This is a story from the experiences I had during my Teach For India Fellowship. A collection of all such pieces is filed here.
It was a January morning when I finally dared to take up God in my class of nine-year-olds. I do not believe in one myself, and now that I had just four months left with them, I felt expanding their critical thinking to faith was important. But the route was tricky.
My students came from difficult backgrounds. Superstition and belief were essential ways for their families to explain fears, troubles and failures. “Bhaiya, my mom tells me that if a pigeon makes noise around you, it brings bad luck,” said Nandini one day. Little Abdus Subhan would make it a point to hit his head back at any other kid’s head if it had already happened once – doing it an even number of times helped avoid bad fate. My children had more theories on my balding head than my doctors had.
I had kept some of these discussions for later, because I wanted a comprehensive plan that covered all such ideas. I now had that plan.
It was simple, and it worked. Hypothesis, proof, fact, and myth: four words.
“One day I got 10 minutes late to school, and Pawan told everyone Bhaiya was not going to come,” I reminded them. “Why did everyone believe him?”
That Bhaiya had not come yet was the unexplained reality. That Bhaiya was not going to come at all was a hypothesis to explain it. That Bhaiya finally came was a proof against the hypothesis, and hence the hypothesis didn’t exist any more.
I then said it was raining outside, based on the noise outside. I asked the class to come up with hypotheses, instead of believing it was indeed raining because I said so. We questioned each hypothesis and made efforts to prove and disprove them.
After a few similar examples from the classroom and around, some students started understanding rather quickly how to form hypotheses and look for proofs. This lesson was getting interest from the most troublesome of kids as well.
We now took the concept to common superstitions. The black cat crossing the road had an innocent proof for it that stumped me for a moment: “I bought a pencil and was going back home when a black cat passed by,” Kajal was sharing with the class. “When I reached home, my pencil was not there with me.”
I asked Kajal if that was the only hypothesis she could come up with. Other kids were fast coming up with alternate ones by now: “You might have dropped the pencil on the way!” “It’s possible you left the pencil at the shop.” “Or maybe you already kept the pencil inside your bag and you forgot?”
The idea I was trying to drive was, unless we attempt to prove a hypothesis, it is neither fact nor myth; only a proof for or against makes it fact or myth.
It was time to argue God.
Has anyone seen God? The quintessential question, and the expected answer. Does that mean we should not believe in God?
Children differed. Some believed we should not look for proof and that God was indeed there because elders said so. There were a few who went along with the “no-it’s-all-false” wave that this lesson had been till now, and boldly said there is no God. (Children often get swept by such waves out of enthusiasm.)
But my objective was not that they prove or disprove God – I was doing this lesson so that they could question the most unquestionable ideas around them and still hold their own.
Sourav, the 11-year-old in my class of younger kids, had been very engaged during this lesson. He shouted out as he always did, without raising his hand, “I think there’s no God, but we cannot say so for sure – because until we disprove it, it remains a hypothesis: neither fact nor myth.”
I asked around for reactions, and this time, most agreed. This brought me to making the kids imagine how the hypothesis of God might have first come about.
I provided the guiding questions, and the children put themselves into the shoes of the Early Man.
The Early Man was not able to understand how the weather, fire and trees worked, and he came up with hypotheses for the unexplained reality, the kids concluded – just the way Pawan had come up with the idea that Bhaiya wouldn’t come that day. One of the hypotheses was about a Someone who was controlling everything.
While everyone seemed to agree to this much, what was difficult to conclude was that the hypotheses are no longer relevant, now that we can explain most unexplained realities through science. Sourav felt, and many agreed, that we don’t have to look for proof any more, and the hypothesis should be discarded altogether. But there were several others who were reluctant to conclude anything that suggested God might not exist.
The kids also spent time considering corollaries to the idea of God – that he lives up there in the sky, that good things happen to those who do good (kids are quick to contend bad activities with “paap chadhega”), and that God controls our actions. Most kids were now quick to reject these ideas as unproven hypotheses. Did that make them myths? No, not yet.
(The idea that God controls our actions was the quickest to be debunked, because of this.)
Great enough for the first lesson. As I wanted to stop short of telling my kids there was no God and that I believed so, I left the lesson here. The next day, quite a few had thought about it and felt there was no God. Some had concluded that it’s a hypothesis, and we should look for proof before discarding it. Most came back with their new ideas about superstitions they had heard at home. The seeds had been planted. Till now, they, like most kids unadulterated by philosophical slavery, questioned most things. From this day, they learned to question everything.