05 June 2014

A Matter of Belief

There's been a lot of talk on-line about a movie called "God's Not Dead" in which an evil atheist professor forces his students to sign a declaration saying "God is Dead" to pass his class.  (Of course the Christian hero doesn't and wins the day.)  Well, contrary to certain ultra-fundamentalist myths, that doesn't happen.  No professor requires anyone to sign anything against their personal beliefs.  But we do often require them to learn things that don't necessarily agree with their beliefs and therein hangs a tale.
When I was teaching World and Asian history at university, I honestly developed a resentment towards certain types of the home-schooled.  There was the guy who, when I started talking about Charles Darwin, put down his pencil and refused to take a single note.  He didn't care that I wasn't teaching science but history. He didn't care that Social Darwinism was a major part of racism, militarism and WWI.  He wasn't going to learn about Darwin.  Period. Full-stop.

There was another who, when I asked for the connection between the Mexican Revolution and Karl Marx, wrote "Communism is a failed ideology".  (By the way, the correct answer is that Mexico claims that its revolution was the first Communist revolution, which it is.)  He wrote this for EVERY question about Communism, and I gave him a zero every time.  Communism was a huge problem for a number of people, by the way.  They just didn't want to have to learn about it, since, after all, the Berlin Wall had fallen, the Empire was destroyed, and Communism was dead.  (I'd remind them about China, and sometimes there would be a moment of silence followed by a long sigh as most of them picked their pencils back up.  But not all...)

There was always one person who, when I was teaching about Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Islam, etc., had to explain to the class how Christianity was the only true religion.  Sometimes they would demand to know my beliefs, and I would say "I'm here to teach history, not proselytize", but they wouldn't get the hint. In fact, they usually decided that I must be an atheist, since I didn't let them preach to the class.  That or I was a Roman Catholic, and if you can see the logic to that, please explain it to me.

The connecting thread here is that these people all thought that learning ABOUT something was the same as believing IN it.  They really felt that if they learned about a political alternative, like socialism or communism, or a religious alternative, like Buddhism or Islam, they were (1) accepting it, (2) approving it, (3) in danger of becoming it.  Even though they had no problem hosing up all the info they could get about Nazis or serial killers.  Sometimes  they could take it if it was far enough in the past - I could talk paganism till the cows came home, and discuss Plato and Aristotle, Stoicism and Epicureanism.  Although they did get a little nervous when I'd point out the points in Platonism and Stoicism that had been adopted by early Christianity...

But, as I said, I developed a resentment.  I got so sick of trying to teach them that learning about something outside their comfort zone was not me trying to convert them, but was quite simply trying to get them to understand how the world got the way it is, today.  I had to teach them how to learn fearlessly.  And in the process, I realized how much the concept of learning about something = believing in something is a wonderful tool to control people. I don't know what these students were being taught at home, but I do know that if you scare people so they won't learn, you can tell them almost anything.  You have gotten them to put bars on their own minds, which only makes it harder to ever get them off.

Orwell got these statements straight from Jean Jacques Rousseau's "The Social Contract".  But you'd have to have taken notes in my class to know it.


  1. Although not in a classroom, I have encountered the unwillingness to learn anything about certain topics, which I attribute to fear. But fear of what? Of being seduced? Fear of one’s own weakness? Or fear that one’s government or church might somehow be peeping into one’s life?

    A friend was horrified I looked at North Korea’s web site as if I would somehow become lost. Another friend wouldn’t read Al Jazeera, claiming it was a tool of Al Quaida, never mind the news agency worked as hard as the US to expose and oppose Bin Laden.

    The great irony is that Sun Tzu in the Art of War advised us to learn everything about one’s enemy, everything possible. Thus in a way, one could argue that by refusing to learn, one is also refusing to fully embrace one’s own beliefs.

    I have a good, good friend who is, or at least was, a staunch communist. Because she’s a dear friend, I listen to her before I put in my oar. And she certainly makes one good point regarding the horrors of the far right. In listening, I discovered behind the façade of her ideology, her puzzled, irreconcilable concern how the ‘beautiful dream’ attracted such madmen as Stalin, Dzerzhinsky, and Mao, the horrors of the far left. When Soviet communism fell and Chinese communism turned toward a entrepreneurism, she became disillusioned but our friendship provided a path to acceptance. (It hasn’t helped that the greed of bankers, brokers, and mortgagors a decade ago badly bruised the image of a free market economy.)

