Godsmacked: I'm an atheist at a hardcore Christian academy

If teaching "God’s point of view" requires blatant mistruths, maybe it’s time to rethink God’s point of view

Published January 24, 2014 1:00PM (EST)

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This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNetHello. My name is Tyler. I’m 17 years old, an atheist, and currently in my senior year of high school at a private Christian institution that uses a curriculum known as Accelerated Christian Education.

If you’re unfamiliar with ACE, it’s a school curriculum for children K-12 written by fundamentalist Baptists. As you can imagine, these are probably not the most qualified people to write an educational program. On its website, ACE describes its methods this way: "By integrating character-building principles and Scripture memory into the academics, the program helps children grow to see life from God’s point of view."

If teaching God’s point of view requires you to teach blatant mistruths, maybe it’s time to rethink God’s point of view.

When conversing about my atheism, I invariably feel like I’m at an AA (Atheists Anonymous) meeting. Not that atheism is a disease to cure. It’s just that when you talk about it to people who believe in God, or God forbid, are religious fundamentalists, behind questions like “Why?” or “For how long?” I get the impression they think there’s a psychological or emotional problem that’s causing my disbelief.

No doubt, this reaction is to be expected, but I don’t have to like it. Having only a high school education, there are only a handful of topics I consider myself worthy to discuss with an individual of learned status. Most of the time I prefer to listen and cull the available knowledge from someone smarter than myself. The topic of the existence of God has been something different.

I have a reputation at school for loving to play devil’s advocate. (Pun intended.) I do it because I want to know that my opponent has fully thought through his or her ideas. But in this specific case, I am not disagreeing for the sake of disagreement. I am disagreeing because I really think that my opponent is, for lack of a better word, wrong. Wrong about what is arguably the most formidable question known to man.

Granted, this position becomes far more difficult to hold when it’s not only my peers with whom I disagree. As far as I can tell, the entire culture around me takes an opposite stance. My parents, my relatives, my friends, my classmates, my teachers, and my principal, if they believe as they profess, are all theists. Christians, more specifically. There may be the odd closeted atheist or agnostic here and there, but I have no knowledge of where any of these like-minded people might be or how to go about finding them. If I left my house and drove for 15 minutes, I can confidently say I would have more than 20 churches at my disposal.

So it's by no small coincidence that I am enrolled in a Christian school. And I’m an atheist. Sounds like fun, right?

A part of me enjoys going through ACE and finding its weak points. In the interest of honesty, were I given the the chance to start over and do my education elsewhere, I’m not sure I would change a thing. I think that ACE is at least partially responsible for my questioning nature.

As an aspiring rebel, I was never one to accept everything I read in my PACEs as absolute truth. When ACE told me that things like rock music was bad, I would shrug it off and listen to the Beatles anyway. It never mattered to me what any ACE executive would’ve thought. Even when they were right in front of me while I was at the ACE International Student Convention, what they thought of me just couldn’t have made less of a difference to my opinion of myself. Passing ACE’s excessive dress code was a necessary evil that I actually remember as a good time. I met some new friends and bonded with some of the ones I already had. Though, if I’m honest, I didn't have fun because of ACE; I had fun in spite of it.

Maybe it should come as no surprise that I wouldn’t take ACE's science (or, more accurately,pseudoscience) as the truth either. From what I had learned about evolution from ACE, I knew it was a theory that any freshman worth his salt should have seen through. Contained inside those PACE questionnaires are some of the most flimsy arguments in favor of creationism ever devised. Even if there was real evidence for divine creation of the universe, I can tell you with absolute certainty, that at this point, you’re not going to find it in ACE. 

It was only when I started to think about it that I realized there is a whole scientific community backing up this theory of evolution. I realized it would take a massive conspiracy on the part of the scientific community to cover up the idea that maybe evolution wasn’t airtight. This is no problem for ACE. From what I can tell, they think there is a massive conspiracy to disprove God with the theory of evolution. The problem with that should be plainly obvious. To say that evolution disproves God is fundamentally wrong. It says nothing of the sort.

With an open mind, I began a simple Google search to find the evidence behind the theory of evolution. Imagine my genuine surprise when I found a mountain of it. I had always been led to believe, not just by ACE, but also by organizations like Answers In Genesis, that the fossil record disproved evolution. It doesn’t. Not only did I find fossil evidence, I found DNA and vestigial evidence as well. I found out that there is no denial of science among evolutionary biologists.

Needless to say, my opinion of Accelerated Christian Education only deteriorated from that point on. All it takes is one broken egg to realize they are all spoiled. Being too young to understand what was going on at the time (as I suspect most ACE students are), I didn’t realize the complete demonization of the word “socialism.” I didn’t understand that ethically, they should not have been feeding me the type of right-wing propaganda that seems so obvious now.

For a long time, I didn’t understand that if a belief is unreasonable and unjustified, you shouldn’t hold that belief. This is so clear to me now, but then, I just didn’t get it. If I recall correctly, ACE’s reasoning was something along the lines of, “Do not follow your own reasoning, because man’s reasoning is not God’s reasoning.” I’m fine with someone holding that belief, but to write a curriculum based almost entirely around it is wrong. The purpose of an education is to teach people to learn and to reason for themselves. A curriculum that does not do this is useless.

