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.