Thursday, October 6, 2011

Talking to a Student about Religion

I had an awkward experience in class today. Here's the background. The 3rd graders were working on a poster for Charlotte's Web. All they needed to do was write a quote and accompany it with an illustration. I was just monitoring their tables to make sure that they are staying on task. There seemed to be some minor conflict at one of the tables. So, I hovered on over...

One of the students was complaining, "Mr. Auto. He doesn't believe in god." My reply was "So what? Let him believe what he wants to." The student that was accused asks me, "Mr. Auto...? Do you believe in god?" I was extremely hesitant in answering that question. To be clear, I never gave him an answer. I just told him that I can't answer that question. Unfortunately, that made him even more curious. Now, he was begging me to tell him. "Please, Mr. Auto? Tell me. Why can't you tell me?" In the end, I told him that I would give him an answer about whether I can tell him whether I believe in god. Seriously. He sees that I take notes of my observations in class, so he even insisted several times that I write a personal reminder since the next time that I will see him is on Wednesday. He watched me write it. Here is what it reads: "On Wednesday, Oct. 12 2011, I will tell [undisclosed student name] whether I will answer his question about whether I believe in god." He was giggling after every other word that I wrote. I found that interesting. Oh well... The joke's on him because I'm just going to tell him that I won't give him an answer :-P.

Going back to how I hesitated in answering his question, I wasn't hesitating because I didn't know what my answer was. My position is clear and firm. I classify myself as an apathetic agnostic (i.e. I don't know whether a god exists and I don't care). I hesitated because I have no idea what his parents think. I don't know how they desire to raise him. If I told him that I didn't know whether a god exists and I don't care, the worst case scenario is that out of his admiration for me, he starts copying my lack of religious beliefs. Further, let's say his parents do believe in god. Now, they'll be pissed that I instilled this spirit of godlessness into their child. In the end, I basically hesitated for the sake of practicality. I don't want his parents coming after me in case we are in disagreement.

Also, especially with children, word travels fast. Even if I wouldn't be in disagreement with his parents, he could tell other students who would tell their parents. And, it could so happen that THOSE parents ARE believers in god. So now, they might think I'm putting THEIR children at risk. So yea... while teaching, all in the name of practicality, I keep information pertaining to religion to myself.

I gotta be honest. If I was only visiting this school for one day and he approached me with that question, I would totally tell him what my view was. I would tell him in order to give him a different perspective to consider and because I prefer to be honest, which includes stating what my views actually are.

Anyway, what do you think? Under any circumstances at all, would you express your religious beliefs to a 3rd grade student who asked you whether you believe in god?


  1. Your post makes me think of another question. Are teachers ultimately responsible to the parents (who are paying for their children's education to the school that employs the teachers) or to the students (after all, it's their heads the teachers are messing with, for better or for worse)?

    If it is the latter, wouldn't that make the possibility of getting the possibly religious parents pissed off irrelevant? In fact, isn't it even counterproductive, if I correctly assume that one of the purposes of sending one's children to school is to one day possess within them the capacity to make intelligent decisions out of their own volition about their own lives? (I have a feeling that this might be an overly idealistic oversimplification of things, though!).

    On the other hand, if it is the former, that is, if we consider the transference of knowledge from the teachers to the mind of the children as products bought by their parents' purchase orders, then reasonably the parents are justified to be pissed off if the products do not come out as specified (as much as it is possible), and therefore teachers should consider consulting the parents or to refrain from giving answers to questions of such kind. But then again, how far should teachers extend their deference of giving out answers that might be followed or imitated by the students? For instance, should teachers answer if they are asked if they pee sitting down or standing up? Or if they insert the toilet paper facing the bowl or away from it? Or if they eat beef? (for all we know, the child's parents might be a devout vegan hippies who may not be very happy seeing their child ordering a sirloin steak at a restaurant after his/her teacher =p).

  2. Hey Paul,

    Thanks for being my thoughtful comment buddy.

    There are a few areas which cater to parents, but certainly the majority of how education is structured does not cater to the parents. Nor will it ever do so. That is, you'll probably never hear a parent who will say that certain state standards of Science, English, Math, Social Studies, Art, PE, and so on should not be taught. It seems that all parents take everything that students are taught with respect to these subjects for gospel.

    My understanding is that religion is simply an exception with respect to what parents are permitted to interject their judgment in schools about.

    That's why I say that religion is merely an exception that schools will heed the judgment of parents about. Nearly everything else, parents will give heed to the judgment of the school.