August 17, 2020

Who is Qualified to Teach a Class on Atheism?

pencil sharpener

Suppose a public high school in the United States decided to offer a class on Islam and was careful to design it in such a way that it presented factual content and not pro- or anti-Islam material. Depending on where this school was located, I suspect many of the local Christians would be outraged. Additionally, I suspect that they would be outraged no matter who was teaching the course, as long as they thought it was presenting Islam as anything but a false religion.

Now suppose that instead of Islam, this same high school decided to offer a class on Christianity. I suspect many of the local Christians would be thrilled until they realized that the class was taught by a Muslim, a Jew, a Catholic, an atheist, or anyone else they perceived as being unlikely to teach the class in such a way that it promoted Christianity as more valid than other religions. That is to say, they'd probably not welcome anything less than pro-Christian content taught by someone they considered a real Christian or at least the right kind of Christian.

Aside from the ever-present subject of religious intolerance, this raises some interesting questions. Who would be qualified to teach a class on Islam or Christianity? Must we have a practicing Muslim or Christian, or would someone who studied Islam or Christianity without ever adhering to it be acceptable? If this was a public school and we truly wanted to have the course taught in an objective way that did not favor any one religion over others, might we be best served by having an atheist teach it?

And while I realize that this is a bit of a detour, who would be qualified to teach a class on atheism? Would we insist that it had to be an atheist, or would we accept a religious believer who had studied atheism? I would accept a religious believer who had studied atheism, but I am suspicious that I might not have a lot of company among atheists.

Now that I think about it, maybe raising this issue isn't such a detour after all. Since atheism does not include any sort of belief system or worldview, there isn't anything an atheist has to believe. The atheist simply lacks belief in gods. And so, it wouldn't seem to make much sense to say that only an atheist would be qualified to teach a class on atheism. Why would believing in gods prevent a religious person from being able to understand atheism? In the same say, why would not believing in gods prevent an atheist from being able to understand Islam or Christianity? I don't think it would unless what we are really after is much closer to indoctrination than education.

Atheist parents of children attending a school where a religious believer was teaching a class on atheism might be concerned that the teacher would really present an unbiased view of atheism. Given how much experience they've had with religious bigotry, this concern seems justified. Religious parents of children attending a school where an atheist was teaching a class on their preferred religion might be concerned that the teacher would really present an unbiased view of their religion. Given how many atheists feel about religion, this concern seems justified too. Then again, I suspect that the greater concern among religious parents would be that their religion would not be afforded the respect they think it deserves. Objectivity and neutrality are not generally what they are looking for, at least not when it comes to their religion.

Atheism does not involve faith of any sort, and this frees atheist parents up to be okay with a religious believer teaching about atheism as long as that religious believer sticks to the facts and does not push their religion (or religiosity in general) as the superior alternative to atheism. Most religions are dependent on faith, and this traps religious parents in paranoia over the possibility that an atheist teacher might stick to the facts. After all, facts are not conducive to faith.