Professor Peter Boghossian of Portland State University believes that when a student makes a faith claim in a classroom, it is the professor's duty to tell them they're wrong. Because faith claims are not empirical or testable, professors should stop treating such claims with kid gloves and start corrected the students who make them. He made this argument in a short article for the journal Inside Higher Ed and then gave a subsequent talk where he argued that faith is a kind of cognitive sickness that should not be given equal time in the classroom. Claims like these are grabbing the attention of atheists and theists alike because they have the potential to affect the way we think about faith.
The article has garnered a lot of attention including, approvingly, that of Sam Harris, and disapprovingly of Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger, who lambasted the professor for his views. Because of the interest in this topic, I sat down with professor Boghossian's to dig into his claims a bit more deeply. His ideas are important ones in that they capture what I think a lot of people are discussing when it comes to faith and the public square. Many are questioning whether faith claims are appropriate in a modern, scientifically literate classroom (and, for that matter, society). Professor Boghossian clearly thinks they aren't and argues that professors should have the courage to say so.
At the heart of Boghossian's argument is the idea that students should leave a classroom more informed about the world than they entered it, and since faith claims aren't publicly testable, students who make them "shouldn't be given a seat at the adult table." Boghossian makes a distinction between a private belief that impacts only the person believing it (like the belief that peanut butter tastes good) and public claims that are supposed to have implications for the rest of us (like the claim that God disapproves of contraception). Beliefs about God and his activity are private beliefs that students are welcome to hold but these beliefs should not be a part of the educational conversation. If a student makes a public argument that is based on a private belief, professors should call these students out and help correct their thinking.
Boghossian is clear that the crux issue is not about the claims themselves. Rather, he focuses on addressing the processes one uses to get to those claims. Professors must "meaningfully discuss these issues and talk about the process one uses and the fact that certain processes are unreliable to lead one to the truth -- faith being one of those processes -- and have educators call people out on, quite frankly, delusion."
For example, flipping coins or sacrificing goats is not a reliable process for predicting the weather. Scientific processes that test and correct hypotheses are. Faith claims, according to Boghossian, are grounded on processes much more like flipping coins than evidenced-based research. If a student makes a claim not based on evidence and argument, why should such a claim have any authority in a classroom? In his article, Boghossian notes that a student wrote on a final exam that despite what she learned in the classroom, her belief in God was "absolute" and no amount of philosophy would ever change that. The processes that led the student to such unequivocal belief are not only faulty, but dangerous, says Boghossian, and professors would be remiss if they let students leave their classroom believing that such processes are reliable.
These issues have much wider cultural implications. Should faith claims have any authority in politics for example? According to a recent Gallup poll, more than 90 percent of Americans claim to believe in some higher power. Shouldn't this belief have an impact on how we think about governance? Boghossian says no because this is not a belief that could even possibly be evaluated for truth. The fact that the majority believes it doesn't mean it has merit (he makes a comparison to beliefs about slavery in the past -- mass delusion is still delusion).
What role should faith play, if any, in the way we think about the conversation in the classroom or an ordered society?
According to Boghossian, it should be relegated to personal preference like a taste for peanut butter or what to do in one's free time. Faith claims should not be given any educational or social authority. And in case you missed it, that's a public truth claim and one that should and will be discussed broadly and deeply as the role of faith continues to evolve.
Listen to the podcast with professor Bogossian and find out more about his work at philosophynews.com
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