bookmark_borderInitial Thoughts about the End of Philosophy of Religion

John Loftus has recently defended the idea that philosophy of religion should “end as a discipline in secular universities.”
Post by John Loftus Advocating the End of PoR as a discipline
Here are my initial thoughts and reactions to some of the points in his recent post on this subject:
What if philosophy spawned a discipline that, after a few centuries or decades, science has shown us it doesn’t deserve to be a separate discipline? That’s the argument of Richard Dawkins, Peter Boghossian, Jerry Coyne and myself.
What is “science”? The question “Does PoR deserve to be a separate discipline?” is a normative policy issue. Science does not provide answers to normative policy issues. What sort of experiments could be performed to “verify” the correctness of such a policy determination? How exactly does “science” show that PoR does not “deserve” to be a separate discipline? And what are the alternatives to being a “separate discipline”? Is “science” OK with PoR being some other kind of discipline an non-separate discipline? What would a non-separate disciple of PoR look like? What scientific experiments have been performed relative to PoR being “a separate discipline” as compared with it being a non-separate discipline(whatever that might mean)?
Oppy tells us: “Philosophy of religion as a discipline, I would think, probably doesn’t date much earlier than the second World War.” This historical lesson is significant, I think, for we did without it for centuries and we can do without it again.
But the issues and arguments of PoR have existed since Socrates, so if we go back to the good-old-days, philosophers will still be discussing the existence of God, the existence of souls, life after death, faith, prayer, holiness, worship, and divine inspiration. I don’t see much difference whether we call arguing about the existence of God “Philosophy of Religion” or call it something else, like “metaphysics” or just “philosophy”.
Okay then, as it stands today the philosophy of religion is dominated by Christian theists who discuss concepts and arguments germane to Christianity, and even defending it.
Most Americans are Christian theists, so it is only natural that American philosophers will argue about issues that they and their students naturally care about and defend views that they actually believe. As an atheist and a humanist, I would defend my views in teaching philosophy courses. I agree that we should encourage college students, and especially philosophy majors, to consider, analyze, and evaluate a wide variety of different points of view and worldviews. And I think most philosophers and most philosophy departments would strongly agree on this point. But I see nothing wrong with giving special emphasis to Christian and Western religions, given their dominance in our Western culture. The most important culture for an American student to analyze, understand, and evaluate is the dominant culture of contemporary America, which includes Christianity.
The unaddressed question is why we should have a discipline in any secular university where theism, or Christian theism, Christian theology or Christian apologetics is privileged and considered to the exclusion of all other religions or apologetics?
I agree that Christianity should not be considered to the exclusion of all other religions, but (a) I doubt that that is generally the case in secular philosophy departments, and (b) I don’t see how it is the “discipline” that is to blame if this was in fact a significant problem. It seems to me that the discipline of philosophy of religion includes intellectual goals and values that push us towards examination of a diversity of points of view. If there is a real problem here, it may be better understood as a failure to be involved in the discipline of PoR. Possibly professors are deceiving themselves and students into thinking that they are doing PoR when they are actually doing something else. The solution to that problem is to encourage people to do PoR NOT to discourage them from doing PoR!
My position is that the philosophy of religion (and to be sure I have three master’s degrees in that discipline) should end as a discipline in secular universities.
I’m not clear what ending PoR “as a discipline in secular universities” means. If we end the discipline, does that imply that there will be no more courses in Philosophy of Religion? How so? There is NOT a one-to-one correspondence between disciplines and courses. There are clearly “Critical Thinking” courses taught by philosophy professors, but I don’t think that Critical Thinking is a discipline, at least not a recognized discipline. If I take a course in “The philosophy of feminism” or a course taught by one of my favorite professors “The philosophy of rock”, does that entail that there must be a disciple called the philosophy of feminism or a discipline called “The philosophy of rock”? I don’t think so. So, if getting rid of the “discipline” of PoR does NOT imply getting rid of courses in PoR, what good does it do anyone to get rid of the “discipline”? Without some significant clarification it is difficult to either agree or disagree with this proposal.
…Oppy says his rejection of the philosophy of religion “seems to be expressing views in the philosophy of religion.” Boghossian’s views are “just a position in the philosophy of religion,” he said. The reason this criticism of Oppy’s is misguided is because by the same token someone who rejects legitimate science by doing pseudoscience is doing science, or someone who does science badly is doing science, and so forth.
I’m not familiar with Boghossian’s views, so cannot comment on them, but I am familiar with Dawkins views, and I see him as doing philosophy of religion (badly) while denouncing the work of real philosophers who are doing of philosophy of religion well (e.g. Richard Swinburne). Dawkins thinks he is doing “science”, and claims that “science” has disproven the existence of God, and then Dawkins proceeds to give us a philosophical argument for atheism, and does a very poor job of it. By the way, every Tom Dick and Harry thinks they can do philosophy without any real effort, but I have read hundreds of philosophy essays by bright undergraduate students (most of whom think they can do philosophy with ease) and at least 80% of the papers I have read are crap; they are hardly even readable, and maybe one out of a hundred papers makes an actual decent point and provides a plausible argument for the point. For some reason scientists are especially prone to the fantasy that they can do philosophy with ease. Dawkins is just one of a long line of scientists who are deluded in thinking that they can do philosophy well.
In any case, if the philosophy of religion was reinvented as Oppy suggests, then what we would end up with is a Religious Studies discipline and classes focusing on comparative religion, or the varieties of religious experience, where religious are compared/contrasted/considered and the secular counter-part is offered as a critique of them all. But we already have these kinds of classes.
I think there are some important differences between PoR and Religious Studies: (1) PoR evaluates religious concepts and beliefs (as good or bad, true or false), but Religious Studies tends to avoid such evaluation, (2) PoR focuses on arguments for and against religious concepts, beliefs, and practices, but Religious Studies tends to avoid controversial views and focuses on what has be established by scientific and empirical research, (3) PoR focuses on clarity, definitions, and conceptual analysis of religious concepts, beliefs, and practices, but Religious Studies is focused primarily on empirical data and generalizations and empirical theories concerning religious practices and activities, (4) PoR emphasizes dialogue and debate between opposing points of view, while Religious Studies tends to view each religion or religious group as a separate entity. In short, PoR is primarily evaluative in nature, while Religious Studies is primarily factual and descriptive in nature.

