Teaching Atheism at a Catholic University

Paul Breines. Radical Teacher. Issue 35. July, 1988.

In the spring semester, 1986, I offered a new course called “Atheism in Modern Europe” in the history department at Boston College (B.C.). My field of purported competence is modern European intellectual history, which accounts for the temporal and geographic limits in the course title, although it turned out to be inaccurate in any case as the course quickly became a colloquy on believing or not believing here and now, rather than a history course in any coherent sense. Those enrolled referred to it simply as the atheism course. Since B.C. is administered by Jesuits and roughly 85 percent of the undergraduate student body is Catholic, one might expect that a course sympathetically presenting atheist ideas would have caused some ripples. In fact it caused hardly any, which is surely a token of both the liberal tendencies in contemporary U.S. Catholicism and the privitization of religion in the culture as a whole. Had the course offered sympathetic accounts of homosexuality or women’s rights to abortion, there would have been ripples. Otherwise it seems that, although revived fundamentalism may change things, here at least (as in much of the West), the old infame is not what it used to be; nor, as a consequence, is the work of ecrassez-ing it.

Prior to the semester’s start, one student did appeal to me to change the title to one more innocuous because her parents did not want her studying atheism and if the course were not so named, they would not know. She took it anyway, contributed a good deal, and did not emerge an atheist. Partly in jest and partly to cover a flank, my chairperson’s annual report to the administration cited the then forthcoming atheism course as one which likely would contribute to the mission of enlivening the Catholic consciousness of B.C. students. In many ways, he was not off the mark. Of the thirty-five students who took the course, two were atheists at the outset. One described himself as more or less as Rosicrucian. The rest, in varying degrees of piety, were Catholic. By the term’s end, two of this latter group indicated in emotional statements in my office that they thought they had stopped believing in God. I am not sure, nor were they, whether the course was the cause of their decisions, which in any case seemed tentative and exploratory rather than final. My own atheistic faith, meanwhile, remained unshaken, though I was impressed and often moved by the candor and honesty with which many of the students discussed their religious convictions.

A brief note on these students as a group, who are by and large representative of the larger B.C. scene. They are the children of the Second Vatican Council and of substantial changes in the demographics (the suburbanization and de-parochialization) of U.S. Catholicism. Most of them come from college-educated parents who practice birth control and are sufficiently affluent to stay abreast of the yearly and large increases in tuition costs. Not long ago an all boys, mainly local, and mainly working-class school, B.C. is now co-ed, recruits nationally, and admits 2,000 freshmen from some 14,000 applicants. A sense of conndence seems to run through the student body here, as does a certain Yuppie-in-training callousness. A feeling of empowerment is especially notable among female students, who also tend to be more inclined than the males towards critical or radical appraisals of things. Either out of conviction or recently acquired habit, B.C. students tend to be tolerant (if not always toward blacks and homosexuals) and pluralistic: surely a welcome development, against the backdrop of Catholicism’s authoritarian history. On the other hand, and this is not peculiar to students here, they are inclined to be less stirred than was an earlier generation by supposedly radical works and ideas. In the 1950’s and early 1960’s, many of my Catholic peers in high school and college read Joyce and Nietszche surreptitiously, in the face of the Vatican Index, and often had their lives altered in the process. Nietszche and Joyce are now common fare; my students regularly find them “neat.” They also, to close this little sketch, see religion as a private, personal matter. Neither fundamentalism, nor efforts to politicize religion, nor calls for consensus around Christian values seems to have impact among them.

Returning to the course itself, I had decided to offer it for related but mixed reasons. One was that the religious upsurge in this country and globally had been making me more aware of my own atheism, which five years ago seemed beside the point. Then, the very impulse to be more open as an atheist made me realize just how little I knew about it in any rigorous way. Having been raised in a secular home and having matured in the new left culture of the 1960’s, where the historic battles with clericalism and religion had become a virtual dead letter, I simply took atheism for granted. Moreover, as was the case for most of my cohort, the main contacts I did have with religion were not with its repressive and authoritarian forms, which had inspired the anti-clericalism of every previous generation of leftists, but with the exciting social Christianity of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. That experience had in turn generated my academic interest in the religiously tinged socialism of such central European figures as Gustav Landauer, Ernst Bloch, and Georg Lukacs earlier in this century. Offering a course on atheism, then, also seemed an opportunity to investigate further my apparent soft spot for religion.

Finally, the course took shape in response to interaction with students. In other classes and numerous informal discussions, atheism continuously cropped up as a subject of special interest to many students. A number of them, including bright and apparently worldly ones, indicated, for example, that they had never met an atheist and seemed keenly interested in how a person could live without faith that one’s soul would go to heaven for eternity, or how one could be a “good” person without belief in God. They often pressed me about what I believed in if not in God–any God–and wanted to communicate their own convictions. A course on atheism seemed the ideal way of continuing these interesting encounters.

