My last blogpost for this year will be a preliminary report on the qualitative survey I launched last month. In this open survey, I asked professional philosophers of religion (including graduate students) about their motivations and personal belief attitudes, and how their work relates to these beliefs. I am very grateful to all who participated (an amazing 151 respondents!), and to the British Academy for funding this research.
This study was motivated by an emerging dichotomy in how philosophy of religion is perceived. On the one hand, there is a narrative that philosophy of religion, especially Christian analytic philosophy of religion, is rising in prominence and is a vibrant field since the decline of logical positivism, and that as a result of it, atheism is in retreat in philosophy. On the other hand, some authors contend that this branch of philosophy is plagued by biases, conflict of interest, partisanship and a lack of vitality (see notably this discussion on Keith Parson’s decision to quit philosophy of religion).
The Philpapers survey, which provides a quantitative measure of philosophers’ attitudes, indeed indicates that the majority of philosophers of religion leans toward or accepts theism (72.3% %), compared to 11.7% of philosophy faculty members who do not specialize in PoR. This intriguing finding calls for further exploration: what is the range of theistic/nontheistic positions philosophers of religion hold? What is the relationship between their religious beliefs and their philosophical work?
Methodology: qualitative research as a tool for social epistemology
Qualitative research methods such as the open survey and interview are underexplored tools for social epistemology. There is an increasing recognition that our philosophical arguments and viewpoints are not formed in a vacuum, but are shaped in a larger non-philosophical context, for instance, the home religious environment and upbringing, and cognitive factors like confirmation bias and belief polarization. How exactly these broad, cultural and personal factors contribute to philosophical discourse is underexplored terrain, and my study aims to map it out more systematically.
By making this survey open and anonymous, and by advertising widely on philosophy blogs and mailing lists, I hoped to entice people to be frank and to be able to get responses from people without tenure (including students) as well as tenured professors. As the survey was uncontrolled, one cannot say how representative the sample is for the general population of philosophers of religion. However, the aim of a qualitative survey is not to get reliable quantitative input about a larger population, but to gain a better understanding of a specific group within a broader social setting, in particular, on how participants interact with this broader context of their surrounding (e.g., their professional environment) and how this influences their ideas and behavior. As always with qualitative research, the aim is to let specific patterns emerge from the observations, rather than to test specific hypotheses. I outline these results below.
Some quick measures on the survey
151 participants filled out the survey in the course of November and December 2013. Of these, 134 participants filled out the survey completely, 17 did it partially. 83% of the respondents were men and 17% percent were women. This is very gender-skewed, but is in line with a perceived maleness in philosophy of religion, which may be worse than in philosophy overall (where women comprise about 20% of tenured faculty members).
Most participants were from the USA (47%), the UK (27%), Canada (5%), and The Netherlands (3%). The remainder (fewer than 5 participants per country) were working in Belgium, Brazil, China, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Singapore, Sweden, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey.
The religious beliefs of philosophers of religion
A majority of respondents self-identify as Christian theists, and most of these as traditional/orthodox
A slight majority of respondents (57.7%) self-identified as Christian theists and many of them reported being “fairly conservative”, “devout, Orthodox, practicing open Christian”. Several respondents affirmed explicitly that they endorsed the Nicene Creed: “I am committed to the central claims of the Christian tradition, captured in the Nicene Creed”, “I affirm the Apostle’s creed and the Nicene Creed. Beyond that, while I have opinions, I regard things as pretty unsettled and tentative”.
Moreover, a majority of Christians in the sample identified with specific denominations, for instance: “Committed Christian (Eastern Orthodox, specifically)”, “tortured but enthusiastic Roman Catholic”, “orthodox Anglican…a traditionally minded Christian”.
Non-Christians theists were decidedly in the minority: only 4 Jews and 1 Muslim completed the survey. The results thus fit the perception that the majority philosophers of religion are Christians, and most of these are fairly traditional/orthodox.
