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_borderDo Christians have more to lose?

In a recent blog post, Randal Rauser wonders about the prospects that atheists (or anyone, really) are “simply after the truth”. He begins by noting that many Christians (such as the popular Christian apologist Lee Strobel), assume that atheists reject God in order to give license to their poor behavior. He’s not sold on this view, but he’s also skeptical of the alternative position that atheists are on a dispassionate quest for truth.
He points to academia (well, a subset – philosphers and scientists) in order to illustrate his point. To quote: “As an academic, you stake a claim that a certain set of propositions is true, or more likely true, than another set (even if that set is the skeptic’s set which advocates withholding belief in other sets).
He continues to say that the more time you spend defending these claims, the more attached you become to them. Your intellectual commitments seem to bleed into your personal commitments, and an attack on those ideas might seem vaguely personal. As he says, “Just as we identify emotionally with nations and persons, so we identify with truth claims, theories and ideologies.” This all seems right to me so far.
He concludes by arguing that “we all begin on the same ground, a self-interested desire to know”. While I agree with Rauser about academics being far from impersonal automatons after the pursuit of truth, it is foolish to think that all commitments to beliefs (or all persons professing commitments to beliefs) are on equal ground. As a quick example, here are two beliefs that I think are true and I defend: (1) Eating animals as a source of food is morally wrong if you have an alternative means of having a healthy diet and (2) Philosophical intuitions are not reliable sources of evidence.
Either of these beliefs are susceptible to revision given further evidence. It seems that (1) clearly has higher social costs, higher practical costs, and higher levels of emotional commitment than (2). I’ve invested significant personal resources in maintaining a vegetarian diet (so has my wife, for that matter!), part of my social identity is wrapped up in being a vegetarian, and I have a strong emotional attachment to this dietary decision. The same sorts of things cannot be said for (2), even though I do believe it’s true and do advocate for it.
Being a Christian seems to pack even more of a “sociological punch” than being a vegetarian. In fact, it packs even more of a punch in Rauser’s particular case. Rauser is employed by a Baptist-leaning seminary college, who endorses a very long Statement of Faith which provides the basis for doctrinal teaching. The major body of his (impressive) list of publications is either defending Christian theism, or discussing a particular theological view. If Rauser were to discover that he is wrong about Christianity, I imagine that admitting this in his professional life would require a not insignificant amount of courage (not to mention the courage he would need to tell John Loftus, his recent co-author, that he is right).  Many professors at Christian universities have been fired after failing to properly instruct according to the university’s theological beliefs.
However, for most other philosophical and scientific positions, there are no such repercussions. Frank Jackson was not fired from his academic post after his rejection of epiphenomenalism, a position which he advocated based on the strength of the Knowledge Argument. If anything, philosophers were impressed at the intellectual humility it took to reverse positions on a view that he had previously championed. If Flew had had academic employment at the time of his alleged conversion to deism, it would not have impacted his appointment.
Further than just professional prospects, there are many sociological and psychological impacts from leaving the faith. An excellent book on this topic is Marlene Winell’s “Leaving the Fold”, which discusses the difficulties that accompany leaving the faith. She notes that many people will inevitably lose the support of friends and family upon leaving the faith. There is no shortage of tragic stories online in which people are all but abandoned because of their religious deconversion.
There are not only sociological difficulties, but psychological ones as well. People wrestle with guilt, fear, and alienation after losing their faith. They might begin to seriously grapple with their mortality for the first time, as I did. Without the Bible to help guide their path, they might struggle with indecision – failing to intuit a pre-ordained, supernatural plan for their lives. The list goes on and on.
The conversation about the earnest search for truth is an important one, and the psychological and sociological underpinnings of belief often go unnoticed. We should welcome a discussion on these issues, but we shouldn’t pretend that all beliefs will be equally emotionally valenced, and that all parties engaged in debate have the same amount to lose by renouncing their position. It is unreasonable to compare the endorsement of (relatively) impersonal philosophical positions to the utterly personal nature of religious beliefs.

