Initial 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.