Next to Christian theists, the most frequent self-identifications were atheists (15.7%) and agnostics (5%) — they are an interesting and diverse category, mostly they come from a religious background and with a fascination for religion as a psychological and cultural phenomenon.
A substantial percentage of respondents had beliefs that fell outside of theism/atheism/agnosticism
17.6% of respondents could not be easily categorized as falling under theism, atheism or agnosticism. For example, some authors leaned towards either atheism or theism, but did not quite want to label their position as such. Here are two authors who are not theists, but are uncomfortable calling themselves atheist or agnostic:
“When I was a teenager, I was an atheist because it was the easiest way to annoy the VERY religious people around me. In college, I became fascinated with the possibilities religions seem to represent to me — new ways of imagining the world. As I studied philosophy further, my interest in those possibilities became more technical, more nuanced. I could not call myself an atheist now, primarily because my thinking about the baggage connected to that word leads me to believe that it does not accurately describe my condition” -female associate professor, non-faith based SLAC.
“Sceptical, but not quite atheist. Constantly pre-occupied and sometimes anxious. I understand, to some extent, the sense of the divine – but in me, this coalesces with intellectual skepticism that others may regard as being too rigid and rationalistic. I have been through quite regular churchgoing periods (never as a communicant) but do not attend church much at present…I think a sense of the sacred is a valuable thing, and possibly indicative of a theological reality, but at the same time I sense too many problems with this view. I often feel conflicted. I am prepared to take seriously some ideas that others regard as far-fetched – for example, that Jesus never even existed.” — Male visiting lecturer, UK small institution
Similarly, some theist respondents struggled with labeling their beliefs:
“Personal fascination with religious belief. Raised religious. Struggled to carve out a conceptual space for myself as a spiritual person, without having any typically “religious” beliefs. I believe in a God, and in my relationship to God as the source of value and meaning in my life. However, I doubt the veracity of almost all tenets of the Christian tradition I was raised in, and which dominates my department” – male graduate student, us faith-based school.
“I am probably unusual in that I have theistic, even Christian, religous beliefs, but am not so confident about them as some seem to be. I have always, even in my agnostic days, had some sort of belief in God or that God exists… I believe in an afterlife, in Jesus as God incarnate, and the resurrection. I take these to be central tenets of Christianity, and I accept them, but hardly with any strong degree of certainty (as for the falsity of materialism/physicalism, I am confident of that!)” – male lecturer, US state school
A small minority of authors held unorthodox theistic beliefs, such as panentheism, pantheism and polytheism, e.g., one assistant professor from Turkey describes his beliefs as “Indeterminate polytheism (there is an indeterminate number of gods in the actual world, whose properties/attributes and functions we don’t know)”
What are the motivations for specializing in philosophy of religion?
I discerned three patterns: the most predominant reason cited was faith seeking understanding, even in the case of some atheist respondents (see below). Next to this, proselytism and witness play a prominent role: philosophers who feel that doing their job is part of their witness as Christians. The third most cited reason was a fascination with religion as a cultural phenomenon.
Faith seeking understanding
Several respondents indicated that they liked the cerebral, critical nature of philosophy of religion, and that this helps them to deepen their faith. Here are some representative excerpts of responses:
“I am a catholic, and philosophy of religion helps me in deepening my faith by way of – paradoxically – putting the faith itself into question and even criticizing it” – male assistant professor, Italy
“I’m a cerebral religious person and thinking carefully about my faith is a plus not a negative. I particularly enjoy working on the philosophical aspects of moral and religious diversity. Perhaps I am getting a better understanding of other faiths and denominations when I do this” – female professor, UK
Some participants got into philosophy of religion as a result of religious experiences (which they never described, only mentioned that they had them), for instance, “A religious turn in my life prompted my interest. I needed to make sense of something astounding happening in my life” – male full professor, public research university, US.
