Philosophy of Religion as Seen by Atheists
September 12, 2010 — 12:44

Author: Robert Gressis  Category: Atheism & Agnosticism  Comments: 17

My previous entry, “Atheist Burnout and the Direction of Philosophy of Religion”, which was inspired by Keith Parsons’s public decision to quit the philosophy of religion, generated a very nice discussion about whether or not atheists think the case for theism is, as Keith Parsons, put it, “a fraud”, why some atheists might think smart philosophers work in philosophy of religion, and what direction we should expect to see philosophy of religion take in the future. In addition, at around the same time Brian Leiter independently found Parsons’s announcement and generated a discussion on his blog. A number of people weighed in on both discussions, and I thank everyone who did so.
There were some interesting results from the discussions. First, there were, broadly speaking, two reactions to Parsons’s announcement: those who agreed with him that the case for theism is so weak as to call for a special explanation for why smart philosophers make it, and those who disagreed. I shall call the members of the first camp “Unfriendly Atheists”“psychologizers” (although this camp might include two theists, namely Howard Wettstein and Jon Cogburn; I can’t tell how to classify them) and members of the second camp “Theists/Friendly Atheistsnon-psychologizers”. The members of the unfriendly atheistpsychologizers’ camp include:

  1. hiero5ant [anonymous]
  2. John W. Loftus [independent scholar]
  3. Anon (grad student who does not wish to anger anyone higher on the food chain) [anonymous graduate student]
  4. kurt [philosopher at a Roman Catholic school]
  5. Greg Janzen [University of Calgary–can’t tell if he is a graduate student or faculty]
  6. Blinn Combs [graduate student at UT, Austin(?)]
  7. Brian Leiter [University of Chicago]
  8. Allin Cottrell [economist, Wake Forest University]

Arguably, Craig Duncan (Ithaca College) and John Schellenberg (Mount Saint Vincent University) count as unfriendly atheistspsychologizers, but their case is complicated by the fact that, on the one hand, both Duncan and Schellenberg seem to think that the quality of philosophical work in PoR is often very high, but on the other hand, both think that there are psychological factors going in PoR that shapes the work of its theistic practitioners, factors that exist to a lesser degree in other areas of philosophy.
The list of theists/friendly atheistsnon-psychologizers is as follows:

  1. christian [anonymous]
  2. mohan matthen [University of Toronto]
  3. [anonymous]
  4. ZT [anonymous]
  5. tedla [anonymous]
  6. John H. [anonymous]
  7. Ken Taylor [Stanford University]
  8. John Fischer [UC, Riverside]
  9. L.A. Paul [University of ArizonaUNC, Chapel Hill]
  10. indignant idealist [anonymous]

What conclusions can we draw from these lists?
First, I don’t think we can draw any conclusions from them. The lists are too small to be indicative of anything about philosophy in general. Although the results of the debate were interesting (as I said above) I don’t think we’ve really learned too much from this debate.
Second, if you want to be irresponsible and take these lists to be indicative of larger truths about the field, then it seems that there a lot of non-believing philosophers who don’t accept philosophy of religion’s conclusions but who take it as seriously as they take any branch of philosophy, while there are about an equal number of non-believers who don’t take its conclusions seriously and also think the case for theism is so weak as to require a psychological explanation for why so many otherwise smart philosophers take it seriously.
Third, I can’t help but to be cheered by the fact that Mohan Matthen, Ken Taylor, John Martin Fischer, and L.A. Paul, all of whom are philosophers with impressive accomplishments, take philosophy of religion seriously. By contrast, the only philosopher I noticed with an equally impressive reputation who thinks the philosophy of religion requires some psychological diagnosis is Brian Leiter, but as Leiter indicated, he seems to think the same is true of large portions of moral philosophy–that is, he doesn’t think that philosophy of religion suffers from a unique badness of argumentation.
That said, a lot of the participants in the debate are anonymous, so many of them could have been philosophers with equally impressive reputations. Moreover, I’m not well-versed regarding everything that happens in philosophy; it could certainly be that some of the critics of PoR have immensely impressive credentials and accomplishments, and that I just haven’t heard of them. And finally, the critics of PoR with less impressive credentials and accomplishments may be excellent philosophers–credentials and accomplishments aren’t everything. (Finally, lest anyone think I haven’t noticed this, I know very well that my accomplishments are nothing to write home about!)

  • Clayton Littlejohn

    With the exception of externalism about justified belief, belief in any philosophical position requires some sort of special psychological explanation. (Who are these crazy bastards to take a philosophical view as settled?). Hope that doesn’t put me in the unfriendly atheist camp. For the most part, I’m a pretty nice guy.

