Chris Freiler: Approaching Religion in Philosophy


Any topic an instructor introduces in class is worth taking seriously, and this includes religion. My goal is neither to convert the unbeliever nor destroy the faith of the believer, rather to situate myself in the middle of a dialogue and coax those who think of themselves as on a side to engage the other in civil discourse. Because I have a deep appreciation for both a scientific and a faith-based view of the world, I find this a comfortable position, even if it isn’t for many of my students, who see one’s philosophical commitments in this realm as an either/or proposition.

Philosophy teachers will often introduce students to the rational proofs for the existence of God. Many students are familiar with the essentials of Aquinas’s cosmological argument, even if they are unaware of its origin or structure. Since most rational proofs for God’s existence come out of the Christian tradition, I will, in the interests of diversity, often spend more time on the Arabic Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA), devised by medieval Islamic scholars. In simple terms, the argument works as a disjunctive syllogism, where the supporter employs a reductio ad absurdum to demonstrate that accepting the truth of disjunct B leads to a contradiction. Then the argument moves on to the next premise:

  1. The universe either has (A) a beginning OR (B) no beginning.
  2. This beginning was either (A) caused OR (B) uncaused.
  3. This cause was either (A) personal OR (B) impersonal.

The Internet offers numerous resources by both advocates and opponents of the KCA, and the topic connects well with scientific theories on the origins of the universe, as well as mathematical issues, such as Hilbert’s Hotel paradox.i After I present the argument, we discuss the two fundamental questions: (1) Is it possible, without inconsistency, for an actual infinite series to exist? and (2) If the universe had a beginning, is that beginning better explained by (A) a quantum fluctuation or (B) a personal agent. Deep discussion requires knowledge of the physics involved, but even for those lacking the knowledge base, the KCA becomes a jumping-off point for considering the relationship between scientific theory and religion.

Many students find the teleological argument for God’s existence of great interest. Even Kant, who found all rational proofs for God lacking, believed what he called the physico-theological proof as deserving of the most esteem, because it represented reason’s effort (albeit misguided) to consummate a systematic explanation for nature.ii For several years, I have tried to connect the topic to the ongoing debate over intelligent design, as some school districts and states attempted to supplement the teaching of natural selection with this purportedly scientific theory. After dividing interested students into teams and providing them with a variety of resources, I charged them with debating whether intelligent design was a scientific theory (i.e., is It falsifiable?).

This assignment served several aims, to (1) model respectful disagreement and clarity of arguments, (2) understand the premises of both intelligent design and Darwinian evolution, and (3) clarify what constitutes a scientific theory. Students often struggle in debates insofar as they defend or attack what they haven’t fully articulated. It became increasingly evident over the years how difficult it was to defend the intelligent design position. Even with committed research and preparation, student supporters of intelligent design invariably came up short in explaining its mechanism, or the “how” that is so essential to scientific inquiry. Even if imperfectly executed, the debate helped students understand the differing type of questions and methods addressed by varying disciplines.

Following the student presentations, we debrief the topic and poll where students stand, especially if they have modified their initial positions. Many who had been rooting for intelligent design will have changed their minds, though some remain unconvinced. Now the question becomes: Does acceptance of Darwinian natural selection constitute justification for believing the nonexistence of a Supreme Being? My suspicion is that most supporters of intelligent design answer this question in the affirmative, and the seeming incompatibility of the two propositions, not the scientific evidence, inclines them to reject natural selection. We then discuss whether any religious doctrine should stand or fall on a contingent fact about the natural world. Here is where I encourage students to consider the possibility of reconciling the explanatory “why” power of a Supreme Being with the “how” power of natural selection. It might be instructive to introduce students to selections from Dawkins or Dennett, who weight the explanatory power of Darwinian evolution as virtually precluding the existence of a Supreme Being.iii These can be juxtaposed with a 1996 speech by Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, in which he rejects any conflict between Church doctrine and belief in evolution, as long as the latter excludes the question of human ensoulment from its methods.iv Dawkins and other supporters of a strictly materialist metaphysics find the Pope’s position incoherent, and even dangerous for suggesting the possibility of reconciling what should be viewed as two contradictory positions.v My sense is that students are better for having considered this question from both perspectives, and it allows them the opportunity to see whether a powerful scientific theory can be made commensurable with articles of faith from Christianity or other religious traditions.

Dawkins’s view in the scientific community is not without its critics. Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, became a committed Christian after a period of atheism. In fact, he considers his investigations into the fundamental properties of nature as supporting his religious faith, a view he develops in The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.vi Once again, Dawkins strongly disagrees and considers Collins’s attempted reconciliation of science and theism as intellectually disingenuous. For an accessible presentation of their differing perspectives, I provided students access to a Time magazine article from 2005 in which the two disputants debate with the aid of an editorial moderator.vii The article and the questions it reveals would make a provocative topic for an impromptu class debate.

Other voices can deepen the discussion further. The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, among his many works on evolutionary biology, wrote a brief treatise in which he argued that religion and science should form “non-overlapping magisteria.”viii To Gould’s thinking, science and religion should respect the domain of the other by not imposing their intellectual frameworks. A truce, if you will, as Gould lays out when considering whether nature holds any insight into human morality:

Our failure to discern a universal good does not record any lack of insight or ingenuity, but merely demonstrates that nature contains no moral messages framed in human terms. Morality is a subject for philosophers, theologians, students of the humanities, indeed for all thinking people. The answers will not be read passively from nature; they do not, and cannot, arise from the data of science. The factual state of the world does not teach us how we, with our powers for good and evil, should alter or preserve it in the most ethical manner.ix

Gould’s admonition aside, Stephen Hawking recently proposed in his book The Grand Design that God was not necessary for the beginning of the universe.x Students are generally in awe of an intellectual like Hawking, primarily because the area of his expertise is so abstruse to the general public. As a result, there is a tendency to take his pronouncements at face value. For budding philosophers, it is important to scrutinize the basis for Hawking’s conclusion, not in terms of the specifics of quantum mechanics or string theory but from an examination of whether the methods of science would be fitting to resolve this question.

