Ethos Education

Philomena: Is it possible to find evidence that God does (or does not) exist?

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Learning Objectives:

  • Understand some of the reasons for believing (or not believing) in the existence of God.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Reflect on the difficulty of determining truth when there is no evidence.
  • Analyse film clips featuring two characters with very different approaches to the question of believing in God.
  • Reflect on what evidence people might require in order to come to a decision about the existence (or not) of God.
  • Evaluate the roles of evidence and experience in understanding the truth.
  • Analyse the basis for Christian claims for the existence of God.
  • Synthesise learning by compiling lists of reasons to believe or disbelieve Christian arguments for the existence of God, and then by writing a short statement based on those lists.

STARTER:

Play ‘No-clue Cluedo’. Display a list of the Cluedo suspects, weapons and rooms at the front. This game is based on the original version of the classic board game, not the recently revamped one. In case any students have never played the original form of the game, explain that in it, players gather clues to solve a murder, attempting to identify the murderer, the murder weapon and the place where the murder took place. No-clue Cluedo works in exactly the same way, but there are no clues – simply a list of possible suspects, weapons and places. For your references, here is the full list of official Cluedo clues:

Suspects:

  • Colonel Mustard
  • Miss. Scarlet
  • Professor Plum
  • Reverend Green
  • Mrs. White
  • Mrs. Peacock

Weapons:

  • Dagger
  • Revolver
  • Lead piping
  • Candlestick
  • Rope
  • Spanner

Rooms:

  • Hall
  • Lounge
  • Dining room
  • Kitchen
  • Ballroom
  • Conservatory
  • Billiard room
  • Library
  • Study

In advance of the lesson, prepare an envelope with the correct solution (one suspect, one weapon, one location) inside it. Ask the students to write down which cards they think are inside the envelope, then swap their answers with another student. You could offer a prize for the correct answer if you wanted to (the chances are that you won’t have to give it out to anyone, but only offer something that you are prepared to give away, just in case). Reveal the solution and find out whether anyone has won. Point out that it is impossible to work out the right answer without any clues (if anyone did happen to get the right answer, make the point that they didn’t work it out, they just got lucky and had no more insight than anyone else in the class). Ask the students what kind of evidence would have helped them to guess the solution more accurately.

Explain that in this lesson you are going to be thinking about whether decisions about the existence of God are as arbitrary as the guesses in No-clue Cluedo, or whether there is meaningful evidence to help point people one way or another.

MAIN ACTIVITIES:

Introduce the clip from the film Philomena (Pathe, 2013, certificate 12). Click here to buy the DVD online.

Explain that Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is a journalist who has agreed to help Philomena (Judi Dench) find the son she gave up for adoption as a young woman. In this scene they are meeting to make their first visit to the convent where Philomena lived with her baby before she was made to give him up. Ask the students to pay particular attention to the different ways each of the characters approached the question of whether or not God exists.

  • Start time: 0.20.39 (beginning of chapter 4 of the DVD)
  • End time: 0.22.39
  • Clip length: 2 minutes exactly

The clip begins with Martin (Steve Coogan) driving through country roads in Ireland to meet Philomena (Judi Dench) and Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin). The first line is Martin saying, ‘Hello, sorry I’m late.’

Ask the students what differences there were between the two characters. The obvious point is that Philomena believes in God whereas Martin doesn’t reveal his belief, but draw out the fact that one of them (Martin) regards it as a complicated issue that is hard to sum up, whereas the other (Philomena) seems to see it very simply.

Ask the students whether the question of belief in God is, as Martin says, ‘a difficult question to give a simple answer to’. If they agree with Martin, what factors make it complicated? If they disagree, what makes it simple?

Introduce a second clip from the film Philomena:

  • Start time:       1.02.29 (beginning of chapter 12 of the DVD)
  • End time:         1.04.04
  • Clip length:      1 minute and 35 seconds

The clip starts with Martin saying, ‘It seems odd that she was in the same room as someone who knew her mother…’ It ends with Philomena walking into a church building, leaving Martin in the car. Please note that this clip includes one instance of swearing. If you want to avoid the swearing, you can stop the clip at 1.03.40, before Martin mentions the headline of a satirical newspaper. The last line of the shorter, non-swearing, clip is Philomena saying, ‘…taking photos wherever you like.’

Ask the students to summarise the differences of opinion between Martin and Philomena. Why do they think each of them is so hostile to the other’s point of view on the subject of God?

Ask the students whether they think that Christian faith is, as Martin says, based on ‘blind faith and ignorance’. Do they think it is possible for people to base belief in God on evidence and investigation rather than just on blind faith? The passage Martin cites is John 20:29. It is worth pointing out that the context of the quote was Jesus talking to his disciples after his resurrection. The next two verses (John 29:30-31) go on to talk about how John wrote his gospel precisely as an aid to help people who had never met Jesus to believe in him.

In small groups, ask the students to discuss what kind of evidence might be required to convince them one way or the other about the existence of God. After a few minutes, have the groups report their conclusions back to the whole class.

If it wasn’t suggested in the previous discussion activity, point out that some people might say that they would believe in God if he actually made himself known to them, rather than being an unseen, unfelt presence (or, depending on your point of view, absence). Explain that many Christians would argue that their claims about the existence of God are based, at least in part, on personal experience. For the rest of this lesson you are going to help the students to explore those claims.

Get the students to read John 1:14 and 18. Explain that ‘the Word’ is Jesus, who Christians believe is God come to earth as a human. Discuss what implications these verses have for what Christians understand to be true about God.

Hand out the worksheet and ask the students to consider why Dr. William Lane Craig decided to believe in God. (Dr. William Lane Craig is a respected philosopher and Christian speaker whose work is part of the WJEC Philosophy and Ethics ‘A’ level syllabus. The story on this worksheet is taken from www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/craig-curley08.html where it is part of a larger debate between Dr Craig and Dr Edwin Curley on the existence (or otherwise) of God. You could refer more able students to the full transcript of the debate to provide differentiation within this lesson. Ask the students to write down the main reasons why experience might prompt people to believe something is true, as well as writing down any objections they can think of to these arguments.

SUMMARY AND ASSESSMENT OF LEARNING:

Ask the students to prepare a list of reasons for trusting the evidence cited by Christians for believing in the existence of God, and a parallel list of reasons to not trust that evidence. Students should use their lists to write a short statement about the merits of believing (or not believing) in God. They can choose to let this statement reflect their own personal point of view, or to generally address the issue of weighing evidence and coming to a decision without nailing their own colours to the mast. You might want to remind them that they won’t be marked for coming to the ‘right’ conclusion (whatever you deem that to be), only for demonstrating their understanding of the relevant issues.

YOU WILL NEED:

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