Religious Student vs. Philosophy Professor: Both Sides

According to the (conservative Christian) American Center of Law and Justice, Gina — a student at Suffolk County Community College — was wronged by her professor before the ACLJ made things right.

Gina had a 3.9 GPA and was initially doing fine in her philosophy class… until the subject of God’s existence came up.

Gina read the assigned materials and participated in class discussions, presenting traditional philosophical arguments on whether God exists and whether He possesses certain characteristics such as being all-knowing or all-good. However, Gina was unwilling to state that she would reconsider her personal religious beliefs on God’s nature and existence, and her grades suffered as a result.

The ACLJ states that professor Philip Pecorino “has stated that it is his job to get students to reject a belief in a sacred or unquestionable ‘truth’ in favor of the ‘rational’ view that science, logic, and philosophy are the only reliable sources of ‘truth.’”

Gina thought she was going to get a D or F in the class because of her faith.

The ACLJ states that after they complained to the school, Gina received the grade she actually earned — a B. Now, they are claiming “victory” — one they will surely cite in their efforts to get donations.

Now, let’s hear from the other side…

A press release from the Center for Inquiry pulls no punches.

The ACLJ’s story is untrue, says CFI.

“The ACLJ’s spurious claim of a legal ‘victory’ is just slightly less outrageous than its brazen attempt to intimidate a philosophy professor from doing his job — which is to get students to think critically,” commented Ronald A. Lindsay, Executive Director of the Council for Secular Humanism, who has talked to the allegedly biased professor. “As far as I can tell,” observed Lindsay, “the ACLJ’s letter accomplished nothing other than providing an excuse for soliciting donations.”

Dr. Pecorino taught over 13,000 students over thirty-six years, students who were both religious and non-religious. He “has a well-deserved reputation for fairness.”

After the school received the letter from ACLJ, the professor’s own students began to fight back:

Indeed, after the ACLJ made its baseless accusations, students in Pecorino’s class, including religious students, defended him, stating that he does not pass judgment on students because of their beliefs, but simply challenges them to examine all beliefs critically, including their own. His students have stated that they cannot identify Pecorino’s own views based either on the course materials or the textbook authored for the class by Pecorino, and he does not pressure them to adopt any particular position.

What does the professor himself have to say about all this?

“I would not be doing my job as a philosophy professor,” explained Pecorino, “if I did not require students to think about their beliefs and provide reasons in support of their beliefs — not my beliefs or anyone else’s beliefs. Critical examination of beliefs, including one’s own beliefs, and training in reasoning are among the primary objectives of a philosophy course, and of a liberal education in general. Only professors who are negligent or indifferent allow students to earn good grades simply by providing as a reason for an assertion ‘well, this is what I believe’.”

He won’t talk about his interaction with Gina in particular because he deems it inappropriate to discuss a student’s work with the public.

However he does say the whole case is “preposterous.”

I love the explanation of why Gina — along with her classmates — was indeed failing at one point in the class:

“At no time did I tell her she was in danger of failing. When I had to project a grade for her earlier in the semester, I projected a ‘C’ and that was when she was most resistant to providing any reasoning to support her assertions. She was not open to examining her own beliefs or to entering into the dialectical process of inquiry in community because, according to her, she already had all the answers.” And what of the ACLJ’s claim that Gina had a failing grade average of 54 prior to the ACLJ’s intervention? “That is a misleading use of information. I use a cumulative point system in grading,” explained Pecorino. “In other words, as students progress during the semester, they earn points for each assignment, with a possible total of 100 points by the end of the semester. Gina at one point probably did have 54 points, but that in no way indicates she was in danger of failing. She had 54 points, not a failing grade average of 54. All students start the semester with 0 points, so by the ACLJ’s logic, all students are in danger of failing.”

He adds that when his college received the ACLJ’s letter, he only received support from colleagues and the administration.

So is this a minor case or does it have far-reaching implications?

Pecorino says:

“Essentially, the ACLJ is claiming a religious exemption from the obligation of students in public colleges to engage in critical thinking, and this claim strikes at the core of higher education. If permitted to go unchallenged, this claim will weaken our democratic and pluralistic society.”

Amazing how a student can hide behind religion and a religious “watchdog” group when she’s not willing to examine her own beliefs in a class that requires students to examine their own beliefs.

Even more amazing is how this story gets spun for an uncritical religious audience — one that will most likely never be told what the professor has to say about it nor will they try to find out for themselves.


