Is Religious Belief Reasonable?
October 19, 2013 — 23:52

Author: Robert Gressis  Category: Uncategorized  Tags: , , ,   Comments: 34

Over at Philosophy, et cetera, Richard Yetter-Chappell claims that religious belief is not reasonable. Here is Yetter-Chappell’s rationale behind his reasoning:
1. At most, the cosmological and fine-tuning arguments support minimal deism. (I’m not sure what minimal deism is; is it simply the claim that something outside of the universe is causally responsible for either the universe’s existence or for its order? Or is it the stronger claim that some kind of powerful, intelligent agent is causally responsible for either the universe’s existence or its order?)
2. The ontological argument is sophistic, and the modal ontological argument is question-begging.
3. The fact that lots of philosophers of religion think that religious belief is reasonable provides no evidence for thinking that it’s reasonable, because the best explanation for why they’re philosophers of religion in the first place is that they’re antecedently convinced of the claims of theism. Consequently, the best explanation of the fact that they find those arguments compelling is that they already believed them for non-evidential reasons.
4. There are very good reasons to disbelieve in theism, namely the arguments from evil and divine hiddenness. (I take it that Yetter-Chappell thinks that the responses to these arguments don’t discredit these arguments.)
5. The additional claims of historical religions are either not “the kind of thing someone could end up believing as the result of a careful and unbiased assessment of the evidence” (presumably, things like the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Atonement, among others) or are “patently immoral” (like the doctrine of original sin, and the view that honest non-believers deserve eternal damnation).
(Yetter-Chappell doesn’t mention other arguments in the theistic arsenal, like Kant’s moral argument or the argument from miracles. I’m guessing he either doesn’t think they’re worthy of discussion or thinks they convince too few people to mention, or both.)
What is one to make of Yetter-Chappell’s post? A few things, I think:
First, I think that claims that philosophers of religion have made religious belief intellectually respectable are either overstated or false. Just based on anecdotal evidence, I get the impression that a lot of very intelligent philosophers, even ones who are personal acquaintances of Robert Adams, Marilyn Adams, Richard Swinburne, Eleonore Stump, Alvin Plantinga, Peter van Inwagen, or Dean Zimmerman feel the same way as Yetter-Chappell. It would be good to get some empirical information on whether this is the case.
Second, I must confess that his post unnerves me greatly. This is mainly because I get the impression that Yetter-Chappell is a very good philosopher who is intimately acquainted with much of contemporary philosophy of religion — as well-acquainted with it as many of the people who post on this blog, I’m assuming (is that fair?) — and I don’t think he has the slightest doubt about his views. By contrast, I have nagging, deep doubts about my own religious beliefs. I think this is partly because you can publish lots of secular philosophy in generalist journals while explicitly assuming the truth of naturalism, whereas you can’t publish philosophy that makes explicitly theistic assumptions in generalist journals (or can you? And if you can, under what circumstances can you do so? As a hypothetical? I don’t count those). Perhaps I’m simply neuro-atypical, but I think that would consistently add to the confidence in my convictions. (And this says nothing of the naturalistic assumptions you can make in most conversations with most philosophers.)
Third, I could be wrong, but I think you can run many of his arguments against moral realism. Let me go through them:
1*. What direct arguments are there in favor of moral realism? Michael Smith tries in The Moral Problem; how convincing is this? I gather that David Enoch, Russ Shafer-Landau, and Anita Superson try as well. How many are convinced?
2*. Kant’s deduction of the categorical imperative/Mill’s “proof” is sophistic. (There’s a “gap” in Kant’s deduction and Mill’s proof trades on an equivocation within “x is desirable” between “x is something that one can desire” and “x is something that one ought to desire”.)
3*. The fact that most normative ethicists and meta-ethicists (56.4%) are moral realists doesn’t give any evidence in favor of moral realism, because those scholars became ethicists because they were antecedently convinced of the truth of moral realism.
4*. There are very good reasons to disbelieve moral realism, such as Mackie’s argument from queerness and Harman’s point that you don’t need to invoke moral facts to explain anything about our behavior, attitudes, moral knowledge, etc. Indeed, this world is just the kind of world you would expect to see if our moral beliefs were the product of acculturation and evolutionary pressures.
5.* Most of the particular ethical beliefs that philosophers, and the public at large, have are not so much the result of careful study of evidence (few people look deeply into the evidence (sociological, psychological, economic, political scientific, etc.; nor are they the result of the application of a particular normative theory to cases), but rather because those beliefs are the ones their colleagues share, etc.
Even if one accepts the above parallels, though, I’m not sure what they show. I’m guessing you can easily accept all of 1-5 while denying 1*-5*, but I find it difficult to do so, personally. If you agree with me that there are at least some parallels between moral realism and theism, why do you think moral realism is so much more respectable than theism? (Assuming it is.)

