How Should Atheism Be Taught?

By Isabel Fattal

Louis J. Appignani, an 84-year-old living in Florida, tells a compelling story about his conversion to atheism. Despite attending Catholic schools from a young age and through his teens, he didn’t really question belief in God growing up; people in his world, he said, sort of took faith for granted. Then he got to college and started reading the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who argued against traditional defenses of God’s existence and justified, as Appignani put it, “what I deep down believe.” Now, the proud atheist holds nothing back when it comes to his personal views on religion. The study of atheism, he said, “gave me strength to believe that faith is stupid … [that] mythology is not true.”

Appignani started his career as a businessman, serving as the president and chairman of the famous Barbizon International modeling and acting school, among other endeavors. In 2001 he turned his focus to atheism, establishing the Appignani Foundation, which supports “critical thinking” and “humanistic values” and has given grants to organizations such as the American Humanist Association and the Secular Coalition for America. Then, in 2016, Appignani through his foundation endowed a chair for the study of atheism and secularism at the University of Miami, an institution he had long been involved with as a South Florida resident. His $2.2 million gift to the university marks the first time in American history that a faculty position has been endowed specifically for the study of atheism, and he hopes it will “legitimize the word ‘atheism’” in the public sphere. The university recently announced that Anjan Chakravartty, a professor of metaphysics and the philosophy of science at the University of Notre Dame, will hold the chair.

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18 COMMENTS

  1. @OP – Despite attending Catholic schools from a young age and through his teens, he didn’t really question belief in God growing up; people in his world, he said, sort of took faith for granted.

    He has identified the key issue here!
    Atheism ONLY needs to be taught to the indoctrinated, and it is done by exposing the flawed assumptions and claims of their specific background indoctrination to rational critical thinking.

    How Should Atheism Be Taught?

    Where science and reasoning is taught in the absence of indoctrination and an absence of superstitious religious role models during childhood, the natural atheism at birth, simply persists as the age of reason is achieved during the formal operations stage of mental development where abstract understanding of the universe builds.

    Atheism is simply the absence of the god-virus, but critical thinking is needed to provide immunity from attempts at infection by those possessed by the proselytising strains!

  2. Atheism can be studied, but (as per Alan4discussion above), it can’t be taught, the same as “not stamp collecting” can’t be taught. You simply don’t teach/indoctrinate religion.

  3. Although I agree with Alan4discussion’s and ShadowMind’s comments above, the question put here for discussion strikes me as nonsensical. Atheism, like aphilately, is not something teachable; it is the absence of something teachable. Philately is harmless enough and has the merit of keeping certain people off the streets at night, who might otherwise have wrought untold misery upon society (or perhaps not). Theism, as philosophers might call it, is a belief in entities thought to be responsible for the creation and ordering of the cosmos, including the lives of humans. Of course, theism is an abstraction; what is actually found in societies is an array of religions, each of which comprises believers in a particular god or a particular set of gods and in a specific system of tenets concerning the respective god or gods. The problem with these religious belief-systems is that they are based on no evidence in any humanly perceptible or intelligible sense; but, since they have served societies well in prescientific times as sources of answers to then-unanswerable questions, they have acquired a status of sacredness and reverence which they still hold among the less skeptical and less well educated today.

    What has to stop is the teaching of religions as sources of answers to questions, so that children can grow up free from such culturally enforced superstitions as religious beliefs. Then people’s minds are free to see things as they are, insofar as this is possible for people in their various circumstances, and are not prejudiced concerning anything by the requirements of the belief-system of one or other religion.

