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 who 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).