Atheism in the College Classroom: John E. Coleman

by John E. Coleman

In 1896, Andrew D. White, Cornell University’s first president, published a two-volume treatise on A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, which argued forcefully that scientific knowledge should prevail over theological claims about the natural world.

The conflict is now again coming to the fore, as continuing scientific research in such diverse fields as anthropology, archaeology, biology, psychology, astronomy and physics has cast increasing doubts that gods and other supernatural entities exist except in human imagination. 

A spate of new books building on this scientific foundation, and going far beyond the traditional limits of atheism, has recently been attracting much attention. Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf, 2006) and Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Twelve, 2007), are bestsellers. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (Cambridge UP, 2007) is a well-rounded collection of essays aimed at a scholarly audience, edited by philosopher Michael Martin. Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and philosopher Daniel Dennett frequently appear on TV shows and their views and those of hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of other atheists, freethinkers, humanists, secularists, and the like are on display all over the Internet. The Freedom From Religion Foundation has of course been making its own contribution with its billboard signs reading Imagine No Religion.”

For those who shy away from the common negative stereotype of “atheist,” “nontheist” (a virtual synonym) is a convenient alternative. The “new” public atheists may in part be reacting to the current attacks on secular institutions and values by fundamentalist Christians and Muslims. The scope of the enterprise, however, is unprecedented. Atheism seems to be entering something of a golden age, even if not all the attention it is getting is exactly favorable!


U.S. colleges, on the other hand, though they are the well-springs of the research, have been somewhat slow to acknowledge the implications of atheism, and offer courses on “the warfare of science with theology.” This is partly because the two sides can be conceived as mutually exclusive. Science, and indeed all human knowledge, depends on the assumption that we can achieve an understanding of the universe only through observation and rational thought.

Theologians have tended to agree with that assumption for, as they often state, religious belief–faith–is not susceptible to rational demonstration and is acquired only through revelation or some other form of communication from a divinity. Religious claims can, therefore, by mutual agreement be considered not to fall within the boundaries of science and vice versa. What is often overlooked, however, is that reason implies a presumption of atheism. “There can be no propositions beyond the limits of reason,” as George H. Smith notes in Atheism: the Case Against God (Prometheus Books, 1989). “To advocate that a belief be accepted without reason is to advocate that a belief be accepted without thought and without verification.”

Further, as Carl Sagan persuasively argued, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It cannot be doubted that religious claims about supernatural beings and events are both extraordinary and lack generally convincing evidence. Conviction based on personal experience cannot be a serious basis for belief in a divinity. After all, we don’t take seriously nowadays the not uncommon claims of people that they themselves are Jesus Christ!

The situation is, of course, more complex than bald statements like these can convey. Discussion of atheism can be a multifaceted intellectual journey, and one especially useful for students to undertake. I therefore made a bold leap into what was for me fairly new territory a couple of years ago and created a course on atheism at Cornell University, which is cross-listed under the Department of Classics (my own discipline) and the Religious Studies Program.

I am now teaching it for the third time. There was no model to follow for such a course–so far as I can gather, it is one of only two currently devoted to the subject in the U.S.–and someone else might take a somewhat different rationale and focus, though I imagine there would be considerable common ground.

The general aims of my course, “Atheism Then and Now,” are to provide a historical perspective on beliefs about gods, to examine evidence and arguments put forward in favor of atheism, and to consider how conflicts between atheistic and religious views play out in contemporary politics, social life and international affairs. Inasmuch as atheism is somewhat overlooked or even taboo, it offers young people new ways of thinking about the physical world, human society, morality and the meanings of their lives that they may not otherwise encounter. Since the contemporary atheist viewpoint is clear–that all concepts of divinities, a supernatural world, and an afterlife are highly improbable on the basis of current evidence–it seemed to me that atheism was the right title, rather than less precise terms such as humanism or secularism. Agnosticism I think of as an ambiguous term that tends to be unclear about the implications of the concepts of belief and knowledge. For example, one can believe or disbelieve in the existence of gods without thinking that one knows for sure. Both religious believers and atheists can therefore also be agnostics, since members of both groups may acknowledge that the existence of gods cannot be or has not been proved or disproved.

