Is Philosophy of Religion Taken Seriously?

by Luke Muehlhauser on January 28, 2010 in Philosophy of Religion 101

How seriously is philosophy of religion taken compared to other subject areas in philosophy?

It’s hard to say, but some of the facts below suggest it is not taken as seriously as many other subjects in philosophy.

Many philosophy of religion professionals or graduate students at Prosblogion seem to agree that philosophy of religion is not taken as seriously as other subject areas in philosophy. Students are advised to specialize in some other area like epistemology or ethics instead, and just do side-work on philosophy of religion. Specializing in philosophy of religion apparently hurts your job chances at prestigious tenure-tracking universities.

Now, let’s look at philosophy departments. At the top seven philosophy departments in the USA,1 how many times do onsite philosophy faculty specialize in each major subject area?

  1. Metaphysics (54)
  2. Ethics (54)
  3. Language (49)
  4. Mind (47)
  5. Epistemology (46)
  6. Historical (45)
  7. Science (27)
  8. Logic (25)
  9. Political (17)
  10. Cognitive Science (12)
  11. Social (12)
  12. Action (10)
  13. Math (9)
  14. Aesthetics (8)
  15. Law (6)
  16. Religion (4)2

Even if we consider the top 10 philosophy departments in the USA, philosophers of religion are a small bunch:

  • Dean Zimmerman at Rutgers
  • Mark Johnston at Princeton
  • Edwin Curley at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
  • Gregory Ganssle at Yale
  • John Hare at Yale
  • Lara Buchak at University of California, Berkeley

So there does seem to be a dearth of philosophers of religion in the top philosophy departments.

Now, what if we look at the top 99 philosophy departments in the world, comprising 931 philosophers, and ask only what is their #1 area of specialization?3

  1. Historical (168)
  2. Ethics (130)
  3. Science (91)
  4. Metaphysics (90)
  5. Mind (83)
  6. Language (81)
  7. Epistemology (80)
  8. Social + Political (53)
  9. Logic (39)
  10. Cognitive Science (28)
  11. Aesthetics (15)
  12. Religion (12)
  13. Action (10)
  14. Law (9)
  15. Math (9)

Also note that, among these top 99 philosophy departments, here is the breakdown of belief in god:

  • Non-believers: 78.1%4
  • Believers: 14.5%5

What does this mean? I don’t know. But fear not, philosophy of religion fans! Philosophy of religion is still awesome.

Update: But hold on. Are we also to conclude from the above data that Philosophy of Action, Philosophy of Law, and Philosophy of Math are not taken seriously? I think not. What we’re left with, then, is anecdotal evidence from philosophers who write about how they don’t want to list Philosophy of Religion as their area of specialty because they fear they will then not be taken as seriously by their colleagues. Thus, the case presented that philosophy of religion is not taken seriously in the analytic tradition is quite weak.

Another update: At Prosblogion, Keith DeRose comments:

Just a word about “how little respect philosophy of religion enjoys”–an issue discussed in the first few comments here. Mike A is right that this isn’t showed by the statistics lukeprog cites on the blog post linked to in the very first comment. But I do think there’s good reason to think that phil. rel. gets little respect–at least within philosophy. The sociologist Kieran Healy did a statistical analysis of some of the results of the Philosophical Gourmet Report surveys. (I think these were based on the 2006 surveys.) One thing he studied was (controlling for various things) how much of an effect it had on the overall evaluations of a dept. to be relatively strong in various sub-fields. The big losers were philosophy of religion, history of medieval, and continental philosophy. (The big winner was metaphysics.) The effect of being strong in phil. rel. on a dept’s overall score came out to precisely zero. So that looks like quite literally “no respect” (cue Rodney Dangerfield). But it could be worse: the effect of being relatively strong in medieval on one’s overall evaluation was actually negative (though by a small enough margin that it was statistically insignificant). Continental was insignificantly positive.

(Healy’s paper, “Status and Specialization in Philosophy” doesn’t seem to be available on-line now. I don’t know why.)

Keep in mind, however, that this are the scores given by PGR evaluators–who likely are not a good cross-section of the discipline.

Still, PGR evaluators are probably, on the whole, fairly well-connected philosophers whose opinions have significant effect within the discipline, and these results do suggest that feeling of little or no respect that many philosophers of religion seem to have is not wholly illusory.

