I found out this week that I would not be back at Redlands Community College after this semester. I almost quit there a year ago, but decided to hang in for the financial security, even though from a values perspective, I was not a good fit for a small school in a small Oklahoma town that cancels life on Good Friday every year. I don't like abrupt endings--at least the ones I don't control--so this was a bit unsettling, not just because of the finances (which have since been rectified), but because Redlands provided me the opportunity to work with some of the best seniors in Oklahoma. Their concurrent enrollment program is huge, and some semesters, fully 60% of my kids were seniors in high schools around the state, piped into our room via a service called IETV.
Unlike some of my contemporaries and peers I am not despairing over the current state of young America. I have taught incredibly bright, socially conscious, genuinely compassionate, and self-disciplined seniors for the past five years. I have damn few worries about the next generation. They are, quite frankly, fucking awesome. This I will miss. What I will not miss is the confusion that adheres to my refusal to take a postion vis-a-vis religion.
Working in a small Oklahoma town reveals what is best and worst about small towns, and it turns out they are the same thing: people know who you are. Refusing to take a stand on religion--except to say "meh"-- creates no small degree of consternation in a town like El Reno, Okla. The categories are supposed to be clear there: Christian, Catholic (not my taxonomy, by the way), Muslim (terrorist, sexist, evil, godless, idolator), atheist (note the lower case), other. I reluctantly found myself in the "other" category. What else to do with someone who is a non-theist but refuses to use the atheist designation. In fact, I find the whole dichotomy tiring and largely pointless. People behave as they do with almost zero input from their allegedly ethical centers, which is to say, theists and atheists can both be assholes or angels, and god has shitall to do with it.
Still, interacting with kids who were shortly leaving kiddom for the scary world of state or private universities (which are only allegedly a shield from the world) and who were raised in the bassinette of cultural Christianity and civil relgion provided opportunities for amazing conversations. How, after all, do you talk to young people who believe the Bible but have never read it? How do you explain coherence and rationality to young people who think the book that allegedly gives structure to their lives also requires things they have no intention of doing and ghettoizes people they love and count among their friends? The question as a professor was how is the Bible the center of the conversation without ever actually shaping any of the beliefs of the kids who allegedly structured their lives around it. It doesn't make me a cynic to recognize that beliefs were shaped by what parents and pastors said, not the Bible, and the parents and pastors haven't actually read the thing either.
Religion for the kids was a matter of allegiance, not a coherent set of beliefs (orthodoxy) and practices (orthopraxy). Christian is a tribal designation, and the Bible is a totem. Much like a skull on a stick, it marks the boundaries of territory, such that substantive issues are not thought through and subjected to criticism as much as they are assumed to be axioms of the tribe, and the Bible functions as a nebulous proof of the truth of the axioms, even as the text is clearly not reducible to a single, coherent narrative/justification. Rather than confront the complexity of the text as proof, the students have been taught to accept the axioms. This is, of course, a victory for the non-theist, because axioms outside the realm of logic are subject to cultural movements and contextual realities. Students are taught to accept axioms, but the inability to tie them to the Bible in a coherent framework means that all axioms are equally subject to the whims of context, such that what is true today (slavery) may be false tomorrow (slavery).
What I found was a deep willingness to discuss these things in a setting where no particular belief was expected, and the lack of coercion in regard to enforcing belief in the axioms allowed students to say what they actually believe. In a state as red as Oklahoma, and in a town as conservative as El Reno, and among students whose totem is the Bible, my students refused to believe that there is anything wrong with homosexuality in overwhelming numbers, like 26-2 numbers.
So, goodbye, El Reno, and goodbye, some of my favorite kids ever. Many of you have stuck with me after class, and I'm always happy to hear from you (until you have kids), but I learned a ton there, and not just about horse slaughter. I have mixed feelings about this end, but I'm pretty sure it's the best thing for me. I hope they get a real atheist professor who isn't a dick. How's that for a benediction?