The Trouble With Religion 101: Teaching Secular Humanism In The Bible Belt: Roger B. Rollin

By Roger B. Rollin

I titled it “The Trouble with Religion,” guaranteed to offend everyone.

If I didn’t know better, I’d say that what follows is an illustration of the old bromide, “God moves in mysterious ways. . . .”

In 2003 and 2004, I had been a somewhat reluctant volunteer instructor in Furman University’s “Learning in Retirement” program ( FULIR)–or “geezers teaching geezers” as I affectionately call it. I was reluctant because after 16 years of teaching English at Franklin and Marshall College (Lancaster, Pa.) and 20 at Clemson University (Clemson, S.C.), I was a tad burned out. But conscience doth make volunteers of us all and FULIR persisted, so I went back to the classroom, fortunately only once a year, for an eight-week semester, with 90-minute classes once a week.

I had taught my first two courses many times before my retirement–Popular Culture Studies and (for contrast) John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Which meant I still had a scattering of yellowed lecture notes plus a lot of experience. In FULIR there were no tests or essays to correct and my “students” were all adults, educated, experienced, and–unlike many undergraduates–eager to learn. Teaching them was an honor and a pleasure (mostly).

But to play professor again I had to make an 82-mile round-trip from Clemson to Greenville, S.C., and, in spite of all my background, do regular preparation. So when the call came for a course for 2005, I decided to give myself my own sabbatical. The good people at FULIR, however, employing many wiles and blandishments, persisted. I could have, should have, politely turned them down, but I’m weak, and thus devised a devious plan: I would offer a course so outrageous that FULIR couldn’t accept it: it would be titled “The Trouble with Religion. . .” and the course description would go something like this:

An agnostic and secular humanist leads a free-ranging discussion of issues theological, historical, social, economic, moral, aesthetic, etc., upon which religion’s influence has been mainly malign. Guaranteed to offend everyone.

FULlR accepted it. With enthusiasm!

“Well,” I thought, “no one’ll sign up for it–or at worst, seven or eight hardy souls will show and we’ll just sit around in a circle and chat.” Forty-three people signed up. Count ’em, 43. Believers who have a taste for the ironic might say that it was God’s punishment.

I immediately realized that I’d have to re-think my whole scheme. With 43 students, the chatting-in-a-circle bit wouldn’t work. OK, I thought, I’ll employ the Socratic Method, ask them lots of questions and brilliantly tease out the strands of key ideas. But I’m no Socrates. And, though I’ve been a philosophy and theology dilettante for years, I’d never taught anything remotely like the course 1 had so blithely projected. I’d actually have to prepare stuff–a lot of stuff as it turned out, and in short order.

After roughing out an 8-week syllabus, I feverishly started rifling through my back issues of Freethought Today. Help was nigh, in FT’s articles, features, and readers’ letters. Some of the shorter articles were ideal for duplicating as handouts. Dan Barker’s Losing Faith in Faith provided a treasure trove of topics for discussion as well as keen insights, and Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers filled in a lot of my historical lacunae. I knew from experience that more than half my students would be women, so Annie Laurie Gaylor’s Woe to the Women: The Bible Tells Me So became another bible for me. Fortunately, I’m a printed-matter packrat so I was also able to find a lot of useful stuff in my back issues of journals like Free Inquiry and Church & State. Hedging against the likelihood of looking like a total fool in front of almost 50 smart people takes a lot of work. Still, I was a bundle of nerves on the day of the first class meeting.

My original plan had been to get a sense of where the class was coming from by asking the students to talk about their own personal beliefs. But I realized that that would 1) probably take up most of the first class meeting, and 2) might be considered an intrusion by some. So I decided that I would ask them to write up their beliefs at home, anonymously if they wished, and give them to me. In turn, I explained that I would start this first class off with an (almost) full confession of my own beliefs so they would clearly understand where I would be coming from. (Students’ personal statements would trickle in over the weeks and I found many of them thoughtful, frank, even eloquent. It was particularly interesting to me to note how many of these women and men in their sixties and beyond were still questing, still questioning.)

I stood up and outlined my intellectual journey: from being raised by good, wholly unquestioning Presbyterian parents amid a supportive, mainly Protestant extended family, in heavily and devoutly Catholic Western Pennsylvania, and ending up the agnostic, freethinker, secular humanist–whatever–I am today. I explained how all those Sunday schools and Sunday services and church camps had mainly served to generate doubts in my teenage head, and how these vague doubts crystallized into full-court press unbelief, thanks to acquiring, in college, some intellectual discipline, especially in my philosophy courses. As a senior I had been accepted to law school, but when I decided it was time to make my unbelief known to my conventionally religious parents, they retaliated by refusing to help me attend law school. (That one stunned my students almost as much as it did me.)

I went on to explain that I continued to evolve my rationalism and skepticism through three years of military service, four years of graduate school, and the combining of a college teaching career and raising a young family. The death of my wife from cancer at age 49, I said, did not prompt any recourse to religion; indeed, what I have come to think of as my personal brand of Neo-Stoicism did help me weather this major life crisis. As it does today.

After my version of La Vita Nuova, we began to address some questions I had posed in the syllabus: “How can we talk across the belief/unbelief chasm?–Defining Terms.” “What is the nature of God? Is God dead?” The discussion of that last question (which I answered “Yes”) did seem to upset one gentleman, who asked me how I could possibly explain the beginnings of things without God. I replied that when it came to such matters, I had more trust in scientists than in priests. He did not return to our second class. Almost all of his fellow students did.

The second week’s issues were for me the most difficult: “The Real Two Cultures: Religion and Science,” and “Faith and Reason–Can You Really Have it Both Ways?” I had to do a lot of research on the first one, especially. There were a few scientists in the class, but fortunately they turned out to be on my side. A friend of mine, a philosopher of science, recommended Owen Flanagan’s book, The Problem of the Soul, and quoting from it to the class helped strengthen my case for rationalism.

