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Teaching Atheism

One of my classes this semester has been Intro to Philosophy. I haven’t taught this class in several years, and the last time that I was assigned it, I was also assigned the text book that I would use. This was not a good idea, but my chair had this crazy idea that every philosophy class would use the same text book. It didn’t make sense, but I was in my first year of being an adjunct so I didn’t think to question it. The text book itself was something I would let my six year old read. It’s basic to the point of being insulting, but I do look into it once in awhile for dates and people.

This semester though, I went with a new approach for Intro. Instead of just picking ten or so Philosophers and running through their ideas, I have decided that to teach it by subject. For instance, instead of just talking about Cicero I used his version of the Argument from Design in the section “Philosophy of Religion.” In this way the students seem to be more involved. They know that under the “Religion” section, if they don’t like Cicero they can just wait it out for the next philosopher but still get something out of that section.

Philosophy of Religion is a varied subject. I have taught the subject as its own class, but I always ran into one problem: teaching against religion. When I first taught the course I used a book by John Hick. It’s a very short, but dense book that is designed for 100 level courses. It runs through the major topics giving not much more than an overview of the main lines of thought. I don’t want to come off as bashing the book, it’s great for the job it needs to do and I never switched off of the book for the three times I taught the course, however there is one chapter that has always left me wanting: “Arguments Against the Existence of God.”

The author spends 15 pages on arguments for the existence of god, these round out the usual suspects: Cosmological Proofs, Ontological Proof, Design, and argument from Morality. The counter chapter only runs 9 pages. I’m not going to complain about balance; that’s silly. First off, it is impossible to prove that something does not exist. The only thing that can be done is to offer counter arguments to already existent proofs (to Hick’s credit he does this very well), alternative reasons for the existence of religion, or attack specific ideas that are inherent in religion. In concentrating on the second Hick gives a rather elementary view of arguments against only providing three alternatives two of which are notoriously weak. The first is a Freudian theory which is as stereotypical as the adjective “Freudian” deserves. The second is that of Emile Durkheim, this is a sociological position that religion is nothing more than a binding of a tribal mentality with its members. It’s not a bad theory but it relies on a spurious analysis of tribal societies such as Australian Aborigines. The final argument is “The Challenge of Modern Science” in which Hick undertakes the idea that religious writing is based on an understanding that predated our understanding of the world (i.e. Earth as the center of the universe). It’s a very superficial view of the argument and he does nothing to attack the idea that revealed religion ought not to make severe errors of fact if they did indeed come from the divine.

I never liked that section, and even though I was an atheist at the time, teaching that section was always difficult. No one cares about Freud. Only Literary Criticism majors still read him with any kind of earnestness. In both Philosophy and Psychology he’s read as a historical artifact that both disciplines have moved way past (he’s also pretty responsible for the Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare theory but that’s a different subject). What I have done to replace these three arguments is introduce Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll, as their works attack both the concept of revealed truth but also some of the fundamental tenets of religion. This is where it gets tricky.

Paine and Ingersoll are American writers, with that in mind they are both writing for audiences steeped in the Abrahamic tradition, and both spend a majority of the works I selected (a portion of Paine’s “The Age of Reason” and Ingersoll’s “The Gods”) attacking the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition by attacking the Old Testament. As this is the case it becomes necessary for me to find their most general attacks without making it about a specific religion, or a specific sect of a religion. I don’t want to single any particular individuals out and tell them they are wrong, but since i just spend the last two weeks telling the Atheists that they have to overcome the proofs of god’s existence it will at least be fair. The trouble is that Atheists are used to being told they are wrong, religion is so endemic to this society that there is no way to escape it. The reverse is not true and while it has not happened to me, I know people who have been in classes where religious students have been very disruptive when it comes to challenges on their belief system.

The entire point is to give both sides of the issue, to show that while most people think this argument is settled it clearly is not. As I have said numerous times in my class, I have no ideological position. I don’t care about conversion only presenting the arguments. I’ve declined to answer questions about whether or not I am religious (and who I voted for) it’s only about the arguments. Hopefully I’ve chosen the best ones. Ironically, I know that I did pick the best pro-existence arguments I can find.

  1. March 24, 2015 at 1:14 pm

    I’m about to commence my studies in Philosophy, thanks for the post 😉

    • rdxdave
      March 29, 2015 at 7:46 pm

      Graduate school or undergraduate?

      • March 30, 2015 at 5:31 am


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