[tags]atheist, atheism, Jay Sekulow[/tags]

  • Wes

    As a philosophy teacher, I find this very disturbing. If teachers can’t encourage students to think critically without fear of being harassed by right wing lawyers, we’re all in a lot of trouble.

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  • cipher

    The thin end of the wedge, people. And it’s only going to get worse.

    Sekulow is such an inflammatory, egotistical, self-promoting tool that it beggars description.

  • The Unbrainwashed

    I took Philosophy 101 last year and it was laughable how every single student who spoke in class (large lecture so it was somewhat rare) wold regurgitate the most rudimentary theistic arguments. One person, in a discussion of morality, kept mentioning her belief in Original Sin because she’s a Catholic. Others sounded like they were an elementary Sunday School. I also got the feeling that everyone was somewhat insulted that the professor would even had the audacity to analyze their sacred beliefs so rigorously.

  • Jen

    I had a philosophy teacher who was super into Jesus. I had this prof for two classes, and we disagreed on everything- and he pretty much told me in class one day that I would go to Hell. I got an A in both classes, though, because I had logically consistent arguments, and because I am awesome.

  • http://josephbales.com Joey

    When I attempted to take Philosophy 101 (I dropped it because I had too many hours), a student and the professor had it out on the very first day about god and religion. Really, I think that student didn’t have any real intention of doing anything in that class except stirring up trouble and arguing. The professor basically said the same things about the class being about critical thinking and not really about personal beliefs. The student continued to press the issue and wasted most of the first day of class on petty bickering.

    I also took a class on logic and critical thinking (one I didn’t drop :). It was super easy for me and I soaked it up. However, the rest of the class struggled with it mightily and this baffled me and the professor as well. Maybe it just happened to be a class full of idiots, but they just could not get any of the concepts. It was a little disturbing to think that these people might one day be in a position of authority. In the end, the professor had to “disregard” my grades and graded everyone else on a separate curve just so the rest of the class wouldn’t fail.

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com Bad

    Really sad. I suspect that the girl in question simply wasn’t doing very well at organizing her thoughts, and was offended by the idea that someone who was far better schooled at it critiqued her argumentation… because her arguments happened to be theistic. You don’t have to believe anything in particular to learn how to be a critical and skeptical consumer of arguments and logic. But if the only arguments you make are religious ones, and no one is allowed to critique those arguments, how the heck are you supposed to ever learn how to make good arguments?

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  • http://www.zombat.wordpress.com Tim Nailer

    No doubt the professor is in the right here but I wonder how the situation might be different at high school. I bring it up because I tutor philosophy at a local public high school and I’m not sure what I’d need to do to cover my arse if a similar situation happened to me (either now as a tutor or in the future as a teacher).

    Basically, the high school philosophy curriculum here (South Australia) is flexible enough so that teachers can choose whether or not to include a section on god (which could cover any number of things – god’s existence, morality & religion, intelligent design, etc). As a tutor, I just help out with whatever material the teacher chooses. Usually this means explaining the arguments to students and questioning their assumptions and beliefs (asking “Why do you think that?” for instance).

    Also, if the students ask about my religious beliefs (as they often do) I tell them I’m an atheist and why I don’t beleive in god. I don’t go into personal reasons but I do tell them why I’m not convinced by the philosophical arguments for god’s existence. Does anyone think I’m going too far here? (I should note that I make it clear that they shouldn’t accept my views uncritically and that their grades are not based on their beliefs but their arguments.)

    Finally, if you were the teacher would you include a section on god? If so, what areas of god/religion would it cover?

    Cheers,
    Tim

  • Sam

    As a philosophically oriented believer, I know for a fact authentic belief never comes from anything but a well thought out world-view based upon reason and evidence. The bulk of the evidence points to the existence of a loving personal God. Of course, I could be wrong. The reality is that Western religious culture is basically inauthentic and dogmatic (You have to believe things to be accepted or avoid some kind of punishment in the afterlife.) Most professing believers I meet really don’t believe that there is a God (they hope there is and bet on it) and if they examined their beliefs, they would discover that.

    I stand behind any philosophy professor insisting his students critically reflect on their own beliefs. I met some supposed philosophy students who professed to be believers. When I told them I critically reflected on my spiritual world view, they basically told me I was not a believer…..they even sneered at me. Dallas Willard was right many years ago when he said to a group of people who were probably tempted to kill him, “The church is there to make you suffer.” I think we should teach philosophy in high school in the US to solve this debate about evolution vs intelligent design. That debate really has to do with the philosophy of science and that issue should be addressed in a philosophy class!!!

