Five years ago I posted an essay here at SO titled “Goodbye to All That” in which I announced an intention of never publishing or teaching a class on philosophy of religion again (the link is below). I had just slogged through a particularly bad book of theistic apologetics and was overwhelmed with a sense of ennui. I thought my announcement would interest maybe a half dozen people. Instead, to my astonishment, it “went viral” and was soon all over the place. There were many responses, and I only looked at a few. As expected, some “good Christians” responded apoplectically, displaying a truly breathtaking depth of Christian charity by tossing buckets of vitriol in my direction. Some guy at Baylor went through my Curriculum Vitae and announced that I was not qualified to have an opinion on the topic. Of course, he referred to nothing that I had actually written. Par for the course—and water off the duck’s back as far as its impact on me.
To be fair, I did say something in the original post that I quickly regretted—and said so. I spoke to the effect that the “case for theism” is a “fraud.” I immediately qualified that statement by saying that the proponents of the arguments were not frauds. However, the word “fraud” inevitably implies something underhanded. This was wrong. FWIW, (and once you say something, the toothpaste cannot be put back in the tube), I was only trying to say that I consider the project of natural theology to have run its course and that, in my not-so-humble opinion, even the most sophisticated versions of the traditional arguments (ontological, cosmological, teleological) had been thoroughly vetted and effectively critiqued. Natural theologians have been trying to resurrect a dead horse in recent years, but, alas, the poor beast remains resolutely deceased. Nevertheless, I think that my judgment of the quality of the arguments in my previous post was too harsh. I compared the theistic arguments to the claims of the “intelligent design” foolishness. Actually, I do not think that the most sophisticated of the theistic arguments (e.g. Richard Swinburne’s) are that bad. At least they fail in interesting and instructive ways, and often that is all you can expect of a philosophical argument.
In the meantime, I have changed my mind and decided to teach philosophy of religion again. (I still have no plans for further publication in the field, but I will not rule it out) John Loftus, who is writing a book arguing that the philosophy of religion is a defunct research program and should be eliminated, was interested in why I had decided to teach the subject again after saying I would not. He asked if he could interview me on the issue, and I agreed. John is also publishing this interview on his Debunking Christianity site, with some concluding remarks of his own that I am not including here. I may refer to and respond to those remarks in a future post.
John: Dr. Keith M. Parsons is on the faculty of The University of Houston–Clear Lake, where he is Associate Professor of Philosophy [Actually, I have had the rank of Professor since 2005—KMP.]. He has written a number of books and essays and was the founding editor of the philosophical journal Philo. He also did very well in two debates against William Lane Craig. Keith has honored me with the opportunity to interview him on the philosophy of religion, a topic I’ll be writing about in a book titled, Unapologetic: Why the Philosophy of Religion Must End. What prompted this interview was that I noticed he was teaching a Philosophy of Religion (PoR) class after saying he wouldn’t teach these classes any longer, or so it appeared, seen here:
I want to let him clear the air in case he changed his mind (his prerogative if he so chooses), or correct any misunderstandings readers might have. Going beyond this I want to get his present perspectives on the PoR discipline.
The following interview took place as I asked Keith a question via email, to which he responded as his time allowed. Then I would ask him another one, and so on. It was a not debate, because I was restricted to asking questions. Even though I threw a few hardball’s it wouldn’t be fair to characterize this as anything more than a discussion. I interviewed him for the purposes of learning his views more or less, and that’s it.
John: The first question I must ask is why are you teaching a PoR class? Is it just one class, or are there others? Didn’t you say you would no longer do so?
Keith: (1) I am teaching a philosophy of religion class because I consider it an important part of our philosophy curriculum. Students find the issues and the readings interesting, and they are introduced to a number of important philosophical concepts, tools, and topics, such as possible worlds and modal concepts, the principle of sufficient reason, Hume’s critique of miracles, probability and Bayes’ Theorem, teleology and function explanations, naturalism/physicalism, epistemological foundationalism and its critics, etc. So it is eminently justified merely from a pedagogical perspective. More broadly, so long as religion remains a core human concern (for the foreseeable future), then, like all other vital human concerns (e.g. knowledge, morality, politics) it will invite philosophical reflection. This is why philosophy of religion, in some form, will, and should, be around as long as there is religion. Put another way, philosophers would be derelict in their professional duties if they refused to reflect rigorously on the issues raised by religion. As Hume observed in the first chapter of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, the only cure for bad philosophy is good philosophy, and bad philosophy will proliferate if good philosophy abandons the field.
(2) No, this is the only course in philosophy of religion at our university. However, I would very much like to see a whole program of religious studies taught here.
