Stupid Atheist Meme #4: “Let’s Put an End to the Philosophy of Religion!”
Note: For the avoidance of doubt, in calling this and other memes”stupid” I’m not claiming–and don’t think–that anyone who agrees with any or all of these memes is a stupid person.
J.L. Schellenberg has written all that needs to be said on this topic, in a combox on another site (skip down to comment #47). I think it’s worth quoting in full.
Having done philosophy of religion as an atheist for more than twenty years, I find the idea that atheistic belief should lead one to view philosophy of religion as useless or pernicious a bit out of touch with reality. Theistic work in philosophy of religion is, for cultural reasons, getting the lion’s share of attention. But this should not prevent us from noticing that the field is in fact rather well populated by non-theists. Rather, it gives us a reason to try to bring them – people like Paul Draper, Evan Fales, Steve Maitzen, Graham Oppy, Robin LePoidevin, William Rowe, and plenty of others — a lot more visibility. Those who call for an end to philosophy of religion might get some insight into just what they’re talking about (and then productively fall silent) if they consulted the work of people like these to discover why even an atheist might spend a lifetime doing philosophy of religion.
The answer is not that an atheist might spend a lifetime crawling through the minutiae of non-Christian or non-theistic religious belief systems. Here it is helpful to have formed some general conception of what philosophy of religion is about. Philosophy of religion, as I see it, involves bringing to bear on both actual and possible religious ideas and practices the resources of the rest of philosophy (ethics, epistemology, etc.) and, reciprocally, bringing to bear on the rest of philosophy the best results from philosophy of religion. If anyone thinks that the work of Christian philosophers exhausts either of these dimensions of the field, or that the most important such work has been completed if/when we recognize that there is no personal deity, they are sadly mistaken. Even if theism is false, other religious ideas – including the most fundamental (which should therefore be of greater interest to philosophers) – remain to be explored. Many of these ideas and explorations will not bring us into the embrace of some living religious tradition, but rather call for us to stretch our imaginations beyond the results of a few millenia of activity on the part of religious people.
Atheism, as I see it, therefore marks not the end of philosophy of religion but is something more like its beginning. Of course, if one is suffering from such common afflictions as the assumption that there are no real intellectual options in this realm other than traditional theism and metaphysical naturalism, or the virus that subtly turns one’s mind from a love of truth to an activist orientation, then one cannot be expected to make much sense of this. But philosophy is supposed to deliver us from such afflictions.
It’s been suggested that our very own Keith Parsons supported this meme when he famously called the case for theism a “fraud” (see here). Two points. He quickly regretted using the word “fraud” and stated (in the combox for that post) that he wishes he had used the word “vacuous” instead as the word “fraud” implies deceit on the part of theists and he doesn’t consider theistic philosophers dishonest. Second,he confirmed in writing this morning that he does NOT think we should put an end to the philosophy of religion. With his permission, I quote his email to me.
Anybody that read that post with any care would see that I did not state that PoR is a fraud. I said that the case for theism is a fraud. I quickly regretted the word “fraud” because it inevitably seems to imply intentional deceit. I should have said that the case for theism is vacuous. Natural theology has been given a fair hearing for centuries, and as the arguments have gotten more sophisticated, the critiques have more than kept up. PoR will always be around, it just needs to switch focus from the endless attempts to substantiate theistic arguments.
Post Edited on 11 August 2015 to add this:
The blogger known as “Ex-Apologist,” who is a nontheist with a Ph.D. in philosophy, has called the suggestion that we should put an end to the philosophy of religion “a joke.” See here.
“What is Philosophy of Religion?” by Paul Draper