Political Uniformity and Religion in Philosophy


Q: How do you feel about Trump’s performance thus far? Is this what you expected?
A: I’m very pleased with his performance.

If you were looking to read something unusual this morning, look no further than the interview with Daniel Bonevac (University of Texas) at What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher?

Much of the interview is about Bonevac’s life and education (“Hempel has been my model, not only of how to do philosophy, but of how to live”), but also includes a discussion of politics and philosophy.

Bonevac, who blogs at the conservative Newsmax site, seems to be a rather charitable, perhaps credulous, interpreter of our current president. Yet when it comes to philosophers, he is somewhat less generous. His explanation for why “the profession has moved significantly to the left since I entered it” is that liberals have been largely replaced by “leftists in a postmodern mold.” It doesn’t seem to me that post-modernism is popular at all in mainstream philosophy, but then again, it is not usually clear what “postmodernism” is supposed to mean. Bonevac’s gloss on it is as follows: liberals “believed in objectivity, freedom of expression, and intellectual debate,” while postmoderns, “not so much.” So, according to Bonevac, today’s philosophers on the left do not so much believe in objectivity, freedom of expression, and intellectual debate. Leaving aside the matter of objectivity, which could mean a range of things, it does not seem to me that philosophers on the left are any less enthusiastic about freedom of expression and intellectual debate than those elsewhere on the political spectrum, though I understand that fits with a certain popular narrative about academia (yet see this, which just happened to be published earlier today).

Bonevac adds:

The number of faculty members who would vote against hiring someone because of their political views has increased significantly. The number who would defend freedom of expression has shrunk.

On religion, interviewer Clifford Sosis (Coastal Carolina), asks Bonevac, who has “no doubts” about “the basic doctrines of Christianity”: “Why do you think most philosophers are atheists or agnostics?”

Bonevac replies:

Again, this hasn’t always been true. Philosophers, like other groups, however, are herd animals. At some point religious belief went out of fashion.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries witnessed a lot of intellectual assaults on religious belief, from the “higher criticism” of the Bible to Marx and Nietzsche to the anthropological/sociological/psychological attacks of Durkheim, Malinowski, Freud, Eliade, etc. And what is avant garde at one point tends to become orthodoxy about a century later—while still considering itself edgy and avant garde!

I’ve taught a course at my church on these attacks on religious belief, and, going back to the sources, it’s striking how unscientific it all is. The evidence is thin. The arguments are terrible when they exist at all. But the attitude persists that a scientifically minded person can’t believe in God.

Inspired by Alvin Plantinga, among others, more Christians are studying philosophy and becoming philosophers. So, I think this attitude’s days may be numbered.

Though I’m not a theist, I do agree with Bonevac that philosophy is likely to become more religious.

The whole interview is here.

And by the way, you can follow Clifford Sosis on Twitter, and What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher? on Facebook.

 

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Matt
3 years ago

That interview was a prime example of how you can be smart in some things in life and yet a grade-A dufus in others. I’ve read a few other interviews with Bonevac in relation to Trump, and he’s never yet actually articulated any specific thing he thinks is good that Trump has done – it’s a mixture of banality and bull-shit, and for obvious reasons. I gather that he’s relatively well respected in his areas of specialization. Yet, the interview as a whole shows him to be strikingly un-reflective, and that certainly comes out in his political views, though not only there. Report

Tim Hsiao
Reply to  Matt
3 years ago

Surely that’s uncharitable. Bonevac has written several long and detailed op-eds (see e.g. his article in The Critique) that explain why he voted for Trump.
Whether you agree with him or not, he certainly has articulated his reasons for voting the way he did. That is distinct from commenting specifically on Trump’s actions post-inauguration. So it’s quite simply false to say that he is “strikingly un-reflective.” He explained himself thoroughly. Report

C
C
Reply to  Tim Hsiao
3 years ago

Surely that’s uncharitable to Lister. Lister doesn’t deny that Bonevac has written editorials explaining why he supports Trump. I take it that he’s read them, evaluated them, and thinks that there’s nothing there. (Nothing more than a mix of banality and bullshit.) I guess if you wanted to defend Bonevac, you could tell us what’s there that’s not banality and/or bullshit.

(Fwiw, I wouldn’t say that Bonevac has shown himself to be a grade A dufus in those interviews. I think he’s shown that he’s bad at thinking clearly about the politicians that he supports in the way that most of us are bad at thinking clearly about the people on the side we support. Like you just did. And like I probably will.)Report

Tim Hsiao
Reply to  C
3 years ago

Lister says that Bonevac is “strikingly un-reflective.” Now whether or not you think Bonevac is right in supporting Trump, the charge of being un-reflective is easily dispelled by just reading what Bonevac has written. Even if you think he’s ultimately mistaken, it’s not as if he’s spouting absolute nonsense. He gives arguments. He appeals to reasons. That’s not being un-reflective at all. (And if someone thinks that Bonevac is really spouting nonsense, then I would kindly suggest that they get out of their liberal echo-chamber.)

