Philosophy 410, Philosophy of Religion, Spring 2011
MWF 10:00-10:50 AM, Sale Hall ______
Instructor: Dr. Nathan Nobis; firstname.lastname@example.org
Office hours: MW 2-3 PM and by appointment
Course blog and syllabus: http://philosophy410.blogspot.com
Email announcement group: http://groups.google.com/group/morehouse-philosophy-of-religion/
Examination of philosophical questions involved in religion and religious beliefs. Prerequisite: PHI 201 or consent of the instructor.
Extended course description:
Newsletter on Philosophy and the Black Experience, the author claims that:
While religion has been at the center of the African-American experience, substantive philosophical questions and issues about theodicy, the epistemological nature of religious beliefs, and even creationism have been avoided.
“epistemological nature” of religious beliefs, i.e., seek to understand whether religious beliefs – theistic and Christian beliefs, in particular – are supported by strong evidence, good reasons and sound arguments or not. We will evaluate “theodicies,” attempts to explain what (if anything) might justify an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good being in permitting certain kinds of evil, especially the evils of racism, slavery, lynchings, and discrimination: we will read many African American thinkers who address this issue and evaluate arguments for the view that the existence of evils like these give good reason to believe that God does not exist. We will discuss many other philosophical issues that arise from religious belief and practice, such as the existence of hell, the nature of reason and faith, surviving death, and how we should respond to religious diversity and disagreements, whether religious belief is “important” in various senses, and many other issues.
Throughout the course our main methods involve (A) getting very clear on what exact claims we are evaluating (e.g., what is meant by ‘God’?) and (B) patiently, carefully and thoroughly finding and evaluating the reasons given for and against the claim in question (as well as the reasons that might be given in response to those reasons). Philosophy courses require questioning assumptions, seeking reasons and evidence and demand intellectual responsibility, i.e., being careful with what you believe because you wish to believe the truth and effectively pursue it, even if this requires changing your own beliefs. This course offers the opportunity to develop these intellectual skills in identifying and evaluating arguments and cultivating an intellectually virtuous outlook based in the requirement for good reasons for belief and action that can be beneficial for everything you do and who you are.
Two required texts:
1. The God Dialogues: A Philosophical Journey, by Torin Alter and Robert Howell (Oxford, 2011).
2. Why Lord? Suffering and Evil in Black Theology, by Anthony Pinn (Continuum, 1999)
3. A number of articles and handouts will be distributed in class and/or online. The topics of these articles will include:
Divine Hiddenness (if God exists and it’s important that people believe in him, why doesn’t he make himself more obvious?), the Problem of Hell (if God exists and is all loving, could he send anyone to Hell?), religious pluralism (What should we think of people whose religious beliefs differ from our’s? Can their beliefs be true or rational? Can they be mistaken? Should recognition of their beliefs give us reason to lose confidence in our beliefs?) and more readings on the Problem of Evil (If God exists, then why is there so much evil? Does the existence of so much evil – undeserved, unjust pain and suffering, etc.) give some reason to think there is not a God?) and more, including readings in African and African-American philosophy of religion and religion.
Always bring your class materials to class.
To succeed in this class, you must be disciplined: are responsible to understand and meet the requirements outlined below and discussed in class:
- Attendance: Always come to class, as Morehouse College policy requires. Sign the role sheet: if it is not passed to you, then you need to find it. An absence is excused only if you get the instructor an official Morehouse excuse in writing that he can keep.
- Punctuality: Come to class on time. Lateness will be penalized on your final grade.
- Preparation: Bring all your books, handouts and other materials – including materials that you must print off from the internet – and have them out on your desk and ready to discuss at the beginning of class.
- Students who do not bring their materials may be asked to leave, as they are not prepared for class.
- Doing the Reading: For every hour spent in class, spend at least two hours doing the reading and writing outlines, paraphrases &/or summaries of the readings.
