This week’s Virtual Colloquium paper is “The Shattered Spiritual Self” by Michelle Panchuk. Dr. Panchuk received her PhD from the University of South Carolina in 2016, and is currently a research fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Philosophy of Religion. Her previous work, some of which has been published in International Philosophical Quarterly, has focused on the relationship between classical theism and the metaphysics of universals. Currently, she is working on a monograph on the topic of religious trauma.
The Shattered Spiritual Self
Philosophical Reflections on Religious Trauma, Worship, and Deconversion
In this paper I argue that we should understand religious trauma as a kind of transformative experience that diminishes the individual’s capacity to engage in religious life, and that this diminished capacity is sometimes so severe that it constitutes an all-things-considered reason for the individual to deconvert, whether or not she maintains the beliefs associated with her former religion. In the first section I provide an introduction to trauma in a general sense. In the second I suggest two criteria that trauma must meet to count as religious trauma and then sketch a working definition of it. In the third section I narrow the scope of discussion to the non- cognitive effects of religious trauma and analyze two case studies relative to those effects. In the final section I argue that the non-cognitive effects of religious trauma may place worship out of reach of some survivors of religious trauma, and that this can give them an all-things-considered reason to deconvert. Even if this last argument fails to persuade the reader, I believe that this paper will successfully demonstrate that religious trauma is a kind of experience that deserves serious philosophical and theological consideration.
In its most severe forms trauma has devastating effects on the individual’s ability to function and flourish. Trauma theorists divide the effects of trauma into two categories: the epistemic/cognitive effects and the non-cognitive—emotional and physiological—effects. Examples of the former are things like believing oneself to be fundamentally unsafe in the world, while examples of the latter include intrusive memories, hyperarousal, hypervigilance, and sleep disturbances. At least two conditions must be met for an experience to count as religiously traumatic. First, the trauma must be inflicted by some aspect of the religion, and second, its effects must have a religious object. The fact that only a portion of the individuals who experience trauma more generally develop a post-traumatic disorder suggests that only a portion of those who endure a religiously traumatic experience will develop religiously significant post- traumatic distress, but there simply isn’t enough research to say exactly how common it is. It is enough for our current purposes that religious trauma exists, and as I will show below, raises philosophical questions about religious faith in those cases. Thus, I will define religious trauma as: any traumatic experience of the divine being, religious community, religious dogma, or religious practice that transforms the individual, either epistemically or non-cognitively, in such a way that her ability to participate in religious life is significantly diminished.
According to our definition, trauma is a kind of lived experience. It does not result from theoretical reasoning when someone contemplates the ontological argument and infers that it is invalid. The experience itself transforms the individual, and that transformation involves both epistemic and non-cognitive changes. Epistemically, the subject gains knowledge of what the experience is like, which would have been impossible for them to gain otherwise. Though this is knowledge gained, we may include it as an aspect of the shattered self because it does not involve propositions inferred from the experience. Personally, they may experience a range of changes in their values, preferences, and non-cognitive responses to religious life. For the most part, these results are outside of the individuals’ conscious control.
In most religions, maintaining the relevant set of propositional attitudes is not a sufficient condition for counting oneself an adherent of the religion. What is required beyond the appropriate propositional attitudes, we may call worship in a broad sense (e.g., religious rituals, proper attitudes toward the sacred and the divine, etc). However, there is another sense of ‘worship’ that is much more narrow, referring only to the attitudinal aspects of worship, so we can distinguish between the practice of worship and the attitude of worship, for the sake of simplicity. In this narrow sense, worship involves loving, adoring, revering, and desiring the divine being. Survivors of religious trauma may find themselves unable to worship according to the demands of their religion in both the broad and the narrow senses. If a survivor experiences intrusive memories while engaging in religious rituals, it may become physically and psychologically impossible for her to fulfill them. This would be an obstacle to worship in the broad sense. If, however, she experiences deep revulsion and utter terror toward the divine being, then even worship in the narrow sense may be out of reach, because the proper emotions are partially constitutive of this sense of worship. I argue that not only is the survivor of religious trauma nonculpable for these non-cognitive effects of trauma, but that in cases where they are severe enough to preclude that attitudinal state constitutive of worship, they may constitute and all-things considered reason to deconvert.