Once the idea of the course took shape, I did not plan it with great care, just with enthusiasm. Nor was my aim to make converts to atheism, since this is not my impulse as a teacher. Some students in the course found this frustrating; even several of the quite religious ones wanted more direct and polemical confrontations with atheism than I tended to initiate. Others eventually concluded that the course was in fact more challenging and threatening precisely because it contrasted so sharply with their own religious upbringings, training in catechism classes where they were told what to believe, and even experiences in some theology classes which lacked unguarded explorations of issues. Pedagogical questions became a motif in the course itself, usually because I raised them. I began several classes, for example, with the question: How am I doing as a publicist for atheism? One student proposed that I was a better advocate of open discussion, tolerance, and diversity than for atheism itself, which I appreciated deeply, even as I was trying to get myself, without success, more directly to take on my students’ religious convictions.

Does this suggest a liberal rather than a radical teacher? My own conviction is that the potential radicalism of the classroom has three elements. One is the content of the ideas, information, and methods of thinking the teacher presents; another is the teacher’s openness to the views presented by students; the third, and to me the most important, is that the classroom is the place for both teachers and students to encounter uncertainty, departures from prepared texts, surprises, unfamiliar and uncomfortable thoughts. I do not know of ways to plan such moments, but you can be ready to welcome them when they arise on their own They are more apt to arise, I think in courses presented for the first time, when the instructor tends to be fruitfully unsure of things in ways that will not be the case the second and later times around. It also helps, of course, if you are discussing such subjects as God, death, evil, hope, and the purposes of life. What I valued most about the atheism course was that the pedagogical “close encounters” just referred to were fairly frequent.

The students quickly turned a lecture course with scheduled discussions into a discussion course with periodic lectures. Most of the students were more interested in what I thought would become of me after my physical death than in what I had to say about the gestation of Marx’s critique of religion from Hegelian and Feuerbachian philosophies. Concern with theological issues posed by atheism was low compared with students’ preoccupation with integrity, authenticity, consistency, and, conversely, hypocrisy and phoniness in matters religious. Among the assigned readings, for example, Denis Diderot’s The Nun was the most popular text. While it is vigorously anti-clerical, it is also the least atheistic of the works we read. Most students readily identified with the innocent and pure Christian faith of the heroine, Suzanne, who is victimized by a squad of self-hating and brutal priests and nuns.

The themes of honesty and consistency versus hypocrisy came to dominate the course. In this connection, my own atheist statements and those in such readings as Marquis De Sade’s “Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man” and the essays gathered in Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian often seemed to arouse little consternation because most students simply rejected them in a spirit of bemused tolerance. What troubled and drew anger from a number of the more articulate participants were not the broadside assaults of atheists but, as one young woman put it, the pseudo-Christians who attend Mass, wish everyone peace in Christ after a sermon on love and charity, and then brush off panhandlers on the way home and beat the kids upon arrival.

As the semester progressed, the tension between atheism and belief gave way to one between those students who are, in effect, Catholic anti-clericals and virtual Protestants (confessing directly to God, for example, rather than to their priest), and those fewer on the other side who are more or less Papists or traditional Catholics. In early discussions, many voiced the former position. There were fervent statements from students who felt, as one of them put it, closer to God but further from the church. Several students spoke of having begun to feel distance from the church upon learning, in their early teen years, of the alcoholism, the girl friend, or the fancy car of a previously revered priest. A few others mentioned frustration at the unwillingness of priests and nuns to answer probing questions in catechism class. Some five or six students spoke of having decided, again during high school years, to give up the confessional in favor of communicating directly with God and confessing their sins at times and in places of their own choosing. Of those who followed this course, a few ran into trouble with either family or priest; most did not. It is, I suppose, a sign of the times that not one of this handful of young Catholics (those who stopped going to confession) thought that by moving away from the Catholic church they were moving away from God.

Only one student offered a rejoinder, on the church’s behalf, to these unorthodox sentiments and patterns, and his response was mild enough. Clergy, he argued, are after all only human and the whole church should not be condemned simply because of specific, individual flaws. The atmosphere in the class no doubt inhibited more orthodox Catholic students from expressing themselves, at least initially. On the first of two written assignments, though, this smaller group did express itself, often in bitter statements contending that their classmates had effectively left the church and were simply no longer Catholics in any meaningful sense. Without using names, I reported this development to the class as a whole, but little discussion followed. The dissentient students insisted on their Catholicism while the orthodox students kept quiet.