(3) Yes, I did say that I would not teach philosophy of religion any longer. I changed my mind. When I made that announcement I was suffering from severe ennui brought on by having to slog through many bad, ax-grinding, and tedious arguments for theism. However, after taking a couple of years off from teaching PoR, I got a second wind. Reading John Hick’s An Interpretation of Religion convinced me that my focus had been too narrow, and that there are many issues that are still of considerable interest. Even the arguments for the existence of God, if properly presented, retain considerable interest. I discovered Yujin Nagasawa’s The Existence of God, and found his lively, lucid, judicious, and appealing presentation of the arguments to be just the ticket for rekindling interest (both mine and my students’). The theistic arguments remain very interesting, if only because it is extremely instructive to see just where they go wrong (and, as Nagasawa shows, many of the standard “refutations” might at least need more work). Actually, much of philosophy is like that. We still read Descartes’s Meditations, though it is pretty much universally agreed that he failed in his object of putting knowledge on foundations of absolute certainty. When very bright people try something very big and fail, it is highly instructive to see just how they went wrong and what that failure means. I still think than natural theology has run its course and that, as living philosophical effort, it is finished. However, as an object for postmortem analysis, it remains quite fascinating!
John: Excellent answers Keith, as I expected they would be! Just so readers don’t misunderstand you, I should ask about John Hick’s views before going any further. As you know, he was one of the most important philosophers of religion in the past century. One of his main arguments in the book you mentioned is that, “The universe is religiously ambiguous in that it is possible to interpret it, intellectually and experientially, both religiously and naturalistically. The theistic and anti-theistic arguments are all inconclusive, for the special evidences to which they appeal are also capable of being understood in terms of the contrary worldview.” (p. 12). Are you saying you’ve changed your mind about the force of theistic arguments, that you now lean more toward agnosticism than atheism? [On agnosticism readers should see this: http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2010/10/thomas-huxley-vs-bertrand-russell-on.html].
Keith: You quote from John Hick’s An Interpretation of Religion: “The universe is religiously ambiguous in that it is possible to interpret it, intellectually and experientially, both religiously and naturalistically. The theistic and anti-theistic arguments are all inconclusive, for the special evidences to which they appeal are also capable of being understood in terms of the contrary worldview.” (p. 12). Then you ask: “Are you saying you’ve changed your mind about the force of theistic arguments, that you now lean more toward agnosticism than atheism?”
No, I am most definitely an atheist. I disbelieve in God. I think that there is no good reason to believe that God exists and several good ones for holding that he does not exist. Further, I am a physicalist. I hold that all that has substantial existence (which I construe as being capable of acting or being acted upon), is physical. I do not think that there is a supernatural or transcendent aspect or element of reality. I do not believe in any gods, ghosts, souls, spirits, demons, demigods, angels, vital essences, occult powers or animistic forces. Full stop.
But I could be wrong.
Hick is undeniably right that an experience of the numinous or sacred is an integral and pervasive aspect of the human experience. Very, very many humans have, at times in their lives felt, in Worsworth’s words:
…a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man.
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things…
The ambiguity of reality that Hick speaks of is how we are to interpret such experiences, i.e. encounters with the numinous. I interpret these experiences pantheistically; I view the natural universe as the proper object of awe and wonder. But, again, I could be wrong. Other people, no less rational than myself, take the “depth” experiences as pointers to the transcendent, to a reality that is deeper than or more inclusive than the physical. Though zealots on both sides hate the thought, I agree with Hick that reason does not dictate which side you come down on. One may rationally opt for a naturalistic or supernaturalistic interpretation. This is not a wishy washy relativism that says that there is no objective truth here. No, either there is a transcendent reality or not. I say not, and, though I can give reasons for saying what I say, I have to admit that these reasons are not decisive and that they might be rationally rejected. Again, fundamentalist theists and fundamentalist atheists will hate to admit it, but there are eminently reasonable and rational people who violate no epistemic duties in holding opposite views. Indeed, the ones who really have egg on their faces are the ones who think that those who disagree with them on these matters must either be knaves or fools.
John: Very Interesting! It sounds like you’re a weak atheist to me. If true, we differ on the strength of the evidence. Everyone has some sense of deep wonder at existence, or they should.
It’s clear from the course objectives to your PoR class that you kindly sent me, you want students to become better critical thinkers, and to better understand and argue the subject matter. Is your class more or less an exercise of reasoning and logic that just so happens to use PoR as the subject matter? Or do you want to convince your students of something? Do you want them to develop a skeptical disposition too?
