Playing the Atheist

Yesterday’s class landed me in a strange place but one that, for the moment, I’m alright with.  As I’ve noted elsewhere, I don’t go out of my way to announce that I’m a Christian but also don’t duck the question when students ask.  (I do, after all, often make reference to the text of biblical books when I teach literature and philosophy, so the question is a natural one.)  I’ve taught three semesters, as readers here no doubt know, of a special section of freshman comp based on the Hebrew Bible in translation.

But yesterday we were tackling an essay by David Hume on miracles, and my students didn’t quite grasp the power of his argument, so stepping inside the role of Hume as so often I’ve stepped inside the role of Plato, I parsed his dense prose not as a step towards refuting it but in the process of becoming a Hume for my students to fight. So I broke down the following sentence for them:

…no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish; and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior. (The Portable Enlightenment Reader 110)

To break that down, since a given miracle is by definition not reproducible (Princess Bride aside), therefore only available to the bulk of humanity by means of somebody’s account of that miracle, the credibility of that miracle depends upon the credibility of the reporter.  So given the incredible character of a miracle, only a supremely authoritative witness, one effectively invulnerable to deceit and incapable of deceiving, could relate a miracle believably.  But to say that a given person believes in such things as the dead rising from the grave is to call that person credulous at the outset.  Therefore no account of a miracle can be authoritative, and thus no reasonable person ought to believe a miracle.

One good man in the back row took me on, and I respect that, but I quickly reiterated and solidified Hume’s position using his vocabulary, and once again the class was in what I called (at the end of the class) Hume’s headlock. As I dismissed the class to go watch Obama’s inauguration on television, I could tell that the air was still somewhat heavy in the room.

I hope that the experience leads some of my evangelical students (I’m sure they’re in there–this is UGA, after all) to talk with some educated Christians about Hume’s argument rather than give up on the whole project.  I’d hate to have that on my conscience.  But all the same, as I’ve said in conversation if not here, I’d rather have these students encounter ideas like Hume’s in the safety of my classroom, where the conversation ends and allows for reflection and help-seeking, than some day in conversation with a coworker or some other context in which a genuinely aggressive atheist is pushing the ideas.  That might ultimately be a cop-out on my part, but I do think that, among the ways that my students could encounter Hume, mine is at least not the worst.



Filed under teaching

5 responses to “Playing the Atheist

  1. vaindeludingjoys

    Are you saying that you’d prefer your students to encounter these ideas without the pressure of a proselyte–in this case, an atheist?


  2. That, and I’d like them to encounter it behind the ironic shell of the play-acting teacher. Such things are sticky pedagogically, but the way I figure it, encountering Plato’s anti-democratic or Hume’s anti-Christian ideology happens in two harmful ways in college. In some cases, the student runs into a teacher who’s proselytizing, as you noted, and in that case there’s the power of the gradebook hovering over the whole affair. In others, the student runs into apologetic-style writings that treat Hume as an idiot strawman instead of a genuinely important philosophical writer. (As you might guess, such treatments often happen in Christian colleges.) My method attempts to steer a course that avoids both of those errors, making Hume a force that the student must confront on his own terms (or at least his terms as best I can render them) but who isn’t threatening their careers if they don’t acquiesce.

  3. Phievalon

    So, would an eyewitness/proponent of the alleged miraculous resurrection event, (clearly in a position to know the truth) with everything (even life) to lose and nothing comparable to gain, be considered a credible witness by Hume since unnecessarily squandering one’s own life for a known falsehood with no conceivable motive could meet Hume’s criteria of “more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish;” and circumvent his “mutual destruction of arguments,” by appeal to a common understanding that one’s own life is of ultimate value and only sanely spent on a greater value? And then note the unanimity of that occurance in the case of eyewitnesses to the purported event event. That would be my thought but I wonder if, in your estimation, it adequately counters Hume’s assertion.

  4. Could you go over to the new site at and post that comment? I think folks over there (the site that I still maintain) might enjoy digging into this question.

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