bookmark_borderWhy I am Not Concerned about Christian Theist Philosophers of Religion

One reason I am not concerned about the prevalence of Christian theists in the field of philosophy of religion is that they do a nice job of arguing against each other.
William Lane Craig’s favorite argument for the existence of God is the Kalam cosmological argument. I’m happy that there are some atheist philosophers who challenge this argument, but there are good objections raised against this argument by Christian theist philosophers.
For example, Richard Swinburne rejects this argument (as well as all other deductive proofs of the existence of God), and has put forward some significant objections to the argument in The Existence of God (2nd edition, footnote 10 on p.138-139). Swinburne objects that Craig’s argument for the premise “a beginningless series of events in time cannot exist” is based on a false assumption, and further that IF the assumption were true this would imply that the inference from that assumption to the premise was an invalid inference.
Another favorite argument of Craig’s for the existence of God is the Moral Argument, which goes something like this:
1. There are objectively true fundamental moral principles.
2. There are objectively true fundamental moral principles ONLY IF God exists.
3. God exists.

Swinburne rejects all such deductive proofs for the existence of God and argues that there are no sound deductive proofs of God. Furthermore, Swinburne raises a specific objection to this argument. He agrees with premise (1), but firmly rejects premise (2), on the grounds that God is a logically contingent being, while objectively true fundamental moral principles are necessary truths, truths that hold in all possible worlds. The existence of a logically contingent being cannot explain or cause the existence of a logically necessary truth. Thus, premise (2) is false.
Craig’s favorite argument for the truth of the Christian faith is the argument from the resurrection of Jesus to the conclusion that Jesus is the divine Son of God. One of the best and most neglected objections to Craig’s case for the resurrection comes from Norman Geisler, a fellow Evangelical Christian theist philosopher.
Geisler clearly asserts that in order to establish the claim that “Jesus rose from the dead”, one must first prove that “Jesus actually died on the cross.” I call this requirement “Geisler’s Criterion”. Since Craig has utterly failed in his attempt to prove the latter claim, Geisler’s Criterion will lead any truth seeker to reject Craig’s case for the resurrection.
Swinburne’s case for God and also his case for the resurrection are both dependent upon a key insight about miracles: in order to show that a miracle has occurred, one must show that God has certain specific purposes that would be satisfied by performing the miracle in question. I believe that Swinburne is absolutely correct on this point, and also that this opens the door to a potentially powerful skeptical argument: How do we know what are the specific purposes of God?
Sure we can all agree that “God is a perfectly morally good person” by definition. But it is far from clear that this very general and abstract notion can be used to rationally justify claims like “In such-and-such circumstances, God would be likely to…” In any case, I think Swinburne’s attempt to make that sort of move fails, and it remains an open question whether anyone else can succeed where he has failed.
So, I’m not concerned about the prevalence of Christian theists in the philosophy of religion, because they do a pretty good job of pointing out the flaws and errors in each other’s arguments. I have learned about many skeptical arguments and objections from Richard Swinburne, including many such arguments and objections that he puts forward and supports.

