Do We Need Philosophy of Religion Anymore?

There has been some blogging recently about whether philosophy of religion should still be taught. The recent discussion appears to have been sparked by an interview that a blogger known as the Godless Skeptic conducted with Graham Oppy (Monash) about his recent book, Reinventing Philosophy of Religionin which he objects to the homogeneity of the field, which is composed mainly of Christian theists, and dominated by questions relevant to Christianity (see Helen De Cruz’s study here, which, I would guess, underreports the prevalence of Christianity in the field as a whole).  Atheist author John Loftus then responded to the interview, “calling for an end of the philosophy of religion as a discipline in secular universities.” To this, Matt DeStefano, a PhD student at Arizona, disagreed, arguing that philosophy of religion should not be eliminated, but improved, basing his suggestions on the very interesting article, “Diagnosing Bias in Philosophy of Religion,” by Paul Draper (Purdue) and Ryan Nichols (CSU Fullerton), that appeared in The Monist last year. They write:

The practical importance of philosophy of religion, the intense interest of non-philosophers and students of philosophy in the subject, and the central role that topics in philosophy of religion play in the history of philosophy all strongly suggest that philosophy of religion is a vital part of the discipline of philosophy, worth saving.

That seems correct, even if atheism seems correct, too. Of course, there is the question of whether philosophy of religion can be saved. The main worry seems to be that it is a cover for Christian apologetics, owing to entrenched social factors and biases. I personally do not know enough about the field to know whether that is a fair characterization. For a few reasons, it is not a sociologically surprising fact that most philosophy of religion in the West today is conducted by Christian theists. But it is certainly philosophically surprising (bordering on philosophically suspect) that, of all the possible options for religious belief (which include not just actual religions), only a narrow slice of them are taken seriously by philosophers of religion. I invite others to chime in here, particularly those working in or more familiar with philosophy of religion.

UPDATE: The site, Philosophy of Religion, has a series of guest posts taking up the question “What is philosophy of religion?” Thanks to Paul Draper for pointing this out in the comments.

UPDATE (7/30/14): From a gem of a comment by John Schellenberg: “Atheism, as I see it, therefore marks not the end of philosophy of religion but is something more like its beginning. Of course, if one is suffering from such common afflictions as the assumption that there are no real intellectual options in this realm other than traditional theism and metaphysical naturalism, or the virus that subtly turns one’s mind from a love of truth to an activist orientation, then one cannot be expected to make much sense of this. But philosophy is supposed to deliver us from such afflictions.”

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54 thoughts on “Do We Need Philosophy of Religion Anymore?

  1. Well, it is not more surprising than the fact that in political philosophy almost no one hardly ever bothers with real justifications of liberalism.
    Philosophers of religion tend to be quite clear about what they are assuming, be it Christian doctrines or metaphysical intuitions. They are not worse (or better) than philosophers working in other fields. I guess you just need to distinguish between general philosophy of religion and more particular questions of philosophical theology. And of course it is not surprinsing that philosophers working in Christian philosophical theology assume Christian doctrine. No more than liberals trying to figure out what liberalism implies.

    There are, of course, interesting sociological questions to ask. For instance, why so few atheists give serious thoughts to the arguments in philosophy of religion? How many of them really know them, as they are actually presented? How many philosophers of religion distinguish between general philosophy of religion and philosophical theology? Why?

  2. My sense of the field is that there is often little distinction made between general philosophy of religion and philosophical theology. The former typically focuses on existential questions concerning the status of supernatural beings in light of the problem of evil; the latter is typically focused on the coherence of doctrines about the Trinity, the Incarnation, free will v. determinism, and whether people have souls. Philosophical theology in the West is almost exclusively concerned with Christian doctrine, though it need not be. Philosophy of religion’s almost exclusive focus on monotheism is an outgrowth of the overlap between themes in philosophy of religion and philosophic theology. Christian theologians started doing philosophy about a century after the time of Jesus, and have a long history of negotiating with Greek philosophy, which might explain why the West has such a strong Christian influence in philosophy of religion. But it is important to note that that tradition has several streams coming from Christian, Islamic, and Greek sources . That should at least indicate people in general are interested in whether God, or something like God exists, and it would be arbitrary and extreme to eliminate formal study of philosophy of religion from the university. Even if God doesn’t exist, that doesn’t mean the study of the reasons why so many people think God does exist should be eliminated from one’s education. To do so would be like eliminating philosophy of mind as a discipline just because a lot of people still believe we have have souls (supposing we don’t).

  3. Philosophy of religion courses are not a “cover” for Christian apologetics any more than philosophy of science or philosophy of biology courses courses are a cover for naturalism. There are of course strident naturalists who will do everything they can do defend that position. That’s fine with me. There are strident theists who will do everything they can to defend theism. That’s fine too. But mostly the people teaching these courses are quite fair in their discussion of the issues, that is my experience. The problems that arise in philosophy of religion are almost always philosophical issues raised in the context of (mostly) the Western theistic tradition, and at least half of these issues cut against theistic belief, at least as I have taught the course and have seen it taught. It’s a bit of mythology to see all naturalists as proselytizing in the classroom for the naturalistic picture; it happens, but not much. It is equally a myth to see all philosophers of religion as proselytizing in the classroom for theism; it happens, but not much.

  4. The issue is not what areas of reasearch philosophy as a discipline needs. That, in itself, seems to be a philosophical question.

    The question is whether phil religion is just a cover for Christian apologetics and therefore suspect. Let us suppose it is a cover for X-ian apologetics, does that make it suspect in a way that warrants booting it from the discipline (whatever that would involve)?

    My opinion is that phil religion is largely a project of X-ian apologetics, in the sense that most of the questions explored in phil religion revolve around possible attributes of something that seems suspiciously like the god of the three monotheistic religions. You rarely (never?) read about or hear phil religion people debating about the attributes of Krishna or relative power of the spirits of our ancestors. Maybe if they took these issues as seriously as they took questions about the problem of evil, they would be taken a bit more seriously by non-religionistas.

