February 18, 2015

Why do Philosophy of Religion?

Filed under: Life,Philosophy,Philosophy of Religion — camcintosh @ 5:17 pm

It’s hard for me to shake the impression that many professional philosophers aren’t satisfied with their four years of high school, and so view the profession of philosophy as an indefinite extension of that period of adolescence. There’s the popular crowd meangirlswho fancy themselves gate-keeping trendsetters, as well as the characterless shadows who seek the vicarious thrill of riding the cool kids’ coat tails. And for some time the Mean Girls of philosophy have declared that philosophy of religion is for losers. It is passé, unworthy of the time and attention of more enlightened minds; philosophers of religion are just posers from the vacuous field of theology trying weasel some clout by rubbing shoulders with real philosophers. This is a common subtext at gossip blogs like NewApps and Leiter Reports, which act as playgrounds for the philosophoney showoffs and bullies.

They are wrong, of course. But convincing them of that would be pointless. Peer pressure is a stronger force than the weight of argument. One can only hope they’ll someday grow up to reminisce with embarrassment on their high school years like the rest of us. But until then, if you have received a suspicious eye (or more) because of your interest in philosophy of religion, as I have, then it might be prudent to have something ready to say lest your silence be interpreted as shame. In that spirit here are five reasons why philosophy of religion (hereafter PoR) is one of the choicest fields of philosophy.

1. It’s a philosophical watershed. I don’t think there’s another field of philosophy as philosophically fecund and diverse as PoR. Nearly every topic in PoR intersects in a substantive way with other fields of philosophy. To get a sense of how rich just one topic in PoR can be, peruse the essays in T. V. Morris’ Anselmian Explorations (Notre Dame, 1987). A more particular example: most responsible treatments of the cosmological argument will require detailed discussions of the nature of explanation (metaphysical, personal, and scientific), necessity and contingency, causation, dependence, the principle of sufficient reason, the nature of space (relationalist vs. substantivalist), time (tensed vs. tenseless), set theory, and infinity (regresses, actual vs. potential, Zeno’s paradoxes, supertasks, etc.), to say nothing of interdisciplinary competence in the physical sciences. My own current area of interest, the doctrine of the Trinity, supplies another example. The Trinity is a veritable treasure chest of philosophical gems like the classic problem of many and the one, the concept of personhood, consciousness, identity, constitution, mereology, ontological dependence, substance, essence, intrinsic-extrinsic relations, social metaphysics, love and friendship, value theory, the nature and rationality of belief in mystery and paradox, and more. Having so many fascinating topics all in some way connected to a single thing is a philosopher’s wet dream.

2. It’s practical. The subject matter of PoR often reaches to the deepest thoughts and emotions people have. God, the meaning of life, the nature and grounding of right and wrong, evil and suffering, the wonder of existence—most people wrestle with these topics, not just philosophers, and many philosophers’ first steps into philosophy were taken here. One’s views about these topics affect the way one lives. In other words, philosophers of religion often work on questions that matter, to them and to the man on the street. That’s why the readership of PoR often hops the insular fence of academia. Because people are often personally invested in the subject matter of PoR, it isn’t nearly as easy to treat it as mere intellectual play. “While such other philosophical intricacies as whether sets or numbers exist can be fun for a time, they do not make us tremble” (Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations, p. 1). But questions in PoR do. The common impracticality complaint against philosophy doesn’t neatly stick to PoR. If you want to do philosophy that bakes bread, do PoR.

3. It’s humbling. Relatedly, questions in PoR have an obvious gravitas other fields don’t; they, to use Nozick’s phrase, often make us tremble—or at least they should. You don’t have to be a theist, for example, to appreciate that theism entails a view of reality metaphysically deeper than appearances might suggest. The mere possibility that we live in a theistic universe guarantees a sense of wonder that provides the raison d’être of philosophy. Nozick, as usual, had it right: “When I find myself discussing the concept of God or religious themes, one part of me finds these speculations moving… What circumscribes the religious sensibility in our modern intellectual time is not actual belief—I cannot say I am a believer—but simply a willingness to contemplate religion or God as a possibility” (The Examined Life, p. 46). In perfect contrast to Nozick here is a philosophy professor I recently spoke to who preferred to describe himself as an “I-don’t-get-it-ist” rather than an atheist: it’s not that he understands theism but thinks it false; he “just doesn’t get it” as a view and so pays it not even the compliment of assigning it a truth value (i.e., false). The question of theism’s truth doesn’t even matter; thus, discussing it is a waste of time and energy. Such pompous anti-philosophical obstinacy is staggering: what could he possibly be privy to that justifies “I-don’t-get-it-ism” that has somehow eluded every other thinker in the history of Western philosophy? The answer is nothing, obviously. Any intellectually honest person will realize that theism is not only intelligible but a live philosophical hypothesis. And my claim is that because theism is a live hypothesis, one’s philosophical convictions about the ultimate nature of reality ought to be dialed back to a moderate credence.

