How My Atheism Affects My Philosophy Class

How My Atheism Affects My Philosophy Class November 11, 2013

After dissecting in my last blog post the absurdity and amazing hypocrisy of persecution complexes related to philosophy classes that one sees routinely on display in Christian chain e-mails and now an upcoming movie, I decided in this post I want to talk about my atheism relates to my philosophy classes. In order to get to that, let me explain a number of things about myself and my philosophy of teaching in general in order to contextualize it.

Let’s start with roles. Roles are tricky things. Sartre is immensely instructive about the pitfalls that can arise with roles. People who fear the responsibilities inherent in making choices try to lose themselves in roles. They want to let the roles tell them what to do and how to do it. If they can convince themselves that they’re just robots fulfilling a role which they were designed to do without any deviations from their programming, then nothing hinges on them as responsible agents. They need make no decisions and they need fear no blame. They can just obey.

So, roles have a dark side.

But they also can be beautiful and vital and empowering. Because human nature, fascinatingly, only ever expresses and realizes itself in contexts. Humans never just are. We are always as beings situated—we exist in a particular world of relationships, engaged in particular activities, connected to particular people, places, things, etc. It is only through all of these things that we exist at any given time. There is no simple self that exists completely abstracted and apart from all these relationships. And a number of these relationships are roles. Roles divvy up the labor, help us sift our obligations to one another, set up expectations for ourselves and others. They help give some order and regularity to life so that we can accomplish our goals and know what’s expected of us and how we fit with each other. Received roles come with sets of suggested goals and any number of recommendations about how to fulfill them. Since it would psychologically be impossible for us to create ourselves anew in every situation with no guidance and since such would make social life impossible too, we inevitably have to inherit a great number of basic templates from society and are encouraged to follow scripts that guide us.

The trick is to inhabit these roles in a way that expresses what is internal to oneself and helps it grow through the constant feedback loop of conscious living and whatever neurological systems deep within the brain internally process it and newly generate it. Roles are not pretend. They need not either hide nor suffocate a real self. Costumes are not disguises. They don’t hide the self. They just express it differently. And the same goes with all acting–with all roleplaying. Costumes, acting, and roleplaying are only disguises when either the overall aim or the overall effect is disguise. Otherwise they potentially reveal and conceal as much as any other mode of expression. The self can only ever find itself through the process of expression through forms; e.g. words, costumes, roles, institutions, relationships, etc.

I richly enjoy getting to be different people in different circumstances. I like finding each honest expression of myself as it tailors to each distinct relationship that gives it the possibility to create itself and realize it in the process. In my writing I enjoy varying between technical, polemical, literary, casual, personal, and humorous modes of discourse. And as a philosopher I like being both a passionate advocate for my own positions on some occasions and simply a dialectical teacher to others at other times.

So in the classroom, I enjoy the role of the philosophy professor. I enjoy the role of the teacher whose job it is to empower others to think rather than to simply persuade them to my own point of view.

So when I am teaching a philosophy class I let the students know the first day that the best way to get a good grade in this class is to challenge the ideas I present as rigorously as they can. I can think of nothing more fun as a teacher than when students astutely disagree with me, help me think something new, and make me reconsider my positions. One of the fondest memories I have in the classroom was a night at Hofstra in 2011 when my class picked apart the my pet metaethical theory I have been developing with more devastating nuance than anyone else has before or since. I could not have been prouder. Nietzsche writes in Thus Spoke Zarathustra that “one repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil”.  This semester I quoted this to my students the first day of class and told them that were we to meet some day a decade or several hence, what would make me proud would not be if they parroted back to me things that I taught them this semester but if their minds were so acute and original and distinctive that they had new perspectives for me and we could engage each other like intellectual equals. I would go even further—I can thinking nothing better than the student who far surpasses me. The student has become the teacher? The teacher can die a success.

It is in this spirit that I teach. I also teach with an advocate’s style. I do courses which are heavy on content and cover wide ranges of perspectives. I believe in comprehensive approaches to familiarizing my students with subjects. I cram in as many alternating viewpoints on as many topics as we have time for. And I relish throwing myself into the role of lawyer defending each viewpoint. I don’t like to tear down philosophical positions for my students but to show them every idea’s inner workings as best I can. I want them to see what is persuasive and illuminating even in ideas that may have some surface (or deep) flaws. I want them to see how there is something in each perspective that it is worth it not to hastily miss. And I want them to generate the best objections they can come up with against my defenses. Then I will present an alternative position and try to get them to believe that one and dialogue with their every objection.

