The Apologetics Charge Against Philosophy of Religion

Dean Zimmerman (Rutgers) and Paul Draper (Purdue) discuss their views on the relationship between philosophy of religion and religious apologetics in a pair of recent posts at Philosophy of Religion.

Zimmerman sets forth a conception of apologetics and argues that a “no apologetics” norm is “unrealistic and unfair”:

Some philosophers of religion add some special, domain specific norms that are supposed to govern theorizing in the philosophy of religion, analogues of which are not generally taken to hold in other parts of philosophy. So, philosophers of religion are supposed to have failed to do their job unless they approach their questions with an absolutely open mind, with no preconceptions about what the answer will be, in a state that is as close to suspension of belief as possible. Or they are supposed scrupulously to avoid affirming any particular religious doctrine in their work, always only exploring the internal coherence of a set of religious beliefs (although perhaps one might be allowed to say a few negative things, like “These doctrines are internally incoherent, and so cannot be true”). Those who fail to abide by the second norm are said to have taken the fatal plunge into theology. And it’s very important to draw a sharp line between philosophy of religion and theology (or so they say). Those who fail to abide by the first norm do not address religious questions with a sufficiently open mind; they are in serious danger of merely engaging in apologetics (far worse than slipping into theology). I accept neither the “no apologetics” norm nor the “no theology” norm as definitive of good philosophy of religion.

I think the no apologetics norm is unrealistic and unfair. We do not apply its analogue in other areas of philosophy that are no less fraught with disagreement and even danger; and it’s no easier to apply, and no more important to apply, when it comes to religion. I do not expect the Kantian ethicist to hold her view lightly, nor do I believe every utilitarian who does good work defending himself against Kantians must always be poised on a razor’s edge between the two views. Why not, though? After all, there is deep disagreement here about large-scale ethical theories.

The no apologetics norm, in practice, is an instance of what van Inwagen calls “the difference thesis”: Plantinga and Grünbaum are supposed to be flouting a norm for good philosophy of religion if they are not each easily persuadable by the other. But Korsgaard and Singer are not regarded as bad ethicists, even though we know that they are not each equally likely to trade views with the other whenever they read one another’s work. Openness to argument, to being wrong, is indeed a virtue. Being able, sympathetically, to get into the shoes of those with very different beliefs and values is a virtue. These virtues will help the philosopher to get to the truth. But the Cartesian project of suspension of all belief is a fantasy; and religion is not the one special little province where it applies. At least I have seen no good reason to accept that it is.

Draper thinks that Zimmerman is not working with a reasonable conception of apologetics, and that if we work with a better one, we can see why it does not fit well with good philosophy:

Zimmerman’s unnamed opponent claims that the problem with apologetics is that those who engage in it “fail to approach their questions with an absolutely open mind, with no preconceptions about what the answer will be, in a state that is as close to suspension of belief as possible.” In other words, to be a good philosopher of religion according to Zimmerman’s opponent, one must always be “poised on a razor’s edge between the two views” being debated and “easily persuadable by” one’s interlocutor. Zimmerman’s response is the obvious one: such demands are “unrealistic and unfair . . . the Cartesian project of suspension of all belief is a fantasy; and religion is not the one special little province where it applies.”

Surely, however, there is a better justification of why philosophers should not engage in apologetics than the one Zimmerman criticizes. To find that justification, we need only focus on the fact that the apologist by definition sets out to prove, or to find evidence that supports, the religious doctrines to which they are committed. Similarly, in our adversarial criminal justice system, a prosecutor seeks to prove that defendants are guilty. Even if the prosecutor offers only arguments that they sincerely believe are sound, still no one would want to claim that what the prosecutor does is the best way to find out the truth about whether or not a defendant is really guilty. Instead, seeking evidence, whether that evidence confirms or disconfirms, is likely to be much more effective. This is the real reason that philosophers of religion should avoid apologetics. It is antithetical to the norm of avoiding bias in one’s inquiry, to the norm of seeking any relevant evidence there is, regardless of which direction it points. And that is not a special, domain specific norm at all, but a norm that applies to all truth-directed thought.

Of course, we all know that human beings, including philosophers and scientists, regularly violate this norm. No one is perfect here. But that doesn’t justify ignoring the norm. Further, imperfection in satisfying this norm comes in a wide range of degrees, and there is good reason to believe that the potential for falling far short is especially great when committed Christians, for example, focus on certain topics in philosophy of religion. One reason for this is that there is enormous pressure on members of religions like Christianity not to stray from accepted doctrine. Such group influence, combined with the ability of philosophers to construct elaborate rationalizations for just about any position one can imagine, is bound to lead to trouble, making a no apologetics norm all the more essential.

You can read all of Zimmerman’s post here, and all of Draper’s here.

(via John Schellenberg)

image from BL Yates Thompson 8 f. 294r

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