Specialization in Philosophy of Religion and Jobs
October 3, 2008 — 12:37

Author: Andrew Moon  Category: General Religion and Life Teaching  Comments: 22

I’ve heard from older, experienced professors that doing a dissertation on or specializing in philosophy of religion may hurt your chances of getting a philosophy job or getting tenure at a secular university. It’s better to focus on some other subject and then do philosophy of religion after you get tenure.
Is this true? If so, why? It doesn’t make sense to me; it seems that schools would want professors who could teach philosophy of religion.


Is it because most philosophers think that there’s nothing interesting philosophically going on in philosophy of religion? That’s blatantly false, and most readers of this blog will agree with me. (Of course, the readers of this blog will be a biased sample. Even still…)
Is it because most philosophers of religion are theists and theism is considered a crazy view by many secular philosophers? This, I think, is what Leftow suggests here. Let’s put aside that there are many atheists or agnostics interested in philosophy of religion. Why should it matter that theism is a crazy view, especially in philosophy? Many philosophers consider compositional nihilism (a view which entails that there are no tables or chairs) to be crazy, but I can’t see how that would affect one’s chances of being hired.
The difference might be that compositional nihilists have provided defenses for their views and theists have not. But theists have been defending their view, and the debate progresses. One does not need to look at the literature for long to see this. So I can’t see what the difference is. Leftow makes the comparison to voodoo, but what makes theists align with compositional nihilists and not voodists is that theists have provided arguments and defenses.
Could it just be plain ignorance, then, of what’s going on in philosophy of religion? This option is a bit more uncharitable, but it is also an option.

Comments:
  • Perhaps even slightly less charitable, it could be simple bias against theists (who are all lumped in with young earth creationist defenders or something).

    October 3, 2008 — 14:03
  • Kevin Timpe

    Andrew,
    I’m going to start with a very minor point and hopefully say more later.
    You write: “it seems that schools would want professors who could teach philosophy of religion.” Wanting some who can teach such a topic doesn’t mean a school wants a person who specializes in philosophy of religion. A friend once described philosophy of religion as a kind of applied metaphysics and epistemology. If this is the case, then perhaps what many schools want are metaphysicians and epistemologists who can also teach philosophy of religion. To draw a comparison: lots of schools (including primarily teaching schools)want people who can teach logic, but few schools (and very few primarily teaching schools) want or need a logician.

    October 3, 2008 — 14:09
  • Tim Pawl

    Andrew,
    I think one reason why you hear people say that doing a diss on Phil of Rel could hurt your chances of getting a job is that there are very few jobs advertised that mention Phil of Rel. Just now I went through my spreadsheet of jobs I applied to last year. I attempted to apply for every single phil rel job; while I’m not sure I got them all, I would bet that I did. Anyway, there were, by my count, 14 jobs last year that mentioned religion or phil rel in their ad. That’s including jobs that had it as an AOC or mentioned that it was desirable. (on a side, my spreadsheet contains a meager 6 jobs that mentioned medieval). So, comparatively, there are far fewer jobs in Phil Rel than there are in most other areas of philosophy. And most of the jobs I have in my spreadsheet include Phil Rel as part of a disjunction in an AOC, so it isn’t even like the smaller pool of Phil Rel applicants helps.
    So maybe the advice you are getting is something like this: if you are interested in Phil Rel, why not have an AOS in the area of philosophy that you find most interesting for Phil Rel. For you, I expect the advice is that you get an AOS in epistemology. Then apply for the Phil Rel jobs as well.
    Also, it seems to me (anecdotally) that people want colleagues whose work they think “matters” and “is important”. Phil Rel might be interesting to many people, but I think that often it isn’t seen, at least by people not interested in it, as mattering or being important.

    October 3, 2008 — 14:17
  • aaron K.

    Though I think that supernaturalisms of all types, including Classical Theism, are the most incredible, bizarre and fantastic views in analytic philosophy today, I still think there is much room it in the university; including philosophy of voodoo, philosophy of Scientology, and the philosophy of John Frum.
    I am very skeptical of the claims that being specialized in PR is potentially injurious to the job prospects of philosophers. I’m inclined to think that some people’s ripened persecution complexes are on high; if PR is discriminated against, then so are many metaphysicians and postmodernist or post-structuralist philosophers. Would any of us here stand up for the latter two?

