Should Faculty Challenge Students’ Religious Beliefs?

"Chrysalis" by Carl Akeley, on display at Ohio State's Faculty Club, a sculpture with rich implications about both creation/evolution and the role of faculty in students' lives

A column at Inside Higher Ed by Portland State philosophy instructor Peter Boghossian raises a good question: Should faculty challenge the religious beliefs of students?

Here’s how he opens his essay:

Until two weeks ago, I had been laboring under the naïve assumption that one of the primary goals of every academic was to change students’ beliefs when they were based on inaccurate information. I was awakened from this dogmatic slumber at an interdisciplinary faculty meeting by colleagues who reacted with dismay to my confession that I had tried and failed to disabuse one of my students of Creationist beliefs.

Like I said, Boghossian raises a good question. Unfortunately, he doesn’t choose a very good case to examine. While teaching a philosophy course titled “Science and Pseudoscience,” one of his students writes the following on her final exam, which Boghossian characterizes as “Creationist”:

I wrote what I had to ‘agree’ with what was said in class, but in truth I believe ABSOLUTELY that there is an amazing, savior GOD, who created the universe, lives among us, and loves us more than anything. That is my ABSOLUTE, and no amount of ‘philosophy’ will change that.

If you know much about the Creation-Evolution-Intelligent Design controversies, you will recognize that the student’s statement is hardly “Creationist” in any sense beyond the broad assertion that God created the cosmos. It’s extremely disappointing that Boghossian has apparently left the student with the impression that “philosophy” rejects the idea that God, the creator of all things, loves us and lives among us. As a discipline, of course, philosophy makes no such claims. Further, many contemporary academic philosophers would, in fact, affirm this student’s statement. Perhaps she made additional statements during the course that revealed a narrower “Creationist” point of view, but Boghossian doesn’t share any of those, if they exist.

It’s also disappointing that this philosophy of science instructor doesn’t seem to be aware of the tricky epistemological history of “empirical claims” when he writes:

In [my course] Science and Pseudoscience, students need to understand a basic mechanism, rooted in the scientific method, by which they can reliably discern true empirical claims from false empirical claims.

Which part of the student’s statement does he believe is a “false empirical claim”? That God created the universe? That God loves us? That God lives among us? I wish him the best of luck in testing those claims with the scientific method.

Boghossian sums up his argument by drawing a firm distinction between “moral beliefs” and propositional knowledge:

With regard to our roles as educators, we should not be seeking to convert students’ moral beliefs, but we should, and we are obligated to, help students lend their beliefs to true propositions and repudiate false ones. A teacher is obligated to use cognitive dissonance to inspire students to shape a more reliable picture of reality that informs their sense of cause and effect.

As is so often the case, the devil is in the details. For instance, Boghossian gives an example of a moral belief — one’s position on same-sex marriage — that he thinks should not be challenged by faculty. I bet many of his colleagues would strongly disagree that faculty should remain neutral on this question.

What do you think of this way of framing this issue? Should faculty challenge their students’ religious beliefs as part of their education? What guidelines should faculty use in determining which beliefs to challenge and which to leave alone?

By the way, for an interesting take from someone who doesn’t have much sympathy for the student’s beliefs, check out Herman “the Friendly Atheist” Mehta’s response to Boghossian.

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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    Tim commented on July 26, 2011 Reply

    Excellent commentary, thanks Micheal.

    Katelin commented on July 27, 2011 Reply

    Would this be a different discourse if the student had been atheist and the professor tried to convince her to be Christian? Would we not praise both of them if she ultimately came to Christ?

    This topic is important to ponder because professors have such disproportionate influence and exposure to students, but I feel that exposure and debate with ideas and perspectives is almost always better than silencing them. Do we feel we much protect God? Surely, His power is ultimately more compelling than a lecture. Let conversation flow, while leaving in the customary and well established protections against undue academic coercion.

      Micheal Hickerson commented on July 28, 2011 Reply

      That’s a great question, Katelin. If it had been a similar context, just with the student and faculty world views reversed, I would hope that the Christian professor would have led the conversation into some deeper waters.

      My own take on this (I hope others chime in) is that there’s nothing wrong with challenging students’ beliefs if it fits within the scope of the course AND the challenges are based on scholarship. No one wins when a student and the professor just begin arguing about their personal opinions, which is what I feel happened in this case.

      Unfortunately, I’m not sure that the climate on many campuses lends itself toward serious discussions among students and faculty of controversial topics. I rarely if ever link to it, but one of the higher ed blogs I read daily is that of FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. They highlight the most egregious abuses of faculty and student rights, so they shouldn’t be your sole source of information about higher education, but the cases they highlight really are egregious. Often the case begins with nothing more than a student or faculty member disagreeing with someone, yet it leads to career-threatening consequences.

    Glenn Shrom commented on August 4, 2011 Reply

    I agree with the stated goal of educating students to recognize the true and the false, when this is possible or applicable. I am not sure how the word “proposition” is intended within this context of Boghossian’s stated goal.

    If Boghossian’s “detail” is that viewing our universe as someone’s creation is a false view, then it sounds as though Boghossian himself needs a better education, and one that his students are not likely able to give him. In fact, it is unlikely that Boghossian will find any such educators in the circles he is familiar with or already moves in, and would need two things: referrals to those types of educators with brilliant minds, and an incentive to seriously take on board what they have to say. So much of it is a matter of the heart, more than just the mind.

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