If Lister really thinks that all of what Bonevac has written on this issue is “banality and bull-sh*t,” then he’s the one who owes us an elaboration. Because that’s not a claim that should be accepted at face-value.Report

C
C
Reply to  Tim Hsiao
3 years ago

“If Lister really thinks that all of what Bonevac has written on this issue is “banality and bull-sh*t,” then he’s the one who owes us an elaboration.”

Nice cop out. Report

Tim Hsiao
Reply to  C
3 years ago

Oh please. Newsflash: Not everyone buys into the brand of politics that you think is so obviously true. I see absolutely no reason to think that Bonevac’s points are “banal” or “bull-sh*t” by default, so I’m not going to take the bait and play defense.

I think Bonevac makes some fine points, and I’m perfectly happy with defending him on those grounds. But that is besides the point. My claim is that you don’t get to ipso facto write him off just because his arguments don’t jive with your personal politics.
Report

Matt
Reply to  Tim Hsiao
3 years ago

Tim, I contributed a piece to the same issue of The Critique that Bonevac did, so I read his piece there. I think it, like this, reads like the thoughts on politics of an older white man who watches a lot of Fox News and otherwise doesn’t know much. That is, it’s largely unreflective and a mixture of banality and bull-shit. Here are two examples. Bonevac says Trump has done well because he’s “appointed judges who will enforce and not make the law” and removed regulations that did more harm than good. He doesn’t offer any examples of those regulations, and I am extremely skeptical that he could. (I would argue that all of the regulatory changes have done more harm than good, or will soon do so, and this is largely the consensus of scientists working in the relevant areas.) The stuff on judges is a real tell. Almost zero people who know anything about the law, judicial interpretation, etc. think that the difference between, say, Gorsuch and Garland is that Gorsuch will “enforce the law and not make it” while Garland would have done the opposite. This is either just mouthing Fox-News banalities without thinking at all, or bull-shitting. If he’d said that he supported judges who were very conservative, and who would typically rule in ways that would please normal Republicans a lot, or if he expressed any sort of clear judicial theory, that would be something, but what he says is something that only someone who knows nothing about what judges do could believe. When I’ve read his pieces, there’s nothing more than this level of thought on politics there, as far as I can see. (Ranting against “postmodernism” [from a Trump supporter!] or political correctness falls into exactly the same level.) Report

Robert Gressis
Robert Gressis
Reply to  Matt
3 years ago

Every single regulatory change does more harm than good, or the regulatory changes as a whole do more harm than good? I’d be very surprised about the former, given that one of the regulatory changes is to make vaping easier. Report

Will Behun
Will Behun
3 years ago

Setting aside Prof Bonevac’s answers, I’m intrigued by Prof Sosis’s question. Is it really the case that “most philosophers are agnostics or atheists?” I think it’s safe to say that most academic philosophers are critical and thoughtful when it comes to matters of religion, and I would suspect more so than the average person of faith, but I’m not entirely sure that they are generally agnostic or atheist.

Perhaps, and this is pure speculation on my part, this reflects a division that parallels the analytic/continental distinction, and perhaps more importantly reflects the particular institutions where I’ve studied or taught (several of which are church affiliated). I certainly see people working in the continental tradition taking issues of faith and the sacred very seriously, and I had assumed, though I didn’t have as broad an experience to draw on, that the same was true in the analytic tradition. A glance about, as it were, reveals that perhaps that was a naive assumption on my part.

So it’s entirely possible that the premise of the question is absolutely true.Report

Will Behun
Will Behun
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 years ago

That seems pretty decisive. Seems I live in quite the bubble. Thanks Justin!Report

Brian
Brian
Reply to  Will Behun
3 years ago

Although amongst specialists (philosophers of religion), it seems to be the opposite.

God: theism or atheism?
Accept or lean toward: theism 34 / 47 (72.3%)
Accept or lean toward: atheism 9 / 47 (19.1%)
Other 4 / 47 (8.5%)Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Brian
3 years ago

Scarcely surprising: philosophy of religion is much more interesting to theists than atheists and some of its central puzzles (e.g. the problem of evil, the compatibility of free will with divine knowledge) have fast, obvious answers for atheists.Report

JJ
JJ
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

It’s scarcely surprising that most moral philosophers happen to be moral realists: morality is much more interesting to realists than non-realists and some of its central puzzles (e.g. evolutionary debunking arguments, the problem of contingency) have fast, obvious answers for non-realists.Report

M
M
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

Quite right, David. In other areas though, when philosophers have ‘fast, obvious answers’ for puzzles outside their specialty (which they don’t read or write on), it is regarded as hasty, uninformed, or the result of sheer hubris. (For some reason, atheists in the discipline can get away with this, whereas theists cannot. That sociological fact may be an additional factor in why a much higher percentage of those in phil of religion are theists.)Report

Brian
Brian
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

I agree that it’s probably the case that more theists are attracted to philosophy of religion than non-theists.

I also think that among the philosophers who do not specialize in philosophy of religion, and don’t give it much thought, most of them generally THINK that said puzzles have fast and obvious answers.

However, as an atheist who is very interested in philosophy of religion, I know that such an attitude is mistaken. Said problems definitely do not have fast and obvious answers. The issues surrounding the puzzles you listed (and a plethora of others) can and do get very complicated. I can tell you that even the Problem of Evil is not the easy refutation of theism that non-specialists in philosophy of religion typically think it is.
Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

I didn’t think it was in contention that the problem of evil has a fast obvious answer for atheists. One of its premises is “God is omnipotent”!

The analogy with moral realism isn’t quite right. Moral antirealists take moral discourse very seriously and recognize a substantive task of making sense of it through nonrealist means. The right analogy would be with moral *nihilists*, who think moral discourse is a confused waste of time.

(More broadly I’m surprised to be saying anything controversial here. To draw an analogy where I’m pro the subject matter: most string theorists think string theory is on the right lines. That doesn’t in itself provide evidence for string theory.)Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Brian
3 years ago

Sorry, I didn’t read Brian’s second post carefully enough. To clarify: I wasn’t intending to say that the problem of evil is any kind of fast refutation of theism – just that it’s not interesting as a problem if one is antecedently persuaded of atheism.Report

Robert Gressis
Robert Gressis
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 years ago

Justin, here’s what Chalmers and Bourget wrote in their 2014 paper, “What Do Philosophers Believe?”:

“…we chose as a target group all regular faculty members in 99 leading departments of philosophy. These include the 89 PhD-granting departments in English-speaking countries rated 1.9 or above in the Philosophical Gourmet Report. They also include seven departments in non-English-speaking countries (all from continental Europe) and three non-PhD-granting departments. These 10 departments were chosen in consultation with the editor of the Gourmet Report and a number of other philosophers, on the grounds of their having strength in analytic philosophy comparable to the other 89 departments. The overall list included 62 departments in the USA, 18 in the UK, 7 in Europe outside the UK, 7 in Canada, and 5 in Australasia.” (468)

There are a lot of religious colleges in the United States that weren’t targeted (they did later open up the survey to anyone who wanted to take it, but their published results concentrated on the target group). I wouldn’t be surprised if, in fact, the number of theists or hard-to-categorize-but-not-atheist-or-agnostic philosophers is a lot higher than this survey would lead us to believe. Report

Tom
Tom
Reply to  Robert Gressis
3 years ago

I was slightly surprised to see so few agnostics on the question (if you drill down to fine, it’s about 5.5%). That is actually more than other questions in the survey, but what it means about philosophers, or how it relates to their greater confidence on the God question, I can’t say.Report

Tom
Tom
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 years ago

Something that’s interesting is that both atheists and theists were much more confident in their answers to this question than to others (you can see this if you set the granularity to “medium” or “fine” on the survey website). This suggests, at least to me, that non-philosophical factors are at play here, on both sides. Theists obviously have the pull of being part of a religious community, along with possible emotional support from belief in God, or even spiritual/mystical experiences in the past. But it would seem that atheists are affected by some of the same factors, whether that’s the consensus of the field, a distaste for organized religion, or even some personal experience or trauma that resulted in a loss of faith.