    October 3, 2008 — 14:19
  • Tim Pawl

    WOW! I just got this fail prompt when attempting to post my previous comment:
    A Philosophy of Religion Blog
    Comment Submission Error
    Your comment submission failed for the following reasons:
    Text entered was wrong. Try again.
    “Text entered was wrong”!!?
    When did we get a truth-value detector, Matthew? I’m going to start attempting to post each premise of all my arguments on this thing.

    October 3, 2008 — 14:21
  • Thomas Carroll

    It’d be good to get some “older, experienced” professors to comment on as to why this might be the case.
    I’m not convinced it is (perhaps a self-serving illusion). It seems to me that since philosophy of religion intersects with a number of other subfields in philosophy (or religious studies for that matter), concentrating in it could conceivably prepare one well to teach a wide variety of courses (something that would be valuable to smaller schools out there).

    October 3, 2008 — 16:45
  • I’m interested in Indian philosophy and a similar concern (as Kevin sketched it) holds. While a Sanskritist and someone who can teach Eastern philosophy and philosophy of religion (e.g. Buddhism, Hinduism) is attractive, programs don’t necessarily want that to be the central specialization.
    I’m planning to specialize somewhere in language/mind and add Indian philosophy into the mix. Despite Brian Leiter’s recent remarks about Philosophy East & West, I don’t think it’s necessarily bias against Indian philosophy per se that suggests this strategy.

    October 3, 2008 — 17:52
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    Andrew,
    Lots of interesting stuff here.
    1. I agree with Kevin that being able to teach X is not the same thing as writing a dissertation on X or having X as an AOS.
    2. I think the problem isn’t just with secular universities. I recall thinking at one point that it might be nice to do a dissertation on the argument from evil. It’s not exactly the sort of thing an atheist can use to get a job at Whitworth, Westmont, or any number of universities and colleges located in very attractive places to live that exclude non-Christians from applying for jobs. Don’t forget, theists who specialize in philosophy of religion might put themselves at a disadvantage by choosing their area of specialization, but they otherwise enjoy something of an advantage in the job market thanks to set asides.
    3. I’ve spoken with people who have held the view that Phil Religion isn’t an area that the best and brightest graduate students tend to do graduate work in. On the one hand, there might be some unfortunate bias against the best and brightest who do work in this area. On the other, it might be harder to get a sense of how a B&B working in this area stacks up against the B&B’s working in other areas. Reasonable or not, that’s an attitude that has to be taken account of. Your advisors will tell you to compete for a job in the market we have, not the market we should have.
    4. As you note, lots of philosophers have crazy views (compositional nihilism, modal realism, solipsism, internalism about epistemic justification, …) so I don’t think there’s all that much reason to think that the bias against philosophers of religion stems just from the thought that theism is a crazy view. Again, let me just say that this is not my view, but I know I’ve come across it… I’ve spoken with many philosophers that hold crazy views that have a beef with the theists who they think that theists don’t hold “hard-earned” crazy views. If you end up with a crazy view because that’s where the arguments take you, so be it. If it seems that you are just using philosophy to give sophistical rationalizations of views you hold for non-philosophical reasons, that’s a different matter. I can think of some theists and atheists who who seem to use philosophy much in the way that squids use ink. Quite frankly, they aren’t fun to talk to. If the philosopher of religion that is your conception of the typical philosopher of religion comes across this way, there’s a problem.
    5. Some discussions make me tired all over. I’m glad I get to do philosophy because I get to avoid these conversations. There’s just not much to say about the election. We all know that any minimally decent, rational person is going to vote Obama/Biden. I want to hang out with philosophers because we’re clever enough to have long ago settled the question about who to vote for and can talk about something interesting instead. I know some colleagues of mine feel that way about religion. They’d just as soon hear a new argument for what they take to be a dead hypothesis they have to listen to their relatives chatter about every holiday as I’d like to hear some clever argument for thinking I ought to be grateful that McCain wants to tax my health insurance. If you come by my office to give me that argument, you’re crapping in my punch bowl. I know full well that if I drop by their offices to talk philosophy of religion, I’m doing the same to their punch bowls.