But for whatever reason—maybe because the subject matter easily stirs emotions (or at least attitudes) or is personally challenging—this is far from the case. It’s safe to say that common arguments in PoR—indeed, the field as a whole—are victim to the most egregious and routine violations of the principle of charity. As proof of this one need only glance at standard introductions to arguments for theism, where one is sure to encounter the immortal straw man objection to “the” cosmological argument, the anachronistic reading of Hume destroying Paley, and the waiving away of the ontological argument as a “trick” or “joke,” for instance. Doing PoR well requires a fair amount of philosophical humility and charity.

4. It’s perennial: conversant with figures from all ages and styles. “Philosophy of religion,” as a sub-discipline of philosophy, is a relatively recent convention. What we now call “philosophy of religion” just was philosophy proper before the 20th century. Almost every major (and minor) figure in the history of (Western) philosophy had something to say about the major topics in PoR, and even most major contributions not ostensibly exercises in PoR found their inspiration and foundations there. (A good example of this is Leibniz. As Robert Adams and Maria Antognazza have pointed out, until somewhat recently few philosophers have noticed the key role Leibniz’s theological views played in the development of and motivation for his philosophy. I suspect the same could be said of Kant, Locke, Berkely, etc.) For this reason even the most a-historically minded contemporary philosopher of religion is compelled to be conversant with historical figures to some degree. What’s more is that that conversation seamlessly spans the analytic-continental divide. A single topic in PoR, such as the ontological argument, can take you from the analytic of Anselm, Descartes and Spinoza to the continental of Heidegger, Hegel, and Husserl, then back to the present analytic of Plantinga, Oppenheimer and Oppy to the continental of Hartshorne. PoR’s perennial nature, combined with its being such a philosophical watershed, virtually guarantees avoiding the temporal and topical parochialism so common in philosophy today.

5. There’s progress. The twin sister of the impracticality complaint against philosophy is the progress complaint. “There are no genuine advances in philosophy like there are in Science,” it is said. “Instead there are only endless epicycles of discourse with no objective measure of progress.” The progress complaint, like its twisted sister, is questionable for general reasons, but PoR supplies a rare instance of what seems to be a genuine counterexample here. There’s as close to a consensus as there could be in philosophy that Plantinga’s Free Will Defense refuted the logical problem of evil and advanced the discussion to alternative versions of the problem.* There are a few dissenters, as to be expected, but their squabbles are noteworthy only because of the cacophony of comments like the following:

“The logical intricacies of Plantinga’s free will defense are so complex that virtually every critic who has argued that the defense fails has been shown actually to have misunderstood it in some crucial way. When the misunderstandings are corrected, the criticisms dissolve.” James Sennett, “Faith (Once Again) Seeking Understanding,” Journal of Faith and the Academy 1/2 (2008), p. 35.

“Some philosophers have contended that the existence of evil is logically inconsistent with the existence of the theistic God.  No one, I think, has succeeded in establishing such an extravagant claim.  Indeed…there is a fairly compelling argument for the view that the existence of evil is logically consistent with the existence of the theistic God.” William Rowe, “The Problem of Evil & Some Varieties of Atheism,” in Howard-Snyder(ed.), The Evidential Argument from Evil, p. 10

“It is now widely acknowledged that the Free Will Defense adequately rebuts the logical problem of evil… All of the formulations of the [logical] argument [from evil] are now thought to exhibit certain syndromatic errors… With what appears to be the decisive defeat of the logical argument from evil bythe Free Will Defense, some critics have developed a different kind of argument form evil.” Michael Peterson, God and Evil: An Introduction to the Issues, pp. 41, 43, 47.