bookmark_borderYes, Jerry, You Have the Right to Criticize the PoR

After having the audacity to publicly respond to Jerry Coyne’s criticism of a previous blog post–the horror!-Jerry Coyne continues to block me from posting comments on his web site. In a recent post, he endorses John Loftus’s call for the end of the philosophy of religion at secular universities. But he also begins his post with what I assume is a veiled response to me. In my revised response to Coyne, I wrote:

Since Coyne is a professional biologist, not a philosopher, he is not an expert on philosophy. Like any other non-philosopher, he has the right to state his opinion regarding the quality of argumentation in philosophy as a whole or a sub-disciple of philosophy, such as the philosophy of religion. But his opinions do not carry the weight of an expert, so it would be fallacious to make the following argument from authority: Jerry Coyne thinks the philosophy of religion is dead; therefore, it’s dead. While some arguments from authority can be logically incorrect, this one is not. Non-philosophers do not have philosophical expertise, so the opinion of non-philosophers, including Coyne, provides no evidence at all for the claim that the philosophy of religion is dead. In other words, there is no logically correct argument from authority for the claim that the PoR is dead when the “authorities” are actually non-authorities. The philosophy of religion may or may not be dead as a discipline, but, if it is, that is for philosophers to determine, not non-philosophers. (Italics added)

Coyne, however, claims that philosophers have said he has “no right” to criticize the teaching of PoR in colleges. In his words:

Philosophers have reproved me because, as a mere biologist, I have no right to criticize the teaching of philosophy of religion in colleges, nor to call for its end.  But I reject the idea that biologists have no standing to give such an opinion, just as I reject the notion that philosophers can’t pass judgement on whether some areas of science are unproductive. All that matters is that opinions must be informed and supported with arguments. And I think I know enough about the philosophy of religion, and about how it’s taught in some colleges, to pass at least a reasonably informed judgment on the value of the discipline—which is almost nil. It’s almost nil because while it can inform us about the influence of scripture and how it was invented (a useful endeavor), it also promulgates religion and prepares students for the ministry.

But this is precisely NOT what any philosopher has said, as I explained to Jerry before. I tried submitting the following comment to his blog, but was blocked again.

Jerry — I’m not aware of any philosopher who “have reproved me because, as a mere biologist, I have no right to criticize the teaching of philosophy of religion in colleges, nor to call for its end.” That is a straw man of your own creation. You quite obviously have the right to criticize it as much as you want. Rather, the complaint is that one cannot construct an argument from authority against PoR based on your dismissal.

Jerry has much more to say about PoR than just his right to criticize it; I, for one, agree with Coyne (and others) who point out that PoR classes should not be used as apologetics classes. On the other hand, I obviously disagree that there is no value in teaching PoR at secular colleges, just as I disagree with the arguments Coyne (and others) use to call for the end of the PoR. But I don’t want to muddy the waters by going into that here. My point here is that everyone agrees Jerry has the “right” to criticize PoR.
Anyway, I encourage you to read his article, even if he is unwilling to allow critical comments on his site.

bookmark_borderAn End to Philosophy of Religion?