    Having recently read Supersense by Bruce Hood, I would add to these thoughts the admonition that the removal of religions, of actual forms of theism, from society would not remove the problem, which lies deeper in our make-up than anything conjured up in children’s minds by culture. According to Prof. Hood’s argument, we are preprogrammed, as a result of our evolutionary heritage, to recognize patterns and faces and to attribute events to unseen agents where no agents are seen. A six-month-old infant is already learning to understand the world in terms of essences. We were all born essentialists! And more to the point, we are therefore born with a predisposition to believe in supernatural entities, forces and actions. Prof. Hood gives many examples in Supersense to bear this argument out, namely that a child is thinking essentialistically/supernaturalistically well before the religionists get to teach it what to believe. One example is the reluctance most people feel to wear a cardigan once owned and worn by a murderer. Institutional religions merely capitalize on the children’s natural predispositions to think essentialistically. Religions may die out in time — who knows? — though Prof. Hood himself expressed doubt about that; but secular supernaturalism will remain to bedevil attempts to enlighten society.

    This means that there will always be a serious need to teach the skills of critical analysis and reasoning, the scientific method of enquiry and the sciences themselves. These are what must continue to be taught in our educational institutions, if societies are to be able to maintain humanely rational standards of life and freedom for every citizen. Religions have no part in this necessary programme of education (except as objects of study within courses of social studies, history, philosophy, anthropology, etc.) in a modern society. Nowadays we are spoilt for choice of what to learn and teach, and there is so little time to learn and teach it; for so much more is known about life and the world than in the past. It would be a contradiction of such a programme of education — indeed it would be a grotesque form of lying to the young who rely on their teachers to teach them how to arrive at truthful or most probable conclusions about all and anything that matters — to include in it the teaching of religious superstitions as equally worthy of belief. In any case, each generation will always need to know how to overrule the more instinctive-emotional ways of thinking inherent in our evolved brains where evidence and reason enable us to see things more clearly as they are.

  4. Garrick #3
    Feb 15, 2018 at 8:35 am

    Institutional religions merely capitalize on the children’s natural predispositions to think essentialistically.
    Religions may die out in time — who knows? —
    though Prof. Hood himself expressed doubt about that; but secular supernaturalism will remain to bedevil attempts to enlighten society.

    I think you are correct about children’s fears of “monsters under the bed” and the unexplained, but what is important, is that as teenagers they cast off these childish superstitions and are allowed to develop into rational adults (without the retarding effects of indoctrinated superstitious “faith-thinking”), achieving the formal stage of mental development, and that the adults thinkers, NOT the mentally childlike, are in charge of society’s important decisions!

  5. Garrick #3
    The problem with these religious belief-systems is that they are based on no evidence in any humanly perceptible or intelligible sense; . . .

    The subordinate clause here (in bold) should be replaced with the follow:

    **. . . that they are based on no objective, rationally intelligible evidence;** . . .

  6. Alan4discussion #4
    . . . that the adults thinkers, NOT the mentally childlike, are in charge of society’s important decisions!

    I am quite in agreement with you on that point about childish beliefs. Bruce Hood’s point is that, even educated adults retain the predispositions of the instinctive-emotional manner of thinking and reasoning, and these predispositions continue to influence our thinking and behavior. Besides religion, patriotism (especially in its more jingoistic forms), any form of tribalism, reverence for ancestors, subsistent souls, contamination by objects associated with evil people, are a few of many other manifestations of what Prof. Hood calls secular supernaturalism found very commonly among educated adult in modern Western societies. The liberal, democratic society that we take for granted in the West has been developed on the rational-empirical basis of the Enlightenment, but it cannot be taken for granted, even if institutional religions fade away. There are all kinds of irrational beliefs and conspiracies to fill the gap left by the conventional superstitions of those religions. There are non-Christian antiabortionists, and there are antivaccinationists, and there are homoeopathists and chiropractors and believers in the Da Vinci Code and all manner of conspiracy-alarmists, all of whom may have outgrown their fear of the monster under the bed but still fail to think, about certain things at least, with rational empiricism. The demise of institutional religions will be a great boon for those who seek and strive for a more enlightened society, but, according to Prof. Hood, it will not be the end of the struggle.

