Atheist Parables: The Friendly Math Teacher

Welcome to my Atheist Parables series. In the tradition of Plato, Jesus, and Aesop, I will use stories and allegory to examine issues of faith, reality and reason.

According to the common Evangelical Christian narrative, God created all of us. He loves all of us. But all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Not just a few of us have sinned; we all have. If you break even one commandment, they say, if you’ve ever felt lust or stolen anything or lied, you are fully deserving of hell. It is only by God’s great grace that we have any hope of salvation at all.

But is his grace really that great? If God creates people who are unable to be perfect and then punishes them for not being perfect, is that truly praiseworthy? If a human being did that, it would look like this:

Most of the years I spent at the Allegory High private school was enjoyable, but I had the hardest time ever from my math teacher, Dr. Vincent.

That’s right, I said there was a doctor teaching my high school math.  He had a Masters in business, and a Ph.D in mathematics; he could have been working at a much bigger job, but he liked teaching high school for some reason.  He was a very rich man, and had contributed lots of money to running Allegory over the years; in fact, he was one of the founders.

Dr. Vincent was teaching my algebra class.  Most of the kids in class were pretty smart, but some of them knew they would really have to struggle to make it through the class.  I wasn’t one of the top students, but I knew if I tried really hard, I would make it.

And I did try really hard. It didn’t help that Dr Vincent wasn’t really a very thorough teacher.  He only half-explained these huge, complex concepts, so that none of us really had any idea how they worked.  Sometimes, he would tell us one thing on one day, and seem to contradict himself the next day, and he could never give a clear answer when we asked him to explain how this worked.

The problems started when we took the mid-term exam.  Most of the equations and questions on the test were things we’d never covered in class; even the brainy kids got stuck.  I understood less than half of the problems, and I’m sure I did a bunch of those wrong anyway.

Naturally, we all got failing grades. We all complained to Dr. Vincent, and asked him how we were supposed to know this stuff if he didn’t teach it.

“We haven’t had time to cover everything,” Dr Vincent said.  “I’m testing you on where you need to be, not on where we really are.”

“That’s not fair,” I said.  “You didn’t even give us warning!  Were we supposed to read ahead in the book or something?”

“No, most of this stuff isn’t in the book anyway,” Dr Vincent said, “and I’m sure you couldn’t understand it just from reading it.”

“Then what are we supposed to do?”

“Maybe I forgot to explain this at the beginning of the year,” Dr Vincent said, “but this is a high-level algebra class.  It’s far more complex than you will be able to understand in one year; not one of you has any chance of passing the final exam.  Also, I don’t believe in this gradual grading system; it’s much too soft.  Either you get an A on my test, or you get an F.  There’s nothing in between.”

Most of us were pretty shocked; we didn’t know what to say to that.  This wasn’t a required course to graduate, but it was a very popular one; we had never dreamed that it would be set up to force our failure.

“So you’re going to fail everybody?” asked my friend Tim.

“No, of course not!” said Dr. Vincent.  He chuckled and smiled at us.  “Do you know, I love you kids?  That’s why I started this school; to help underprivileged kids like you.  And every one of you in this room is here because of the scholarships I’ve provided.  Trust me, everything I do is to help you succeed.”

He sat down on a stool at the front of the room.  “You see, none of you are able to pass the class, but I will give you grace and pass you anyway.  You’ll get many of the questions wrong, but I will still give you an A.”

“Just like that?” asked Charlie.  “We just get an A no matter what?”

“Almost!” said Dr. Vincent.  “I just want to be your friend.  I want to talk with you, during school, and after school too.  I want to be a part of your lives.  I want to get to know your families, to come over and hang out with your parents.  I want to know that you are living up to your potential and doing your best.  If I see that you’re doing all those things, then I’ll know you should get an A in my class.”

“So we have to be your friend…” I said, trying to get this all straight.

“Well, I don’t like the term ‘have to’; I would never force you…” Dr. Vincent said.

“So what are we talking here?” said Tim.  “You want to come to our houses…like, do you have a certain number of times?  Do you have a list of things we should be doing to show that we’re ‘reaching potential’?”

“No, no, listen—I don’t want you to have me over a certain number of times, like me visiting you is mandatory!  There’s no grading scale to say if you’re a good friend or not; do you keep track of your other friends’ visits that way?  And I certainly don’t want anyone pretending to be my friend just to get good grades; that would be very rude!  If you really want to be my friend, I would love that! But if you’re just faking it, then don’t bother.”

“So you’re saying we don’t have to be your friend,” said Charlie.

“That’s right.”

“But if we’re not your friend, you won’t give us an A on the final test; and that test will be way over our heads and impossible to pass, right?” said Tim.

“Correct!”

“But this isn’t fair!” I protested.  “I want to be an engineer when I get out of college; I want to learn this math and do well on the test without your ‘grace’!  I want a test that measures my ability in math, not something based on your friendship!”

“Don’t you see, I am teaching you about math!” said Dr. Vincent.  “I will teach you as much as I can; it just won’t be enough for the test!  If you’ll just get to know me, and let me know you, I will help you succeed beyond what you ever thought possible.  Here,” Dr. Vincent pulled out a large folio of paper.  “Here is a booklet that tells you more about my class.  It explains how this is helping you, and tells about how well other students have done before.  I think if you just follow what is in this book, you won’t have any problems.”

(I looked through that book later.  Some of it was instructions and advice, and some was stories from other kids about how much they liked Dr. Vincent; but at least half of the booklet was a set of tirades on how horrible the kids were who wouldn’t follow his rules or get along with him, and stories of how he’d used his considerable wealth and influence to punish the kids who misbehaved.)

Charlie was grinning to himself.  I knew what he was thinking.  He’s one of those guys who always manages to find the easiest way to do something, who sweet-talks the teacher into giving him more time on an assignment even though he’d been slacking off.  Charlie knew that he wouldn’t have to lift a finger or remember any math in this class.  He’d have Dr Vincent wrapped around his finger in under a week; after that he wouldn’t bother looking at the book again.  Smart kids like Tim would spend their whole time working on the problems, hoping that it would help, and then he’d flunk anyway because he wasn’t friendly enough, while Charlie just sailed through.

“I still don’t think it’s right,” I said.  “I think that the tests should grade us on what we know, not on how much you like us.  I think that if this class is too hard for us, then there should have been an easier class before it, so that we can learn it.”

“This is the only class,” said Dr Vincent.  “You have to pass this if you want to do any higher math.  It’s just too complicated for you; that’s the way it is.”

“That’s not ‘the way it is’, that’s the way you made it!” I said.  “It’s not our fault we can’t pass this; you said as much just now!  And if it’s not our fault, then it’s the fault of the one who designed the class!   Either we should have a different class beforehand to prepare us for this, or you should grade this one on a curve or something!”

“You are a very ungrateful young man,” said Dr Vincent with a tight-lipped frown.  “You have no concept of grace!  I’ve offered you a wonderful opportunity and you seem determined to throw it back in my face!”

“It’s not really grace, if you forgive us for a mistake that you caused in the first place,” I said.  “It’s more like trying to cover for yourself, make you out to be the good guy so no one will notice how you’ve ruined our class.”

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