God’s Not Dead, a film by Harold Cronk that premiered March 21, attempts to tackle the important issues of academic freedom, personal autonomy, and freedom of speech. What is a professor permitted to say in class or demand from students? What rights do students have to think and speak for themselves? Such a conflict, which is real enough, yet dramatized poorly in the film, is at the heart of the educational process. Is the role of the professor to think for the students, to provide them the correct viewpoint, or to help the students develop the intellectual tools that will enable them to think for themselves? A common view of philosophy is that it provides people the intellectual tools to think through issues in a logical, rigorous manner, while religion may demand the acceptance of arguments based on faith. God’s Not Dead cleverly inverts this contrast by presenting a dogmatic atheist professor who demands “professions of disbelief” from his students, while a brave Christian student defends the right of his peers to think freely.

As someone who has studied philosophy at the undergraduate and graduate level, currently teaches the humanities to high school students, and has grappled with faith for years, I eagerly viewed the film to discover what the ultimate message would be for believer and non-believer alike. The most interesting scene for me was the only moment of the film that the audience enthusiastically applauded. The Christian student, tasked with proving the existence of God and attempting to use his professor’s own arguments against him, quotes Stephen Hawking: “Philosophy is dead.” The audience applauded and cheered the assertion. I was struck by this reaction, no doubt, since the message of the film up to that point appeared to be that a) philosophy does not require atheism, and b) that religious faith can be defended on rational grounds. Was the audience missing the point of the conflict between the professor and the student? Why was it cheering for the death of philosophy when philosophy was being used to give life to religious faith?

The film depicts a philosophy professor, Dr. Radisson, demanding that his students write “God is dead” on a sheet of paper the first day of class. He instructs them to sign the sheet, explaining that his course “Introduction to Philosophical Thought,” will go much more smoothly without theistic or supernatural beliefs being considered by the students. As someone who has studied philosophy and who now teaches philosophy, I have never witnessed anything remotely similar to Dr. Radisson’s demand and cannot imagine anyone doing so. The choice faced by the Christian student, Josh, is simply not a choice, to my knowledge, that students are forced to face by their instructors. What is undoubtedly true, and what has been my own experience, is that choices about one’s personal beliefs definitely take place internally and on the student’s own terms. If a student reads David Hume or Friedrich Nietzsche then their beliefs will be directly challenged and they will have to think through specific questions and reconcile competing claims, but that is a process that takes place within the individual and not something forced on them by the professor. After all, individuals choose to take a philosophy course knowing that they may read texts that will challenge their beliefs or contradict their current views.

A majority of philosophy professors are atheists, but Dr. Radisson is arguably a straw-man caricature created to promote the view, common amongst too many Christians, that philosophy departments are intolerant secular prisons preventing young people from retaining their faith or thinking for themselves. The film is quite disheartening and inaccurate in its portrayal of philosophy as a straightjacket that restricts thought rather than a source of empowerment. Again, did the Christian student not defend his faith and arrive at a deeper understanding of it through the use of rational analysis and philosophical reflection? The fact that belief in certain religious or metaphysical claims may decline as a result of a college education or the study of philosophy is far different from atheism being openly promoted or forced onto students. The film portrays an academic setting hostile to religious faith, feeding the delusion that Christians are a besieged minority, when in fact numerous polls indicate that approximately 75% of adults in the U.S. believe in God.

While Dr. Radisson’s request that students disavow belief in God for the purposes of his course was both inappropriate and unnecessary, the notion that one’s personal beliefs should be consciously set aside in order to engage in a specific research methodology is common. Scientists engage in “methodological atheism” in order to discover natural explanations to natural events; and it is common to study religious texts in a dispassionate manner for literary, historical, and comparative purposes. What is troubling about God’s Not Dead is that it reinforces the misconception that some Christians, I assume many of those in the audience, have about public education more generally. While the viewer may root for Josh as he defends his faith, they most likely do not want their own child to have to go through a similar ordeal. The reality is that students do not have to make the difficult decisions that are forced on Josh by Dr. Radisson. I fear that the film simply gives further affirmation to parents who send their children to private religious schools in order to avoid the influence of “secular tyrants” like Dr. Radisson who will seek to undermine their faith. The reality is that while it may be more comfortable to express one’s faith or openly affirm Christian beliefs in a private religious school, the student is more challenged to justify their beliefs to themselves and encouraged to develop intellectual autonomy in a secular environment, even one as hostile as Dr. Radisson’s classroom. Democracy requires self-government, which begins with the individual, and philosophy empowers the individual to develop intellectual autonomy. When the audience applauds the “death of philosophy,” they may be cheering for their own disempowerment. The task of public education is to prepare individuals for democratic self-government, which requires the ability to acknowledge differences of opinion, respect the beliefs of others, and compromise on controversial issues. In portraying the public university and philosophy classroom as unrealistically hostile to religion, the film may have the unintended consequence of promoting a religious intolerance of critical self-reflection that is inimical to democracy.

 


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