Tuesday, 26 June 2012

End of Year Plenary

One of the nice things about moving jobs (apart from the promise of free tea at break time) is it gives me a natural break to think a bit more about my subject – about what I teach and why, and whether at some point I should change what I teach at my new school.

If you’re one of my students, you’ll know that we teach Philosophy of Religion and Ethics at AS and A2 to make up our Religious Studies course. These two options are by far the most popular choices for British schools teaching A level Religious Studies. Both of these are interesting topics in their own right, and they are popular with students: from my distant memories of my own younger days, I’d say your teenage years are the time when you start to work out your own answers to some of the big philosophical and ethical questions in life – does God exist, or is the death penalty right or wrong?

However, Philosophy and Ethics aren’t the be all and end all of Religious Studies: actually, to me they are both more like branches of Philosophy than Religious Studies. If you go on to study Religious Studies at degree level, you’ll learn to study religion from a variety of perspectives, and the topics that got me most interested at University – the New Testament, Church history, the sociology of religion – weren’t philosophical or ethical, so unfortunately I don’t get a chance to teach them at school.

It would be nice at some point to play around with what I teach and experiment with something new, but on the other hand, there’s no point in planning a whole course on the secularisation theory or the New Testament if that’s just not what appeals to 16 year olds and nobody ends up taking RS.

So this is your chance to give me a bit of feedback – what have you enjoyed studying, and what haven’t you found so interesting? Would you have been more or less likely to have signed up for an RS A level if we had done something other than Philosophy and Ethics? It’s not easy, but try to think in terms of whether a particular topic raised an interesting set of issues or questions for you rather than whether you think it was or wasn’t taught well: that’s what being bitchy on facebook is for!

And if you’re reading this and teach Religious Studies at University, what would you like to see in your first year undergraduates? Do they need to have a grounding in particular topics, do they need a particular set of skills, or is it more just a case of producing students who have an interest in the field of Religious Studies?

Monday, 25 June 2012

Respect my Authoritah!

Well the good news is that there was enough interest in the Virtually University course I was planning on running on the existence of Jesus for it to go ahead (and so are the other two classes in RS, which is great).

If you’ve already read my introductory post on mythicism, you’ll know that mythicist view of Jesus (that he did not exist historically), is rejected by an overwhelming majority of experts within the field of Biblical Studies.

One of the interesting questions raised by mythicism is how far we should accept the authority of experts, and how far we should consider challenges to their views? An argument frequently made by mythicists is that those who accept the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth do so because they accept the authority of experts without question, and do not consider the evidence fairly or rationally.

And perhaps they have a point: Experts said that the Beatles wouldn’t make it, that Muhammad Ali could not beat George Foremanthat Sadam Hussein had a whole bunch of nasty WMDs. If you’re one of my students, you’ll know that we have a house named after Jane Tomlinson, who ignored the prognosis of her very well qualified doctors that she only had six months to live, and not only lived for another seven years, but also went on to compete in a number of marathons, triathlons, and long distance bike rides.

History is full of examples people who have successfully defied expert opinion, and it has even been argued that science progresses as one accepted theory is gradually challenged and ultimately overturned by a new one. So not only are experts and authority figures sometimes wrong, but those who prove them wrong are often – rightly – the very people we admire most.

However, just because the experts are sometimes wrong, it can’t be the case that everybody who disagrees with the experts is always right. From your AS level RS, you’ll know that there is group we call creationists who disagree with evolution, and if you study A level History, you should have heard of Holocaust deniers, who claim that the systematic murder of the Jews during World War Two never took place. If you study English, you might even have about a theories that William Shakespeare did not write the plays attributed to him. Each of views of these views is rejected by qualified experts in the fields of, respectively, Science, History and English Literature, and (in my view) rightly so.

The problem is then, how do we distinguish between the next great theory that’s going to revolutionise our understanding and theories which are simply nonsense or worse, racist nonsense?

An obvious answer would seem to that if we just examine the evidence ourselves we can tell the good theories from the bad. But it’s not quite as simple as this: very often the evidence is complex or its value is disputed. So unless we are experts ourselves, at some point we have to rely on the authority of experts to interpret or assess the evidence for us.

If you don’t believe me, have a crack at reading Einstein’s original paper on the special theory of relativity.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Mythicism for Dummies

I’ll take a leaf out of many an RS essay here – in talking about mythicism, I’m going to start with Wikipedia.