Interestingly, for some atheist respondents, the motif of faith seeking understanding still resounds, in this case, it is a loss of faith, seeking understanding (perhaps unsurprisingly, many atheists and agnostics indicated a religious background and former religious belief:
“When I was a child I was a very committed believer and participant in Christianity. I gradually lost my faith, and the finishing element was a section on philosophy of religion when I took an introductory philosophy course in my first year at university. The shock was huge and (believe it or not), I was somewhat suicidal: I felt I no longer had any meaning in my life. I think, ever since then, I have been trying to understand what happened to me, and wondering whether I really needed to abandon my faith. I also find philosophy of religion intellectually fascinating” – female full professor, country not disclosed
Proselytism and witness
Several people who self-identify as theists indicate that proselytism and witness play a key role in why they do philosophy of religion. It is the most cited reason for engaging in PoR after to faith seeking understanding. Here are some examples:
“I was and am a Christian. I believed that philosophy could provide tools for giving much-needed arguments for the existence of God and for Christian doctrines, which I would publish” – male emeritus professor, UK research university
One full professor at a US community college does not have Philosophy of Religion as his main AOS, but still makes a point work in this field regularly “Since I am known by my colleagues as a Christian, I make it a point to publish regularly, attend conferences, etc. It is a witness to them of the integrity of the spiritual and academic interplay”
“My religious commitment helps to motivate some of the work I do (part of which involves defending and explicating Christian doctrine)” – male assistant professor, Canada
In the case of one French high school teacher, this even means foregoing academic opportunities so as to be a more effective witness: “I did not choose to work this subject [epistemology of religion], it chose me. In fact, I am less and less interested in having a university career. I believe there is not much christian work to be done there. Into our high schools, that’s where a Christian is needed. So I did not chose my subject according to job opportunities, but only according to the most fundamental question I could find about my faith”.
Interest in religion as an experiential and cultural phenomenon
Although most contemporary philosophy of religion in the analytic tradition is quite cerebral, several practitioners of this discipline noted the experiential and cultural dimensions of religion as a motivating factor for engaging in their research:
“It is more my experiences than my beliefs that drive me. Even though I do not believe in any religion or God(s), I do know that religion is an essential part of our culture. I am interested in the phenomenology of religious belief simply because it has been so important in shaping our society, and in particular art/literature/etc., and even people who are not religious do live in a society that is importantly religious in many ways.” — female UK graduate student working in a research-intensive department
“I’m fascinated by the out-of-the-ordinary experiences that people have. Prima facie, they seem to indicate that materialism, positivism, etc. are false, but they also seem to have a definite content that hasn’t fully been explored” – male lecturer, top UK department.
How does philosophy influence the personal beliefs of philosophers of religion?
An interesting theme that emerged was philosophical training and engagement led to belief revision. The direction of this revision was most frequently in the direction from theism to atheism, in line with recent work in cognitive science of religion that indicates that analytic reasoning and active reflection discourage religious belief. Several authors stated that they held unreflective religious beliefs before they studied philosophy, which they subsequently began to question, and abandon, as a result:
“I was a theist when I began university. It was during reading Hume’s Dialogues in my second year that I began the road to atheism. I believed that Hume successfully undermined every rational reason I had for my personal belief in God… I have to admit that I initially felt very confused, lost, ashamed and angry when I realized that I no longer could count myself as a believer. But, at the same time, I had an overriding curiosity to understand how it was that I became such an ardent believer to begin with. I realized early on that it could not simply be cultural. The intuitive pull of many religious beliefs seemed too strong to merely have been a product of my upbringing” – male research associate, UK university.
