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How to Educate an Atheist

n atheist friend of mine was worried that his children would turn out to be religious.[1] He suggested–I am not sure how seriously–that the way to assure their ultimate acceptance of atheism was to subject them to strict religious training. He maintained that this training would cause his children to become atheists. My friend surely had a point. We all know nonbelievers who as children rebelled against their strict religious upbringings. Unfortunately, it does not always or even usually turn out that way. In any case, atheists come to their atheism in many different ways and the stories of conversions to atheism are manifold.’

But the question of atheistic education is not how atheists come to their atheism but, being atheists, what they should learn and how they should learn it. I take it that the aim of atheistic education is not to convert believers to atheists but to make people well educated atheists. By a well-educated atheist I don’t mean simply a person who is well educated and an atheist. I mean a person who is well educated as an atheist. The question then arises of what it is to be well educated as an atheist.’

There is also a distinction to be drawn between educating someone about atheism and educating someone to be an atheist. Educating people about atheism involves, among other things, educating them about the rich intellectual and cultural heritage of atheism and the long persecution of atheists. Its aim is to give believers and nonbelievers alike an understanding and appreciation of atheism as a cultural and intellectual movement.’

There is no reason why education about atheism cannot be provided in public schools and universities. Indeed, it is only long-standing prejudice and irrational fear of atheism and perhaps the failure to make the distinction between educating someone to be an atheist and educating someone about atheism that has prevented education about atheism from being part of the public school curriculum. To teach about atheism is simply to present atheism as a cultural, historical, and philosophical phenomenon. It takes no stand on the truth of atheism and makes no effort to get students to adopt the habits of mind and heart associated with atheism or to be antireligious. In this sense atheistic education has just as much of a place in the public school curriculum as Platonism. For example, one can teach students about Platonism and take no position on whether this stance is correct and whether it should be followed.’

With respect to teaching about atheism in the public schools I heartily applaud the efforts of Jack Massen’s OABITAR (Objectivity and Balance In Teaching About Religion), and Gerald Larue’s Freethought Across the Centuries. By using Massen’s program and Larue’s book in college courses that teach about religion a fairer and a more objective account of freethought in schools could be provided than is being provided now. However, these worthy labors should not make us forget that schools are not the only institutions that educate. As Jane Roland Martin has pointed out, institutions from art galleries to public TV, from public libraries to science museums all serve as educational agencies in our society. These institutions have their own biases against atheism and freethought. Ask yourself, for example, when your public library last displayed books by nonbelievers, when PBS presented a program on atheism, when your local science museum featured the conflict between science and religion.’

Important as educating about atheism is, I will not say anything more about it here except to note that it is necessary but not sufficient for educating someone to be an atheist. This latter will involve education in the understanding and appreciating of atheism as a cultural and intellectual movement. But more is involved.

Atheism 101

Making someone well educated as an atheist has several aspects. In the US and many other countries atheism is a minority movement whose members are under attack by powerful forces in society. In order to survive and flourish atheists need to know how to defend themselves intellectually and how to organize into groups that support and further atheism. Thus, in addition to being educated in intellectual defense they need to develop character traits that further the growth of atheistic cooperation and community. In large part this sort of education cannot occur in the public schools in the US without violating the constitutional separation of Church-State since it would surely be considered favoring anti-religion over religion and not remaining neutral.’

Given this cultural and historical context let us distinguish three different types of goals of atheistic education: First, there is the acquisition of factual knowledge. Atheists need factual knowledge about the history of freethought but they also need knowledge that is useful in defending their position: for instance, knowledge of the criticisms of standard arguments for the existence of God. Since the Bible has such authority in religious societies such as our own, they also need to know the contradictions and the factual and moral errors found in that book. Believers need to be constantly reminded that their arguments are fallacious and that in citing to the Bible they are appealing to a book that is deeply flawed.’

Atheists also need to have factual knowledge relevant to furthering atheism in our society. Here ethical knowledge is especially important so that atheists can appraise their own efforts from a moral point of view and develop ethical principles free from religion. For example, many religious believers have argued that ethics must be based on religion. A thorough knowledge of ethical theory would enable atheists to rebut by pointing out the weaknesses of religious based ethics and the strengths of secular systems. Knowledge about the laws governing church-state relations would also be useful. Indeed, without it, it would be impossible to know which laws to target for change and whether certain atheistic initiatives were in keeping with the law.’