- Preparation for engaged, production discussion, not passive lectures:
- Morehouse College is a liberal arts college, not a university. Classes are small and thus we are able to discuss issues and arguments and have a more interactive learning environment. The instructor, therefore, will rarely “lecture” in any traditional sense, since lecturing encourages student passivity, disengagement, and not doing the reading.
- For a critique of the educational value of lecturing see, “To Lecture or Not to Lecture, an Age-Old Question” at http://www.morehouse.edu/news/archives/001176.html
- Honesty: Any plagiarism or cheating on any assignment – including any extra credit assignments – will immediately result in failing the course: no exceptions, no excuses.
- “Help me help you”:
- The instructor should be informed of medical, family, or other problems that necessitate missing class or that interfere with your work. In addition, students are encouraged to visit with the instructor during his office hours if they are having difficulty reading or understanding the materials presented in class. If you ever have any questions about anything, please just ask!
Assignments and grading:
1. Weekly writing assignments: 25% of grade
The absolute most important thing you can do to succeed in this class is to do the reading and do the reading well. Reading assignments will be announced in class and on the blog and email groups. To encourage you do the readings well and so be prepared for class discussion, each week you will be required to write something on the readings. Details on each week’s assignment will be provided throughout the semester. These will be due each Monday; late writings will be penalized.
2. Two Exams: 50% total grade, 25% each exam.
Either in class or take-home. All of lecture, discussion and reading content is testable. Study guides will be available with possible questions for each exam to help focus your studying. Exams will mostly be short answer and short essay questions. No electronic devices can be used or accessed during tests, nor can you have any books, bags, notes or hats near your desk: all such materials must be left at the front of the room. You are not permitted to leave the classroom and return to keep working on the test, so please plan accordingly (e.g., visit the restroom before the test).
3. A Philosophical Assessment of Your Personal Religious Beliefs (15% of grade)
This assignment will provide an opportunity to identify your own religious beliefs, offer a philosophical assessment and critique of them, respond to this assessment and critique (that is, respond to the strongest objections to your religious beliefs) and identify possible areas for how your views should change, from a rational point of view.
4. Attendance and participation: 10% of grade. Students will, in groups, present and discuss chapters from Pinn, as well as do other presentations. Poor attendance and lateness ensures that you don’t do not do excellently in this class and so cannot earn an A.
Note: A syllabus is not a contract, but rather a guide to course procedures. The instructor reserves the right to alter the course requirements and/or assignments based on new materials, class discussions, or other legitimate pedagogical objectives.
EXACT READINGS WILL BE ANNOUNCED IN CLASS, THE EMAIL GROUP AND ON THE BLOG
· ONLINE ARTICLE or HANDOUT: Allen Stairs, “A Right To Be Wrong?” http://brindedcow.umd.edu/philosophy/opinions.html
- HANDOUT: The Ethics of Belief ,
- ONLINE ARTICLE or HANDOUT: William Lane Craig, "God Is Not Dead Yet: How current philosophers argue for his existence," Christianity Today, July 2008. At http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/july/13.22.html
Readings from The God Dialogues, and writing assignments, will be announced soon.
A Right to be Wrong?
By Allen Stairs, U Maryland, Philosophy http://brindedcow.umd.edu/philosophy/opinions.html
I hear a lot of arguments -- on everything from gun control to whether the soul is a substance formed in the fifth dimension. Within these arguments there is a move that gets made often enough to depress my philosopher's soul -- whatever dimension it inhabits. Someone has just had their position skewered and heads for higher ground by huffing "Well, I'm entitled to my opinion."
This doesn't do much for the discussion, but isn't it true for all that? Don't we have a right to our opinions?
It depends on what you mean.
In this country, we are legally entitled to believe anything we like, though whether we may act on all our beliefs is rightly another matter. So far, then, so true: everyone has a legal right to hold and -- subject to remarkably few constraints -- express any opinion. This isn't trivial. In some societies, holding certain opinions can lead to brutal consequences. Most of us, including me, find that appalling, and so we might go further and say: even if the law didn't recognize it, everyone would have a moral right -- a basic human right -- to believe anything at all.