  1. Why seven? Because that’s when I got tired of counting. []
  2. How did I count these? I counted only one for each category from each philosopher. For example, if somebody specialized in meta-ethics, normative ethics, moral psychology, and applied ethics, this would gain only 1 point for “ethics.” Also, a few clarifications: “Language” includes philosophy of language and linguistics. “Historical” includes specializations in eras and in particular philosophers. “Epistemology” includes epistemology and, for lack of a better place to put it, decision theory. “Science” includes philosophy of science, philosophy of physics, philosophy of economics, and philosophy of biology. “Cognitive Science” includes philosophy of cognitive science and philosophy of psychology. “Social” includes social philosophy and philosophy of particular groups like feminist philosophy and African philosophy. []
  3. Why not ask about areas of specialization in general? Because the Philpapers survey used different category breakdowns, so I can’t know how many people answered both “meta-ethics” and “normative ethics”, for example. But I can avoid this problem by sticking to each philosopher’s stated primary area of specialization. In that case, I can just sum meta-ethics and normative ethics and be sure I’m getting an accurate count. []
  4. Accept atheism + Lean toward atheism + agnostic. []
  5. Accept theism + lean toward theism. []

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{ 47 comments… read them below or add one }

John D January 28, 2010 at 11:41 am

I dunno, I think religious debates are deeply embedded in a lot of the top areas (ethics, metaphysics, even philosophy of science).

I think it’s more interesting to look at those areas without any particular commitment and address religious issues as they arise, but I still think they come up.


Hermes January 28, 2010 at 12:18 pm

I’ve asked a similar but different question elsewhere to the ones I’ll post in a moment, but I thought I’d give this another try with this crowd.

Here are a few questions — different from my old one — that are more on-topic for this blog post;

1. What important new and unique knowledge has the subfield of philosophy of religion generated over the last 50 years?

(This question only deals with the field of the philosophy of religion.)

The knowledge has to be considered important to the philosophy of religion but does not necessarily impact any other group or field. It can not be largely or entirely borrowed from some other field (academic or not, philosophical or not) and adapted to the philosophy of religion subfield.

If 50 years is too short a time frame, feel free to expand it up to 500 years. If you do, though, please note where the knowledge was developed. Please refrain from mentioning older ideas.

2. Have any of the new, important, and unique knowledge from question #1 improved any existing or generated new improved ideas in other fields of philosophy?

3. Have the results described in question #1 or #2 impacted any other fields (academic or not).

Implied in #3 is the following question;

4. Do the impacts noted in #3 show that the field of Philosophy of Religion is getting the attention the field deserves when compared to other fields? Too much? Too little?

Before anyone jumps on me, yes, I do see the value of pure research or think tanks or … in any field. Yet, that value is demonstrated when a few groups or people out of the many are lucky enough that the topic they investigate also yields an expansion of knowledge across the field and eventually into society.


Knowledge: I’ll leave this one fairly open.

For now, I’ll take knowledge to mean any concept, or idea, formula, or other data that can be transfered from one person to another and used by that person to achieve similar results (conclusions, …) or to validate the purported knowledge. This knowledge can be narrowly and demonstratively empirical, wholly abstract and logical, or even largely subjective and unverifiable but plausible or merely interesting. It can even be useful conceptually as a tool for examining other ideas without having an actual application by itself.

Important: Talked about and influential. If it is unavoidable in a conversation then it can also be seen as important even if it is quickly disposed of in light of other available knowledge. The bias I have is that if the knowledge is demonstratively applicable to reality (even if not directly) and does not remain entirely abstract or subjective, it has higher importance.

Unique: I’m not asking for knowledge that is derived in total isolation from the ideas of other people. I am asking for knowledge that is modestly arguable as being derived mostly from the philosophy of religion. Borrowing an idea whole cloth and then either tweaking it slightly or flipping it would not qualify as being unique in many cases, so add in a detail or two if you suspect that some example you give is not obviously unique but you still consider it sufficiently unique.

Science: Yes, I did not mention the sciences. That is intentional. I mention them now because the previous question was mistaken by a few people as a ‘religion vs. science’ jab. That’s not the case.

For the purpose of this question, consider the sciences to be like any other group from plumbers to accountants or any academic field and not the focus of these questions.


Haukur January 28, 2010 at 12:39 pm

It’s interesting that the poll Luke cites has someone taking the option “Insufficiently familiar with the issue” for all questions except “External world” and “God”.

Neat to see Newcomb’s problem there. One-box that sucker, I always say.


Kyle January 28, 2010 at 4:14 pm

There does seem to be a tendency for philosophers to cluster according to speciality – particularly as many philosophy departments are small, so you may find that the results alter a lot depending on whether you take the top 5 or 7 or 10 or 20. But I haven’t checked.

I’m also pleased to see that there aren’t too many philosophers stating PoR as their no1. Too much specialising in PoR tends to lead to bad philosophy. One can get by in areas like epistemology and metaphysics by only looking at those areas, but PoR requires a very good knowledge of other areas in philosophy.

Hermes, I don’t understand your question. Can you perhaps give some examples of knowledge from other areas of philosophy that you think meet these criteria?


tangohotel January 28, 2010 at 4:39 pm

“So there does seem to be a death of philosophers…”

Unless there’s an epidemic occurring among religious philosophers, don’t you mean “dearth”?


Hermes January 28, 2010 at 4:51 pm

Kyle: Hermes, I don’t understand your question. Can you perhaps give some examples of knowledge from other areas of philosophy that you think meet these criteria?