However, it is a serious mistake to suppose that acquisition of factual knowledge is the only goal of atheistic education. There is also the acquisition of knowledge how; that is, the acquisition of skills. For example, consider the abilities to analyze anti-atheistic arguments on the editorial page, to organize atheistic groups, to articulate a well reasoned atheistic position in public. These skills are not simply gained by reading books on logic, public speaking and organization theory. Rather, they are learned through practice. Moreover, they may not be easily transferred from one realm to another. Thus, the skill of thinking critically in the context of physics may not transfer very well to thinking critically about, say, claims about the paranormal. We know, for example, that trained scientists are often gullible and naive in evaluating the claims of alleged psychic marvels such as Uri Geller. The skills of being a critical thinker in the context of science may not transfer very well to realm of religion either. We all know brilliant and creative scientists who are naive and gullible in their acceptance of religion. So critical thinking as applied to religion might well have to learn in the religious context. Moreover, if one acquires the skills of critical thinking as this bears on religion this does not entail that other skills relevant to atheism will be mastered. Atheists can be expert critical thinkers in matters religious but unless they know how to organize, communicate, and get along with each other atheism, as a movement, is surely doomed.’

However, the acquisition of factual knowledge and of skills is still not enough for educating someone to be a well-educated atheist. Atheists can acquire the knowledge and skill that are relevant to atheism and yet not develop a tendency to apply this knowledge and skill in their lives. For example, it is one thing to know how to think critically on matters religious and another thing to have the propensity to do so. The development of tendencies is perhaps the most difficult goal of atheistic education to achieve as it is in many other areas.’

For many years at Boston University I taught a course entitled Philosophy of Science and the Occult. The aim of the course was to get students to be critical about the claims of the occult. In the course we considered claims about the Bermuda Triangle, ESP, UFOs, dowsing and the like. Students were instructed to be suspicious of unsupported claims, to evaluate the evidence, to be on the alert for fraud and bias, and so on. Late in the semester, when I thought my students had incorporated the critical goals of the course into their ways of life, I introduced the topic of dowsing. We discussed the necessity of showing that the success rate of dowsers is above what one could expect by chance, why controlled experiments are so important, why the dowsing rod seems to–but does not–move by itself, and so on. Then one of my students invited a famous dowser to give a lecture to the class. I was confident that my instruction and nearly a semester of learning critical thinking skills connected with the occult would keep my students from being taken in by the dowser’s claim. I was completely wrong. Although he made the most outrageous claims about the power of dowsing rods, for example, that they could detect the position of our nuclear submarines on a world map far too many of my students believed every word. Why? He seemed so believable, so trustworthy, and so confident that all of my instruction was forgotten. The moral of my story is that my students had the relevant knowledge and even skills but had not acquired the tendency to apply them to new situations.’

There are three main propensities that atheistic education needs to instill in atheists. One important one is to be proud of the intellectual and cultural heritage of atheism and atheists. Another important propensity is to be sensitive to issues relating to atheism. This includes sensitivity to church-state issues, the political power of religion in our society, and the influence of religion on the media. Without this sensitivity atheists will not stay abreast of the latest incursions of religion and will not be able to defend themselves. Notice again that an atheist could have the relevant factual knowledge and even skills concerning these issues and yet not be sensitive to the issues that appear in daily life. A third crucial tendency is to act in positive ways upon one’s atheistic convictions. One might be proud of the accomplishments of atheism and sensitive to issues affecting atheism and yet remain passive. However, passive atheism is not an atheism that will survive or flourish as social movement. I was delighted to read the letterhead of the Rationalist Society of St. Louis: “To separate state and church, oppose supernaturalism and injustice, and promote the study of science.” This language certainly suggests active engagement in the world, not passivity.’

Atheistic Education in Practice

Given that atheists need certain knowledge, skills, and propensities how should atheistic education proceed? When should it start? Who should be the educators?

Children’s Education: Ideally it should start in early childhood. However, this is not absolutely necessary since we all know people who are well educated as atheists but had a religious upbringing. Still most atheistic parents have the desire to educate their children to be atheists and since they know this education will not occur in the public schools, they think in terms of home education. However, although this home education in being an atheist is certainly desirable, it must done in such a way that children don’t rebel. Nothing should be forced or unpleasant or else atheist parents, to their dismay may find their children embracing evangelical Christianity.’