The complete paper is available here.
[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?
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?
If you are a professional philosopher of religion (including graduate students), I would be very grateful if you could fill out the following survey: https://surveys.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_4UvmgvHInmoRgkR
This study is a qualitative investigation focused on professional philosophers who have philosophy of religion as an area of specialization. It is designed and carried out by Dr. Helen De Cruz (postdoctoral fellow of the British Academy at the University of Oxford, Somerville College and Philosophy Faculty). The purpose is to get a qualitative picture of the motivations of philosophers of religion for taking up this subject, and the relationship of their philosophical work to their personal belief attitudes (including lack of religious belief).
If you are a professional philosopher of religion (this includes graduate students, non-tenure track faculty, as well as faculty members), please consider participating. Participation is fully anonymous. The format of the study is an open survey, where you will be asked to respond to a series of open questions. As the questions are open, it is entirely up to you to decide how long or detailed your responses are.
The more people participate, the better and more nuanced the results will be. Ideally, I would like to recruit people of various levels of seniority (e.g., graduate students, faculty members, non- tenureline faculty), male as well as female participants, working in various countries, and with various religious outlooks (including lack of religious belief).
This is a qualitative survey. Excerpts of the responses will appear in the published research. To take care that your anonymity is preserved, I will publish only one response per participant maximum, making sure that there is no identifying information within your response. The full dataset will remain confidential and will not be shared with anyone. You can find a preliminary write up of the results on http://prosblogion.ektopos.com/ probably in March 2014.
The study is designed and carried out by Helen De Cruz, postdoctoral fellow of the British Academy at the University of Oxford. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact helen.decruz[at]philosophy.ox.ac.uk
For Christian universalists of my basic type, as well as many other Christians who stray from traditional, mega-nasty doctrines of hell in certain vaguely universalist directions, C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce has been a godsend.
The “basic type” of universalists in question are those who accept what I call “strong exclusivism,” which goes beyond the claim of “exclusivism” that it is only through Christ that any can be saved to add a condition to the effect that in order to be saved, one must somehow explicitly accept Christ and the salvation he makes possible. The exact nature of the explicit acceptance can be worked out in various ways, but the problem here, of course, is that many people die without having explicitly accepted Christ on just about any way of working out those details. The solution to the problem is to hold that saving explicit acceptance can occur after death.
But while some Christian universalists are thus moved to believe in “further chances” after death (FC), and many other Christians also accept FC for reasons other than that it is the way to square universalism with strong exclusivism, I am still inclined to believe something in the vicinity of what I wrote quite a few years ago in my on-line defense of universalism about the strength with which the opposing doctrine of “no further chances” (NFC) is held in many evangelical circles:
I think no other doctrine can even compete with “no further chances” in terms of the following three factors. No doctrine even comes close to a) being so strongly believed by so many evangelicals despite b) being so utterly disastrous in its consequences and c) having so little by way of Scriptural support.
Well, I suppose I can now come up with some serious competition for NFC here–and even one example of a belief that can beat NFC on this score. (And this not so much because the conditions “on the ground” in EvangelicalLand have changed, but just because I’ve become more aware and appreciative of the tough competition NFC faces.) Still, I think NFC scores very high on this measure.
To the extent that attitudes are softened at all toward FC, it seems to be largely through the influence of Lewis’s Divorce, which has been running interference for universalists and their fellow-travelers for years now. Many evangelicals admire Lewis, and that he presents a picture on which there are further chances constitutes for them a reason for giving FC at least some credence–or at least to not react quite so vehemently those who accept, or even just seriously consider, FC.
So I’m working a bit against my own cause here, but still, I have to question whether Lewis is really promoting FC in Divorce. What is largely at issue is how to read this bit from the end of his “Preface” to the book:
I beg readers to remember that this is a fantasy. It has of course–or I intended it to have–a moral. But the transmortal conditions are solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or a speculation at what may actually await us. The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.
I should say right off the bat that I am very far indeed from being an expert on Lewis. So it’s very possible that–and indeed it would be great if–some readers know about other things he wrote that bear on how to read him here. (Indeed, for all I know, he directly addressed FC in some context where he was writing more straightforward, expository prose.) In fact, I guess this post can be viewed largely as a bleg in this regard. I’m going mostly just by what is in Divorce itself.
