Shannon Atkinson has been a religion and philosophy professor at Salt Lake Community College for 10 years. Throughout each of his courses, he encourages his students to be open to exploring the religious beliefs of others and to not be afraid of looking at their own beliefs critically.
“Being critical of one’s own beliefs is what gets people to open up and relax,” says Atkinson. “I think it’s crucial that students, especially in college and these formative years, expose themselves to other religious beliefs, and that they also are open to being critical of them.”
Each semester he assigns his students to attend various religious services and report back on their experiences. The exercise has been insightful.
“Students that attend other religious services, often come back saying ‘now that I’ve worshiped with them, I can see that they’re really not that much different than me’,” says Atkinson.
Atkinson suggests that through the process of being open to, and at the right times even critical, of others’ beliefs, one can then also critically analyze beliefs of their own.
“This process may either strengthen their belief system or destroy it all together,” says Atkinson, “but that’s up to them and there is a purpose to looking at belief systems in this manner.”
In class, Atkinson likes to use metaphors to explain new concepts. These metaphors help to explain the difficult process of critical thinking about beliefs one holds so dear.
One such metaphor Atkinson uses is that in which he relates philosophy to an axe, the axe that chops away at a tree, which in the metaphor, is the tree of your beliefs.
“The way that I see the metaphor, is that if you’re chopping away at the tree, there are all of these little splinters on the ground, and if you really take the time to pick up one of those splinters, you may think, ‘oh my gosh I believed in Santa Claus’ or maybe you heard something on T.V. or read something on the Internet and you went around preaching and believing that as true to the world,” says Atkinson. “Had somebody not come around with an axe and started to chop away a little at those beliefs, you would have continued to hold those false beliefs as true. That’s the fruit that I can see coming from philosophy.”
Atkinson suggests there are many people who believe in an all powerful, knowing and loving god because it is the belief they were raised with and have lived with most of their life. They never deeply contemplate why it is that they believe what they do.
“I wish more people would ask, if there is an omnibenevolent [all loving] god, why do tragedies happen? What is the purpose of them? Is this type of being even possible? Is it relevant?,” says Atkinson. “It’s in asking questions like these that I think one can find meaningful purpose to life with or without the belief in god.”
Atkinson suggests exposing oneself to other religions and opening oneself to the beliefs others, while allowing oneself to critique and question these religions and associated beliefs, including one’s own, is key in the understanding of those beliefs.
“This is what allows us to truly understand other people’s beliefs and especially our own beliefs so one can hopefully know what they truly believe,” says Atkinson. “In fact, they may even come to the conclusion that they can have a sense of humor about it.”