    October 3, 2008 — 20:43
  • Mike Almeida

    Andrew,
    It’s probably right that an AOS in philosophy of religion will diminish the chances of getting placed somewhere you’d like to be. Partly this is because there just aren’t many positions in philosophy of religion. It’s still not taught much.
    I was trying to think of a notable philosopher of religion whose AOS does not include some other area. It’s hard to come up with one: maybe William Rowe? But most of the notable people (whatever that means) are metaphysicians/epistemologists. Some in philosophy of science (as I think Quinn was). But obviously Plantinga, van Inwagen, Swinburne, Rea, Merricks, Zimmerman, and the rest all specialize in areas other than philosophy of religion. There are incidentally some theists (van Fraassen, for instance) who think there is not much we can reliably say in the area. Most of van Fraassen’s work in the area is more like meta-philosophy of religion. Maybe that has something to do with it.
    I don’t get the suggestion that philosophy of religion might just concern an hypothesis that’s dead. That conclusion seems to me either silly or slow-witted, with the likes of those (just a few listed above) for whom it is definitely a live hypothesis.

    October 4, 2008 — 8:43
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    Mike,
    I’m guessing that since I made the remark about dead hypotheses, you were saying you didn’t get my remark. I thought that as James used the term, hypotheses are live or dead _for_ particular individuals or groups and depended almost entirely on what their attitudes are rather than what they should be in light of the facts or evidence. My sample might be non-representative, but more often than not the philosophers I’ve encountered aren’t people for whom theism is a live hypothesis. I had tried to take care not to imply that it shouldn’t be a live hypothesis. It was intended as a sociological claim, not as a claim that the hypothesis is dead. So, yes, for the people you list theism is very much a live hypothesis. My experience suggests that they aren’t the norm.

    October 4, 2008 — 21:15
  • Mike Almeida

    Hi Clayton,
    Sorry to muddy things. I was referring to just those philosophers you were referring to, not to you. I agree that there are philosophers who have these views, and my response concerned how one could reasonably find oneself taking such a position. It doesn’t take much experience with philosophers–you’ve probably noted it faster than I–to notice how fast any discussion on any topic whatsoever turns to how smart X is or how smart X-types are. It’s tedious. The fact is that the distribution of intelligence, imagination and creativity among philosophers–all cards down–is about a normal curve. Agreed, you’d never know it talking with any arbitrarily chosen philosopher. The creativity, intelligence and skill of van Fraassen, Plantinga, van Inwagen, Rea, DeRose and the rest are so above the norm philosophically, that it is truly silly to think the theistic hypothesis is dead. That is really all I had in mind. Apologies for the confusion.