    • “My opinion is that phil religion is largely a project of X-ian apologetics, in the sense that most of the questions explored in phil religion revolve around possible attributes of something that seems suspiciously like the god of the three monotheistic religions.”

      This is not evidence that the philosophy of religion is a project of Christian *apologetics*, but only that it’s especially *concerned with* the truth or falsity of Christianity (or classical theism, rather). That these are the predominant concerns in the philosophy of religion is entirely predictable given that we live in a culture where monotheistic religion is the only live option for most people. (Note that Eastern traditions are *at least* as badly neglected in other sub-disciplines of philosophy as they are in phil. religion.) I mean, would work in the philosophy of religion really be taken *more* seriously by atheists and agnostics if it were more preoccupied with Zeus?

      • Well, you have to ask, “Why so concerned with the truth of X?” Presumably, you think that whether X is true matters. You also probably think that there is some chance that X is true (since it would be odd to spend lots of time investigating whether X while at the same time being really, really, really confident that X is false). So, I assume that phil religion people typically think that whether a X-ian god exists matters and there is a good chance that such a god does exist. Now, maybe they aren’t trying to defend christianity from its many detractors, and maybe they aren’t trying to convert people. So, maybe if you think that makes them non-apologists for christianity then so be it.

        Now all this stuff about “Why don’t philosophers of X talk about non-Christian Y?” is a red herring. People who do phil religion say they are exploring religion. That they systematically ignore all religions but the big three (and usually it’s just christianity) is not the same thing as systematically ignoring Hinduism when you are studying mental content.

        You might say, “Well other philosophical traditions, religious or not, are ignored by philosophers and that is as bad as phil religion people ignoring other religions.”

        Yeah you may be right there. And if so, then anglophone philosophy is apologetics for at least some anglophone (i.e., Western?) ideology. Lots and lots of people outside analytic philosophy think that this is totally the case. So, you know, if this the direction you wanna go, then I guess we should hoist all of philosophy on that petard and say to the discipline: “You mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.”

        On the other hand, I am not so sure that all of the other subdisciplines are products of hamster-elderberry unions. Those sub-d’s can often easily translate non-Western theses and arguments into familiar terminology. Intelligent cross-cultural conversation can be had without changing the subject. This seems false when it comes to phil religion. If those people started taking non-Xian religions (or at least non-monotheistic) religions seriously, then the whole new questions are introduced.

      • My understanding is that mainstream analytic philosophy of religion is not only distant from the theological concerns of ancient pagans (and more’s the pity, insofar as it leaves us without straight-faced attempts to tease out the metaphysics of the epic of Gilgamesh or to explain how Odin can be epistemically virtuous…), but, to a large extent, from those of Jews (when’s the last time you’ve seen Josef Stern held up as a representative of the field?), Muslims, and tons of Christians, like Unitarians, Quakers, and even theologically liberal Catholics and Episcopalians. As such I really don’t see how the state of religion in our overall culture really accounts for the state of the field in philosophy.

        But, again, I’m not a philosopher of religion myself, so I’m happy to be corrected.

      • “[If you are very concerned with the truth of X ... y]ou also probably think that there is some chance that X is true (since it would be odd to spend lots of time investigating whether X while at the same time being really, really, really confident that X is false).”

        That seems wrong, as lots of ideas can strike you as intrinsically interesting even if clearly wrong, perhaps because you’re not sure how to prove this satisfactorily, or respond to various counterarguments. If anything in the vicinity of this is required, it’s that there be *some* sufficiently nearby people (e.g. in your peer group or broader culture) who think X may be true.

        “People who do phil religion say they are exploring religion. That they systematically ignore all religions but the big three (and usually it’s just christianity) is not the same thing as systematically ignoring Hinduism when you are studying mental content.”

        I don’t see the difference. For example, there has been lots of work done in Eastern traditions on, say, the self that is relevant to debates in analytic philosophy of mind. If this work is being systematically ignored despite its philosophical value, then that’s undesirable, though this doesn’t amount to any kind of apologetic attitude.

        “… I am not so sure that all of the other subdisciplines are products of hamster-elderberry unions. Those sub-d’s can often easily translate non-Western theses and arguments into familiar terminology. Intelligent cross-cultural conversation can be had without changing the subject. This seems false when it comes to phil religion. If those people started taking non-Xian religions (or at least non-monotheistic) religions seriously, then the whole new questions are introduced.”

        Again, I sincerely doubt whether this distinction holds up: in the case I know best, it is *very* hard to translate work on self and self-consciousness from e.g. Indian philosophy into “our” vocabulary, and the result of doing so is often a significant change in what we take the subject of inquiry to be, and what we see as the space of possible positions.

      • John S writes:

        “That seems wrong, as lots of ideas can strike you as intrinsically interesting even if clearly wrong, perhaps because you’re not sure how to prove this satisfactorily, or respond to various counterarguments. If anything in the vicinity of this is required, it’s that there be *some* sufficiently nearby people (e.g. in your peer group or broader culture) who think X may be true.”

        The claims are:

        1. People do philosophy of the christian god because they are interested in how to prove a nearly obvious falsehood.

        2. They do it because they are interested in these counterarguments to the falsehood, as opposed to all the other available counterarguments to all the other available falsehoods. No further explanation why they ignore all the other available falsehoods, except one is for no reason at all off the table, namely that because they are themselves Christian.

        3. They do it because they are interested in figuring out how to defeat and defend a widely held falsehood. Hmm. Why not do philosophy of astrology? Or philosophy of telepathy?

        There is, of course, other totally plausible explanation, namely that Christians are trying to figure out how to make their favorite Christian claims come out true in the face of relentless attack by non-believers. You’ve offered alternative explanations for phil religion’s focus but not an argument against the just-cited explanation.

        Regarding the other stuff – I am cool to grant your point. But then it seems that if we defend phil religion in the manner you suggest (hey other philosophical sub-d’s are biased!), then it is bad news for all of “analytic” philosophy (b/c we are all too caught up in our cultural norms). This actually seems pretty reasonable to me.

