West Point Offers Class on Apologetics… and Rebuttals

The US Military Academy at West Point has been having a rough year.

First there was the Islamophobic Lt. General William Boykin getting hotly protested (and eventually replaced) after he was invited to speak at the National Prayer breakfast.

Then, this month, the Academy was sued for covering up sexual assault.

Bearing all this in mind, I present to you this third year Philosophy of Religion class description from the Red Book (course catalog):

“What are the arguments for and against the existence of God? How can a good God allow the presence of evil? Are miracles possible? Is there life after death? Is it rational to believe in God, or does faith demand the suspension of reason? Is there a necessary relationship between ethics and religion? Is there a single true religion? If these questions have ever intrigued you, you already know that you need this course…

This struck me as a little ambiguous and, given the Academy’s less-than-secular track record, I was inclined to expect a class on apologetics. Would the Army, an organization that is predominantly Christian — 68 percent of the military personnel and 98 percent of chaplains are Christian — and required “Spiritual Fitness” testing offer a class like this without promoting faith? I was all fired up to rant about separation of church and state and the unconstitutionality of promoting a single religion.

However, after speaking with a third-year cadet (who wishes to remain anonymous), I found myself wanting to enroll in the class. You could have bowled me over with a feather.

Philosophy of Religion is conducted as a series of examinations of arguments — and counterarguments — for the existence of a God. The professor does not speak about his or her own religious beliefs in any capacity, and equal time is given to both sides.

From the cadet:

One day we would discuss something like Anselm’s ontological argument. The very next day we would look at the rebuttal. We would not discuss a single idea without discussing the opposing immediately following.

An opportunity to work through common religious arguments? It sounds like everyone can benefit from making better, more informed, and less fallacious claims. Three cheers for critical thinking!

About Kate Donovan

Kate is a junior studying psychology and human development at Northwestern University. She is the president of Northwestern's Secular Student Alliance and a writer at Teen Skepchick, Heresy Club, and various other places around the internet. Sometimes she sleeps.

  • IrmaSDean
  • Tom Spademan

    Speaking as a philosophy professor who regularly teaches the same course at a different school, I continue to be surprised that anyone would be surprised that we teach an academic topic in an academic way.  This is how it is almost always done.   I would also point out, as someone who teaches the basic logic course often called “critical thinking” at other institutions, that your conclusion is based on one sample — a single cadet — and hence is a weak induction.  The inference from the case of the Lt. General & the cover-up of the sexual assault to the conclusion that the philosophy profs at West Point are likely to fail to approach their subject as professionals is also an example of a weak induction.   By all means, take some philosophy courses!  :D   

  • Tom Spademan

    Let me add that the title of this piece is awful.  “Apologetics” usually refers to a defense of a theological position.  Philosophers don’t do theology.   You’d find a course in apologetics in a seminary.  

    • Reginald Selkirk

      Philosophers don’t do theology.

      Srsly? Then how do you explain Alvin Plantinga?

      • http://northierthanthou.com/ northierthanthou

         I think the argument would be something to the effect that he engages more fully with the subject. An awful lot of apologetics are second-rate arguments clearly intended for the benefit of other believers. It would be a joke if that were the sort of thing actually covered in this class, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

  • Chupper

    So the point of this article is that West Point offers the same class offered by nearly every other college and university in the country?  This website has been going off the rails lately.

  • blargh

    Kate, this actually shouldn’t be much of a surprise.  “Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology” is one of the classic college level introductory texts on the subject.  It is written/editted by Louis P. Pojman (last I checked it was up to the fifth edition, I have the fourth).  Pojman was a long-time professor of philosophy at West Point.

    Also, the book that made me an atheist, was “Foundations of Moral Obligation: The Stockdale Course” by Joseph Gerard Brennan (this one is unfortunately out of print, and I’m not selling my copy).  This book was written by Brennan to be the textbook for the moral philosophy course he taught at the United States Naval War College.

    There is a reason the military academies are considered to be among the top academic schools in the country.  They certainly have their problems (and I am not an apologist for them by any means), but let us give credit where credit is due.

    • BionicHips

      Incredibly enough I have hiked with Louis Pojman’s widow – a very nice lady. We have chatted about this course which Prof. Pojman loved to teach and I too was very pleasantly surprised to find out how the course was taught. 

  • Mitchell Hayden

    I think everyone is missing the point of the post. Blargh, you say we should give credit where credit is due, and that’s exactly what the post is about.

    Tom, this post isn’t expressing surprise that an academic course is taught in an academic manner. It’s expressing happiness that an academic class with so much opportunity to be taught as less than such, especially at an institution that is far from secular.

    As a cadet at West Point (not the one interviewed), I can say I was honestly pleasantly surprised at the news that such a class was taught so well here. It is far too common for teachers here to inject there own beliefs into a subject, whether it be an offhand comment about religion or a Chemistry professor using air quotes around the word evolution in a class discussion. Classes are *not* necessarily “purely academic” here, so it’s important to talk about how they look when they are.

  • Kate Donovan

    There seem to be a few misunderstandings about my approach to this post that I’d like to clear up. 