This is much harder to measure, since it’s a qualitative matter and there’s very little to check self-reporting against, but it definitely sounds plausible to me.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
3 years ago

I don’t agree with a lot of what Bonevac says and blaming everything on “postmodernism” is just intellectually sloppy. But I do wonder if as a field we’re really all that committed to freedom of expression. I would bet you if you’d asked a lot of the ringleaders in the recent Hypatia affair if they supported free expression before all that happened they would have told you in no uncertain terms that they did. Being for censorship is like being for racism; no sane person will admit that they favor either. But despite the fact no one’s in favor of censorship or racism, people somehow still get censored and people are still the victims of racism. If you really think that our field is so committed to freedom of expression, then I’d ask you to explain why the majority of comments on this and other philosophy blogs are written anonymously? Would we really do that if we thought that the average member of our profession was above punishing us for expressing unpopular opinions? I certainly wouldn’t sign my actual name if I thought I were going to be on the job market in the foreseeable future or even thought I might need to apply for grant money in that time.Report

Matt
Reply to  Sam Duncan
3 years ago

Too many issues are mixed together in this reply. I am not sure that anyone is _never_ in favor of censorship. (Even Mill thinks it can sometimes be okay to stop certain sorts of speech.) So, I’d say that banning holocaust denial in immediate post-war German was necessary if de-Nazification was going to take place. Whether it’s still necessary now as a legal matter is less clear to me, but for a while it seems likely to have been necessary. I might think that banning or heavily restricting pro-suicide or pro-anorexia or pro-bulimia web pages are border-line examples, but certainly possible cases. So, the claim here is either too general or not careful enough. The hard part, of course, is figuring out neutral principles to apply. (Some people don’t think that’s possible or desirable. That’s where I think they have gone wrong.) (That blaming our problems on “postmodernism” – especially for a Trump supporter! – is stupid is something I hope we can all agree on.) Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 years ago

Matt and Justin,
I take your points. I do think a lot of discussions of hate speech and censorship are sloppy and sloganistic and that they would benefit from much more careful analysis. I also admit that there are a lot of reasons that people might want anonymity on a blog besides being afraid for oneself.
But there is a pervasive air of fear in our profession, and people are terrified of saying something unpopular. From my own experience and that of many of my friends that’s just a fact. Now a large part of that is certainly due to the fact that it’s so incredibly hard to get a decent job in our profession and so many us have positions that offer no stability, both of which makes people incredibly vulnerable to reprisal and afraid for their futures. But the fact remains that part of what we’re afraid of is reprisal and not just reprisal from conservative bloggers or the like but reprisal from fellow philosophers. Now maybe Justin’s right and that fear is irrational (I tend to think not) but even if he is that doesn’t change the fact that the fear is there. And the presence of that fear is antithetical to creating an environment that even allows freedom of expression. If we really valued free expression rather than merely paying lip service to that value we would be very concerned about that fear and its sources. Matt makes it too easy by picking noxious and obviously false opinions, but my bet is that most of us think that there would be a price to be paid for expressing an opinion that is not beyond the pale in the ways those are but merely somewhat unpopular among academics and the social class they represent. I’m no conservative, but up until I found a stable job I was often a bit cagey about my own religious beliefs (among other things) since from personal experience I think that some philosophy professors will simply dismiss you or shut down if you express the least bit of sympathy for religion much less admit that you’re an actual believer. Mind you I’m not making any claim to be persecuted or the like, but I did get the perception that in some circles any expression of religious belief could hurt you and given how desperate things are for those of us who aren’t at the top you can’t afford anything that might hurt you. Report

Matt
Reply to  Sam Duncan
3 years ago

I do think a lot of discussions of hate speech and censorship are sloppy and sloganistic and that they would benefit from much more careful analysis.

I absolutely agree with this, and think that there are problems in this area in philosophy, in the wider academy, and in society. I merely wanted to push back against the claim that seemed too strongly put to me, that no one will say they are in favor of censorship. (I’m willing to say it about some things – the examples I give are ones I feel clear about, and there may well be others. For example, I think that the U.S. Supreme Court decisions that held that so-called “crush” videos are protected speech was clearly wrong, and that it would be good to ban such things. In other cases, you may have to lead people carefully to get them to express their view clearly, but it does seem that many are in favor of censorship.) But, this is compatible with thinking that lots of people are thinking poorly about free speech issues, and that the Tuvel case was one involving a lot of shameful behavior. Report

EDT
EDT
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 years ago

With respect regarding point 1 and the availability heuristic, while it is both true and important to keep in my mind, it neglects the power of the chilling effect that results from high profile incidents like the Tuvel/Hypatia controversy. (So post Tuvel how many un-tenured scholars are more rather than less inclined to write on trans-issues/try to publish an article in Hypatia that bucks dominant trends in feminist philosophy etc)
Indeed a chilling effect and the availability heuristic work in tandem rather than opposition given that for chilling purposes one’s perception of the odds of retaliation probably matter at least as much as the reality, a fact well known to people trying to govern humans (there is a reason executed criminals bodies used to be publicly displayed/insert modern example of your choice).

