March 5, 2015

Double Standards

Filed under: Philosophy — camcintosh @ 4:20 pm

Helen de Cruz is conducting a series of interviews with “academic philosophers about their religious practices.” Her first interviewee is Marcus Arvan. In response to the question “The majority of philosophers are atheists, and it’s not uncommon for philosophers to regard religion as quaint, epistemically defective or worse. What has been your experience in the philosophical community when you discuss these matters?” Arvan had this to say:

Truth be told, it doesn’t come up in conversation. I’ve rarely heard religion or philosophy of religion so much as mentioned by other philosophers, say, at conferences. It just doesn’t seem to be discussed—except by people who work in philosophy of religion. I’m guessing this is because—as you note—most philosophers seem to regard religion as quaint and epistemically defective.

In any case, I think this is unfortunate. One of the reasons I think it is unfortunate is substantive: I personally think the only epistemically defensible position is Agnosticism, not atheism. Related to this, I think it is unfortunate because, as a Hopeful Agnostic, I tend to think it’s precisely here—in the realm of uncertainty between Belief and Disbelief—where the really interesting questions are in philosophy of religion.

Allow me to explain. I’ve heard that a lot of non-philosophers of religion think contemporary philosophy of religion is little more than religious apologetics. Although I wouldn’t go that far, my personal experience is that it doesn’t seem too far from the truth. Most of the phil religion talks I’ve attended have basically assumed that God exists, and then addressed some problem of other (e.g. the Problem of Evil) against that background assumption. Although I guess this kind of argumentation might appeal to Believers, it’s not hard to imagine why it—and philosophy of religion in this vein more broadly—might be seen as hopelessly quaint (if not completely uninteresting) by outsiders.

What we have then is a small group of people (Believing philosophers) who think philosophy of religion is super-interesting, and a much larger group of people (Atheistic philosophers) who seem to consider it super-uninteresting. In my view, this is unfortunate, a lot of the most interesting questions in philosophy of religion arise for the person who falls into neither category: the person who is skeptical whether God exists, and whether there are any reasons to even presume God to be perfect (or even good) given our evidence, but who regards it a live-possibility not ruled out by our evidence and may even be willing to Hope it is a true hypothesis.

These, at any rate, are the questions that attract me to the philosophy of religion—and indeed, to religion itself (as I have said before, I do engage in religious practice as a Hoper but not a Believer). And I would be willing to bet philosophy of religion would be considered a whole lot less quaint/epistemically defective by the philosophical majority if it spent more time on them.

Think about Arvan’s response for a moment: on the question of God’s existence, Arvan thinks agnosticism is “the only epistemically defensible position.” Accordingly, he thinks the really interesting questions in PoR are about agnosticism, i.e., “in the realm of uncertainty between Belief and Disbelief.” Imagine that! But the Christian philosopher, who perhaps thinks Christian theism is the only epistemically defensible position, and so also thinks the really interesting questions in PoR are about, say, the coherence of Christian theism, is suspected of doing “little more than religious apologetics,” or at least something “epistemically defective.”

The double-standard operative here is exactly the kind of uncharitable and unjustified criticism of PoR I had in mind when I wrote this. That being said, I found most of what else Arvan said in the interview interesting.



  1. I believe that there are interesting points in this interview to be discussed but I will restrict myself to third paragraph.

    First statement seems to me obviously false. But second is I believe more philosophically interesting. Author wrote that philosophers assume that God exist and than try to address problem of evil or some similar problem. Put on side that some of the most important writings about problem of evil come from philosophers who don’t believe in God (Mackie, Rowe, Tooley).

    But, as you know, logical problem of evil try to show inconsistency between two propositions (1. God exist; 2. Evil exist) and like every inconsistency proof it must assume, for the sake of discussion, that proposition for reduction is true (or at least meaningful). I just can not see how someone can formulate argument from evil against existence of God without mentioning God!

    It is also important to notice that most important theistic argumentative strategies to resist arguments from evil don’t assume that God exist: FWD try to show that there is logical space where evil and God coexist (Plantinga’s approach), or that underlying assumptions of arguer from evil are false (Almeida’s approach) or that epistemological foundations of arguments are dubious (most responses to evidential arguments from evil).

    Also, it is questionable what author consider for defensible position? If that mean that there are no compelling arguments for different position on particular subject, than it is probably the case for every philosophical topic.

    Comment by Milos — March 5, 2015 @ 6:13 pm | Reply

  2. I don’t see how this is a double standard, but more an equally the playing field between Atheism and Christianity/Believers. The whole basis of philosophy is introspective reflection. If one begins the practice of philosophy with a starting assumption, one has already forgone that basis and transcended into something different entirely: theology.

    And theology is all good and well, but it is not philosophy of religion, it is it’s own subfield that is, again, based on a starting assumption. Philosophy of religion does not allow the assumption, but continues to question it.

    It also seems to me that the OP is, still, promoting continuing the discussion of religious concepts in philosophical circles, just merely in a truly philosophical way.

    Comment by nikeyo — March 5, 2015 @ 6:37 pm | Reply

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