I Want to Take This Class March 12, 2011

I Want to Take This Class

Even though I love Math and Biology, none of my college classes were all that great. I just sort of came and went. My grades were fine, but I probably learned more from reading books on my own and having discussions with friends than from any textbook or professor. The Political Science and Philosophy students always had the more interesting class discussions.

Which is why I’m jealous that this class is being offered at The Ohio State University this Spring. It sounds awesome: a Philosophy of Religion class team-taught by an atheist and a Christian:

Steven Brown and Wesley Cray, graduate students in philosophy, are scheduled to teach Philosophy 270, Introduction to Philosophy of Religion, together Spring Quarter.

The course approaches arguments for the existence of God. Traditionally, one person teaches Philosophy 270, but Brown and Cray are teaming up to put a new spin on the class.

Brown, a practicing Christian, and Cray, a proclaimed atheist, said they will establish weekly debates during lectures to enhance each side of the argument for a theist’s and atheist’s view on divinity.

“We’re going to try and attack two different questions for this new class,” Brown said. “Cray and I will be asking the students not only if we should believe in God but also if God even exists in the first place.”

Cray said he and Brown strive to provide students with an insightful and logically explicit method to this complex religious argument.

“This is the first time we’ve tried a team-taught version of the course,” Cray said. “Debate-style taught courses are few and far between on campus, and to my knowledge this is the first team debate-style course the philosophy department will have had.”

Can they videotape the lectures and put them online? I’d love to listen…

***Update***: One of the instructors for the class left this comment:

Hi all. I’m one of the instructors for this course, so I thought I’d chime in and provide some additional information that this article left out.

First off, this is a structured class with two instructors, not a quarter-long back-and-forth debate. As such, it’ll follow a pretty standard classroom format. The only difference is that, instead of having one instructor present both sides, we’ll instead take turns leading the lecture. Steve lectures on fine-tuning arguments, I lecture on some responses to fine-tuning, I lecture on the evidential problem of evil, Steve lectures on some responses, and so on and so forth. I kind of find the mental image of this plummeting into Steve and I yelling back and forth to be kind of cute, but highly unrealistic. This isn’t that kind of class, it’s not that kind of “debate,” and neither of us is that kind of person.

Second, it is correct to point out that the course is limited in scope, but we have made no effort to hide that. We’re discussing the existence of the traditional “omni”-God, that which is discussed by religions including, but not limited to, Christianity. This is not at all out of the ordinary for what is typically called a ‘Philosophy of Religion’ class; for those interested in topics in religion outside of our scope, there are plenty of other relevant classes to take.

As for the content of the course, it’s not exactly *all* on the existence of God (which, as some posters have rightly pointed out, is a topic with both a metaphysical and an epistemological component). We’ll also look at debates surrounding evolution and natural selection, the nature of faith, the supposed relationship between God and the “meaning of life,” and others. Throughout, however, our main focus will be on rigorous argumentation (in the philosophical sense – not in the “yelling at each other” sense), as should be the case in any philosophy course.

Videotaping would be nice, but the logistics of it would be a nightmare. Plus, keep in mind that this is a 200-level undergraduate course in which we’re presenting pretty standard material. We don’t really plan on breaking new ground. We’re just trying to put a new spin on the teaching of a pretty standard course.

On a final note, I think it’s kind of a shame that folks are thinking that this will be an easy victory for the atheist (i.e. me). Theism is a surprisingly resilient position, and while the most popular arguments are quite bad, I’ve found that there is a tendency to way too eagerly strawman the arguments that might turn out to be compelling. (Note – I said ‘compelling’, not ‘conclusive’.) And let’s not forget that there are *lots* of bad, often question-begging atheistic arguments out there, as well.

Cheers.



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  • I predict a disaster. I’m sorry, but my extensive experience of discussing faith with theists is that, almost without exception, they will flat-out ignore any point that they can’t counter and get angry and abusive when you can demonstrate that any aspect of their belief is absurd or false. Even if the lecturers can keep it civil, the students won’t.

  • I wouldn’t take that class without riot gear.

  • CanadianNihilist

    well Custador sums it up pretty well. The debate will go nicely to a point. That point will be when the theist are presented with a mountain of evidence against them. From there on out it’s just God did it” and “God can do anything”

  • Denise

    I’d be willing to watch online (with plenty of popcorn handy). IF (and that is a huge if) the class can be kept orderly, it should prove interesting.

