Veterans Day

One of five murals by artist Richard DeRosset in the Veterans Museum at San Diego’s Balboa Park. The museum holds an impressive collection of military artifacts and paintings and hosts period dances and other educational events.

November 11, 1918 marked the signing of the Armistice ending the First World War. At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the guns fell silent. Ten million men in uniform had died, along with countless millions of civilians. The exhausted Allied nations of Europe were relieved to be free of the bloodshed and dedicated November 11th thenceforward as Armistice Day.

France, Belgium, and Serbia still observe November 11 as Armistice Day; in the British Commonwealth of Nations it is Remembrance Day. Poland celebrates its independence from the former Russian and Hapsburg Empires. Last year was the centennial of the 1918 Armistice and included many moving commemorative events. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who led the United States into the war as a late participant, delivered a stirring address on the first anniversary of the Armistice, and Congress adopted November 11 as a national holiday in 1926.

Armistice Day was renamed Veterans Day in 1954 to honor all the men and women who have served the nation in uniform. Those of you still in school know it as a welcome day off after weeks of intensive academic effort. The First Quarter is over and the end of the First Semester is now in sight. The full week of Thanksgiving Break is right around the corner. It is time to rest and begin to focus on your final assignments and how best to finish the term successfully.

Think of the veterans you know on this day. Our rights and privileges have been protected by their service and sacrifice. Do what you can to support them. Learn about veterans’ issues and elect public officials who will protect their federal benefits. The way we treat our veterans says something about our national character and values. These are women and men who are willing to put their lives on the line for their country. They deserve our thanks and respect.

Hand painted miniature of my Union Army ancestor with his regiment’s XVI Corps badge. Copyright (c) 2003 Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Community Service

I was involved with the Key Club as a student in 1978-1979 and as a faculty advisor from 2013 to 2018. Photo Copyright (c) 2016 Torin Finney.

Community service is an integral part of a well-rounded education. Many schools include it as a graduation requirement, particularly for honors students with a weighted GPA. Getting involved in your community increases your awareness of social issues and helps in advancing personal development. Most religious and civic service organizations offer programs that give young people the opportunity to learn and serve. Balancing your academic load with extra-curricular activities can be challenging, but the rewards of service are worth the effort.

Start with your own school and neighborhood. Learn about campus clubs and discover which ones involve serving the community. Ask your relatives, neighbors, and local clergy and elected officials what needs to be done. When I was a student in Virginia in the 1970s, I helped with a summer educational program for mentally disabled adults at my church and participated in neighborhood clean up efforts with my scout troop. As a senior in high school, I joined the Key Club and rode in bike-a-thons to raise money for heart disease research. All these activities made me feel as if I were making a difference in improving the quality of life in my community.

On campus activities such as cancer awareness days and blood drives provide opportunities for you to do your part. Cultural clubs can call attention to civil rights issues as well as artistic expression. Canvassing for local candidates can familiarize you with current political debates and help you form your own opinions on important public issues. Visiting your local courthouse and attending the grand openings of new businesses are other ways to make your presence known as an active member of your community.

Religious organizations in particular offer a myriad of charitable activities in which young people can participate. Local churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other congregations sponsor soup kitchens and food banks for the needy, shelters for the homeless, counseling and health care programs, recreational and educational events, and opportunities to visit the elderly, the homebound, the hospitalized, and the imprisoned. Those of you who are religious can ask your clergy or other members of your community how you can get involved. If you are not religious, these groups will still welcome your participation. There is always a need for more dedicated volunteers.

I was heavily involved in church work from 1982 to 1992. I taught adult classes on issues of war and peace and sang in both folk and traditional choirs. I led an inner-city youth group in Berkeley, California in the mid-1980s and assisted a local pastor in visiting the sick and the infirm. In Honolulu, I spent an intern year preaching and teaching and helping with a local food program for the homeless. I served as a student hospital chaplain for patients with cancer and HIV/AIDS as well as for those participating in a substance abuse rehabilitation program. In 1984 and 1989 I worked in outdoor summer camps with at-risk children as a recreational and educational leader. I served for over a year as the co-pastor of a two-point parish in central Kansas.

Part of an art project I began in 2014 called my “Rock Resume.” These stones commemorate my years of service in religious organizations between 1982 and 1992. Artwork Copyright (c) 2017 Torin Finney.

