How can we make the subject matter of philosophy of religion more diverse?
October 20, 2014 — 16:23

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Christian Theology Concept of God Religious Belief  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 40

In a forthcoming paper, John Schellenberg forwards the following argument: anatomically humans have been around 200,000 years. That’s a very short span of time for any species, and only in the past few thousand years ago have we been reflecting on the world around us. If we our species survives even as long as Homo erectus did, we’ve only completed a very small part of a potentially long future of thinking about religion, metaphysics and other matters.

At present, philosophy of religion in the analytic tradition is quite narrowly focused:

“in the west – and I expect I am writing mainly for western readers – philosophy of religion has been largely preoccupied with one religious idea, that of theism, and it looks to be moving into a narrower and deeper version of this preoccupation, one focused on specifically Christian ideas, rather than broadening out and coming to grips with its full task.”(p. 3).

Theism, in a generic, omni-property sort of way, is one position that philosophers of religion commonly defend. The other is scientific naturalism. These seem to be the only games in town:

“most naturalists too assume that theistic God-centered religion must succeed if any does. Naturalism or theism. These seem to be the only options that many see. The harshest critics of religion, including philosophers such as Daniel Dennett, seem to think their job is done when they have, to their own satisfaction, criticized personalistic, agential conceptions of a divine reality.” (pp. 3-4).

At the end of 2013, I conducted a qualitative survey (summary here, but I am writing up the paper presently) among philosophers of religion. Next to a series of open questions, there was a question for open feedback. I was quite surprised to see so many philosophers of religion openly lament the lack of subject diversity in their discipline. Just a few choice examples written by anonymous respondents:


Evil and Hiddenness – Brief meditation
August 21, 2014 — 10:40

Author: Trent Dougherty  Category: Existence of God Problem of Evil Religious Belief  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 3

Thesis 1: The problem of divine hiddenness is, in some reasonable sense, a “deeper” problem than the problem of evil.

Datum 1: If God were vividly present to us, we could suffer almost anything–at least the kinds of things we find on this planet–without (evidential) doubt that God exists (and also with little emotional doubt).

Caveat 1: Datum 1 notwithstanding, one clearly could have some (evidential) doubt that God existed, even if God were vividly present to them throughout the suffering.  For one could have a good argument that one were hallucinating whatever experience it was in virtue of which God was present to them.  In fact, if one’s prior credences were distributed in certain ways, they coud be nearly certain that they were hallucinating.  It is an interesting question whether any reasonable, properly functioning individual could have such credences.  I doubt that it could be so in any nearby world.  (Emotional doubt (or “psychological” doubt, it you prefer) is often irrational, so it can arise under any circumstances.)

St. Stephen, Protomartyr:  So my thesis, taken generically, doesn’t face a serious problem from the Proviso.  My focus is on situations pretty similar to the actual world.  A core example is that of Stephen.  In the Scriptures (Acts 7:54-8:2), as Stephen is being stoned to death (quite unjustly as part of a terrible persecution in which Saul “dragged off men and women and committed them to prison” (8:4)), he says he see’s Jesus, then a bit later he asks Jesus to receive his spirit in a standard formula of acknowledging imminent death, then finally prays for their forgiveness.

The implication seems clear that the way he accepted his death is importantly related to (inspired and sustained by) his experience of Jesus being present to him (in some kind of vision, in this case).  There are other similar stories both of historical martyrs and one’s I’ve heard more closely.  Contrast this “peace that passes understanding” with cases where people feel “alone” during suffering and have a kind of irreligious experience (See Gellman 1992 and my enormous MS on the “Common Sense Problem of Evil) that serves as data for an argument for atheism from evil.

Caveat 2: I think that, formally speaking, the problem of divine hiddenness *just is* an instance of the problem of evil (my Routledge Encyclopedia entry on Divine Hiddenness discusses this (it’s behind a pay-wall, sorry but I’ll send it to you if you want).  In light of this, I have to modify my thesis slightly (but not substantively).

