A couple months ago, my 7-year-old daughter came home from school and shared an interesting anecdote. “Dad,” she said with a hint of indignation. “Today my teacher told us we are all made of clay.” Her disposition quickly soured as she tugged on the flesh of her forearm. “Is my skin made of clay? No! Is my blood made of clay? No! I don’t get it. We’re not made of clay.”
I confirmed this, of course, then asked if she’d responded out loud in class. She said other children had spoken up in agreement with the teacher. “I was the only one who was silent.”
As an atheist, I was outraged, knowing that in many ancient religious texts, clay is the material from which God forms man. The Quran, the Greek Prometheus myth and even the biblical Genesis story, in fact, involve God fashioning man from clay (or dust from the ground, as in the case of Genesis). I suspected that the teacher was promoting some sort of religious position in the classroom — a first-grade classroom that offers no science as part of its curriculum.
So I did what any deep-thinking intellectual would do. I posted on Facebook.
Voicing outrage on Facebook is easy and safe, allowing me to rage on in the ether of the Internet, thus sparing school officials and a well-intentioned educator a visit from a fuming father with a chip on his shoulder.
The responses to my post — 185 comments all told — were wide and varied. Some suggested, in not-so-friendly language, that I take the teacher and the school board to task. Several religious friends said they’d never heard of the “created from clay” story. Others claimed I had misinterpreted the teacher’s intent, and that I should give the instructor the benefit of the doubt. One particularly vehement commenter called me out, demanding that I disclose the teacher’s name and insisting that children can be coached to say things they may not mean or even understand. He implied that since I was open with my child about my atheism, perhaps she was influenced by my heavy hand to interpret the teacher’s words as religious in tone.
I found all of this very confusing. Had I jumped to an unfair conclusion? Was I being unfair to a first-grade teacher who made a passing reference to children and their malleable psyches? Or was I right, thinking that a sincere, well-meaning instructor had infused her lecture with religious subtext? And did any of it really matter?
Then, I remembered how upset my child was at the notion that she wasn’t made of flesh, but muddy earth. I pondered whether or not children are equipped to process such a metaphor, regardless of its metaphysical or philosophical intent. And I wondered why all of those children in her class were so willing to accept such a concept at face value while my child was so disturbed by the notion.
I decided to let it go, as I didn’t want to make my daughter’s school year any more difficult than it had to be. She and I discussed the issue in depth, considered all the possibilities, then put it to rest. She hasn’t mentioned it since.
And yet I still wrestle with it. Such is the struggle of many atheists, agnostics and secular humanists who reside here in Northeast Florida. In an area so deeply immersed in religion in general, and conservative Christianity specifically, we face these bizarre conundrums on a daily basis, conundrums that to the religious seem, at best, petty, at worst, extreme, maniacal and certain to send us to hell. Some of us are outspoken, while many more live in the shadows, fearing the consequences of a public pronouncement of a lack of belief in the supernatural.
But this is changing. The developed world has become increasingly secular in the past two decades, with large swaths of Europe now claiming to be irreligious. In America, an overwhelmingly Christian nation, the tide is turning as well. As so-called Millennials come of age, church attendance has dropped and fewer people than ever before are claiming to be religious or churchgoing. Yet in the South, nonbelievers remain a largely closeted group, worried that employers, friends and family members will ostracize them.
In preparing this article, I engaged in many discussions with people of varying degrees of faith as well as full-blown antitheists. Their responses were illuminating. Many were candid and happy to share their ideas. Some of the faithful admitted to experiencing crises of faith in their lives and, as a result, having a more open and accepting view of atheists and people of other religions or spiritual practices. Several atheists expressed reluctance to speak on record about their lack of faith. One dear friend, a religious woman who wears a modest cross on a chain around her neck, told me to keep my atheism to myself.
It was a delicious irony.