      • I wasn’t making any claims about why people *actually* go into philosophy of religion and focus in their work on the God of classical theism (or Christianity), but only disputing your claim about why they *must* do this. Concerning the former question, I don’t doubt — indeed, I’m quite certain — that lots of people who work in phil. religion do so because they are interested in defending the existence of God (as conceived of by Christians, or theists more broadly), though of course they don’t think — nor do I — that this is a “nearly obvious falsehood”. And I don’t see why there is supposed to be anything wrong with this! At the same time, there are also many other people who work in this area, and who focus to just the same degree on the God of classical theism, but who *don’t* believe in God, and so can’t be ascribed this reason for that focus. Concerning these people, then, some other explanation for their theism-centric focus must be found, and those I offered seem as plausible as any.

  5. We philosophers often have trouble making it clear to the general public that our subject-matter is relevant to the lives of ordinary people and hence worth teaching in colleges and universities. But religion — and, in the USA, Christianity — is something that is obviously relevant to the lives of most ordinary people. So, if only for pragmatic reasons having to do with the survival of philosophy as a subject that is taught at colleges and universities, it might be a good idea for us to continue to teach philosophy of religion and, in particular, to continue to focus a fair amount on Christianity (at least in the USA).

    Naturally, none of this is to say that the philosopher who teaches philosophy of religion should be proselytizing in the classroom. But how often does that really happen? As Mike said above, it seems doubtful that this happens much. Certainly most teachers I had in college and grad school tried hard to be as impartial as they reasonably could be, and in general I think that most philosophy teachers — whether they are teaching philosophy of religion or some other philosophy class — try hard to be as neutral as they reasonably can be.

  6. To suggest (as some have) that philosophy of religion is largely “just a cover” for Christian apologetics is to suggest that most practitioners of the discipline are disingenuous about their goals: they claim to be engaged in philosophical-theological inquiry whereas in fact they are simply trying to advocate for their favored position without sincere regard for the truth. (Here I presuppose a rather uncharitable characterization of “apologetics”–one which is often taken for granted when phil religion is criticized in this way. I don’t myself endorse the uncharitable characterization; but that is another matter.) This criticism of the field is, I think, unfair. It applies to a few working in the field, but hardly to the majority. (The idea that it applies to a majority of people in the field becomes almost a joke when you factor in the folks in phil religion working from religion departments rather than philosophy departments. But even if we ignore those scholars–which I suspect the critics tend to do–I think that the criticism still misrepresents the field.

    That said, I do think that it is a problem that philosophy of religion (as done in philosophy departments) has tended to focus almost exclusively either on “bare theism” or on Christianity. It is also a rather ironic problem that relatively little work in the field has been done on the nature of religion in general. (To my mind, that state of affairs is analogous to epistemology as a field neglecting to inquire much into the nature of knowledge.) But I think that it is important to see that this state of affairs is in large part explained by the marginalization of philosophy of religion within the profession. Most of the philosophers of religion I know (myself included) went through graduate school thinking that it would be imprudent to specialize in philosophy of religion, or even to have much evidence of an interest in it on their CVs. Moreover, I know very few who have found professional rewards of any sort (even course credit toward their PhD) attached to interaction with religious studies or theology departments. This is, I think, analogous to what the situation would be like if folks interested in philosophy of physics felt like it would be imprudent to take graduate courses in philosophy of physics and who found only obstacles and penalties attached to interaction with physics departments. As a result, most working in philosophy of religion get whatever interdisciplinary training and knowledge they need “on the side”; and, of course, in that situation people tend to gravitate toward what they know. Statistically speaking, people in North America and the UK are (I suspect–I haven’t done studies or anything like that) more likely to have some background familiarity with Christianity than with non-Christian religions. Thus, it seems unsurprising given the overall state of affairs that a huge proportion of those doing philosophy of religion *from philosophy departments* will tend to focus on “philosophy of Christianity”.

    The long and short of it, then, is that philosophy of religion is an interdisciplinary field wherein, as it happens, our profession tends not to encourage or reward interdisciplinary training. In addition, the field itself tends to be marginalized. As a result, there is an imbalance in the range of topics on which its specialists can competently focus. Or so it seems to me, at any rate.

  7. I bet that if I did, say, William James-style philosophy of religion, I would get a lot less support within analytic philosophy than I would if I did Alvin Plantinga-style philosophy of religion. For instance, I bet it would be hard to get a job in an analytic department with the former kind of dissertation, but virtually impossible with the latter. Similarly, I bet Plantinga-style stuff has a much better shot at getting published in mid-to-upper-tier analytic journals than James-style stuff does.

    Maybe this is wrong. But if not, I don’t see how the sociology of analytic philosophy of religion can change until it does. And I don’t see how it can change until the sociology of analytic philosophy of religion changes. So it looks like analytic philosophy of religion is stuck.

    (On the other hand it’s easy to think of high-profile counterexamples. “All Things Shining” is a nice one; so is Mark Johnston’s work. But these are by senior philosophers who made their reputations doing other things. Still, there also seems to be a growing interest in Buddhist philosophy…)

  8. I just want to echo two of Mike Rea’s points. Granted, there are apologists (both religious and anti-religious) working in philosophy of religion. There are even some self-described Christian apologists working in philosophy of religion like William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga. Philosophy of religion, however, is a large sub-discipline of philosophy, and those who publish in it are very diverse, religiously and philosophically. Their motivations are also diverse. Very many of them, even if they are Christians, have no conscious apologetic agenda (though subconscious biases are a problem, as Ryan Nichols and I argued in the Monist paper). To suggest otherwise evinces ignorance of facts obvious to anyone who specializes in the area. Second, an assumption of many who participate in discussions like this is that philosophy of religion just is philosophy of the major religions. Thus, if, like me, one finds the core doctrines of all of those religions to be utterly incredible, at least in their more traditional forms, then one might be tempted to think either that philosophy of religion is a waste of time or perhaps that its main flaw is that it focuses too much on one religion, Christianity, to the exclusion of others. As Mike suggests, however, there is or at least could be much more to philosophy of religion than just the analysis or critique of the doctrines of the major religions. Required reading for anyone who thinks otherwise should include John Schellenberg’s recent book, “Evolutionary Religion”. I also recommend looking at Wesley Wildman’s philosophyofreligion.org. Posted there is a nice collection of entries from a variety of philosophers on the question, “What is philosophy of religion?” Reading some of those might help people to think a bit outside the tiny space at the very the center of the box on this issue. The most recent entry by Sonia Sikka would be a good place to start.