“My work in philosophy of religion has led me to reject most of the religious beliefs I was taught as a child. It has also resulted in my rejecting scientific naturalism” – professor at a public university, gender and country not disclosed
One male associate professor at a US liberal arts college says that his growing disenchantment with arguments for theism was the final push for him to become an atheist: “I recall specifically the straw that broke the camel’s back – that made me finally admit that I was an atheist – was reading the arguments in a book called [redacted]. The theist in the debate was [redacted], and his arguments were so bad – and he so obviously willfully ignored the arguments of his opponent – that I finally said “I can’t be on this side anymore.” (Specifically, I recall the atheist saying “by this argument I’m not saying X, which is clearly false, but instead I am saying Y” and [redacted’s] main response to the argument was “my atheist opponent says X, which is obviously false”). This is not what convinced me that atheism is true – I was already convinced of that – but this is what made it okay in my eyes to finally admit that I was an atheist. I have found the arguments of the other bigwigs in philosophy – at least when they’re arguing about religion – [redacted] to be just as intellectually bankrupt and ad hoc.”
Another participant, a male professor in a US teaching oriented school, journeyed from Christianity to some qualified form of agnosticism: “My work has deeply affected my beliefs and my resulting loss of Christian beliefs has impacted my work as well. While I speak from a Christian perspective, I have noticed things about, say, the teachings of Jesus I would not likely have noticed in my Christian days. And I am much more outspoken about issues that I would have at one time considered heretical”.
We can find a similar response by a male assistant professor at a regional US state school “… though I still have my theistic beliefs, I no longer think that they are epistemically justified. Coming to grips with the epistemic significance of disagreement has moved me to this position”
Only a few participants went from religious non-belief to belief as a result of philosophical engagement, for example, this male assistant professor at a US research-oriented university “In the beginning of my studies in philosophy of religion, I was an atheist (at least in the sense of lacking belief in God). I investigated many many arguments for and against the existence of God. I discovered that my initial impression of “the” arguments was overly simplistic. I realized that there are many nuances, and extreme caution is called for in navigating many lines of thought and counter-thoughts. In the end (or the next beginning), the arguments for God seemed to win out, and so I began to lean toward belief in God. As I’ve progressed further in philosophy, I seemed to find many reasons to think God exists, and the reasons against God seemed less persuasive. Of course, I’m aware of the problem of polarization, and so I try to keep testing various arguments and listening to those who see things differently. rechecking the arguments”
Philosophy as a tempering influence
Most participants did not note a grand revision in their religious views as a result of philosophical reasoning, but they nevertheless said it had a tempering influence. Philosophy had led them to revise beliefs they held dogmatically before, and that it forced them to rethink things.
“I grew up thinking that issues like substance dualism and intelligent design were issues of religious dogma, and studying philosophy allowed me to realize that this is not the case. I also became more of an optimistic universalist by studying other religions.” — male Adjunct professor at a large community college and a small, private liberal arts college, US
“I was raised in a very conservative, Protestant evangelical home, and I attended a high school and a college that fit well into this tradition. In graduate school I realized for the first time what it would be like (in the Nagelian sense) to have a purely secular mindset. (Mutual incomprehension of “what it is like” to think like someone with a fundamentally different worldview is, I believe, an underappreciated element of many personal, disciplinary, and cultural conflicts.) This precipitated a crisis of faith that lasted about three years. Ultimately I returned to Christian faith but in a significantly changed way. … Attitudinally I would say I emerged with a freer mindset–a greater willingness to question received doctrine, and less worry about having the “right” theology–than I went in with” (male associate professor).
A female assistant professor at a regional state school who self-identifies as an atheist writes “I’ve waned and waxed between skepticism, heavy skepticism, and strong atheism. But being a philosopher of religion has made me more open minded and tolerant”.
A minority of participants note that exposure to philosophy has further strengthened positions they held before (on the basis of faith or upbringing), a phenomenon known as attitude or belief polarization.
For some of the respondents, faith is clearly primary, and philosophy is ancillary to it: “ My philosophy fails under the umbrella of my religion, particularly my reading of the Bible. If philosophy led to some conclusion contrary to the plain reading of the Scripture, I would ‘redo my sums,’ so to speak” – Male assistant professor at a US university.
“I became more confident about reasonableness of my faith. I became more aware of the weaknesses of the rival worldviews” – Male Brazilian graduate student.