Keith: I don’t know what you mean by a “weak atheist.” If you mean that I must regard the arguments for atheism as weak, or as establishing only a slight priority of evidence over theism, that is not my view at all. I find the arguments for atheism very strong. However, I do not regard them as so strong as to preclude rational dissent. It is similar to political convictions. I am a true-blue, old-fashioned, tax-and-spend liberal. I consider the weight of morality and rational argument to be on the side of liberalism. Further, it is unquestionably the case that much howling madness now passes for “conservatism.” However, I see no justification for saying that there cannot be rational conservatives who hold their views in good faith and without committing any epistemic or moral sins. In short, it is entirely possible to (a) hold one’s convictions firmly and even passionately, and (b) admit that rational disagreement is possible. There is nothing “weak” about such a position.
Do I want my students to learn to be better critical thinkers? Sure. When my university adopted a “critical thinking” initiative I pointed out that every course that I taught was a course in critical thinking. Indeed, “critical thinking” is a fair definition of what philosophy is. Is the aim of the class just to teach critical thinking and PoR is only the vehicle for doing that? No, I want them to understand the content as well. I think that all philosophy students need to be acquainted with the issues of PoR, both the traditional and the newer ones. For instance, I think that they need to be acquainted with the arguments both for and against the existence of God and their strengths and limitations. What is the alternative? Ignorance? What would we say of an atheist who refused even to look at the arguments for theism? Do I want to convince my students of anything? Sure. I want to convince them of the profound value of reasoning about important things and not simply trusting their “gut” Yes, one of the aims of any philosophy course is to encourage a less gullible and more skeptical attitude. However, it has to be an informed skepticism. It cannot be a sort of reverse dogmatism like that of the so-called “climate skeptics” who will not be convinced by any arguments for human-caused climate change. Honest skepticism is nothing other than to adhere to Socrates’ dictum to follow the argument wherever it leads.
John: Readers might be interested in knowing to what degree you might push your students toward a more skeptical attitude, but that seems hard to quantify. So let me ask instead if you find the arguments against the so-called revealed religions and most all paranormal claims strong enough as to preclude rational dissent? Isn’t that what we’re almost always talking about? A noninvolved or deistic god-concept doesn’t produce much to be excited about at all, nor do we need such a hypothesis in science. Or do we? Why should we take those claims seriously, except for the fact that many people believe them? As far as teaching students the content of the PoR goes, what would you say about requiring classes on biblical literature, since knowing of it in the western world is to be considered literate? What is so essential about the content of western PoR that immigrants from Asian, Middle Eastern and Southern hemispheres should understand?
Keith: Could you limit it to three more questions? Sorry, but duty calls.
John: I’m going to publish my last set of questions and your reply that “duty calls.” I hope this isn’t considered by you to be some sort of dig at you, or your position. I just want readers to know I asked those sets of questions which I consider important for the case I’m going to make in my book, even if you didn’t have time to answer them.
Okay, three more questions.
Keith, here are three statements you made when you quit teaching the PoR:
“In teaching class I try to present material that I find antithetical to my own views as fairly and in as unbiased a manner as possible.
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.
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.”
You say that you must teach PoR in an unbiased manner, then you say you cannot take theistic arguments seriously, and so you conclude you should no longer teach it. It all makes sense. If professors must teach PoR in an unbiased manner, and if they cannot take theistic arguments seriously, then they should quit teaching it. Got it.
But why did you think–and still think—that PoR professors must teach their discipline in an unbiased manner? What other disciplines are taught that way? And what would you say to professors of PoR who agree with your former self that theistic arguments can’t be taken seriously, and yet they disagree with your notion that they must teach the PoR in an unbiased manner?
Keith: Why teach PoR, or anything, in an unbiased manner? I guess I will shift the burden of proof here: What could one possibly say in favor of teaching anything in a biased manner? Maybe you don’t mean “biased” in the sense of “prejudiced” or “bigoted” but only in the sense of refusing to maintain a faux neutrality when the subject matter does not warrant it. For instance, if I tried to teach the arguments of “intelligent design” theorists in an absolutely neutral way without indicating that they are, in fact, dreadful arguments, then I would be doing a disservice to my students, failing in my responsibility to critique shoddy thinking and bad science. It can never be biased to tell the truth. Of course, I could be wrong, and I always invite students to challenge my conclusions when they suspect that I am wrong. How many courses are taught this way? I hope that all of them are. A university class is not your bully pulpit nor a soapbox for partisan hectoring. You present arguments that you oppose as fairly as you can and you critique them as fairly as you can, while, again, inviting disagreement. As for the question about what I would say to colleague who said, as I did five years ago, that the theistic arguments are unworthy of scholarly attention, and so unworthy of consideration in a university classroom? Well, first of all, if we only taught “good” arguments in philosophy, we would have to leave out a very great deal of it. As I said before, there is often pedagogical value in teaching arguments that fail, precisely because it is instructive to see how clever and often intuitive arguments go bad.