    October 4, 2008 — 21:52
  • Andrew Moon

    Thanks everybody for the helpful comments. I’m in the beginning stages of thinking about and planning for the job market, so this is helpful even just to learn how things work. For my own background, in my later undergraduate years and early graduate years, I got the advice mentioned above, so I left phil. religion as a focus, and I switched to focusing on M&E (particularly E), which I now enjoy very much. Some day, after (hopefully) tenure, I’d like to focus on phil. religion again. (So basically, I took and have been taking something like Tim’s advice.)
    Now Mike and Clayton raise an interesting issue. Consider the following proposition about philosophers in the western world:
    1) Philosophers who think that the proposition/hypothesis that God exists is dead are being intellectually irresponsible.
    I gather that Mike holds this from when he says, “I don’t get the suggestion that philosophy of religion might just concern an hypothesis that’s dead. That conclusion seems to me either silly or slow-witted”. Now it’s been awhile since I’ve read James, but I think that a proposition is dead for you only if you think it is false, and you consider it be so obviously false that it is not worth considering. Furthermore, I’m not sure if by intellectually irresponsible, I mean the same as epistemically irresponsible (whatever that means!), but I think we get the general idea.
    Now why should we hold to (1)? From Mike’s comments, I gather that it is because there are very high caliber philosophers who hold are theists. More specifically, consider:
    (A) For any philosopher S for whom theism is a dead hypothesis, there are high caliber theistic philosophers who will include people who are either an epistemic peer with S w/r/t theism or are epistemically superior to S w/r/t theism.
    Now for some working in the literature on epistemic disagreement (e.g., Feldman and Christensen), the first disjunct of (A) is enough to support (1). But frankly, for the vast majority of philosophers, they will have to take the latter disjunct. They will have to admit that these philosophers are epistemically superior w/r/t theism; most of them, I imagine, have put relatively little thought into the question (since they are focusing on other areas of philosophy), and they settled their views early on when they were undergrads. They aren’t at all familiar with the philosophy of religion literature.
    And it seems to me that (A) supports (1).
    (I’ll note that there should probably be some caveat that these philosophers have to know of those high caliber theistic philosophers and their intellectual prowess w/r/t theism or, perhaps, they ought to know of them. If I had the time, I would go back and make the inference from (A) to (1) more explicit, but I don’t have that time.)
    Notice that (1) isn’t talking about whether certain atheists should withhold their belief in atheism as a response to knowledge of certain epistemic peers. It’s claim is much weaker; it’s about whether they shouldn’t consider theism to be a dead option, where theism is dead for S only if S thinks theism is false and so obviously false that it’s not worth considering anymore. That makes (1) far more plausible.
    Conclusion from all this? Most philosophers who think that theism is a dead option are being intellectually irresponsible. And for any philosopher in this group who is in power and who lets this influence his decisions about who should be highered (or lets this influence his decisions about whether philosophy of religion is worth being studied in one’s philosophy department) is acting on the basis of his intellectually irresponsibility. And that’s bad.

    October 5, 2008 — 21:14
  • I too am of the vague impression that Phil. Rel. is a bad AOS for getting a job in philosophy. I think it can be a good AOC — many depts would like to teach it; they just don’t want to use up a slot on someone who does it as their main thing. But if they can get it for free, from someone whose main thing is something else, that’s often a selling point. On the other hand, to places that don’t want to be hiring religious folks, putting Phil. Rel. on your AOC marks you as likely such a person.
    As to how much bias there is: There was a bit of a discussion of that in the comments thread of this ’03 blog post:
    http://crookedtimber.org/2003/07/17/kicking-against-the-brights/
    The post itself is about something Michael Rae wrote (the link to Rae’s piece from the post is now dead) in which he said (though this wasn’t the main point of his piece) that people get passed over for jobs in philosophy because of their religious beliefs. In comment #4, Ralph Wedgwood questions this, and the discussion continues in 13, 17, 34, 37, 39, 40, 43-48, & maybe some others I missed in a quick glance-through. I expressed the opinion, which I’m still inclined to hold, that though there is some significant bias against hiring religious folks in some philosophy depts, in light of the fact that there are many Christian colleges that explicitly discriminate in favor of Christian faculty, on the whole it’s a bit easier for at least Christians who hold fairly orthodox theological views to get philosophy jobs than it is for atheists. (Christians with theological views frowned upon by most Christian colleges (at least if they hold them openly) probably get the worst of both worlds here.)
    As for live/dead: I’m not sure how faithful this is to James’s own use (I should be, since I covered “The Will to Believe” in a class just last spring), but I’m often inclined to use the terms as Clayton indicated: I’ll often say that a hypothesis is “dead” to me in cases where I recognize that others whose opinions are worth respecting not only take the hypothesis to be live, but actually accept it. It’s a remark roughly to the effect that, given the way I see things, right now *I* “can’t go there.” I can *discuss* it — and I’m often very interested in the reasons for & against. But it’s sometimes worth marking the distinction between those issues you’re interested in because you’re really undecided & quite open to either side from those about which you already have a quite stable view.