Sorry for any confusion.

I didn’t provide specific examples because I don’t want to narrowly focus on one type of knowledge or another. Feel free to offer up what you think is the best example if you can think of any.

* * *

When I asked in the other thread for new developments in theology (not PoR) over the last 100 years, I did not know of any beforehand, but I was fairly sure there weren’t many or any and said so. After many comments, the answer I got was yes there was new knowledge, but only for specific sects and mostly in the form of organizational changes brought in from other non-religious groups.

The Philosophy of Religion isn’t theology, though. While it is related, and I am interested in the answers to similar questions about it, I do not start with the presumption that I had with theology.

Bottom line: I don’t know. Really. So I’m asking.

As I don’t know, I also do not want to limit the answers people provide to specific narrow categories that more informed people may decide are not appropriate.

I apologize for being vague, but I don’t want to wreck a good reply from someone by giving specifics and then have them focus only on the example and not the other examples they may be aware of. Does that make sense?


Sabio Lantz January 28, 2010 at 5:09 pm

So, Luke, which school did you decide to apply to?


lukeprog January 28, 2010 at 5:19 pm

Lol, yes, “dearth.”


lukeprog January 28, 2010 at 5:20 pm


I’m not in a hurry to go back to school.


Kyle January 29, 2010 at 12:40 pm

Hi Hermes,

The reason I asked for some examples is that I can’t really think of anything in the whole of philosophy that meets your requirements. Am I misunderstanding you, or do you think that the whole of philosophy has failed in this respect?


Robert Gressis January 29, 2010 at 12:54 pm

I take it you figured out who specializes in philosophy of religion on the basis of their listed specialties? If so, that leaves out some people who have written a fair bit on philosophy of religion and who are quite conversant with it, such as John Hawthorne (Princeton), Nicholas Rescher (Pittsburgh), James Earman (Pittsburgh), Richard Cartwright (MIT), Roger White (MIT), and Keith DeRose (Yale).


lukeprog January 29, 2010 at 1:16 pm


There’s no other way for me to count these things. If I also counted each subject by who had written some on it and who is conversant with it, all the other categories would have lots more points, too. That wouldn’t help the position of philosophy of religion.


Robert Gressis January 29, 2010 at 1:56 pm

True that, Luke.


Student February 12, 2010 at 8:21 am

It would be interesting to compare how many/what proportion of students are first attracted to philosophy because of questions in philosophy of religion.

Haukur: It’s interesting that the poll Luke cites has someone taking the option “Insufficiently familiar with the issue” for all questions except “External world” and “God”.Neat to see Newcomb’s problem there. One-box that sucker, I always say.  

This confidence is very interesting. It might be revealing to find out what was the last book each professor read in the area.


Tim February 12, 2010 at 8:35 am

If only we could figure out the truth just by counting!


lukeprog February 12, 2010 at 9:16 am


I know! :)


tom c. February 12, 2010 at 9:21 am

Something you overlook in your post is the presence of philosophy of religion as a subdiscipline within Religious Studies. Counting the “serious-quotient” of PR within RS would be tough as I know of no ranking for RS departments as widely known and frequently updated as the Philosophical Gourmet Report.

Of course, neither Phil nor RS departments seem to be hiring much in PR these days; counting job ads might be another way to assess how seriously educational institutions take the subdiscipline.


J February 12, 2010 at 9:23 am

Is there something interesting that is supposed to follow from, or be implied by, this information?

Also, Robert and Marilyn Adams are now at UNC, and both list the philosophy of religion among their primary research interests.


Nicholas Hudson February 12, 2010 at 9:23 am

It’s worth pointing out that while he does study the philosophy of religion, Edwin Curley is probably an atheist (he calls himself agnostic in “Becoming a Heretic”) and certainly not a Christian. You can read some of his religious writings here and a debate he was involved in about the existence of a Christian god here. Any idea how religious other philosophers of religion are?


Michael T Ward February 12, 2010 at 9:54 am

Apparently Religion might be taken more seriously than Math at the WORLD’S GREATEST 99 PHILOSOPHY DEPARTMENTS! What does this tell us about Math? Don’t worry, though, Math is still awesome.


lukeprog February 12, 2010 at 11:19 am

Nicholas Hudson,

You asked how religious other philosophers of religion are. They are mostly Christians, or certainly theists. See here.


Justin Fisher February 12, 2010 at 12:43 pm

I too was curious to see answers to Hermes’ questions regarding what notable advances had been made in Phil Religion any time recently.

I can easily think of answers that would (by my lights) qualify in other areas of philosophy. E.g., taking just Phil Math (since commenters have been picking playfully on that), I would consider recent advances to include Benaceraff’s causal/semantic argument against realism about numbers, Quine/Putnam indespensibility arguments for mathematical realism, and Field’s clever attempts to show how physics might proceed without numbers. As far as I know, these were all novel contributions within the last 50 or so years, and opened up serious debates with ramifications far outside Phil Math. I can’t think of anything comparable coming out of Phil Religion in the same time period. Perhaps that’s because I don’t specialize in Phil Religion, but then again I also don’t specialize in Phil Math and I could easily name advances in it.