“Although the logical problem of evil marks an important phase in the literature on evil, discussion of it markedly diminished during the 1980s. It is fairly widely agreed by theists and nontheists alike that Alvin Plantinga, Keith Yandell, and other theistic philosophers have cast serious doubt on the viability of all formulations of the logical problem. Critics who still think that evil presents a problem for theistic belief have shifted focus away from the logical version of the problem and have sought to construct a viable evidential version.” Basinger, Hasker, Peterson, and Reichenbach, Reason & Religious Belief: An Introduction to Philosophy of Religion, p. 121.

It’s also difficult to resist the conclusion that there has been genuine progress in the field of natural theology over the past few decades. The rigor and sophistication of recent contributions to natural theology indisputably match the level of rigor and sophistication that could be brought to bear on any philosophical position. The proliferation of this literature renders the blithe dismissals of theism in particular and PoR in general that characterized philosophy fifty years ago impossible to justify today.

There are, to be sure, reasons to not do PoR, chief among them catering to a certain anti-philosophical zeitgeist possessing professional philosophy circles today (younger philosophers are often advised to stay away from PoR to avoid the harm it could cause their budding careers). But to me, anyway, the above good reasons to do PoR far outweigh such bad reasons for not doing it.

*Update: further discussion with C’zar Bernstein has led me to think it is more accurate to say that there’s as close to a consensus as there could be that the logical problem of evil has been laid to rest, although there is less agreement about whether Plantinga’s Free Will Defense delivered the fatal blow. For more details I direct the reader to C’zar’s fine paper (coauthored with Nathaniel Helms) “A Simpler Free Will Defense,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion (forthcoming).



  1. very cool!

    Comment by KK — February 18, 2015 @ 9:27 pm | Reply

  2. I see you’re coming from a defensive position because theology is not considered real philosophy – and it shouldn’t.

    It shouldn’t considered a subject not because it’s passé or it’s for losers – there are many fine folk in theology. The problem with theology (or “Philosophy of Religion”) is that it’s based on assumptions. Christian theologians assume that the New and Old testament are true; Muslim theologians assume the Qur’an is true; Jewish theologians assume the Tanakh is true; Hindu theologians assume the Vedas are true; etc.

    It is also based on the assumption of the origin, thoughts, ideas, mind and plan of God (or gods) – something that cannot be based upon anything.

    Theology is a nice subject if you want to become a priest and convince yourself of what you already think – but it’s not a subject of study or thinking, just the reexamination of what you already though to be true.

    Comment by Abietarius — February 19, 2015 @ 10:17 am | Reply

    • The difference between philosophy and theology is actually hard to make precise.

      On the one hand philosophers of religion (including those who do philosophical theology and analytic theology) are clearly doing philosophy, but are, I’d agree, also doing theology in a sense. On the other hand what they’re doing is manifestly different from what is typically done by theologians (e.g., Barth, Moltmann, Jensen etc.). Only those who don’t know either literature could think there is no difference. But just what that difference is isn’t easy to say.

      It is not, as you suggest, merely that PoR is “based on assumptions.” No field of inquiry in philosophy (or beyond) proceeds without assumptions. Maybe what you mean is that PoR proceeds on bad or problematic assumptions, namely, theological ones. But why think those are bad or problematic assumptions? Why think those assumptions are any worse than the assumptions a naturalist brings to philosophy of mind?

      Theology is a nice subject if you want to become a priest and convince yourself of what you already think – but it’s not a subject of study or thinking, just the reexamination of what you already though to be true.

      Nice one! Did you see that on a meme posted somewhere on the forums? More seriously, this is not place to indulge your simplistic freethought insults. I will happily direct your comments to the spam folder if you have nothing more intelligent to say.

      Comment by camcintosh — February 19, 2015 @ 1:06 pm | Reply

      • Yes, philosophy is based on assumptions – but only by assumptions that can lead to ideas and provable theories – as according to it being the predecessor to the scientific method. Descartes came up with his idea of Cogito Ergo Sum by carefully thinking and building his argument through rationale and provable facts; Xenophanes has built his theory of the formation of clouds (he was the first to propose clouds formed from water vapors extracted from the sea using the heat of the sun) though his observation; etc.

