For my Introduction to Philosophy course, an optional question on the final exam was:
In your judgment, what is the most dangerous book we read this semester? First give a clear and sympathetic presentation of the book’s most important themes, and then explain why you think the book is dangerous.
We read six major works in the course: Plato’s Apology and Crito, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Galileo’s “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina,” Descartes’ Meditations, C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, and Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents.
Nineteen students chose to address this question.
One chose Galileo’s work as the most dangerous, on the grounds that Galileo’s resulting conflict with the Church was disastrous to him personally and shows how dangerous it can be to question authority.
One student argued that Plato’s Apology was dangerous because Socrates was too uncompromising and that leads to social harm.
Three students voted Descartes’ Meditations as most dangerous, two on the grounds that it can lead one to lose all sense of reality and become psychotic and one on the grounds that his reasoning seems circular and leads nowhere leaving one with nothing.
Rand’s The Fountainhead was voted most dangerous by three students. As with the student who chose Socrates in Plato’s Apology, one argued that her view is too uncompromising and leads to social harm; additionally, it is too hard to apply and so sets one up for failure. One argued that her view of egoism challenges the whole tradition of religious ethics. And one argued that Peter Keating’s character materialistic and socially immoral character is too tempting a role model for most.
Four students voted for Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents as the most dangerous book. One argued that he undermines free will and moral responsibility. Two took issue with his insulting view of religion and argued that he misses the hope that religion offers. And one argued that his strong pessimism about life itself is dangerously demotivating.
Six students chose Lewis’s Mere Christianity. One objected to his attack on reason and defense of strong faith. One objected to his attempt to destroy our human sense of worth and self-esteem. One argued that his extreme view of human sinfulness was dangerous. Two argued that Lewis got Christianity wrong in presenting too extreme a version of it. And one argued that the danger of Mere Christianity is that it scares reasonable people away from Christianity.
Finally, one student voted The Fountainhead and Mere Christianity as jointly the most dangerous for the reason that American readers resonate with both given their cultural history and that that leads to paralyzing conundrums about what the right philosophy is.
So with 6.5 votes in total, I hereby declare Mere Christianity to be the Most Dangerous Book in Introduction to Philosophy, Rockford College, Fall Semester 2010.