Wednesday, March 28, 2007

I write the lectures that make the young girls cry

I rarely have any effect, emotional or otherwise, on women. And, I'm pretty sure that apart from remembering the rare bon mot or joke, few but the most curious students are affected very deeply or lastingly by my teaching. But yesterday I was able to make one of my female students cry. I've only ever had students cry before when they were going through a personal or familial crisis or when I had caught them cheating. Yesterday, it was the philosophical enterprise itself that brought the tears.
It's springtime and while young men's fancies turn to love, older philosopher's lectures turn to the existence and nature of God. I had asked my students to think of reasons that they might give to a non-believer to convince him that God existed. Alternatively, they could think of reasons to give a believer that God did not exist. As is often the case, almost no one actually put in the intellectual work to think about these issues. So, when I asked at the beginning of class what reasons they could give, only one student volunteered anything. And what she volunteered was, "Faith and testimony".
I took that and worked with it, trying to elicit the difference between faith-based and non-faith-based beliefs. I talked about how I might believe that there is a chair in front of me because I sensed it. How others who didn't share this belief would necessarily be mistaken. How our faith-based evidence for God seems not to be like this. I was not aiming to dissuade anyone from belief. I was, instead, moving us toward a discussion of what other, mutually agreeable, reasons we might be able to give, reasons that would go beyond mere inner states of the individual.
And, the tears began. You see, the very idea of questioning our reasons for belief in God was so upsetting to my student that it caused an emotional outburst, a combination of anger and sadness and unbelief at the way I was leading us to the doorstep of blasphemy. There are some things, she told me, that you just don't question. And, she knew, she knew that God exists.
Now, I am sympathetic to religious belief. Depending on how it's set out, I might even be a believer--one thing too much philosophy does is confuse us about what belief means--but I am also a believer in the idea that we have to earn our beliefs.
My student claimed in the midst of her tears that she thought that everyone ought to believe in the Spirit, a God who was equally available to all, whether they see Him as incarnate in Jesus or having His mouthpiece as Muhammad or Baha'u'llah or Zoroaster or Mary Baker Eddy or whomever. That's a mighty fine thought. But there is dangerous and frightening disconnect between this feeling and the emotional resistance to all questioning that underlies her response to a philosophical investigation of God.
The emotional, angry, sad, incredulous response to the idea that anyone would even question God's existence is the same response that members of al-Qaeda have to those who question the Quran or Muhammad's prophet-hood or those who dare to honor the members of his family, as the Shiites do. It's the same response that leads to inter-religious conflict all over the world and always have. And, it's evidence that the beliefs that one holds so dear aren't really very strong after all. Skepticism about chairs never bothers me, because give me whatever arguments for their non-existence you want--and there are a lot of philosophical arguments out there--I will still believe that there are chairs. If believers of my student's type were equally convinced of the existence of God--if they just knew--they'd have nothing to fear from exploring those beliefs.


Anonymous said...

Why would someone cry over something that can't be proven. Is there a difference between forming a "belief" out of heart versus a "belief" out of dogmatic principles? She's probably an evanglical which to me if I was her philosophy instructor automatically give her an F. Ask her why she believes the way she does, and get her to be substantive. I am curious.

Tyler Hower said...

Well, if push comes to shove, nothing except the truths of logic and some of those of math, can be proven. It's the reason both that evolution is a theory and that theory is the best we ever get in any of the sciences.
She's not an evangelical, but why should that matter? The problem isn't what she believes, but her unwillingness to engage in the game of giving reasons.