Revised thesis: The “real” problem of evil *just is* the problem of divine hiddenness.

Action point: For my own part, I will be focusing much more on the reasons God hides (in the sense in which he does, I mean, almost everyone believes in God or at least the supernatural, so there’s actually a problem formulating the problem, which I also plan to work on) than on the reasons why he allows evil in general (confession: how did that ever get to be a “problem”?).  I will continue to spend time on special cases like animal suffering (more to say there than appears in _The Problem of Animal Pain: A Theodicy for All Creatures Great and Small_, I cut three chapters and have had many thoughts sense.  But I think of the following two questions

Q1: Why would God allow S to suffer *that*, X [insert horrendous evil]?

Q2: Why wouldn’t God be a present comfort to S as she goes through X?

we have more to learn by pursuing Q2 than by Q1.  (Call that Thesis 2.)

Wettstein’s practice-based attitude to religious faith: Is realist theism no longer the only game in town?
March 31, 2014 — 14:24

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Religion and Life Religious Belief  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 11

[this is X-posted at NewApps] In philosophy of religion, realist theism is the dominant outlook: belief in God is similar to belief in other real things (or supposedly real things) like quarks or oxygen. There is a rather triumphalist narrative about the resurgence of realist theism since the demise of logical positivism (see for instance, Plantinga’s advice to Christian philosophers) when logical positivism and its verifiability criterion held sway, philosophers were dissuaded from talking about God in realist terms: religious beliefs were not just false, but meaningless. With the demise of logical positivism, however, theists could again defend realist positions, using a variety of sophisticated arguments.

Nevertheless, the question is whether theists in philosophers of religion are not conceding too much to atheists by talking about theism mainly in terms of beliefs. To ignore practice is to ignore a large part of the religious experience, and what makes it meaningful to the theist. Such an exclusive focus can indeed be alienating, as it seems to suggest that theists believe a whole bunch of ideas that are wildly implausible, e.g., that a man resurrected from the dead, or was born of a virgin. This picture of religious life as believing in a set of strange propositions is, as Kvanvig memorably put it, a view that most theists will not recognize themselves in:

I hardly recognize this picture of religious faith and religious life, except in the sense that one can cease to be surprised or shocked by the neighbor who jumps naked on his trampoline after having seen it for years.

That is not to say that many theists do believe these things, even in a literal sense, but without looking at the larger picture of practices that help to maintain and instil these beliefs, our epistemology of religion remains woefully incomplete.

It is therefore refreshing to read philosopher Howard Wettstein’s recent interview in The Stone, who, coming from a Jewish background, emphasizes the practice-based aspects of a religious lifestyle. He argues that “existence” is the wrong idea for God, following Maimonides, and instead argues that “the real question is one’s relation to God, the role God plays in one’s life, the character of one’s spiritual life.”

Further on Wettstein says

The theism-atheism-agnosticism trio presumes that the real question is whether God exists. I’m suggesting that the real question is otherwise and that I don’t see my outlook in terms of that trio.

It is very interesting that this looking for alternatives is not unique to Wettstein, but was in fact a fairly common response in my recent qualitative survey on the beliefs and attitudes of philosophers of religion. Many of them, including those coming from a Christian tradition, hesitated to call themselves theists, atheists or agnostics. For example, one associate professor in my survey writes that her unbelief does not equate with atheism:

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.

I’m not saying we should throw realist theism overboard. Rather, practice is an important element of religious life whose philosophical significance has not received as much attention as it ought. Practice, I believe, can help us make sense about how people sustain and accept beliefs that seem prima facie very hard to make sense of.  Using insights from the extended mind thesis and other views of scaffolded and embodied cognition, our epistemology of religion should incorporate these practices into a more complete picture of credal and affective attitudes toward God.