  9. Philosophers naturally study questions which they find interesting, and so sub-fields in philosophy all have a certain self-selection bias. A few comments.

    1. A philosopher who has no strong feelings with regard to religion is unlikely to go through the effort to specialize in it, and so philosophers of religion will naturally tend to include more people who have some sort of religious background (though they may have positive, mixed, or negative feelings about this background). It’s difficult to write on a topic you don’t care about.

    2. Religious students are more likely to exclude themselves from philosophy (and from academia generally) than non-religious students, and so those religious students who do pursue a career in philosophy may be attracted to those enclaves where they can find like-minded folks, which likely compounds the effect of #1.

    3. Philosophers of religion are foremost philosophers, so they will tend to be preoccupied with philosophically interesting questions rather than the questions which may preoccupy the religion’s followers. For instance, the existence of God is a philosophically interesting question independent of any religious assumptions because of various claims about epistemology or ethics that historically have been supposed to be derived from it. Certain paradoxical doctrines in Christianity are also interesting to philosophers because they are paradoxical. However, one doesn’t find major debates in philosophy of religion about, say, how best to pray, whether tithing is necessary, the best form of music to use in worship, whether there are spiritual gifts, the chronology of the end times, prayers to the saints, or so on — questions that Christian believers who aren’t philosophers might get in a debate about. Similarly, Islamic philosophy has historically been interested in questions like fatalism or the unity of God, and not so interested in questions about borderline cases of halal or haram foods. It’s for the same reason that the relative power of the spirits of our ancestors or the attributes of Krishna, suggested by a person commenting above, are not much discussed in philosophy of religion. They’re just not interesting to philosophers.

    4. There are of course philosophical questions which are raised by non-monotheistic religions which are or would be interesting to philosophers. The Buddhist understanding of the self has been a matter of substantial discussion; pantheism is not a new topic in philosophy; Daoism and Confucianism are usually treated under the specialization of “Chinese philosophy” but could be brought over into philosophy of religion. There is certainly room for the field of philosophy of religion to grow by considering philosophical questions raised by non-Western religions. And it’s an apt criticism of the discipline that it’s failed to grow and develop in this way in spite of the level of communication across cultures we now enjoy. So, those who work in the philosophy of religion can and likely should be more ready to produce / review / publish work in a broader domain. But the need for greater diversity here is not a reason to get rid of a field but instead a reason to expand it.

    5. Finally, the idea that most philosophers of religion have Christian apologetic goals not only requires us to interpret most (as opposed to a handful) of philosophers of religion as being seriously disingenuous about their motives, but it also plays on tired stereotypes of Christians as inappropriately proselytizing, motivated by irrational concerns, highly defensive, etc. (stereotypes found not in the original post but in the comments above).

    • “[T]he idea that most philosophers of religion have Christian apologetic goals not only requires us to interpret most (as opposed to a handful) of philosophers of religion as being seriously disingenuous about their motives….”

      Straw claims aside, we need only believe that many of these philosophers lack self-knowledge or are self-deceived.

  10. I’m not sure why philosophical refutations of religious dogma, as one finds in Hume, in Kant’s first Critique, or in Plato’s Euthyphro, shouldn’t count as Philosophy of Religion. How else would one classify Hume’s Dialogues or his chapter/essay on miracles? As for the philosophical analyses of issues relevant to particular religious dogmas (e.g., reincarnation, messianism, resurrection), philosophy seems to be a handmaiden to theology in that case. This isn’t to say that it isn’t philosophy, but it is limited in its relevance to a particular group of believers. One might more precisely call this “Christian Philosophy” or “Jewish Philosophy” or “Vedantic Philosophy”, etc. than simply “Philosophy of Religion”, which I think better describes the aforementioned works by Hume and Kant. There are other approaches that seem sui generis, e.g., various sections of Hegel’s Phenomenology dealing with religion (including non-Christian religion). Of course, some would question whether Hegel’s work should count as philosophy to begin with!

  11. Egads! Though it’s not my primary area, I do some philosophy of religion — and, in fact, I would do more were it not for the fact that given I am not a Christian, and I worry that the majority attitude amongst non-Christian philosophers is such that it would hurt me on the job market. I think these sorts of conversations (and the underlying attitudes that prompt them) are extremely unfortunate.

    Yes, philosophy of religion is dominated by theists, and yes, that sometimes results in what appears to be a venue for apologetics, but I sincerely think disparaging the subfield partially contributes to this phenomenon. It discourages those who would otherwise be excellent conversation partners from engaging the area because of worries that the only way to get a job with an AOS in philosophy of religion is to ultimately end up at a religious university, worries that your colleagues will think you’re wasting your time, not doing “real” philosophy, and so on.

    I think this is really unfortunate. And it’s not just that I’d like to do more philosophy of religion, or that I’d like others to feel more comfortable doing it — it’s also that I think our culture, politics, and social lives, are so intertwined with religious ideology and it’s effects that it’s unclear to me how we can even comprehensively do epistemology, philosophy of science, or political philosophy (again, and so on) without philosophy of religion too.

    • An addendum: The original post says: “But it is certainly philosophically surprising (bordering on philosophically suspect) that, of all the possible options for religious belief (which include not just actual religions), only a narrow slice of them are taken seriously by philosophers of religion.”