    October 6, 2008 — 9:40
  • Mike Almeida

    I’ll often say that a hypothesis is “dead” to me in cases where I recognize that others whose opinions are worth respecting not only take the hypothesis to be live, but actually accept it. It’s a remark roughly to the effect that, given the way I see things, right now *I* “can’t go there.” I can *discuss* it — and I’m often very interested in the reasons for & against it.
    This is not easy to follow. Or, for that matter, Clayton’s version,
    My sample might be non-representative, but more often than not the philosophers I’ve encountered aren’t people for whom theism is a live hypothesis. I had tried to take care not to imply that it shouldn’t be a live hypothesis. It was intended as a sociological claim, not as a claim that the hypothesis is dead
    Both seem to be talking about de facto dead hypotheses. But what’s a de facto dead hypothesis? It’s just a relation, isn’t it? It’s just that H is considered unworthy of serious consideration by S or H is considered settled or nearly settled by S or (worse) S is disinclined to consider the merits of H. In cases where H is in fact (clearly) not dead, it’s just misleading to talk about “dead hypotheses” as though the hypotheses have some epistemically bad property. If H is a live hypothesis and de facto dead (for S), it’s S that has the problem. It’s S that’s dead to H, not the other way around.

    October 7, 2008 — 8:15
  • Keith DeRose

    It’s just that H is [a] considered unworthy of serious consideration by S or [b] H is considered settled or nearly settled by S or (worse) [c] S is disinclined to consider the merits of H.
    No, the use I’m trying to explain expresses none of *those* relations — with the possible (depending on how it’s understood) exception of [b]. It’s a more personal use than you seem to be understanding it as. [a] is way off: Many of the views that are in this way “dead” to me I consider very worthy of very serious consideration. (Others of them, of course, I do think are unworthy of serious discussion.) And (adding [c] to the mix) I may personally give them serious consideration in the sense that I’m very interested in what can be said for and against them. (Others of them, of course, I have no interest in discussing.) But this consideration will be for the purpose of understanding what’s behind the view, and perhaps better understanding those people who do hold it — or possibly even because some time down the road it might become a “live” option to me and I can then begin to not only seriously consider what’s behind the view, but also seriously consider converting to it. But if it’s now “dead” for me in the sense in question, I already have a quite solid, settled view on the matter. So that *may* be, or be at least close to, your [b]. But this is a matter of it’s being settled *for me*, not my taking it that the issue has been settled. That God exists may be settled for me without my taking it that the issue is settled. I realize it’s a controversial matter, and may even think it’s rightly controversial. But *I* can still have quite stable, settled views about such matters. If my views are settled enough, things that go against them are in the sense in question “dead” hypotheses for me. I don’t think it would be good if in the sense in question views had to be “live” for us — we’d ourselves have to be at the time open to actually converting to them — before we could recognize them to be worthy of serious consideration or be interested in seriously discussing them.

    October 7, 2008 — 11:46
  • Mike Almeida

    But if it’s now “dead” for me in the sense in question, I already have a quite solid, settled view on the matter. So that *may* be, or be at least close to, your [b]. But this is a matter of it’s being settled *for me*, not my taking it that the issue has been settled.
    I guess this is a psychological possibility. But is it an epistemic one? If I say, “the issue concerning p is not settled, but it is settled for me”, I wonder what I can be expressing. I seem to concede that the evidence for/against p does not settle the issue concerning p, and nonetheless I assert that the issue concerning p is settled in my own case. It’s hard to see the conceptual room for that position. If you don’t believe the issue has been settled simpliciter, then how could it be settled for you? Wouldn’t you rather believe that the issue is really settled simpliciter, too, though the bickering hasn’t stopped OR that the issue isn’t really settled for me, I just have a tentative view of the matter? I can see space for those views.

    October 7, 2008 — 16:18
  • Keith DeRose

    Different reasonable people process considerations differently and just see the issues differently. That’s to the good, so far as advancing our understanding goes: different people exploring the different positions that seem to them correct. And that’s all that seems needed to get the situation of an issue being settled for a person even though it isn’t settled simpliciter.