    September 12, 2010 — 13:42
  • Clayton,
    You say, “With the exception of externalism about justified belief, belief in any philosophical position requires some sort of special psychological explanation.” So your atheism requires some sort of special psychological explanation? If atheism isn’t a philosophical position, then why not?

    September 12, 2010 — 14:04
  • Octagon

    L. A. Paul is at UNC Chapel Hill now.

    September 12, 2010 — 14:15
  • Brian

    If I were truly ‘unfriendly,’ I would not have listed Prosblogion among the ‘top ten’ philosophy blogs!

    September 12, 2010 — 15:10
  • Robert Gressis

    Hi Brian and Clayton,
    In his “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism”, William Rowe divided atheists into three varieties: friendly atheists (they think that both atheism and theism are rational), indifferent atheists (I think that’s what they were called; if I recall correctly, they either don’t know, don’t care, or haven’t decided whether theism is rational), and unfriendly atheists (they think that theism is irrational). As far as I know, he didn’t mean to imply that unfriendly atheists were unfriendly people; just that they were unfriendly to theism. That’s the sense of “unfriendly” I meant–not that you’re unfriendly, but rather that you’re unfriendly to theism in that you think the arguments for it are poor enough as to merit a special psychological explanation, an explanation that you don’t offer for other philosophical positions with which you also disagree.
    That said, I didn’t even realize that a lot of people, even people extremely well-versed in philosophy (or even philosophy of religion) are unfamiliar with that terminology. So that’s my mistake, and my apologies.
    That said, I can’t think of another term off the top of my head for people who think that the case for theism is so bad as to merit a special psychological explanation. Maybe I could divide the camps into “the psychologizers” and “the non-psychologizers”? I’m not sure if that’s any better, though!

    September 12, 2010 — 15:50
  • Tedla

    Over the years I’ve had many conversations with professional philosophers about the status of PoR in the following sense, among others: My question for those who disdain PoR or think of it as inferior to other subdisciplines of philosophy (esp., when one brings up Christian philosophy a la Plantinga)is this: What makes naturalist philosophy or philosophical practice with a passionate commitment to naturalism more philosophical or a worthy philosophical pursuit as opposed to theistic/Christian philosophy? Is there anything inherently superior that is true of the former which is not true of the latter? I never heard even a remotely good argument to prefer the former which does not depend on one’s antecedent commitment to naturalism. Probably there is some such good argument that provides a good answer to my question, good in the sense of being honest and neutral to any antecedent philosophical commitment to anything naturalistic.
    FYI–I’m a graduate student and am mainly working on PoR and Epistemology; esp., the epistemology of religious belief which will most likely be my dissertation project.

    September 12, 2010 — 16:25
  • Mike Almeida

    First, you’re not unaccomplished, you can’t get much better than a Michigan Ph.D. I wouldn’t sweat that too much. On another point, I agree that there’s not much we can draw from the evidence on (a)theistic philosophy so far. But, for what it’s worth, I did notice a seriously uninformed set of comments both here and at BL’s. So at least some are drawing conclusions on bad information (or misinformation or disinformation). Finally, I can vouch for Clayton, and hereby do. For the most part, he’s ok.

    September 12, 2010 — 19:36
  • Robert Gressis

    Hi Mike,
    Thanks for the kind words, but to nitpick in my own defense: I was contrasting credentials and accomplishments when I noted that my own accomplishments are not (yet, I hope) anything to write home. E.g., I don’t yet have much in the way of publications, but I’m working on that. As for credentials, though, I am pretty proud of the Michigan Ph.D.–I got a very good education there.

    September 12, 2010 — 22:56
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    ” So your atheism requires some sort of special psychological explanation?”
    Sure. It’s either sheer arrogance on my part or due to the fact that I have a special moral faculty that allows me to do work out things others cannot. It’s like radar for the bad. So, as I think I discussed with some folks in Chicago, I have this innate ability to tell that a movie will be bad just by watching the trailer and without having to see it first. Like, I knew that Avatar would be horrible just by watching a five second clip. Some of you didn’t know it was terrible even after seeing it multiple times and enjoying it. Obviously, I have a special goodness faculty others lack. That’s a kind of psychological explanation. (Ya’ll seemed to think that the first sort of explanation was better. But, we agreed on something.) When I was a wee lad in grad school, one of the visiting faculty members said, basically, that you didn’t have a right to have views until you had a Ph.D. and even then it was questionable and limited to views in your own very narrow area of research. That’s basically right, I think.

    September 13, 2010 — 9:38
  • erik meade

    “When I was a wee lad in grad school, one of the visiting faculty members said, basically, that you didn’t have a right to have views until you had a Ph.D. and even then it was questionable and limited to views in your own very narrow area of research. That’s basically right, I think.”
    Saul Kripke excluded I suppose?

    September 13, 2010 — 13:11
  • Clayton, nice. I also have sympathies with what you learned when you were a wee lad.

