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Posted by on Jun 19, 2014 in Atheism, Philosophy, Reason and Argument, Religion | 15 comments

In Defence of the Philosophy of Religion

 

There’s been a bit of controversy started by “up-and-coming” atheist Peter Boghossian, about the value of Philosophy of Religion (henceforth: “PoR”):

I think it’s a bit much to call him “the Deepak Chopra of atheism”, but I don’t really want to argue about a person*. Also, I take it that most reasonable people would think that even if PoR is a load of old tosh that someone published in it might still warrant a seat at “the adult table”, so I won’t critique a tweet either. Rather, I want to say why I value PoR. As a postgraduate Philosophy student I took a PoR module, so although I’m very far from being an expert I do have some experience in the field.

1) PoR comprises atheists and theists alike, with each on an even footing. The upside is that no position is assumed by the field to be the true one. Any proponent who fears a fair debate must seriously examine their commitment to intellectual honesty, and their confidence in the position they are espousing. Some might say this gives theists too much respect. The trouble is with this is that if you do not take an opposing position seriously, then you cannot offer a serious and robust rebuttal to it. This might not always be a bad thing – after all, we don’t tend to worry about what are the strongest arguments for a flat Earth in order to provide a successful and complete counter-argument. But consider what someone well-versed in the best philosophical arguments for theism might find when they examine what the atheists have in response. If all they see are Facebook memes and slogans, they’re not going to lose any sleep over their religious views. I think that enough people (including very intelligent people) are theists such that it warrants a level-headed and thoughtful response to their position.

2) The arguments in PoR are a subset of the arguments regularly exchanged on the Internet, only to (in general) a much higher standard. It’s strange seeing people criticise PoR as a discipline and yet also put forward rebuttals to theistic arguments for the existence of God, or argue against the existence of God. A critique of a theistic argument, or an argument for “strong” atheism, sufficiently developed and refined, could potentially get published in a PoR journal or book.

3) Arguing can be fun and informative, even if the conclusion you’re arguing for is moot. Yes, we’re probably not going to convert theists in any great number, and yes, PoR debates aren’t going to cure cancer or find the Higgs boson. It still can be a good exercise to analyse and criticise the arguments and rationalisations concocted by very smart theistic philosophers throughout history. I doubt the average atheist these days could put forward a convincing critique of Aquinas’s Five Ways, let alone Plantinga’s modal arguments. By doing so, one can learn not only about Aquinas and Plantinga’s arguments, but also about cosmology and modality. These sorts of topics might not be interesting to everybody and that’s fine. I am not a huge fan of surfing, but I would never think to tell surfers that they shouldn’t surf; in the same way, nobody should tell those interested in philosophy (or history, or films, etc.) that they shouldn’t be.

4) Arguments for theism are better than many atheists I encounter seem to think. This was surprising to me when I started formally studying PoR – I had only really encountered the Comforts, the D’Souzas, the Bahnsens and the Craigs (though the latter did crop up once or twice in the course). In philosophy, it isn’t enough to say “that’s dumb”, “science has disproven it”, “read more Hitchens”, or draw up a meme in MS Paint. You have to put forward philosophically robust arguments and adhere to a principle of charity (at the very least be able to summarise your opponent’s view in a way that they’d agree with). This is challenging, and forgive me for saying so, but I suspect some would rather dismiss a whole field than put up with having to think a little harder. PoR papers include the very best there is in atheistic and theistic thought. If you’re going to argue against or in favour of theism, then familiarity with PoR is indispensible.

 

I’m sure there are more things I can say, but I’ll leave it there for now. Comments welcome as always.

 

* I should also add that this isn’t a “bash Boghossian” post. Rather, it is a defence, or even celebration of PoR. Twitter isn’t the best medium for getting philosophical ideas across, and I appreciate that. Hopefully Boghossian will go into more detail on a more suitable medium.

 

  • http://skepticink.com/backgroundprobability/ Damion Reinhardt

    There is plenty of what I would call PoR in A Manual For Creating Atheists.

  • James Houston

    I made much the same comment elsewhere but FWiW…

    I get the impression Peter thinks atheist philosophers are doing something disreputable by engaging with theistic arguments in philosophy journals. Atheist philosophers of religion give theism and apologetics an undeserved semblance of ‘credibility’ by engaging with it within ‘the academy’ – by doing so they are feeding the theological cuckoo in the academic nest. The childishness lies in playing the apologist’s game..

    That’s my take on what he’s saying anyway. I don’t know what I think about it.

    But maybe what’s fit for popular books, blogs and so on just is no longer deserving of a place in philosophy journals any more, And whilst it may be a good that new philosophy students get taught a taste of the traditional arguments for and against God’s existence, maybe, just maybe, its a waste of a good philosopher’s talents and time to devote his working life to studying and refuting their forever tinkered-with variations.

    I honestly don’t know.

  • SimonNorwich

    Do any of you who support Philosophy of Religion and arguments for theism as a serious discipline equally support Philosophy of Elves or arguments for David Blain being capable of real magic? My guess is that’s how Peter Bohossian sees it, and it’s certainly how I see it. They might all make for a bit of fun, but they’re not serious topics for discussion.

