Solomon’s Story of College Life
I recently was struck by a perspective in an introductory philosophy textbook for undergraduates. Robert C. Solomon was an eminent scholar, author of 45 books, and professor of business and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin (“Robert C…,” 2010). His book, Introducing Philosophy, is designed to inform college freshmen about the major traditions in the history of philosophy, and also to inspire students to study further (2008). In this attempt, he promptly introduced students to Descartes’ radical doubt of external reality (pp. 18ff.). [NOTE: It is beyond the scope of this article to address Descartes from a Christian perspective, but this has been done elsewhere (see Colley, 2009).] In framing his introduction to Descartes, Solomon wrote about God. In order to respond fully, it is necessary to provide a lengthy quotation:
Philosophy is first and foremost a discipline that teaches us how to articulate, hold, and defend beliefs that, perhaps, we have always held, but without having spelled them out and argued for them. For example, suppose you have been brought up in a deeply religious home; you have been taught respect for God and church, but you have never had to learn to justify or argue for your beliefs. You know that, although there are people who would disagree with you, your belief is a righteous and necessary one, but you have never had to explain this to anyone, nor have you tried to explain it to yourself. But now you enter college and immediately you are confronted by fellow students, some of whom you consider close friends and admire in many ways, who are openly skeptical about religion. Others accept very different doctrines and beliefs, and vociferously defend these. Your first reactions may be almost physical; you feel weak, flushed, and anxious. You refuse to listen, and if you respond at all, it is with a tinge of hysteria. You may get into fights as well as arguments. You feel as if some foundation of your life, one of its main supports, is slipping away. But slowly you gain some confidence. You begin to listen. You give yourself enough distance so that you will consider arguments about religion in just the same way you would consider arguments about some scientific or political dispute. You ask yourself why your friends don’t believe what you believe. Are their arguments persuasive, their reasons good reasons? You begin asking yourself how you came to believe in your religion in the first place, and you may well come up with the answer (many freshmen do) that you were “conditioned” by your parents and by society in general. Consequently, you may, perhaps for a time, perhaps for a lifetime, question or reject the ideas you had once “naturally” accepted. Or you may reaffirm your faith with new commitment, determined that, whatever the source, your beliefs are right or, at least, right for you. But after further consideration and argument, perhaps with some new religious experience, you come to see both sides of the arguments. For the first time, you can weigh their merits and demerits against each other without defensively holding onto one and attacking the other…. [W]hether you believe in God or not, for example, must be decided by you, by appeal to your own reason and arguments that you can formulate and examine by yourself (2008, pp. 10-11,17, parenthetical item in orig.).
Such, evidently, is the tenor of an average college freshman’s introduction to the purpose of philosophy. It hardly is surprising to read on the next page Solomon’s opinion that “Descartes used his philosophy to cut through the clouds of prejudice and unreliable opinions. He was concerned with their truth, no matter how many people already believed them, or how few. Descartes’ arguments were his tools for finding this truth and distinguishing it from mere falsehood” (p. 18).
The first thing involved in a Christian response to Solomon’s approach must be the observation that he avoided some wild (unfounded) assertions. He did not state that the study of philosophy automatically leads to atheism or agnosticism, or that philosophy is only another word for secularism. In fact, Solomon did not state that atheism is true. Also, he did not directly state that an atheist has no burden of proof. These considerations aside, the Christian philosopher cannot help but be astonished by the prejudice in Solomon’s general approach to the subject. Consider four simple observations:
1. The history of philosophy is not on the side of Solomon’s illustration. Since the era just after the life of Christ, until the era after Descartes, there were virtually no prominent Western philosophers who were openly antagonistic toward theism. Descartes himself professed to be a Christian (1998, pp. 6-7). In fact, those who profess allegiance to Christ have spurred on Western philosophical inquiry. Augustine, for example, wrote about teaching: “The best method is that in accordance with which he who hears, hears the truth, and understands what he hears…. [I]nstruction should come before persuasion” (1997, pp. 135,137). Thomas Aquinas called philosophy the handmaid of theology (1952, p. 5). Traditionally, philosophy has not been considered the enemy of faith. This kind of historical data alone does not militate against atheism. However, a primary purpose of Solomon’s book is designed to present a balanced history of philosophy, and it is not at all clear that moderns are correct in their atheism simply because they have studied philosophy from a modern perspective.
2. Many college students have, in fact, analyzed their beliefs carefully, and have maintained their faith. Those of us at Apologetics Press regularly interact with college students who are studied and articulate in the defense of biblical theism. Their heads are not “in the sand.” Our experience suggests that Solomon’s guarded insult to the average Christian college student is generally inaccurate. My limited, personal experience in college philosophy classes suggests that many students profess Christian beliefs, and maintain those beliefs despite learning philosophical techniques. Furthermore, a student who professes theism, and yet “has never had to explain this to anyone,” including himself, has very little belief to begin with!
Doubtless, Solomon’s story has some basis in historical reality; but are such extreme, Christian-turned-agnostic cases so pervasive that this account deserves top billing in a best-selling philosophy textbook? Surely, some balance is in order. (His portrait of the hysterical, unthinking believer is insulting to believers, and one must wonder if there are as many atheists who behave in such an undignified manner as there are believers.)
3. The controversial claims of atheists are being challenged philosophically. If it were the case that the prototypical case of the freshman philosophy student is that of a convicted Christian having his beliefs systematically dismantled, such still would not mean that the arguments in favor of atheism are valid. (Indeed, Solomon addressed various arguments for and against atheism later in Introducing Philosophy [pp. 121-183].) The primary philosophical claim on the part of atheists is the biblical God cannot exist because of evil in the world. This claim has been met forcefully and decisively (e.g., Warren, 1972).
4. Christian parenting is not an affront to philosophy. Colin Macleod, a philosopher at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, has proposed “Socratic nurturing,” a process whereby parents lead their children to intellectual autonomy (2003, 1:315-330). Whether Socratic nurturing is the right approach, most parents probably want their children to learn to “think for themselves.” Clearly it is possible for parents to nurture their children to be autonomous and Christian—but such does not sit well with some atheists (see Lyons and Butt, 2007). A college freshmen who is an atheist only because his parents conditioned him is just as unprepared for a philosophical discussion about religion as the student who is a Christian simply because his parents conditioned him. (The question of whether people actually adopt complex belief systems solely on the basis of their parents’ convictions is outside the scope of this article.)
The debate concerning the existence of God is philosophical. Honest philosophers will not start from a presupposition that the facts render faith an outmoded product of ignorance, and honest teachers of philosophy will not impress such a presupposition upon their students. Furthermore, Christians need not “regard an interest in philosophy as a dubious and dangerous flirtation” (Brown, 1968, p. 7). God is the source of all truth, whether such truth is accessed by reason, revelation, or both (Romans 1:19-21; 1 John 3:19-20; 5:6; etc.). As another philosopher from the University of Texas, J. Budziszewski, put it: “Faith—the right kind of faith—turns out to be not only a spiritual but an intellectual virtue” (2003, p. 30).
Aquinas, Thomas (1952 reprint), Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, ed. Robert M. Hutchins (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago).
Augustine (1997 reprint), On Christian Doctrine (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall).
Brown, Colin (1968), Philosophy & The Christian Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press).
Budziszewski, J. (2003), What We Can’t Not Know (Dallas, TX: Spence).
Colley, Caleb (2009), “A Christian Response to Descartes’ Radical Doubt,” [On-line], URL: https://apologeticspress.org/articles/240248.
Descartes, René (1998 reprint), Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, trans. Donald A. Cress (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1998), fourth edition.
Lyons, Eric, and Kyle Butt (2007), “Militant Atheism,” [On-line], URL: https://apologeticspress.org/articles/3195.
Macleod, Colin (2003), “Shaping Children’s Convictions,” Theory and Research in Education, 1:315-330.
“Robert C. Solomon” (2010), The Teaching Company, [On-line], URL: http://www.teach12.com/storex/professor.aspx?id=140.
Solomon, Robert C. (2008), Introducing Philosophy (New York: Oxford University), ninth edition.
Warren, Thomas B. (1972), Have Atheists Proved There is No God? (Ramer, TN: National Christian Press).
REPRODUCTION & DISCLAIMERS: We are happy to grant permission for this article to be reproduced in part or in its entirety, as long as our stipulations are observed.