Local service organizations such as the Lions and Kiwanis sponsor regular activities to help the community. All welcome the participation of young people, particularly high school and college students. Whether the activity is trash cleanup, fundraisers for health care research, listening to those in need, literacy classes for newcomers and the poor, writing to members of Congress or uniformed personnel overseas, or collecting canned goods for the local food bank, there are always possibilities available for someone seeking active community service.

Not all service roles are strictly volunteer. If you have time for a part-time job while you are in school, consider one that would allow you to help others in some way. Working as a paid staffer in a food bank or nursing home will offer you non-monetary rewards beyond your paycheck. Make use of your skill set. If you are bilingual, think about working for a business or non-profit organization that serves the immigrant community. If you have construction or home improvement skills, go to work for a contractor who participates in low-income housing projects. If you are facile with words, write for a public advocacy periodical or start your own blog.

Whatever you decide to do, make the most of the service opportunities in your area. Everyone has something to offer. Identify your skill set and contribute to the common good. Doing so will round out your educational experience and strengthen your college applications. But most importantly, you will know that you are helping to improve the quality of life in your community. As the old saying goes, making a difference is just as important as making a dividend. There are always opportunities to make a difference. Open your mind and your heart to finding your place in that effort.

From December 1992 to October 1996 I worked as a bilingual operator for the California Relay Service in Sacramento, a telephone service for the hearing impaired. Artwork Copyright (c) 2017 Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Preparing for Tests

Tests and final exams are standard methods of measuring your mastery of a subject in school. Although they may take many different forms, they usually represent the largest portion of your course grade. Whether they are multiple choice or matching questions, project presentations, essay prompts, or maps and diagrams, it is crucial that you perform well on tests. Coming up with a successful strategy for studying will ensure satisfying results.

Objective style tests typically come with some kind of study guide. Pertinent topics and vocabulary you will need to know should be included. If your teacher does not provide one in advance, ask him or her to give you a copy or post something in the online classroom. Verify which sources you need to review (chapters in the textbook, handouts, completed homework, etc.) and focus your preparation on them. Many of my most successful students color coded their class notes and went over the topics with dependable study partners.

Some questions can be answered in more than one way. Read every question carefully and always choose the best answer based on your intuition and knowledge. This strategy applies to state tests and AP/IB exams as well as those in your regular subjects. Answer the questions that seem easier at first and then return to the more difficult ones. Take your time. Breathe. Trust in your preparation and the work you have given in class all semester.

For essay questions, read the prompt carefully and flesh out your response completely. Present a strong thesis backed up by multiple points. Support your argument with whatever sources you can muster from memory or those provided during the test. If essay writing is more stressful for you than answering objective questions, get a head start on the essay before you return to the multiple choice. Let the teacher know if you need more time to finish. Most teachers will accommodate your request. They want you to succeed.

In your history class, keep track of personalities and patterns in your notes. Organize your notes, graded homework, and study guides according to unit and topic. Try to make connections between the people, places, and events. A multidimensional or interdisciplinary approach will bolster your retention and understanding. Look for links between history content and what you are learning in your other classes, especially in English. Demonstrating that you have done so will impress your teachers, especially on tests.

In government and economics, staying on top of concepts and vocabulary is key. Some economics tests include graphs and equations as well. If you have done your homework, you can build on theoretical foundations and show your understanding of real life applications. Supply and demand are at the core of the marketplace. Follow business news on your phone and pay attention to current events. The same is true for political science. Keep on top of the positions of both major parties on crucial issues in the public debate. Watch both conservative and liberal news channels. The more material you have, the better your responses will be on tests.

Be proactive in your preparation. Keep up on the material week by week. Turn in your homework on time and read all the required chapter sections as you go. Ask for help from the teacher and other classmates on a regular basis. Do you own work. Avoid procrastination and “all-nighter” study sessions. Get a good night’s sleep before a test. Eat a full breakfast and get to school early. Bring the pens, pencils, paper, and other supplies you need. Take all the time you are given during the test. If you finish early, go over all your answers before turning it in.

Save all your graded work and study guides until the end of the semester. They will help you when you prepare for the final examination. Most social science finals are comprehensive, so you will be responsible for everything you have learned during the term. Continue to organize your work as you move through each quarter. Always pay attention in class. Write your name on everything you submit. Remind the teacher to return your work before the test if you have to. Take charge of your own learning.