The closest I can come to naming a recent notable advance in Phil Religion is Nick Bostrom’s “simulation argument” for believing that our world was probably created by a Matrix architect, but of course that isn’t really the sort of “creationism” that religions traditionally advocate, and Bostrom doesn’t claim to be a philosopher of religion. Has anything comparably new and interesting been produced within Phil Religion? (And if not, should we be surprised that few people claim such an unfertile area as their AOS?)


Joe Smoe February 12, 2010 at 4:55 pm

So you forgot Kevin Davey (University of Chicago) < a notable omission:

"Kevin Davey received his Ph. D from the University of Pittsburgh in 2003, and also has Masters degrees in both physics and mathematics. His main area of interest is philosophy of science, and more specifically, philosophy of physics. Much of his current research revolves around statistical mechanics and the arrow of time. He also has interests in philosophy of mathematics and PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION."



Joshua Blanchard February 12, 2010 at 5:34 pm

Haven’t read the comments so this may be redundant, but one difficulty here is that many academics will for career purposes make philosophy of religion an area of competence (and great personal interest) without officially specializing in it, or having it as their number one area of interest. However, creating statistics of this sort for the top, say, 50 departments, would be tedious.

I should give some evidence for my claim. Other than personal experience browsing through department pages, I don’t have much. However I do recall reading a blog post (I think on Prosblogion) where the issue of not specializing in phil religion for career purposes arose.


lukeprog February 12, 2010 at 7:30 pm

Joe Smoe,

University of Chicago is not one of the top 10 philosophy departments in the USA.



lukeprog February 12, 2010 at 7:30 pm

Joshua Blanchard,

But that’s also true of other specialties, so the numbers for ALL specialties would increase, gaining nothing for philosophy of religion, presumably.


Matthew February 12, 2010 at 10:37 pm

lukeprog: Joshua Blanchard,But that’s also true of other specialties, so the numbers for ALL specialties would increase, gaining nothing for philosophy of religion, presumably.  

Not quite. I don’t know of a single instance where someone was really interested in political philosophy, but their adviser counseled specializing in ethics because it was more socially acceptable but would allow one to still do work in political philosophy. Plenty of people have gotten just this kind of advice when it comes to philosophy of religion. I think this is at least part of the reason why there are many individuals who specialize in something mainstream like metaphysics or epistemology and also do work in philosophy of religion.


lukeprog February 12, 2010 at 10:43 pm


That’s very interesting, but if true then it would only further demonstrate that philosophy of religion is not taken seriously.

Of course, I must mention I love your site.


Kenny Easwaran February 13, 2010 at 9:17 am

Interesting to see the comparison between the two lists. The numbers of people in historical philosophy, philosophy of science, and religion triple when you move from the smaller list to the larger. The numbers in math and action stay exactly the same. Of course, there’s some apples/oranges issues here, as the first list includes multiple specializations per person while the second only includes one. But it’s interesting to note the way that some fields seem to either be clustered in a few top departments or normally be secondary interests, while others are more broadly distributed as primary interests.


Climacus February 13, 2010 at 12:19 pm

For Hermes and Justin, re: “What important new and unique knowledge has the subfield of philosophy of religion generated over the last 50 years?”

Well, Plantinga/Malcolm/Robert Adams et al. did a lot of work explicating Anselm’s ontological argument(s)… Plantinga and Alston and Wolterstorff made several cases for the rationality of religious belief (see Plantinga and Wolterstorff’s edited volume *Faith and Rationality,* but also the monographs by Plantinga (*Warranted Christian Belief*) and Alston (*Perceiving God*). R. Adams also did much refine and make plausible a version of divine-command theory in ethics (culminating in his *Finite and Infinite Goods*). There’s also been a lot of work by Swinburne which has been influential, but which I know less well…

Most of these authors also did a lot on the problem of evil (particularly the logical problem, and then advancing the discussion to the more difficult evidential problem of evil), and this work led directly to debates still raging about divine providence, especially the debate between Molinists and open theists… Nearly all this work has happened since the 1970s.

Justin’s proposed explanation is a bit understated: “…Perhaps that’s because I don’t specialize in Phil Religion, but then again I also don’t specialize in Phil Math and I could easily name advances in it.”

I suspect it’s not because you don’t specialize in it that you don’t know, but that you probably haven’t read much in it at all – and that’s largely because phil of religion isn’t taken that seriously, let alone studied, at most departments…

Too many philosophers (not Justin necessarily) talk as if Hume had the last word on the problem of evil; that’s about as ignorant as thinking that Descartes had the last word on dualism.