    The core problem with the message American religious culture is it rests on false assumptions of the biblical picture of God. Anyone who reads 1 John 1:5 meditatively cannot help but ask, “Wow…what if that were really true?”

  • Melissa

    This is just something I cannot bring myself to believe. I am currently one of Pecorino’s students, and he is a very intelligent, and respectable man. I am disgusted by what that student did because she didn’t want to think critically about her beliefs. I obviously go to the college mentioned, and in doing so I know you don’t have to take courses if you don’t agree with them. While some specific subjects may be required, the student has the choice to decided which course he or she wants to take, and even if the course material starts to veer in a direction one would not agree with, you can always withdraw from it. Though I can’t understand why a student, who should know from the first day in class what they’d be studying due to the syllabus, wouldn’t drop the course immediately, and instead put the professor and the whole class through such a show. This is just ridiculous, there was absolutely no need for it. sigh…

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  • EKM

    Do religious people really care at all about the truth, or are they just concerned with making sure nobody ever pierces their bubble?

  • Darryl

    As a philosophically oriented believer, I know for a fact authentic belief never comes from anything but a well thought out world-view based upon reason and evidence. The bulk of the evidence points to the existence of a loving personal God.

    No. If religious belief ever rises to the point of reasoning, then it either fails the test, or desire takes over reasoning, and reasons are nothing other than rationalizations for what is desired. Many people see no reason to jettison the faith they were raised into; they simply make adjustments and go on their way.

  • Sam

    Religious belief should not be seen a some special or magical type of belief. I believe there is a God for the same reasons I believe I will see sunlight in the morning (assuming it’s not cloudy here in Seattle!). The evidence of personal experiences in meditation and prayer, stories of others in my life, the written stories, the rational arguments that proof the possibility of a high power or powers. Obviously, the evidence is different with respect to expecting sunlight in the morning. Many presuppositionalists are probably ready to spit cookies at me by now. But that’s because they don’t believe in anything…they just like making assumptions. They want there to be a God, but don’t believe it.

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  • http://msmith13.wordpress.com Mark

    As Julia Sweeney says, people really don’t like to think about why they do what they do, or believe what they believe. And some people especially super don’t like to.

  • Sam

    Darryl said,

    No. If religious belief ever rises to the point of reasoning, then it either fails the test, or desire takes over reasoning, and reasons are nothing other than rationalizations for what is desired. Many people see no reason to jettison the faith they were raised into; they simply make adjustments and go on their way.

    This is a good point. I fully agree that I do want their to be a personal God most of the time, but there have been times where I wished God wasn’t real. However, I believe in God for the same reasons I believe in plants, trees, dogs, cats, etc… I agree that the rational arguments never amount to a proof or absolute knowledge, but I believe (as does Anthony Flew) that some type of higher power or force is behind the physical universe. I also believe other things about the higher power…but tying that all together is more a matter of hope. Sadly, today, hope is often viewed as a weakness. Should it be?

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  • T

    However, I believe in God for the same reasons I believe in plants, trees, dogs, cats, etc

    Because you can see them? Because you can point them out to other people who can also see them?

  • Chuck

    It seems to me that neither the atheists nor the bible thumpers are able to suspend their beliefs long enough to engage in critical thinking. Critical thinking should NOT start with a premise and proceed to find any way to defend it and dismiss anything that does not support the premise. I’d fail the whole lot of them – professors and students.

  • Sam

    Response to T’s question,

    Because I have evidence that plants, dogs, cats, God, milk, etc exist because we experience each one. It is true I experience God differently and it does take faith. Let me ask you this: Have you ever seen the modern doctrine of empiricism? Can you show me and illustration of the exactly brain-states involved when you are thinking of the doctrine (or dogma) of empiricism? Empiricism as an epistemological (theory of knowledge) doctrine is self-refuting, because the theory itself cannot be empirically grounded.

  • Siamang

    Sam,

    If I experience the absence of God, who’s right, you or me?