John Loftus has issued a call for the end of philosophy of religion (POR) being taught in secular universities. He’s since written a few follow-up posts, but  I think there are two main points that Loftus makes: (1) Science has disproven religion, and philosophy ought to follow suit  (2) Philosophy of religion is dominated by Christian theists, and has become a place for Christian apologetics. It’s not clear to me whether John thinks that, if POR were taught “correctly” (giving equal air-time to all religions, taught by secular philosophers, etc.) we would still need to abolish it from universities.
As an atheist, I’m largely in agreement with Loftus that the available evidence suggests that God does not exist. It also follows that many of the world religions are therefore false. I’m not a fan of arguing that science alone can give us the inference that God does not exist (this requires additional argumentation and inferences that science itself doesn’t give us), but I do agree that the evidence is in favor of atheism. The fact that I am convinced that God does not exist does not mean that I would advocate we stop hearing arguments in favor of the opposing view. This is especially true when a majority of the population thinks I am wrong. The appropriate question, as Loftus points out, is whether or not this discussion should take place in a philosophy classroom in secular universities.
Loftus is right to suggest that philosophy of religion is unhealthily partisan. Recently, philosphers have begun to take notice this problematic trend. Paul Draper and Ryan Nichols, themselves involved in POR, have pointed this out in their paper Diagnosing Bias in Philosophy of Religion (EDIT: I see Jeff has linked to a very similar blogpost, but you can download the article here). They note that philosophy of religion is composed of mostly Christian theists, and that as a result the field suffers from group bias. It’s a top-notch paper that convincingly argues that something is wrong with the current state of affairs.
While Draper and Nichols offer treatment recommendations to the disastrous state of POR, they are quick to mention that they do not think that we should attempt to completely abolish it. They think that philosophy of religion is too important to abandon its pursuit, even if “heroic measures” are required in order to set it straight. The importance of POR, to Draper and Nichols, is practical. Philosophy of religion has generated enormous interest both currently and historically. Given how religious human beings are, it is important that we think about the philosophical implications of religious beliefs. It is important that we evaluate the arguments for and against religious claims. If John were successful in his call, I am doubtful that serious inquiry into POR would stop – it would just not happen at the level of academia.
If I am reading John correctly, he seems to think that because POR is populated by many Christians who unfortunately use it to promote Christian apologetics, we therefore should give up the discipline entirely. But this is throwing the baby out with the bath water. Many, many people might not think critically about their religious beliefs if it were not for the introduction of POR, even if it is taught with an apologetic slant. Given the vast majority of the population (both in the US and elsewhere) is religious to some degree, we ought to encourage more philosophy of religion so that students and interested onlookers will be more likely to think critically about what they believe and why they believe it.
This does not mean that we should sit idle while POR becomes more and more biased. Draper and Nichols have other solutions for making the discipline better. They recommend that that (1) philosophers distance themselves as much as possible from apologetics, (2) use the construction of arguments less as a way of arguing for a position and more as a means of testing it, (3) to “allow the voice of authority to grow dim” (do our best to ignore religious and scriptural authority in an interest of honest investigation), and (4) to accept genuine risk when looking at these topics.
It is my suggestion that instead of calling for an end to philosophy of religion – which is not only highly unlikely but potentially damaging as well – we ought to call for philosophers of religion to incorporate the suggestions of Draper and Nichols. While these four strategies are a good start, it would also benefit the field to think critically about other ways to improve the condition of POR as a discipline.

bookmark_borderNorman Geisler’s Case for the Death of Jesus – Part 3

In previous posts I have argued that only two of Geisler’s eight reasons for the claim that “Jesus actually died on the cross” are worthy of serious consideration. One of those two reasons is based on the spear-wound story, which is found ONLY in the historically unreliable Fourth gospel (John 19:31-37).
There are many reasons to doubt the historicity and reliability of the spear-wound story, but I have started with four general reasons:
GR1. The gospels are historically problematic
GR2. The Fourth gospel is the most historically unreliable of the gospels
GR3. The Passion narratives of the gospels are historically unreliable
GR4. The Passion narrative of the Fourth gospel is historically unreliable
(GR1) and (GR2) were covered in Part 2.
GR3. The Passion narratives of the gospels are historically unreliable
Two books that I would recommend on this subject are Who Killed Jesus? by John Crossan, and The Death of the Messiah, Volume 1 by Raymond Brown. Crossan takes a more skeptical position on the Passion Narratives (PNs) than does Brown:
“Basically the issue is whether the passion accounts are prophecy historicized or history remembered,” said John Dominic Crossan, a professor of religious studies at DePaul University in Chicago. “Ray Brown is 80 percent in the direction of history remembered. I’m 80 percent in the opposite direction.” (New York Times, March 27, 1994, National section)
[quoted in Who Killed Jesus, p.1]