    September 13, 2010 — 14:13
  • Robert Gressis

    Hi Clayton,
    I’m also sympathetic to your view. Given your view, though, what do you think of the Phil Papers survey of various philosophers’ positions? Do you think non-specialists’ assessments of positions in other fields has:
    1. Some weight
    2. Little weight
    3. No weight
    ? (I was going to say epistemic weight, but since you’re an epistemologist and I’m not, I’m not comfortable using a phrase that may be technical term.)

    September 13, 2010 — 14:28
  • Blake

    I wonder what the breakdown would be between atheists that are analytic philosophers of religion and continental philosophers of religion. I wonder if one would find more unfriendlies in one camp over another. Personally, I kind of suspect analytic atheists would be more likely to be unfriendly to PoR than continentals, but that suspicion isn’t based on any hard data (yuck data ;P ).

    September 13, 2010 — 14:32
  • John Alexander

    “When I was a wee lad in grad school, one of the visiting faculty members said, basically, that you didn’t have a right to have views until you had a Ph.D. and even then it was questionable and limited to views in your own very narrow area of research. That’s basically right, I think.’
    This is not meant as a criticism of Clayton, but as a general comment on the present state of affairs in Philosophy. I think this points to a larger problem with philosophy in general. I think think that this attitude is largely responsible for the disregard philosophy is held by the general public and one reason why we find ourselves having to defend what we do while most other disciplines do not? We seem to have reduced ourselves to the portrait of the philosopher depicted in Aristophanes play, The Clouds, or the players of the Glass Bead Game in Hesse’s novel. We are like the characters in the play Six Characters in Search of an Author – as a discipline we seem to lack direction and purpose. When philosophy started it was largely a public affair and in the hands of Socrates and his followers, largely democratic and open to all and not requiring specialized knowledge. If one had a basic understanding of language and was honest in what one argued, one could participate in and contribute to the discussion. Now philosophy is reduced to classrooms in colleges and universities that reach less the 2% of the world’s population and journals and books that are read by even less. We do not inform the public debate on the important social/political/moral issues that we face and I fear that most of us do not see this as a problem. But, for the most part, we have made ourselves irrelevant.

    September 13, 2010 — 22:43
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    I think there was some Socratic wisdom in the injunction. You shouldn’t have views on such and such sounds a lot like, if you know something about something, know you know nothing about it. The reminder that we (of all people!) should not be rushing to judgment on matters that we should spend a lifetime reflecting on is a good one. I do think you’re right, though, that we need to get more engaged.
    “Do you think non-specialists’ assessments of positions in other fields has…” certeris paribus, some weight. Possibly epistemic weight.
    Got to run, wish I could stay and chat longer.

    September 13, 2010 — 23:40
  • John Alexander

    Hi Clayton
    I was not really criticizing the Socratic implications of what the VP said. What I was focusing on (not very well it seems) is the idea of needing a PhD and an narrow area of specialization in order to be able to have an opinion, participate in, etc., on the issues philosophy deals with. This sets Philosophy up as an exclusive club – for members only – and I am not sure that is consistent with whatever value philosophy might have to help us and others critically reflect on and act upon the important issues that we face in our lives. Sooner or later reflection should result in action – don’t you think? Now, I may well have an old-fashioned and overly romantic vision of philosophy, but I do think that philosophers have the power to transform lives. I find it disheartening that, as a discipline, we seem to be becoming increasingly irrelevant and seen by other disciplines, administrations, and the public with increasing suspicion as to our value to positively contribute to contemporary educational goals and objectives, not to mention the serious social/political. moral issues we face.
    Shameless plug, but there is a discussion on In Socrates Wake on Martha Nussbaums’ recent book, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, that might be of interest to readers of this blog.

    September 14, 2010 — 11:20
  • I’m a newcomer to this site, and this question caught my attention. Has anyone yet articulated what it means to take a field of philosophy seriously?
    For example, if it means to think that PoR has come to any sort of robust conclusion (as a field of science or mathematics might), I think philosophers on both sides would agree that the answer is “no”. Every argument for/against God that I’m aware of has at least some legitimate counterarguments.
    But if it means to be interested in some of the ideas that PoR plays with, the answer is probably “yes”. For example, I have a lot of respect for Plantinga’s concept of “warrant” (although I wish he’d road-tested it on some less controversial arguments first). PoR seems to inspire people’s imagination.
    I’m not a philosopher by any stretch of said imagination. But the impression I’ve picked up from the sidelines is that philosophy is more about the journey than the destination. In the same way that chess grandmasters will often ignore a killer move in order to create a more interesting game, the interplay of point and counter-point is an end in itself. In that sense, Philosophy of Religion is at least as aesthetically pleasing as any other branch of philosophy.

    September 29, 2010 — 17:42