Philosophy of religion without apologetics?

Recently, in an exercise in thinking about things that are way too far off in the future to be really thinking about, I wondered: “If I do eventually get a Ph.D. in philosophy, and end up on the philosophy job market, will I list philosophy of religion as an AoC?” (AoC stands for Area of Competence, see here for discussion of the term, but basically it’s secondary areas of philosophical interest.)

On the one hand, I know so much about philosophy of religion that it might seem like, how could I not put it down? On the other hand, philosophy of religion is a stigmatized field, and frankly I side with the view that there are very good reasons why it’s stigmatized. It’s hard to see myself publishing a paper on philosophy of religion, and I’m not sure I could take the field seriously enough to teach a class on it.

So I’d lean towards “no”… but I wonder if part of the problem here is the wrapping up of philosophy of religion and religious apologetics. Let’s face it, Alvin Plantinga, by many accounts the #1 philosopher of religion in the world, has largely built his career on religious apologetics. And the arguments of religious apologetics are consistently awful.

What’s more, it’s actually really odd that apologetics is allowed in the door at academia at all. It’s virtually alone in allegedly intellectual pursuits that are all about arguing for a foreordained conclusion. Christ on a cracker, even Fox News at least pretends to be “Fair and Balanced” rather than advertising itself as “learn how to defend your belief that Obama is a Muslim commie terrorist.”

Apologetics, in other words, has more in common with marketing or PR than scholarship (not that those subjects can’t be studied academically, but the academic study of marketing isn’t supposed to involve getting corporate advertisements published in academic journals). And debunking apologetics makes more sense as a side pursuit for academics than an area of specialization. It’s akin to debunking creationism that way. (Actually, it’s a superset of debunking creationism.)

And yet… lately, I’ve been wondering about the possibility of doing philosophy of religion while ignoring the apologetics side. Taking Pascal’s Wager as an instance of some important problems in decision. Worrying about how you actually assess the prior probability of the god hypothesis, if you think that’s important for setting prior probabilities. That kind of stuff.

There’s also the “have fun playing with weird ideas” aspect of it all. I mention this because I just saw Andrew Summitt connecting Nagel, Searle, Tegmark, and Bostrom to Platonic/Aristotelian conceptions of God with some Buddhism thrown in there to. Just for example.

Your thoughts?

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  • Nox

    Philosophy of religion is still a valuable field. It just has the same problem as the rest of philosophy. It lets you say whatever you want with only whatever justification you feel like providing. So it attracts hacks like Plantinga who only see philosophy as a way to muddy the waters.

  • Zak

    Even if you don’t have the best views on it, I think it is extremely valuable for undergrads to learn about. Philosophy of religion was one of the most influential classes I took, and really helped me figure out how to think about religious issues, and where to get more information. It was also nice to see that people much smarter than I had thought about and struggled with such issues for centuries.

    • Chris Hallquist

      I’d be curious to hear more about this from you. *How* did it help you figure out how to think about religious issues? What kind of approach did the teacher take? (Unfortunately, I think the “very smart people struggling for centuries” thing is largely an issue of smart people struggling to reach a wrong conclusion imposed on them by their society!)

      • Zak

        Well, it was about 10 years ago… so it’s hard to remember the details.

        Basically, the summer before, I had really started thinking about these issues, and ignorantly thought I was the first person to ever have thought of the problem evil, or wonder if God’s omniscience renders free will impossible, etc. So getting exposure to well thought out formulations of these arguments, as well as hearing the refutations (and then refutations of the refutations) really made me interested in the whole debate.

        My girlfriend at the time was VERY religious, and so I was exposed to a few apologetic arguments and was blown away by ontological arguments (give me a break, I was 20). The philo of religion class then explored a lot of issues I had thought about, and heard about from apologists. The class put me firmly on the skeptical road, and I became very amused with how all of the religious arguments could usually be flipped on their head quite easily. Especially ontological ones.

        I mostly remember the class being very discussion based, and discussing arguments pro and con, and different philosophers takes on each issue. I don’t remember ever getting a sense that the proff was for or against any position… she was just explaining what people thought about it all.

        • Chris Hallquist

          That’s interesting. Unfortunately, I don’t know if I’d be up to the task of not giving my students a sense of what positions I was for and against… and even if I did, one Google search of my name would ruin that effect!

  • Jen

    I think you should. Philosophy of Religion seems to be dominated by religious people (Christians, especially), so it’d be great to see more atheists in the field.

  • Highlander

    Why not create a new area, a “Philosophy of Atheism” if you will? This would largely cover the same topics as philosophy of religion, but focus on the rational arguments rather than apologetics.

    • MNb

      While that’s an important subject it’s hardly new. Bentham’s utilitarianism is just one philosophy of atheism.

    • Reginald Selkirk

      “Philosophy of Atheism” would have the same problem with “arguing for a foreordained conclusion” for which CH is criticizing apologetics.

  • Greg G

    Just because many of the biggest philosophers of religion give the field a bad name doesn’t mean there’s no room for more rational philosophers.

    • Reginald Selkirk

      What about jobs? I have heard that in the allegedly secular field of religious studies, scholars who are not believers, or at least extremely deferential, have difficulty finding faculty jobs. Doubt makes discomfort for both complacent students and rich donors. Does the same situation apply in philosophy of religion?

  • Bronze Dog

    “Philosophy of religion without apologetics” reminds me of an approach to reading the Bible I remember that blinded me with the obvious. It’s on the tip of my brain right now what term I’m looking for, but it’s essentially about all the layers of canonical interpretation and rationalization that got added on to develop the modern narratives, but aren’t supported if you really try for a more literal reading and to not fill gaps with extra-Biblical speculation. I suppose an alternative word would be “fanon.”

    Strip away the modern fanon, and Satan is no longer the anti-god, but a divine troll who’s ultimately on the same side. The serpent in Eden is just a serpent. The fall from Eden did not foreshadow Jesus. The religion started in monolatry, not monotheism. It goes on. It helps to think of the whole thing more like a comic book universe with new authors writing their own retcons and obsessed readers arguing for their own interpretations and speculations.