Philosophy of religion: which experts count?

The issue of expertise in philosophy of religion is something I’ve written about before. Over the past week, I had a series of “holy crap” moments related to this subject. The first was when Keith Parsons announced that he was going to quit writing about philosophy of religion and hand off his phil. religion courses to a professor. His reasons:

For one thing, 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…

Chiefly, though, I am motivated by a sense of ennui on the one hand and urgency on the other… I have to confess that 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 is 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.

Then John Beversluis made a similar announcement through an e-mail to John Loftus.

The main reason these struck me as “holy crap” moments is that “non-theist philosophers of religion” is a pretty small club already, so to see even a single member leave means the club just got quite a bit smaller. In the academic philosophy world as a whole, Parsons may be a small fish, but he’s a small fish in a tiny pond. Beversluis, maybe, isn’t such a big deal since he’s known for writing about C. S. Lewis rather than engaging with the big shots of analytic philosophy of religion, but Parsons? Hard not to see as a big deal.

The other reason it makes more plausible something I’ve already suspected: that the reason the current state of the debate in philosophy of religion is so favorable to religious belief is because once you reach a sufficiently negative assessment of philosophical defenses of theism, you don’t bother writing about them. Parsons reached that point only now, but I suspect there are a lot of professional philosophers who reach it before they manage to publish anything on philosophy of religion (a suspicion I’ve previously tried to expound in this comments thread.)

Then, this morning, I saw the discussion these announcements were getting at Prosblogion, Common Sense Atheism, and Leiter Reports. All of them pointed to some variation on my own thoughts; the first comment on Leiter’s post was particularly striking:

Very few people outside of the philosophy of religion believe any of the distinctive claims which are gaining “consensus” in the field. For example, most philosophers of religion I’ve spoken to think that the argument from evil was refuted long ago. At the same time, I’ve never spoken to anyone *outside* the philosophy of religion who thinks that there is a truly convincing rejoinder to the argument from evil.

At Prosblogion, though, Trent Dougherty responded by making fun of Parsons (and Ted Drange) for publishing with Prometheus books. If that’s a valid criticism, then the “non-theist philosopher of religion” club potentially gets even smaller, since Antony Flew, Michael Martin, and Kai Nielsen, all published much of their better-known work with Prometheus (even if they do have journal articles in various places).

Similarly, in Luke’s comment section, Robert Gressis argued that most philosophers must be ignorant of philosophy of religion, because they like Mackie’s version of the problem of evil think Mackie’s version of the problem of evil successfully refutes theism. Then, to my horror, Luke agreed with him! One very simple problem with this argument is that as far as I can tell, Mackie died liking his own version of the problem of evil, even after reading and responding to Plantinga. (Some people deny this; I’m arguing with them in Leiter’s comment section.)

What makes these last two things “holy crap” moments for me is that at first glance, they look like transparent, desperate attempts to dismiss the opinions of people who disagree with theistic philosophers. Attempts to restrict the acknowledged experts in philosophy of religion to people who reach conclusions favorable to theism. The fact that these moves come so readily once the subject is raised, and come from multiple people, is enough to make me ask myself “Chris, why on Earth would you want to spend time interacting with these people?”

As I planned out this post, I tried to read and re-read these discussions at other blogs, trying to find some phil. religion friendly take on all this. Here’s the best take I can produce that has any plausibility for me: Philosophy of religion gets an unfair shake because of some unusual features of the history of the sub-discipline. In particular, the standard history you now hear is that it was dead under the rule of the logical positivists, but was resurrected in the 60′s and onward by a couple of great heroes (Plantinga and Swinburne are the ones typically named).

This creates a situation where if a philosopher reads a few things from those heroes and find them wanting, they come to a negative evaluation of the whole sub-field. In contrast, no professional philosopher would dismiss all of metaphysics just based on reading David Lewis’ On The Plurality of Worlds. This is because while Lewis is often cited as a great philosopher, he’s never cited as the savior of his specialty. What philosophers of religion need to do to raise the status of their specialty is to encourage their colleagues to read a greater variety of contemporary philosophy of religion. Perhaps promote a standard reading list that includes Alston, Wolterstorff, van Inwagen, Hick, Craig, and Collins?

The trouble with this take is that, with the possible exception of Collins on fine-tuning, I doubt reading these authors would actually have much impact on anyone who wasn’t impressed by Plantinga or Swinburne.

I’ll finish with a comment from Leiter, which suggests that philosophy of religion may not be as unusual as the above would make you think:

I think Professor Hales has hit on something important, namely, that so much work in philosophy of religion looks like post-hoc rationalization of foreordained conclusions. I would just observe, in a mischievous Nietzschean spirit, that a lot of philosophy actually looks that way, even a lot of the ‘secular’ stuff. I mean, seriously, if you’re not already a Kantian, how else does one interpret most of the literature in Kantian moral philosophy? But that’s one of many examples.

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10 Comments.

