Religion may or may not be “the opium of the people,” as Karl Marx famously wrote, but students certainly like to talk about it in my philosophy classes at Santa Barbara City College. A recent “Does God Exist?” debate here had over a hundred in attendance and almost another hundred turned away. Such interest in religion at a secular institution makes sense to me. The students I had at a Catholic college didn’t want to talk much about religion. Also, in an excellent new philosophy podcast from Barry Lam called Hi Phi Nation, I learned that West Point cadets grow easily tired of war talk.
In my own classes I like to talk about religion as well. In fact, I love to talk about it. The comedian Marc Maron has spoken recently about God not being part of his upbringing. He rarely thinks about God; religion is not in his purview at all. In his words, he has never used nor understands what it really means to use God. I do. I was raised in a religious household, more specifically, a fundamentalist Christian one. So when I talk about God, and religion in general, I feel it. There is a ton of baggage, many associations. I can speak with authority about it and connect with religious and previously religious students, and even students who are newly contemplating a more spiritual life. Also, my own move away from religion came ever so gradually so I don’t have any obvious emotional scars.
But religion can be tricky to talk about, even for the experienced. About a year ago, I had a particularly unsettling experience. I made a lame and very quick joke about Satanism—I don’t even remember the details except that it was in reference to ethics. That evening I received the following email from a concerned student:
I am terribly disappointed with your attempt of a joke you made yesterday. Your wanton ignorance would not be a serious matter if you did not make destructive jokes about it with students who look to you as a role model. Forgive me for being upset, but as a philosopher I hold you to higher standards concerning the addressing of religions. I am attaching a link to the Official Church of Satan website. I believe that it would be at least decent to research an ideology before you slander it. http://www.churchofsatan.com/
This email had a quick and lasting effect on me. I learned three principal things almost immediately: first, that Satanism is a living religion (there are followers, including this student), second, followers of Satanism probably never see their religion depicted in a compassionate, understanding light, and third that I should not just pick and choose which religions can be made fun of (I would never make fun of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or Buddhism in the classroom). But even while I realized my mistake(s), I did think that the student was overreacting with his charge of slander. So this was part of my subsequent email exchange with him:
I apologize for the joke. I will look further into Satanism. Thanks for the link. (I would add that a joke based in ignorance is not equivalent to slander. That is a serious accusation.)
We also spoke in person. I apologized again for my ignorance and informed the student that I read the website; he apologized for reacting so strongly. The rest of the semester with him went well.
Sometimes I deliberately avoid the subject of religion when I teach philosophy, and not simply because it is such a sensitive subject. Philosophical discussion need not and probably ought not to be bookmarked by religious concerns. The medieval Catholic philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas offered one influential way to argue for this claim. He claimed that the assumptions and principles of the philosopher, that to which philosophical discussion and argument are ultimately derived, are in the public domain. They are things that everyone—religious or not—knows or can in principle know. Philosophical techniques, such as syllogistic logic, are also in principle agreeable to all thinkers, religious or not. This is correspondingly true of each of the sciences, where the most common assumptions are in the background and the proper principles or starting points of the particular science function relative to that science. By contrast, religious discourse ultimately goes back to assumptions or principles that are held to be true on the basis of faith. Such assumptions and principles are not in the public domain. So even when religion itself is the subject matter of philosophical discourse—as when we discuss God’s existence, divine foreknowledge, the relation between reason and faith, and between religion and ethics, to name just several—philosophical analysis employs its own techniques that are not constrained by religious commitments. Many philosophers today agree with Aquinas’ analysis, as do I. (Flipped the other way, consider that a religious studies course is probably best taught in a non-philosophical way; in other words, as a sociologist, historian, or anthropologist would teach it.)
I will end with an observation about religion in the philosophy classroom. Students—whether religious, non-religious, or anti-religious—sometimes expect me as their philosophy teacher to attack religion. Some, especially the anti-religious, anticipate and even salivate at the thought of a philosopher railing against the absurdity of religion and the religious. There is a perception among college students that philosophers are all religious skeptics or outright atheists. Just the other day, a student asked if there are any Christian philosophers. No doubt they’ve taken classes from such anti-religious philosophers or heard about their classes. Others, especially the religious, dread the thought of their philosophy teacher saying such things. Neither camp will find satisfaction in my classes, since I neither attack religion and the religious nor do I attack humanism (the rejection of religion) and the non-religious. I don’t even joke about Satanism anymore.