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!)

Atheist Burnout and the Direction of Philosophy of Religion
September 6, 2010 — 11:22

Author: Robert Gressis  Category: Atheism & Agnosticism General  Comments: 120

You may have already seen this, but in case you haven’t, philosopher Keith Parsons, author of the 1990 God and the Burden of Proof, among many other articles, has quit philosophy of religion.
He writes:

I have to confess that I now regard “the case for theism” as a fraud and I can no longer take it seriously enough to present it to a class as a respectable philosophical position–no more than I could present intelligent design as a legitimate biological theory. BTW, in saying that I now consider the case for theism to be a fraud, I do not mean to charge that the people making that case are frauds who aim to fool us with claims they know to be empty. No, theistic philosophers and apologists are almost painfully earnest and honest; I don’t think there is a Bernie Madoff in the bunch. I just cannot take their arguments seriously any more, and if you cannot take something seriously, you should not try to devote serious academic attention to it. I’ve turned the philosophy of religion courses over to a colleague.

In the comments, Theodore Drange, author of Nonbelief and Evil, adds, “I, too, have little interest in religion, which I regard to be a kind of insanity (loss of touch with reality) that advanced species perhaps go through in the course of their evolution.” (I should note that Drange did not exactly support Parsons’s decision, but instead pointed out that there are other things to talk about in the philosophy of religion besides the ontological status of theistic religious beliefs).
Finally, John Beversluis, author of C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion, as well as professor of philosophy (emeritus) at Butler University, tells John Loftus that he independently arrived at the same conclusion as Parsons.
I have a trio of wonderings about this:
First, it makes me wonder how often this phenomenon occurs. Are there a substantial number of atheists who dabble in philosophy of religion and find the best theistic arguments and defenses so wanting that they decide, “no, not for me. These people [e.g., van Fraassen, Plantinga, van Inwagen, Adams, etc.] are smart, but they leave their brains at the door when they do philosophy of religion”? Personally, I doubt this; or at least, I doubt that it happens after they read the aforementioned authors, as most of the atheists I know have never read any of van Inwagen’s, Plantinga’s, etc.’s, philosophy of religion.
Second, what do these philosophers think is happening to those philosophers who do top-notch work in other fields but who are also orthodox Christians? Do they have a theory? If their theory is indeed “compartmentalized insanity”, have they looked into the psychological research on this? And what do they make of some of their smart atheist colleagues, like Quentin Smith, David Lewis, and William Rowe, who don’t share their disdain for their theistic counterparts?
Third and finally, if I am wrong in my first speculation, and it is indeed the case that many atheists who read the best and brightest of theistic philosophy of religion come away thinking that the case for theism is as weak as, say, the case for intelligent design (assuming, of course, that the case for intelligent design is indeed weak; if you don’t like that example, replace it with one you think is more apt), then should we expect philosophy of religion to become more and more dominated by religious theists? And if so, what will that mean for the direction of philosophy of religion? I expect that it would encourage more and more philosophers of religion to engage in philosophical theology and other such endeavors rather than defending the propriety of religious belief.
I’d love to hear what other people make of this, but I’d be especially curious to hear from atheists about this.

What Is It Like to Have an Experience That Grounds a Properly Basic Belief in God?
February 18, 2010 — 11:49

Author: Robert Gressis  Category: Atheism & Agnosticism Existence of God Religious Belief  Comments: 36

[Note: An incomplete version of this post published earlier. Sorry about that!]

