Friday, November 07, 2008


So I made my students read Natalie Angier's essay "Atheism and Children" which is always such a treat.

My goal with this essay is to teach them:

(1) how, when your thesis is a difficult one, as hers is here, your approach needs to be crafted with care (I think this essay fails because she takes the wrong approach)

(2) how the Rogerian method should especially be used when you have a difficult thesis: Angier, in this essay, mocks and derides those she should be reaching out to, the religious thinkers in her audience. Well, that's a problem, as I point out to my students -- or as I would like to.

Unfortunately, I can't get them beyond their fury that I have given them a text written by an evil atheist to read. They're certain I have done this in an attempt to convert them to secular humanism. "You won't make me quit Christ!" is the response, along with impassioned witnessing about Miracles I Have Seen.

Really not the point of this class, I say, shutting them off, at which point they sulk through the ensuing discussion.

I went meta on them this time: Why did I give you this text? I asked them. They glowered. Do you think I thought you liked atheists? I inquired. Hmm? Do you think I live in a cave?

I explained why I gave it to them. I explained what my pedagogical technique here was meant to be. They thawed, maybe 10%. I got them to look at the actual essay, a tiny bit.

But here's the interesting part: I was explaining the part where Angier shows why she wants her daughter to be an atheist -- one of the few parts where Angier supports her argument:

According to a recent CBS poll, 55 percent of Americans believe that god created humans in their present form...Only 13 percent of Americans say that humans evolved from ancestral species, no god involved. Only 13 percent. The evidence that humans evolved from prehominid primates, and they from earlier mammals, and so on back to the first cell on earth some 3.8 billion years ago is incontrovertible, is based on a Himalayan chain’s worth of data. The evidence for divine intervention is, to date, non-existent.

Yet here we have people talking about it as though they were discussing whether they prefer chocolate praline ice cream or rocky road, as though it were a matter of taste. To me, this borders on being, well, unethical. And to me, instilling in my daughter an appreciation for the difference between evidence and opinion is a critical part of childrearing.

I asked them what this meant: what Angier was on about.

They couldn't tell me. Well, they had heard of evolution, though, this being Arkansas, very few had studied it. But they didn't get the difference between the two approaches to knowledge she was discussing. So I outlined empirical evidence and recieved wisdom on the board for them, and discussed this, using my usual example -- how many eggs do blue jays lay and how we know this, why, we fund a multi-year study in which we go and look and keep meticulous records and do the math and that is how we know; and Aristotle's "knowledge" that women had more teeth than men, and my grandfather's utter certainty that women had one more rib than men do -- both of these last examples of received wisdom --

At which point I got stopped by the class.

See, women do have one more rib than men. They all knew this for a fact.

(No, well, not all of them. But I'd say at least a third of the class insisted to me that women have one more rib than men do.)

I stared at them. The fuck, I almost said, right outloud in class. See, because my grandfather, dead now 20 years, when I was 19, he and I had that fight. But he was born in 1914 and never got educated past the seventh grade, in a Kentucky hill school.

These are Arkansas kids from 2008.

"No," I said, carefully. "No, really...that's a myth..."

"No," one of them insisted to me. "Because God took Adam's rib in the garden, to make Eve. So men have one less rib than women do."

"Okay," I said. "No. And no. And go study some anatomy, because no."

O please turn my red state blue.


dorki said...


None are so blind as those who will not see.

None are so deaf as those who will not hear.

Have courage.

Sarasvati Fautheree said...

Yeah, see, this is EXACTLY why trying to teach some of these folks how to use reason and logic in their arguments is a frustrating, thankless, impossible task. Last sem w/ comp I, i felt your pain....

Bardiac said...

I despair, really.

Thanks for fighting the good fight. Too bad their parents aren't doing it, too!