    In one of my doctoral residencies, this type of discussion rose ~ and it was deliberately paced between students taking categorically opposite positions. I was the only atheist in the group, and one of my teammates is Catholic. Our facilitator thought that was a terrific springboard for us to exercise certain tolerance and neutrality skills.

    Keeping in mind, we’re not undergrads, and my colleague and I are VERY good friends who already know where the other stands in matters of theism & atheism…I gotta tell ya, both of our hackles were up in the 10-minute exchange. We were both very calm, but there was an electric tension in the room that was undeniable. The entire classroom took a full 15 afterward. In the end, it was fine – and it was a fantastic object lesson…but had we not been prepared for what we knew would be a severe emotional challenge? It would have likely been ugly. (And I was highly outnumbered….)

    In a regular college classroom? Yeah, I agree with Rogi…not without riot gear. Maybe it’ll be better in a graduate setting…but I can’t help but wonder how hot tempers will flare, particularly in a full-length class (compared with my friend’s & my 10-minute session…).

  • Johann

    Well, it does say they’ve been friends for five years – it’s not like they’re starting from the point of the average Internet debate. Still, I’d like to echo the request for video – of the students as well as the lecturers. 😉

  • I laud the idea, but doubt its success. There is no point of common ground. Once you predicate a deity, you cannot be rational.
    Also not a balanced discussion. From the theist side, where are the other religions to challenge the christian assumption of a single god? How would he/she react to being told, “Sure, you can have your god. It can be a manifestaion of (insert a deity’s name here).” Where are the other voices to challenge the arrogant assumption that virtue can only come from religion?
    I am bursting with comments, but will restrain myself, and quote an enlightened, clear-thinker, Bertrand Russell: “So far as I can remember there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence.” and “Man is a credulous animal, and must believe something; in the absence of good ground for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones.”
    And in defense of the human need for religion, I will add his comment: “Belief in God and a future life makes it possible to go through life with less of stoic courage than is needed by skeptics.”

  • I think this is a great idea. In my philosophy of religion course in college, the instructor was a theology professor and no other students would admit to being anything other than a full-fledged Bible-believing Christian. It made it really difficult to believe that my arguments weren’t being graded on the curve by all parties.

  • Anonymous
  • Donna

    I’m pretty sure I took that course as a student at OSU in the late 70s. Even back then, I didn’t know whether the prof was an atheist or theist. It didn’t matter. The course was simply a review of the arguments for the existence of god. It was mind-numbingly boring. Reading Thomas Aquinas’ original writings is like reading the fine print of a cell phone contract.

    Turning the class into a debate might make things more interesting. But it would likely cause the argument to degenerate into an emotional shouting match where two sides just talk past each other.

  • Frank

    I would be interested to see how this turns out. It could get ugly, but if the instructors are calm and familiar with the arguments they should be able to keep it reasonably civil.

    I don’t know how they plan to handle grading of this. Are they going to have the christian instructor grade the christian students and the atheist instructor grade the atheist students?

    I also don’t think I like the idea of presenting the existence of a god as a serious controversy in an academic classroom, particularly at a public university. I’ve never seen anything that strikes me as a remotely plausible argument for the existence of god. And if the philosophy department at OSU had two people with opposite views teaching a debate style class on the question of whether vaccines cause autism, I bet Hemant would have put up a significantly less positive post about it. Can anyone give a reason why this is any different?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    said they will establish weekly debates during lectures to enhance each side of the argument

    Normally, I don’t think debates are particularly good at getting to the truth of a matter. One participant may have better debating technique or be better prepared, which is certainly not the same thing as being correct.

    However, embedding the debates in a class setting might be the one circumstance where debates actually work, if subsequent class time is taken to look into the debate arguments in depth.

  • I’m taking a class next semester that deals with social media technology and the prof has already said there is going to be a week or two focused on internet memes and lolcats.

  • i feel sorry for folks who didn’t get a good educational experience in college. it’s the best, when done right. so much more than cheap sex, football, drinking and boring TAs in classes ~500 ‘students’ listening to a droning lecture.

    there is something better. if you pay for school, try to find that alternative. that is worth borrowing money for, the former is not. many people in other countries don’t pay for college at all and that’s how it should be. education for profit is a scam.

