An 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.