I’ve heard these words used to describe people like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Victor Stenger. Other words, too – like, “confrontational,” “extreme” and, my favorite, “virulent.” How nasty is that?
I am an atheist. I’m also a teacher. Does this make me one of those dangerous people I read about? When I teach, I teach gently. This is both a philosophy and a matter of practicality. While I love to read Dawkins, Dennett, and Stenger, I do believe that there is a tendency to forget, when dealing with the questions these great men deal with every day, what it is to teach.
Teaching is by its very nature risky. You never know what someone else will take from your efforts. When you teach, when you’re committed to it, when it is what you want to do, you have to accept the reality that your learners might take away something completely different from what you intended. It’s their experience, not yours, and you must allow them to wander.
So, for instance, I might show three skulls – a modern chimp, a modern human, and an A. afarensis. I might show that from the front the modern human skull is very different from the other two. The A. afarensis skull looks remarkably chimpanzee like. These observations come from the learners, not from me.
Now we turn the skulls over. The chimpanzee skull has a hole, the foramen magnum, near the back of the skull. The human skull has a similar hole right in the bottom. What about the A. afarensis skull? Where is the hole? In the chimp location, or the human location? The answer, marvelous and clear, is that the A. afarensis hole is in the human location. Why? Like us, A. afarensis walked upright.
From here I can go into a discussion of just how long ago A. afarensis lived. Suppose one minute was a hundred years. Then three minutes ago (more or less) Thomas Jefferson was born (the actual number is two minutes, 40 seconds). On this scale, the Great Pyramid was built 45 minutes ago. A. afarensis lived roughly three weeks ago! And so on, unrolling the wonder of these things.
Here’s my question for all of you. Suppose the learner looks at this timeline, these artifacts of the past, and says, “Where are Adam and Eve?” Obeying my directive to teach gently, yet maintaining my commitment to teach truth, what do I do? Thoughts?