Secular Philosophy
January 23, 2008 — 9:15

Author: Matthew Mullins  Category: Links  Comments: 21

Hello my name is Matthew and I too read the Leiter Reports. Today Leiter points to the new Secular Philosophy blog that features contributors such as Daniel Dennett and Colin McGinn (aka The Usual Suspects). Leiter uses the announcement to take issue with remarks from a recent McGinn interview in which McGinn remarks that there are fewer and fewer “Christian philosophers”. Concurring with remarks that appeared here in the past, Leiter concludes that, “To be sure, religious philosophers are probably still a minority in academic philosophy in the U.S., but my sense is they are less of a minority than 25 years ago.”
I’ll be adding Secular Philosophy to the blogroll just as soon as I can figure out how to get it working again.

  • skeptical

    I’m pretty amazed by McGinn’s expressed view that the claim that there are lots of Christian philosophers is “just PR,” and by his reckoning that there are many more Christian philosophers in the older generation than in the younger. What is the most plausible hypothesis for McGinn’s asserting such a wildly off view of the current state of philosophy?

    January 23, 2008 — 14:45
  • Matthew Mullins

    H1: Unbeknownst to most, McGinn is in fact 400 years old and so comparing his generation to the present he’s correct.
    H2: Theists of the younger generation are likely to be quieter about their belief.
    H3: His experience has been wildly different than my own.
    H4: It’s because the number of theists is a social fact, and well, we all know that by and large philosophers are socially inept.
    H5: Much like political views, most philosophers think their sensible peers hold the same views that they do.
    I honestly don’t know why people hold these views, but it is an interesting bit of sociology.
    A senior philosopher recently visited my home institution to give a talk and this same topic came up over dinner. This individual seemed genuinely surprised that some of the leading people in this person’s own field of specialization were theists. Curiously this person asked of each example that I offered whether the individual in question had offered a positive argument for the existence of God, as if that was the mark of being a theist.
    I suspect that the one reason theists are perceived as being absent from the field is that most theists don’t wear their belief on their sleeve. I know some people who actively hide their theism, and more for whom it doesn’t seem relevant to their work so it never comes up. A lot of people are simply quietist about their belief, and for the most part I’m among them. My colleagues always seem surprised anew to discover I’m a theist. (Of course, there could be multiple explanations for this fact!)

    January 23, 2008 — 22:22
  • Christian

    I really don’t see what’s surprising here. The answer should be met with a poll. That’s it. I take it that people like McGinn and Fumerton are generalizing on the basis of what they have encountered. That’s perfectly natural. In my own department we have 20+ philosophers and 0 theists. If their department is like my own, then their comments are not at all surpising, even if they are inaccurate.

    January 23, 2008 — 22:32
  • Matthew Mullins

    I’m not sure what question is supposed to be met with a poll? I think the surprise comes thinking that someone like Fumerton isn’t more aware of the work of people in his own field, and as Leiter points out, that McGinn would get things backwards. One might expect that people who have attained a certain stature in the world of philosophy might be a bit more familiar with the work of people beyond their own department.
    By the way, while Boulder has some truly great and vocal atheists, I’m surprised to learn that Robert Pasnau is not a theist.

    January 23, 2008 — 22:48
  • Christian

    I’m not sure what question is supposed to be met with a poll?
    The question I have in mind is: How many professional philosophers are theists?
    I suppose it is no use speculating. A poll should be taken if one is really interested in the correct answer to that question. My point is just that, for all I know, Fumerton and McGinn are right.
    BTW…Last time I talked to Bob he wasn’t, but God knows?

    January 24, 2008 — 2:50
  • Anonymous

    The percentage of people with religious beliefs among those with a PhD in a science subject deviates from that in the total population and perhaps the same holds for those with a PhD in philosophy. It would be interesting to know the percentage of Christians among ‘theistic philosophers’.
    People with different problems are unlikely to interact that much and fuss about areas one doesn’t really care about may sound as ‘just noise’. Christians may well be concerned about ‘esoteric’ stuff which leaves others cold and this may account for the element of surprise in learning Pasnau is not a Christian! But what counts as philosophy rather than theology or apologetics? Do Christian philosophers believe first, ask questions later and then continue to believe no matter what? Anthony Kenny stopped being a Christian but he denies any role for philosophy in this. McGinn’s comment would raise no eyebrows in Europe, I think, but I have no hard data nor a sociology degree.

    January 24, 2008 — 6:45
  • Alexander Pruss

    One thing that might yield a decrease in the number of theistic philosophers over the past fifty years or so is a decline in the membership of heavily academically involved religious orders like the Jesuits.

    January 24, 2008 — 11:25
  • McGinn’s expressed view that the claim that there are lots of Christian philosophers is “just PR,”. .
    How does overestimating the number of theistic philosophers in any way bring about favorable PR? Maybe he’s concerned about its devastating effects on deliberation. “I was thinking about joining the atheists, you know, but the rumor is they’re sooo unpopular.”