If you do poorly on a test, ask the teacher if you can make it up. If that is not an option, offer to complete an alternative assignment to be counted as extra credit. Most teachers will appreciate your desire to do well and rectify your mistakes. If you demonstrate a desire to succeed on a regular basis, your teacher will take notice. Your goal is to finish the class with the highest grade you can achieve. Adopting sound and organized test preparation practices will help you achieve that goal.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Testimonials Page

“Everybody is talking about Mr. Finney’s Testimonials Page!”

Happy Summer Solstice! With the longest day of the year upon us, you will have more time to check out my new Testimonials Page. Click here to read letters of recommendation from some of my former administrators. Testimonials from former students will be uploaded soon. And don’t forget to follow me on Instagram!

Whether you are still teaching or enrolled in summer school, traveling, catching up on summer reading, or just resting before the next school year, I hope you have a summer filled with relaxation and inspiration!

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Honors Classes

Teaching higher level classes involves a different set of parameters than what is required at the college preparatory level. Course structure, types of assignments, grading rubrics, the depth of academic content, and classroom discipline must all be designed with the performance of honors students in mind. These are kids who are university bound and determined to graduate from high school with test scores and a transcript commensurate with today’s demanding college admission standards.

This means challenging them to achieve college-level comprehension and analysis in subjects they will be required to take in lower division core courses when they enter the university environment. To this end, your behavior and performance expectations of them must necessarily be higher. An honors level course at the high school level roughly corresponds to a general education course for college freshmen. Your honors students must therefore demonstrate that they can behave and perform accordingly at this level.

An honors class is not the same as an Advanced Placement (AP) course. Teaching AP classes requires specific outside training and follows particular rubrics and structures. Honors level courses, on the other hand, allow for more flexibility and creativity in both design and execution. I taught honors history at the middle school level for five years, honors geography to high school freshmen for three, and honors economics to high school seniors for seven summer sessions. In all those cases I followed certain guidelines in both curriculum and discipline.

I decided to structure my high school honors classes along lines similar to the courses I had taught for six years at the community college level. Students were responsible for taking lecture notes but not required to turn them in for points. Unit tests and final examinations were weighted higher than in college preparatory classes. Disruptive behavior and academic dishonesty were swiftly dealt with, and low grades were addressed immediately. I instructed both students and parents that anything below a B- in an honors course was cause for concern. Tutoring was encouraged to prevent withdrawal from the course.

Honors students are generally more motivated than the average student and given more support at home. Their parents attend Back to School Night and other community outreach activities in greater numbers. Working with these parents is vital to your success as an honors or AP teacher. Be proactive in your parent contact, particularly when it comes to discipline and lackluster grades. Be clear with your course expectations and grading rubrics.

The assignments you give in these classes must be challenging and rigorous. Allow your honors students plenty of opportunities to engage the course material critically through essay writing, Socratic Seminars, analytical projects, and team discussions and debates. Your grading load will be larger, but so will the depth into which you can explore the course material. I always enjoyed the seminars, discussions, and project presentations in these classes, particularly when I taught Honors Economics in summer session. It is gratifying as a teacher to see what these students can do.

Go over unit test scores with your honors students to help them improve their performance next time. Keep them busy with the material and start each day with an opening activity that gets them engaged right away. For many years I designed a series of questions called the “Daily Q” that connected the day’s topic to current events. Give them challenging homework assignments that keep them on top of the subject. Keep up on your grading and return graded work right away.

Ask for help if a student asks you a question beyond your knowledge. I learned a lot from my honors students and grew in mastery of my subjects as a result of their questions and interests. Monitor their progress and be discerning about which students might be better suited to a college preparatory level class and vice versa. Many of these students are taking several other higher level courses as well as participating in athletics, performing arts, and time-consuming extracurricular activities outside of school. Support them in their efforts to achieve a healthy balance in their schedule.

Teaching honors classes can be extremely rewarding. It also comes with its own unique challenges. Be honest with yourself about what you are willing to take on and find the resources you need. Embrace the valuable learning opportunities that come your way.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.


Memorial Day Weekend

Memorial Day began as Decoration Day in the 1860s to honor the Union dead of the American Civil War. Copyright (c) 1995 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

For many of you, Memorial Day represents the end of the school year and final exams. Many people observe this three-day weekend with picnics and parades, much like Labor Day or Independence Day. In the midst of the jubilation and relaxation, it is easy to forget the somber origins of this important national holiday.

