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Can one do philosophy of religion?

Last updated on 4 Oct 2017

A while back, philosopher of religion Keith Parsons (Houston, Clear Lake) announced that he could no longer do philosophy of religion because

I have to confess that I now regard “the case for theism” as a fraud and I can no longer take it seriously enough to present it to a class as a respectable philosophical position…

He then went on to clarify”

… in saying that I now consider the case for theism to be a fraud, I do not mean to charge that the people making that case are frauds who aim to fool us with claims they know to be empty. No, theistic philosophers and apologists are almost painfully earnest and honest; I don’t think there is a Bernie Madoff in the bunch. I just cannot take their arguments seriously any more, and if you cannot take something seriously, you should not try to devote serious academic attention to it

Unsurprisingly, the dogs howled and the ravens crowed. The sky was blue and winter was cold. But Parson’s point raises an interesting question: in what cases can we do philosophy? Notice that Parsons did not say that people who believe theism were frauds, nor that they were dishonest – even the philosophers he thought were doing their best (he mentions William Lane Craig). But the arguments are all one-sided, falling out in favour of atheism or at least agnosticism (that’s my gloss).

Consider a parallel case: the philosophy of folk metaphysics. I can conceive that there might be a useful program of research and discussion about whether or not we can glean anything useful from the believe that spirits animate the universe, that objects only move when they are pushed, and that things are made from stuff (substance) that only has the particular properties it has when it is shaped (form). Eventually, however, you may exhaust that topic, and it could be abandoned as no longer of interest.

And that might be the key: interest. In science, a research program that stalls is regarded, following Imre Lakatos , as a “degenerating” research program. That is, if it fails to make progress and people still insist on it being done, then the overall results will tend to become merely semantic, otiose and obfuscatory. In sum, it ends up being a self-sustaining tradition not unlike a religious commitment (think of Objectivism as an example), where your inclusion in the tradition is based largely upon your willingness to say the right things in the right words.

In philosophy the same things apply. One reason why different disciplines, such as my own major field, the philosophy of biology, rise and fall is because they are of interest and can generate progressive research programs for their practitioners at a given time. Most philosophical problems remain open questions, but so long as the field is generating interesting new work, and understanding is advanced, then the field is worth continuing. We may be seeing the decline of the philosophy of religion (which, as a separate subject in philosophy, is probably only around a century old anyway) as we exhaust all the interesting arguments.

But does that mean religion is no longer of interest to philosophy? Not at all. Many books about how religious people think, how religions arise and change, how we explain the ubiquity of religion, and what religion means for social, scientific, and moral matters, are being written and will continue to be in the foreseeable future. In short, we can continue to have a philosophy of religion, even if not a philosophy of apologetics. This is what seems to be finished; nothing much new has been said in favour of, for example, existence of deities for over a thousand years, and despite the many glosses and modifications, the research program is moribund. Likewise, divine command theory as the basis for morality is no longer mandated, given that we have perfectly good accounts of the origins and dynamics of morals, but that doesn’t mean we cannot investigate how such claims might work, if we were already committed to, or prepared to entertain as a hypothetical, the existence of God.

For example, I have written and may one day submit (writing is easy, submission is hard; something profound about that) an essay in which I argue that a theist can be perfectly content with the orthodox theory of evolution by fitness-random variation and natural selection, and stochastic processes like drift. I do not argue for that belief in God, though. I don’t hold to the existence, nor even the likelihood, of God; I merely assume that if one did, this is how one might accept evolution and still remain a theist in an ordinary sense. I’m playing with hypotheticals; believers are not. But the reasoning is interesting.

Religion can also act to philosophers as a kind of stress test of ideas. Consider the “God’s Eye View” of Putnam in discussions about realism. Consider the “View from Nowhere” for Thomas Nagel. Consider the role that God plays in discussions of possible worlds. Even if you do not believe in these entities, and I warrant most of the analytic tradition of philosophy does not, the idea makes for a fun discussion.

So I think that religion remains an interesting project of discussion in philosophy. And of course we still have to teach undergraduates the Humean and Thomist and Kantian arguments, as they are part of the history of our field and culture. We just might not need to deal with these arguments as live options any more, despite the claims of believing philosophers.