    January 24, 2008 — 13:22
  • A

    If people without religious affiliations are overrepresented within science or philosophy, overestimates of the proportion of theists in what’s considered a prestigious discipline may well count as favourable PR. Among theists however, Christians certainly seem hugely overrepresented: What are the current issues between theists who are Christian and those who are not? Are there attempts to develop decision-making mechanisms for evaluating/choosing among competing religions? If not, ‘theistic’ philosophy may easily collapse onto Christian theology or apologetics, and remain largely opaque to the mainstream.

    January 24, 2008 — 15:09
  • Skeptical

    Mike Almeida:
    I think the suggestion is that Christians want to claim greater intellectual respectability for themselves by holding that more and more philosophers affirm Christian belief. But in fairness to McGinn it was not McGinn but the interviewer who posed the ‘true description, or just PR?’ set of options.

    January 24, 2008 — 16:36
  • Raymond W Aldred

    I’m not entirely sure whether philosophers should really worry about the number of Christian philosophers vs the number of atheist philosophers there are, unless philosophers should be most interested in a consensus of belief.
    I also wonder whether there actually are a dwindling number of Christian philosophers. I personally know a lot of philosophers, professionally trained, that do not teach in a secular academic philosophy department. A lot of these professionally trained philosophers are ethicists, theologians, religious studies professors, sit on education boards, lawyers etc. So if all we are having to go on is whether one teaches in a secular academic philosophy department to represent what a philosopher is, then I am inclined to think that the sample we are taking to represent philosophers is somewhat biased.

    January 24, 2008 — 19:01
  • Mike Almeida

    I think the suggestion is that Christians want to claim greater intellectual respectability for themselves by holding that more and more philosophers affirm Christian belief.
    What does the popularity of theism (even among philosophers) have to do with intellectual respectability? This is the same error McGinn was making. Respectability (all-too-needless to say) is not measured democratically. I find myself saying obvious things. I don’t for a second think McGinn was misled by some half-clever interviewer. He’s way too smart and shrewd. I’m certain nothing I said was unfair (not that I especially care in this case).

    January 24, 2008 — 20:32
  • Skeptical

    Mike Almeida:
    I thought I was the one possibly being unfair to McGinn, by not mentioning that he was echoing the interviewer’s words.
    Respectability can be conferred democratically if there is independent reason to think that the demos is well-informed, thoughtful, etc. That a lot of smart people think that p does not show that p is true, but it surely at least shifts the burden of proof onto those who want to say that it is irrational to believe that p.

    January 24, 2008 — 21:39
  • All,
    Incidentally, these days I’ve written a summary paper about contemporary American Christian philosophy for a Czech theological journal. Here are the sources I met which are most pertinent to this discussion.
    1. Nature, 1998, poll: there is only 7% theists among leading American scientists,
    2. Q. Smith, 2000, estimate based on asking colleagues: “perhaps one-quarter or one-third of [American] philosophy professors are theists”. Smith adds, but I don’t know whether also on the basis of asking his colleagues, “with most being orthodox Christians.”
    3. J. P. Moreland and W. L. Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 2003, p. 3: Smith is probably exaggerating, but his estimate reveals “the perceived impact of Christian philosophers” since the late 1960s.
    4. Q. Smith, ibid., about the popularity of philosophy of religion and the role of theists in this field: “A count would show that in Oxford University Press’ 2000–2001 catalogue, there are 96 recently published books on the philosophy of religion (94 advancing theism and 2 presenting “both sides”). By contrast, there are 28 books in this catalogue on the philosophy of language, 23 on epistemology (including religious epistemology, such as Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief), 14 on metaphysics, 61 books on the philosophy of mind, and 51 books on the philosophy of science.”
    5. Daniel Hill, 1998, estimate about the religious affiliation of philosophers of religion: “Most philosophers of religion … fall into one of two camps from the religious point of view too: the majority are either Roman Catholics or Reformed Calvinists. (There are a few important exceptions, such as William Alston and Peter van Inwagen, who are both Episcopalians, and Richard Swinburne of Oxford, a member of the Orthodox Church.) Notre Dame itself seems to have cornered the market in philosophy of religion by recruiting both Roman Catholics and Reformed Calvinists.”
    Any comments? Is that correct? (I’m a Czech, I don’t know.)

    January 25, 2008 — 4:16
  • overseas

    The last membership figures I’ve heard were roughly
    1. APA- 10,000
    2. Society of Christian Philosophers- 1300
    3. American Catholic Philosophical Ass’n- 700
    4. Evangelical Philosophical Ass’n- c. 1000
    Few members of 3 belong to 2 and 4; Catholics tend to view even 2 as a Protestant organization, though it is non-credal. The membership of 2 and 4 overlaps to a great extent, but not entirely. I know no members of 2 who do not belong to 1, but (surprisingly) many members of 3 do not. Not all members of any of 2-4 are employed as professional philosophers, but then nor are all members of 1. So a decent guesstimate would be: US philosophers, just under 11,000; US theist philosophers, not less than 2100; Theist percentage among people who care and know enough about philosophy to belong to such organizations, not less than just under 20. It is probably rather higher; not all theists care to self-identify, for reasons of professional survival; Continental phlosophers and historians (for instance) feel largely unwelcome in 2 (and I suspect 4); 2-4 would not include non-Christian theists; and rightly or wrongly, 2 and 4 are seen as professional organizatoins in philosophy of religion, and so it’s not just Continental and historian Christian theists who would stay away.