I drew the flag pictured above to commemorate the campaigns of my great-great-grandfather Michael Schneider, who served in Company G of the 27th Ohio Infantry throughout the American Civil War. He and the other volunteers of his regiment, many of them recent immigrants living in Cleveland, answered President Lincoln’s call to preserve the Union and later to end slavery. By the end of the war in 1865, 214 of them had given their lives in what Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.” These are among the people we commemorate on Memorial Day.

More than one million Americans have died in the nation’s wars, with the fratricidal Civil War being the most destructive. Decoration Day began while the war was still raging to honor those who died to save the Union and was eventually renamed Memorial Day to include all those lost on distant battlefields throughout United States history. Flags and flowers are placed on the graves of the fallen today, just as they were over 150 years ago.

As the school year ends and summer break approaches, let us remember those who gave everything to preserve our rights, including our personal freedoms and the right to a safe community and quality public education. On this Memorial Day weekend, may we dedicate our own lives to the continued preservation of those rights for all Americans.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.


Harvey Milk Day

Sporting a rainbow bow tie and vintage campaign button for Harvey Milk Day. The rainbow flag was designed as a symbol of LGBT pride by San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker (1951-2017) in 1978, the same year Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated at City Hall. Photo copyright (c) 2018 Torin Finney.

Harvey Milk Day was declared a special commemorative day in California public schools by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009 and has since been recognized across the country and the world as a day to recognize America’s premier LGBT civil rights figure. Milk was born on May 22, 1930 and assassinated on November 27, 1978. He was America’s first openly gay public official and called for all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans to come out of the shadows and assert their rights as equal members of our society.

I remember well the day Harvey Milk was killed. I was a senior in high school in southern California and had several gay friends and classmates, many of whom had not yet made the decision to come out to their families. There was rampant homophobia throughout the country at that time and my U.S. history class did not include the contributions of LGBT Americans. When I became a history teacher 20 years later, I did what I could to correct that error in my classes. I included LGBT history in my curriculum and made sure my students learned about Harvey Milk on May 22.

June 28 this year will be the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City, which later led to the first Pride parades across the country. The San Diego Pride Parade takes place in the famous Hillcrest neighborhood near where I live and promises to be the largest in the city’s history. While homophobia and hate crimes continue to mar our national life, prominent legal victories and the election of many openly LGBT public officials have paved the way for a new generation of activists and leaders. Harvey Milk once said that “hope will never be silent.” May all of us raise our voices of hope in support of full civil rights for all people.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Taking Notes

Taking notes is a big part of your history class or any other subject in the social sciences. There is a lot of material to keep track of, and state content standards are rigorous and extensive. Knowing how to take detailed notes in the right format will help you keep up with that content and achieve your best grade possible.

Cornell style notes are a time-proven method of organizing and engaging with historical content. I used them for most of my time as a high school teacher and encouraged my college and middle school students to employ them as well. They were a required part of both lectures and documentary films in my classes. I provided a paper copy of printed Cornell forms for students to use as well as online copies in my digital classrooms.

If a printed Cornell form is not at your disposal, create your own. Write your name and the course title at the top of the page and the subject of the lecture or discussion in the top left corner. Draw a column along the left margin about a third of the way into the page and divide that column into three or four parts. This is where you will create topics or questions that can funnel the content you are hearing or seeing into specific categories.

If the instructor is unclear about those categories ahead of time, you will have to do that part yourself as best you can. Keep track of the information you hear and see in the larger space to the right of the subject column. Write down important dates and places (When and Where), people and groups (Who), important events and ideas (What), cause and effect (Why), and cyclical patterns (Historical Consequences). These were the same themes I had my students use when creating their quarter projects and taking notes on them in class.

Repeat this pattern on both sides of your paper. At the bottom, create another margin where you synthesize the page’s content into a summary statement or conclusion. Then review everything you have written before turning it in at the end of class (if that is what the teacher requires) or filing it in your subject notebook.

Of course, Cornell notes are not universally required or accepted by all instructors, but they are nonetheless a good way to organize content as you go. Organize your notes into sections according to the units of the course so you can use them to study for tests and exams. Color code your notes to help you make connections between patterns of people and events. Use the same color code in linking your class notes to the written assignments you complete in your textbook. The more consistency and connection you can create, the better.