    Firstly, I am not, in any way, under the impression that sexual assault accusations or Lt General Boykin are a good reason to think that the philosophy course would be poorly taught. I noted that USMA has been having a rough year–and so it made me happy to present this good news, and give credit where credit was due. 
    Secondly, I am aware that Philosophy of Religion is a commonly offered university course, and intended to be done in a purely academic manner. However, I’ve spoken to a number of cadets over the course of the last few years, and classes are not as secular as should be coming out of such a prestigious and federally funded institution. Evolution denial, belief that the US was formed as a Christian nation, etc, are common expressions from instructors. The Army as a whole has been caught pushing faith (as per Spiritual Fitness testing). It is worth noting that something is being done in a secular way, and to encourage this. 

  • Tim D.

    Spiffy.  It’s always nice when religious ideas are given the treatment they deserve….which is to say, the same treatment as every other idea.

  • Tom

    I am relieved to hear that this is the case for West Point.  But upon chewing on this some more, I think that if any subject would maintain it’s intelectual quality at a perhaps conflicted university, it would be philosophy.  Professors would be able to argue well against people trying to corrupt their standards.  There are smart people who attend and teach at West Point, and I’m sure you’d find them in this class.  You would not be able to survive well in such a class if there were secular students using the arguments you are learning well.

    I could be wrong, but I don’t imagine many people take philosophy of religion at a heavily engineering-oriented school.  The class is not a blip on the radar, and can thus stay out of trouble with the power players trying to insert religion.

    Unfortunately officers are not out the influence of religion in the military.  My best friend from high school attended and spent only a few years serving before he was injured and had to come home.  Sometime between the end of high school and his return home he had changed from the mostly secular skeptic I knew to a more faith-endorsing man.

    • Kate Donovan

      I appear to have missed out on mentioning that this is actually a required class for anyone studying philosophy. However, I don’t have the demographics on how many students that is.

  • http://northierthanthou.com/ northierthanthou

    This does seem fine to me, at least at face value, and I’m glad you give credit where it’s due.

    I would say that I wouldn’t even expect the instructor to keep his/her own beliefs out of the classroom. When I was a student majoring in Philosophy, I actually appreciated knowing  where my instructors were coming from. It was a bit of a truth-in-advertising thing for me; it helped me put their comments in perspective. Also, I figure anyone who has put enough time into the subject to become a philosophy professor ought to have earned enough credibility to make their own view worth considering (and if not, then we have a real problem). I do expect a light touch, and I expect the grading criteria (and rules for discussion) to leave room for reasonable disagreement on the key issues, but the last thing in the world I would want to see in a philosophy class is an expectation that the instructor would be expected to achieve stock neutrality.

    When I took a class in Philosophy of Religion my last year as an undergrad, teh instructor, Francis Beckwith was an Evangelican Christian. He made no secret of this, nor did I conceal my atheism. …it was one of the best classes I ever took.

    • Francis Beckwith

      That’s very kind of you. Did you take it while I was at UNLV?

      BTW, I am now Catholic!

      • Brimshack

         Yes, I did. I think you were in your second or third year. I took it the same semester as Dennis M. (I am not going to try and spell his last name.) Anyway, I definitely meant what I said. It was a great class. Good to hear from you.

  • Joe

    I’d like to add my experience as a cadet at a service academy to the discussion. I did not attend West Point, but rather the Air Force Academy (which has come under even more fire about religious indoctrination than West Point). From my experience, and from what I have heard from others, the service academies are aware that they cannot evangalise without being outed and punished.

    I never had any experience with prostelitization during my four years there, and I have even been on the lookout. In fact, it was the ethics course in the core curriculum that pushed me over the edge from skeptic to atheist. That course inspired me to take the world religions class later in my time there, and that class was excellent. There was no attempt at conversion, it was purely academic discussion. And to answer Tom, he is correct in assuming that not too many people take such classes. I was in the only section of the class offered the year that I took it, and there were only 20 students in the class.

    • cipher

       I never had any experience with prostelitization during my four years there, and I have even been on the lookout.

      I find this astonishing. If this is the case, from where are Mikey Weinstein and others doing the same sort of work pulling the case histories they keep telling us about?

      • Joe

        I know this is a really old comment to reply to, but I want to get the answer out there for public record. From what I can tell, the people most subjected to prostelitization are religious people who “aren’t christian enough”, or people who were once religious and changed their minds.

        While I have no reason to doubt Mikey Weinstein, and am in fact a strong supporter of the MRFF, he does have a tendency to overemphasize certain cases.

        • cipher

          I have read account after account written by people who’ve claimed to have been discriminated against for not going to church or religious events. They claim to have been given the dirtiest details, reported to superiors and sanctioned, etc. This may not be proselytizing per se, but it’s still indicative of evangelical triumphalism.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/FDGYHBEWVNGUG763L5X4TON3JQ Nazani14

    They need a course in using religious blather to help negotiate treaties with Serbs, the Taliban, or any other group that thinks their god wants them to win.

  • NinjaFang

    I really don’t have anything to add other than:
    This was a really odd post to have right after the “Pentagon Suspends Anti-Islamic Course” one lol, ironic in a way.


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