My course, offered at the beginning level, has gradually evolved, although its basic structure as a survey has remained unchanged. We begin with a quick look at the birth of western science in the attempts by the PreSocratics in archaic Greece to understand the natural world, then look at Socrates, Plato, and the beginnings of systematic moral philosophy. Plato came up with the revolutionary insight in the Euthyphro that morality cannot logically be based on what a god or gods might command (“divine command theory”). That insight, however, did not lead him to tolerate atheism; on the contrary, atheists in the ideal state he described in the Laws were to be dealt with most harshly: the worst would be imprisoned in isolation until they died and others would be imprisoned for five years of re-education, after which they would be executed if they failed to recant.

Ancient thinkers came up with almost all atheistic views and arguments to be found in later times. Deists of the 18th century have a forerunner in the Latin writer Lucretius, who regarded religion as mere superstition and argued against an afterlife. The extreme skepticism of Sextus Empiricus in the 2nd century that no knowledge is certain, including knowledge of the gods, is also useful for the class to take on board, since Sextus was highly influential in the revival of rational discussions in the 17th century–by both Christians and atheists–that led to the Enlightenment.

Then comes the bible as an example of a holy book. The atheist perspective emerges in class discussions of particular texts without any great emphasis on my part. A visiting lecture by a colleague on the history of the text of the New Testament helps to set the bible in a historical context. I make it clear that our aim is to understand and critique religious claims, and that those claims should be subjected to the same standards as those used for any other claims. The class is a protected environment–I don’t discuss outside the classroom what people in the course say or write. Students should feel free to try out positions as intellectual exercises, regardless of whether they believe them or not. In practice, most students are pretty comfortable with putting their personal views up for discussion, even though it is not required. The class has many lighthearted moments.

As an introduction to the modern period and contemporary issues, we do a section on key philosophical concepts: reason versus faith as paths to knowledge; traditional philosophic proofs of religion; the autonomy of ethics; and cultural relativism. Thereafter, we take a thematic approach. Although topics have varied, I include evolutionary and cultural explanations of religion, separation of church and state, intelligent design versus evolution in the biology classroom, and atheist views of morality, sex and education. Almost all the disciplines, including anthropology, biology (in the form of developmental biology or sociobiology), philosophy, psychology and sociology, have made extensive studies of religion, and even physicists are now getting into the act, so students may take a wide variety of approaches in class discussions and written papers.

Especially important for the course is that atheists are themselves increasingly a focus of study. Atheism flows from a few basic premises that have broader implications about perspectives on the world, even if it does not lead to specific cultural institutions and practices. In their rejection of the supernatural, for instance, contemporary atheists embrace the basic precepts of science and philosophy that the universe is exclusively natural and accessible only through observation and rational thought. Studies over many years have shown that the great majority of eminent scientists do not believe in a god and those that do claim such belief, arguably such as Einstein, do not believe in a personal god who interacts with human beings.

Atheists tend to value what leads to happiness in this world: prosperity, peace, tolerance, a healthy environment, independent thought and freedom of expression. And, as Phil Zuckerman concludes in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism after a worldwide survey of statistics, “countries marked by high rates of organic atheism [i.e., uncoerced atheism] are among the most societally healthy on earth, while societies characterized by nonexistent rates of organic atheism are among the most unhealthy” (“healthy” is in this case defined by “a weighing of such indicators as life expectancy at birth, adult literacy rate, per capita income, and educational attainment”). He also points out that the wide ranges of incidence of atheism from country to country and the worldwide frequencies of nontheists (between 500 million and 750 million ) “deliver a heavy blow” to theories of the innateness of religious belief.

I’d like to add here a few further observations, or perhaps they would be better called explanations or even apologetics for atheism, since I realize that the foregoing description doesn’t get at the heart over the disquiet of many moderate people about the benefits of atheism versus the possible harms that might attend it.

Atheism has a long and creditable history. Given its foundation in stringent standards of evidence for believing claims about the natural world and human culture, it provides a firm basis for critical consideration of many widely held beliefs and attitudes. As Julian Baggini remarks in A Very Short Guide to Atheism (Oxford UP, 2003, 17): “God is just one of the things that atheists don’t believe in; it just happens to be the thing that, for historical reasons, gave them their name.”