But I always assumed that the ability of the characters in the story to move from hell to heaven was in the scope of the “transmortal conditions” that were just an “imaginative supposal.” As such, I took Lewis to be saying that was “not even a guess or a speculation at what might actually await us.” So I was quite surprised to find people thinking that Lewis was promoting FC in Divorce. But, focusing especially on the last sentence above (which is also the last sentence of the “Preface”), I suppose I can see how they might think so: One might think it’s the details of the story that are added for effect as an “imaginative supposal,” while some of the more basic and important features of the story, including the ability to move from hell to heaven, are being presented as features of what will actually–or at least may (well) actually–await us.
So I should say a little about why I thought the further chances in the story were supposed to be among the “imaginative supposals” of Divorce. And I guess I was largely led here by what I took the “moral” or main point of the book to be. I’ve always taken Divorce to be mainly about the various tendencies we have–different ones for different people–to “choose against joy.” These are tendencies we (many of us: again, different ones for different people) have now, and constitute a problem for us now, and so are worth exposing. That account of what Lewis was trying to get at provides an account of why he would include the ability to move from hell to heaven as an “imaginative supposal” of his story, even if he wasn’t even speculating as to whether that will be the case in the afterlife. Sometimes a good way to explain a feature of something is to show how that feature would manifest itself in counterfactual situations. And that’s what I think is going on in Divorce. Imaginatively supposing that folks can move from hell to heaven allows Lewis to make points he wants to make about our current condition. He is saying that we have self-destructive tendencies that are so bad that we can easily get to the point that even if we were in hell but then got to experience heaven and had the chance to stay there, we would choose to return to hell. That the ability to move from hell to heaven could function so well as an “imaginative supposal” to help Lewis make important points should, I think, make us quite hesitant to conclude that that feature of his story was anything more than such an “imaginative supposal.”
In The Second-Person Standpoint, Stephen Darwall notes the fact that “we speak of being grateful for good weather” as a possible objection to his view that reactive attitudes are ‘second-personal’. He goes on to dismiss the objection on grounds that such gratitude “evidently involves the conceit that the weather is a free gift, as if from God” (p. 73). This remark struck me because I have known people who feel a sort of psychological need to believe in God in order to have someone to be grateful to (or, in other cases, angry at) for events beyond human (or animal, or presumably space alien) control. At first glance, it certainly appears (to me, at least) that belief based on this kind of psychological need would be irrational. Perhaps, however, the matter is not so simple. Consider the following argument:
- Human beings are so constituted as to generally feel reactive attitudes in appropriate circumstances.
- Many human beings feel reactive attitudes about, e.g., the weather.
- It is appropriate to feel reactive attitudes about the weather (inductively, from 1 and 2).
- It is only appropriate to feel reactive attitudes about events which are actions of some agent.
- Weather events are actions of some agent (from 3 and 4).
A lot of moral theories seem to be committed to (1). (2) is empirically verified. The strength of the inductive inference will depend on how reliable our tendencies to feel reactive attitudes in appropriate circumstances are, and also on how common it is to feel reactive attitudes about the weather (and other similar things). So that might be a weak point. (4) is pretty widely held and intuitively plausible, and (5) follows deductively from (3) and (4).
Personally, I think the kind of reliability we have in (1) is pretty limited (we get things wrong a lot), so I don’t think the argument is very compelling. Still, it does seem that there might be people whose epistemic situation is such that their credence in the existence of God can be justifiably boosted by an argument along these lines.
(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)
- Every attitude that humans take that cannot be constructed out of simpler attitudes is appropriate on some occasions. (Premise)
- There are properly religious attitudes that humans take that cannot be constructed out of simpler attitudes. (Premise)
- Therefore, some properly religious attitudes are appropriate on some occasions. (by 1 and 2)
- If a properly religious attitude is appropriate, then there is a numinous being. (Premise)
- If there is a numinous being, there is a supernatural and numinous being. (Premise)
- Thus, there is a supernatural and numinous being. (by 3-5)
The argument is valid, but has four premises, not one of which is uncontroversial. [The above has been edited: The first version of the argument had "holy" in place of "numinous" in 5, which mistake a sharp-eyed commenter pointed out. A typo was also fixed. – ARP]