      While I may have been particularly lucky in my experiences in philosophy of religion reading groups, conferences, workshops, etc. (or particularly unlucky elsewhere), though I’m not religious, I’ve never felt as though my contributions in this area were not taken seriously (quite the contrary, actually), though I have felt that way a number of times in my primary area.

  12. Rival theistic doctrines are reducible to severely contestable premises, to which no more ultimate reasons for belief can be adduced. There is an absence of rational criteria prior to rival theistic doctrines to guide non-arbitrary choice of one over the other. That being the case, selection of one theism over the other is overwhelmingly determined by pre-given preferences cultivated within a context of linguistically and otherwise available preferences. Ergo, symmetry of socio-cultural theistic tendencies and the composition of philosophy of religion faculties is entirely predictable. Despite probable self-deception otherwise, philosophy of religion concerns itself with a narrow subsection of its possible subject matter as a function of socio-cultural determination. There is something undoubtedly problematic with this fact, but it certainly isn’t local to the philosophy of religion.

  13. The fact that someone thinks that science could disprove ‘religion’ (or theism, or non-naturalism, etc.) is evidence enough that philosophy of religion should, indeed, be taught.

  14. Religion drives not only most lives (from acculturation) around the world, but is a heavy player in politics from local to global levels. The sheer number of Eastern believers make them relevant; the collective associated economic power of Judeo-Christian views make them impossible to ignore. If we abandon the philosophy of this X, we allow (probably) less rational forces to have sway over an indisputably world-changing force that might have been challenged otherwise.

    That said, PHI/REL will predominately and unfortunately be taught self-selectively by believers of all stripes rather than by more dispassionate instructors. I’m lucky enough to be a professor who teaches the introductory course in part because I’m a lapsed believer who benefited from fairly rigorous academic training in Western religion. But one thing I’ve learned and recommend to anyone teaching this at the basic levels: include several class sessions that review the history of religion. Most students who profess even ardent faith seldom know anything at all about where their religion came from.

  15. I don’t understand why so much time is spent on (A) any issue that presupposes the existence of a deity or (B) evaluating arguments against the existence of God. The problem of evil is interesting, I guess, but the burden is not on the atheist to prove the non-existence of God. The problem of evil might make this one of the rare cases where it is possible to prove a negative, but the burden is absolutely, absolutely on the theist to demonstrate that there is SOME evidence for the existence of God. Lacking this, inquiry into (A) is fundamentally flawed, as it rests on a false presupposition, and (B) is extraneous, and actually creates the mistaken impression that there is something worth arguing against.

    We might as well have a subdiscipline of “Philosophy of Unicorns,” inquiring into the nature of unicorns, or whether the existence of unicorns implies any contradictions.

    I know that saying this is the kind of thing that gets people very angry. But really, are there any arguments out there for the existence of God that haven’t been thoroughly repudiated? The ontological argument is bunk, the design argument fell apart after Darwin, the cosmological argument establishes (AT MOST) that something exists necessarily, but that thing might just as easily be the Big Bang, and the fine tuning argument is just more God-of-the-Gaps. As I understand it, one of the current hot topics in the philosophy of religion is arguments regarding whether believing on the basis of blind faith is epistemically virtuous. And if blind faith is the best answer to the “what reason do we have to believe that God exists?” question, then I think that says plenty about the state of theism these days.

    Sorry to get all militant-atheist here. But now I’m actually kind of curious. Are there any arguments out there for the existence of God that are considered to be good arguments by even a substantial minority of philosophers of religion?

    • I sympathize with your position but like many others here I want to suggest we expand the sub-discipline rather than approach it with a mind to eliminate it entirely given its seemingly invented subject of study or assumed advocation of pointless dogma.

      Even assuming the existence of God has been “thoroughly repudiated” by philosophers, it certainly hasn’t for the majority of first-year university students. Eliminating philosophy of religion as a discipline (not that your post suggests this) would prevent students from examining deeply held convictions, possibly for the first time and with (hopefully) academic rigor. Who among them would even know of the various arguments you mention but those already invested in the debate? We should bring more into the discussion. So obviously I’m talking here of the state of research and discourse versus the state of the classroom.

      As an atheist, I have found it strange to be amongst the minority of a sub-discipline while simultaneously within the majority of the discipline as a whole. It has lead to some frustration but has also been very motivating. As for whether or not there are any arguments for the existence of God considered good arguments by even a minority of philosophers of religion, given that the majority of philosophers of religion are theists, they would hopefully most of them have good (by their reasoning) arguments for their beliefs. I don’t believe they work but, if we assume the burden of proof to be on the theist and said theist attempts to offer an argument, it is then our burden to respond. Similarly, we must continue to investigate pseudoscientific claims, even if we know investigations in the past have proved to be unfruitful. Like the philosophy of religion we can consider a philosophy of pseudoscience, both differing from a “philosophy of unicorns”.

      • Agreed. I’m not arguing for an abolition of philosophy of religion, just a massive shift in the way it’s done. More atheists should be teaching philosophy of religion courses, and should be encouraging (although hopefully not too overtly) the idea that religion is another pseudoscience. The arguments for the existence of God should be studied, but we shouldn’t pull punches regarding the flaws in those arguments. Indeed, I think that studying the arguments for the existence of God is the best way to motivate atheism, since the arguments are so uniformly bad.

        Looking at other religions besides Christianity might help with this. It would make the course more complete, and would stand to emphasize the point that all religions are rather silly.

        And I’m not saying that we should be “preaching atheism” to undergraduates. But if I were to start teaching a phil religion class tomorrow, I’d start with a discussion of whether faith is an epistemic virtue, and try to show that while it might be a “virtue” in some respects, it certainly ain’t an epistemic virtue, since what distinguishes blind faith from other methods of belief-formation is a complete INSENSITIVITY to truth. Then a discussion of Russel’s Teapot to show why some evidence would be needed in order for belief in the existence of anything. Then a thorough review of the arguments for the existence of God, and one that doesn’t pull punches around the weakness of these arguments.