About this time I started reading the personal belief statements that had been submitted to me, at least those whose authors gave me permission to go public with them (always without names). From these and subsequent discussions, it became pretty clear that really conservative FULIR religionists had selected themselves out of my course, which was a bit disappointing to me. Like any teacher, I had hoped to see sparks fly.

The third meeting was headed: ” ‘Render unto Caesar’: the Question of the Relationship between Religion and the State.” Here Edwin S. Gaustad’s Church and State in America was invaluable for providing a historical context. Explaining the principle of the separation of church and state was, as always, tricky, but since these were people who did not suffer any imposition of views on them gladly, they were quick to grasp the distinction between “majority rules” and “protection of the rights of the minority.” Moreover, a number expressed various degrees of misgiving about the Bush administration’s getting into bed with the Religious Right.

I had an easier time with “Why I Can Never Run for Office: Religion, Politics, and Politicians.” Many of my students were, like me, not originally from the South, but years of living here made it evident to them that to succeed in politics in Dixie you had to be a practicing, posturing Christian.

The next class meeting focused on matters philosophical: “The Only Good Atheist. . . ; Religion and Unbelief, Morality and Ethics.” I told the story of how once I was making small talk with the president of a Christian college and happened to say, “Well, of course, you don’t have to be religious to be a good person.” There was a l-o-n-g pause and I thought, “Damn, he’s actually thinking about it!” Although the rarely right Right constantly thunders that religion is the only basis for morality and ethics, most of the class were not buying that scam. Besides, they had before them a paragon of virtue who was emphatically not religious!

During the fifth class, I attempted to address the questions: “Is America a ‘Christian Nation’? a ‘Christian Society’?” I pointed out that purported Christians are certainly the majority in the U.S.A., which in a sense makes us “a Christian society,” but that, despite the Religious Right, there is no way that we are–by law–“a Christian nation.” I suggested that the question of the much-debated personal beliefs of “the Founding Fathers” is irrelevant, for whatever their beliefs or disbeliefs, they looked at the sordid history of state religions in Europe and decided, “Not for us. Not here. Our new country shall be neutral with regard to religion.” The next issue I raised in the syllabus, “The Vision of a Christian Theocracy: Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Judge Roy Moore,” had me admitting that for me, fundamentalist theocracy was a more frightening threat to our republic than terrorism. The third issue, ” ‘God’s Law’ and Man’s: the Subordination of Women, Abortion, and the Wickedness of Gay Marriage,” turned out to be a non-issue with these mature students. The sheer absurdity of most religions’ attitudes toward women, gays, lesbians, and people of color was no news to them, and hardly worth discussing.

There is a pedagogical principle that is inscribed in stone: “Although you, the Teacher, are undeniably brilliant and eloquent, after a while, students get tired of you.” Accordingly, for the sixth meeting I scheduled a guest speaker, John A. Henderson, M.D., of nearby Asheville, N.C., also a Foundation member. I first became aware of Dr. Henderson, author of A Deity for the New Millenium, and Fear Faith Fact Fantasy, in the pages of Freethought Today. Both of his books had been enormously useful to me in my class preparations. I got in touch with the good doctor and he generously agreed to drive down from the mountain and be my guest lecturer. John, a retired career Air Force doctor and still a practicing surgeon, turned out, refreshingly, to have a different lecture style, but a message that reinforced my own.

I was on familiar ground the next week, which featured a discussion of religion and the arts. I started out melodramatically by reading perhaps the greatest Christmas poem in English, “The Burning Babe” by Robert Southwell. Then I broke the stunned silence after the poem’s last line by noting that Southwell was a Jesuit who was burned at the stake by Elizabeth I’s formerly Catholic, Protestant clergy. Under the rubric “How Many Annunciations Can a Painter Paint?” we talked about the limitations of religious art, including the cinematic art of Mel Gibson. A discussion of the infamous role of religion in the history of censorship concluded our 90 minutes.

For the grand finale, I began by playing cuts from Dan Barker’s CD, Friendly Neighborhood Atheist, to the general delectation and delight of the class. Other scheduled topics: “How To Be Happy though Unchurched and Unbelieving: The Case for Non-Theism;” “Freedom through Agnosticism and Atheism;” and “How We Secular Humanists Control the World or at least the Public School System–and How We Daily Persecute Christians.” A sense of humor does help during all the heavy lifting. Unlike some undergraduates, my golden-agers recognized that the prof doesn’t always have to be solemn to be serious.

The FULIR people proclaimed the course a success and a number of students were generous in their expressions of appreciation for my efforts. It was even suggested that I give a repeat performance in 2006, but I think I’ll give it a rest for now. (I have, however, toyed with the idea of offering a FULIR course entitled “We Liberals Are Right and You’re Wrong!” We’ll see.)

Since the end of the class, I have on occasion met former students in various venues, and almost inevitably, one will come up to me and say jocularly, “Well, Roger, are you giving the invocation tonight?” As yet I haven’t been asked, but if I am, it will begin: “O Great Buddha. . . !”

Foundation member Roger B. Rollin is William James Lemon Professor of Literature Emeritus, Clemson University, where he taught from 1975-1995. Previously he taught English at Franklin & Marshall College for 16 years. His B.A. is from Washington & Jefferson College and his M.A. and Ph.D. are from Yale University. He is author and editor of five books in 17th century British literature and popular culture studies, and has published many articles in those fields. He is married to Lucy Rollin, Ph.D., Professor of English Emerita, Clemson University, and author of seven books in the field of children’s literature and culture.

Freedom From Religion Foundation