjudice”?  In cases where you are generalizing from past experience to a new person, it would still seem to be prejudice, but in that it is based on direct experience perhaps “well-founded prejudice” — especially if the projected behavior and character assessment from experience happens to coincidentally match what a statistically representative sample of the population would find. In contrast, when the assessments are based on mythical stereotype that does not match a statistically representative sample would be the more common “ill-founded prejudice”. In terms of social engineering, I’m not sure people who would benefit most by the feedback of social disapproval of their ill-founded prejudices would readily grasp that nuance; probably simpler to stick with “prejudice=bad”


  • Djnlsn

    I would honestly say that I’ve never met anyone describing themselves as atheist being other than agnostic. There is a difference.

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