Ben Murphy February 13, 2010 at 3:27 pm

Hermes – how about this one:

Peter Geach’s work on relative identity – taken very seriously by a friend of mine writing a thesis on issues of substance and identity – began as an attempt to defend the doctrine of the Trinity.


Dunce February 13, 2010 at 4:02 pm

Developments in PoR?: Does Lewis’s Argument from Desire count? Plantinaga’s Refutation of the Prob of Evil?


Ben Murphy February 13, 2010 at 8:08 pm

As an example of how work in Philosophy of Religion is neglected, take this quotation from Susan Neiman’s “Evil In Modern Thought”: “If any one feature distinguishes twentieth-century philosophy from its predecessors, it is the absence of explicit discussion of the problem of evil.” (p.288) A few pages later (p.290) she comments “Contemporary analytic discussion of the problem of evil, by contrast, remains squarely confined to the marginalized field of philosophy of religion.” She does not even think it necessary to mention anyone working within this marginalized field.

The historical point she is making here is, I think, justifiable: once to qualify as a serious philosopher you had to address the problem of evil, now, in analytical circles, you don’t. But as a specialist in analytical philosophy of religion, I was deeply disheartened. I had been looking forward to some insightful comments from Neiman on the substantial body of work produced by analytical philosophers of religion, and I think their work deserves to be taken more seriously.


tom c. February 14, 2010 at 8:14 am

It is interesting that you mention Susan Neiman’s book in connection with this discussion. I think you are right to criticize Neiman for not discussing recent decades of work on the PoE in analytic PR; yet, one thing that strikes me about the book is that it can itself serve as an example of PR (very broadly understood). The book can be read as an example of taking religion (via problems of evil) seriously within the history of philosophy and a call to take religion and evil more seriously within contemporary philosophy.

I see in this book, and in some others in recent years (including Jeffrey Stout’s Democracy and Tradition), an invitation for constructive conversation between disparate communities of discourse within the broad field of philosophy. This strikes me as a good thing.


Ben Murphy February 14, 2010 at 12:22 pm

tom c. Yes, I certainly don’t want to be dismissive of Neiman’s book. The lack of discussion of contemporary analytical philosophy of religion is disappointing precisely because the rest of the book is good.


Justin Fisher February 17, 2010 at 11:52 am

Thanks Climacus, Ben Murphy, and Dunce for suggesting some recent advances in PoR. I’ll admit a fair amount of ignorance here, and hope you won’t mind a few questions.

Climacus speculated that I’d probably read more Phil Math than I had Phil Religion. Actually, the reverse is true because I teach Phil Religion in Intro, but have never really taught or researched Phil Math. I do do Phil Science which considers arguments closely analogous to ones about mathematical realism, so that’s partly responsible for my passing familiarity with Phil Math. But, then again, if there had been new interesting work on “theological realism” that would surely have had close analogs in Phil Science too, so I should have been similarly likely to find out about it.

It may be a consequence of intro textbook content and in what happened to show up in my searches to satisfy my own curiousity, but I really hadn’t encountered anything that looked like a truly new and interesting argument in Phil Religion — just warmed over, empirically updated, or further hashed out versions of tired old arguments. So, that’s why I asked.

Regarding the particular suggestions y’all made:

* Plantinga defending the rationality of theism: I take this to be a version of older arguments by Hare, to the effect that if we can’t prove theism incoherent, they’ll insist it’s rational to believe it without evidence – nanner, nanner, neener. As far as I can tell, this view says it is equally rational for me to believe there are invisible leprachauns dancing on my kitchen table, which is a resounding reductio in my eyes. I realize that there must be a bit more to the argument than my (surely horribly uncharitable) presentation of it here, but is this really a new and exciting development for Philosophers of Religion to brag about? Maybe the other authors you mentioned defend the rationality of theism in less laughable ways?

* Adams on Divine Command theory: I’m not sure how to respond to the claim that Adams did much to make this plausible. I thought it had been clearly implausible ever since Euthyphro. If aliens arrive and convince us they created our planet and our ancestors, and that they really want us to do certain things, that wouldn’t tell us a whit about morality. Why should God have anything more to say? What am I missing? (A lot, I’m sure — I don’t know much more about ethics than I do Phil Religion.)

* Evidential problem of evil: Does this really add anything more than the response that’s always been avaialable to atheists and agnostics: “Well, MAYBE, God has some sort of mysterious plan that absolutely requires all this suffering, but it’s gonna take a lot more evidence to convince me of it!” I can’t believe nobody thought to say this til the last 50 years.

* Lewis’ argument from desire: Wasn’t this argument obviously fallacious? My desire to commune with God doesn’t entail that God exists any more than my desire for a lovely square circle to hang on my wall means that one of those exists. Is this really one of the best offerings from recent Phil Religion? No wonder y’all have been marginalized… (Sorry again if I’m overlooking details that could make very-bad-looking arguments somehow interesting — please enlighten me!)


