I asked and received permission to share the following story. I was told that was fine, so long as I withheld the student’s last name, which I am glad to oblige…
Dear fellow atheists,
I’ve been having an ongoing issue in my Critical Thinking class that I’m taking this semester at college; it’s a private for-profit secular institution. The problem is not so much with the class itself, but with the professor who teaches it. I’ve brought up the issue casually with my academic department and they have expressed their belief that it is a non-issue. Unless I’m willing to withdraw from the course and have it appear on my transcript, I’m forced to stay in it for the remainder of the term. That’s why I’m coming to you in the hope that you could provide me with some coping advice. I’m not kidding; this class is driving me completely insane.
A couple of weeks ago I had a conversation with my professor along with another student during our class break. At one point she asked me to provide an example of a belief I had that I didn’t realize I had. Confused by the question, I asked her to elaborate. She gave me her own example of how she used to believe God was a punishing God, but then came to know Him as a loving and caring God. Right off the bat I informed her that I couldn’t think of anything as significant as her example, since I personally do not believe in anything supernatural or paranormal. It was then that she moved forward with the conversation by asking me, “You don’t even believe in the paranormal?” My adamant stance on the subject clearly bothered her, especially when I stated that many supernatural and paranormal claims could be easily refuted with scientific evidence. My professor’s adult son passed away several years ago, and she replied “My son is around me all the time and communicates with me every day”. I assured her that I was not intending to take away any personal experience she had.
The next day, she asked a couple of students what we had learned from Chapter 2 of our Critical Thinking textbook. The answer I gave was, “I interpreted the chapter to mean that beliefs are subjective truths and facts are objective truths”. For some reason my answer appeared to offend her. Out of all the students’ answers, she wrote mine on the board and asked me to give examples of beliefs and facts. I explained to her that my personal opinion on what makes something a “fact” is something that was observable, measurable, and testable. She then brought up the subject of ghosts and EVP recordings, and challenged me to refute the “evidence” shows like Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures provide. “How do you explain the EVP recordings, and the fact that the voices respond directly to the questions!” I’ll be honest with you, I truly wanted to laugh and ask her if she seriously thought those shows were conclusive evidence of paranormal phenomena. In fact, I did, I just didn’t laugh. I explained to her that these shows were not reliable evidence for anything since they are entertainment programs. EVP’s were easily explained away by many sources of interference including the pareidolia effect. But she insisted on reminding me that I still could not prove that they were not, in fact, actual recorded ghost voices. I agreed and ended by saying that it was up to her and anyone else in the class to research natural explanations on their own if they wanted to.
The following week, one of the students felt the need to bring up a story of how she had seen a ghost in her house “last night”. Her totally unbelievable and laughable story included the ghost calling out her name, leaving a black hand-print on her shoulder which lasted for two hours (but no photographic evidence), and how her hair floated up in the air. Maybe it was just the way she told it that made it seem so unconvincing, nevertheless the entire class, including the professor, was captivated by her haunting story. So what does the teacher do? She looks right at me and asks me to explain her story. I guess being the only skeptic in the class meant I was the only one capable of dissecting it. “Do you believe her story?” I asked the professor to which she replied with a “yes”. I asked her what evidence she had to believe the claim, and she stated, “Because she told me. I have no reason to disbelieve her”. I then went into the whole spiel about how all claims are not created equal, such as someone telling you a ghost left a black hand print on their shoulder as opposed to her ordering pizza for dinner last night.
Sadly I never got a chance to provide alternative explanations for the student’s claim, as the teacher decided to interject with the story of her “astral projection” experience. She explained how in the middle of the night she awoke only to find that she couldn’t move a muscle. She couldn’t call out for help and felt completely paralyzed. Her “soul” (or whatever it is she called it) came out of her body and floated around the room and out the front door which is when she woke up. I explained that what she experienced was most likely an episode of sleep paralysis. This was a text-book case of SP in my opinion, and I have had a few episodes myself where I have had similar experiences. I explained to her what sleep paralysis was, both the physiology and psychology of what takes place during an episode. In fact, there was a student in class that worked for a sleep-study center that could back up my claim. Nevertheless, the teacher quickly dismissed my explanation and said that it “explained nothing”. She refuted by saying that science gets things wrong all the time and that “some guy in a white lab coat” could not disprove that what she experienced was not astral projection. Her claim was that it may be the current explanation in science but that this could change and eventually scientists would discover that these episodes were actually astral projection all along. I actually refused to counter her argument after 2 hours of going in circles and simply said “Okay”.
Now I really don’t care what she, or anyone else, believes. Everyone is free to choose whatever explanation makes the most sense to them, even if I do think it’s silly to ignore mountains of evidence. Nevertheless, this is a critical thinking class. What should have been a valid discussion of weighing evidence to support a belief was nothing more than the professor feeling that her beliefs were being threatened. Time and time again I reassured her that my intentions were never to disprove anything, only to provide alternative explanations. Throughout the course of the discussion science was ridiculed and only evidence supporting her belief was considered. Not once were any of my explanations validated or considered seriously. The entire experience left me feeling humiliated and aware of the fact that I really AM a minority with my anti-spiritual worldview. “Critical Thinking” has turned into “Magical Thinking”, and class time is now about sitting around a campfire telling ghost stories. Am I wrong for feeling just a tad pissed off about that? I actually thought this may have been the one class where skeptical thinking would be appreciated. Clearly I was wrong.
As I mentioned earlier, academics can do nothing about this situation. I can withdraw but having a “W” on my transcript is not something I want. I’m really left with no choice but to tough it out. I haven’t really been able to get any useful advice from anyone, and so that’s why I’m writing to you. I have five more weeks left of the term and although I don’t want to talk about ghosts anymore, I may find myself in a situation again where I am the target of debate. Is there any advice you can give me under these circumstances? My biggest fear is the impressionable minds in this class that are being poisoned with affirmation by the professor that her worldview makes more sense. After all, she is promoting it heavily. I know that confirmation bias and attitude polarization plays a huge part in all of this, but I’m not sure how I can present evidence without the receiver feeling threatened. And personally, I wish that she wouldn’t call on me to explain myself if she really doesn’t want to know my answers.
Thank you for any help you could provide,
I did offer Maya some advice. And offered to share the story here. She said she will be following comments, so please feel free to post to her here. I can’t promise she’ll respond, but she will be able to see your notes.