by Marc Bobro
Religion may or may not be “the opium of the people,” as Karl Marx famously wrote, but students certainly like to talk about it in my philosophy classes. A recent “Does God Exist?” debate on campus had well over a hundred in attendance and almost another hundred turned away. Such interest in religion at a secular institution makes sense to me. Pre-college public schools in the U.S. generally avoid the subject of religion, primarily due to concerns about the separation of church and state. So, for many students at secular institutions, including mine, the subject seems fresh or taboo or both. On the other hand, the students I had at a Catholic college generally didn’t want to talk much about religion. Students at religious institutions can grow easily tired of religious subject matter. Religion pervades their college (and often pre-college) experience and they understandably desire a break. This desire for fresh subject matter doesn’t just apply to religion. In an excellent series on “Soldier Philosophers” from the philosophy podcast Hi Phi Nation, Barry Lam reports that West Point cadets grow easily tired of war talk. Talking about religion in a philosophy classroom, however, is not a simple proposition. Here, I will consider whether it should be part of the philosophy curriculum and, if so, how it should be discussed.
First, should religion even be discussed in a philosophy class? Nietzsche once wrote that “schools have no more important task than to teach rigorous thinking, cautious judgment, and consistent inference; therefore, they should leave alone whatever is not suitable for these operations: religion, for example.” But Nietzsche probably didn’t mean that the topic of religion should never be discussed in the classroom, for sometimes religion is the very subject of philosophy: Does God exist? Can faith ever be rational? What is the relation between morality and religion? I think what Nietzsche meant was that philosophical analysis need not and ought not to be bookmarked by religious concerns. Even St. Thomas Aquinas would agree with him on this point, for Aquinas claimed that the assumptions and principles of the philosopher, that to which philosophical analysis is derived, are in the public domain. Consider for instance Principle of Non-Contradiction, as articulated by Aristotle: “It is impossible for the same thing to belong and not to belong at the same time to the same thing and in the same respect.” This is a principle that everyone—religious or not—knows or in principle can know. Philosophical techniques, such as syllogistic logic, are also in principle agreeable to all thinkers, religious or not. This is correspondingly true of each of the sciences, where the most common assumptions are in the background and the proper principles of the particular science function relative to that science. By contrast, religious discourse ultimately goes back to assumptions or principles that are held to be true on the basis of faith. Such assumptions and principles are not in the public domain. So even when religion itself is the subject matter, philosophical analysis employs its own techniques that are not constrained by religious commitments. Many philosophers today agree with Aquinas’ account, as do I. Flipped the other way, a religious studies course is probably best taught in a non-philosophical way—as a sociologist, historian, or anthropologist teaches it. Consider another way to express this point: In a debate between a theist and an atheist, who, if any, has the burden of proof? Antony Flew argues that it is the former who carries the burden, since the theist and atheist can see eye to eye on a host of foundational truths—not only the Principle of Non-Contradiction, but also, for example, the results of the physical sciences. It is the theist, argues Flew, who needs to demonstrate that we must go beyond the public domain, because if one has no reason to go further, one has reason not to go further.
Second, how should philosophers talk about a subject in which few are experts? Religion can be tricky to talk about, even for the experienced. There’s so much to know that it’s easy to make mistakes. Yet making mistakes regarding religion is not simply a matter of not knowing enough about some faith that one has never lived through. About a year ago, I had a particularly unsettling experience. I made a lame and very quick joke about Satanism—I don’t remember the details except that it was in reference to ethics. That evening I received the following email from a concerned student:
I am terribly disappointed with your attempt of a joke you made yesterday. Your wanton ignorance would not be a serious matter if you did not make destructive jokes about it with students who look to you as a role model. Forgive me for being upset, but as a philosopher I hold you to higher standards concerning the addressing of religions. I am attaching a link to the Official Church of Satan website. I believe that it would be at least decent to research an ideology before you slander it. http://www.churchofsatan.com/
This email had a quick and lasting effect on me. I learned three principal things almost immediately: first, that Satanism is a living religion (there are followers, including my student); second, followers of Satanism probably never see their religion depicted in a compassionate, understanding light; and third, that I should not just pick and choose which religions can be mocked (I would never mock Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, or Judaism in the classroom). Even religions outside the “Big 5” should be taken seriously and not mocked in the classroom.
What’s interesting is that mocking religion is expected of philosophy professors, especially at a secular institution. Students—whether they are religious, non-religious, or anti-religious—often expect me as their philosophy teacher to attack religion, or at least be unsympathetic to it. Some, especially the anti-religious, anticipate and even salivate at the thought of a philosopher railing against the absurdity of religion and the religious. They want me to defend Marx’s argument that religion is akin to opium and Nietzsche’s prediction of religion’s demise and arguments concerning the appropriate human response. There is a perception among students in secular institutions that philosophers are all rational humanists, religious skeptics, or outright atheists. Just the other day, I was asked if there are any Christian philosophers. No doubt they’ve taken classes from anti-religious philosophers or heard about such classes. I remember in graduate school overhearing a well-known philosopher pronounce that all Christian philosophers are stupid. Instantly, I thought of several obvious contemporary counterexamples—Anscombe, Geach, and Plantinga—not to mention Aquinas, Suarez, Descartes, and Kant. Others, especially the religious, dread the thought of their philosophy teacher saying things dismissive or denigrating of their faith. Neither camp will find satisfaction in my classes, since I neither attack religion and the religious nor do I attack humanism and the non-religious. I don’t even joke about Satanism anymore.
Marc Bobro is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Santa Barbara City College in California. He publishes mainly in the field of early modern philosophy and teaches a number of undergraduate courses, most of which involve some discussion of religion.