Centering Discomfort

Drawing on her experiences as seemingly the only atheist in her undergraduate theology and philosophy classes, Mairead Carr writes about how we need to rethink the issue of censorship in college.

April 20, 2022
 
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Colleges have faced an onslaught of criticism in the last few years regarding the topic of censorship. Some state that colleges are generally “illiberal,” and efforts have been made to create new learning environments to foster liberal learning that is supposedly being denied elsewhere. Students have also contributed to this widespread criticism, suggesting that they are “self-censoring” when they are challenged for stating their opinions in class.

While universities are imperfect institutions that need to be debated, these conversations often overlook the many ways that colleges continue to cultivate critical thinking. Learning requires that we welcome some level of discomfort and challenge our long-held ideas about the world. This is not censorship; when done correctly, encouraging people to think with new perspectives provides them with unparalleled opportunities for intellectual growth.

When I enrolled at St. John’s University, a Roman Catholic and Vincentian university in New York City, I was already an atheist. I had never been religious, and I never questioned my religious identity—or, more accurately, my lack thereof. I chose St. John’s in part because I knew it would make me uncomfortable and challenge me in many ways, including because I am an atheist. I would be required to take theology courses, and since I knew very little about religion, I thought it was important to learn more about it. I knew my educational experience would be discomforting at times, but I looked forward to those opportunities.

After being encouraged by my ethics professor to consider philosophy as a major, I enrolled in the History of Medieval Philosophy and then History of Modern Philosophy in the following two semesters. These two courses engaged with the question of God more than my theology courses seemed to. I learned that people did not merely question whether God exists but also asked, how can we make sense of God’s existence? How can we reason that God is real? These are questions I never thought to consider.

The conversations were intriguing—not only did people believe in God, but there were whole aspects of philosophy, from metaphysics to ethics, that centered on God’s existence. Even though many of these scholars were not in agreement, and therefore each class session approached these same questions in entirely new ways, I would be lying if I said I was eager to learn about them, since the question of God was not of great interest to me. Still, I don’t think I ever missed a day of either of these courses. I was learning a lot, and I was interested in what these thinkers had to say philosophically, even if these lessons did not redirect my soul away from atheism.

No scholar in the course convinced me that God is real; yet I was frequently tasked with writing papers that required me to think on their philosophies to assess my learning in the course. In being asked to write papers on philosophical arguments about the existence of God, I did not say, “I’m an atheist—none of these arguments are convincing! This class is requiring me to self-censor.” I never even thought to respond to an assignment like this.

Instead, I wrote papers that engaged with the main tenets of various philosophers’ arguments, attempted to make sense of them in new ways, and, at times, I critiqued them using disciplinary knowledge. I never thought that taking these positions was self-censorship or denying my identity as an atheist. Rather, I took it for what it was—getting an education. I was learning to step out of my own beliefs and assumptions in order to think with people and from perspectives I never would have thought with otherwise.

I did critique the belief in a fundamental cause, or prime mover, that is God in my History of Modern Philosophy course. I decided to draw on some lessons from another course about existentialism in my final paper to do so. When my professor returned my paper to me, I saw there was some feedback. From what I recall, he wrote that my argument’s premise was not correct in part because not all existentialists are atheists. I got an A, but I remember being hurt and discomforted by that comment. After two semesters of likely being the only atheist in the room, since the classes were filled with seminarian students, I got a critical comment the one time I critiqued the premise of God. Yet my professor’s attempt to push back on my learning was likely not a critique of me, as I initially took it. The comment was possibly in part because the argument assumed that all existentialists were atheists, and this is not the case.

People often mistake personal opinions for theoretically and empirically grounded arguments or think that disagreements are necessarily the same as an exchange of reasoned ideas. When I engaged with the question of God, I was developing my ability to reason. My opinion certainly shaped the kind of arguments I made, but my assignments were not designed for me to share my opinion. They were designed to measure my ability to think with these scholars and to interrogate them using philosophical approaches to answering questions.

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I cannot know exactly why my professor wrote this comment, because I did not ask, but instead of denying me the opportunity to learn, he was challenging my basic assumptions about the field, as an expert should do to novices like undergraduates. He offered a perspective that I did not engage with but that I needed to account for in order to develop my argument. As such, he may not have criticized me because I am an atheist but because I provided an incomplete analysis founded more on opinion than an accurate understanding of existentialism. He was providing an intellectual challenge. Further, even if it was a critique of me as an atheist, he did not deny me the opportunity to learn or write from my perspective, however incomplete the analysis may have been.

What I learned in this and other courses since that experience is that a critique from an instructor or a classmate does not necessarily mean that my perspective is wrong but that my analysis and understanding of the topic may be incomplete. Similarly, student opinions are not quashed when they are asked to adopt the perspectives of course material—they are asked to get uncomfortable and to think in new ways that are designed for discipline-based learning to happen.

The classes I took that centered on the question of God were uncomfortable. I did not love my experience in them, in part because these conversations were not engaging in the issues I cared most about. I also often felt like I was the only atheist in the room. In some ways, that was educative in and of itself. I also had an opportunity to learn in ways that I never would have otherwise, because I was willing to sit in that discomfort and because I attended a school that prioritized a liberal education. I am most hopeful that I do not appear to be alone, as students on campuses across the country are similarly committed to creating spaces that center discomfort to debate current events and social problems.

Getting uncomfortable in our classrooms means that we create spaces for critical inquiry, but it does not mean that we create spaces that perpetuate harm. Professors, too, are considering how to do just that.

Being asked to check your privilege or to think about the assumptions you bring to conversations is not censorship. Being asked to write from another perspective rather than your own is not the pinnacle of illiberalism. Rather, these are the hallmarks of a liberal education. It is when people do not invite us to think about new perspectives that we create illiberal spaces, and it is when we do not attempt to think from another point of view that we deny ourselves a liberal university-level education that many of us seem to agree is worth fighting for.

Bio

Mairead Carr is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the State University of New York at Albany.

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