Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Religious Disillusionment of My Students (and Colleagues)

This semester I'm boldly starting off my Philosophy of Science course with an examination of some of the issues concerning science and religion. We are reading Ian Barbour's book When Science Meets Religion, because he does a wonderfully clear job of (a) providing four possible ways of relating science and religion, (b) describing some important results from science that I know will be helpful to refer to when we move on to more standard philosophy of science (in the past I've seen how little science students know), (c) laying out really important philosophical vocabulary relevant to philosophy of science.

Besides all that, starting the course this way is a way of putting science into a larger context. And I give students a chance to take stock of their own beliefs in relation to both science and religion early on in the course, before we get a bit lost in the details of a close-up look at philosophical issues arising from science.

So, I would like to share a couple of observations about what I have learned from my students:

  • Regardless of their attitudes about science or religion, they are loving this. No one at all thinks this is an odd way to start this course. They are thrilled at the opportunity to examine these questions.
  • No one is the least bit shy about sharing their honest thoughts and questions about both science and religion. If they find science incomprehensible, they say so. If they find belief in God dubious, they say so. If they find belief in God meaningful, they say so. Not too long ago, everyone seemed very guarded about (a) confessing that science made no sense to them or (b) sharing anything at all about their religious beliefs in a class! What accounts for this change I've been seeing crystallizing just in the past couple of years?
  • Even more: the students are hungry to share their thoughts. In an online discussion forum, they share their whole life histories of involvement or non-involvement with religion.
  • Sadly, most who grew up going to church found it frustrating and incomprehensible and couldn't wait until they didn't have to go anymore.
  • Sadly, most tend to be very suspicious of churches or "organized religion." They don't feel welcomed in. They profoundly misunderstand the terminology. They seem to regard "organized religion" as basically trying to control their behavior by wielding frightening images of a harsh, judgmental God.
  • Yet I would say most of my students seem to take spirituality very seriously. Almost no one is an atheist. A few are agnostics. But they regard their spirituality as something very personal. They don't want anyone to mess with it. They honor everyone else's "right" to hold their spirituality close too.
Net result: I find this all very interesting, but at the same time, I must confess to feeling a bit distressed that a whole rich language of powerful concepts is completely unavailable to help us move into depth in our conversations about all of this. All of the really important words are so contested that we really cannot use them at all.

I translate and translate and translate. Slowly, we build a new common language, but it takes time, and it is a cumbersome process. I console myself: this is the power of teaching philosophy -- to help students develop the skills of learning to use language more flexibly. But still, it is slow and difficult and we never really get very far before the semester ends.

But, maybe I just have to adjust my expectations. After all, they are students. They are just starting.

But the same is true in my conversations with my colleagues. So many of the really important powerful words are so contested that even we cannot speak very clearly or easily about what really matters...


  1. I don't know about your colleagues but mine are overtly hostile and contemptuous of religion. Their minds are closed and talking with them about it is not productive.

    Students however do have open minds. I probably have more evangelical or fundamentalist Christians in my classes than you do. They are generally more open-minded than the stereotype would indicate, but still pretty nervous about learning to question their assumptions. Students who are not evangelical are suspicious of churches and the authority structures they have seen there. There is a certain amount of rejection or at least grave suspicion of Christianity too. I really think that is closely connected to the fact that they assume that accepting Christianity means that you've got to be an exclusivist and say that Christianity is the whole truth and all other religions are false. Getting them to see inclusivist Christianity as a real option is a big step in the right direction. I can usually make them laugh when I tell them that not all those Buddhists are going to burn in hell. Pluralist Christianity is too big of a leap for them to take it seriously--it just sounds wacky to someone who thinks that Christianity is exclusivist.

  2. Wow! Just last night I was browsing through J.C. Polkinghorne's Belief in God in an Age of Science. I thought, "I just have to ask Contemplative Scholar and Richard M. about this!!" Now here you've gone and posted about Ian Barbour, who Polkinghorne seemed to see as having a similar approach to his own.

    Notably, Polkinghorne is a physicist and Fellow of the Royal Society as well as an ordained Anglican priest. His approach seemed to take seriously the axiom that there can be nothing "super-natural" in nature, and so how could we look to physics to explain God's action in the world? Interesting stuff, and I have no way to know if it's sensible. I'd be curious as to your own opinions of his work.

    And please do keep exploring this topic with us here in the blogosphere, too, please! Thanks!

    -- Chris M.

    PS I wrote about why I'm glad I majored in physics, which doesn't really touch on the question of science and religion directly, but it certainly informs my worldview.

  3. CS,

    I've got When Science Meets Religion on my bookshelf here and have thought about using it. I'm glad to hear that it works in your classes.


    I don't go along with the Anthropic Principle of Polkinghorne for one simple reason and one very, long complex reason. The simple reason is that the fact that the basic physical parameters which make life in our universe possible are very narrow and not logically necessary does not imply that God chose to actualize this world. The fact that the actual world is this one may not have a cause at all. Speaking loosely we could say "yeah, I guess we got lucky that the universe makes life possible, but if a different world had been the actual one then we wouldn't be here to complain about not being lucky." The more complex reason is that I am a modal realist. I think that all the possible worlds are equally real but that we call this one "actual" much the same way that we say "here on Earth." The word "actual" is an indexical meaning the world of the speaker. People in other possible worlds call their worlds actual just as we do. From our point of view this world is actual. From their point of view we are the ones who are merely possible.

    And you don't have to tell me that this is really eccentric. I know that very few people hold this view, however I think that it really is the best theory of modality and that people reject it merely because it sounds so strange to them. There are a few philosophers who believe this and a few physicists too. We are severely outnumbered but stubbornly maintain our view despite the "incredulous stare."

  4. I'm glad you posted this. I'm glad to hear that you've noticed students being more open-minded about science and religion over the past few years. My experience (as an undergrad) was mixed; the bad memories are pretty bad, though.

    Anyway, I'm glad you posted this because I fit the description of your current students and I was getting around to picking your brain about religion, spirituality, etc-I'm just super busy with triangles, circles, and postulating!

    Do keep blogging about this!

  5. Wow, great discussion! Thank you all! I will share more thoughts soon...

    And, t. (I know who you are! Welcome!) -- I'd like to hear more about your bad experiences with this as an undergrad.

    Some more context about where I'm coming from: on sabbatical I did some research on why Quakers (for the most part) never saw science at odds with their religious beliefs. That story can be seen as an alternative historical thread that developed in very different ways from the historical story I teach about in my philosophy classes: how and why philosophy, theology, and science branched apart in the mainstream history of western thought.

    So, yes, I will be writing more about this...