There’s an old joke which goes something like this: A group of long term prisoners have been together so long they don’t tell each other jokes, they simply call out the numbers: “24” <laughter>; “68” <laughter>, and so on, a bit like a meeting of Monty Python enthusiasts. A newcomer upon finding out what they are doing tries his hand: “77” <dull silence>. He turns to his cell mate and asks, “What am I doing wrong?” “You’re telling it wrong”, comes the reply.

In philosophy of science, perhaps we need a canonical list of these defunct arguments, so that when a new philosopher of religion arrives and reiterates a version of the cosmological or modal argument for God, we can all call out in unison “68!” And we would teach those canonical arguments to undergraduates; but nobody would research them unless something genuinely new came up. But we might research the epistemology and metaphysics that led people to think these numbers meant anything…


  1. If you want to create a canonical list of arguments for theism, you could model it after Mark Isaak’s Index of Creationist Claims. Or you could give the arguments funny names, the way TV Tropes does with movie clichés.

    If you decide to number arguments, may I humbly request that #876,364 be reserved for the knock-down unanswerable argument that will convince you that there is a god?

  2. Michael Fugate Michael Fugate

    I get tired of apologetics. Biologos is hawking a new apologetics book by University of Nottingham theologian Conor Cunningham who attacks both creationists and new atheists (renamed ultra-darwinists). I think the book jacket blurb by David Bentley Hart [a theologian with no biology training] may be the most telling “Cunningham [a theologian with no biology training] has taken the time to immerse himself in the literature of contemporary evolutionary biology (of which he provides a far better and far more probing general treatment than does, say, Richard Dawkins),…” Ah hubris with the help of Simon Conway Morris and Jerry Fodor.
    I was thinking apologetics exists because apologists badly want something to be true (even if it is not) – such as Christianity. I am not sure that applies to the likes of Dawkins or Dennett; it is not about their wanting evolution to be true. It is about their perceiving it as the best explanation, but moving on if some better explanation arose. The same could be said for atheism.

  3. I seem vaguely to remember a story (in something by Anscombe, perhaps) about A. J. Ayer, in which someone came into his office and found the positivist rocking back and forth, muttering to himself, “But what would God see?” — the point being something similar to your “stress test” idea.

    It certainly would be nice to have an exact taxonomy of arguments in any field. For ordinary numbers, of course, to be of any real use would require that we have a natural classification with a natural series — a Comtean/Millian taxonomy of arguments — and it is virtually impossible to see how this could be made to fit the actual phenomena (e.g., the extremely complex interrelations between arguments for other minds and arguments from design, or between arguments from design and arguments from evil) which are less like a series than a network. But there are other ways to classify exactly, of course. The historical work required to do it properly, if it could even be done, would be immense.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      You’re trying to provoke me, claiming that Comte and Mill are interested in a natural taxonomy, aren’t you?

      • I’m a philosopher; why would I provoke anyone? 😉

        But in fact in this case I wasn’t being (intentionally) mischievous but simply thinking vaguely of Mill’s System of Logic Bk IV, Ch 8, and the dispute between Whewell and Mill on the subject.

        • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

          But all right thinking individuals can plainly see that Whewell was right on the matter.

      • But all right thinking individuals can plainly see that Whewell was right on the matter.


    • Clem Stanyon Clem Stanyon

      “less like a series than a network.”

      Most information relates to most other information like this: in a network of interrelated, word-cloud like connections. If you’re interested in this, look up “scale-free networks”.

      I’ve been thinking about the semantic web issues since before the phrase was coined, though more in relation to how one might relate all biological research paper abstracts to one another, as a means to find the key papers in a field, thus avoiding the huge amount of time wasted finding them. A similar network of related arguments could be constructed…in fact, one could start at words, the metabolic building blocks of language, and build it up from there. Just not sure how…

    • If one were to enumerate all of the arguments in a list would that list be finite, countable infinite or non-countable infinite and if the latter would that mean that there is a valid argument that is not in the list?

  4. Piers Piers

    Two points John:
    1. There is nothing profound about you not submitting your work, it is called “want of an envelope” – get it in the post and give someone the opportunity to give you feedback.
    2. There’s a group of cyclists in Lancashire England who retell stories by numbers, number 7 is a classic!