Many people try to rely on their “photographic memory” and feel that extensive notes are unnecessary. I can tell you from decades as a student and teacher that this is not the case, at least for the majority of learners. History tests tend to be fact heavy and historical writing demands detail and documentation. The same can be said for economics, psychology, sociology, political science, anthropology, and world religions. Copious and well-organized notes are an essential part of academic success in the social sciences.

Save all your notes and other written assignments until the end of the semester after your final exams are over. If the course lasts for an entire year and culminates with a comprehensive final, continue to save and reorganize your notes until then. It is too much to ask of yourself to try to remember something you learned many months earlier. A well-organized notebook will aid you in recall and reanalysis.

Use your notes to help you in constructing essay assignments. Remember that writing in the social sciences is different from the expository or creative writing you might do in your English class. The more evidence and analysis you include in historical essays, the more persuasive and impressive they will be to the person reading them. In history, one can never have too many notes. The key to success is to organize them in such a way that they can help you achieve it.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

International Women’s Day

My mom and I on my first day of college at UC Santa Cruz, September 1979. Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

March is Women’s History Month, and today is International Women’s Day. Names like Abigail Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Dorothea Dix, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, Anita Hill, Rosa Parks, Dolores Huerta, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Alice Paul come to mind when I think of all the great women who have shaped the course of our history.

Today I also think of the first influential woman in my own life, my mother. She passed away recently at the age of 82 and will be greatly missed. She was an accomplished nurse who overcame much adversity to raise a large family and inspire friends and colleagues with her courage, humor, and dedication. I will always be grateful for the large part she played in my own academic success, artistic development, and personal growth.

As the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment approaches, let us all think of those women who have inspired us to thrive and succeed. Women are entering careers and public service in ever greater numbers and will continue to improve the quality of life here in America and across the world. May we all work together with them to stand up for equal rights, equal pay, and equal opportunity.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

World Religions Topic 15 Summary: Agnosticism and Atheism

The critical study of religious text and doctrine during the period of the Protestant Reformation in Europe would in time lead some to further question the very idea of God itself. Dutch theologian Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) challenged the precepts of medieval scholasticism by arguing for free will, religious toleration, and critical thinking within the context of Catholic faith. This “humanistic” school of thought influenced the German theologian Martin Luther (1483-1546), who postulated that salvation by grace through faith could occur outside the jurisdiction of the Roman Church. Faith and salvation were not guaranteed by participation in the Sacraments. The individual must make a choice to believe in a personal Lord and Savior.

For some later Enlightenment thinkers, the choice was not to believe at all. These writers and philosophers concluded that the very concepts of church and salvation were themselves flawed and unnecessary. The French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778) embraced deism, which accepted belief in a creator of the universe apart from participation in institutional religion. This approach was shared by prominent American thinkers such as Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). For others, however, deism did not go far enough. More radical rejection of religious doctrine took the forms of agnosticism (from the Greek “without knowledge”) and atheism (“without God”).

These ideas were explored by French Enlightenment philosophers such as the aristocrat Baron D’Holbach (1723-1789), physician Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709-1751), and the art critic and writer Denis Diderot (1713-1784), compiler of the world’s first encyclopedia in 1751. These and others argued that the human capabilities of reason and feeling were enough to produce both happiness and prosperity, and that the notion of God and the ecclesiastical and theological infrastructure needed to sustain it were therefore superfluous. Diderot was briefly imprisoned by the French government for expressing these views in his 1749 essay Letter on the Blind.

Many of these objections to theological constructs arose within the context of French Catholicism, where ecclesiastical wealth, corruption, and political influence in the Bourbon court at Versailles bred popular protest. The virulent hostility of the French Revolution against the Catholic Church bears witness to centuries of resentment and outrage. Later atheistic thinkers such as Karl Marx (1818-1883) carried this thinking further in describing organized religion as “the opiate of the masses” invented and utilized by the rich and powerful to control the working classes.

Marx was influenced by the German anthropologist Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), who argued in his 1841 book The Essence of Christianity that the idea of God is merely a projection of the best of human nature and not a separate Supreme Being that requires devotion and service through participation in organized religion. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and others built upon Feuerbach’s ideas in the development of modern empiricism, existentialism, and nihilism. These schools of thought dismiss religious doctrines as distracting fictions that pull focus from human responsibility in the only world that truly exists, the material world available to the senses.