The struggles between religious and secular values have lately become matters of everyday importance. The atheist position deserves a fair hearing, given that the voices of supporters of the other side are much more widely disseminated. Controversies at the political level over whether America is a “Christian nation” are matched at the personal level by questions of morality in matters of sex and reproduction. Such controversies don’t only pit believers against nonbelievers. The call from women for more control of their bodies and lives, for instance, has led many U.S. Catholics to simply ignore the dictates of their church on sexual matters. Christian and Jewish congregations have been torn by controversy over the ordination of gay and women priests. The commercialization of popular culture, and in particular its glorification of sex, also provokes controversies that have received frequent public airing and on which atheism offers a useful perspective.

It is, of course, no mystery why atheism is not commonly taught as a subject in its own right. Religions have taken a special place in almost all recorded human societies and they continue to be officially recognized and supported in almost every country in the world. We all know of the significant tax breaks, and lately also government-funded “faith-based initiatives,” that religions enjoy, even in the nominally secular United States.


Atheism is a threat to this favored status, since it not only questions the truths of religions but tends to undermine their cultural authority. Organized religions have, for their part, almost always been hostile to freedom of thought and speech to some degree, especially when they are recognized as official state institutions. Socrates was executed in democratic Athens for “not believing in the gods of the city.” Romans regarded Christians as atheists because they wouldn’t acknowledge an allegiance to the gods of the Roman state, and hundreds of thousands of heretics have been put to death by fundamentalist Muslims, Christians and other religious groups for failing to observe religious dogma.

Religious apologists have fought back against competition from disbelief and secular values on many fronts, and in particular by seeking to marginalize and demonize atheists with accusations of immorality and civic untrustworthiness. Even now atheists are one of the most scorned and hated groups, if not the most hated, in the United States. When George Bush the first was a candidate for the presidency in 1987, for instance, his response to a question whether he recognized the citizenship of U.S. atheists was: “No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.”

Polls repeatedly show that atheists are the least trusted minority in U.S. society, and that fewer people would vote for an atheist presidential candidate than one from any other social group. Because atheists are a small minority, an outgroup, they are an especially easy target for accusations of disloyalty, no matter how false. Those with power over public opinion can cast atheists as scapegoats for whatever seems to ail society. The hostility that can be directed toward atheists is effective at discouraging any and all dissent.

Almost all older institutions of higher learning in America, like those in Europe, were founded by religious groups and they have tended in the past not to encourage critical focus on the claims of religions to the same degree as those of science or history. Modern public universities and colleges, which rely heavily on state and private support, are not immune from the political and social pressures exerted by religions to prevent or discount the critiques that atheism offers. Religious claims about supernatural beings and events, or the existence of an afterlife, are rarely analyzed as stringently as claims about the natural world or human history. Atheism can be discounted as “a negative and parasitic term,” a naysaying position that its opponents claim is totally dependent on current conceptions of religion. And professors at religious colleges even risk their jobs by raising questions that touch on the dogma of the college’s particular religion.

Consequently, courses on religion, rather than raising questions about the truths claimed for the texts being studied, tend rather to simply “teach the text,” a practice specifically recommended by Stephen Prothero in a recent bestseller, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–And Doesn’t (HarperSanFrancisco, 2007).

Bart Ehrman, the author of a wonderfully well-informed book aimed at the college market, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (Oxford, 2004), tells the reader in his first chapter that he is “not going to discuss whether the bible is or is not the inspired word of God” and will focus instead on historical analysis. But, given that the bible is taken by so many millions of people as an authoritative guide to human conduct, aren’t questions about its claims to divine authority the most important ones that students should be asking about it?

Perhaps the most common denigration of atheists takes the form of accusations of immorality. This is simply false in fact. Empirical studies show that contemporary atheists are in fact more likely than members of other groups, including religious ones, to follow the generally accepted ethical standards of their society. There is even a suggestive correlation between atheism and morality in the United States. States that have statistically lower rates of religious belief tend to have lower rates of behavior commonly considered immoral, such as sex outside of marriage among teenagers.