The Eastern philosophical tradition can act as counterweight to the West’s tendency toward dichotomous thinking. In fact, there is much in the Buddhist metaphysic reconcilable with quantum physics. For an interesting approach on that relationship, I recommend The Quantum and the Lotus, a dialogue between a physicist and a Buddhist monk.xi The book is useful not only for the content covered—a chapter would easily serve as a supplement to class discussion—but also for how the interlocutors model respectful (dis)agreement. Like Buddhism, Taoism rejects the theoretical separation of nature and the divine. For a fascinating approach to the issues of free will, the nature of God, and suffering, consult Raymond Smullyan’s brief paper, “Is God a Taoist?” A mortal accuses God of having cursed him with free will and thus the ability to commit evil, and the ensuing dialogue moves students from an “either/or” to a “both/and” approach to metaphysics. It may even be worth a class period to read the dialogue aloud or divide students into discussion circles to address it.xii

My goal here is not to resolve these issues but to introduce students to the debate and help them formulate the issue more precisely. Is and should belief in God be a matter of reason? Need one have evidence for belief? What constitutes evidence? Should practical concerns, like Pascal’s Wager, factor into our conclusions? As with so many questions in philosophy of religion, our stances on these questions will shape our thinking on related topics, and students should be made aware of how their philosophical commitments raise the issue of consistency as they range across philosophy. More generally, these questions raise a methodological question of what constitutes intellectual virtue. Students usually find the perspectives of Pascal and William James on one side and William K. Clifford and Brand Blanshard on the other instructive in developing their own position on the ultimate question: Is it reasonable to believe in God?

To wrap up this unit and put some flesh on the bones of abstract argumentation, I show clips from the film Contact, based on a story by the late popular astronomer Carl Sagan.xiii The story follows the zigzagging paths of Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster), an agnostic astronomer who lost her father tragically as a youth and works for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), and Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a religious writer. When Arroway is contacted by alien life, an international effort ensues to build a transport (the design of which is provided by the aliens) to whisk a delegate off to make contact with the intelligent beings. The relationship between Arroway and Joss provides the vehicle for examining standards of belief and proof, highlighted by Foster’s character being denied the initial opportunity to man the transport because of her agnosticism, an issue brought to light under Joss’s questioning at a congressional hearing. After an effort sabotaged by a religious fanatic, Arroway gets her opportunity at space travel, and ends up having a spiritual and redemptive meeting with an alien in the person of her father. When she returns, Arroway seems to have no scientific evidence for her experience, yet clings to its reality. As Joss supports Arroway’s account, the film leaves open-ended whether Arroway’s belief was justified in scientific terms, or was an affirmation of faith. Contact effectively explores issues of evidence, belief, and faith and provides students with an opportunity to examine how intellectual commitments play out in decisions and lives.

For an effective presentation of the KCA, see Bruce Reichenbach, “Cosmological Argument,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 11 September 2008, Web, 13 August 2012 <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/cosmological-argument/>. For further discussion of Hilbert’s Hotel Paradox and the notion of infinity, see David Deutsch, The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), pp. 167-77.

ii  Michelle Grier, “Kant’s Critique of Metaphysics,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 10 April 2012, Web, 13 August 2012 <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-metaphysics/>.

iii  Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker:Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996).

iv  Pope John Paul II, Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences: On Evolution, Eternal Word Television Network, 22 October 1996, Web, 14 August 2012 <http://www.ewtn.com/library/papaldoc/jp961022.htm>.

Richard Dawkins, “You Can’t Have it Both Ways: Irreconcilable differences?,” The Skeptical Inquirer, Jul/Aug 1999 (23: 4), pp. 62-64.

vi  Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2007).

vii  Dan Cray, “God vs. Science,” Time Magazine, Time, 5 November 2006, Web, 14 August 2012 <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1555132-1,00.html>.

viii  See Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (New York: Ballantine, 1999), esp. pp. 49-95.

ix  Stephen Jay Gould, “Nonmoral Nature,” Natural History, February 1991, 19-26, p. 26.

Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam Books, 2012).

xi  Matthieu Ricard and Trinh Xuan Thuan, The Quantum and the Lotus: A Journey to the Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet (New York: Broadway Books, 2004).

xii  Raymond M. Smullyan, “Is God a Taoist?,” 1977, Web, 14 August 2012 <http://www.mit.edu/people/dpolicar/writing/prose/text/godTaoist.html>.

xiii  Contact. Dir. Robert Zemeckis. Prod. Robert Zemeckis. By James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg. Perf. Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, and James Woods. Warner Brothers, 1997.

Freiler_Chris_00827Chris Freiler teaches Philosophy Honors at Hinsdale Central HS (Hinsdale, IL), a course he proposed and developed.  Additionally, Chris has taught Advanced Placement European History at Hinsdale Central High School in Hinsdale, IL, since 1993.  He has also served since 1997 as a reader, Table Leader, Question Leader, and Assistant Chief Reader for the AP European History annual exam scoring.  Since 2006, Chris has served on the College Board Commission to redesign European History and as co-chair of the Curriculum Development and Assessment Committee.  He has authored an AP European test preparation book, published by McGraw-Hill, entitled AP Achiever:  Advanced Placement Exam Preparation Guide for European History.  Chris recently completed an M.A. in philosophy at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, IL, after having earned a B.A. in History/Political Science at Northwestern and an M.A. in History at Virginia.

Chris Freiler: Approaching Religion in Philosophy

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