Sunday, February 07, 2010

Students and God

In Modern Philosophy, my students keep wanting to believe that the philosophers of the 1600s didn't really believe in God: they just had to pretend that they did, to avoid the wrath of the Church. I think my students really perceive all the God-talk as fake, meaningless, even maybe childish or primitive. They say they are "put off" by it.

I really try to challenge their preconceptions. I tell them that they are anachronistically reading on meanings that these philosophers did not intend. I encourage them to delete the word "God," and look in a new way at what they are actually saying: "What concepts are they associating with this word?" I have them labor over the text, while I write their findings on the board: "orderliness of the universe," "creator of all" (which I help translate as "the deepest grounding of all existence"), "omniscience" which I help translate as "everything that is is ultimately knowable by some consciousness," etc.

Then, I ask, "Do you believe any of this? Do you believe that the universe is orderly? How do you explain why there is something rather than nothing? What is the source of all being? It just accidentally came into being? How is that an answer and not a cop out? Do you think that everything that exists is at least theoretically knowable? What would it mean to exist but not be knowable at all, by any kind of consciousness?"

My students seem intrigued, or maybe even disturbed at the implication that their deepest beliefs might be something like belief in God. So, by the next class, they come back to the view that these philosophers don't really believe in God, or that's not really want "God" means, etc.

Or, even more bizarrely, they try to get around thinking about this by coming back (yes, back) to questioning Descartes' earlier claim, "I think, therefore I exist."

"You really question that?" I ask, showing my astonishment. "You really think that that is the most problematic aspect of Descartes' proof?!"

They try the Buddhist denial of Self.

"Descartes says nothing about 'self,' here!" I point out. "The claim he is making here is not the claim that Buddhists deny. Buddhism objects to sharp individuation, in favor of a view that emphasizes the interconnectedness of all being. That's very different from what Descartes is doing at this moment in his proof."

With reluctance, they turn their attention back to the God question then.

I thought it would be fun for them to realize that the notion of God may mean something more mysterious and interesting than they had originally thought, but their attitude suggests almost a moral stance against considering this in any way different from the blanket dismissal that they have been trained to make.

I am having more fun with this than it may seem. And I am certainly not trying to "convert" anyone -- I tell them "I'm not saying you have to believe this; I'm just saying you have to understand it before you are even in a position to decide whether you believe it or not."

But I am distressed at how dogmatic is their disbelief, especially when they think they are preaching against dogmatism!

This is going to be an interesting class. The students will find that the God question never does go away during the Modern period of philosophy (roughly 1600-1800). They will find that it is still not clear by the end of this time period that the notion of God is obsolete. The idea of a purely mechanistic universe develops by then, but many remain unconvinced -- and, anyway, by the early part of the 20th century, that image of the universe is found not to work because it is denied by quantum physics. The universe just is very strange--none of the oversimplified attempts to finally explain it completely have ever worked!


  1. It seems that that taking your class would be an enviable experience.

  2. It's my guess--totally unsupported by any kind of systematic empirical inquiry--that this general skepticism about God that you are encountering is really a kind of instinctive negative reaction to the evangelical Christianity students encounter from time to time in personal life and on the television. Down here in North Carolina there are many, many more evangelicals than you have up North. I can count on there being evangelicals in every classroom I enter. These students would certainly not express this kind of skepticism about God and they would be likely to say something to counter the things your students are saying. So the classroom dynamic that I face is very different. But if my guess is right, your students are hearing Descartes or Locke say "God" and they are hearing Pat Robertson. Now I happen to believe that Descartes and Locke and other modern philosophers had pretty conventional concepts of God. They believed God to be a person and not a mere ground of being. They believed that God communicated with people etc. So your attempt to get them to read "God" in the early modern philosophers in less traditional ways doesn't seem right to me. Descartes is not thinking about God like a Unitarian. The way I deal with similar situations is to educate the students that traditional Christianity was really very, very different from the kind of Bible-thumping hypocrisy they see on television. This idea that Christians ought to interpret everything in the Bible literally does not get any significant traction until the early decades of the 20th century. It is not representative of 17th century Christianity.

  3. I'm puzzled that you don't seem to have any students who themselves have some sort of faith. I teach part-time in a somewhat non-traditional setting where most students are mid-20s and up - and many have had mystical experiences, especially related to nature, or have gone through a 12-step program. My students, too, have often an allergy to traditional forms of Christian expression. (However, I'm teaching in Religious Studies, so maybe your students are seeking a way out of religious dogmatism through taking philosophy classes.)

  4. Thanks for continuing the discussion, all!

    Richard: Yes, I am careful not to suggest that Descartes only thought that God was the ground of all being. I am just trying to teach them to read more critically and carefully than they do. In fact, I constantly surprise them by telling them that "traditional" is not what they think! They think their contemporary stereotypes are the traditional view, and when I tell them things like that Biblical literalism is very recent in the history of Christianity, they are so amazed that I think they actually don't believe me sometimes.

    So, all of this is to say that I do agree with you.

    Mary Ellen: Yes, I do think that many students come to philosophy trying to flee from religion. Yet, others do consider themselves people of faith. They are often quiet about this in class, but I can tell from their writings. I think those students really appreciate my willingness to consider these questions seriously.

    Christopher: Thanks! I know I have fun -- I just hope I don't torment my students too much! :-)

  5. Fascinating post--would love to hear more about how the dialogue with your undergrads about God develops.

  6. Do you cover Spinoza? What was their reaction to his idea of God, if so?

  7. Talk about preconceived ideas. It is impossible to come into any setting classroom or otherwise without tainting the dialogue with preconceived notions as well as wishful thinking. I am stunned when I read posts or watch you tube videos by amateur atheists or agnostics who are complaining about a Christian God who chooses to send some people to hell and other people to heaven based on merit. That is not the gospel at all. The gospel was heaven based on faith in the redemption provided by the Son of God. It has nothing to do with merit. Going to hell is however by merit, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. A clear presentation of the gospel would help. It is what it is. If you present the gospel message for what it is, and it is rejected by your students... well, they don't have to believe it. There are a few crazies like me who do believe it and that mostly by subjective experience and partially by a blind leap of faith as Kierkegaard suggested.