      • A lot of questions in rational theology have modalized versions that are still very interesting even if you don’t believe in the existence of God. (At least, I don’t, and I’m interested in them.)

        For instance: is it metaphysically possible for there to exist a nonspatiotemporal intelligent being such that every spatiotemporal event is caused by some volitional act of that being?

        I’m pretty sure that no such being *actually* exists, but I’m not at all sure what the answer to the modal claim is. And the enterprise of trying to find the answer to that question looks like a perfectly good straight-up bit of analytic metaphysics that doesn’t need to be justified based on any revealed dogmata.

      • Very interesting point. For what it’s worth, it is the sort of thing Lewis is doing in ‘Anselm and Actuality’, where he investigates the ontological argument using counterpart theory. Lewis was surely no believer, but he had no qualms about quantifying (unrestrictedly) over God-like beings inhabiting other worlds and advancing views about their modal properties.

      • michaelalmeida:

        Somewhere — I think in the preface to one of the volumes of essays — Lewis terms himself “the most thoroughgoing polytheist around”, since he believes in at least beth-two gods (on a conception of godhood not requiring necessary existence).

      • The same point, by the way, is true of the philosophy of unicorns. “Do unicorns exist?” has an easy answer. “Could unicorns have existed?” does not. It’s an important question, involving deep issues in the metaphysics of biological kinds, the existence or non-existence of fictional objects, and so on. (Kripke discusses it in both NN and the Locke Lectures, and Dummett has a very interesting paper on the topic in Seas of Language.)

      • gradstudent

        Lewis is not a theist of any sort (poly or mono). Lewis allows that God’s exist alright, but not that they’re actual; for Lewis it is false that x exists entails x is actual. So, unless you think that anyone who believes that there exist possible Gods is a theist, Lewis does not count as one. His ‘Divine Evil’ should be convincing proof of that.

      • Mike:

        Sure. The use Lewis makes of the term ‘polytheism’ in that passage is tongue-in-cheek.

        The exact quotation is: “As Peter Forrest has pointed out, I am perhaps the most extreme polytheist going. If, as I suppose, a being does not have to satisfy some inconsistent description to be a god, then I take the number of the gods to be at least beth-two. Unlike most polytheists, however, I think of this world we live in as entirely godless.” (Phil. Papers. I, p. ix, n. 4.)

      • gradstudent,

        That there are at least continuum-many Gods is a weird thing to say, though he obviously says it. He also says that the number of worlds is at least equal to beth2. So, a God for each world, more or less, on a rough estimate (leaving aside our world, of course)? I’m sure he’d urge that some worlds are just infested with his sorts of gods. That would have to make satisfaction of ‘is a God-like being’ fairly easy to achieve. Weirder still, since the principle of recombination will entail the existence of every possible sort of God and not one of them (not one of continuum many, even given the principle of recombination!!) has existence necessarily. Imagine that, at a time when Lewis was much more of an essentialist than he later became. He just stacked the deck against the possibility of certain beings despite his modal principles.

      • Mike and grad student: I don’t see how Lewis doesn’t count as a kind of polytheist. Mike is surely right to deny that, in general, a person would count as a theist in virtue of believing that there exist possible gods. But that doesn’t mean that a particular person’s belief in possible Gods doesn’t make them a theist. That would depend on what their conception of possible existents was. If they had a very strange view on which ‘actual’ is a purely indexical expression and other possible worlds are every bit as real as this one, so that a god of this world (if there were one) has absolutely no ontological edge over the beth-two(-plus!) gods who exist in other worlds, it seems to me that that person would indeed have to count as an extreme polytheist. And these are precisely Lewis’s views.

    • Why is (B) is extraneous to the philosophy of religion? If one of the inquiries that comes under PoR is whether God exists, then surely arguments that God does not exist will be a part of that inquiry. Where the onus of proof lies does not change the nature of the inquiry.

      As for your statement that there is nothing worth arguing against, I think you underestimate the arguments for God a bit too much. While like you I remain unconvinced by their conclusions, contemporary theistic philosophers of religion in my opinion make sophisticated enough arguments that warrant it being discussed academically. Surely the stuff done by Plantinga and Swinburne, for example, is good enough to be considered philosophical work, even if you think their arguments fail.

      • I guess calling (B) extraneous is a bit extreme. My thought was more that teaching arguments against the existence of God alongside arguments for the existence of God creates a false impression of equivalence. Undergrads will see arguments for the existence of God and not be sure whether or not they agree. Then they will see arguments against the existence of God and not be sure whether or not they agree. So they will conclude “I guess there are arguments to be made on both sides… I’ll go on believing what I’ve always believed.” You don’t need to get into the Problem of Evil to show that religious belief is silly. My own atheism is grounded not in the Problem of Evil, but an understanding of where the burden lies, and a strong confidence that 2000 years worth of making arguments has produced nothing strong enough to shift that burden one bit. But that isn’t an argument against the existence of God, in particular. It’s an argument against unicorns, leprechauns, God, and any other wholly extraneous bit of ontology.

        As for Plantinga and Swinburne… I’m open to being convinced that I’m wrong. Perhaps one day the scales will fall from my eyes. Are you thinking of any arguments in particular from those two that are worth serious attention?

      • After rereading your original post and your reply to Eric I will have to withdraw my comments. I (wrongly) assumed that you were saying that arguments for God were so weak they did not deserve to be given any airtime at the undergraduate level at all. Which thus motivated my comment that the writings of Plantinga and Swineburne were at least good enough enough to be considered discussion material for an undergrad class.

        Your suggestion to have a review of theistic arguments and then atheistic ones that doesn’t pull any punches sounds like common sense to me.

    • Anonymous Until Tenured,

      I wonder whether you have read any reformed epistemology. It seems that given your views you might find this topic to be interesting. Yes, all the arguments for the existence of God fail. But that by itself isn’t the end of the story. All the arguments for the existence of an external world fail too. In fact, there are plenty of beliefs that count as knowledge even though we can’t provide compelling arguments for them. Reformed epistemologists think that belief in God is another belief like this. Usually these views appeal to externalist accounts of justification or knowledge. If you are interested in questions about burden of proof, you might be interested in this.

