Introducing my students to the “culture war.”

Since 911 the below image and words “IMAGINE NO RELIGION” have become popular among atheists trying to discredit religion. The message is clear: without religion there would have been no attack against the United States on September 11, 2001.

Culturally speaking, the popularity of this message is indicative of a growing “culture war” between secular liberals and religious conservatives, a war that has been escalating in America for a hundred years, a war I want my students to understand. Can you say Scopes Monkey Trial,1925?

culture war


The assumption that the Twin Towers would still be standing if religion did not exist is horribly flawed and completely ignores history. The idea that religion was solely behind the attacks of 911 makes about as much sense as saying Shintoism was responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor – I truly doubt if anyone during World War II would have taken the below message seriously.


Many of my students think the above message, the one showing the Twin Towers in New York City, would be more accurate if “RELIGION” was changed to “ISLAM.” This is understandable as it is unfortunate. It is understandable because my kids know almost nothing about the history of American foreign policy in the  Mideast. Nor do they understand how US foreign policy has outraged many Arab/Muslim people for over sixty years, rage that was hurled at us by extremists in the attacks of 911 – so it is understandable why my students think the way they do. It is also unfortunate. It is unfortunate because they are not seeing the larger picture. Some students have formulated narrow-minded opinions that say all Muslims are inclined to violence, a notion I work hard to dispel (see my post “When shit happens take a hostage? Teaching students about Islamic terrorism”).

Religion can certainly play a role in aggression, but as I tell my students, there are many reasons aside from religion that can fuel violence: bigotry, fear, nationalism, greed for power and raw materials, ideology, and racism (to name just a few). An example I use in class is Joseph Stalin. Stalin was an atheist, and his non-beliefs certainly did not stop him from invading Poland in 1939, nor did it hold him back from killing millions of his own people. He was clearly a militant non-religious/atheist butcher! His crimes against humanity are clear evidence that religion is not a necessary prerequisite for committing atrocities, but nor is atheism.

Today’s children have been born into a culture war that is producing increased levels of animosity between all things religious and all things secular, and neither side is willing to shy away from negative campaigning. And, like any viciously fought smear campaign, the public is often left not knowing who to trust and believe. Teenagers are especially lost, and they struggle to make sense out of heavily biased arguments that depict religion as potentially violent and atheism as passive, or vice versa. Needless to say, the culture war is confusing to them. It is confusing, in part, because public schools are not helping them separate appearance from reality in areas of religion.

Militant Atheism

As an educator I want my students to understand the culture they live in, and it is one of the main reasons why I decided to offer a class that critically examines religion. No student should leave high school and not be able to intelligently and critically interpret the above cartoon. As an instructor in public education I am committed to the secular approach, and I am personally in favor of it. But this does not mean that I am in favor of attacking religion. Nor do I see any reason to belittle religion. As a secular teacher I simply try to dissect it, understand it, and teach it to my students as objectively as possible.  Is there really any harm in this? My critics say there is, but I will always disagree.

If schools are serious about preparing students for the real world, and if they want students to participate intelligently in current issues and discussions, they must start helping kids critically examine religion. It can be done! I have been doing it for nearly seventeen years, and I am utterly surprised and concerned that more high schools are not seriously teaching kids about religion.


16 thoughts on “Introducing my students to the “culture war.”

  1. I was raised in a secular environment and consequently am a religious “none”. Of course, how one is raised generally determines one’s attitude toward religion and gods. There are approximately 3700 gods that have been or are currently worshipped, with the adherrants of any one religion rejecting the other 3699 as absurd. Even within any religion, members of one group often consider members of another group with disdain or even contempt. Protestant/Catholics and Sunni/Shiite are but two examples. Religions appear to teach exclusivity and intolerance.

    I find religion very similar to patriotism where the population of one nation looks upon other nations with the same disdain or contempt as in religion. Born in the UK, I was taught that the British were superior to other Europeans let alone the rest of the globe andI see this same attitude manifested in the United States. We Americans, I have discovered, are God’s chosen people and not the British as I was taught as a boy. Don’t tell Israel. Patriotism appears to be the tribalism of nation states. Dare you compare religion to patriotism in your classes?