Two of the more orthodox students were outspoken on such matters as God, Christ, and heaven. One young man in particular showed courage in the context of this class when he made several quite eloquent statements of his faith and its role in his life. Everyone seemed to recognize that it was not easy to do this, since today people tend not to express their inner-most thoughts on religious matters, at least not in classrooms in enlightened Catholic universities. While neither I nor all of the students agreed with him, his statements were sufficiently articulate and heartfelt to have evoked what was at least a consensus of appreciation. At my prompting, this consensus, too, became a topic for analysis because it also had its repressive side. The student who had spoken out on behalf of traditional obedience happened to be a classical nice guy–attractive, considerate, undogmatic, a very model, one could say, of college-level respectability. And he was, after all, speaking as a Catholic in a generally Catholic setting. In contrast, one of the two atheist students and the aspiring Rosicrucian happened to be somewhat odd ducks: the former, disingenuous and tactless; the latter, brainy and caustic in ways that do not sit well at all at B.C., especially when the bearer of these attributes had the habit of staring directly at the ceiling when speaking.

By the third week of the semester, many of their remarks elicited groans and nervous chuckles. I found this very troubling and said so; what seemed to be valuable discussions followed. A number of students appeared genuinely to realize that they had been participating in a form of consensual or social tyranny, and were not pleased. We examined some of the many ways this operates on the larger, society-wide scale. The chuckles and groans soon subsided, though this shift may also have resulted from the fact that I had indicated my agreement with a good deal of what the two uncool students were saying. I confess that, to myself, I was also groaning: with friends such as these two…

As happened with some regularity in this course, the most animated discussions arose when I least expected them. One such cropped up during the first of several exchanges on the question of death. Two students spoke at some length on reports of people who had allegedly returned from the dead and had recounted visions of having passed through a long tunnel at the end of which was a bright light. This, they contended, was a clear indication of the soul’s movement toward heaven. Another argued in response that, no, this was actually a replication of the birth process; a reliving at the moment of death of passage through the birth canal. A third countered that, in nursing school, she learned that such experiences pertained neither to the soul (which, she maintained, does go to heaven) nor to birth, but are chemically induced by a depletion of oxygen to the brain. Varients of each of these theories were then offered by still other students, after which expectant glances began turning my way, if not for the final word, at least for my word on an issue that aroused the whole class. My response was that, as they already knew, I did not believe in a soul in the sense that most of them did; that the oxygen depletion explanation seemed sound to me; but that the best part of the whole discussion was its confirmation of the atheist conviction regarding how fertile and how wonderfully weird our imaginations can be. A distinguishing mark of our species, I argued, is our capacity to give symbolic meaning to our experiences, including symbolic meanings which may distort and repress our experiences.

The theme of death loomed large in the discussions that followed. Looking back, I am struck by my own naivete in not anticipating this as a matter of great interest in a course on atheism. Nor would I have predicted that my contributions to these discussions of death would prove to be the most influential of my remarks of the entire semester, or so a number of students subsequently reported verbally and in written work. What I had to say seemed to me altogether obvious and banal, and still does. Our discussions centered around two points, the first being the conviction, expressed by three or four students, that, if there is no God, king and creator of the universe to whom we return in death for eternal life, then our lives have no meaning or purpose. A number of students indicated that they absolutely could not bear to live without the belief that eternal life awaited them after life on earth. They spoke with fervor, their fears clearly quite real.

I should note here that one of the intriguing aspects of this intense discussion is that nothing like it had arisen when I had, in earlier class hours, lectured on several non-Western religions which posited no notions of either divine creation or an afterlife, and had outlined modern arguments from David Hume through George Eliot to Albert Camus rejecting claims of intrinsic design, purpose, and meaning in the cosmos. What changed matters seemed to be that the students had begun by articulating their own desires and fears and that their instructor was having to speak of his. So accustomed am I to a more or less Socratic method in the classroom, raising problems rather than resolving them, and thus tending to distance myself from ideas in which I might believe very deeply, that I asked my students to recognize that, for the moment, I would be preaching rather than teaching.

My contribution, in brief, was that I thought Arthur Schopenhauer, whose thoughts I had previously sketched, had got things right. Life, nature, history are replete with examples of incalculable horrors and cruelties, and all efforts to explain them away by any religious, metaphysical, or historical vision of redemption is a betrayal of the victims. At the same time, Schopenhauer insisted, though he gave it less weight than I do, that we are capable of empathy, compassion; rather than greet a passerby with “Good day, Sir,” he offered, “Hello, fellow sufferer” as a more adequate alternative. Wary of retreating into the history of ideas, I simply insisted that, being uncertain about the origins of the universe, seeing no inherent design to our lives within it, and being reasonably sure there is no life after physical death were not among the things that caused me to despair. Disease, mass murder, exploitation, and people who leave their dogs out to bark and defecate day and night were quite sufficient. The meanings our lives may have are the meanings we and those around us give to them. We make meanings and moralities through social interaction, which includes both community and conflict. As to my death, I envision, I said, that it will be mourned by my loved ones and friends, and from my experience in this course, it may be that some of you will pray that my soul will reach God’s heaven. In advance, I am truly grateful, since afterwards, for me, there will be nothing. Also in advance, I hope my organs will be usable by others, and that my ashes may contribute to a plant.