  • Nicole

    I took a World Religion intro class over the summer and really enjoyed it. We spent a week each on eight different religions, studying the basics, and having discussions on each. Part of the course was to visit two places of worship that were different than your own (easy for me!)and report on them with regards to atmosphere, people in attendance, the service itself, etc. I attended a Jewish service and a Buddhist service and enjoyed each. I think classes like this can be beneficial if you take them with an open mind and a willingness to learn.

    In my experience, my classmates were all Christian and while some were willing to have open discussions that were quite pleasant, some merely tried to argue their point and decry any other belief system as false.

    I hope these two know what they’re getting into! If they can control the class and keep it on point, it could be great…if they can’t, it could be a disaster.

  • Richard Wade

    “We’re going to try and attack two different questions for this new class,” Brown said. “Cray and I will be asking the students not only if we should believe in God but also if God even exists in the first place.”

    I can’t figure out how these are really two different questions. How could someone say yes to one, and no to the other? Would a sane person say,

    “God does not exist, but we should believe in him.”

    or

    “God does exist, but we should not believe in him.”

    ?

    I’m scratching my head so much my bald spot is getting bigger.

  • Rollingforest

    @ Frank: I would love it if the science department had a debate between someone who believed that vaccinations cause autism and someone who believed that they didn’t, providing that each were required to provide their studies before hand for the other side to study. Teaching students how to debate an issue in science is exactly what science is supposed to be about.

    In regard to college classes, when I was in college we had a class which was kept underneath the radar. It had the cryptic title “human nature” but it was actually an accumulation of what the Professor believed were important topics that many students didn’t learn much about, such as Atheism, theories about the beginning of the universe, how our view of the world is entirely dependent on how our brain processes it, ect. When he first started teaching it years ago, the college said that he needed (for some reason) to get the permission of the chair of the religion department to teach it. The professor never did ask permission and no one checked up on him. Since the class isn’t on the official class list and instead is a personal elective that Professors are allowed to create, he has been able to avoid scrutiny. By just changing the name of the class every few years, he has been able to continue teaching it without the religious community even realizing what was going on.

    A few years ago there was an uproar at the college because the college president decided to remove a cross from a nondenominational chapel on the property of this public tax supported school (though anyone could take it back in temporarily if they wanted). The older alumni threatened to stop donations, the state government tried to pass a bill cutting his salary in half, and the board of visitors of the college eventually refused to renew his contract as President, forcing him to leave, all because he chose to follow the constitution.

    I can only imagine what they would have done if they realized what my professor was teaching.

  • Kevin S.

    Richard, my guess would be that the first question deals with what to do given an uncertainty, while the second question tries to answer that uncertainty.

  • Aaaaaagh. Maybe I’ve just been hanging around too many Religious Studies kids (read: Liberation Theology types / PoMo Christian Marxists), but this seems really boring. Existence of God isn’t a very interesting question to tackle, especially if you’re going to be doing it for an entire semester. There are other topics that can be classified under phil of religion that are more fruitful, methinks.

    Richard: They’re pretty different, the binary being that one question deals with a metaphysical truth-claim (“God exists”) while the other has to do with community, ethics, epistemology, and other kinds of intersubjective belief (“I should believe in God”). I might classify myself as the sort of atheist that still might reject God even if God were proven to exist because it’d actualize messianism in a way that would basically make interpersonal interactions meaningless.

  • Mary Ann

    This class would be good as long as the debate challenges the students to defend their arguments logically. (IE: “You just have to have faith” is NOT an acceptable argument for the existence of a god.) The instructors must understand, employ and enforce logical argument or I believe the class will self-destruct. If the students understand that it’s not the defense of your position but HOW you defend it that is really the subject matter of this class, I think this could be interesting.

  • Julie

    Any good Philosophy course will inevitably teach students to realize that all of the arguments for god are logically flawed. That’s kind of the point.

    I bet in this case, it will inspire some to VACATE their belief in god. Or just to cheat.

  • Greg

    It sounds interesting but as people have said it could be a disaster. I took a course in uni on religion this side of the pond, and found it really interesting. It wasn’t a particularly highly charged atmosphere, either, because, well, religion isn’t a big deal in the UK – especially when it comes to higher education – and I would have loved something like this. I suspect it would have worked in my uni because the question of god isn’t as polarising. Whether it will in the US, I can’t really comment I guess.