Perhaps the best sort of home education for children should not seem like education at all: Let them simply pick up the attitudes and ways of thought of their atheistic parents from causal conversations and day-to-day living. This informal and unconscious education, of course, can be supplemented and improved upon in various ways by more formal and explicit methods. First children’s books can used be to teach critical thinking.[2] For example, in Joe Nickell’s, The Magic Detectives (Prometheus Books) thirty actual cases of seemingly supernatural and paranormal phenomena are presented. At least two of the cases are directly relevant to religion: The Shroud of Turin and The Religious Healer, The Reverend Peter Popoff. The young reader is asked to provide solutions to the mysteries based on clues provided in the presentations and to compare his or her answers with those in the book that show how the mystery is solved in rational terms. Readers are told not to be discouraged if their answers differ from the ones in the book for they may have valuable ideas that are worth talking over with their science teachers. They are told that the important thing is to think critically. They are urged to try their hand at solving other mysteries they have heard of by doing research and are referred to sources listed at the end of the book.’

There is no doubt that, if used well, Nickell’s book can be a valuable aid in helping atheistic parents to teach children to be critical thinkers with respect to religion. However, parents will have to see that their children do not just read this book, but actually tried to solve the mysteries before looking up the answers. For example, each mystery could be discussed as a family project before the book’s answer was read. In addition, the model of critical thinking provided by the solutions could be applied to other cases not found in the book and could thus become a habitual approach. The skeptical critical stance taken in the book could thus become part of a child’s way of life.’

Such books should aim to present the evidence and arguments for atheism and not present atheism as another dogma.’

Another supplement to informal parental education may shock some. Children raised in atheistic homes should be exposed to religion in churches, on TV, in books etc., but initially only with the guidance of an atheistic parent who encourages the child to ask critical questions. For example, a family project might be to watch a TV preacher, see how many unsupported or dubious claims he or she makes, and consider what type of evidence, if any, could support or refute these claims. Needless to say, the spirit that should pervade this family project should be one of honest inquiry and openness, not mean spirited dismissal.’

Parents should teach their children about brave and compassionate skeptics and rationalists of the past for the purpose of providing them with rationalistic role models. This might involve reading stories to their children about the lives and work of famous freethinkers and religious critics and discussing these books with their children.’

As an illustration of a unified approach to atheistic education at home let me briefly describe the educational program a couple designed for their three school age children. Their goal was to educate their children to be critical thinkers. Raising them to become atheists was a by-product. Their children read The Magic Detectives and magazines like Zillions: For Kids from Consumer Reports. They did math and logic and watched TV programs such as “Bill Nye: The Science Guy.”‘

Dinnertime topics of conversation were especially worthwhile. The family talked about the logical problems of time travel, the existence of homophobia in our society, Galileo’s objections to Aristotle’s notion that heavy bodies fall faster than light ones, and the National Day of Mourning commemorating the genocide of Native Americans. They critiqued popular books or TV programs that promote the public enjoyment of pseudologic and pseudoscience, such as the Sherlock Holmes mysteries by Arthur Conan Doyle and the Star Trek TV series by Gene Roddenberry.’

Home education is not the only type of atheistic education for children, however. There is also the equivalent of an atheist Sunday school. Here instruction takes place in some atheistic or rationalistic center. One good example of this is the work done at the North Texas Church of Freethought by Tim and Deborah Gorski. This is a real church with community spirit, uplifting sermons, church socials, a singles group, and Sunday school–except that there is no mention of God. Deborah Gorski is the church’s Youth Education Director and runs two Sunday school classes–one for children from infancy to 5 years old and another for children from 6 years to 14 years. She selects a factual or scientifically related topic for each Sunday School class. These range from evolution to meteorology to human anatomy. In her classes she teaches critical thinking skills as well as how to cope with the problems of being an atheist in a largely unsympathetic world. For example, one such problem is how atheistic boys should deal with being bullied by Christian boys. There is another such program at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, NY. Divided into sessions on moral education, critical thinking, and scientific knowledge about evolution, the program has been expanded and refined each time it has been given.’