Recently, California State University, Sacramento philosopher Matt McCormick recorded an interview with Luke Muehlhauser in which he discussed atheism. A lively debate broke out in the comments section, and there Matt challenged defenders of reformed epistemology (RE) as follows:
“Maybe you all can just help me understand what this immediate, direct, non-inferential, basic apprehension of God is, exactly. I’m not really interested in theoretical interpretations or descriptions that are couched in abstract theological babble. I just want to hear some descriptions of the actual phenomenology of these moments, experiences, or apprehensions. Describe the sorts of feelings, sights, smells, or apprehensions that are occurring when one is having this direct hookup with God. For analogies, we have the Jodie Foster contacts aliens example and a guy who knows he didn’t commit a crime because he recalls being at home watching TV on Saturday night and not robbing a liquor store, or whatever. But obviously, one’s encounters with the almighty creator of the universe and master of all reality aren’t really going to be like either of these in any shape, manner, or form. So what exactly are they like? And what is it about them that engenders such profound confidence and such strong ontological conclusions?”
I decided to respond to the challenge.
You can find what I wrote, as well as Matt McCormick’s response, at Matt’s blog, but in case you don’t want to read my rambling comment, I’ll summarize the relevant portion:


Thoughts from the Notre Dame conference, “My Ways Are Not Your Ways”
September 29, 2009 — 8:00

Author: Robert Gressis  Category: Religion and Life Religious Belief  Comments: 28

From September 10-12, Notre Dame held a conference called “My Ways Are not Your Ways: The Character of the God of the Hebrew Bible”. The focus of the conference was on the”hard passages” from the Bible, particularly from the Old Testament: instances where God seems to command genocide, rape, child sacrifice, and other such things. I can’t remember a conference that I was more excited to see. And it didn’t disappoint–it may have been the most rewarding conference I’ve attended.
Originally, I thought I would live-blog the conference, but because I fell under the impression both that the presentations, along with their responses, would be collected into a book, and that videos of at least the Q&A sessions would eventually be posted to the website (don’t quote me on that, though), I decided I would instead post something more impressionistic.


The Elusive God, Chapter 1, Sections 5-8
June 29, 2009 — 20:19

Author: Robert Gressis  Category: Books of Interest Existence of God  Comments: 16

First, thanks to Matthew Mullins and the other Prosblogion contributors for setting up and participating in this online book club. The second part of Moser’s equivocally named chapter 1 (“Doubting Skeptics”, where “Doubting” refers both to skeptics’ doubting of God’s reality and Moser’s doubting of skeptics’ having discharged their epistemic obligations) consists of four sections: “5. Volitional Knowing”; “6. Skeptical Tests”; “7. Trust and Distrust”; and “8. Voice Lessons”. Since each of these sections is part of chapter 1, I shall also refer to them as “1.5”, “1.6”, etc. Anyway, below the fold are my summaries and critiques of §§1.5-1.8.