      • I am interested in these issues! I tend to think that there are good arguments for the existence of an external world (roughly, Moorean ones), and that there are important disanalogies between the justification for my beliefs about the external world and religious beliefs. But I’m open to being proven wrong. Can you recommend a paper or two to get me started?

      • Cool, thanks for sharing. I looked at the papers, and I’m not convinced, but my reasons extend well beyond what I can write about in the comments section of a blog. Maybe I can write a phil religion paper now! Joy!

      • Anonymous Until Tenured: you may also find the following article interesting, especially if you are serious about writing a paper on this topic:
        Yuval Avnur, “In Defense of Secular Belief,” _Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion_ vol. 4.
        (it rgues that belief in the external world can be justified while belief in God cannot)

  16. My own experience is that POR is (at least in some circles) trying to move in a more diverse and inclusive direction. (Note here that I do not mean it is embracing religious pluralism or universalism, but rather that it is becoming more interested as a discipline in looking at diverse traditions and including those traditions in its more general discussions of religion.) This being said, POR has a long way to go. For example, a lot of scholars are turning to Eastern traditions like Buddhism, but Islamic philosophy remains largely ignored – which is surprising given the heavily monotheistic tendencies that POR has exhibited in the past. Furthermore, there has been a strong move toward establishing a fair and rational discourse with atheism and atheists (discussions of which also properly belong in the sphere of POR, I think). And as several people above have noted, quite a few philosophers who do POR are actually (sometimes self-identified) ‘atheists’, in the sense of strongly doubting or even denying that the God of philosophical theism exists.

    What Mike Rea has said above is important for just this reason. I think it is crucial that POR encourage more philosophical discussions of RELIGION, rather than restricting itself to purely metaphysical and epistemological arguments regarding the existence of God (or some particular God, or the Divine, the Transcendent, or whatever). Analytic POR tends to place a heavy emphasis on the notion of belief and whether religious beliefs of certain kinds (or particular religious beliefs, especially in the existence of God) are rational, justified, warranted, etc. They also place a lot of importance on making conceptual space for certain kinds of religious concepts (revelation, miracles, the Incarnation, transubstantiation, etc.). These are all interesting and important debates to be sure (and serve as great springboards in the classroom for discussion of various non-religiously themed philosophical topics). Yet POR also properly tackles (and should place more emphasis on) issues having to do with religious individuals and institutions. And just as moral philosophy is more than just moral psychology or sociology, so POR can be more than just religious psychology or religious studies as an empirical discipline.

    My own workshop last week on the role of emotion in religious experience was a kind of experiment to see what POR can do once we stop asking questions about the existence and nature of God and start looking at the religious individual (in a social context). And I was pleasantly surprised by the discussions and debates that arose from the workshop. Some questions that emerged: What makes a religious experience religious (if we don’t assume the truth of theism)? Is there even a difference between, e.g., religious and secular awe/wonder? Between religious and aesthetic experience? Can one have a “genuine” religious experience without believing in the existence of the object of the experience? How should we understand the notion of religious faith? Is religious faith a virtue (or otherwise instrumentally valuable in some way)? Can religion promote certain virtues in ways purely secular attitudes do not? How important is the notion of embodiment for religious experience? Is religious emotion necessarily a public/social phenomenon? Is the notion of unconditional love as often understood in religious concepts the proper model for human love? How do religious experiences differ in various religious traditions and what does this mean for the phenomenology of religious experience? Etc.

    All of these questions strike me as interesting and worth pursuing, yet none of them really hinge on whether any of the arguments for the existence of God are successful. Neither need they assume a Christian or monotheistic bias. (Of course, one must be careful not to over-generalize one’s comments about, e.g., religious emotion by assuming that, say, the emotions found in Western traditions are the only religious emotions there are or that they are even paradigmatic religious emotions.) Religion isn’t just about GOD – it’s about us as human beings. It represents one very influential and (at least traditionally) important way that human beings engage with the world around them.

    Indeed, Philosophy itself goes beyond just contemplating the things that are. Philosophy is an attempt to orient ourselves in, make sense of, and perhaps give meaning to the difficult and chaotic world in which we find ourselves. And here POR has something significant to contribute, even if God – as such – is a pure fiction.

  17. What bothers me most is the hubris of saying, “I’ve already decided that God (or any similar object of faith) doesn’t exist, therefore the serious academic study of arguments for and against is worthless.” This is compounded by the fact that many who dismiss philosophy of religion as “mere” apologetics don’t seem deeply knowledgeable about or engaged in the field in the first place.

    Shouldn’t philosophers be more sensitive to the extent and complexity of our ignorance? Is the certainty of atheists simply too powerful and overwhelming to be doubted?

  18. Having done philosophy of religion as an atheist for more than twenty years, I find the idea that atheistic belief should lead one to view philosophy of religion as useless or pernicious a bit out of touch with reality. Theistic work in philosophy of religion is, for cultural reasons, getting the lion’s share of attention. But this should not prevent us from noticing that the field is in fact rather well populated by non-theists. Rather, it gives us a reason to try to bring them – people like Paul Draper, Evan Fales, Steve Maitzen, Graham Oppy, Robin LePoidevin, William Rowe, and plenty of others — a lot more visibility. Those who call for an end to philosophy of religion might get some insight into just what they’re talking about (and then productively fall silent) if they consulted the work of people like these to discover why even an atheist might spend a lifetime doing philosophy of religion.