Climacus February 17, 2010 at 2:05 pm

Hi Justin: to clarify – I didn’t speculate the comparative claim you offer: rather, I speculated that you hadn’t read much phil of religion. And the summaries you give in your latest comment seem to support my speculation!

You say “As far as I can tell, this view says it is equally rational for me to believe there are invisible leprachauns dancing on my kitchen table, which is a resounding reductio in my eyes. I realize that there must be a bit more to the argument than my (surely horribly uncharitable) presentation of it here, but is this really a new and exciting development for Philosophers of Religion to brag about?”

First of all, nobody’s bragging (except perhaps you, given the way you present your knee-jerk replies). You have Plantinga (and Hare) wrong: neither of them hold this view where it’s “equally rational” to believe such things. The somewhat novel aspect of Plantinga’s early work (as I see it) came from his arguments that belief in God ought to be treated on a par with our “properly basic” beliefs in other minds, in the external world, the reliability of memory, etc. It was an analogical argument, after he had made room for the idea that there didn’t seem to be any reason to exclude it from being properly basic (all this too is a hasty summary, alas). So his claims are about proper basicality for theistic belief. And this isn’t something Hare argued for. See also Plantinga’s *God and Other Minds* book from the late 1960s, as well as his contribution to *Faith and Rationality* (then compare this to his more recent *Warranted Christian Belief*).

On Adams: divine command theory HAD been implausible since Euthyphro… that is, up until Adams’s work — that’s the point. See his “A Modified Divine Command Theory of Ethical Wrongess,” and his “Divine Command Metaethics Modified Again.” Then his Finite and Infinite Goods.

I don’t understand your point about the evidential problem of evil; it doesn’t concern an “available response” for atheists and agnostics. It’s a problem for THEISTS to develop an adequate response to… There are some book-length treatments of the topic now — ones by Marilyn McCord Adams, and Michael Murray, come to mind.

I’m not claiming here that these philosophers’ work will convince you; you had asked about what work had been “new” or “notable advances”… and for those who are specialists in phil of religion, these (though this isn’t an exhaustive list, surely) are the kinds of things that come to mind. To understand WHY they’re considered notable advances, of course, you’d have to study these authors pretty thoroughly, and see how the dialectic in the overall literature has progressed, etc.


Ben Murphy February 17, 2010 at 10:03 pm

Justin – first, I’m going to offer what is, I know, a not very respectable form of argument, an appeal to authority.

In the 1990′s, when I was an undergrad, I attended a conference for undergraduates organised jointly by philosophy clubs from Oxford and Prague. The star attraction was Anthony Kenny, speaking about Plantinga’s work. I pretty much got the impression that he thought of it as a new and exciting development, perhaps even something for philosophers of religion to brag about. Well okay, he didn’t put it quite that way, and anyway, he’s something of a PoR specialist himself. Still, I did get the impression that most people there, PoR specialists or not, thought that Plantinga’s work was interesting and original stuff.

The point you made about leprechauns was much discussed. It is commonly known as “The Great Pumpkin Objection”. At the time, it seemed to me a pretty strong objection. I thought Plantinga had done a pretty convincing job refuting Classical Foundationalism, and Anthony Kenny assured me this was a big deal. However, once you get rid of classical foundationalism, Plantinga’s next question is “So what is a properly basic belief? Well how about belief in God?” and one immediately thinks, “Yeah, and why not the Great Pumpkin, etc?”

But that was before Plantinga had published very much about his theory of proper functions. (He had published something, and Kenny mentioned it, but it was “Well, now he’s going in a new direction – we’ll have to see how it turns out…”)

So how did it turn out? Well, with the theory of Proper Functionality, one can differentiate between the belief that humans were designed with a sensus divinitatis, which is part of a coherent and comprehensive theory about knowledge and how it is acquired, and the ad hoc belief that I, and only I, have been designed so as to be able to see the Great Pumpkin or the Dancing Leprechaun. On the other hand, I think that a Muslim could use Plantinga’s work to offer a defence of Islam that would be just as convincing as Plantinga’s defence of Christianity. Unfortunately, when I’ve looked at introductory anthologies on Philosophy of Religion, they seem stuck in the 1990′s when it comes to Plantinga’s work, and, IMHO, at that stage the Great Pumpkin seemed to be a stronger objection than it now appears.


Ben Murphy February 17, 2010 at 10:22 pm

One more thing to add on Plantinga. His suggestion was that we should combine naturalized epistemology with a supernatural ontology. So his proposals about a sensus divinitatis and instigation of the Holy Spirit should be open to empirical investigation.
This is exactly the kind of work that is now taking place in Cognitive Science of Religion. Justin Barrett’s book “Why Would Anyone Believe In God?” has a conclusion that could come right out of Plantinga’s work “Because we were designed to.”
I’m not saying that CSR provides proof that Plantinga is correct – there is an argument to be made that it can be used against him. But it does provide an empirical basis for some of the claims he makes about our cognitive faculties.


lukeprog February 17, 2010 at 10:29 pm

Ben Murphy,

Evolution is already a better explanation for our religious tendencies than ‘Magic man done it.’


