January 19, 2019

Tale of a Good Christian

man praying at dawn

I attended a Christian college not because I was Christian at the time (I was far more public about my atheism back then) but because the school had a great reputation in the region. I encountered my share of religiously-motivated bigotry, probably more than I would have at one of the state universities in the area. Some of the negative experiences I had did probably come about because most of the other students were Christian. Still, I suppose this ended up being good preparation for life in Mississippi. In fact, there is not much I would change about my college experience. It wasn't always pleasant, but it helped to make me who I am today.

Some of you who are on Twitter may have seen the recent tweets tagged with #ExposeChristianSchools. If not, many people have been using it to share their negative experiences attending Christian schools in the aftermath of Vice President Pence's comments about how Christian education should not be criticized because he and his wife (i.e., "Mother") are offended by such criticism. While I support the hashtag, my experiences attending a Christian college were far more positive than most of what I saw on Twitter. I feel very fortunate for that.

In this post, I'd like to tell you about a particularly outstanding Christian professor who I admired and respected a great deal. If nothing else, this may serve as a reminder that even devout Christians at Christian colleges can sometimes be wonderful teachers and good people. The professor in question had his appointment in the departments of philosophy and held degrees in both religion and philosophy. The course I took with him was an upper-level philosophy course on the philosophy of religion. I ended up minoring in philosophy after being unable to figure out what I would do with a philosophy major.

I went into the course as a fairly rabid anti-theist with a chip on my shoulder. I suppose I expected to be penalized for expressing what I really thought about religion. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Well, that's not entirely accurate. You see, I did take plenty of shit from the other students, nearly all of whom were Christians. But the professor was nothing but accepting, encouraging, and genuinely helpful.

As we studied the various arguments for and against the existence of gods, focusing on classic and contemporary Christian apologists, the professor was clear about what he believed but equally clear that we were to arrive at our own conclusions. He never preached or attempted to impose his beliefs. Students were expected to wrestle with the material and critically evaluate it. Learning what others said was part of it, but it was also expected that we would each gain clarity about what we believed and why.

In hindsight, this might have been my favorite class from my time in college. It was quite difficult, both intellectually and emotionally, because it forced us to fully engage the material. I saw more than a couple Christian students break down and cry in class when one of their cherished arguments was effectively demolished and they were left with questions they could not answer. I remained an atheist, but I became more thoughtful and mature about my atheism. Yes, this Christian professor helped me gain a better understanding of why I was an atheist.

Best of all, I experienced support and guidance from someone who clearly did not agree with me but was nevertheless committed to helping me make the best arguments I could. I never felt as though he wanted me to be a Christian. He was fine with me being an atheist and committed to helping me be a more effective one. Whenever I am tempted to lump all Christians together and apply categorical statements, I recall this professor as one of the exceptions.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2009. It was revised and expanded in 2019.