    I enjoy your posts and can understand the hostility that you recieve from “traditional” parents and the public. My utterances here in Alabama are greeting with the same hostility. There is a very good Canadian website “Religious Tolerance” (Google it) who treat all belief systems with tolerance but are bombarded with the vilest hate mail mostly from “Good Christians”. Not unusual.

    Hang in there.

    • Thanks Ron! I greatly appreciate it! And I appreciate your comment about comparing religion to patriotism. I guess it goes without saying that both can produce fanatics.


    • It is true that religion is not the only cause behind many wars, but it is a big factor in many. The 9/11…Religion, even if not the lone cause, is heavily responsible for it, as Bin Laden thinks that this is the kind of jihad (A word that actually means “to struggle” in Arabic) that god wants. So yes, the twin towers would probably be standing today if the religious motive did not exist. Besides, they’re free to believe and broadcast their message, you cannot stop their freedom of speech.

  2. So, Stalin’s atheism drove his actions? ’cause you’re not making that point, but the point you’re making … is very awkward.
    Or is it seeing “both” sides of the issue?

      • Then how do you come across in class? What message are you conveying… and how is it perceived?

        I’ve got a dog in this race, ’cause I’m an atheist, but, can you, in all honesty, say that atheism and religion are alike in inspiring violence?
        Or, do you flip the card and say that religion has no hand in inspiring violence? Were the actions of the 9/11 suicide squad not aided/inspired by their religion? Regardless as to whether Osama was a cold, calculating con man, using Islam’s influence on his subordinates to further his very real political and diplomatic goals (explicitly the removal of US troops from Saudi land)… his schlock would not have worked quite as well on non believers. I’d make that particular wager, quite comfortably.

        Now, I’m not making the point that religion is the sole driver here, by far. But to present as a counter to its perniciousness Stalin’s atheism… is hitting far off the mark.

        • E-con,

          Thanks for the questions! You asked “How do you come across in class?” Well…I tell my students “if you don’t know what I am by the end of the semester, I will have done my job.” In other words, I come across as someone teaching about religion as scientifically as I possibly can. And, for what it is worth, I am a HUGE fan of science. I say this because I admire the ultimate goal of science: to let reality speak for itself. I also believe that science has given humanity more “salvation” than religion – it has truly “saved ” us from great calamities, and I’m sure you would agree.

          When I teach about religion I describe it a as tool, like a hammer. A hammer can be used to build homeless shelters, or beat someone’s brains out. It depends on who is using the tool and for what reason. Religion, historically speaking, has certainly provided people with a “higher cause” to fight and die for, but so has blind patriotism and nationalism, a point I stress in my classroom.

          As far as I know atheism has yet to fuel violence and hate, but religion certainly has. But to say an atheistic world would be one of peace and harmony would be a mistake – Stalin committed his crimes without invoking religion.

          Also, if you read my post on “When shit happens, take a hostage? Teaching kids about Islamic terrorism,” you can get a further glimpse into my classroom instruction. Thanks again for participating!

          • Alright.
            Are you sure Stalin didn’t invoke religion?
            I mean, I feel 100% comfortable with making the assertion that the communist party of Russia at the time was a cult- centered on the god like figure of Stalin/Lenin (who might as well be a modern day pharaoh, given how his corpse is being preserved), with a clear hell (the Gulag) a clergy (aparatchiks and the NKVD/KGB), sermons, etc. It was an evangelizing religion, one that aimed to spread its message world wide, as per the “holy writ” of global class warfare from the prophet Marx. Etc. Etc.

            Now, I’ll grant you- atheism doesn’t have anything to say about anything anything other than the belief in the existence of gods. It informs nothing else.

            But I still find your parallel to Stalin’s atheism…maladroit and I can’t tell it apart from the libel/slander from religious people aimed against atheists (“Well, Stalin was an atheist. Atheism is evil. etc”). His atheism is completely irrelevant to his violence. You might as well mention his funny mustache when bringing up the violence he’s responsible for…I mean, look at Hitler. He had a funny mustache and he was also a genocidal dictator. Gaddafi, Sadam, all had mustaches. Facetious as the point is, it’s still statistically more relevant than bringing up Stalin’s atheism.

            And, I dunno- a world of atheists would clearly lack the impetus to violence/ justification for violence that comes from religion.. so, it might actually be less violent. (That is tenuous).

