Students raise challenging questions during my high school world religions presentation

January 23, 2010

This week for the fourth time I was invited to give presentations to a high school World Religions course.  About a year ago I reported in Skeptical Inquirer magazine on my first set of presentations in an article entitled " Talking Skepticism to Generation Y ."  I had stated at the time that an appropriate way to divide a two-part presentation would be by introducing critical thinking and scientific naturalism as overarching worldviews or ways of looking at knowledge, and then insisting that that would lead to skeptical inquiry on the one hand and secular humanism on the other.  This assessment still seems to hold.

The most enjoyable part of these experiences is always the questions that get raised.  It’s curious how there are certain themes that seem to arise repeatedly.  I’m always ready for a question on life after death, immortality or heaven and hell, but what’s fascinating is that this question often takes the form of puzzlement over our lack of belief in the existence of souls.  I found it odd that youth should be so concerned with issues of death and dying, but since they were I opted to play them a scene from A Brief History of Disbelief in which narrator Jonathan Miller, who is himself advanced in years, ponders his mortality and interviews an atheist on her deathbed. 

Beyond issues of death, some students have deep trouble coming to terms with a worldview that denies anything beyond the physical and temporal.  This was at the heart of repeated questions regarding psychics and ghosts.  There seemed to be an insistence that even if we rejected god we must accept some supernatural elements to the universe.  Case in point:  another question I get a lot is whether I believe in miracles.  In essence I believe students would do well with a course in critical thinking to give them the tools to cut through a lot of nonsense.  It’s telling though that they seem to see religious beliefs as not really of a different kind than paranormal beliefs and other beliefs that are outside of science.  That inseparability of paranormal and religious nonsense is interesting, given our arbitrary separation of the two for political reasons in the freethought movement. 

The students would do well with such a dose of critical thinking because in my opinion they have still not come to terms with the notion that there is a difference between wanting something to be true and it actually being true.  Towards that end, I played them a video of Michael Shermer’s Baloney Detection Kit, courtesy of Rrichard Dawkins Foundation (RDF) TV.  Shermer goes through a number of ways to test claims, especially when they coincide with your most cherished beliefs since it is in those situations that we are most vulnerable to deception.

When the teacher asked me for ways in which atheists were marginalized in Canadian society and I spoke about the issue of god in our national anthem, one student asked me quite seriously if I was Canadian.  I wasn’t quite sure the meaning of the question, but it gave me an opportunity to insist that a real patriot does well to question elements in his or her country that are in need of change.  After all, if a true Canadian accepts without criticism every aspect of the country into which they are born, we would never pass new laws or throw governments out of power.

There also seemed to be a desire by the students to understand atheism and humanism in terms of the religions they had been studying.  So there was an insistence that our "Affirmations of secular humanism" were akin to a religious text, even after I gave several explanations as to why they were different, such as being written by people rather than god, the fact that they are constantly being re-evaluated, and the fact that no secular humanists embraces each and every point.  There was also a question about whether we had places of worship and holidays.  Finally, one questioner asked whether we didn’t when necessary invoke god in dangerous situations.  I suppose she wanted to know if atheists weren’t actually cheating when it was convenient. 

These sorts of innocent but crucially wrong beliefs that atheists are insincere or just another type of religion underline the deep necessity for world religions classes to regularly feature atheist spokespeople and units on secular humanism.

A final discovery I made, and perhaps the most important, was how hard it was to put the students at ease and get them to laugh.  They didn’t find it amusing when I insisted they think for themselves rather than following authority figures and that I sincerely hoped they didn’t take me for an authority, as I was hardly older than they.  Nor did they crack a smile when, after they had each read one of the affirmations of secular humanism out loud, I declared that they were now officially secular humanists. However, I am quite prepared to concede that this is more a discovery of my own lack of humour than anything at all regarding the students.