But not all atheism is an historical reaction to European institutional Christianity. The idea of a deity or deities that exist separately from human beings is foreign to many eastern religious traditions, particularly Taoism and Buddhism. Millions of people today consider themselves atheists or agnostics even while they visit ancestral shrines and participate in cultural religious holidays and festivals. Millions more, especially in the western world, claim no connection whatsoever to any religious tradition, cultural or otherwise. Those who consider themselves actively religious today have become demographic minorities in many societies where religious membership was once required on pain of exile, imprisonment, or death.

The Communist revolutions of the 20th century were based in part on a political and philosophical materialism that rejected established religion as a tool of capitalist injustice. Participation in religious life was considered threatening to these regimes and often severely punished. Jews and Orthodox Christians were persecuted in the Soviet Union and Buddhists, Taoists, and Confucianists in Communist China. Only in this century have people of faith been permitted to practice their religion in Cuba, North Korea, and other traditionally Communist societies. Human rights groups still call attention to the repression of Buddhist Tibetan and Muslim Uyghur minorities in China today.

In the United States, the First Amendment allowed for freedom of religious expression and the disestablishment of a state church. This left room for the development of independent religious denominations as well as the growth of secular humanism. American atheists found a champion in activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair (1919-1995), who led a successful campaign to ban Bible readings in public schools that culminated in the landmark Supreme Court decision Abington v. Schempp (1963). O’Hair founded American Atheists that same year and devoted herself to defending the separation of church and state. She appeared on national television and fought to remove the word “God” from the Pledge of Allegiance and the U.S. dollar.

Atheists generally fall into the two categories of positive or hard atheism, which asserts definitively that there is no God, and negative atheism, which rejects a personal theism but does not deny the possibility of God altogether. Many negative atheists can be more accurately described as agnostics, as their approach to the question of divinity is either ambivalent or apathetic. Recent polls have suggested that up to 90% of Americans still believe in a God of their understanding, while less than 10% are willing to commit to positive atheism. The larger figure includes millions of agnostics who are reluctant to take sides on the issue of faith.

Following the initial anti-clericalism of the Enlightenment period, agnosticism grew in popularity with the dissolution of traditional religious communities during the period of rapid urbanization and industrialization in 19th century Europe. Marxist materialism and the association of the church with discrimination based on race, sex, and class added to the alienation of many with institutional Christianity. Marginalized groups that did not have their own supportive religious infrastructure often chose to reject the relevance of religion altogether.

The advent of film, radio, television, and the internet increased the volume and diversity of public discourse on matters of faith and church membership. Many young people and leftist intellectuals in the 1960s antiwar movement and counterculture objected to some of the language of the political right that defended the unpopular Vietnam War as a “righteous crusade” against “Godless Communism.” Scientific inquiry clashed with religious fundamentalism throughout the 20th century. Civil rights struggles, financial crashes, and environmental crises eroded the effectiveness of religious answers in addressing the complicated problems of the new century.

Recent sociological studies have shown that more than half of the adult populations in the developed world today can be characterized as “unchurched,” particularly among the “Millennial” generation born in the closing decades of the 20th century. This number includes many who have left institutional religion as well as those who dismiss notions of faith and God as antiquated or irrelevant. All across the world, church membership among those under 40 years of age is falling dramatically. Some have left one religious tradition for another, but more have never attended church at all or have dropped religious affiliation altogether.

Some object to the very words “God” and “religion” and prefer language like “Higher Power” and “spirituality.” Many have been scandalized by criminal, avaricious, or hypocritical behavior among church leaders and religious politicians. Some argue that unearned suffering and senseless tragedy point to the absence of a benevolent deity. Others are horrified by terrorism and murder committed by fanatics in the name of religious faith. For still others, church attendance and prayer at home cannot compete with the appeal of a secularized popular culture endlessly streamed through cable television and social media.

Whether their beliefs are the result of outrage, disillusionment, disappointment, materialism, apathy, ignorance, or critical reflection, today’s atheists and agnostics constitute a significant portion of the world’s population today, especially among the young. Many believe in the same altruistic values of human rights, economic justice, and environmental sustainability that have characterized the best public efforts of organized religions. The contributions of “nonbelievers” to solving the most critical challenges facing the global community will be as necessary to the quality of life on earth as those who adhere to an historic religious faith.

CRITICAL THINKING:

  1. Can a person of faith also be an agnostic? What about an atheist? Explain your answer.
  2. What effects do you think the internet and smartphone technology have had on religion’s role in human society?
  3. What do atheists and theists have in common? How can they find common ground to transcend their differences and work together to create a better world?

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.