I’ve had it. I’m going back to my real interests in the history and philosophy of science and, after finishing a few current commitments, I’m writing nothing more on [philosophy of religion]. I could give lots of reasons. For one thing, I think a number of philosophers have made the case for atheism and naturalism about as well as it can be made. Graham Oppy, Jordan Howard Sobel, Nicholas Everitt, Michael Martin, Robin Le Poidevin and Richard Gale have produced works of enormous sophistication that devastate the theistic arguments in their classical and most recent formulations. Ted Drange, J.L. Schellenberg, Andrea Weisberger, and Nicholas Trakakis have presented powerful, and, in my view, unanswerable atheological arguments. Gregory Dawes has a terrific little book showing just what is wrong with theistic “explanations.” Erik Wielenberg shows very clearly that ethics does not need God. With honest humility, I really do not think that I have much to add to these extraordinary works.
Robert Gressis of CSU Northridge comments:
[I] wonder how often this phenomenon occurs. Are there a substantial number of atheists who dabble in philosophy of religion and find the best theistic arguments and defenses so wanting that they decide, “no, not for me. These people [e.g., van Fraassen, Plantinga, van Inwagen, Adams, etc.] are smart, but they leave their brains at the door when they do philosophy of religion”? Personally, I doubt this; or at least, I doubt that it happens after they read the aforementioned authors, as most of the atheists I know have never read any of van Inwagen’s, Plantinga’s, etc.’s, philosophy of religion.
To be sure, most atheists have never read Plantinga or van Inwagen. But I don’t know any atheist philosophers of religion who haven’t read Plantinga’s and van Inwagen’s work on the subject.
I suspect many atheists do think something like, “That van Inwagen is a smart fellow when it comes to metaphysics, but he leaves his brain at the door when he does philosophy of religion. It must be the faith factor.”
I’m not sure that’s correct. In my experience, high-level philosophers of religion do the same kind of work that high-level philosophers do in other fields of philosophy, and they do it according to the same general standards. The problem is not that philosophy of religion has lower standards than other areas of philosophy do. The problem is that standards in analytic philosophy in general are (compared to those in science) relatively low.
Now, let me be clear. Standards in analytic philosophy seem to me to be higher than those in continental philosophy, in theology, in literary criticism, and in many other academic fields. But they are not as high as standards in science.
We need not look very far for examples. Consider the mainstream arguments in philosophy of mind about the possibility of zombies. David Chalmers argues that because he can imagine a world with all the same physical facts but no qualia, therefore physicalism is false.1. And this argument is highly respected and hotly debated in philosophy of mind, where many of the smartest people in philosophy do their work.
Such an argument from “what I can imagine” would be laughed out of a scientific conference with jeers of “Come back when you have evidence!” But standards are considerably lower in analytic philosophy, and such arguments are taken seriously and widely debated.
Or, consider arguments for moral realism. These usually consist of (1) attempts to shift the burden of proof to those denying moral truths and (2) arguments that certain things have intrinsic value just because this is taken as an axiom of moral thinking or because we really feel that some things are right and wrong.
Does that sound like typical argumentation in philosophy of religion? You bet. Again, such arguments would be laughed away at a scientific conference, but they are taken seriously in analytic philosophy – and not just in philosophy of religion.
So yes, I think the standards in philosophy of religion are generally as high as standards in other fields of analytic philosophy. The problem is that standards in analytic philosophy are lower than they should be.
In fact, one way to see the naturalistic project in philosophy since Quine is that naturalists want to raise the standards of argument and evidence in philosophy. We’ve noticed that the high standards in the physical sciences help make them so productive, and so we want to raise the standards in philosophy so that they are as close to the standards of science as possible. Thus, strict naturalists pay close attention to arguments that are roughly scientific in structure and rise close to the same standards of argumentation and evidence, and we pay less attention to arguments with lower standards, such as those that typify, say, theistic philosophy of religion or moral realism.
- Of course, the zombies argument is not Chalmers’ only argument for the irreducibility of conscious states. But his zombies argument from conceivability is well-respected enough among philosophers to make my point. Concerning those other arguments in chapter 3 of The Conscious Mind, note that arguments #2 and #4 are also conceivability arguments, and arguments #3 and #5 are also not the kind likely to be taken very seriously at a scientific conference. But they are beyond the scope of this short post. [↩]