And through this process of inhabiting each perspective one by one, the student’s sense for where the truth lies can emerge through the contests and tensions between each viewpoint. And, I hope they can come away with a sense for the value of constantly re-shifting perspective in order to perpetually get new angles and to reassess what can be seen from each one that illumined at least some part of reality, if not the clearest and broadest side of it. I hope to habituate them as much as possible in this practice of continually seeing and feeling the world from multiple vantage points. I think training in this skill is the key to teaching effectively critical thinking, even more than harping on the formal logical rules that others fetishize and treat simplistically as synonymous with the whole of critical thought itself. The ability to see in multiple ways and synthesize what one sees into powerful, integrative, creative accounts is at least as important to cultivating the power of thought as the ability to rigorously and skeptically check for biases and fallacious inferential leaps is.

So, this is what I train. And my atheism is mostly irrelevant to it. Because when there are philosophical arguments for God’s existence that have some sort of prima facie plausibility, I am as determined to get my students to see that as I am to get them to understand any other influential and important idea in historical or contemporary philosophy. I even take particular relish in making sure that the class cannot get away with dismissing the ontological arguments for God’s existence without a serious fight. They need to work and hack through a number of philosophical puzzles before I will let the issue go. I defend theistic positions with enough gusto and fairness that back in the days when I covered philosophers chronologically and hid my own views from students, I routinely had students come up and apologize to me that they were atheists after we did a string of theistic philosophers in a row. At the time I only took this as a sign of how balanced my presentations were. Now I am queasy as I realize this was a symptom of atheist embarrassment in a world of undue theistic privilege.

Eventually, we are going to talk about Nietzsche, and my enthusiasm for him, I have been told, is pretty clear. I have to be careful because of the complicated relationship my own thought has to his, since I have written an intricate and in some ways atypical interpretation of him for my dissertation and my own philosophical views developed out of interacting with him in that way. So I approach him from multiple angles. I give the students the kind of reading of Nietzsche that they would get from most of the contemporary scholars, I point out novelties in my own interpretation and contrast them with what others would say, I point out my own ideas for how to build off of Nietzsche constructively and do something new, and I even make clear to them what the dark readings of his works are and why people think they are right, even when I think they’re dangerously wrong. I’ll be careful to make clear in all things that he has some views that are tough to deal with. I won’t whitewash anything. I’ll just honestly go over what is there in the text and be frank about my agreements and disagreements. I try to stay especially above board and on the level there (as I do here on the blog too when talking about him).

And, yes, when the time comes, to advocate for atheism, that’s what I do, and I argue for it as hard as I do every other philosophical position. And while most students’ responses to atheistic arguments range from blasé to enthusiastic, a few students will struggle a lot. A rare student, raised to defend their faith from any criticism whatsoever will totally flip his or her shit. In a genuine philosophy class, no prejudices get by unscathed. My job is the same as with any other topic. To help students’ test their ideas, find the contradictions, insist they give reasons for their views and scrutinize their merits.

Students have the rest of their lives to insulate their beliefs from the demand for rational justifications and tests of plausibility and consistency. A university level philosophy class is where the kid gloves come off, at least temporarily. Biology is not in doubt—evolution happened, period. No, your personal conviction is not evidence of anything. Your story of a dream that came real is going to be met with an explanation about probability. Your appeals to the Bible are going to be met with a whole lot of unflattering facts about the history and morality of that book. You’re going to have to justify biblical ethics as you would any other ethical claims you make in class. Faith is not a get out of reasoning card in a philosophy class, regardless of how dearly people hold to their faiths and don’t want to be questioned. Plain facts of history and biology are still true. We will talk about different theories of interpretation, of course. We’ll talk about a spectrum of possible god concepts from Spinoza’s Nature to deisms to personal God theism. We’ll talk about James’s case for the will to believe. We’ll be thorough. But we won’t apply different special, easier rules for assessing claims that give faith-based positions any of the special favors they are accustomed to receiving.

I usually maintain my role as a moderator and advocate of the same kind as with every other argument I present, but very occasionally will get excited and passionate enough to take on the role of a fully engaged participant. I decided some years ago to stop hiding my own atheistic views from students. My thinking had been that were they to know my views they might be prejudiced towards them, fear expressing their dissent, or generally mistrust me. But since, I have decided to put my cards on the table so they can think for themselves with full information. Plus, it’s impossible to hide my blog.

More on my teaching philosophy.

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