Like many other critics, Gutting thinks there is a tension in Wettstein’s practice of prayer and his outlook of naturalism. I was similarly skeptical when I read Wettstein’s paper on awe and the religious life, and later his book. Now, however, I think we need to understand more about the range of attitudes that underpin religious practice and their relationship to religious doxastic attitudes to determine whether there is a tension. Can the practices stand independent from credal attitudes, as Wettstein suggests is the case for some mathematicians, who work with numbers without any ontological commitments to them? Do we need something like hope or another positive non-doxastic attitude at the very least to support religious practices like prayer?

Fideism, Faith, and Rationality Conference
January 29, 2014 — 9:25

Author: Joshua Thurow  Category: News Religious Belief  Tags: , ,   Comments: 0

The 2014 Brackenridge conference at the University of Texas at San Antonio will be on Fideism, Faith, and Rationality.  The keynote speaker is John Bishop (Auckland).  The conference will be held February 20-22, 2014.  All are welcome to attend.

Thursday, February 20 H.E.B. University Center 2.202, Travis Room

3:00 – 4:10 pm Daniel Bonevac (UT-Austin)

4:25 – 5:40 pm Keynote address from John Bishop (Auckland)


Friday, February 21 University Center 2.01.28, Denman Ballroom

9:30 – 10:40 am Howard Wettstein (UC-Riverside)

10:55 – 12:05 am Michael Pace (Chapman)

2:00 – 3:10 pm Jonathan Kvanvig (Baylor)

3:25 – 4:40 pm Paddy McShane (Georgetown)


Saturday, February 22 University Center 2.01.28, Denman Ballroom

10:00 – 11:10 am Blake Roeber (Notre Dame)

11:25 – 12:35 pm Jeff Jordan (Delaware)

I just know I’m right – what to do when you feel this in religious and philosophical disagreement
October 15, 2013 — 5:28

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Religious Belief  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 10

[note: this blogpost collects some scattered thoughts I hope to organize in article form sooner rather than later, for my British Academy project on religious social epistemology, see here]

There is an ongoing debate what we should do when we are confronted with disagreement with an epistemic peer; someone who is as knowledgeable and intellectually virtuous in the domain in question. Should we revise our beliefs (conciliationism), or not engage in any doxastic revision (steadfastness)? Epistemologists aim to settle this question in a principled way, hoping general principles like conciliationism and steadfastness can offer a solution not only for the toy examples that are being invoked, but also for real-world cases that we care passionately about, such as scientific, religious, political and philosophical disagreements. However, such cases have proven to be a hard nut to crack. A referee once commented on a paper I submitted on epistemic peer disagreement in science  that the notion of epistemic peer in scientific practice was useless. S/he said “It works for simple cases like two spectators who disagree on which horse finished first, but when it comes to two scientists who disagree whether a fossil is a Homo floresiensis or Homo sapiens, the notion is just utterly useless.” 


God’s Existence and My Suspicion: Delusions of Knowledge
July 12, 2013 — 10:02

Author: Keith DeRose  Category: Atheism & Agnosticism Existence of God Religious Belief  Tags: , , ,   Comments: 72

(I thought some Prosblogion folks may find this essay interesting, because it touches on and connects with several interesting philosophical and metaphilosophical issues, and also some interesting issues about the role of faith in the religious life. I don’t mention faith in the essay: that’s one of the “connected” issues that isn’t actually touched on. But it’s interesting to me to see how some theists can be very disturbed at the suggestion that they don’t know that God exists, while others shrug it off with some thought along the lines of “Well, that’s what faith is for.”)

I know many people who claim to know whether God exists. In each case (individually), I suspect they’re wrong about their having such knowledge. In fact, I suspect that they are all wrong. That is, I suspect that nobody that I know knows whether God exists. So I suspect that delusions of knowledge about this matter run rampant among folks I know. Not a particularly nice suspicion to harbor, I realize. But I thought I’d express and explain that suspicion here, describing my grounds for it.


