Urban Legends in Higher Ed: Professor Strawman’s TOTAL BS 101

Today’s lesson is about not believing everything you read on the internet. I know, I know—I should not need to teach this lesson, but here we are. What, pray tell, has motivated this, you ask? Let me share: Today as I skimmed through my Facebook feed, I happened upon a video shared by a friend from a random person. The video was white text on a black screen telling the story of an atheist college professor challenging his students to prove the existence of god as part of his course’s requirements. Of course it was ridiculous. Also, it was a five and a half minute video consisting only of scrolling text, which made me even more annoyed with the straw man argument. There’s a reason the internet video doesn’t give the name of the professor or the name of the university where this supposed incident took place: It’s because they don’t exist. It’s total fiction.

So, here’s the deal: just because someone posts a video with a (sort of) plausible sounding plot, does not make it true. In fact, much of the video is actually the plot of a 2014 Kevin Sorbo movie called God’s Not Dead. The internet video as well as the film has the professor attempt to discredit his Christian students’ faith in Jesus by forcing them to prove god exists in order to pass the course. It’s a well known film starring the former Hercules: The Legendary Journeys’ leading man, who has been publically vocal about his perceived ousting from mainstream Hollywood because of his Christianity. Now whether Sorbo has actually experienced the discrimination he claims, I won’t discuss, because he may have a case there. What I will touch is the nonsense plot of the film (and the crappy derivative internet video.) There is so much wrong with the notion of a college professor using atheism as a grading rubric, I don’t even know where to start. Oh wait, yes I do: with the straw man part where the whole thing is complete bullsh!t.

For the uninitiated, a straw man argument is a logical fallacy that, according to Wikipedia, is “based on false representation of an opponent's argument To be successful, a straw man argument requires that the audience be ignorant or uninformed of the original argument.” While I typically don’t consider Wikipedia a critical source, in this case, they have it right. Not surprisingly, learning about this and other fallacies of argument are part of the curriculum of critical thinking and communication courses widely taught at intuitions of higher learning across the United States. People who believe the straw man are, as Wikipedia notes, “ignorant or uniformed.” Let me help inform such folks about why the godless professor video is total bunk.

No professors would ever do this, even atheist ones. Why? Because they would get fired. Also, because this would not have the outcome the video suggests, which is that no students challenge the professor in class for fear of his “authority” or something. My baloney has a first name, it’s T-H-I-S - M-O-V-I-E. Seriously, I have been teaching for a long time and I can tell you with 100% certainly that students will not hesitate to challenge you in class on things with which they disagree, even without any proof that they’re remotely right. They don’t like the cell phone policy? You will hear about it. They think your PowerPoint is bad? You’ll hear about it. Challenge their religious beliefs? Oh my god, will you hear about it. You’ll also hear from the chair of your department, the dean, and possibly the president of the university because that is where the students will go. It will become national news. You, dear atheist professor, will then be forcibly retired. Read about the professor in Kentucky who has to teach evolution in his biology course if you want to hear a real story of what students do when instructors challenge their religious beliefs. Also, contrary to what Faux News may tell you, believing in science is not the same as not believing in god. You can do both.

So, the whole story is a fabrication. This brings us to the why questions. Why would someone circulate this total fiction on the internet (or in Hollywood, though Sorbo’s film was not widely viewed. The stupid text-only internet video has actually been watched more times than the movie.) Here’s why: conservative busy-bodies needed a platform which allows them to make a straw man argument vilifying liberal arts education in order to discredit the notion of the liberal issues du jour. Making up a story about something so anti-freedom of religion is a good way to stir the pot. Seriously, why else would you want to create a monster like Professor Strawman who forces students to “earn” grades by disproving god? That’s not how the scientific method works. The problem (and the danger) of course, is that videos like this get circled all over the web by everyone and their sister’s cousin’s dog’s buddy and somewhere along the line, one of these internet denizens claims that this absurd injustice “happened to a friend of mine.” People believe the lies and real professors trying to teach real courses become targets for groups like the Faith and Freedom Coalition who claim religious persecution at the hands of "powerful" socialist atheists (or whoever they think is going all 1984 Big Brother on them.) The reality is this nonsense is actually brought to you by the same people who gave you the Scopes Monkey Trial and abstinence-only sex education, not real liberal arts professors trying their best to do a hard job for crap pay.

In summation, stop believing videos you watch on the internet. Seriously, people: Have some appropriately-placed skepticism about poorly made videos with no source citations.