  2. A thoughtful piece. I remember back in the 50's when the idea of learning about Communism was still at least mildly controversial, even in the northeast.

  3. I was a university professor for many years, and your post certainly reminded me of one of the reasons I don't do that any more. I taught biology. I have never been able to understand or make peace with the terror people have when faced with simply learning about something of which they disapprove. There really is a belief that if they learn about it, they will somehow realize it's not as evil as they had thought, and they will be corrupted and destroyed. It makes education into literally a sinister plot to ensnare and entrap the unwary. It makes it nearly impossible to do thing you've been hired to do for them: teach them about something they don't know yet.

  4. Eve, the workings of the human mind is a constantly fascinating (if not also frustrating) subject. Great article.

  5. When I was in college I TAed for my Western Civ instructor, and in the second class (of four in the series), we studied the development of early Christianity from a purely historical perspective. I had to talk one or two true-believer students down off the ledge whenever that class came around. One woman had her crisis of faith at home one weekend and called me. (I gave all the students my home phone number, despite the other TAs telling me I was crazy; nobody ever abused it, amazingly enough.)

    I was on the phone with her for a couple of hours, explaining that learning to use the historical point of view, like a tool, didn't mean giving up her faith, or replacing her faith with the historical perspective. I compared it with my own experience with computers -- I'm a PC person and always have been, but at an office job I had for almost a decade, I worked for a company that was on the Mac standard. I don't like Macs, never have, but for work I had to learn to use them, and the software packages the company used on them. I got good with them, learned to troubleshoot, and became one of the people others in my department came to for help. It didn't mean I liked or preferred Macs, and when I went home I happily settled down at my PC. But while I was at work I competently used the Mac. And while she was in our class, she needed to learn to competently use the historical perspective.

    It worked. I never had a student walk out, or just refuse to learn what was, after all, about half the term's material. Just as well. The instructor (who did her own share of talking-off-the-ledge, with students who preferred going to her) would've had no problem failing them.

    Which, I think, is the only valid response if they get stubborn. [shrug] Try to explain and make them comfortable, but if they aren't having any, then you deduct points as appropriate and let the GPA fall where it may.


  6. Angie, if you take on Macs, you really are talking religion!

  7. Actually, I do see a kind of logic to the Catholic comparison. Among a lot of the more insular, and fundamentalist, Christian denominations there is still a strong suspicion of all things Catholic, a church they see as worldly and corrupt idolaters (the pedophile scandal has hardly helped there). But, it's an old tradition stemming from the days it was preached as gospel in England, and elsewhere, that Catholics were treasonous in their loyalty to the pope and in league with the secular enemies of Britain, not to mention apostates. That tradition certainly got carried over to America, so I can see how you might have been cast down among us by its adherents when you refused to let them preach.

    As you say, learning is not analogous to conversion, so there's not much to fear in the end. I suspect that some of the harder heads were feeling unsure, as young people are wont to, and fearful of the result of exposure. With age, I've found the opposite to be true, my own faith has been strengthened by the study of history. And though it remains difficult not to be intolerant of the intolerant, both religious and atheist, I just put my head down and keep going.

  8. More thoughts, Eve:

    My school, Rose-Hulman Tech, née Rose Polytechnic Institute, used to invite a leading communist to present his views to the college. It wasn’t to inculcate a belief in communism, but to civilly provide a forum demonstrating that all may be respectfully heard. I don’t think anyone was convinced, but we were polite.

    God is Dead was a theological movement with an in-your-face name. The finer points could be argued, but on the one hand, theologists argued that modern man (and woman) acted as if God were dead, and on the other hand offered a model of Christianity that was more reachable, that God wasn’t somewhere up in the sky, but walked among us. The actual phrase came from Nietzsche and Hegel: “God is dead… and we have killed Him.”

    Some might argue the usual suspects: Bakker, Falwell, Hinn, Schafly, Swaggart, and Tilton.

  9. David, thanks for an explanation of something that has always remained a mystery...
    Leigh and Agnes, it's comforting (?) to know that others have been through the same experience.
    I totally agree with Sun Tzu, which is why I do check out certain pod casts, websites, etc., with whom I totally disagree: know your enemy! And I wonder if this thinking is part of what has made some of our foreign policy so abysmal: that people aren't going by history and facts, but beliefs...
    Just got back from vacation with the kids; thanks, all!

  10. Eve, you make me sorry I missed the chance to get online yesterday. Really enjoyed this.
    I've long held: Learning about an opposing view is not dangerous, but ignorance of it may well be.


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