  7. Garrick #6
    Feb 15, 2018 at 9:41 am

    There are all kinds of irrational beliefs and conspiracies to fill the gap left by the conventional superstitions of those religions. There are non-Christian antiabortionists, and there are antivaccinationists, and there are homoeopathists and chiropractors and believers in the Da Vinci Code and all manner of conspiracy-alarmists, all of whom may have outgrown their fear of the monster under the bed but still fail to think, about certain things at least, with rational empiricism.

    I think the root cause of this is rapid knee-jerk responses from earlier evolved areas of the pre-human pre-primate brain.
    This is where indoctrinated reinforcement of the thinking of childhood early mental development, inhibits maturity to the slower more rational processes of the cerebral cortex. Some people never achieve the formal operational level of mental development at all, and seem dominated by the “gut-feelings” of the more primitive areas of their brains!

    https://www.le.ac.uk/users/rjm1/etutor/resources/brain/brain4brains.html

    The Cerebellum
    Evolved approximately 400 million years ago and is commonly called the little or hind brain and is similar to that of mammals.
    It is attached to the rear of the brain stem and controls body position, poise, balance and spatial awareness. It stores memories from basic learned responses and transmits vital information via the brain stem to the rest of the brain. It was our main brain before the “modern” parts of the brain (the cerebrum) evolved.

    The Limbic System
    Evolved between 300 and 200 million years ago and is thought to have developed after the reptilian brain – hence the common title of mammalian brain.
    This part of the brain is not as sophisticated as the Cerebrum. It is incapable of conscious thought, but as our conscious brains are so closely linked to the limbic system our ability to think and problem solve are heavily influenced by it.
    In recent years the hippocampus is increasingly thought to have a role in learning and memory.
    The Limbic System contains the hypothalamus and is known as the “brain” of the brain. Very small in size it regulates hormones, emotions, eating, sleeping and waking, chemical balances and sexual drive. [Robert Ornstein – “One way to remember limbic functions is that they are the four ‘F’s of survival: Feeding, Fighting, Fleeing and sexual reproduction.”]

    It should be no surprise that theocrats are preoccupied with “fighting the good fight”, and sex! – Not to mention loving to play the victimised martyr!
    Damage to the PARIETAL LOBE of the CEREBRAL CORTEX leads to increased religiosity or “spiritual” beliefs!

    https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/02/100210124757.htm

    The group found that selective damage to the left and right posterior parietal regions induced a specific increase in ST.
    “Our symptom-lesion mapping study is the first demonstration of a causative link between brain functioning and ST,” offers Dr. Urgesi.
    “Damage to posterior parietal areas induced unusually fast changes of a stable personality dimension related to transcendental self-referential awareness.
    Thus, dysfunctional parietal neural activity may underpin altered spiritual and religious attitudes and behaviors.”

  8. This is a golden opportunity for those who are eager to learn atheism, collectivism and humanism along with its advanced knowledge in Science that paves the way to happiness of humanity.

    Let this be an Epicurean garden of modern age, where the non-stop discussion about the art of happiness helps in reaching the culmination of human wisdom.

    Kudos to you and all the great minds behind this project for making it a reality.

  9. Garrick #3
    Feb 15, 2018 at 8:35 am

    What has to stop is the teaching of religions as sources of answers to questions, so that children can grow up free from such culturally enforced superstitions as religious beliefs.

    Religious “answers” are what they have always been; – the primitive gap-fillers to cover-up ignorance or lack of ability, in order to produce co-operative actions in a group or herd!
    As with religious or ideological politicians, this is ONLY of (limited) benefit to the community, where and when, ANY co-operative action is better than no action at all, or better than individuals running around like headless chickens in random directions when a group effort is required!

    On balance, shoaling fish seek the survival security of the shoal, when dissenting individuals would be picked off one at a time, even though whole bait-balls frequently get eaten by predators!

