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.
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...