Professor Patrick Riley leads a humanities worksop in the Case-Geyer Library for local high school teachers. Photo by Andrew Daddio

Professor Patrick Riley leads an arts and humanities workshop for local high school teachers. Photo by Andrew Daddio

Fill a room with teachers, hand them philosophical texts and pose centuries-old questions about the nature of spirituality and religion, and the conversation is bound to get interesting.

Four Colgate professors from a range of departments led a free arts and humanities workshop called “Atheism and Other Theisms” for 13 high school teachers representing area school districts from July 21–25.

Professors Patrick Riley (French), Naomi Rood (classics), Benjamin Stahlberg (religion), and Edward Witherspoon (philosophy) taught the seminar, which has taken on more of an interdisciplinary theme since it was first taught 10 years ago by philosophy professor John Jacobs.

“There’s kind of an artificial barrier that comes up between secondary education and higher education,” explained Riley. “K-12 is kind of in its own little box and higher education is in its own little box, and they just don’t communicate very much. The mission of this enterprise is to open up a broader intellectual community.”

Although “atheism is a bit of a taboo subject and really not something you’re going to teach in public school, atheism has become a hot topic in the last ten years and there’s this century-long debate about the nature of deity,” Riley said.

The seminar sought to frame the broader concept of atheism and provide a historical context and alternative theistic schemes — hence, the seminar title.

Teachers asked for advice about how to address religion in their classes.

“One of the people who signed up for the workshop said, ‘I would like to know how to talk about God to my students and not in a personal way and without getting in trouble or offending people,’” said Riley.

To aid the teachers, there was a session devoted solely to pedagogy, which tried to make the link between the seminar itself and the potential application of the information in classes.

“The challenging texts and rich conversations are a great experience to really get outside of my comfort zone so that I can grow as a reader, a thinker, and an educator,” said Jarrod Williams, who teaches 10th grade English in New Hartford. “I really appreciated the experience of personally going through what I try to do for my students.”