Do Beliefs Belong in the Classroom? It’s not easy. Here’s a window into the conversation.
by Paul L. Heck
Student One: “I’m good without God. I have a mind and a conscience. That’s enough to guide me in life. Belief doesn’t add anything. It actually hinders me since religion tells me what I can and can’t do.”
Student Two: “You are good without God because that’s the way God created you. God gave you a mind and a conscience to guide you to truth, goodness, and beauty. Belief is more. It inspires you to go beyond yourself and do great things in life… and to wonder.”
Student One: “I can wonder without God. And the idea of God is actually opposed to human nature and also to scientific inquiry. History shows that beliefs block the liberation of peoples and the advance of science.”
Student Two: “God is not the enemy of human nature. The devil is. Belief in God is actually the basis of freedom. The Gospel tells us that God wants us to have life and have it in abundance. Belief is about humans flourishing. It also encourages us to wonder about the origins of the cosmos and human purpose, inspiring deeper thought about the ways of the world.”
Belief gridlock. Despite great contributions to society, religious communities sometimes fail to live up to their own standards, and this raises doubts. For their part, atheists certainly can and do live ethically, but spirituality without religion sometimes comes across as arrogant individualism. (Google Rabbi David Wolpe on “The Problem with Being ‘Spiritual but not Religious.'”) Does belief mean people don’t have to be reasonable? Does abandonment of belief foster spiritual egotism?
Everyone has beliefs, and yet I find students self-monitoring in class. They don’t want to expose themselves, or they’ve accepted the idea that beliefs and knowledge don’t mix. But this is only to deny or suppress who they are. Better to appear objective. Speak at a distance.
Beliefs can be theist. They can also be non-theist. In this post-modern moment, no one is neutral. All have a life vision that can’t quite be tested in a laboratory. And what can be tested in a laboratory doesn’t quite give us beliefs to live by. Still, why should beliefs have place in the classroom? I’ll mention just two reasons: belief comprehensibility and life meaning.
First: People often take their beliefs, religious or secular, as dogma–as a given. But can you explain why belief in God, the afterlife, and church teachings makes better sense of life? Or why rejection of those things is better? Like anything, comprehensible communication of beliefs requires practice. The classroom is the place to test beliefs—both theist and non-theist—against reason. This fosters what I call “belief reasoning.” Theists and non-theists actually have a lot to learn from one another, but people often lack experience in communicating their beliefs comprehensibly, and this leads to belief gridlock that harms our nation as a whole. In fact, listening to others state why they find their beliefs compelling encourages growth in openness towards others. Yes, they believe that, but they’re not crazy!
Second: We acquire meaning in life by connecting self-knowledge to world knowledge. Knowledge of facts alone won’t tell us how to live—or how we want to live. Self-knowledge involves knowing what moves us most deeply, and that’s nothing if not beliefs. But it has to be grounded in reality. The classroom is the place where students see how their beliefs intersect with real knowledge.
Over the years, a number of graduate students who also work full-time (in both public and private sectors) have shared with me that they no longer believe in what they do! The problem is not their work, but their failure to have considered what moves them. No work is free of ethical challenges. No job is constant adventure. People stop believing in what they’re doing not because of what they’re doing. The missing piece of the puzzle is not the knowledge that brings professional competence, but the self-knowledge that brings meaning, whatever one’s work. In short, they’ve not figured out how to do what they’re doing out of the inspiration of their beliefs. As a result, they may be successful professionals, but their work loses meaning and purpose. The classroom is the place where people can learn to detect the subtle connections between knowledge of the world and the beliefs they hold dear.
One last thought: Do we have faith that knowledge matters … that we’re not in college just for prestige? Do we hope that knowledge equips us to be effective and life-giving actors in the world and doesn’t simply grant us a license to make money and climb up the corporate ladder? Will knowledge of the world help us love it more, as it is, because we know it more as it is and not as we think it should be? Faith, hope, and love are the three great theological virtues. Perhaps, then, it is the modern university where the greatest of theological ventures unfolds.