  1. Hi Chris,

    You wrote: “Similarly, in Luke’s comment section, Robert Gressis argued that most philosophers must be ignorant of philosophy of religion, because they like Mackie’s version of the problem of evil. Then, to my horror, Luke agreed with him!”

    Respectfully, I don’t think this interpretation is correct. I didn’t say that most philosophers must be ignorant of philosophy of religion because they “like” Mackie’s version of the problem of evil. I said this because they think it successfully disproved theism. In my experience, they think this because they were unaware of Plantinga’s and Pike’s responses to the paper, not because they were aware of their responses but found them lacking. (If memory serves, Jordon Howard Sobel thought the logical version of the argument from evil worked, and I wouldn’t think he was therefore ignorant of the philosophy of religion.)

    As for Plantinga’s response to the logical version of the argument from evil, I agree that it isn’t without its difficulties. (I say this despite believing that the logical version of the argument from evil is a failure.) Indeed, Keith DeRose and Derk Pereboom, two Christian philosophers who don’t think the logical version of the PoE works, don’t think Plantinga’s defense works either. And I believe there have been papers published that make remarks similar to these. The point is, while there is a degree of hero-worship in philosophy of religion, I don’t think it’s impeding progress.

    Finally, you remark, “What philosophers of religion need to do to raise the status of their specialty is to encourage their colleagues to read a greater variety of contemporary philosophy of religion. Perhaps promote a standard reading list that includes Alston, Wolterstorff, van Inwagen, Hick, Craig, and Collins?

    The trouble with this take is that, with the possible exception of Collins on fine-tuning, I doubt reading these authors would actually have much impact on anyone who wasn’t impressed by Plantinga or Swinburne.”

    Why do you think this? I find, say, Hick radically different from Plantinga and Swinburne; I also find Alston to be engaged in a significantly different project from either Swinburne or Plantinga. Finally, I would definitely include Robert and Marilyn Adams, as well as Eleonore Stump, on my reading list!

  2. What makes these last two things “holy crap” moments for me is that at first glance, they look like transparent, desperate attempts to dismiss the opinions of people who disagree with theistic philosophers.

    Doesn’t Parson’s announcement itself look like an attempt to dismiss people he has failed to convince? He evidently has a weird expectation of a team winning in philosophy.

    I say this not as an attempt to dismiss Parsons. I think there is plenty to what he thinks, and also to what you say in this post. Much philosophy of religion, I would say, reads like apologetics, which if we’re generous reads like a sectarian subset of philosophy of religion. Just to give one example: I think it is quite helpful to develop an epistemology of religion. Yet, in books like Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief and Swinburne’s Faith and Reason we see epistemological work tailored to the Christian religion.

    I’m just not sure these (histrionic?) pronouncements of now ex-phil religion authors get us anywhere on actually important issues.

  3. Robert,

    I fixed the language of the post to make it more precise. But I still think your claim is quite dubious. I’ll go so far as to say that if someone thought Mackie’s argument disproved theism, and was aware of a version of the free will theodicy based on libertarian free will, I would never expect them to change their mind based on reading Plantinga. This is just because the objections to those sorts of theodicies (including, notably, objections to libertarianism itself) are typically applicable to Plantinga’s version.

    On the reading list: my predicted impact was mainly based on my own experiences reading Hick, Alston, etc., but maybe I’m not representative, maybe there are atheists who’ve been much more impressed by Hick or Alston than Plantinga, say. But my reason for not mentioning the Adams and Stump is that I think the chances of them making much of an impression on non-theists, as regards contemporary debates, is pretty low. (At least as far as contributions to contemporary debates goes. Though incidentally, Stump’s book on Aquinas is awesome).

    Part of the problem is that while some philosophers of religion are trying very hard to write things that will appeal to non-theists, others don’t seem very interested in that. For example, I’ve been told Robert Adams is very good on the moral argument, but I read Adams and he seems unsure how to develop it, so I think “this may be interesting for theists, but I’m not sure this is supposed to be compelling even in the sense that, say, arguments for and against conciliatory views on disagreement are supposed to be compelling.”

  4. Joshua,

    Your comment suggests Parsons was saying something like “these other people don’t accept my arguments, so I’ll ignore these people.” Parsons claim was something that, if true, would be far more damning “the arguments typically presented in philosophy of religion are so weak that it doesn’t make sense to write responses to them, or present them to students for discussion.” Unlike some of the people who commented on his announcement, he didn’t try to provide quick and dirty proofs of this view by saying “look at the positions they hold!” or “look at who they’re publishing with!” He just reported his opinion.

    What makes Parsons’ announcement interesting is that it pokes holes in talk of theism-friendly consensuses in philosophy of religion, and in attempts to dismiss people who are unimpressed with recent philosophy of religion on the grounds that they must be ignorant.

  5. “I still think your claim is quite dubious. I’ll go so far as to say that if someone thought Mackie’s argument disproved theism, and was aware of a version of the free will theodicy based on libertarian free will, I would never expect them to change their mind based on reading Plantinga. This is just because the objections to those sorts of theodicies (including, notably, objections to libertarianism itself) are typically applicable to Plantinga’s version.”

