Engaging the Apatheist in your Classroom

You can present the material, but you can’t make me care!

I am a fan of the cartoon series ‘Calvin and Hobbs’ by Bill Waterson which ran in newspapers from 1985 to 1995. It depicts the adventures of a six year old boy Calvin. Calvin has a vivid imagination and loves being out in nature with his toy tiger Hobbs. In the imaginative world Calvin inhabits, Hobbs is no stuffed tiger but a living companion who accompanies him on his many adventures. For a boy with such an active mind, school is depicted in the cartoon as a place of boredom. Calvin hates being at school, finding lessons tedious and that his time in the classroom takes him away from his imaginative escapades. One of my favourite cartoons depicts Calvin’s long suffering teacher, Mrs Wormwood, trying to teach the class and Calvin loudly declaring ‘You can present the material, but you can’t make me care.’

Calvin’s attitude is typical of that which is exhibited by a type of student that those of us who teach religious education regularly encounter – the apatheist. Apatheism is a relatively new concept fusing ‘apathy’ and ‘theism’ into a word that describes the attitude of indifference that some students have when it comes to religion. The term seems to have been first coined by Jonathan Rauch in an article that appeared in The Atlantic in May 2003. He defined apatheism as ‘a disinclination to care all that much about one’s own religion, and an even stronger disinclination to care about other people’s.’ Apatheism is not a belief system but rather an attitude a person exhibits; seeing religion as not meaningful or relevant to their life.

If your work in chaplaincy involves you in the classroom, I think you would agree that generally young people are interested in religion. Primary students seem to have an innate belief in God and really enjoy hearing stories from the Bible. Senior students are aware of the world they are going into, the significant role religion plays in it and are typically keen to engage with the many issues that come up in class. From my experience, it seems to be around Year 8 where some students go through a real feeling of indifference towards religion. It is in this year where some students can feel that they have life sorted out and that older people, such as their parents and teachers, have no idea about the world and how it really works.

The challenge comes from the apatheist

Students who hold religious beliefs are a great asset in the classroom when it comes to teaching RE. In my previous school we had a significant population of Jewish students. As we moved through the stories of the Old Testament that formed the basis of the Year 7 course, these students would speak about the preparations for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah which was really engaging for other students. For students who came from non-religious homes, hearing one of their peers speak so passionately about their faith really made them think and reflect. Students who are atheists are also a real classroom asset. They often speak up in class questioning what you are teaching and challenging what is being presented. I can recall a number of lessons where the discussion has taken off, prompted by a disbelieving student taking issue with whether Jesus really lived or if he could have risen from the dead. Disbelieving students give you something to bounce off and students enjoy being a part of the dynamic exchange of ideas.

The challenge comes from the apatheist – the student who greets your warm enthusiasm for religion with cold indifference. They are not fired up enough to object to what is being taught and can often seem genuinely surprised that you are wanting to spend time looking at issues that don’t even track on their radar. For me the question ‘is Jesus the Son of God?’ is pretty significant and I hope to encourage students to think about this issue. For the apatheist the question ‘is Jesus the Son of God?’ is of as little interest as the question ‘was the Buddha enlightened?’ It simply doesn’t matter.

The question is how can you effectively engage them?

The apatheist can be a challenging presence in the classroom. The question is how can you effectively engage them? Calvin is right – you cannot make a student care about what you are presenting but you can of course be creative in how you present. The apatheist can’t see the relevance of religion to their life and so making the content relevant is critically important. One strategy I have found effective is to present a global perspective. It can be easy for students to think that religion is not being particularly relevant in secular Australia, but when you look at things globally this attitude is harder to maintain. I have a collection of pictures of Muslims undertaking the Hajj Pilgrimage that I show to students. When you look at these images it hard not to be impressed by the size and scale of this annual movement of people. At present 1 in 3 people in the world are Christian and 1 in 5 are Muslim. If growth rates continue at their present level in the lifetime of the current generation of students (around 2075 according to some estimates) Islam will become the largest religion on the planet. This kind of fact makes students realise that religion is an issue that they can’t afford not to think about if they are going to take their place as global citizens.

The apatheist might not be interested in what you are doing in the classroom but that doesn’t stop you being interested in them. Having a way of connecting with them outside the classroom through sports coaching, going on camps and excursions can help put a dent in their apathetic veneer. Experiential learning can also be helpful to spark interest by getting them involved in some sort of action or a social service project tied to the curriculum. Apatheism can be a response by some students to what they perceive as the overwhelming problems of the world so to help them realise the difference they can make, even in even small ways, can provide another avenue of engagement.

Apatheism might just be a stage the student is going through

It is also helpful to appreciate that apatheism might just be a stage the student is going through. There is a lot going on for the average Year 8 student so perhaps it is reasonable to expect that the various dimensions of the RE program might not be high on their persona agenda. It is good to be reminded of the well-known quote attributed to Mark Twain ‘When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.’ Every teacher knows that students grow and change, so with a bit of encouragement as they journey through school today’s indifferent apatheist might be your future Social Service Captain.

It is critical that our classrooms are not places of boredom for our students. RE has much to offer to them. With a bit of religious education under your belt you can get so much more out of things. You can even get more out of your favourite cartoon.  For example, understanding why Calvin and Mrs Wormwood have been given those names.  The cartoon Calvin and Hobbs helps us to see life through the eyes of a six year old child with all its possibilities and potentialities. Let’s work on helping ensure that what our students experience in the classroom encourages and empowers them to explore all the richness that life has to offer.

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