Not long ago I developed and taught a class on the so-called New Atheists, a group of thinkers who put out books around the same time (2004 – 2007) arguing against Western religion. As a long-time devotee of Nietzsche, I was intrigued by these books and sympathetic towards many of the arguments they contained. I’ll confess that I was a little nervous about teaching such a course, for fear of profoundly upsetting the students by challenging perhaps their most deeply-held beliefs. After all, these writers don’t pull any punches in their condemnation of the trilogy of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
I only taught the class twice, and shortly I’ll explain why in detail. Suffice it to say, two unexpected things happened in the course of my delving deeply into these authors and their arguments and then teaching them to undergrads. First, contrary to my fears, the majority of the students (perhaps the vast majority) bought the arguments, accepted them, and were quite ready to say “to hell with religion!” I shouldn’t have been as surprised by this as I was, given the students I was teaching, and more about that also momentarily. The second unexpected thing that happened—and this was a real surprise, one that had profound reverberations for me—was that I went down a rabbit hole—a deep, dark empiricist rabbit hole in which the world stopped making any kind of sense to me.
I came out of that confusion thanks to the writings of the philosopher Thomas Nagel. He helped me make sense of the world again, and in a way that revolutionized the way I think about human beings, our fundamental nature, and our place in the universe.
You can read the first installment of this tale: Part I: The New Atheists.
Science, Mind, and God. Part II: The (IL)Liberal College Student.
As I said in the introduction, two unexpected things happened as a result of my having studied the New Atheists and then taught the class. The first, which is the topic of this post, is that a large number of the students bought into their arguments and were ready to chuck Western religion onto the garbage heap. I hadn’t expected this; in fact, I was afraid of upsetting the students by challenging their most deeply held beliefs.
First, some clarification about the demographics. I should note that both classes were something of a self-selecting group. I don’t have any hard numbers on this, but I know that in each case there were students who were theists (no doubt some of the strong believers I was afraid of offending) who showed up at the beginning of the semester for one or two sessions, saw what the class was about, and then dropped the course. I’m not sure what they expected when they saw the title of the class—that we’d be beating up on the New Atheists? I’m don’t know, but when they realized we were taking the authors’ arguments seriously, even sympathetically, these students bolted. This means that those who stuck around were less religiously inclined.
The other element to the makeup of the class is something that has gotten a fair amount of attention in the press in the last few years. This is the picture of liberal college students as “snowflakes” with their “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and fear of “micro-aggressions.” Some claim that these so-called progressive college students are so steeped in identity politics and victimhood that their liberalism turns into illiberalism or anti-liberalism.
Let me explain. Traditional liberalism, dating back to the early modern period and the Enlightenment (and having its roots in classical Greek philosophy), derived its values from the universal elements of our human nature. Because we’re all beings with reason (for example), we understand the world, our place within it, the consequences of our actions, and so we’re all subject to the moral law. We’re worthy of moral regard and subject to moral duties. You see this in the Declaration of Independence, the core ideas of which Jefferson borrowed from the political philosophy of John Locke: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
We’re all the same, says Jefferson. Because of our very nature, we have certain rights that can’t be taken away—all of us have these rights, precisely because we’re human beings. He goes on to say, of course, that because we have these inalienable rights, we have the right to be self-governed, to elect those we want to represent us, to decide our own political futures, etc. (This was the metaphysical reasoning behind the political action of rejecting the monarchy and claiming for ourselves the right of self-determination.)
There’s a fairly large segment of liberal college professors and their students who reject this classical focus on what makes us human, of the universal elements of our nature, often even denying there is such a thing. They focus rather on “marginalized groups,” those who have historically have been oppressed, shut out, denied a voice in society. Each of these groups has its own identity—women, African-Americans, Latinos, the LGBT community, etc.—and hence the idea of “identity politics.” Again, for this segment of academia, we shouldn’t emphasize what makes us all the same—they even doubt that there even is such a thing; they’re skeptical of universals. We should, rather, focus on what makes us individuals, what makes us special, that for which many have throughout history been denied opportunities, enslaved, killed.
The students’ aim—and in its essence, not an unjustified or ignoble one—is to give the individuals within each of these groups a voice, to let them speak freely, to empower them.
However, and here’s where things sometimes go awry, this often leads proponents to two unjustified and unfortunate conclusions. First is the relativistic notion that, since all voices must be heard, all those opinions being articulated are equally valid or true. Second is the ironically anti-liberal notion that whoever disagrees with the college students and those they claim to speak for must necessarily be wrong and very often ought not be allowed even to speak. So, in fact, the first claim is actually worse than typical relativism; it’s rather the view that a claim is true or false depending on who articulates it; it’s true or valid if uttered by someone from a traditionally marginalized group, false or invalid if articulated by someone not from one of those groups.
[The issue of relativism requires a much more careful analysis than I can give it here. I know I’m at risk here of overgeneralizing or mischaracterizing the position of the students and their professors . But, given their actions in relation to these beliefs, I don’t think I’m too far off the mark.]
Thus, we see an all-too-familiar sight on college campuses: student protesters interrupting and shouting down a speaker with whom they disagree, not letting that person voice his or her opinion. This is where the charge of illiberalism comes in: the students seem to be assuming for themselves the power to decide who gets to speak and who doesn’t. You can read about some of these incidents that occurred at Middlebury, University of Michigan, Columbia, William and Mary.
Okay, so how does this relate to my class with the New Atheists, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens? As I said, a large majority bought into their arguments, or at least made it clear that they were ready to reject Western religion. Here’s the connection. Once the students heard the textual evidence of racism, homophobia, misogyny built into Western scripture and heard about the religious incitement to violence historically perpetrated by Judaism, Islam, and Christianity; and once they read that the three great Western religious traditions were patriarchal in nature, those students were prepared to condemn the whole enterprise.
No doubt most or all of these students grew up in households that were at least mildly or moderately religions; many of them probably went to church, synagogue, and/or Sunday school. But it speaks to the very poor religious literacy typical of Americans that they had no idea that most of the things they read about the Bible (much less the Koran) were in there. Granted, reading for the first time actual quotations that not only condone, but in fact command, say, the execution of rebellious children, homosexuals, or those who leave the religion, can be rather shocking.
What’s interesting, and somewhat ironic, is that the students never seemed to even consider the possibility (and, in some cases, historical fact) that religious believers might themselves be part of a marginalized group that has been denied a seat at the table. I suppose that may speak to their lack of historical understanding.
But the whole episode points to two glaring failure on my part as the instructor. First, I failed to give the students any kind of contextualization of these religious systems so that the students might have some sort of historical understanding to work from. In my own defense, I suppose, I was teaching a philosophy class and not a course in religious history; and, further, catching them up on thousands of years of such history just wasn’t feasible at the time.
But, second, and more importantly for me, I failed to push back against their newly found inclinations against Western religion. That is, as a professor, I always see an important part of my role as challenging students on their currently held beliefs (never telling them what to think, but rather compelling them to analyze what they do think). If in class, they made it clear they were theists, then I would challenge them on those beliefs. If they revealed they were atheists, I’d instead push them in the opposite of that direction. However, in this case, I’d gone into the class and arranged the readings and assignments under the impression that they’d be theists, that they’d reject outright the arguments of the New Atheists, such that I’d need to make strong arguments in favor of those thinkers. Once the students unexpectedly made the reverse move, I had no ready ammunition to strike back. That’s why I stopped teaching the class. I needed to go back to the armory and stock up.
In the next post I’ll talk about the second and for me earth-shaking consequence of teaching the course: My decent down an empiricistic rabbit hole and how I climbed back out of it thanks to the help of Thomas Nagel.