    October 7, 2008 — 18:47
  • Mike Almeida

    And that’s all that seems needed to get the situation of an issue being settled for a person even though it isn’t settled simpliciter.
    I’m not having trouble admitting that different people weigh evidence or process considerations differently and might thereby come to different conclusions. S might settled on p and S’ might settle on ~p, even on the same evidence. That much seems right. The difficulty is how one and the same person can (rationally) have these two beliefs:
    1. The matter concerning p is settled for me.
    2. The matter concerning p is not settled simpliciter.
    If I believe that the matter concerning whether everything is composed of simples is settled for me (say, I believe there are such simples) then I think I have the right belief simpliciter. I don’t think that I have merely the right ontological belief for me (I’m not even sure what that means), but not the right belief simpliciter. But then, if I think the matter concerning whether everything is composed of simples is settled for me, I think it is settled simpliciter.

    October 8, 2008 — 9:07
  • Keith DeRose

    My difficulty is seeing the difficulty.
    If we’re agreed that different people can process and weigh the various considerations bearing on a issue in different ways so as to reach different positions, and yet each be reasonable, then there wouldn’t seem to be anything blocking this:
    “As I weigh up the various considerations, the chances of p are too remote for p to be a live option. So the matter is settled for me. But I understand that others may reasonably process the various considerations in a different way so that p seems to them likely enough to still be a live option [or maybe even to be more likely than not]. Since it is live [or maybe even accepted] for enough reasonable others, the matter isn’t settled simpliciter.”

    October 8, 2008 — 12:05
  • Mike Almeida

    As I weigh up the various considerations, the chances of p are too remote for p to be a live option. So the matter is settled for me. But I understand that others may reasonably process the various considerations in a different way so that p seems to them likely enough to still be a live option [or maybe even to be more likely than not].
    Let proposition p be the sole matter of dispute. I assign p, Pr(p) = 1. You assign p, Pr(p) = .5. I agree that reasonable people can disagree, but I reject the suggestion that, given that I agree to that, I think the value Pr(p) might with equal reason be put anywhere in the interval between .5 and 1. If I thought that, I would have given p that vague assignment; but of course I didn’t. I don’t think you’re unreasonable, but I have to think that your view is less justified than mine. Otherwise, you view would be mine as well. In this case, I think that the matter is settled for me, and settled simpliciter. The issue is settled, though reasonable people can fail to see it. That’s the only way to make this story coherent.

    October 8, 2008 — 16:01
  • Keith DeRose

    but I reject the suggestion that, given that I agree to that, I think the value Pr(p) might with equal reason be put anywhere in the interval between .5 and 1.
    But who ever suggested *that*?
    Is this subjective probabilities we’re talking? I assign a very low probability to p, too low for it to be a live option for me, and we’ll suppose (as is at least logically possible!) that I’m being rational. We’re agreed that others can be reasonable in seeing things differently, right, and that I can recognize that? Well, then, I understand (in some cases) that others assign higher probabilities to p, and are being reasonable. No incoherence there. And there’s nothing in here one way or the other about “with equal reason” or about who is more or less justified. But as long as I recognize that many others reasonably take p to be probable enough to be live, I see no problem in understanding how it can be settled for me, and yet I can recognize that it isn’t settled simpliciter. I mean, that happens all the time. I’m a settled incompatibilist. But I recognize that many others are settled on compatibilism, and many are undecided. If asked whether the issue is settled simpliciter, it seems the way to answer is to say the matter is very far indeed from being settled, although my own personal view about the matter is settled. It seems very wrong to instead say that the matter has been settled simpliciter, but only I have managed to see that it is.

    October 8, 2008 — 19:41
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    UPDATE!
    The jfp is now out and it looks like this year is pretty good for theists who do philosophy of religion. (It looks pretty good if you completely ignore the fact that the total number of TT jobs advertised is low and focus only on percentage of jobs for theists or specialists in philosophy of religion.) I think I saw two(!) adverts for schools searching for someone with an AOS in phil religion and a few ads from schools that wanted Christian philosophers.
    Good luck with the job hunt, I’ll see ya’ll at the Eastern. Even if we don’t get interviews, you can come hear my talk and have a laugh at my expense while I argue for the factivity of justification.

    October 10, 2008 — 9:23