If you look at the Wikipedia entry for Jesus, and compare it to the entries for other figures such as Julius Caesar, Socrates, or Pythagoras, you might, if you read carefully, notice something interesting: there is a section devoted to the question of Jesus’ existence, and to the “mythical view”, that Jesus did not exist. In fact, there is a separate, and fairly extensive, wiki page devoted to the topic. But there is nothing similar for Caesar, Socrates, or Pythagoras: their existence does not appear to be in doubt. So is the existence of Jesus less certain than that of these historical figures?

There is a group of people who say that it is. These people are most commonly known as mythicists, and the Virtually University course I am hoping to run (if enough people sign up for it – subtle hint) is going to be about the mythicism and the question of Jesus’ existence.

One important thing to understand is that when we discuss Jesus’ existence, we mean the historical existence of a person called Jesus of Nazareth. Saying that Jesus existed historically is not necessarily the same as saying that every story found in the New Testament or every Christian belief about Jesus is true, just as saying that Muhammad lived is not necessarily the same as saying that every Muslim belief about him is correct. Since the 18th century, Biblical scholars have attempted to use historical methods to detach the “real”, historical Jesus from the Christian portrayal of him, with varying degrees of success – or perhaps more accurately, with varying degrees of failure.

Mythicists, however, claim that there is no historical person to detach: they deny that Jesus of Nazareth ever lived. For mythicists, the person of Jesus is nothing more than a religious or literary invention of the Christian church. As evidence for their views, mythicists point to the unreliability of the Christian New Testament as a historical source, the relative lack of ancient references to Jesus from non-Christian sources, and to similarities between the figure of Jesus and characters of Pagan and Jewish mythology.

It needs to be stressed here that mythicism is rejected by the overwhelming majority of Biblical scholars: by this I mean people who have advanced qualifications in and/or teach Biblical Studies at University level. In turn, Mythicists are usually critical of these scholars, arguing that the academic discipline of “Biblical Studies” is compromised, because the methods used by Biblical scholars are flawed, and because Bible scholarship reflects an implicit pro-Christian bias. In fact, one prominent mythicist, Richard Carrier, has rather charming described the whole discipline of New Testament studies as “f****d”. Please note: his words, not mine.

I’ll be open here and say that I’m not a fan of mythicism as a theory or the way that mythicists go about their work. I even have a few problems with the name “mythicism”, and think that other terms should be used instead.

Nonetheless, mythicism raises an interesting set of questions: about the Bible, about how we study Jesus from a Historical perspective, and about how and why certain groups of people deny the consensus position of the academic community. For me, this last question is perhaps the most interesting one, and for A level students, I think it touches on the important problem of how to tell the difference between legitimate academic views and fringe or conspiracy theories.

So... that’s it for my shameless plus for my Virtually University offering. I’ll post some more about my views on mythicism before or during Virtually University. If you’d like to find out a bit more about the mythicist case, you can check out the website of Earl Doherty, a well-known mythicist writer. If you want to understand how New Testament scholars feel about mythicism, you might wish to look here or here

Monday, 18 June 2012

Do Babies Know Maths?

In our AS Philosophy course on Reason and Experience, we've been looking at the empiricist conception of the mind as a tabula rasa at birth against the rationalist view that we are born with innate knowledge. 

This short video suggests that babies might be born with some kind of mathematical understanding – it seems that they just don’t like it when the Maths is wrong. As Professor Spelke, who is leading the research says, this could suggest that:

“The mind is not a blank slate... we are born with a host of cognitive capacities and the building blocks of the concepts that stand at the centre of the school curriculum are innate”.

Interesting stuff. You can find out more about Professor Spelke’s work here.

Friday, 1 June 2012

About the Blog

I've set this blog up primarily for my own A Level Philosophy and Religious Studies students, and for other students studying these courses. There are a couple of things I'm planning to use the blog for:

Firstly to give my own thoughts on some of the topics we study in A Level Philosophy and Religious Studies and to give you an idea of how to approach exam or essay questions on these. Secondly, to highlight other topics or issues in Philosophy and Religion that I find interesting, and that you might find interesting too, particularly if you're considering studying Religious Studies or Philosophy at university.

Comments are welcome (and might even be part of your homework if I'm feeling particularly mean), but please observe the following house rules:

1) Remember that this is a public space. If you are one of my students, or a student at another school, please make sure that your comments do not reveal your surname or any other personal details about you. If you use an online profile to post your comments (e.g. a blogger account), again make sure that this does not contain any personal details, photos, etc. If anybody tries to make to contact with you via the blog, you must flag this to me (or another teacher) immediately. They might seem nice, but they are very probably candidates for a stranger danger warning.

2) If you are not an AS/A level student, then you are still very welcome to post your comments, but please note that any comments that fall below the standards I would expect of my own students when debating an issue (in terms of courtesy, relevance, and academic content) will be deleted.

Thanks and happy reading.