    Why do you think that someone convinced by Mackie’s argument wouldn’t change his mind after reading Plantinga’s article? You give, I think, two reasons, but maybe you just give one; anyway, the two reasons I see are: (1) “the objections to those sorts of theodicies … are typically applicable to Plantinga’s version” and (2) one of the objections to free will theodicies is an objection to libertarianism itself.

    Regarding (2), since Mackie is forwarding a *logical* version of the PoE, are you saying that people convinced by Mackie wouldn’t be convinced by any free will defense because they think libertarian freedom is logically incoherent? And if you don’t mind my asking, what is the referent of (1)?

  6. Chris,

    That is a plausible, but also somewhat charitable interpretation of Parsons, as he seems just as concerned about other things, like some kind of midlife crisis. Some questions I have regarding your interpretation are: what changed? Did Parsons previously take theistic arguments seriously? Was he really just speaking from a position of condescension, trying to save his Christian interlocutors from delusions? Did he suddenly realize the arguments were bad? Or did some new knock-down atheistic argument come out, and if so what was it? I always took him to think theistic arguments failed; has he discovered something new?

    Even if there are these theism-defeating secrets behind his selective retirement, I still don’t see how the announcement itself adds anything philosophically interesting. It is merely a significant piece of his biography.

  7. >are you saying that people convinced by Mackie wouldn’t be convinced by any free will defense because they think libertarian freedom is logically incoherent?

    Mackie’s way of putting the point in ’55 was that the free will defense requires a shift between two different understandings of “free,” an analysis that I think still has plausibility today. But I think it would be enough to say that libertarianism is necessarily false, unless you really do think it’s an issue of pure formal consistency.

    I don’t that reading of the debate is supported by the text of “Evil and Omnipotence” (there’s a reason Mackie called his premises “quasi-logical rules” rather than “logical rules,” and I assume he knew denying his premises resulted in no formal contradiction.) Furthermore, the formal-consistency view of the debate is denied in Nature of Necessity, where Plantinga explicitly says the issue is whether there’s a possible world where God and evil co-exist.

    It’s possible that Plantinga has promoted the formal-consistency view elsewhere, but in any case I think that’s an obviously absurd way to understand the issue. As David Lewis pointed out, if that’s what’s at stake, you might as well “solve” the PoE by saying that the best things in life include love, joy, knowledge, vigour, despair, malice, betrayal, and torture.

    >what is the referent of (1)?

    In my previous comment, what you call (2) was intended to be an instance of (1).

  8. I meant to add a bit about your comment on the discipline.

    (1) What talk of theism-friendly consensus in philosophy of religion? There is a theism-friendly consensus, widely reported. One good explanation for this is that theists tend to like phil religion more than atheists. How has Parsons added new information? We already knew he wasn’t friendly to theism. Is the difference that now he says the arguments are really weak?

    (2) I take it that most informed atheists in phil religion are “unimpressed” with recent work because they think it is wrong. Parsons saying he thinks the arguments are special-bad. I’m not sure this adds anything either. And the move from unimpressed to ignorant would be unjustified in any context, I think.

    P.S. I think the number of words I’ve now written in these comments far exceeds the importance of this topic…

  9. Chris,

    I am a physicist with a long interest in the philosophy of religion – I’ve read some Hick and Swinburne over the years, not to mention the obvious “popular” stuff (C. S. Lewis, Dawkins, etc.).

    Perhaps I can offer an outsider’s perspective on all this:

    Why is there no “philosophy of astrology” or “philosophy of phrenology”?

    The answer, I suppose, is that very few people believe in phrenology and those who believe in astrology are not terribly committed to it or passionate about it (and are generally stunningly uneducated, to boot).

    Prima facie, religion strikes me as no more worthy of serious consideration than astrology or phrenology. But, an awful lot of people do take it very seriously, even passionately, and some of those people have at least a semblance of an education.

    So, historically and sociologically, analyzing the “philosophy” of religion may make sense. But as an intellectual enterprise that actually takes religious beliefs seriously?

    Astrology is obviously false; phrenology is obviously false; religion is obviously false.

    All the same.

    Of course, we have an implicit “social contract” here in the USA that says that it is arrogant, obnoxious, etc. to cavalierly dismiss others’ religious views, even if we have good reasons for thinking those views deserve such dismissal. We have no such social norm concerning phrenology, and only a very weak one concerning astrology (I suppose it is rude to ridicule believers in astrology to their face, eh?).

    So… I suppose my bottom line is that there really is not a serious philosophy of religion, though there is some work in the philosophy of religion that might be viewed seriously as contributions to the sociology of religion, the psychopathology of religion, etc.

    As I said, I know that this judgment counts as “arrogant” by the social norms of the contemporary USA, but, nonetheless, I am pretty sure it is the real, if unspoken, belief of more than a few intelligent, well-educated people, including a very large number of my fellow scientists.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

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