        Theology holds its premise on a single idea: there is a God. Why is there a God? Who was before God? What was before God? All that are being disregarded as mumbo-jumbo because they don’t fit the assumed premise of the existence of God. Semi-self-debunking explanation for the divine were presented by Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Anslem of Canterbury etc. such as the Ontological argument, or modern-day Theologians such as William Lane Craig – all of these explanations used a single premise: God exists – all of them said “My Christian God exists” – yet showing no proof for that matter or disproving the idea that Allah exists, that Krishna exists or Thor exists.

        The “assumptions” of naturalism are actually based on well-founded premises, with hard evidence and perpetual testing. The philosophy of mind is a declining field – because of neuroscience which can, much better, explain the mysteries of the mind.

        No, I did not see it in Richard Dawkins’ website, but I see you are witty and that’s nice. I do not withdraw my comment – Theology is an art of self-persuasion, and this is coming from the deepest understanding of the nature of theological premises. The simplicity connected with theology are exactly the premises presented by theology without the need of further explanation or understanding.

        Comment by Abietarius — February 19, 2015 @ 1:42 pm

      • Thanks for the reply, Abietarius. The content and tone of your comments lead me to think we would not have a very interesting or fruitful dialogue, so I am respectfully bowing out here. Toodles!

        Comment by camcintosh — February 19, 2015 @ 2:07 pm

  3. The thing is, you could just as easily say 1-5 about ethics.

    Comment by Joe — February 21, 2015 @ 11:02 am | Reply

  4. This a great post, Chad. Going to share it.

    Comment by Adam — February 21, 2015 @ 11:27 am | Reply

  5. Every area of research,, including hard sciences like physics are based on some assumptions. And those assumptions are taken for granted, for example that physical facts are intelligible by humans which is not obvious at all (and certainly not learn by perceptual experience or purely logical reasoning). Philosophy of religion, like any other branch of philosophy, is based on some assumptions and those assuptions in particular arguments (including both theistic and atheistic ones) are very controversial and area of wide disagreement between competent practitioners. But, that does not mean that premisis in those arguments are religious, based on revelation or something like that. If you read for example some chapters from ”Logic and theism” by Jordan Howard Sobel (not friend of theism) you can see that reassessment of theistic arguments and his reconstruction don’t include theologically biased premises; even if those premises are implausible, or false, or unknown that does not mean that are based in some religious source. Of course there are other branches of philosophy of religion, philosophical theology, which presuppose existence of perfect Being, God of classical monotheism, and than try to figure out nature of that Being through philosophical method.

    Comment by Milos — February 21, 2015 @ 3:17 pm | Reply

  6. Hello. A few comments on your most recent post, and the one before.

    Agnosticism is(was) a transitional position—formulated in the 19th century—softening the ‘fall’ from belief that began in the Enlightenment and largely culminated in the hundred years after Darwin’s Origin was published. Agnosticism carries less intellectual weight now than formerly because of the advances in scientific understanding of what makes the world tick. To declaim, as the agnostic does (if there really still are any), that there is insufficient evidence to decide for or against belief in a god, is no more than an attempt to fabricate a little intellectual respectability for beliefs for which there is essentially no evidence.

    The term “atheism”, in my opinion, has the same status as “agnosticism” as a modern superfluity. We don’t say we are atheists in regard to Santa Claus or the Tooth-Fairy. If we did, we would be giving the theories far more weight than they warrant, and would then be obliged to multiply theoretical entities to infinity.

    In reviewing your referenced post “Why _do_ Philosophy of Religion?”, you list five reasons why Philosophy of Religion (PoR) is one of the choicest fields of philosophy.

    Reason 1: It’s a philosophical watershed.
    Reason 2: It’s practical.

    All the topics you mention as being subsumable under PoR (“Nearly every conceivable area of philosophy intersects in a substantive way with questions in PoR”) —while interesting under any world-view, have nothing that relates them specifically to the world-view circumscribed by religious thought. It’s just another way of getting the camel’s nose under the tent. If individuals agree to talk about various branches of philosophy within the world-view of religious belief, that’s fine. But first, there needs to be a discussion about whether that’s the right world-view. And, apparently, as indicated in the polling done by Helen de Cruz, that discussion has already been had, and the topic dispensed with, by most philosophers.

    Reason 3: “It’s humbling.” “The mere possibility that we live in a theistic universe guarantees a sense of wonder that provides the raison d’être of philosophy.”

