Philosophy of religion is mostly not taken seriously in mainstream philosophy

In my very first semester in college, in my very first philosophy course, there was a unit on arguments for and against the existence of God. An article by Swinburne was assigned as the rebuttal to an atheist’s article on the problem of evil. However, the professor skipped lecturing on Swinburne.

When I asked him why in his office hours, his response was basically, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Why put Swinburne on the syllabus, then? Well, previous years, he’d had a different article by William Alston in that slot, but it had been terrible too.

A couple years later, I asked a different professor about philosophy of religion, and he said the main thing to know about it was that it was a low-status specialty. He also had unkind things to say about theistic responses to the problem of evil, specifically mentioning Swinburne, and expressed disappointment at the number of grad students at his previous university who had been theists. Shouldn’t they know better by their age? seemed to be his attitude.

He did mention that he thought Plantinga’s ontological argument was worth looking at. This was something I’d encounter again, Plantinga as an exception to the general rule about philosophy of religion being a waste of time, but at other times I encountered philosophers who didn’t think much of Plantinga either.

Then I went off to graduate school at Notre Dame. This was the number one philosophy of religion department in the world, where Plantinga was the starring figure, and most of the other top professors were deeply religious. You might think I’d get a totally opposite view of philosophy of religion there, but the situation was more complicated than that.

While lots of people at Notre Dame were personally fans of philosophy of religion, they knew its status in the broader profession. Religious grad students were warned that if they did their dissertations in philosophy of religion, they’d be unemployable. I once heard a professor rant about how unfair it was that other philosophers were dismissive of Plantinga because of things he’d said about evolution.

This is something that amateur philosophy of religion buffs are likely to miss, although you can find hints of it in online discussions if you look closely. When atheist philosopher Keith Parsons declared he was calling it quits a few years ago, he wrote:

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—no more than I could present intelligent design as a legitimate biological theory. BTW, 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.

Brian Leiter, commenting on the story, said that, “My anecdotal impression is that this attitude towards philosophy of religion… may be fairly widely shared, though primarily among philosophers who have not devoted as much time to the literature and the issues as Professor Parsons.” The discussion at Leiter’s blog largely took for granted philosophy of religion’s low reputation within the discipline, and argued over whether it was justified.

Or, here’s theistic philosopher of religion Randal Rauser’s description of a stereotypical philosophy department:

The philosophy department is chock full of analytic philosophers (Heidegger is considered a bad joke) who are atheists. The last graduate student who was openly Christian only survived because she opted to write her thesis on environmental ethics. The departmental head recently referred to philosophy of religion as a complete waste of time.

The example is presented fictitiously, but in my experience it’s at most slightly exaggerated. Oh, and in the last few years even philosophers of religion have been doing a fair amount of hand-wringing over their sub-discipline looking too much like religious apologetics.

I say all this because Peter Boghossian has recently gotten a lot of flak for a tweet where he said:

Now, I don’t know many philosophers who would say that publishing in philosophy absolutely disqualifies you from doing good work in other areas. But there are nevertheless plenty of philosophers who think publishing in philosophy of religion is a waste of time at best, and potentially a bad sign about someone. Boghossian’s critics seem unaware of this, which is ironic since many of them are the sort to act superior over others’ supposed ignorance of philosophy of religion.

The assumption among philosophy of religion fans seems to be that the opinions of philosophers who aren’t specialists in the sub-discipline don’t count. But it has to be possible for experts in a given discipline to have views on the worth of sub-disciplines they haven’t published in. Otherwise, most psychologists would be barred from having opinions on parapsychology. Why is philosophy of religion any different?

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