    As it was, my lecturer was quite religious (American, too, coincidentally :)), and kept ignoring me when I wanted to ask questions. I think it’s because one of my questions caused him to laugh nervously and say that that destroyed the Ontological argument. I would have loved the chance to see some of my issues actually addressed.

    I don’t think it’s because I was an absolute jerk about it, either, because I had another lecturer in the same module, and she was really disappointed when I told her I was only doing a philosophy course for a year. :-/ I think I asked her even more questions than I tried to ask him…

  • Two semesters, a theist friend and I took a turn teaching each other’s class. The first semester we just guest lectured on general topics (she on Kierkegaard and I on Nietzsche). The second semester we did this as presentations followed by debates. So she and I debated Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in her class. In mine we debated based on Kierkegaard and Sam Harris’s End of Faith.

    The debate with my class went extraordinarily well. We both gave presentations and then answered my students’ questions for an hour and fifteen minutes or so and it was really one of my happiest nights teaching. It was a great memory. I am planning my first full Philosophy of Religion class for the fall and was just last night dreaming up plans for debates like this.

    I think it’s a wonderful thing to decenter authority for the students, to free up instructors to advocate positions more strongly since there is a counter-force in the room, in the form of an opposing philosopher to make sure the overall presentation is balanced.

    And students really love to see you mix it up with your peers, it was having students several times come up with the idea that inspired me to try it in the first place.

    And, finally, my friendship with the woman I did this with was really deepened through the whole experience. We had a long, serious, and intense debate before we ever went into the classroom when she read the Harris material and it was the kind of good conflict that brings people together for working through. It probably would have been a disaster in front of a classroom, but it was a real friendship strengthening experience for us.

    All of my very closest friends and I have at some point had a philosophical debate that created the kind of respect and intimacy afterwards that only such authentic expressions as serious, personal, argument brings. I mean, there are other ways to be authentic and bond with people, besides arguing. But real, invested, knock down, drag out, high stakes, emotional engagement over philosophically serious issues between people who love the truth and care about what is at stake is underrated for its constructive potential, in my experience.

  • Erp

    If you want discussion I note that the radio show Philosophy Talk has had a few ‘god’ talks over the years

    http://www.philosophytalk.org/notesPastShows.htm

    Only the most recent one (at this time on free wil) is free (others cost $1.29) but the descriptions come with notes, references, etc that are free.

    (disclaimer: I know both professors who do the show).

  • Kristi

    How interesting. I don’t think this will be as disastrous as people are saying. I am sure these two guys have already thought about all the “what if’s” during a debate. They are both willing to debate one another in front of students and they know this is for the students learning and critical thinking experience, not for their own benefit. Perhaps some students may get their panties a little twisted at times, but I think the instructors will be able to handle their attitudes just fine. Great idea, I wish I could attend this class. To the poster who said arguing the existence of god would get old for an entire semester… I completely disagree. There are umpteen different arguments on this issue… they are never ending.. I could argue them for years (and I have, for the last 15 years lol). Arguing that god doesn’t exist, especially with a fundamentalist believer, never gets old.

  • @Richard I think they are trying to point out the difference between god’s existence and relevance (even if there is a god, need we believe in/show faith to such a god). It’s not framed as well as it could be, but it seems to show they recognize that the question of existence may not be fully capable of answer so let’s also address the question of relevance.

    As to the question of behaviour, a good rubric on class participation that clearly lays out what’s required for a rigouroous answer and that also indicates acceptable behaviour when responding to others would allow students to determine how much of their mark they wish to burn throuh being fanatical. If someone wishes to be a martyr for jesus or atheism, they can do so and hold up their lowered GPA as a badge of honour. Or they can interact in a way respectful of each other, still make their arguments and successfully complete the course. It all depends on whether the profs are willing to set and enforce ground rules for the debate.

  • @Richard

    In classic philosophy of religion, there is a distinction. The first question, “Can we know that God exists?” is epistemilogical. The Kalam Cosmological Argument, for example, argues that God must exist. The second question then becomes, “If we can’t know that God exists, are we still justified to believe in him/it/her?”

    To atheists this seems silly. But they will most certainly be reading Alvin Plantinga, who is known for his reformed epistemology. Through this, he argues that belief in God is properly basic (that is, it doesn’t depend on knowing other truths).