I other words, Crossan believes that most of the content of the PNs is fictional, because it was derived from interpretation of Jewish scripture, not from memories nor from eyewitness testimony about the events, while Brown (allegedly) believes that most of the content of the PNs is historical, because it was derived from memories or reports of people who were followers of Jesus who were present during the events of Jesus’ final week.
One reason why Crossan is more skeptical than Brown is that they have different views about the Fourth gospel. Crossan believes that the PN in John is based on Mark’s PN:
That general understanding of John’s composition means that, for me, he is independent of the Synoptics for the miracles and sayings of Jesus but not for the passion and resurrection stories. …The result is that I find only a single independent source, Mark, behind all four of the New Testament passion stories. I remind you that journalistic ethics and historical reconstruction must tread very carefully when they have but a single independent source. In looking at anything from John’s passion (and resurrection) story, I emphasize with equal force both Synoptic dependence and Johannine creativity. (Who Killed Jesus, p.22)
Brown, on the other hand sees the PN of the Fourth gospel as a second source that is independent of Mark’s PN. However, Brown acknowledges that scholars disagree on this issue: “Yet there are many scholars who argue for Johannine dependence on Mark [in terms of John’s PN]…” (The Death of the Messiah, Vol. 1, p.55)
Brown is more conservative than Crossan in his views about the PNs, but I think Crossan may be exaggerating the difference between his skepticism and the views of Brown. In the opening pages of Volume 1 of The Death of the Messiah, Raymond Brown expresses many cautions and doubts about the historical reliability of the PNs. Brown may be less inclined to see stories and details in the PNs as fictional, but he takes a fairly skeptical view of the PNs as sources for historical information. If Geisler had read and taken seriously the points and cautions made by Brown in the first 35 pages of The Death of the Messiah, then Geisler would probably never have put the spear-wound story forward as being a strong reason for the claim that Jesus actually died on the cross.
John P. Meier, a leading Jesus scholar, called Raymond Brown’s work The Death of the Messiah (Vol. 1 & 2) “The benchmark by which any future study of the Passion Narratives will be measured.” (from back cover of paperback edition of The Death of the Messiah, Vol. 1). N.T. Wright also has high praise for these volumes by Brown: “Massive, hugely learned, yet clear and accessible. This will be a landmark for at least a generation.” (The Original Jesus, p.152). Anyone who is interested in the question “Did Jesus actually die on the cross?” ought to read at least the first section of The Death of the Messiah, Volume 1.
There are 877 pages in Volume 1 of The Death of the Messiah (hereafter: DOM1), and 731 pages in Volume 2. Section 1 of Volume 1 actually begins on page 4, and the second paragraph of section 1 is perhaps the most important paragraph in the entire massive commentary:
The subject for discussion is the passion of Jesus. Understandably there is a desire to know what Jesus himself said, thought, and did in the final hours of his life. Yet Jesus did not write an account of his passion; nor did anyone who had been present write an eyewitness account. Available to us are four different accounts written some thirty to seventy years later in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, all of which were dependent on tradition that had come down from an intervening generation or generations. That intervening preGospel tradition was not preserved even if at times we may be able to detect the broad lines of its content. When we seek to reconstruct it or, even more adventurously, the actual situation of Jesus himself, we are speculating. (DOM1, p.4-5)
Thus one of the world’s leading N.T. scholars, a scholar who knew more about the PNs than almost any other scholar in the history of mankind, tells us that whenever we try to infer or reconstruct the preGospel tradition that lies behind the PNs in the four gospels “we are speculating” and that attempting to get to actual historical facts about Jesus based on such inferences about preGospel tradition is even more speculative. Furthermore, we are told this right up front, on the opening page of Section 1 of a commentary on the PNs that spans over 1,600 pages.
If Geisler had just read the first couple of pages of DOM1, and if he had taken Brown’s view of the PNs seriously, he would have been much more hesitant and cautious about the historicity of the spear-wound story, which is found only in the gospel of John.
In the next part of this series I will lay out many of the cautions and doubts put forward by Brown in the opening pages of DOM1.
Read more: