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Atheist, Christian to jointly teach class

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Ohio State students might have something to learn from the debates between an atheist and a Christian.

Steven Brown and Wesley Cray, graduate students in philosophy, are scheduled to teach Philosophy 270, Introduction to Philosophy of Religion, together Spring Quarter.

The course approaches arguments for the existence of God. Traditionally, one person teaches Philosophy 270, but Brown and Cray are teaming up to put a new spin on the class.

Brown, a practicing Christian, and Cray, a proclaimed atheist, said they will establish weekly debates during lectures to enhance each side of the argument for a theist’s and atheist’s view on divinity.

Brown has been teaching this course for the last several years.

“I try to teach the class in a way that doesn’t assume anything specific to Christianity,” Brown said. “I mainly focus on the God that is held in common between Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions, and I ask the question: Should we believe in God?”

Students who have taken this class with Brown said the course was beneficial.

“I took philosophy in autumn of 2008 and to this day it’s still the best class I’ve taken at OSU, thanks to both subject matter and instructor,” said Joe Kunesh, a fourth-year in philosophy. “It was one of the classes that confirmed to me that I should switch majors and become a philosophy major.”

Brown said the class is too short to make a profound impact on an individual’s beliefs, but he said some students did experience a change in their religious philosophies.

“Students who have experienced a change usually either become more or less confident in their current status,” Brown said. “So, usually I will see that the agnostics will either choose theism or atheism or the theists and atheists will become more agnostic.”

Danielle Levesque, a third-year in psychology, took Brown’s course Autumn Quarter 2009.

“Although I went into the class a relatively confident Christian, I still wrestled with doubts in my faith journey,” Levesque said. “I was hoping to come out with a stronger belief and purpose in life. After 10 weeks, that was exactly what I gained.”

Brown said he hoped next quarter’s class will give students an even deeper perspective on the theist versus atheist debate than previous students have experienced.

“We’re going to try and attack two different questions for this new class,” Brown said. “Cray and I will be asking the students not only if we should believe in God but also if God even exists in the first place.”

Cray said he and Brown strive to provide students with an insightful and logically explicit method to this complex religious argument.

“This is the first time we’ve tried a team-taught version of the course,” Cray said. “Debate-style taught courses are few and far between on campus, and to my knowledge this is the first team debate-style course the philosophy department will have had.”

Don Hubin, philosophy professor and department chair, said students should benefit from the class.

“Wes and Steve are two of our top undergraduate teachers, and they are extraordinarily popular with the students. I am confident that they will work well together,” Hubin said. “I think this class will be an excellent opportunity to model a sophisticated argumentation on issues that people aren’t used to seeing argued about in a sophisticated way.”

Cray said he and Brown really want to dig into the course material.

“The contemporary atheism, theism debate is really mean-spirited and not very rigorous, and Brown and I think that’s a shame. We believe this is a debate that people can sit down and have in a friendly manner, have it rationally and have it thoroughly,” Cray said. “One of our main goals for this course will be to get a cordial style of dialogue going that encourages a more scientific and philosophically rigorous approach, and really get our hands dirty with this material.”

Brown and Cray have been friends for about five years, and they’ve been debating the issues concerning the philosophy of religion for the past several years.

“We both have vested interests in what we believe,” Brown said.

Clay said he and Brown know where the other’s foundational points lie.

“It’s the balance we have between our opposing faiths that keeps us honest,” Brown said. “Engaging in conversations with people you disagree with helps you to see where your own weak points are and it ultimately helps you to improve your own position.”

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