  • Sam

    Siamiag,

    It does not matter who is “right.” The truth of the matter is what has value. I’m not trying to be right about anything. I just believe some of the experiences I’ve had point to the reality of a loving personal God. It could be some aliens on another planet are pumping me with good feelings and working through events in my life to make prayers get answered…..that is certainly possible. If they show up and tell me they’ve been doing that, I’ll be sure to reevaluate my beliefs about lots of things. I’m unclear on this experiencing of the absence of God….do you feel empty in inside? I feel that way often too. I often feel like God is missing.

  • Siamang

    I don’t feel an emptyness, I just feel like there’s no there there.

    Like if you sat me alone in a room and asked me if either Milton Berle was there or God was there. I feel their absence equally.

    It does not matter who is “right.” The truth of the matter is what has value.

    Which brings us to the point that you are you and I am I, and we’ve had different paths and life-experiences up to this point.

    And it brings us to the point that knowledge is something that can be passed from person to person, but experience is not. You can give me knowledge in the form of a description of your experience, but you cannot give me your experience.

    Unless you can give me knowledge of the existence of God, in the form of evidence, or you can cause me to have an experience of God, which has eluded me so far in this life, I cannot take your experience over my own.

  • http://www.reedsecular.org frik

    Typical right-wing academic watchdog group. Spreads disinformation and resorts to fear-mongering. When do these groups contribute anything new to philosophic debate?

  • Robert

    Logically speaking it would be normal for a heavily religious person to get a poor grade in a philosophy class applying critical thought to belief systems. Critical thought is the antithesis of religious belief systems, faith in the entity of choice must be unfailing, belief in the religious dogma must be total and any kind of criticism of their religious leaders is unthinkable. I have got to say, that you people in the US are in real trouble, when they start shifting their religious fundamentalism from primary and high schools to university.

  • Phil

    I’m a B.A. in Philosophy, graduated this year.

    This is really scary stuff. I fear for the Philosophy professors who may now have to worry about this happening to them. oh well.

    As per my own experience, most of my Philosophy teachers had intentionally hidden their own beliefs (or lack thereof) in an effort to get the students to think critically on their own, and not simply accept the professor’s beliefs because “the professor said so.” Judging from some of the other comments on this thread, I don’t think this practice is really limited to my school.

  • Phil E. Drifter

    There is no god. Get over it. Think for yourself instead.

  • Rosemary LYNDALL WEMM

    Faith: a steadfast belief in something which cannot be justified by reason and for which there is no evidence. It is a thing which is highly valued, even worshiped, in religion but anathema to science, law and reputable educational practice.

    Christian theists are fond of saying that their god has given them the “gift” of faith. It’s a bit like the Red Queen saying that she tries to believe six impossible things before breakfast. Few people have trouble believing that the Red Queen’s practice is rediculous. Theists, however, do not notice that their statements of and about “faith” are equally absurd.

  • Rosemary LYNDALL WEMM

    In other words, you can teach a theist logic but you can’t make her think. Well, not about her religion, anyway.

    It is all about the person’s ability to compartmentalize their thoughts and reasoning ability. Those who have trouble with this try to caste the blame externally. Instead of saying: “Thinking about this makes me really uncomfortable and I don’t want to do it”, they say: “This teacher and/or book is evil/bad and should be punished for what they are doing to me.” It is the classic poor student’s attempt to externalize their failings.

    The best students allow the data to change them.

  • paulagail

    A higher education is in place further one’s goal of having a certain career. What place does any professor have in challenging one’s beliefs? If one person grows up believing in evolution and a professor challenged that and consequently told the student they were going to hell. That would not be right. The same can hold true for the belief in God. Most students have to take a course like this at some point, whether they want to or not. Having to defend your position on your beliefs is not the point of higher education. Belief in God or the absence of God is a personal thing and should not make a student the object of ridicule in the classroom.

  • James Smith, João Pessoa, Brazil

    Why should we be surprised that a fundamentalist christian group lies to get contributions? They lie about everything else so this isn’t really stretch for them.

    Most of the problems of the world are, and always have been, caused by religion. Mankind will never be truly free until the dark yoke of religion is lifted by the clear light of facts and reason.

  • Richard Wade

    Oh, the Professor was so beastly! He held me down and he pulled up my platitudes, you know, the ones I repeat whenever anyone asks me about my beliefs. I was terrified! And then he pulled down my unquestioned assumptions! Oh it was so humiliating. (sob, sob) And then, and then… (sob) he did something to me that was completely against every fiber of my being…. I can hardly say it… He… He MADE ME THINK!


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