  • http://skepticink.com/notung Notung

    Yeah that’s the thing. Ruling out PoR rules out atheistic philosophy too.

  • http://skepticink.com/notung Notung

    No, but there are no serious philosophers who make arguments for elves (as far as I know). There are lots of very intelligent people who have made very clever arguments to support something I think isn’t true. I’m interested in the reasons why these arguments fail. I enjoy it because I enjoy using reason and critiquing arguments.

    However, if you, PB, or others don’t enjoy arguing against religion, that’s fine. I’m not going to tell you that your priorities are wrong.

  • http://skepticink.com/notung Notung

    I think the latter idea is just down to the individual. Religion is generally confined (to my knowledge) to PoR, so it doesn’t pollute the other areas of philosophy. Anyone who’s interested can participate, and those who aren’t can just ignore it. I’m pleased that PoR exists because I enjoy reading and thinking about theistic arguments. Yes, there’s plenty of that online, but the strongest and most well-thought-out arguments tend to be in the academy.

  • http://www.streetepistemology.com/ Street Epistemology

    I don’t understand this comment? ….
    >
    Have you read the book “A Manual For Creating Atheists” ?

  • http://skepticink.com/notung Notung

    No I haven’t.

    What I mean is: PoR includes atheists arguing against the existence of God, with philosophical rigour. An atheist doing that is doing PoR even if they’re not published in PoR.

    Does that make sense?

  • James Houston

    What Bertrand Russell said about the ontological argument – that “it is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies” – seems true of a few other‘sophisticated’ theistic arguments for God’s existence too. It’s difficult stuff to properly refute and
    few atheists, including most of the non-philosophers amongst the ‘leading
    lights’ of ‘new atheism’ have shown any real competency in that regard.

    The most ingenious and difficult to refute arguments for God’s existence will, as you say, be published in the philosophy of religion. And the best rebuttals will be found in exactly the same place. And to state the obvious, just in case it’s missed in some rush to defend atheistic philosophers of religion, some of these will be written by other theistic philosophers who, of course, also point out problems with other theists’ responses to the problem of evil and so on. So even if there weren’t such an active minority of atheist/agnostic philosophers working in the field and hadn’t been such great atheistic minds publishing in it in the past, the philosophy of religion (and theology for that matter) would still be the go-to resource if what you wanted to do was seriously engage with a philosophically-informed theist on those terms outside the academy. Such engagement is difficult to do and it is much easier to dismiss the whole ‘game’ of playing it.

    Of course, that it’s easier doesn’t mean it’s misguided. Seriously engaging with theistic arguments and employing anti-theistic arguments derived from the philosophy of religion is commonly thought of as largely futile when it comes to causing philosophically-informed believers to actually doubt their core commitments. That doesn’t suggest there’s anything wrong with trying. But it’s not obvious an academic discipline should continue to exist on the basis that it gives atheists and theists resources to draw upon for online or popular debates or that philosophy of religion is justified by the fact it’s fun and indirectly informative to engage with it.

    The prevalence of religious belief, the intelligence of some of its adherents and the cleverness of some theistic arguments doesn’t *obviously*
    justify it either. I’m not actually trying to argue against the value of
    philosophy of religion as such. But I am suggesting we might need an argument to make a bridge between these very reasonable points and the claim that there should remain an academic discipline where those clever arguments (which are reasonably viewed as a symptom of religious belief not the cause, and something few religious believers are even aware of) are discussed.

    And it seems to me that if I’m anywhere near the mark about what Boghossian is getting at – or it’s thought of as a reasonable point taken
    in isolation – it seems pretty easy to go from criticizing engaging in such discussions within the academy to criticizing engaging in that type of thing outside of it.

    As I said earlier, I really don’t know where I stand on this – I just find it interesting.

  • http://www.streetepistemology.com/ Street Epistemology

    I asked at the wrong thread section……Sorry , I meant to ask Damion Reinhart !!!

  • http://www.streetepistemology.com/ Street Epistemology

    I don’t understand this comment? ….
    >
    Have you read the book “A Manual For Creating Atheists” ?

  • dh

    Nope. I just can’t see it. Point 3 maybe. Even then there’s more fun to be had pretending to be a YEC and arguing with atheists – because the arguments are inherently silly *and irrefutable BECAUSE they’re silly*. (All opinions expressed are ‘imo lol’ qualified.)

  • http://skepticink.com/notung Notung

    I agree with you about YECs – but PoR is a different kind of animal. The theists in PoR are usually smart and knowledgeable and their arguments pose a genuine intellectual challenge.

  • dh

    I guess my view of it is that it’s like having a conversation about what dragons – the big flying fire-breathing sort from fantasy books – would be like with a qualified biologist who happened to believe in dragons. You could go into all sorts of interesting avenues, all founded on sound biological principle, but at the end of the day… c’mon… *dragons*.

    All theism, no matter how exquisite the metaphysical frippery it’s woven with, shares at its heart the same silliness as the most deluded YEC. (imo lol etc.)

  • http://skepticink.com/backgroundprobability/ Damion Reinhardt

    Just the first third so far. Plenty of epistemology that falls well within PoR, IMHO.