All this is high-minded, but, it leaves something out. We don't think people should be persecuted for what they believe, but typically when people insist on their right to their opinions they aren't being persecuted. What is usually going on is that their views have been challenged, and they've run out of things to say. But my right to an opinion doesn't conflict with your right to argue that I'm wrong.
What we need is another category: not legal rights, not moral rights but "logical rights," to concoct an awkward phrase. Logical rights aren't cheap; the coin of the realm is evidence, judgment and knowledge.
An illustration: some physicists now suspect that quarks have smaller parts. Other than the brief story or two I've read, I know nothing about the evidence and not a whole lot more about quarks themselves. Am I entitled to an opinion on this issue?
It sounds a little odd to say I am. Of course I shouldn't be shot if I start spouting about quarklets, or whatever they might be called. Ignored, perhaps. Or better, reminded that I don't know what I'm talking about. Here we have a clear case of having no logical right to a view. I simply don't know enough to have a basis for an opinion.
This case may be clear, but there is a sort of a slide when it comes to opinions. Most people recognize that a casual opinion about whether it rained in London on July 17th, 1532 is worth nothing. It's a matter of fact that doesn't yield to mere speculation. Most people also recognize that they haven't earned the right to opinions about elementary particles or the number of irreducible representations of the four-dimensional rotation group. These matters call for specialized knowledge. On questions that deal with people, however, caution is more likely to be cast aside. I've heard people who wouldn't know a chromosome if it belted their jeans offer firm opinions about whether homosexuality does or does not have a genetic basis. And when we come to matters of Ultimate Significance, opinions flow like spoiled gravy. Detailed views about the innermost secrets of the universe are as cheap as eggs and nearly as sturdy.
This isn't really surprising and it reveals an interesting tension. Our most anxious concerns are human concerns, earthly and cosmic; we can hardly not to pardon the urge to opine. But this very anxiety might help us to see why reasons and evidence are still important.
First, what you or I think about earthly concerns can affect others. It may not matter what our opinions are on the nature of angels. But consider some less esoteric questions. Are illegal immigrants a drain on the economy? Do lenient divorce laws lead to higher divorce rates? Will banning discrimination against gays undermine the traditional family? None of these questions have obvious answers, but opinions on them abound. People vote on the basis of these opinions. People give money to causes. People organize and people act.
Here someone might object: most of us aren't experts on the issues that influence our votes. For democracy to work, people must participate. Indeed. But presumably democracy works best when people actually have well-considered opinions. Furthermore some opinions are downright vicious. If you think members of (fill in favorite suspect group) are prone to (fill in suspected evil trait) you will probably act accordingly. And if what you think is a mere ill-founded suspicion, you are likely to increase the sum total of human misery for no good reason at all. Whatever the nature of your "right" to such opinions, it can be plain wrong to hold them.
The second point is that even when it comes to the secrets of the universe, we care about truth. And the loftier the matter, the less our mere guesses are worth. To the extent that we do care about truth, we need to keep caring about the credentials of our beliefs. Our logical rights serve our deeply-felt ends.
Should we withhold all opinions until we know that we're right? If we did that, we would do nothing else. None of us can justify all our beliefs. Even the best opinions are fallible things and a brilliant conjecture can be worth a dozen dull facts. Not only that: some criticisms aren't worth the trouble of a response, though distinguishing good criticism from bad is often an art in itself. But what we can do is learn to be more aware of what we don't know. Like Winston Churchill's modest little man, we have much to be modest about when it comes to our beliefs. And when we're called up short, we can stop and think rather than insist on our rhetorical rights. At least, that's my opinion.
© copyright The Washington Post, 1996
 Stephen Ferguson, II, “Teaching Hurricane Katrina: Understanding Divine Racism and Theodicy,” Newsletter on Philosophy and the Black Experience, Fall 2007, Volume 07, Number 1, at http://www.apaonline.org/publications/newsletters/v07n1_Black_02.aspx