  10. I agree that blind faith is ‘stupid’ and teaching theistic religions the way they are presented in religious books are not at all appropriate for schools. However, we shouldn’t forget that science does not fully understand ‘consciousness.’ Although consciousness is often equated to the organ brain, this does not appear to be a fully satisfactory answer. Think of it this way: It is the mind (consciousness) that knows about and analyzes the whole universe, the whole of the material world, analyses various organs in our body, analyses how the brain/neurons work and analyses even the mind itself.

    We also need to consider other ‘epistemologies’ besides ‘scientific materialism.’ Epistemology refers to other ‘ways of knowing.’ A survey of 2,198 tenured and tenure-track faculty in 21 different elite U.S. research universities found that several scientists felt that there can be something beyond the reach of reason through science alone [reference: Ecklund, E. H., & Long, E. (2011). Scientists and spirituality. Sociology of religion, 72(3), 253-274].
    Also, the following article clearly describes two different epistemologies: Karunamuni, N. (2015). The Five-Aggregate Model of the Mind. SAGE Open, 5 (2).

    Additionally, studies have shown that engaging in spirituality calms the mind, increasing people’s mental health wellbeing [for example, check out the references: (i) Fredrickson, B. L., et al. (2013), A functional genomic perspective on human well-being, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(33), and (ii) Dambrun, M., et al. (2012). Measuring happiness: From fluctuating happiness to authentic–durable happiness. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 16].

    So, if one tries to promote “atheism” just as another ‘belief system,’ it would have a negative effect, preventing the future generations from thinking outside the box – i.e., it would prevent them from considering other epistemologies and other ways of understanding this world.

  11. kdn #10
    Feb 17, 2018 at 3:52 pm

    I agree that blind faith is ‘stupid’ and teaching theistic religions the way they are presented in religious books are not at all appropriate for schools.
    However, we shouldn’t forget that science does not fully understand ‘consciousness.’

    Because bilogical and medical science with masses of evidence, does not fully understand “conscious thought processes, that is no reason to think that some other explanation for which there is NO evidence should be regarded as valid.

    Although consciousness is often equated to the organ brain, this does not appear to be a fully satisfactory answer.

    It certainly is not the complete answer. The nerves permeate the whole body and the endocrine system with hormones and enzymes clearly plays a significant part, – as is shown by the effects of psychotic drugs and organ malfunctions!

    Think of it this way:
    It is the mind (consciousness) that knows about and analyzes the whole universe,

    This is using the term “mind” as a description of the of the collective functions of the various sections of the brain.

    Analysis is a matter of observation, investigation and education, using the mechanisms of sensory perception (eyes, ears, touch, smell), the brain circuitry, and the bio-electrical processes.

    the whole of the material world, analyses various organs in our body, analyses how the brain/neurons work and analyses even the mind itself.

    Are you talking about collective human investigation and study? Human brains can’t do comprehensive self analysis. Observations of brain functions and behaviours need to be carried out by other independent observers – usually with the aid of technology.

    We also need to consider other ‘epistemologies’ besides ‘scientific materialism.’

    We have considered these on many occasions but only scientific methodology produces reliable information from repeated experiments.

    Assertions of all other methods produce results which are at best random, or are merely self deceptions (errors and thought malfunctions) on the part of the claimants.

    Epistemology refers to other ‘ways of knowing.’

    There are “material ways of knowing scientifically” how the universe works, and there are self-deceptions and false images leading to mistaken beliefs about how the universe works.

    There is no evidence whatever, of any form of mental energy / conscious thought, other than in the matter and energy of brains and bodies.

  12. kdn #10
    Feb 17, 2018 at 3:52 pm

    So, if one tries to promote “atheism” just as another ‘belief system,’

    Atheism (absence of belief in the supernatural and gods) is NOT “just another ‘belief system”, in the same way that “not-collecting stamps”, is not “just another hobby”! It is an ABSENCE of that activity, religion/stamp collecting”which frees up time for other activities.

    it would have a negative effect, preventing the future generations from thinking outside the box –

    Atheism is PRECISELY about thinking outside of the the mentally constraining box, of faith-based (insert name of religion) religious dogmas and doctrines!

    i.e., it would prevent them from considering other epistemologies and other ways of understanding this world.

