Wednesday, January 23, 2008

What Have I Done?!

My new semester is off to a good start, I am happy to say. Once again, I find it amazingly fun to meet my new classes. The cheerful energy of my students is very inspiring.

But I am realizing that I have set myself up for something very difficult. I have decided to try developing a full course on Religion and Science. I set it up as an upper-level course, to signal to students that it won't be easy, but I listed no prerequisites, because I really wanted to bring in anyone who was interested. And sure enough, I have science majors, religion majors, and philosophy majors -- coming into the course from a wide variety of perspectives.

And I find them ready to do battle. One of my students said, "I signed up for this course because I wanted a chance to talk about what everyone is afraid to talk about." Two of the students described themselves as atheists. One student (whom I knew from a previous class) has been wanting me to read Sam Harris, and so I did do so over break.

Today I found out that a colleague is bringing to campus someone (not Sam Harris) who has recently written a book blaming religion for all of the world's problems. My colleague wants to have a faculty reading group, and was sure I would want to join. Given that I am teaching this Religion and Science class, of course I will have to announce this lecture to my class -- maybe even bring this speaker in to visit my class. And I can tell already that the students will be very impressed with him. And they might not pick up that he does not really know what he is talking about. When I look at his book, and several others that recently have come out proclaiming the evils of religion, what I think is that they may make pretty good arguments against idolatry, but they don't get religion at all!

The other impression I get is that these men (all of the books in this vein that I have read are written by men) are absolutely outraged that there is suffering. In the end, their real objection to belief in God is that they wanted God to have made a world free of suffering. Finding that the world is full of suffering, they scream their outrage to a God they claim that they do not believe in. "You made the world all wrong. Therefore, You do not exist."

I decided not to require the students read any of these books in the course. After looking at a lot of books on religion and science, I came back to Ian Barbour as still my favorite author on this topic, because he works well with the science, and the religion, and the underlying historical and philosophical issues. He has his own point of view, which he is clear and open about, but his books present a balanced survey of many different ways of examining the subject, and then I, in turn, give students the freedom to choose which framework makes the most sense to them. My agenda is only that I want the students to examine all of this in some depth and detail before making up their minds.

This is going to be a very interesting semester...


  1. I thought it sounded outstanding when you wrote about the class title in your previous post. I don't envy the "battle" portion of the class, if it erupts.

    Recently I talked about Quaker silence and silent worship at a retreat for an organization (Friends-related). Part of my remarks felt like vocal ministry, and it seems relevant here, so I'll try to summarize:

    - I want to walk a middle ground between science on the one hand, which may say all this religious experience is just so many brain chemicals; and religious fundamentalists on the other hand, who claim to have the (only correct version of) literal truth.

    - It's clear from human history that religious experience does exist.

    - What does that experience look like subjectively, from the person who experiences it? When a person subjectively feels some deeper dimension to life -- listening to Bach, or talking to a friend or lover, or watching a child, or watching a sunset. That depth, to me, is what religious experience is all about.

    -- Chris M.

  2. I will also recommend that you read Jerome Gellman Mystical Experience of God: A Philosophical Inquiry and John Hick An Interpretation of Religion.

    Gellman is interesting in part because he is a Jew. Most of the people who write about philosophy of religion are either Christians or atheists. Gellman also does a nice job looking at the relevant science. Hick is excellent in my opinion. People often get an impression of Hick from articles written about Hick and from papers by Hick. I think this is unfortunate because most philosophers read Hick unsympathetically and reject his views based on the inadequate way he expressed his arguments in earlier works. After the critics laid into him he went back and did a better job of clarifying and defending his position but the old picture of him as a Kantian still sticks.

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Chris M.! I agree that a middle ground is possible, and that focusing on religious experience is a helpful approach. I really appreciate how you describe this. So far, the class is going very well!

    And thank you, Richard M., for the reading recommendations. I read some John Hick back in my undergraduate days and will revisit what I read then plus read what you recommended. I'll also look at Gellman. I'm looking for more non-Christian perspectives, and so I'm really glad you mentioned this book.

    By the way, what's wrong with being a Kantian? :-)