    January 25, 2008 — 4:17
  • Mike Almeida

    That a lot of smart people think that p does not show that p is true, but it surely at least shifts the burden of proof onto those who want to say that it is irrational to believe that p
    I guess I disagree. I’d have to know a lot more than a lot of smart people believe p before it shifted any burdens. I’d have to know that a lot of smart people don’t believe ~p, too, which is in fact the case. But I’d need much more than that. I’d need to know that a lot of smart people have not in the past believed ~p. I’d have to know exactly how much credence each put in p and ~p. Wouldn’t matter much were the crdence of the p-believers slightly over .5. So the current number of smart people that believe p doesn’t alone doesn’t carry much evidential weight. But there are countless other traps in this area. There are lots of people I regard as smart and well-informed that are highly partial on these questions. To be entirely frank, it’s difficult to find anyone who is geniunely impartial (or even trying very hard to be) on this issue. They’re not exactly reason responsive on these issues. More worries: there are lots of smart and well-informed people who don’t think any sort of reasoning could ever settle such an issue. So there are limits on the role of reason on the question. In any event, these are some of the reasons why I’m unmoved by a show of hands on the question. I don’t see a show of hands as shifting any burdens.

    January 25, 2008 — 8:14
  • Alexander Pruss

    “Few members of 3 belong to 2 and 4; Catholics tend to view even 2 as a Protestant organization, though it is non-credal.”
    In my experience, this is likely false among younger Catholic analytic philosophers, who are very sympathetic to the SCP.
    Based on completely anecdotal data (going to conferences, etc.), I think we have two relevant divides: a conservative/liberal divide and an analytic/continental divide. Catholic continental philosophers are less likely to be SCP members, as are more liberal Catholic analytic philosophers. (Or at least the Catholics involved in SCP activities that I meet tend to be fairly conservative.) Younger Catholic analytic philosophers also strike me as more likely to be conservative, and hence as better candidates for SCP membership. On the other hand, the proportion of Catholic philosophers who are continental is probably higher than the proportion of non-Catholic Christian philosophers who are continental. So we have several different factors here.
    Of course going on completely anecdotal data is dangerous. But with these disclaimers, let me post this.
    p.s. Continental philosophers are apt to feel unwelcome in the APA as well.

    January 25, 2008 — 10:33
  • Anonymous

    ‘I’d need to know that a lot of smart people have not in the past believed ~p.’
    Why? As far as the truth of Christianity goes, people are likely to be brought up to believe in it if born in Ireland and not to believe in it if born in Saudi Arabia: One can’t control how one’s brought up. But one can be reason-responsive or not, and either be agnostic or admit to commitments beyond reason.

    January 25, 2008 — 10:35
  • Vlastimil

    There’s also the following claim in that paper by Q. Smith:
    “If each naturalist who does not specialize in the philosophy of religion (i.e., over ninety-nine percent of naturalists) were locked in a room with theists who do specialize in the philosophy of religion, and if the ensuing debates were refereed by a naturalist who had a specialization in the philosophy of religion, the naturalist referee could at most hope the outcome would be that “no definite conclusion can be drawn regarding the rationality of faith,” although I expect the most probable outcome is that the naturalist, wanting to be a fair and objective referee, would have to conclude that the theists definitely had the upper hand in every single argument or debate.”
    What do you, all, think?

    January 25, 2008 — 12:53
  • Anonymous

    Thanks Vlastimil for the Nature poll: I wonder if scientists take the assumption of a ‘personal God’ as having empirical consequences; I suspect agnostics don’t. (M. Almeida’s last comment is relevant here.) Mathematicians are unlikely to care about empirical consequences anyway and perhaps in their ranks theism stands for some version of deism/platonic realism.
    Q. Smith: He and McGinn must know different people. If Smith et al talk about philosophy of religion and if theists dominate there, it’s no surprise that Christian philosophers dominate within philosophy of religion given that most theists are Christians. That philosophy of religion dominates as if this is the middle ages I find suspect! However, M. Mullins spoke of philosophers who hide or are quiet about their religious beliefs so assessing impact in other areas may be problematic.
    About the rest, I don’t know either. (We’re on the same side of the Atlantic.)

    January 26, 2008 — 10:39
  • Zach

    In my own department we have 20+ philosophers and 0 theists.
    I’m confused, if Wes Morriston isn’t a theist, then why was he up for vote to be on the executive committee for the Society of Christian Philosophers? (See the Spring 2007 Newsletter on their website)

    February 4, 2008 — 16:40