You’re upset? Say no more!

This is worrying.

The challenges I face in the Religious Studies classroom today are unlike any I have encountered in more than three decades of teaching…it seems that the more religious people become, the less willing they are to engage in critical reflection about their faith. For many years, I have begun my classes by telling my students that if they are not more confused and uncertain at the end of the course than they are at the beginning, I will have failed. But now, as rarely in previous years, a growing number of religiously committed students consider such a challenge a direct assault on their faith…Religious correctness has become the latest version of political correctness. For those who are religiously correct, critical reflection breeds doubt and must, therefore, be resisted.

That is where the problem is, you know. That is what it boils down to – the refusal to reflect critically, and the making a virtue of that refusal. That’s the root of all evil – not religion, but dogmatic protected thought-refusing ‘faith’ of any kind, and yes I do include secular faiths in there.

(Okay, okay, not literally all evil. Don’t be so literal.)

A colleague recently told me that one of his best students reported that she did not like the course she is now taking from me, After God, because “it did not make her feel good.” I responded, “That is, of course, precisely the point.” The chilling effect of these attitudes was brought home to me two years ago when a university administrator at another institution where I was teaching called me into his office and asked me to defend myself against the charge of an anonymous student who claimed that I had attacked his faith because I urged him to consider the possibility that Nietzsche’s analysis of religion called the belief in absolutes into question. I was not given the opportunity to present my side of the story. The administrator assumed I was guilty as charged and insisted that I apologize to the student.

That reminds me of this item from last week.

Andrew McLuskey was sacked from Bayliss Court Secondary School in Slough after a Religious Education lesson discussing the pros and cons of religion. Pupils at the predominantly Muslim school claimed Mr McLuskey said most suicide bombers were Muslim. But he rejected the allegation and said the school was too quick to sack him without giving him right of reply…The school authorities denied they were being heavy-handed and said their first priority was pupils’ welfare. “I don’t think it’s important what I think,” said the school’s deputy head teacher Ray Hinds. “It’s what the pupils think that were in the classroom at the time. And they were very upset.”

Uh oh. Wrong. Ding ding. Go back, start over. Being upset is not the same thing as being upset for good reasons. I can vouch for that from my own personal experience. Don’t get dizzy and fall out of your chair, but I have been known to get upset or cross or bad-tempered for insufficient or bad or downright batty reasons. I have known other people to have the same problem. I’m going to go right out on a limb here and surmise that it’s not uncommon. Upsetness is not invariably a good or safe guide to what actually happened, or the malice of the other party, or to the intentions of anyone involved. Emotional blackmail is great fun, but it’s not what you’d call epistemically sound.

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