Those are just some of the problems with the material ACE teaches.

The real fun begins when you have a look at the method used to teach the material. The children who are subjected to this curriculum sit at an isolated desk by themselves for hours on end, working by themselves, raising a flag when they have questions. It’s basically like a student from any other curriculum doing homework as their regular work—and then for homework, you get more homework.

With the way this curriculum is structured, asking questions is relatively difficult. Most of the time, ACE instructors have only gone through about four days of training for their teaching position.

In my humble opinion, questions are the very essence of learning. The easier it is for children to ask their questions, the better. ACE is moving in the wrong direction. From what I’ve heard, the appeal of ACE to most users is that only a few teachers are necessary to use it to the fullest. I can understand this perspective, but my thought is that if you don’t have enough resources to operate a school properly, you shouldn’t be doing it at all. Rather than give children a mediocre education at a Christian school, I think kids should just be sent to a public school. The problem is that this won’t happen because, for most people in the same position as my principal, the primary objective is not education, but indoctrination to Christianity. If you consider ACE from this angle, it’s a bit more successful. As far as I know, I will be the only atheist or even non-Christian ever to graduate from my school.

I do have a good amount of hope though, as far as the method of teaching is concerned. (Not for ACE, but for my school.) About four years ago, the school board hired a new principal. One of his rather large goals for the school is to switch completely from using the ACE curriculum to a classroom setting. The changes are happening slowly, and from the bottom up, so I don’t see many benefits yet. I have a younger sister, though, whose only experience with PACEs was in kindergarten. I like to think she’ll be taught to question things much more than I was.

The problems with the new science program are still obvious to many of the people who read some of the material. One section in the book has the heading, “Why I Do Not Believe In Evolution.” The contents are as follows:

1. Evolution cannot answer my question, “Where did the world come from?”

2. Evolution is not scientific. The study of science requires

  • a. something to observe, analyze, and record,
  • b. someone to do the observing, analyzing, and recording,
  • c. and the ability to repeat this scientific work.

In the beginning, the only personality present was God; therefore, He is the only One qualified to answer my question.

3. Evolutionary ideas are not verified by scientific evidence.

4. Evolutionary ideas constantly change.

5. Evolutionary ideas are as varied as the individuals who think them up.

6. Evolution must be accepted by faith. Faith in evolution is unjustified by works. [Out of everything in this section, this is the one that makes me the angriest. It’s such a fundamental misunderstanding of science.]

This section, along with one titled “Why I Believe In Creation,” was sent home with my sister and her classmates for approval from their parents. I was extremely interested to hear what this new curriculum had to say about the Genesis account of Creation versus the scientific account. I was utterly disgusted to find out that it was no better than ACE’s version of the story. As you can easily see, it gives Darwin’s bright idea none of the intellectual and scientific respect it deserves.

Troubled, I showed the paper to my parents. Once I showed them some of the obvious problems with these things that were taught as scientific facts, they gave me their consent to speak to the principal.

Let me point out to you, right now, that my parents are both young-earth Creationists. What I did was not try to prove to them that humans are descended from apes, or that Noah’s flood never really happened. What I showed them was simply the problems with how this textbook misrepresented evolution to the students.

It was with the same intention that I walked into the principal’s office the next morning. (My principal has always been someone I respected. Even if I didn’t always agree with his ideas, he was always largely a reasonable man.) I started to show him some of the places where this book went severely wrong. I wasn’t trying to convince him to teach evolution. All I was asking him to do was not to misrepresent it to them.

Then he asked a question which, for good reason, made me lose some of my respect for him. He asked me, “Tyler, how do you feel about Jesus?” As if that was somehow relevant to the criticisms I had brought forward.

With as much composure as I could gather, I told him his question was irrelevant to our discussion and that I would answer it later if he was still interested. Later, we had a short conversation that was not altogether unpleasant, though it really wasn’t enough to bring my opinion of him completely back to where it had been.

This is the brand of anecdote that is all too common at this point in my life. It’s not that the people around me identify with my criticisms and have rational answers for them. Rather, they misunderstand why I believe what I do and they are only concerned with my (in their opinion) inevitable conversion to Christianity. It seems to me they take for granted that when someone has without bias considered Christianity against its alternatives, that individual will then turn to Christianity and never look back. This is a somewhat ironic phenomenon that is not uniquely Christian, but is rather inherent to any religious belief. Of course, you see the problem. If every religion thinks it is the only one that makes perfect sense, it’s going to be extremely difficult to determine which religion is telling the truth, if any of them.

This is just one of a number of criticisms I have of Christianity, or of any religious faith, for that matter. It declares itself the only true religion, and then tries to demonstrate exactly why this is the case. The other way around would be infinitely more convincing to me. Yet I feel like the people around me will not hear my criticisms, no matter how persuasive I try to be. I think the reason for this is that questioning is seen as sin, at least by most Christians. They think, “If Satan has you doubting, he’s got you right where he wants you,” and subsequently try to eradicate all thought of skepticism.

Even if I do convert to some religion (God forbid), I hope I never look back at my atheism with shame or remorse. It’s been one of the most educational experiences of my life thus far. Time spent questioning one’s own beliefs is never time wasted.

By Tyler Stoltzfus

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