  • Frank

    Richard,

    There are a number of arguments which try to show that it is rational (in the sense that expected benefits outweight expected costs) to believe in god without addressing whether god exists. The most famous of these is Pascal’s Wager. I imagine that is what they are refering to.

    Rollingforest,

    I am all for critical thinking skills, but that doesn’t always mean the kind of equitable debate you are talking about. There is nothing fair about treating profoundly unequal ideas equally. Some ideas are better than others, and it is the duty of professors to present them that way in the classroom. Imagine if a course on evolution were taught like this: one biologist instructor, one creationist instructor, students able to defend whichever view they find most convincing. That would not be good, and it would not improve critical thinking skills. It would by lying to the students. It would be telling the students that both are respectable intellectual positions when only one is. I’m not sure the question of the existence of god is any different. I think there are some questions that are best left to conversations between friends in the dorms or over a meal, and not addressed in an academic classroom, and the existence of god may be one of them.

  • Also not a balanced discussion. From the theist side, where are the other religions to challenge the christian assumption of a single god? How would he/she react to being told, “Sure, you can have your god. It can be a manifestaion of (insert a deity’s name here).”

    Exactly. This class sounds interesting, but it seems like it would be be largely confined to monotheism, and (with one professor being a Christian) biased towards discussion of the biblical deity to the exclusion of all other deities.

  • Hi all. I’m one of the instructors for this course, so I thought I’d chime in and provide some additional information that this article left out.

    First off, this is a structured class with two instructors, not a quarter-long back-and-forth debate. As such, it’ll follow a pretty standard classroom format. The only difference is that, instead of having one instructor present both sides, we’ll instead take turns leading the lecture. Steve lectures on fine-tuning arguments, I lecture on some responses to fine-tuning, I lecture on the evidential problem of evil, Steve lectures on some responses, and so on and so forth. I kind of find the mental image of this plummeting into Steve and I yelling back and forth to be kind of cute, but highly unrealistic. This isn’t that kind of class, it’s not that kind of “debate,” and neither of us is that kind of person.

    Second, it is correct to point out that the course is limited in scope, but we have made no effort to hide that. We’re discussing the existence of the traditional “omni”-God, that which is discussed by religions including, but not limited to, Christianity. This is not at all out of the ordinary for what is typically called a ‘Philosophy of Religion’ class; for those interested in topics in religion outside of our scope, there are plenty of other relevant classes to take.

    As for the content of the course, it’s not exactly *all* on the existence of God (which, as some posters have rightly pointed out, is a topic with both a metaphysical and an epistemological component). We’ll also look at debates surrounding evolution and natural selection, the nature of faith, the supposed relationship between God and the “meaning of life,” and others. Throughout, however, our main focus will be on rigorous argumentation (in the philosophical sense – not in the “yelling at each other” sense), as should be the case in any philosophy course.

    Videotaping would be nice, but the logistics of it would be a nightmare. Plus, keep in mind that this is a 200-level undergraduate course in which we’re presenting pretty standard material. We don’t really plan on breaking new ground. We’re just trying to put a new spin on the teaching of a pretty standard course.

    On a final note, I think it’s kind of a shame that folks are thinking that this will be an easy victory for the atheist (i.e. me). Theism is a surprisingly resilient position, and while the most popular arguments are quite bad, I’ve found that there is a tendency to way too eagerly strawman the arguments that might turn out to be compelling. (Note – I said ‘compelling’, not ‘conclusive’.) And let’s not forget that there are *lots* of bad, often question-begging atheistic arguments out there, as well.

    Cheers!

  • Kyrsten

    I’m a student in the class, and it’s going quite well. Like Wes pointed out, the class is more of a lecture about debates rather than an actual debate, and since they are not making any new arguments in the class, it never gets heated. No student has been disruptive either; bear in mind that we are all around the age of twenty, with a few outliers who are middle-aged or older. We listen, and ask questions. If we challenge their claims (meaning, the arguments that they believe are sound) they patiently detangle our flawed logic, or explain how their own concepts are perhaps not intuitive but probably correct anyway. I think so far, they’ve disagreed once, and it led to a joke, not another argument. It might be a pretty boring class for a person who isn’t interested in the topic. I was really surprised to find out that this was news at all.

    I can say that the bromance that’s going on between Wes and Steve is absolutely adorable, and there’s no sign of a fissure in their relationship or professional conduct that might lead to red-faced arguments or uproar later in the quarter.