    A claim to have found (at last?) not _a_, but _the_ raison d’être for philosophy! And this is what you call humble? Referencing all those who have considered and rejected the god claim, you say: “Such pompous anti-philosophical obstinacy is staggering.”

    And further: “Any intellectually honest person will realize that theism is not only intelligible but a live philosophical hypothesis. And my claim is that if theism is even possibility true one’s philosophical convictions about the ultimate nature of reality ought to be dialed back to a moderate credence.”

    Leaving aside your move from _is_ to _ought_, what is pompous is the demand that everyone play the game you want to play. As Daniel Dennett has commented in another context, if you discover a fault in the reasoning of the majority of your peers, you could be right; but you might also want to look more carefully at your own reasoning.

    Reason 4: It’s perennial.

    Perhaps it’s too early to make that call. With most philosophers having made their decisions about god and religion (We have to assume they’ve thought about it. They are philosophers, after all), we are more likely at the end of an age where religion is discussed as a viable philosophy.

    5. There’s Progress.

    I don’t see that philosophy needs religion to save it from the claim of “no progress”, despite the fact that some non-philosophers may say so (or perhaps it’s just a straw man saying so). We’ve moved, for instance, beyond the age of the great rationalist system-builders: we no longer assume that questions of fact can be decided by rational thought (e.g., Aristotle deciding that women had fewer teeth than men). Russell stemmed that tide at the turn of the 20th century, and since then, we’ve seen what seems to me to be fantastic progress in work on topics such as language, consciousness, and the nature of science. Most of us no longer believe in Cartesian dualism. I consider that an advance.

    Thanks for the chance to respond.


    Comment by StriderJim — March 22, 2015 @ 1:26 pm | Reply

  7. Thanks for the reply, StriderJim.

    I never claimed the rich variety of philosophical topics I mentioned are “subsumable under PoR,” as if they properly fall under the classificatory umbrella of PoR. My claim was that they intersect in a substantive way with topics in PoR. The same cannot be said for other fields of philosophy such as, say, philosophy of mathematics. Philosophy of mathematics does not, so far as I am aware, obviously intersect with questions in ethics or personhood (caveat: I doubt there are any truly unconnected topics in philosophy; only topics we fail connect. But PoR—theism in particular—makes those connections especially perspicuous, and so is especially philosophically illuminating and fruitful).

    I agree that the question of whether a particular religious worldview is correct is one that needs to be discussed. But that is equally true for non-religious worldviews as well. And the claim that theism has been discussed and justifiably dispensed with by most philosophers is absurd—almost as absurd as thinking one can settle substantive philosophical questions by polling philosophers. After all, I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of philosophers who think theism has been discussed and justifiably dispensed with also think the “…what caused God?” objection to “the” cosmological argument is a good objection. Regardless, I disagree that one needs to have reached some well-established conclusion about a worldview’s truth-status before exploring that worldview’s philosophical implications. If that were a prerequisite for doing philosophy, all philosophers would be out of work.

    I did not attribute pompous anti-philosophical obstinacy to “all those who have considered and rejected the god claim,” as you say. I attributed that to one individual I spoke to; the “I-don’t-get-it-ist” who thinks the God claim isn’t even worth considering. Nor am I “demand[ing] that everyone play the game [I] want to play.” Just the opposite, really: I’m demanding that others let me play the game I want to play because there’s no good reason to think the game I want to play is any worse than the game they want to play. If you or Dennett think a fault has been found in the game I want to play, I invite you to point it out. But my working hypothesis is that there is no fault with my game; rather, the fault is with those who don’t want me (or others) to play it.

    I balk at your remark that “we are more likely at the end of an age where religion is discussed as a viable philosophy at the end.” What philosophical rock have you been living under for the past 70 years?

    Your last comment about the eschewal of Cartesian dualism being an advance is an interesting one. Triumphalist claims about the defeat of Certesian dualism are probably even more widespread than the triumphalist claims about the defeat of the logical problem of evil. Comparing the two cases would be interesting. But, of course, I did not say PoR has exclusive rights to the only plausible case of progress in philosophy. It’s just noteworthy that, of the few plausible cases to be found, one is in PoR. I think that says something about the integrity and promise of the field.

    Comment by camcintosh — March 23, 2015 @ 5:23 pm | Reply

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