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I spent 11 years teaching philosophy at universities and I am an outspoken atheist blogger. So, I took special interest in the mean-spirited mischaracterization of people like me in the evangelical Christian movie God’s Not Dead, in which an atheist philosophy professor (the fictional Professor Radisson) is cast as a bullying villain. I also used to be a deeply devout evangelical Christian who felt embattled and challenged to stand up for my Christian faith throughout my teens and college years. In particular, I imagined several high school classrooms as hostile territory simply because they wanted to teach me about such terrible things as evolution and how to avoid getting AIDS. I even once sought (and received) legal help from the Christian legal defense organization The Rutherford Institute to defend my right to pass out religious literature I was producing through my church to my friends in high school after one of my teachers questioned that right.
So, I identified especially well with God’s Not Dead’s protagonist Josh Wheaton who wants to not only stand up for but actively spread his faith in his classroom. In fact his character was one of the closest to a version of me, at least at one point in my life, that I have ever seen in a movie. And, so, I wrote a blog post in which I tried to reach out to all the Josh Wheatons out there on behalf of the mischaracterized Professor Radissons. I tried to reach out to all you kindred spirits to my younger self and explain in detail the philosophical reasons why I think I was wrong to believe in the past and why I am now the dreaded atheist philosophy professor of myth and legend. I wanted to challenge so much Christian fear-mongering about philosophy and about secular education in general.
I wanted to debunk the lies that create persecution complexes and the fears of learning that stand in the way of young people’s true empowerment. (The full story of my personal journey from believer to non-believer and beyond is here.) And the post was extremely popular. By far the most popular thing I’ve ever written. You can read it here. So now I am inspired to go a step further. I want to show how a class on the existence of God is done right. I want to challenge Christians to come study with me for themselves as part of my Philosophy of Religion classes. You can join them any time, year round, and they’re open to the general public, anywhere in the world. Atheists and theists who were critical of the film are most welcome too! The classes are interactive and personalized, as they are held over face to face over video once a week. Full information on how the classes run is here. You can also take a wide range of other philosophy courses with me if those interest you instead.
No matter who you are, I want you to see the best arguments for the existence of God out there–even better arguments than are in the film. And I want you to see my sincere and well-informed reasons for rejecting them. And I want to see what happens next. Can you refute me? Will you change your mind or, at least soften your stances, if you can’t? Wait, what’s that? Why would you step foot in avowedly atheist’s classroom, you ask? Why step into it after he has laid his cards on the table and admitted he wants to change your mind and your faith? Well–why not? If you are a Christian then odds are that you have spent countless hours listening to Christian preachers, pastors, Sunday School teachers, parents, missionaries, authors, camp counselors–even maybe school teachers and professors–go on and on and on presenting Christianity as unequivocal, life giving absolute truth, most likely with barely a passing acknowledgment that atheists might be right about anything.
I dare you for once to challenge yourself to be instructed by someone who is both very knowledgable and as convinced your faith is wrong as all those influences were convinced that it was right. I want you to take the challenge of engaging a philosopher who will bluntly make his case and challenge you to answer his arguments point by point–if you can. I will even, because of my intellectual conscience and my primary interest in empowering you to think autonomously (which runs deeper than my interest in deconverting you), make sure to be honest about every argument that I think might stand a shot at helping you defeat me philosophically. In other words, if I make a point and know what my theistic counterparts would say (or if I come up with what might work for them to try to say), I will let you know about it. I won’t just make my arguments and leave you to your own defenses. That wouldn’t be fair.
I will arm you with the best and the most popular strategies theistic philosophers and apologists have devised and that I know of and will let you see what you can do with those weapons. See how you fare. And let me note that this challenge to study with an atheist is only fair. I essentially spent my entire post-secondary education in Christian schools.My Bachelors of Arts comes from one Grove City College, which is one of the most respected of conscientiously Evangelical Christian colleges in the country. My Masters, MPhil, and Doctorate all come from Fordham University, one of the premiere Jesuit run universities in the world. For 14 years, I sought out specifically Christian education, initially as a Christian and then an atheist. Now, are you willing to try out a specifically atheistic education at least one semester? I also know plenty about how to engage respectfully, civilly, and fairly with Christian students and peers. Not only did I get my doctorate at a Jesuit university, I have done the majority of my university level teaching at Catholic universities (Fordham, Fairfield University, and St. John’s University).
My goal with my students at those schools was the same as my goal will be with you, to maximally empower them by giving them the best arguments available and by helping them hone their critical thinking skills. I would help them in three major ways. Sometimes, I would provide a counterpoint for them to use to either nuance their position or defend their position against. Other times I would help them clarify their point by showing them several things they might mean and the implications of each one, and asking them which they wanted to defend. Where relevant, I would also explain to them what the best existing formulations of their ideas were from published philosophers so they could build from there themselves.
Read all about the philosophy of teaching I employed and how I dealt with the question of the existence of God. I want to be a part of your process of honing your critical thinking skills as I have countless times in university classrooms. Get the details here. I believe in honest, critical, and civil engagement across the faith-divide.
Even my formal academic work has been in cooperation with Christians. I have even contributed two entries about Nietzsche to the New Catholic Encyclopedia (specifically its Supplement 2012-13: Ethics and Philosophy) and written book reviews on Nietzsche’s philosophy of religion for the theistic journal, International Philosophical Quarterly. I also contributed a book chapter to the predominantly Christian volume Rethinking Secularization: Philosophy and the Prophecy of a Secular Age.
But what about non-believers? What can you get out of these classes? It is not enough for us atheists to be able to beat up the worst straw man and weak man versions of arguments for the existence of God and Christianity. If we’re to be justified in our unbelief, we atheists need to be able to understand and refute the best philosophical cases for God out there. In fact, I think our strongest strategy for winning arguments with believers is to be able to first help them strengthen their own arguments before showing why we think that they fail. That’s why I am never afraid to be completely honest and open-ended when speculating about the possible existence of God, either by myself or with students. I follow the arguments wherever they go. I am fully confident that one of two results will happen. Either I will change my mind if it turns out the best arguments favor belief in God or I will understand and be able to articulate the reasons for atheism all the more clearly and compellingly.
So, if you join this class, fellow atheists, I will challenge you to develop better arguments by playing Theist’s Advocate against you wherever that could produce the most compelling line of thought. And along the way, I’ll reveal my strongest reasons for disbelieving and my strongest strategies for getting others to actually flip and become atheists too.