bookmark_borderDualism is Unhealthy

No, seriously. (LINK)
“The fact that the simple priming procedures used in the studies had an immediate impact on health-related attitudes and behavior suggests that these procedures may eventually have profound implications for real-life problems. Interventions that reduce dualistic beliefs through priming could be one way to help promote healthier — or less self-damaging — behaviors in at-risk populations.”

bookmark_borderThe Holy Spirit and the Affect Heuristic

I’ve been re-reading Daniel Kahnman’s wonderful book, Thinking, Fast and Slow and came upon the section in which he discusses the ‘affect heuristic’. The affect heuristic is the notion that people often make decisions based on their feelings or emotions about the topic at hand. It is an example of “substitution”, in which “the answer to an easy question (How do I feel about it?) serves as an answer to a much harder question (What do I think about it?)”. (139)

One of the most famous experiments (by Paul Slovic and colleagues) on the affect heuristic involves surveying subjects’ opinions on various technologies, and asking them to list the risks and benefits associated with each technology. The result was fascinating: they observed a very high negative correlation between the estimates on the level of benefits and the level of risks that they attributed to the technologies. This correlation was even higher when they were under a strict time limit. If they favored a technology, it was given a high rating for benefits and very little accompanying risk. When they disliked a technology, they produced very little benefits and listed a lot of disadvantages. As Kahneman notes, “Because the technologies were lined up neatly from good to bad, no painful tradeoffs needed to be faced.”

Then, subjects were given pamphlets which gave brief arguments in favor of a certain technology. Some pamphlets focused on the benefits, while others focused on the risks. The pamphlets were effective in changing the subjects’ mind, but there was an even more interesting result: subjects who only received evidence relevant to the benefits also revised their beliefs about the risk. The same went for the group which only received evidence regarding the mild nature of the risks, they revised the benefits to be more favorable.

This is an intriguing phenomenon, and it immediately reminded me of discourse about the Holy Spirit’s witness in Christianity. In this video about handling doubt, Dr. William Lane Craig argues that the way he knows Christianity to be true (first and foremost – before any arguments or evidence), is on the witness of the Holy Spirit. He knows this “in his heart”, and it gives him a self-authenticating means of knowing that Christianity is true wholly apart from the evidence.

Of course, this sort of reasoning is troubling for a number of reasons (see the ‘Great Pumpkin Objection’ for one line of objection). However, despite the regular objections to this case for veridical knowledge from the Holy Spirit, this seems to me a clear case of the affect heuristic. Craig is substituting a hard question (Does the evidence support the view that God exists?) with an easy one (How do I feel, in my heart, about the existence of God?).

It’s important to note that this does not seem as simple as wish-fulfillment. Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel has not been shy about his desire for God’s non-existence. He doesn’t “want the world to be like that”. Whether or not this functions as evidence for his atheism is another matter entirely. But this isn’t what Craig, at least not obviously, is doing here. Craig isn’t saying “I want Christianity to be true, so I will believe despite the historical contingency of available evidence”. Instead, Craig is arguing that this self-authenticating witness (his feelings about whether or not God exists) of the Holy Spirit is prior to the available evidence. He’s substituting the easy question for the hard question.

Knowing what we know about the affect heuristic, it seems positively irrational to adopt this sort of view. If the witness of the Holy Spirit presents itself as a sort of feeling (as indicated by “in my heart/soul”), we have serious grounds for wondering about the capability of rationally evaluating the arguments for and against the proposition that Craig feels so strongly toward. In fact, the affect heuristic is probably aggravated in such an emotionally-powerful question like “Does God exist?”.