    The answer is not that an atheist might spend a lifetime crawling through the minutiae of non-Christian or non-theistic religious belief systems. Here it is helpful to have formed some general conception of what philosophy of religion is about. Philosophy of religion, as I see it, involves bringing to bear on both actual and possible religious ideas and practices the resources of the rest of philosophy (ethics, epistemology, etc.) and, reciprocally, bringing to bear on the rest of philosophy the best results from philosophy of religion. If anyone thinks that the work of Christian philosophers exhausts either of these dimensions of the field, or that the most important such work has been completed if/when we recognize that there is no personal deity, they are sadly mistaken. Even if theism is false, other religious ideas – including the most fundamental (which should therefore be of greater interest to philosophers) – remain to be explored. Many of these ideas and explorations will not bring us into the embrace of some living religious tradition, but rather call for us to stretch our imaginations beyond the results of a few millenia of activity on the part of religious people.

    Atheism, as I see it, therefore marks not the end of philosophy of religion but is something more like its beginning. Of course, if one is suffering from such common afflictions as the assumption that there are no real intellectual options in this realm other than traditional theism and metaphysical naturalism, or the virus that subtly turns one’s mind from a love of truth to an activist orientation, then one cannot be expected to make much sense of this. But philosophy is supposed to deliver us from such afflictions.

  19. I want to thank Ex-Apologist for taking my proposal seriously and for everyone who has commented on it.

    For myself I consider the case closed against recent work in the PoR, as does Dr. Keith Parsons who said:

    I now regard “the case for theism” as a fraud and I can no longer take it seriously enough to present it to a class as a respectable philosophical position—no more than I could present intelligent design as a legitimate biological theory. BTW, in saying that I now consider the case for theism to be a fraud, I do not mean to charge that the people making that case are frauds who aim to fool us with claims they know to be empty. No, theistic philosophers and apologists are almost painfully earnest and honest; I don’t think there isn’t a Bernie Madoff in the bunch. I just cannot take their arguments seriously any more, and if you cannot take something seriously, you should not try to devote serious academic attention to it. I’ve turned the philosophy of religion courses over to a colleague.

    I think a number of philosophers have made the case for atheism and naturalism about as well as it can be made. Graham Oppy, Jordan Howard Sobel, Nicholas Everitt, Michael Martin, Robin Le Poidevin and Richard Gale have produced works of enormous sophistication that devastate the theistic arguments in their classical and most recent formulations. Ted Drange, J.L. Schellenberg, Andrea Weisberger, and Nicholas Trakakis have presented powerful, and, in my view, unanswerable atheological arguments. Gregory Dawes has a terrific little book showing just what is wrong with theistic “explanations.” Erik Wielenberg shows very clearly that ethics does not need God. With honest humility, I really do not think that I have much to add to these extraordinary works.”

    I have recently examined and found deficient Dr. Paul Draper’s suggestions:

    http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2014/07/dr-paul-draper-on-what-is-philosophy-of.html

    Cheers, thanks for the discussion.

  20. Oops, what I meant is that I thank the OP for for taking my proposal seriously and for everyone who has commented on it. I think I mistook that person to be Ex-Apologist.

  21. Mike and grad student: I don’t see how Lewis doesn’t count as a kind of polytheist. Mike is surely right to deny that, in general, a person would count as a theist in virtue of believing that there exist possible gods. But that doesn’t mean that a particular person’s belief in possible Gods doesn’t make them a theist. That would depend on what their conception of possible existents was. If they had a very strange view on which ‘actual’ is a purely indexical expression and other possible worlds are every bit as real as this one, so that a god of this world (if there were one) has absolutely no ontological edge over the beth-two(-plus!) gods who exist in other worlds, it seems to me that that person would indeed have to count as an extreme polytheist. And these are precisely Lewis’s views.

    Darius,

    It is easy to think that Lewis is a theist of some sort because it is easy to think that the proposition that Gods exists entails the proposition that Gods actually exist. But, for Lewis, the inference fails. There are Gods, but there are no actually existing Gods, and that’s sufficient to make one a non-theist. There is no supreme being (or quasi-supreme being) that has created anything or miraculously intervenes (though Lewis certainly thinks miracles are possible) or has any concern for creation or can be worshiped or can offer salvation or can be petitioned or has anything to do with anything actual. All of the Gods that do exist, on Lewis’s view, are causally isolated beings having exactly nothing to do with anything or anyone actual. If believing in possible, causally isolated Gods (quasi-gods, on Lewis’s view) made one a theist, then there’d be a lot more theists around!

  22. Why not take a more utilitarian approach to the question “Do We Need Philosophy of Religion Anymore?”?

    Let us put aside the obvious response that “we (academic philosophers) need Philosophy of Religion so we can attract funding.”

    And also put aside the other obvious response that “we (non-philosophers) don’t need Philosophy of Religion because we have managed perfectly well without it for many long years.”

    Given that Philosophy of Religion has been around a fair while, and plenty of philosophers here and elsewhere have talked about exploring it, can anyone suggest any questions that Philosphy of Religion has answered, or any problems that it has solved?

    Asking questions, yeah, that’s easy, any bozo can do that, but has Philosophy of Religion provided any answers?

    I suggest that if the practitioners cannot provide evidence of problems that Philosophers of Religion have solved, then that strongly indicates that they are not needed.

  23. Secularists should teach the Philosophy of Religion in the classroom the same way they write their books, although they should allow for student interaction and debate. If the discipline is to be taught then this is one of the ways to do it right.

    This depends entirely on what a secularist professor thinks of the case for religion. If he or she thinks like I do that it has no merit at all, then this is a challenge for them to teach as they write. In other words, if they think the case is abysmal then why not teach what they think and let their students interact with it?

  24. I see that my request of August 1 for a rundown of some of the questions that Philosophy of Religion has provided answers to has not received much attention from the boosters of that discipline. Not even one answer to one question has been suggested.

    Now, we know that logicians frown at absence of evidence being used as evidence of absence, but those of us with a more Bayesian bent are less trammelled.

    Certainly a conjecture of the form “philosophy of religion has not provided any useful answers to interesting questions” could not be considered refuted – it would require only a single example. Perhaps all philosophers of religion are too busy on other important projects, perhaps advising murtis and devas of their roles or resolving the seating plans in Valhalla?

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