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”):
Being published in the philosophy of religion should disqualify one from sitting at the adult table.
— Peter Boghossian (@peterboghossian) June 15, 2014
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.