But are not some things so egregiously bad, so absolutely unworthy of consideration and so intellectually vacuous so as not to merit inclusion in a university course? Sure. For instance, I just could not imagine taking time to study, say, John Hagee’s opinions on the imminence of the “rapture.” So, the question is, where, along the scale of intellectual respectability do we put the theistic arguments. Are they frauds as I said five years ago? As I said immediately afterwards, I do regret having used the term “fraud” since that inevitably implies conscious and intentional deception—the marketing of goods known to be shoddy. That was wrong. I do think that the arguments fail, considered both individually and cumulatively (obviously, since I am still an atheist), but I do not think that they are fraudulent or that they are egregiously bad—like Hagee’s dimwitted effusions. After all, the arguments are the products of some extraordinarily intelligent and articulate people. Whatever you think of Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, William Lane Craig, Ed Feser, J.P. Moreland (not to mention Aquinas, Leibniz, and Descartes), you have to admit that these are very smart and well-informed people. To write them off as mountebanks or inept would indeed be bias, in a pejorative sense. Do I think that natural theology has a future as a viable and possibly productive intellectual enterprise? No, I do not. I think that the theistic arguments, in their most sophisticated formats, have been subjected to deep and incisive criticism and that there is little prospect that some future re-re-re-re-re-revision of, say, the ontological argument, will actually work. Saying this, however, does not mean an end to PoR, nor does it mean that there is no pedagogical value in teaching the theistic arguments.
John: What scientific evidence do you find unpersuasive when it comes to the claims of religion such that it would justify continued philosophical discussions by amateurs (i.e., not scientists) about it? Where does that evidence leave us with regard to religion? Is there any fault with the method (or methods) of science that needs supplemented by religious faith?
Keith: I do not think that there is any scientific evidence for religious claims at all. The same applies to all sorts of metaphysical claims. There is no scientific evidence for Platonic Ideal Forms or Cartesian minds. Scientific evidence cannot settle whether David Lewis or Alvin Plantinga offers the more cogent interpretation of possible worlds. Does that mean that we cannot have rational discussion of such topics? The logical positivists, of course, said that any discussion of metaphysical matters is meaningless, but I think that the last logical positivist died circa 1959. If we accept that metaphysics may be discussed in respectable circles, then it would be special pleading to exclude the metaphysical claims of religion. There is no fault at all with scientific methods, nor do they need to be supplemented by religious faith. That is not the question. The question of rationality is larger than the question of what is answerable by science at any given time. Philosophy deals with worldviews, and worldviews are not decidable by appeal to science. Rather, one’s view of the authority and scope of science is dependent on worldview. In a worldview where faith is primary and empirical evidence is secondary, no degree of empirical evidence can dislodge the claims of faith. Such a view is highly antithetical to mine, but, obviously, it cannot be critiqued with empirical evidence, but only with philosophical argument.
Perhaps you only mean to suggest that natural theology, the attempt to establish the existence and nature of God by natural reason alone, is no longer a viable intellectual project. I agree. That was the point of my posting in 2010. I think that the theistic arguments, as a form of aggressive apologetics, have been thoroughly and effectively critiqued. There seems to me little prospect that some new version of the traditional arguments will carry the day. But the retirement of natural theology by no means spells an end to rational discussion of religion. Is religious belief rational only if some version of the ontological, cosmological, or design argument succeeds? To argue “yes” or “no” is to do philosophy of religion.
John: Last question, thanks for bearing through this.
In your wonderfully enlightening book, It Started with Copernicus: Vital Questions About Faith (pp. 354-358) and for a blog post
you argued that Darwin engaged in philosophical questions. Your point is that Darwin was also a philosopher. The criteria to determine when someone is doing philosophy (in this case PoR) as opposed to science you say:
In cases … where the evidence will not settle the dispute, scientists must employ philosophical arguments. And they do. Therefore, the suggestion that science can simply replace philosophy is wrong for the reason that, as [Thomas] Kuhn observed, scientific debates often embed—or are embedded within—philosophical debates. These philosophical differences often cannot be settled by straightforward empirical means, but must be addressed with philosophical argument. Science cannot replace philosophy because philosophy is an essential part of the scientific enterprise. Kuhn was wrong about many things, but on this point he was absolutely right.