Nor is it true in theory that atheists are immoral for, as Plato long ago showed, morality or ethics cannot ultimately be derived from an authority, whether religious or not. Ethics founded on nonreligious principles, such as those of Utilitarianism (“the greatest happiness for the greatest number”), therefore have as good a claim as any in the marketplace of ideas.

Should a professor in a course that discusses religion strive for neutrality? First, I don’t think there is a neutral view about religion; people are either religious or nonreligious. Agnosticism is not an option here, if the views I discussed earlier have any force. Second, and more important, students who are interested in atheism and religion are entitled to hear the argument that knowledge derived from science and reason is incompatible with most, if not all religious beliefs.

Science and religion are in fact still at war, despite efforts to consign them to different spheres of influence. Since at least the time of Hume, theists whose beliefs are threatened by reason and science have tried to cast doubts on evidence and rational analysis in favor of personal experience of a divinity. Students should therefore have the opportunity to hear the arguments clearly and fairly stated for the case that there are no sure paths to knowledge other than evidence and reason. Science can already offer plausible general explanations for the origin of the universe and the generation of life and consciousness on our world, for instance, and will surely furnish us with more details, without the hypothesis of a creator or designer god. If physical evidence or testable hypotheses suggested that gods or miracles were natural entities or phenomena, they would cease to be regarded as belonging to a supernatural realm and would instead become objects of study by the natural sciences. Just as biblical accounts of creation are not a rational alternative to evolution in the biology classroom, so, more generally, personal convictions unsupported by evidence, however honestly and strongly held, are not good alternatives to reasonable beliefs.

One obvious attraction of teaching a course like this is its immediate relevance in everyday life. Strongly-held religious beliefs have serious consequences for our political and social life. Conflicts over school prayer, or evolution versus intelligent design, are only the most visible of the threats contemporary fundamentalism poses to society at large. As Prof. Matt McCormick, who teaches the only other course in atheism I know about, at Sacramento State, said in a recent newspaper interview: “It’s just not true that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago, or that we all came from Adam and Eve, or that a magical being with superpowers can read people’s minds and grants them wishes, or that the rapture is coming. And as long as we indulge these kinds of irresponsible and dangerous fantasies, we’re putting everyone on the planet in jeopardy.”

Although as a classicist and Greek archaeologist I am comfortable dealing with the ancient world, it’s been challenging to take in the whole of the western intellectual tradition, even if from only one aspect. Teaching the course requires a touch of chutzpah, as well as vigilant self-control to prevent one’s own views and interests from dominating classroom discussions. Fortunately, I have lots of back-up support from my spouse, a professor of philosophy, and from fellow participants in a local atheist meet-up. The experience has so far been a blast. It’s a pleasure to work with students on such basic questions of human understanding, and the classroom atmosphere and annual evaluations suggest that they find the class as exciting and challenging as I do.

Cornell is an exception of sorts. It was established as a secular institution in 1865 where, in words attributed to Ezra Cornell, the founder, “any person can find instruction in any study” and where “persons of every or no religious denomination are equally eligible to all offices and appointments,” policies which led to its being castigated at the time as “godless.” Though not himself irreligious, Ezra Cornell worried about the dangers of sectarianism. Andrew D. White, the university’s first president, whose 1896 book I’ve already mentioned, was concerned with the threat of religious limitations on science.

Cornell has never had a divinity school or a department of religion, although in recent decades a religious studies program has been developed, which offers an undergraduate major of courses “built on the established scholarly tradition of the study of religion as an academic, as opposed to confessional, pursuit.” It also has a nondenominational chapel.

Cornell’s secular tradition and tolerance for all views undoubtedly made it easy for me to put together and teach my course.

Foundation member John E. Coleman is a professor of Classics at Cornell University, where he has taught since 1970. The course here described is his last, since he will retire from teaching in June 2008, in order to carry on research. His main field is the archaeology of Greece and Cyprus. He has been excavating in one or the other country since 1964. He was born in Canada and is a naturalized US citizen. He is proud to be a lifelong atheist.

Freedom From Religion Foundation