Teaching students about god

Now that the teaching part of the semester is over, and the marking part nearly so, I can reflect on my effectiveness in getting students to think rationally, using the ever-reliable indicator of whether I’ve managed to convert any of them to godlessness. The evidence is mixed. On the one hand, I’ve received a typical amount of hate mail. But on the other, for the first time I managed to convert an actual believer, rather than a mere skeptic – perhaps Bob was strong with me one day, and I managed to find just the right words, in the right order. This particular believer, a sincerely devout 19-year-old male, was quite perturbed by my choices of examples when teaching about logical fallacies (given that I often use religious discourse to source said examples) at the start of the semester, and had a number of earnest conversations early on, in which he asked me if I’d ever considered what a pickle I would be in if I was wrong about god.

As many of you would know, he was (perhaps unknowingly) referring to the infamous Pascal’s Wager. In my memory – notoriously fallible – of religious education, this was one of the first weapons soldiers for god were issued with. At least, this was true in my battalion. There are common and easy refutations for the wager, such as the simple observation that as much as it is true for god (let us say the Christian one, for the sake of the argument), it is true for the Flying Spaghetti Monster also. So who’s to say that your should not fear his noodly appendage whenever you pray to your false god, Jehovah? Etc. But then, recently (and the link is lost, unfortunately, so apologies for the lack of linkage), I came across a post which asked that we consider the fact that most unknowables, or remote statistical possibilities, may be unpleasant to comprehend, yet not actually merit any impact on our lives.

For example, it is certainly possible that when I leave home tomorrow morning, I may experience some cosmic debris falling on my head, or perhaps some unwelcome amorous advances (for such was foretold in my weekend horoscope, after all). And for the former possibility, given that cosmic debris has actually been observed falling on our heads – or at least in the vicinity of them – it seems a fear grounded in some version of reality. Yet, this possibility makes no difference to my life. It may be that I am complacent in believing that I am safe from such an occurrence, but evidence suggests that it would be a waste of time and mental energy to be concerned about it happening to me. Likewise, I can’t imagine the pay-off for spending time trying to figure out which god is most sensible to try and please. Does one start by determining which one smites the hardest? Or which one has a cooler paradise? God knows. Allegedly. But that doesn’t help me, or you.

Anyway, the believer that this post begins with came to me after the last lecture, and confessed that he was now more than skeptical, but downright distrustful of religious claims in any flavour or colour. But a key remaining concern for him was what difference his conversion would make, particularly in a country like South Africa, which is still so committed to metaphysical beliefs. As I pointed out to him, it’s a long, drawn-out battle, and what keeps me fighting it is that “Six degrees of separation” thing – maybe, someday, someone who one of us has “corrected” will actually be in a position to influence someone who can influence policy, rather than simply influence their friends (or students). We shall see.

If you’re feeling in need of direction, here’s a revealing update on the 10 commandments from Action Skeptics. And, in closing, something that may well make it to a lecture theatre near you, soon (via onegoodmove):

Athiests don’t exist

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.