“my strong public involvement in the science religion debate has resulted in a strengthening of my Christian faith – in other words my faith in God has grown as I have exposed it to strong criticism” – male full professor, UK research-intensive university.
Criticism of the discipline
Many respondents spontaneously offered criticisms of their discipline in the ‘comments’ section, or in the request for additional personal observations or anecdotes. While most of these were atheists or agnostics, there were also theists. Features often criticized were the apologetic nature of philosophy of religion, its perceived lack of real-world relevance, and its lack of attention for traditions outside of Orthodox Christianity.
“Philosophy of religion is too much focused on issues of what is true and what is false, from a doctrinal standpoint, and my latest thinking is that such issues aren’t primary” – male distinguished philosopher of religion, working in the US.
“The mainstream of philosophy of religion betrays a bias towards the analysis and assessment of religious beliefs (as opposed to other religious phenomena), and this may well be due to the high profile of Christianity, and Protestant Christianity at that, in locations where the philosophical subfield has developed. This bias is unfortunate given the increased contact today among people identifying with various cultural and religious ways of life. … the field may be hindered in this effort so long as it employs models of religiosity that have been derived from philosophical debates within Western Christianity” – non-tenure track professor, China, private liberal arts college.
“the ‘rigour’ and analytical ‘skills’ in this branch of philosophy has kept its (Christian) philosophers isolated and distant from the social, ethical and political changes taking place in other branches of analytic philosophy. Insularity has allowed the field to protect and to encourage narrow-mindedness and overconfidence in the thinking of the best known (and best funded) philosophers of religion in the world” – female full professor, UK.
“I would not be the first to say that philosophy of religion, especially “analytic theology”, is simply not philosophy. It’s Christian apologetics, and it often is poorer philosophically because of that. A Christian bias pervades everything, and, once one becomes a non-Christian, the irrational faith-based assumptions and intuitions start to stand out. Philosophy of religion is increasingly out of touch with the actual practice of religion in Europe and the Americas. It needs to be revitalized by making contact with the rich religious pluralism now evolving in Europe and the Americas. We need to see articles by analytic philosophers on Mormonism, Santeria, Umbanda, Wicca, goddess religion, religious naturalism, new pantheistic movements, and on and on” – male full professor, US, state university.
“I have received referees reports on articles submitted to leading journals of the philosophy of religion that appeared to me to exhibit unjustified hostility to my submissions because of the atheistic or sceptical content. Often there’s scarcely any argument – just in effect: “this is outrageous, don’t publish it”.” – male senior lecturer, UK university.
In closing, this is just a small tranche from the wealth of responses I received.I hope to include, in a full report, a detailed analysis of how religious upbringing and environment play a role in the beliefs of philosophers, how their advisors and colleagues reacted when they decided to specialize it, and the status of women in the field.
Thanks again for participating, and happy new year!
Appendix – list of questions of the survey
(Note that this report only includes analysis of a subsection of these questions – an analysis of all the questions will require some more time.)
- How would you describe your current professional position, including your function in the department (e.g., assistant professor), the type of school where you are working (e.g., a small liberal arts college, a research-intensive department, a regional teaching-oriented state school)? Is the school faith-based?
- What are your primary areas of interest within philosophy?
- Can you tell something about the factors that contributed to your specializing in philosophy of religion?
- How would you describe the reactions of others (e.g., your advisor, your colleagues) when you considered to specialize in philosophy of religion?
- How would you describe your personal religious beliefs, or lack thereof?
- Do you consider yourself to be a member of one or more religious denominations or secular organizations with ideological content? If so, which one(s)?
- Did your religious beliefs change over time, especially in the time since you were a philosopher? Could you describe this change (if applicable)?
- How would you describe the relationship between your personal religious beliefs, or lack thereof, and your work in philosophy of religion?
- Are there any additional anecdotes or personal observations that you think are relevant for this study?