          • I think an underlying implication here is that violence springs more from class issues rather than strictly religious issues. It’s most often those who feel desperate because of grinding poverty that find the appeal of gangs, militant organizations, etc. appealing. The Stalin example serves to demonstrate that not all mass murders are religiously inspired. I’m no socialist, but looking at the history of mass violence through the historical lens of Marxism explains a great deal- the rich class oppressing the poor class.

          • Sean,

            Sorry for being a little late in reading this and approving it. I’m in Vegas on spring break. Nice post!


  3. Dear James,

    As a mother of a 7 year old and a 9 year old I feel lost as what to teach my children about religion. My husband and I were both raised Catholic as children but consider ourselves agnostic. His parents and siblings still practices Catholicism, mine do not. We were married by a justice of the peace and neither of our children baptized. I talk about the religious means of Christmas, Easter and the Jewish holidays. I am extremely involved in my community and do a lot of pro bono services. I am a 5th year girl scout leader, I co-chair my children’s PTO and I belong to several community neighborhood organizations that help people in temporary crisis. My children are being taught good values but I wonder if children need some formal religion education? Can you suggest a book or material I can read to them that is age appropriate?

    Thank you!!!

    P.S. when my children ask questions about God, Jesus or other religious “things” I always prefix things with ….some people believe this and some people believe this…. I never say what I believe because honestly… I don’t know what to believe.

    • Hi Sissy,

      James suggest I weigh in on your comment, and I’m so glad he did! I’m writing a book about how nonreligious parents can talk to their kids about God and religion, and I also blog about the subject at The two most important pieces of advice I could offer are: 1. Be honest about your beliefs (even if the honest answer is “I don’t know what I believe” or “I’m still figuring it out myself. Maybe you and I can talk about it together.” And 2. Tell your kids about all religions. There are tons of books that are perfect for ages 7 and 9, and I would start with those. Religious literacy is as easy as bedtime reading, honestly. (You might search “books” on my site, and you’ll find some solid recommendations, but if you’re having trouble, please feel free to e-mail me and I’ll send you a list.) I’d also love to hear how it goes!

  4. For whatever reason, I can’t reply to Sean directly…but who said where that only religion is responsible for mass murder?
    And, I’ll see your non-socialism and raise all the instances where the masses decided to slaughter the rich, ’cause, you know, class differences (French Revolution, Russian Revolution, etc, etc, etc…hell, even the Soviets did it to the kulaks). It sheds a whole new light on history, that.

    Regardless, the point is that Stalin’s atheism is irrelevant to the atrocities. Unless James feels different, in which case I’d request the evidence for that particular claim. Since he’s science minded. Otherwise, the question remains “Why is Stalin’s atheism salient, moreso than, say, him having a mustache?” I mean, surely, more mustachioed men have committed heinous murders in the whole of history than atheists, no? (The Mongols come to mind, among others…)

    And, no one’s replied to the cult of Stalin yet…how that “religion” acted. Is that not in the lesson plan, James?

    • Do you really believe that James was saying atheism drove Stalin’s actions?


      What a fine post to lead to my bugbear. Atheist needs something along the lines of the European reformation, without the two centuries of war, so that we can have new words to describe ourselves, so as not to be associated with those with violently different ways of expressing their beliefs.

  5. I really enjoy your comments in this section here because I think you hit a really solid point. I’m going to point to a little philosophy here to develop your argument a little far. Postmodern philosophers (and theologians in many cases) are going to point to the problems of idolatry. All that we are seeing in the culture war is a subscription to an idolatry of sorts. And in some sense we all have our idolatries and preferences about God and that there will never be a perfect image of God in this life. However, certain images about God are more destructive than others. Images of God that promote hatred, intolerance, bigotry, or too much of anything give people an incomplete image of God and people act on that hatred. In essence whenever we defile the mystery of G-d (the G-d is a methodological move to take away our imagery). The same thing happens when we overly define humans as we see in bullying in schools (too much emphasis on clothing, appearance, etc). Taking anything too seriously outside of loving G-d, neighbor, and self in extremes can create major problems.

  6. Adam F.,
    None of you have a complete image of your god, and each of you has their own image of god. It’s a side effect of being told to imagine something vaguely described, with no real correspondent.

    And, which postmodern philosophers care about the “problems” of the 11th century?

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