Religious Epistemology Discussion (Plantinga & Sosa)
July 6, 2013 — 13:59

Author: Andrew Moon  Category: Existence of God Links Problem of Evil Religion and Life Religious Belief  Tags:   Comments: 0

Wow, I can’t believe I didn’t know about this religious epistemology discussion that happened earlier this year. It is in three parts: Sosa opening criticism, Plantinga response w/discussion, and more discussion.
Other participants I recognized included the following: Michael Tooley, Richard Fumerton, Linda Zagzebski, Trenton Merricks, Louise Antony, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Mark Murphy, and Meghan Sullivan. It was exhilarating to watch top rate philosophers discuss these fascinating topics!

Religious education, child abuse and responsible parental stewardship
April 24, 2013 — 7:01

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Religious Belief Teaching  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 23

[this is cross-posted at Newapps] Richard Dawkins has argued several times (e.g., here) that bringing up your child religiously is a form of child abuse. I think his argument that religious upbringing in general is child abuse has little merit (after all, Dawkins himself is the product of a traditional Anglican upbringing and calls himself – rather proudly – a cultural Anglican, hardly the victim of child abuse). However, his claim in the linked article is that parents who attempt to instill things like Young Earth Creationism (henceforth YEC) in their children are doing something wrong, or are somehow overstepping their role as parents. This question, I believe, is worthy of further attention.


Does Religious Experience Have an Expiration Date?
April 12, 2013 — 20:51

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Religious Belief  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 6

A fairly common position in philosophy of religion is that religious experience can provide justification for religious belief of a sort that cannot be transmitted by testimony. (We here use the term ‘religious experience’ non-factively; that is, we leave open the possibility that these experiences might provide misleading evidence.) This is not necessarily to deny that testimony of religious experience can provide evidence in favor of religious belief; it is just to say that, no matter how credible the testimony, this won’t provide the same sort of justification as actually having the experience oneself. Often it is thought that at least some mystics gain justification which is not only different in kind than the justification that can be got by testimony, but greater in degree. (I use the term ‘mystic’ to refer to anyone who has religious experience; I take it that this group is far larger than just the famous mystical writers and those directly influenced by them.) On this view, no matter how much testimony of religious experience from sincere, apparently sane, people one collected, this could never add up to as strong a reason for belief as that possessed by (say) Julian of Norwich on account of her experiences.


Thoughts on evolutionary debunking arguments against religious belief
September 24, 2012 — 15:59

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Religious Belief  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 15

I’ve just re-read Paul Griffiths’ and John Wilkins’ inspiring paper on evolutionary debunking arguments (EDAs) for religion (it is a very influential paper on cognitive science of religion and evolutionary debunking, despite its not having appeared in print yet) for a chapter of a monograph I’m writing. Using Guy Kahane’s debunking genealogical framework, they argue that natural selection is an off-track process, i.e., one that does not track truth: it produces beliefs in a manner that is insensitive to the truth those beliefs. From this, they conclude that the beliefs that are the outputs of evolved systems are unjustified.
Causal premise. S’s belief that p is explained by X
Epistemic premise. X is an off-track process
Therefore, S’s belief that p is unjustified
When we apply this argument in a generalized manner, where X stands for “natural selection”, this looks like a bad strategy for the naturalist – ultimately, it leads to self-defeat in a Plantingesque manner that most proponents of EDAs would like to avoid. G&W’s position is more subtle: they don’t want to treat truth-tracking and fitness-tracking as competing explanations (as Plantinga seems to do), instead, they argue that fitness-tracking and truth-tracking operate at different explanatory levels. In many cases, tracking truth *is* the best way of tracking fitness, especially given (1) that cognition is costly (brains consume a lot of energy), (2) your beliefs influences how you will behave, (3) your behavior influences your fitness. They propose “Milvian bridges”, which link truth-tracking and fitness-tracking, in order to salvage commonsense and scientific beliefs.