This is important to keep in my because by its very nature a chilling effect is hard to measure (“Do you have views which are such that you think that airing them publicly would provoke professional and personal retaliation?” is not something people are inclined to answer honestly) and its worth noting that any time the Daily Nous questions it readership on this score (an admittedly unscientific process) a host of readers of a blog for professional philosophers ensconced behind pseudonyms claim that they are in fact chilled and would fear professional or personal retaliation for airing certain generally politically and/or socially conservative views (even views which are often but not always relatively common in the general population)Report

EDT
EDT
Reply to  EDT
3 years ago

*keep in mind* not “keep in my”Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
3 years ago

Philosophers are just as tribalistic and overconfident when it comes to politics as any other group, but it seems weird to see “postmodernism” everywhere among current philosophers. Postmodernism seems more like a punching bag for modern analytic philosophy than a position anyone outside of literature departments ever took seriously. How often do you see Derrida, Lyotard, or Foucalt cited in the Philosophical Review (or any other major anglo-american philosophy journal)? A naturalistic realism of some sort seems to be the dominant view in anglo-american philosophy, which is a far cry from postmodernism. Report

EUPH
EUPH
3 years ago

To the person offering that atheism in the profession reflects a division that parallels the analytic/continental distinction: I just want to point out that the number of atheists in continental europe is HUGE compared to the USA, for instance. Check the atheism levels in European countries.
I’ve yet to meet a non-atheist philosophers in my country (except for american colleagues visiting), and I’m in contact with both analytical / continental philosophers (whatever these labels actually mean).
The cultural context here probably is more determinant than the school of thoughts.

Report

JDRox
JDRox
3 years ago

“it does not seem to me that philosophers on the left are any less enthusiastic about freedom of expression and intellectual debate than those elsewhere on the political spectrum, though I understand that fits with a certain popular narrative about academia”

I don’t have confident views on this, but I would be surprised if it weren’t harder/more expensive to have conservative people speak at universities today than it was 20 or even ten years ago. (https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-09-18/we-didn-t-normalize-trump-we-normalized-the-left-s-violence) I mean, antifa isn’t new but they’re more prominent now than they were, right? And they’re at least somewhat successful at making it harder for those they perceive to be fascists to speak, right? The connection between that and philosophy isn’t clear, but it seems to me (and I’m not that old) that there’s more intolerance for “objectionable” views than there used to be. (I’m not necessarily saying that’s bad, just that it’s true.)Report

Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

I admire Daniel Bonevac as a philosopher and, from his courses I have seen on Youtube, as a person. I agree with Bonevac re the dangers of some on the left and group think, esp when outrage is seen as more important than debate.

That said, it is disappointing that Bonevac ignores Trump’s constant flirting with racism and misogyny, esp re Charlottesville. I am willing to take the “both sides” comment as more complicated than anti-semitism and racism. But bringing this out requires more care and compassion than Trump exhibits, or Bonevac in this interview.

Also, it is bizarre that Bonevac happily supports Trump, but bemoans that the left has gotten carried away by post-modernism. Given his affinity with Roger Stone, Putin and others, Trump is an example of the post-modern Right – who are implicitly using the arguments of some anti-colonialists, feminists, etc. against Truth and Reason to question the idea of universal values, and so to support nationalism and communalism. If the Trump movement keeps succeeding, it is Trump, Putin, etc. who will minimize Aristotle, Aquinas and Kant – other than as white, cultural heroes.

If only someone like Bonevac were the philosopher of the Trump movement (as it is advertised on Fox, MSNBC, etc.). But if there is a philosopher influencing people in Trump’s circle (like Bannon and Alex Jones), it is someone like the Russian Heideggerian Alexander Dugin. Maybe Bonevac and Dugin can do a public debate about what Trumpism means. That would be very illuminating.Report

Ken
Ken
3 years ago

As someone who has only studied analytic philosophy and is completely unaware of developments in contemporary non-analytic philosophy, could some specialists in those fields (continental, Africana, contemporary Eastern, etc.) weigh in on whether there are actually many defenders of postmodernism around nowadays? I was under the impression that postmodernism was to e.g. continental philosophy as logical positivism is to analytic philosophy: a historically important, yet almost completely abandoned programme.

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Scu
Scu
Reply to  Ken
3 years ago

Ken,

That seems like a sincere question. Very few mainstream or important thinkers advocated a position of postmodernism (Baudrillard did, sometimes). Though many of them were concerned with the conditions of postmodernity (that took the Enlightenment project as mostly a failure, and necessarily a failure). If truth could be not be easily accessed, then what? Very few of them ever identified with the term postmodernism, but poststructuralism was, and is, very important to continental philosophy. But it is also not the only game in town, and there are certainly many thinkers I can name off the top of my head who believe we need to return to Enlightenment values, or a returned project to truth, etc. Report