A final worry that one might have: what could possibly serve as a defeater for the witness of the Holy Spirit? If the witness of the Holy Spirit imparts a feeling of confidence about the proposition “God exists”, then couldn’t a period of doubt be sufficient reason for abandoning belief? If it cannot, then a positive feeling about God’s existence cannot and should not be taken as evidence of God’s existence (let alone be prior to the evidence!).

bookmark_borderBoudry’s Hoax on “Sophisticated Theologians”

Dr. Maarten Boudry performs a ‘Sokal-style hoax‘ on two theology conferences. Here is the abstract:

The Paradoxes of Darwinian Disorder. Towards an Ontological Reaffirmation of Order and Transcendence.
Robert A. Maundy,  College of the Holy Cross, Reno, Nevada
In the Darwinian perspective, order is not immanent in reality, but it is a self-affirming aspect of reality in so far as it is experienced by situated subjects. However, it is not so much reality that is self-affirming, but the creative order structuring reality which manifests itself to us. Being-whole, as opposed to being-one, underwrites our fundamental sense of locatedness and particularity in the universe. The valuation of order qua meaningful order, rather than order-in-itself, has been thoroughly objectified in the Darwinian worldview. This process of de-contextualization and reification of meaning has ultimately led to the establishment of ‘dis-order’ rather than ‘this-order’. As a result, Darwinian materialism confronts us with an eradication of meaning from the phenomenological experience of reality. Negative theology however suggests a revaluation of disorder as a necessary precondition of order, as that without which order could not be thought of in an orderly fashion. In that sense, dis-order dissolves into the manifestations of order transcending the materialist realm. Indeed, order becomes only transparent qua order in so far as it is situated against a background of chaos and meaninglessness. This binary opposition between order and dis-order, or between order and that which disrupts order, embodies a central paradox of Darwinian thinking. As Whitehead suggests, reality is not composed of disordered material substances, but as serially-ordered events that are experienced in a subjectively meaningful way. The question is not what structures order, but what structure is imposed on our transcendent conception of order. By narrowly focusing on the disorderly state of present-being, or the “incoherence of a primordial multiplicity”, as John Haught put it, Darwinian materialists lose sense of the ultimate order unfolding in the not-yet-being. Contrary to what Dawkins asserts, if we reframe our sense of locatedness of existence within a the space of radical contingency of spiritual destiny, then absolute order reemerges as an ontological possibility. The discourse of dis-order always already incorporates a creative moment that allows the self to transcend the context in which it finds itself, but also to find solace and responsiveness in an absolute Order which both engenders and withholds meaning. Creation is the condition of possibility of discourse which, in turn, evokes itself as presenting creation itself. Darwinian discourse is therefore just an emanation of the absolute discourse of dis-order, and not the other way around, as crude materialists such as Dawkins suggest.

(h/t Jerry Coyne, Why Evolution is True)

bookmark_borderAn Argument Against Moral Facts

In a seminar on Metaethics (h/t John Brunero) , I encountered an argument against moral facts that I hadn’t heard before. Here is a brief sketch:

(1) We’re justified in believing in some fact only if it plays a role in the explanation of our observations and other non-moral facts.
(2) Moral facts don’t play this role.

(3) We are not justified in believing moral facts.

In order to motivate (1), we can appeal to some flavors of naturalism. Many will argue that a completed science will account for (or give an explanatory account of) everything that exists. That is, a completed science will explain all physical phenomena. We’re justified in believing in electrons, in neurons, and in germs, insofar as they explain our observations of the natural world.
As for (2), it seems that we can explain the world around us without resorting to explanations that involve moral facts. We can explain the behavior of human beings with reference to psychology, biology, and neuroscience without using moral terms. We can explain political, social, and cultural actions without requiring moral facts to be a part of that explanation. It’s hard to see what explanatory work moral facts do.

bookmark_borderPriest Plans to Defy Vatican Orders

“The Rev. Tony Flannery, 66, who was suspended by the Vatican last year, said he was told by the Vatican that he would be allowed to return to ministry only if he agreed to write, sign and publish a statement agreeing, among other things, that women should never be ordained as priests and that he would adhere to church orthodoxy on matters like contraception and homosexuality.”

Here is the NY Times article.