Justin Fisher February 18, 2010 at 11:55 pm

Thanks Climacus and Ben for humoring my admittedly ignorant and provocatively-phrased questions. I also appreciate all the reading suggestions, but alas, life’s short and I don’t have time to delve into multiple books outside my AOS, so instead I’ll have to settle for whatever morsels I can get from generous interlocutors like you.

Re: brag-worthiness. I took the course of our thread to have been this: (1) the original poster complained that PoR isn’t taken seriously, (2) Hermes and I suggested that this might be because recent PoR hasn’t produced many bragworthy/interesting/notable results, and (3) Climacus suggested Plantinga’s defense of the rationality of theism as a counterexample. It now seems that Climacus wants to say Plantinga’s work is among the most notable that PoR has recently produced but s/he wouldn’t go so far as to call it bragworthy. This seems to confirm Hermes’ and my suspicion that PoR has rightly been marginalized for its dearth of bragworthy results.

The only new thing I see in Climacus’ gloss of Plantinga(beyond my original gloss) is the suggestion that the analogy to other “properly basic” beliefs (like belief in other minds or the external world) might somehow support acceptance of theism as properly basic while somehow excluding other candidates like belief in my dancing leprachauns.

Of course, I’ve heard this analogy before, but I’ve never understood it. I thought the standard views about other minds held that belief in them was not basic, but instead justified either by analogy to oneself or else by abduction. Similarly, many people hold that belief in the external world is justified by abduction from sensory experience. So, if theism is supposed to be analogous to these beliefs, then it seems to me that theism shouldn’t be construed as properly basic, but instead something that we might infer as the best explanation for, e.g., the origin of the universe or the complexity of living things. Classing theism this way seems right to me, but it’s obviously not Plantinga’s view. So I’m not seeing how analogy to these other beliefs could help make us think that theism was properly basic while leprachaunism isn’t. Help?

Ben seemed to be suggesting that perhaps the thing that distinguishes theism from leprechaunism or Great-Pumpkinism is the fact that theism says something about proper functions. I’m afraid I don’t yet see (1) why that would help, nor (2) why there isn’t a souped-up version of Great-Pumpkinism or Leprechaunism that builds in a parallel story about proper functions too (in much the way that Ben admitted Islam probably could) and hence can make an equal claim to being properly basic. Help?

And while I’m calling upon the generosity of strangers to alleviate my ignorance and confusion:

Climacus has twice asserted that Adams somehow made divine command theory plausible. I appreciate the references but would even more appreciate someone being able to sketch how such a miraculous feat could possibly be done, e.g., perhaps by highlighting a relevant disanalogy to the aliens case I described above?

I think I mistook Climacus to be suggesting that the evidential problem of evil was itself an exciting new development, rather than just a slightly different formalization of what atheists and agnostics had been saying all along. Perhaps s/he instead meant to be saying that recent PoR had produced some exciting new theistic responses to it? If so, could someone briefly sketch what they are, rather than just pointing me to books? Thanks!


Ben Murphy February 21, 2010 at 11:30 am

The proper function theory holds that our beliefs have warrant if they are produced by a well-designed system of belief formation, aimed at truth, functioning properly in the environment for which it was designed. Plantinga holds that there is a basic blue-print for human nature, written by God, that includes a system designed to produce belief in God, because after all, God made me that I might know him, love him and serve him in this world, and be happy with him in the next. This belief about God is very well entrenched in theism.

To get the belief in leprechauns up to the same level, what could you do? Well, maybe we were designed by leprechauns. This is an ad hoc modification of the whole leprechaun-theory though: leprechauns hide their pots of gold at the end of the rainbow, and like to play tricks, but since when did anyone think they designed the human race? Well okay, since now, let’s say. We are considering a new theoretical struture for leprechaun belief.

What has happened though is that the leprechaun theory is being modified to resemble monotheism. My suggestion is that, in order to make the leprechaun theory approach the theistic theory in credibility, the more one would have to make it resemble the theistic theory: a single designer, with single design plan for human nature. It has the advantage of simplicity. Also, since God is supposedly the designer of the entire universe, it has the advantage of not coming into direct conflict with evolutionary theory. The theist can always say that God planned for us to evolve in a certain way. Did the leprechauns design the entire universe? In that case, belief in leprechauns is sounding less like acceptance of Irish folklore, and more and more like polytheism: like monotheism, but more complicated.

