Argument quality in phil. religion: actually pretty good?

On the one hand, it’s very easy for me to think that the standards of argument in academic philosophy of religion are low. In phil. religion, you can be a respected academic (at least according to your fellow phil. religion specialists) and get away with publishing things that just assert that morality depends on God, depend on conflating your opponent’s view with an unrelated view, or make ignorant comments about evolutionary biology. You can even find examples in the phil. religion world of Josh McDowell-style historical apologetics that depends on just assuming the Bible is historically reliable. Not making the last one up–the article on the argument from miracles in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology more or less takes this approach.

But I wonder if it could still be true that, relative to the quality of arguments used in other philosophical specialties, the quality of arguments in philosophy of religion is actually pretty good. For example, I sat down to write this post coming of a session of an epistemology seminar where we discussed Lawrence BonJour’s defense of the a priori. The discussion was a bit frustrating. In his book on the subject, In Defense of Pure Reason, he surprisingly only devotes a couple of pages to what he calls his main arguments. This was accompanied by a bold declaration that his arguments are so obvious that he doesn’t understand why they haven’t been more influential. In the precis of the book he wrote for the Philosophy and Phenomenological Research symposium on it, he summarizes his arguments in a couple of paragraphs that don’t quite match the arguments presented in the original book, and finally in his response to criticisms made by contributors to the symposium, BonJour admits he didn’t initially have a clear idea of what he was trying to say.

Confusion on that level doesn’t seem to occur in philosophy of religion. Yet they seem fairly common in other areas of philosophy–often, the arguments seem (to me, at least) so poorly thought out it’s hard to know where to begin saying what’s wrong with them. I seem to notice this more as I get into grad school–the papers assigned for reading in mid-level undergraduate classes typically have, say, an example, an intuition you’re supposed to have about that example, and a general principle it contradicts (see the Gettier paper). But lots of arguments in contemporary academic philosophy aren’t that clear.

Why is this? Maybe it’s the apologetic orientation of philosophy of religion. Nowadays the field has lots of people who want to be William Lane Craig, and even slightly more old-school people like Alvin Plantinga and Peter van Inwagen care about scoring points in real debates that normal people care about. This imposes a limit on how bad the arguments can be–there’s quite a bit of room to cover fallacies with rhetoric in religious debates, but if you want to sound convincing, your arguments can’t be a complete godawful mess. Or maybe it’s just that the atheism-theism debate has been going on long enough that everyone knows how the basic arguments go. Maybe not knowing what you’re doing at first is the acceptable price of breaking new intellectual ground, as philosophers in other fields are always trying to do.

Or maybe I’m imagining all this. If you’re reading this and know both the phil. religion literature and other areas of philosophy pretty well, what’s your take?

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  1. I don’t think that philosophy of religion is any better–or any worse–off than other philosophical subdisciplines. That piece, “Proofs that p” may be a nice example of this; in one sense, we all know that terrible arguments abound everywhere. Philosophy of religion is no exception.

    Also, I don’t know that looking to Craig’s popular-level work (_Reasonable Faith is published by Crossway) is a reliable measure of what passes for decent in “academic philosophy of religion”.

  2. Chris Hallquist

    With Craig, though, is there really a sharp distinction between his popular and academic works? He makes most of the same arguments regardless of the venue, and I think he’d like to be able to claim to have defended in scholarly venues everything he’s said in popular venues. For example, Craig has an article posted online that he got published in some journal or other (and his publication record says it was later republished in an anthology), but which basically just repeats material from Reasonable Faith. An even weirder example is his book Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus, which is much longer than his early popular book on the resurrection and published as part of an academic book series, but whose final section is very nearly a cut and paste of that book.

    I actually feel kinda odd for knowing about the Assessing… book, I found it because I went looking for something more academic that Craig had written on the resurrection, but now that feels like an expression of early ignorance about how Craig operates.

    Also, one of my examples in the OP was from the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, and honestly reminded me of Josh McDowell more than it did of anything Craig has written. Similarly, if you look closely at Craig’s “popular” writings on the resurrection, they resemble his academic writings more than they resemble the work of weaker popularizers like McDowell. The anthology also has three entire articles of the “conflating your opponent’s view with an unrelated view” genre–it’s weird to realize that there’s now a cottage industry within academic phil. religion circles of criticizing things prominent philosophers have mind have said and then claiming to have produced an argument for the existence of God.

    On the other hand, the general flavor of the articles in the Blackwell Companion is a bit different than what you’d find in a random issue of IJPR. I suspect this is due in part to Craig and Mooreland editing the anthology with an eye on the potential popular appeal of the arguments. And while arguments for and against the existence of God are a major part of phil. religion, it’s still only one part.

    BTW, my guesses at why Craig does some of the things he does are based solely on contact with his written work as well as recording and transcripts of his debates. I’ve never met the man, and I’d be curious to know your perceptions on this point. Also, why you don’t think he’s a good writer. You do at least agree he’s a great debater, right?

  3. My reservations about Craig’s writing are probably best left for an in-person discussion. I do agree that Craig is a fine debater. He’s probably the only truly competent one I’ve seen take part in one of these public “atheist vs. theist” debates. (I did competitive LD, policy, and parli debate for 7 years in high school and college; I can spot one of my own!)

  4. Chris Hallquist

    Did know you did high school & college debate–that’s cool. I look forward to talking with you about Craig’s writing sometime.

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