And I have no bone to pick with philosophy per se. But this raises an interesting question. I think we can agree that mere reasoning is not equivalent to philosophy otherwise there is no content to the discipline of philosophy. So scientific reasoning is not necessarily doing philosophy. Scientists must reason to be scientists, but that isn’t the same thing as discussing Aquinas. The mere use of logic and the avoidance of fallacies shouldn’t be considered philosophical reasoning in and of themselves. We should also agree that we don’t need to wait until everyone agrees that a particular dispute has been settled by science, before we can say scientists are no longer doing philosophy when reasoning about the evidence. This was the case in Darwin’s day, but the dispute over evolution has been settled in our day. I think the implications about evolution are settled too. What you need to do is to show why any scientifically literate person should wait until evolution deniers agree that this dispute has been settled before saying evolutionists are not doing philosophy of religion. Can you?
Keith: I am not completely sure I see what you are getting at here. You seem to be asking when a question is no longer philosophical, but becomes straightforwardly empirical. Is evolution now just a scientific fact? Sure. Absolutely. It is not a topic of debate whether the diversity of life is due to a natural process of descent with modification, as Darwin called it. Nor is there any reasonable basis for denying that natural selection has been the main driver of evolution. Case closed. What is the relevance of this for PoR? Well, it seems to indicate that there is not much point in discussing “intelligent design” unless to draw lessons about how bad philosophy can be used to prop up bad science. What is the relation to PoR in general? I do not see any. Again, you may be meaning to imply something that is not registering with me.
John: My book, Unapologetic: Why Philosophy of Religion Must End, will be arguing something specific about this. If all we need to do is point to the evidence then there is no additional need to use PoR to address bad philosophy. Just point to the evidence. In other words, science has taken over the role of the PoR on this question, so what reason is there for philosophers in general to bother with it? If the only philosophy to be taken seriously is scientifically informed philosophy, then aren’t most theistic PoR arguments dead, irrelevant and inadequate? Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism and Victor Reppert’s Argument From Reason are not scientifically informed arguments, since if they really understood evolution they would not make those arguments. What do you think about this?
Keith: Have we reached the point where religious claims are now defunct, disproven by science? Are we at the point where there is no more need for philosophy of religion since all of its important questions have now been answered scientifically? Well, that would certainly seem to be VERY broad claim to me, and one hard to support. Even if we restricted “philosophy of religion” just to the question of whether the theistic God exists, it is hardly clear that this is, or even, in principle, can be settled by science. Some of the standard theistic arguments are a priori, and so, of course, cannot be settled empirically. Even the ones that depend on empirical content, like the “fine tuning argument” (FTA) also appeal to premises that not empirical. Robin Collins, for instance, defends the application of the classical interpretation of probability to the FTA. Neither do the data adduced by the fine tuners yet have a scientific explanation. There is not yet a “theory of everything,” and it is not clear that, even if there were, that it would solve the problem. It seems to me that any ultimate posit, i.e. anything posited as an ultimate, logically contingent state of affairs will, qua contingent, be just one of an infinite number of possible ultimates that conceivably could have existed instead. If the answer to why we could have been so lucky as to have a Goldilocks universe is God, then we have to ask why we should have been so lucky as to get God instead of any number of other possible ultimate realities, the vast majority of which would not or could not have given a damn about us or had any power to “fine tune” the physical constants.
But I digress. The question is whether there are any interesting questions left for PoR that science cannot settle. Surely there are. Is the question of theism/atheism one that is straightforwardly empirical? Some (you, John) will say yes and lots of others will say no. If you debate the point you will be doing PoR. Besides, surely there are many, many interesting issues to talk about besides the case for or against theism. John Hick rejects the arguments of natural theology, but argues that theism and naturalism are each legitimate responses to the “religious ambiguity” of the universe. Is he right? In what sense is the universe “ambiguous” with respect to the existence of the transcendent? What about a revival of paganism. In Reykjavik, Iceland they are building a temple to the old Norse gods, who will be worshipped for the first time in a thousand years. Is neo-paganism a rational and viable prospect? What about the human experience of the numinous? What is the significance of the sacred? Is nothing sacred? If the standard philosophical apologetic fails, is there reason to support a historical apologetic, one based on historical claims like the resurrection? What about noninferential religious belief? Could it be the case, as Plantinga has argued extensively, that belief in God requires no evidence or arguments at all? Can naturalism account for all phenomena? What about qualia? Is the “hard problem” of consciousness insoluble? I thought of these just off the top of my head, and more extensive reflection could surely turn up many more. So long as religion remains a central element in human life it will invite philosophical reflection. Sorry, John, but I think your announcement of the death of philosophy of religion is greatly exaggerated.
John: Thank you so much for your time and this interview!