There is a further point: God’s design plan seems to be working fairly well, and of course there is a well-entrenched theory that explains why it is not more effective. The leprechaun design plan does not seem to be working so well. I’m not suggesting that truth is determined by numbers, but if you have a theory of human nature, the behaviour and beliefs of human beings are evidence for or against that theory. Similarly, I do think that some weight should be attached to the distinction between ad hoc vs. well-entrenched ideas. In fact, this point is argued at length by William Alston in his “Perceiving God”, and of course will be familiar to you from Goodman’s work on the new riddle of induction.

In a sense though, the question of how the Reformed Theist should respond to the Great Pumpkin Objection isn’t the most important point in this context. The claim was just that Plantinga’s work was interesting and worthy of attention. I’m certainly not trying to say his arguments are successful. Suppose one accepts everything he says about the reasons for holding belief in God is properly basic, but holds that belief in Great Pumpkins, Leprechauns etc. can also be said to be properly basic. Well then, it looks like all of those beliefs are rational as well! The Great Pumpkin Objection to Plantinga’s argument is like Gaunilo’s Island Objection to Anselm. It can persuade us that the original argument must have contained an error somewhere, but it doesn’t actually show us at which stage the error was made. If such an objection is the only objection available, we are left with an interesting philosophical puzzle. It is, in some ways, the opposite of the puzzle raised by scepticism: the sceptic leaves us wondering whether most of the beliefs we have are irrational, the proper basicality argument plus the great pumpkin objection leaves us wondering whether most beliefs other people have are really rational. I think that constitutes an interesting contribution to philosophy.


Ben Murphy February 21, 2010 at 11:42 am

Oh by the way, with regards to the “standard view” that belief in other minds is justified by abduction or analogy, I have to say that if that’s the standard view, I think it is flawed. Most people believe in other minds and the external world but do not formulate any kind of argument in favour of those beliefs. Plantinga’s point is that surely, even if people lack that kind of justification, their beliefs are not irrational. This point, of course, is not unique to Plantinga. His approach is, after all, an attempt to combine naturalized epistemology with supernatural ontology, and I think most natural epistemologists would agree that the normal process of acquiring trustworthy beliefs about the existence of material objects and minds does not involve philosophical arguments.


Ben Murphy February 21, 2010 at 3:34 pm

lukeprog, thanks for the link, I had a laugh, but Plantinga’s argument is a little different from the one mocked in the video.

The standard Intelligent Design argument is that the best explanation for irreducible complexity is Magic Man Did It!, if you like. That’s a Best Explanation Argument.

Plantinga’s Proper Function argument is conceptual. He argues that we seem to share a concept of the proper functioning of the human mind and body, in other words, we all attach some meaning to statements like “Your heart is not functioning properly.” But what does this actually mean? He analyses and dismisses several attempts at naturalistic analysis, arguing that although they may be extensionally correct, we can think of possible situations in which they would yield the wrong answer. The missing ingredient, he thinks, is intention. If something is going right or wrong, there must be some way that it is intended to go. Once we admit that we need to make use of the concept of intention, we see that such talk only makes sense if we assume that there is a design plan.

When I applied to graduate school, I submitted a paper presenting an objection to this. I agreed with Plantinga that you can’t have proper function without intention, but I argued that use is prior to design. If I use a stone as a weapon, then it is possible to say whether it is functioning well or not without my needing to suppose it was designed to be used as a weapon. So too, I argued, my heart is functioning well because I can use it to perform lots of activities I want to perform – whether or not this is what the heart was designed to do doesn’t matter.

My paper presenting this objection was well received, and I got that place at graduate school. Consequently, I have an interesting relationship to Plantinga’s work. My criticism of his work was an important stepping stone for me. It demonstrated my worthiness to study at graduate level. So I’m not trying to defend his views because I think they are all correct. I want to persuade other people, and myself, that he is an interesting and important philosopher, and so coming up with a decisive criticism of his views is a difficult and important task.

Again, let me make the point that what’s at issue here is whether Plantinga’s work deserves interest from people who aren’t specialists in Philosophy of Religion. If my criticism of his argument that proper function requires design is correct then naturalistic philosophers are entitled to incorporate the concept of proper function into their epistemology. Since I think he makes a good case for the value of the concept of proper function in epistemology, this is actually another reason for being interested in his work.


Ben Murphy February 21, 2010 at 3:52 pm

P.S. lukeprog, I just re-read your post, and realized your comment wasn’t a reaction to Plantinga, but to Barrett, so my reply kind of missed the point. Mea Culpa. I won’t say any more, because I’ve probably said more than enough anyway.


lukeprog February 21, 2010 at 4:56 pm


I have other posts that critique Plantinga’s work at a less superficial level, and will write more on that in the future.

Any chance you’d email me that paper you wrote?


Ben Murphy February 24, 2010 at 8:32 am

lukeprog: thanks for the interest. The original file was lost when the floppy rotted in the tropical humidity. However, I did incorporate the criticisms of Plantinga into a recently published article “Evolutionary Psychology and the Rationality of Faith”, Heythrop Journal, May 2009.
How can I get your e-mail address?


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