Homosexuality and Traditional Christianity
February 16, 2009 — 18:44

Author: Robert Gressis  Category: Religion and Life  Comments: 29

I was going to write a post on the subject of the APA petition, but Andrew beat me to it. That said, I notice that on the Leiter thread, people in support of the petition are quite certain of the rectitude of their views, whereas people urging caution, or rejection, of the petition, use much more cautious/defensive language. Moreover, almost all of the people who support the petition use their real names, whereas many of the people opposed to it, or who urge caution regarding it, write in anonymously.
Assuming I’m right about this, I wonder what it amounts to? I think this:
Many, if not all, traditionally Christian (and, I imagine, Jewish and Muslim) philosophers are afraid of posting their thoughts on this matter. First, they are afraid of being personally attacked. “Fear of personal attacks” should be construed broadly: it doesn’t refer just to being scared of what your colleagues will say or think of you; it refers also to fear of the emotions that will arise within you upon being personally attacked. That is, you may be afraid that you will write something in emotion-induced haste.
Second, I bet a lot of traditional Christians are in fact unsure what is wrong with same-sex relations. They accept that people should not have sex with members of the same sex, and/or that people should not marry people of the same sex; but they don’t really accept or understand any of the rationales offered for why. Or perhaps even stronger, they side with a lot of the philosophers posting in Leiter’s thread, and their beliefs on this score are an abiding source of tension for them.
Third, assuming that philosophers in support of the petition will in fact personally attack someone who publicly defends the propriety of the APA’s position, is this behavior warranted? Many philosophers, including Christian philosophers of all stripes, seem to think that there are cases where personal attacks are appropriate. I can’t remember where she said this, but I recall G. E. M. Anscombe writing that there are some positions so corrupt that they shouldn’t be met with arguments but rather with disgust, condemnation, or something of that sort. I’m actually inclined to disagree with Anscombe on this score. I think that such condemnation is rarely productive in philosophical debate, and I think there are indeed good arguments that can be offered in favor of lots of positions that most people hold unreflectively (e.g., a lot of people look at necrophilia with disgust, and think that no one should engage in it. But why? I bet a lot of people won’t be able to offer very good answers to this, other than just to say that it’s disgusting. But a clever philosopher could quickly, I think, move most people to aporia over this). In other words, I think a lot of the philosophers posting in Leiter’s thread are not behaving as they should. But I might be rash in saying this–after all, how would I feel if people were defending philosophy departments that, say, required their theistic students to sign statements giving up their theism under threat of expulsion? I should think I’d be very dispirited if even a few philosophers supported such a notion, and I would quite possibly describe them as bigoted. Of course, under such circumstances I don’t think it would be appropriate to use such language, even though I think it would be factually correct.
EDIT: I should add, in elaborating my third point, that I thought it inappropriate to make personal attacks on people at least when you are trying to convince them of the wrongness of their position. Thus, calling discriminating Christian universities bigoted in the comments section of The Leiter Reports is not itself inappropriate, and, to the extent that the language is factually correct, fine, perhaps even to be encouraged. Now that I think about things a little more, though, whether it’s appropriate to call a person bigoted depends not only on whether he actually is bigoted, but also on whether such remarks are liable to convince him. There could definitely be some people who, when described as bigoted by people of good will, will rethink their positions. In such cases, then, calling a spade a spade is fine, perhaps even recommendable.
Nonetheless, though, I think there’s a kind of civility that it’s important to maintain in such arguments, at least when you’re writing to someone. You don’t want someone to accept your position out of fear, and you don’t want them to reject your position out of defensiveness. Instead, you should want, if you’re a philosopher, your interlocutors to focus on the reasons you offer for your position rather than on the consequences that their beliefs and conduct will have on your assessments of them.

Book Review of Philosophers without Gods
October 9, 2008 — 20:03

Author: Robert Gressis  Category: Atheism & Agnosticism Books of Interest  Comments: Off

Over at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, George Mavrodes has a very nice, rather involved (at least, compared to what is typical at NDPR) review of the Louise Anthony-edited volume, Philosophers without Gods.

Debate: Poison or Cure? Religious Belief in the Modern World
November 3, 2007 — 15:48

Author: Robert Gressis  Category: Atheism & Agnosticism  Comments: 12

A debate between Christopher Hitchens and Alister McGrath has been posted on "The Official Richard Dawkins Website". In my opinion, the typical person who enters the debate "on the fence" will most likely leave siding with Hitchens.

This is not due only to Hitchens's polemical acumen (or at all to McGrath's lack of talent — he's certainly not lacking for that). Rather, I think that any debate set up as this one seems to have been will always favor the atheist (not to say the atheist will always get the better of the theist).


Certain Doubters
September 6, 2007 — 17:21

Author: Robert Gressis  Category: Atheism & Agnosticism  Comments: 31

Thanks to Jeremy Pierce and Matthew Mullins for getting me on The Prosblogion. And thanks to those who welcomed me in the comments section.

I want to start with a question: why are atheistic philosophers so much more certain of their beliefs than theistic philosophers are? (N. B.: I’m talking here just of atheistic and theistic philosophers – not the man in the street.)  

Let me elaborate a bit: