Over at Ask Philosophers, someone asked:
I find the philosophy of religion immensely interesting. Recently I watched a YouTube video in which a well known Christian philosopher/theologian, William Lane Craig, explained how the Anglo-American world had been “utterly transformed” and had undergone a “renaissance of Christian philosophy” since the 1960s… Do you agree with these statements? Moreover, how well respected is Dr. Craig? Is he generally viewed as a top notch philosopher? I also wonder whether the very best arguments on the atheistic side are really being discussed. It seems there is some disdain among philosophers regarding the so-called “new atheists”: Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, etc. Who are the top contemporary atheists working in philosophy today? I’d really be interested in reading some of their work.
Currently, Peter Smith and Louise Antony have responded, but I’m disappointed with their responses. So, here is my own:
Has there been a renaissance of Christian philosophy?
First, has there been a “renaissance of Christian philosophy” since the 1960s?
However, this is not as impressive as it may sound at first. This “renaissance” did not take Christian philosophy from an average position of respectability to unquestioned influence in broader philosophy. Rather, it took Christian thought from a position of complete banishment from philosophical discourse to, at least, active development. So the starting point was lower than you might have thought.
Let me explain.
In the first half of the 20th century, a view called logical positivism dominated analytic philosophy. According to logical positivism, metaphysical and supernatural claims were not just false but meaningless. They were not even a proper study of philosophical inquiry.
This was the darkest time for philosophical theism. But in the 1950s and 60s, certain (atheistic) philosophers provided powerful criticisms of logical positivism, which led to its demise. So by the 1960s, talk of God was – while not necessarily correct – at least meaningful in philosophy again.
In the 1960s and 70s, several Christian philosophers took the powerful new philosophical tools that had developed over the preceding decades and applied them to the classical problems of theism. These new tools allowed them to reformulate the old arguments for God so that they avoided their earlier refutations (see Swinburne). Or, they allowed theists to sidestep common objections to theism altogether by developing brand new accounts of what it means to be rational (see Plantinga).
Due to the extreme sophistication of certain Christian philosophers, theism is again “back on the table” in philosophy. However, it remains true that the vast majority of philosophers are atheists, and work in philosophy of religion is often ignored in other fields. Indeed, many leading philosophy universities don’t even have a resident philosopher of religion, or perhaps only one.
The renaissance in Christian philosophy is perhaps best summed up in two books. The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology contains several of the most sophisticated reformulated arguments for God, and Warranted Christian Belief contains the most thorough account of how it might be rational to believe in God even if all the arguments for theism fail.
How well respected is Dr. Craig?
Dr. Craig has made few significant contributions outside philosophy of religion – namely, he has written a bit on philosophy of time. But he is respected as a professional philosopher who knows the history of philosophy, knows the contemporary literature, knows how to use the latest philosophical tools, and has published dozens of articles in peer-reviewed journals.
Mostly, I hear other philosophers object to his unabashed apologetic approach to philosophy. Most philosophers see philosophy as a means of inquiry, not a means of defending an unassailable axiom of belief. But Craig has made it very clear that he does not treat philosophy as a means of inquiry, but as a means of defending his unassailable belief in God:
…it is the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit that gives us the fundamental knowledge of Christianity’s truth. Therefore, the only role left for argument and evidence to play is a subsidiary role… The magisterial use of reason occurs when reason stands over and above the gospel… and judges it on the basis of argument and evidence. The ministerial use of reason occurs when reason submits to and serves the gospel. In light of the Spirit’s witness, only the ministerial use of reason is legitimate. Philosophy is rightly the handmaid of theology. Reason is a tool to help us better understand and defend our faith…1
Atheistic Philosophers of Religion
It is true that the best atheistic arguments are not being discussed at large. The New Atheists are not trained in religious studies or philosophy of religion, and often provide weak or ill-formed arguments.
Today’s leading atheistic philosophers of religion include William Rowe, John Schellenberg, Michael Martin, Graham Oppy, Paul Draper, Nicholas Everitt, Robin le Poidevin, Evan Fales, Jordan Howard Sobel, Quentin Smith, Patrick Grim, Matt McCormick, Keith Parsons, and many others. (Also read Wes Morriston. He’s a Christian philosopher, but he spends all his time composing good arguments against Christianity.)
- Reasonable Faith, 3rd edition, pages 47-48. [↩]