    Not at all! It allows atheists to use scientific methodology to evaluate the evidence or lack of it, in evaluating claims about life and the world, without starting from the preconceptions indoctrinated in blind “faith”. Scientific methodology also allows the discarding of unevidenced or refuted epistemologies.

    Starting from evidence and consistent results from objective testing, there are no reliable “other”epistemologies or “other ways of understanding this world”.
    That is why those who use “faith” as a thought process, have produced thousands of conflicting and contradictory religious answers to basic questions.

    This world works on the laws of physics as confirmed by repeated observations and tests – regardless of what some people may choose to believe.

    Science corrects earlier errors in the light of new evidence, and discards flawed notions, once they have been conclusively refuted.

    “Faith-thinking” simply reinforces and re-asserts its errors, for as long as it has believers prepared to unquestioningly accept them – with religions splitting into new cults or denominations, where fixed conflicting views persist within populations.

  13. kdn

    So, if one tries to promote “atheism” just as another ‘belief system,’ it would have a negative effect, preventing the future generations from thinking outside the box – i.e., it would prevent them from considering other epistemologies and other ways of understanding this world.

    What if the opposite is true; atheism frees the mind of cumbersome restrictions on thinking outside the box?

  14. kdn #10
    Feb 17, 2018 at 3:52 pm

    Additionally, studies have shown that engaging in spirituality calms the mind,

    That is why religion is called the opium of the masses!

    increasing people’s mental health wellbeing

    But only for those in need of tranquillising, as a result of indoctrinated fear and mental conflicts, or from a highly stressed life-style (perhaps as a result of relying on the undependable “faith-thinking” stock answers, to provide answers to practical problems)!

    Those who are at ease with themselves, their associates, and with their understanding of the world, have no such need for mind-calming, counselling dependency, or medications!

  15. Although consciousness is often equated to the organ brain, this does not appear to be a fully satisfactory answer.

    Satisfactory to whom and on what basis of informed judgement? (as distinct from simple denial)

    http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/synapse.html

    Neuroscience For Kids

    I am still waiting (after several years), for someone who can support their assertions, with an explanation of how there are conscious thoughts WITHOUT the material electro-biochemistry of these processes in the brain circuitry!

  16. kdn

    However, we shouldn’t forget that science does not fully understand ‘consciousness.’ Although consciousness is often equated to the organ brain, this does not appear to be a fully satisfactory answer.

    But increasingly science does understand the totality of our mental life and the part conscious experience plays in it. Now we have the tools to investigate there does not appear to be the roadblock we once thought. Insight is being gleaned at a furious pace now.

    People mistook the conscious experience for being the motor of our actions. Now we know its not… directly. It appears to be the presentation (via a notable distinguishing quality) of the most potentially salient cognitions of direct apprehensions, recollections and inferences, decided by simple subconscious heuristics. In being selected as potentially most salient, they get to be (consciously) tested by culturally evolved tools like language, logic, mathematics and cultural”wisdom”. If rejected, replacements may be subconsciously evolved through evolutionary processes to be retested consciously, etc.. Biographical memories are drawn only from the potentially salient.

    The wealth of evidence coming in about how the mind works has left people decades behind in their understanding. Most surprising perhaps is the realisation that the vivid qualities of conscious experience aren’t of themselves functional but merely a by-product of a heightened status of thought, perhaps a heightened emotional-like attribute that connotes salience.

  17. phil #16
    have you read yuval noah harari’s home deus on free will?

    anyway i only came in on this to thank you
    for your captain fantastic recommend
    great fun
    my only changes might be ralph nader day instead of noam chomsky day
    and ride into town on bikes instead of a monster bus
    and use a more spirited version of dylan’s i shall be released
    any day now
    any day now

    by the way the 2 doggerel verses on elon musk
    that were in my last post to you
    were just add ons to this

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