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?