  5. Glenn Glenn

    Something has gone wrong if philosophy of religion has been reduced to solely being about whether a theistic god exists or not.

  6. DiscoveredJoys DiscoveredJoys

    But if there were a taxonomy of arguments some German philosopher with a weird personality would reframe it as a flawed exercise in categorising reality, or some French philosopher would argue that it showed a post-colonial neo-imperial paradigm, or something else entirely.

    There are plenty of philosophy encyclopaedias already. It’s just that most philosophers don’t fully agree with the entries about their own particular interest.

  7. All these years and nothing changes. Behind the innocent fancy of numbering the philosophy of religion arguments I detect the mad dream of categorizing everything once and for all. You’re a real character, John Wilkins!

  8. RBH RBH

    Perhaps marginally apropos to the general thoughts in this thread, in the version of the joke I know the setup is the same, but when the new fish calls out “77!” a guy in the next cell falls down on the floor laughing and hooting. The new fish asks his cellmate what that’s about, and the cellmate replies, “Oh, I guess he hasn’t heard that one before.”

  9. Susan Silberstein Susan Silberstein

    I enjoyed very much (and would like to read again) your essays on the Jewish Bible stories. Archived anywhere?

      • Susan Silberstein Susan Silberstein

        Please do. I’m a Jew who was brought up in a secular home and I do have a desire to understand how believing Jews see the world. My mother and brother are atheists and I think my father was an agnostic. My sister is a heretic – AFAIK, she believes in a supernatural being of some sort, although I’m not quite sure about the details.

        • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

          Uhhh… why would you ask a non-Jew? I know a few believing Jews in passing, but not to interpret their belief set.

  10. Susan Silberstein Susan Silberstein

    I don’t think I explained myself properly. I may not understand myself well (and who does). Let’s just say I like the essays better than the source documents and appreciate your interpretation.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Oh, okay then. So long as you understand I am reading the texts blankly, as it were, and literally…

      If I don’t find a job soon, I may start the series again.

  11. John, I highly recommend you check out Whitehead’s process philosophy, described in a series of books that include 1929’s Process and Reality. Whitehead was a theist, but by no means a Christian apologist. Process and Reality is notoriously difficult, so it’s good to read, as I did, a number of introductory works first, such as Griffin’s Unsnarling the World-Knot, or A Key to Whitehead’s Process and Reality.

    I don’t buy all of Whitehead’s views. In particular, I reject his Platonic concept of “eternal objects” and, consequently, also reject his notion of God’s primordial nature (as opposed to God’s consequent nature, described in the last paragraph). Nevertheless, his metaphysical framework provides an extremely powerful alternative to many mainstream views that have in my opinion exhausted their usefulness.

    Whitehead was a mathematician, logician and philosopher of the first rank, ending his career at Harvard. So he has a very firm basis in science and mathematics, which should give him at least a little credit in his metaphysical views.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      I read Whitehead over thirty years ago, in just that context. I hold respect for him, but he doesn’t affect the position I take here. In fact I think that the conclusions he reaches are rather vacuous in this regard, and even worse are the ways theologians have used him.

      A lot of the trouble in this field is caused by those who think mathematics informs us about the world, IMO.

  12. Rob R. Rob R.

    A lot of the trouble in this field is caused by those who think mathematics informs us about the world, IMO.

    Not sure if you take requests, but I’d love to read more of your thoughts on this. Or could you recommend a good book (for the layman) on the subject? Seems counter-intuitive somehow. :shrug:

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Well, the source that influenced me was Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Mathematics.

    • abb3w abb3w

      A simple way of looking at it: mathematics can (per Gödel) be used to abstractly describe any system; therefore, mathematics does not in itself tell you whether the system it’s describing is the world, or something other than the world.

      Contrariwise, mathematics can be said to inform us of (or at least, allow us to infer) the implications of our assumptions about the world. If these assumptions happen to be correct, then one might say that what we are informed of by mathematics will correspondingly inform us about the world; but if the assumption is incorrect, then we will be misinformed. (I don’t think it’s fair in such case to say that we are misinformed by mathematics, since it seems more just to say that we are misinformed by making non-corresponding assumptions.)

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