This was not a prepared statement; it is what came out, including the Schopenhauer part; I surprised myself more than I did my students with how seriously I had just taken his insights. I was at the time quickly aware that I had left out politics and had jumped over many connecting themes. In any case, my concluding comments on organs and ashes actually provoked several small gasps and a “no!” from one student.

As was often the case, my remarks came at the end of the hour. When we reconvened for the next meeting (two days later), some of the broken momentum was retrieved when I asked my students to report if they could on any instances in which someone they knew who had believed in God had ceased to do so, had lost faith. Three students spoke and in each case the loss of faith was due to the death of a child, children, or a spouse in the family. Numerous of their classmates indicated their understanding and empathy for such a result; ceasing to believe was imaginable to them under circumstances of tragedy, of such enormous loss. Several others brought up the examples of religious Jews who, during the Holocaust, either lost faith in or came to hate God. There then followed some moments of silence, as if we had spontaneously decided on quiet solidarity with those who, in anguish, had ceased to believe.

I broke the silence by noting how interesting I found it that no one seemed ready to imagine a person experiencing the loss of faith in God as exhilarating, as an emancipation from limits or restraints, and as something that might have its sources not in despair and disillusionment, but in growth and discovery; or that one could cease to believe in God quite uneventfully and without fanfare, as happens not infrequently today, especially in university circles. While there was no immediate discussion of these ideas, they appeared to have been received with a kind of disconcerted interest rather than blank stares, although the class was still filled with the emotions of the discussion of loss of faith by disaster, so I was not sure what was up. Nor was I skilled enough to find out then and there.

In subsequent class meetings and conversations with individual students, however, a number of them remarked that they had been fascinated or blown away by the idea of a person renouncing faith in God and feeling empowered by having done so. My initial efforts to pursue this whole issue (whatever it is, precisely) in class meetings fell flat, as if some sensitive nerve had been touched but for just that reason, there was reluctance to examine it further in a group setting, or in this particular group setting in any case. I felt conflicted, actually, between an urge to press the class, or at least those who seemed responsive, on the matter of what seemed to attract them about the “Good News” that might come from rejecting God, and the contrary sense that whatever had been aroused by the previous discussions was enough for them to contend with individually, as each one saw fit. I opted for the latter and have only mild regrets.

The semester and course ended with several lectures in which I tried to outline a social revolutionary Christian tradition starting (a bit late) with the 16th century German peasant communist, Thomas Munzer and the 17th century English radical sects discussed in Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down, through Wilhelm Weitling and Father De Lammenais in the 19th century, to the black churches in the civil rights movement and present-day liberation theology, linking all of this to atheist socialist programs for justice, equality, and solidarity. Ironically, this led to one of the few moments of apparent consensus, when no one dissented from the idea that the division between left and right is as deep if not deeper than that between believers and non-believers. This, of course, included the fact that the several politically conservative students in the class indicated their readiness to join with like-thinking atheists against the sort of front on the left that I had proposed.

A final episode. The course achieved a small reknown, at least enough to have inspired students in the undergraduate Philosophy Association to sponsor a debate at the start of the next school year (last September) between myself and a devoutly Catholic member of the philosophy department on the question, “Does God Exist?” The lecture hall filled to overflowing and the debate moved, with portable microphones, to the large library mall, where it attracted an audience of over a thousand, some of whom were able to take some time at the mikes to have their say. Leaving the details aside, I will note only that my opponent presented nine traditional proofs of God’s existence, I offered a profession of atheist faith, and we went at each other in what proved to be a real educational event on a campus that lacks them. While I learned a great deal (never having debated the question before), I felt I had done poorly, so was encouraged by the responses of many students in subsequent days, the most recurrent response being, “Can I talk with you sometime? I never heard an atheist before and have a lot of questions to ask.” It is also worth noting that none ever followed up. Nor has anyone here sought to sustain what could have been the start of a good soap-box tradition.

For me, the atheism course was fascinating, not least because three times weekly I returned home to my wife and teenage son to report on and discuss at the dinner table the issues that had arisen in class, then returning to class able to introduce insights and arguments from home. I will be offering the course again next year when, aside from changing some of the readings, I plan to invite some colleagues to present their thoughts. In addition, as you can see from this report, I have been questioning my tendency to avoid a more confrontational approach. I hope to try more of that, and to structure occasional debates between students and between myself and other faculty.