A couple of weeks ago, I received the following email:
“Do you have any articles on your blog or website about teaching technique shifts when you have atheist youth in your confirmation group? It seems like most curriculum is designed for church kids who just wanna know more about Jesus, but I find that these answers are not satisfying to some. These kids are still concrete, literal thinkers (developmentally), and so are writing off the whole bible because of parts they can't accept. Thanks for your thoughts, and for the work at Confirm not Conform!”
Well, there weren’t any before, but there’s going to be one now! Thanks for the excellent question.
Here’s what I love about having an atheist in Confirmation class: they take what you’re saying seriously. Are some of them reacting against their parents? Sure. But in my experience, the conversations about faith, scripture, and the history of the church are deeper because you have someone who isn’t passive about the topic. So the first thing I’d say is be very thankful for the atheist in your confirmation class who will force you to dig deeper than 99 dutiful attendees will.
And the second thing I’d say is to be sure to tell your atheist youth that you are grateful they are there because they have a crucial role to play in the confirmation class: they are your built-in bullshit detectors. They are going to be better able than most to detect when you are taking the easy route, when you’re letting God (or the church) off lightly, and when you’re making assumptions about what everyone holds as a baseline that may need more exploration. And then ask the atheist youth to help you.
With that role in mind, set up how that will operate. Will this person be able to respond appropriately in the moment? Do you need to check in afterwards? This is not carte blanche to be disruptive. But you need to work together to find out a way to respect one another, and all the class.
Respect is paramount. You don’t (at least I hope you don’t) expect an atheist to believe what you believe, but as a member of the class, an atheist in confirmation class needs to have respect for everyone attending, and for you as you lead the class. By the same token, you must respect the beliefs of the atheist.
As far as adjusting the curriculum goes: I hope that there wouldn’t need to be much adjustment for Confirm not Conform. I speak from experience. A couple of years ago, we had an atheist youth in our class – she was wonderful. She spoke up when appropriate. She participated fully. She was actually the banner bearer for the other youth at their confirmation though she declined to be confirmed herself (the bishop actually asked all the confirmands a question about baptism before the confirmation, and she was the one to answer. The bishop asked, “Am I confirming you today?” and she cried, “NO!!!”). And at the iConfirm service, for her teaching, she recited from memory an entire chapter from the book of Esther, the story of a strong woman in a book that never once mentions God.
If you’re not using Confirm not Conform, well, first of all, you should check it out. Secondly, the one significant thing I would change is this: If there is anything in the material that starts with, “Why do you believe X?”, for everyone’s sake, I would encourage you to change it to “What do you believe about X?”
Finally, make sure all of the youth are clear that confirmation is their choice, that if they do not want to be confirmed, that they are under no obligation to do so, no matter what anyone else thinks. And that you will back them up.
Having an atheist in your confirmation class is a great opportunity for everyone to explore faith with greater depth and maturity. From the get-go, it allows participants to understand that there are people who believe differently than they do, and that they can still love and respect those with whom they have differences. Can we love our neighbors despite our differences? Your own confirmation class may be the best place to practice.
[Image of the skeptical Trumpkin, Peter, and Edmund from Prince Caspian]