Another example of atheistic education for children outside the home is a humanist summer camp, called Camp Quest, run by the Free Inquiry Group Inc. of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. Activities at the camp include standard fare such as arts and crafts, nature walks, and folk dancing and also workshops on ecology and astronomy that stress the meaning of secular humanism. The children are taught that there are no gods, devils, heaven or hell, that by careful thinking and the use of science we can understand our world and solve our problems, that we are all citizens of the same world and that people working together can make a better world.

Adult Education: Adult atheistic education can take many different forms. Among them are taking courses and study groups sponsored by atheistic organizations; atheistic books, newspapers, and articles printed in the standard way and on web sites; sponsoring atheistic essay contests; and atheistic songs.’

The Center for Inquiry-Midwest and the Eupraxophy Center in Kansas City has one of the most extensive humanist adult education programs in the world. In the last several years it has offered a wide variety of courses, lectures, and discussions. For example, in the Fall of 1997 its offered a Free Thought class on the historicity of Jesus, and in 1995 its Sunday School Without Religion gave a mini course on the question: Does God Exist? Its outstanding work is a perfect illustration of one of my earlier points: atheists need to have knowledge that is useful in defending their position. The Eupraxophy Center’s educational program attempts to meet this need.

A more formal approach to acquiring the knowledge and skill necessary to evaluate religious claims is the program developed at the Center for Inquiry Institute at Amherst, NY. This Institute was founded in 1987 as a joint project of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Paranormal and the Council of Secular Humanism. The Institute has three year certificate programs in two areas. Among the courses that have been offered that are most relevant to educating someone to be an atheist are: Scientific Examination of Religion, Humanistic Ethics, Biblical Criticism, Examining Miraculous Claims, and Separation of Church and State.’

Atheists who cannot or do not wish to take formal courses to help acquire critical knowledge concerning theistic arguments are not without resources. One such is the Secular Web where they can keep abreast of new atheistic arguments, read critical reviews of religious books, and follow debates between atheists and theists. Atheistic essay contests have been used by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin. A few years ago, for example, the organization sponsored both high school and college essay contests. Such contests make clear that rejecting religion and being a freethinker is not something to be ashamed of. They encourage atheists to be proud to make their well-articulated views public. In addition to this educational function these contests create young role models. It is quite clear from the personal descriptions of prize winning young freethinkers in Freethought Today that they are not only good writers but ambitious, idealistic and talented.’

Singing atheistic songs is a powerful but usually overlooked educational tool. Music brings people together by creating community spirit, stirring the emotions and educating the heart not just the head. Religious leaders understand this lesson very well and use music as an essential part of religions training. Unfortunately, few atheists’ leaders have provided moving songs for their groups. However, there is no reason why atheists cannot create new words to the stirring music of hymns. Indeed, this is precisely what Barbara Stocker did in writing new words for the best known of all American hymn tunes, Amazing Grace, which she called Amazing Place (copyright 1998 Barbara Hamill Stocker).

Amazing place, this world I find,’
No gods nor creed need be.’
I once believed, but now my mind’
Unbound, at last is free.

A mind that’s free to plan and build’
For all humanity’
Will find its life and dreams fulfilled’
In true eupraxophy

I need not strive for heaven above’
Nor fear no hell below.’
So free to live in peace and love’
In kinship I will grow.

No prayer of mine need e’re be heard,’
Just rationality,’
For reason reigns o’er holy word’
For all humanity.

Atheistic newsletters and newspapers can also serve an important education function for their readers. An important tendency that atheists should acquire is sensitivity to issues affecting atheism such as church state issues, and the political power of religion. Atheistic newsletters and newspapers can sensitize their reader to those issues both local and national that are not covered by their local media. Secular Subjects perform this function. So does The Newsletter of the Rational Society of St. Louis and FFRF’s Freethought Today.

Conclusion: Prospects for the Future

The prospects for atheistic education are closely tied to the prospects of atheism movement as a whole. Although progress is being made too few atheistic groups have the equivalent of Sunday schools and adult education programs. Better and more children’s books need to written, and more extensive certification programs are needed. In short, atheistic educators have done well with limited resources. But they need our support to do more and better work.


[1] This article was based on a talk presented at the 1998 Atheist Alliance Conference.

[2] See Michael Martin, “Atheistic Education,” (1999, Feb. 8,’ https://infidels.org/library/modern/michael_martin/education.html).

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