What should I do if a student asks me about my beliefs?

First, I know atheism is not a belief, but a lack of belief.

I am in the process of becoming a public school teacher. I was thinking: What should I do if a student asks me about my personal “beliefs” on religion? Should I say I am an atheist?

Posted: March 21st 2011


It depends on what you are comfortable with and where you are teaching. In some places it probably doesn’t matter, in others it might be a big issue.

You could say “I think religious beliefs are personal and don’t discuss them with others”,

Posted: March 31st 2011

See all questions answered by Eric_PK

Tauriq Moosa www

I have recently become a tutor at a university, here in South Africa. The topic came up, merely because the subject I’m tutoring involves teaching students not to accept received wisdom; it should tell you something about religion that this suddenly becomes a problem. Or rather faith in general. Nevertheless, questions did arise as to the positions of the lecturers and myself. I was open about it and said “I see no evidence to believe this just as I see no evidence to believe the myriad of others things we’ve discussed (aliens, Loch Ness Monster, sharks being more dangerous than cows, etc.).”

Some have been taken aback. But it forced them to question why religion was cordoned off from the critical reasoning they are expected to use with nearly everything else. Why do people suddenly stop asking for evidence in the area most requiring it? Some have said that because of the nature of critical thinking, their faith has become a problem. Since it is my first time teaching – at any level – I was worried about losing my job due to complaints. However, the lecturer – a colleague in secular activities – indicated that unless I had forced it on them, just as an Evangelist might do, then there was no basis for the complaints. It has also taught me how to moderate myself in any discussion; if it plays no part in a particular area, it has no reason to be scrutinised.

I apologise for the turn around to me, in answering your question, but I wanted to indicate I identify with your worry. I would say that from my recent experience and those gleaned from others, including my fellow answerers the following

1.) Don’t hide it, be sensitive to the context, but realise that unless you have raised the issue of how infallible Bertrand Russell is in his arguments against god, it will be a teacher honestly responding to questions.

2.) However, I must lean toward Paula Kirby’s response, too: It simply isn’t the place and, given whatever context you’re operating in, it might prove useful to have an all-round deflector: no religious talk in classrooms, whether for or against (everything being equal).

Posted: March 30th 2011

See all questions answered by Tauriq Moosa

Philip www

Isn’t it an odd thing that if you said anything other than “I’m an atheist” that they would, probably, not bat an eyelid as to what faith you would be had you had one?

Tough situation isn’t it, you could just tell them you have no religion, it’s not up to them what you should or shouldn’t believe in – if they fire you then you can sue them for unfair dismissal. They should not and cannot fire you for being an atheist, it would be ludicrous.

I also think being honest with kids is very important, you tell them one thing and they find out the truth, they’ll never take you seriously and teaching will be difficult.

But I also know a little of what being a teacher is like – my girlfriend works at a school – kid’s parents are lethal when it comes to things like this. They will kick up SUCH a fuss if their little boy or girl is being taught by an atheist if they are religiously motivated themselves. As others have said, depending where you are really determines how honest you can be.

I would simply tell them that you are there to teach the curriculum, not religion and that, despite being an atheist, you cannot and will not bring it up in your teachings because being religious or atheist does not apply to being a teacher…unless, as others have said, you are the RE teacher! Then you are screwed! hehehe :D

Posted: March 29th 2011

See all questions answered by Philip

Blaise www

I think I would differ slightly from my compatriots. I think you can answer honestly, and fully, while still keeping your beliefs, or lack thereof, out of the classroom. Consider this: If you were a practicing Jew, and one of your students asked the same question, you’d have no problems at all if you answered “I’m a Jew”, and moved on. Why should it be any different for “I’m an atheist”, “I’m a naturalist”, “I’m rational”, et cetera? It would almost seem like you were ashamed of your beliefs if you skirted the question entirely…

You would only be remotely approaching the line if you allowed it to turn into a discussion about reasons, or meanings of beliefs. Of course, if you live in the US bible belt, this answer is moot. Keep your mouth shut and get out before someone burns a cross on your lawn!

Posted: March 22nd 2011

See all questions answered by Blaise

SmartLX www

If it were a personal question about anything else – your marriage, your politics, your health – there would be no question in your mind. It’s none of the students’ business if you don’t want it to be, and it probably wouldn’t help them learn anything.

If religion is encroaching on your classes, through your students, their parents or your administration, your personal “beliefs” are irrelevant because (assuming you’re in the US) you’re protecting the Constitution by fighting to keep school time and school space secular. Many believers do the same thing.

Posted: March 22nd 2011

See all questions answered by SmartLX

Reed Braden www

Hemant Mehta (I Sold My Soul on eBay, FriendlyAtheist.com) is a math teacher at a public high school in Chicago. His students know he is an atheist because he blogs publicly about it under his real name. You should ask him for more detail about how he handles questions about atheism from his students. (Friendly Atheist-Contact)

I would advise that you be careful about telling your students. Avoid talking to your entire class about it, avoid talking about it during class time, and be wary of who’s asking. If the student president of Young Life or Fellowship of Christian Athletes starts asking questions, I would answer with, “These questions aren’t very appropriate for a teacher-student relationship.” If someone asks who is obviously concerned that they are being ridiculed for their lack of belief, or they are in the closet for fear of exclusion, talk to them and let them know you’re an ally. (As a gay atheist, I found the alliance of a few likeminded teachers was what kept my depression from spiraling out of control.)

Also, be wary of your geography. If you’re teaching in Vermont, go ahead and be as open as you find appropriate. If you’re teaching in Alabama, tell no one, wear a cross necklace, pretend you worship Jebus, and apply for a transfer to Vermont.

Posted: March 21st 2011

See all questions answered by Reed Braden

Paula Kirby www

Well, unless you’re actually teaching RE, it’s a pretty personal question, isn’t it? It’s a bit hard to see why your students should need to know what your beliefs are. I think I would say, 'I believe religion should be a personal matter and should be kept out of schools’. Which, incidentally, is exactly what I do believe!

Posted: March 21st 2011

See all questions answered by Paula Kirby


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