Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A Way to Talk About Religion

Back when I was teaching a philosophy class, some animated classroom discussions spurred an assignment: write a paper proving or disproving the existence of God. (The course involved an introduction to the major philosophers and major concepts, but was also designed to prod students to examine, articulate and re-think their own beliefs. Students became extremely engaged in this course.)

Of course, it’s impossible to prove the non-existence of God. We also went over such philosophical classics as cogito ergo sum and the ontological, cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of a supreme being. However, students quickly ran into dead ends, which was part of the point of the assignment — realizing what one can prove versus what one believes.

I suggested to the students they’d be better off arguing for the “use-value” of a belief in God, or disbelief in God. (“Use-value” is not the most poetic term, I know.) In other words, “I believe in God, and this makes me do [X],” or “My atheism leads me to do [Y].” It became an interesting enough assignment, with some great discussions, that we decided to have everyone re-write their papers, circulate them and perform an oral defense of them.

Two of the best jobs were delivered by Charles, a Southern young man who was quietly devout, and Mark, a young man from New York City who was a committed atheist. Each made a point of couching their papers and defenses in terms of his own personal beliefs and how it affected the way he lived his life. It was actually Charles’ best work to date, very well thought-out, consistent, coherent, and honestly, humble. Mark delivered a passionate, compelling piece about how his atheism made him a more moral person than he had been when he was younger and going to temple. Charles’ belief in the Golden Rule made him be much more considerate, he felt. Mark’s belief in mortality and no afterlife made him dedicated to fighting for justice for others in this life on Earth. In both their cases, self-reflection and choice played key roles in their philosophies.

Not every classroom would be ready for this sort of thing, but this was an elective for upperclassmen. They were a pretty bright, rough and tumble group, but also mature enough not to make any personal attacks (we had already completed a fun unit on logical fallacies, including ad hominem attacks). Were I to assign something similar again, I certainly would do a far more careful job setting the whole thing up.

It’s said that in polite society, one should never discuss politics or religion. It’s a wise warning, but it can also make for very boring small talk. Most social interactions don’t require much depth, but I personally prefer company that can respectfully if passionately disagree about issues that really matter to them.

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