Goodbye to All That

Over the past ten years I have published, in one venue or another, about twenty things on the philosophy of religion. I have a book on the subject, God and Burden of Proof, and another criticizing Christian apologetics, Why I am not a Christian. During my academic career I have debated William Lane Craig twice and creationists twice. I have written one master’s thesis and one doctoral dissertation in the philosophy of religion, and I have taught courses on the subject numerous times. But no more. 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 the subject. 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.
Chiefly, though, I am motivated by a sense of ennui on the one hand and urgency on the other. A couple of years ago I was teaching a course in the philosophy of religion. We were using, among other works, C. Stephen Layman’s Letters to a Doubting Thomas: A Case for the Existence of God. In teaching class I try to present material that I find antithetical to my own views as fairly and in as unbiased a manner as possible. With the Layman book I was having a real struggle to do so. I found myself literally dreading having to go over this material in class—NOT, let me emphasize, because I was intimidated by the cogency of the arguments. On the contrary, I found the arguments so execrably awful and pointless that they bored and disgusted me (Layman is not a kook or an ignoramus; he is the author of a very useful logic textbook). 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. I’ve turned the philosophy of religion courses over to a colleague.
As I say there is also a sense of urgency. I just turned 58 and I want to devote the relatively few years remaining in my scholarly life to what I not only respect, but love. I love astronomy; I love geology; I love paleontology, and I find the history of those fields fascinating. I also am very interested in philosophical problems associated with the historical sciences. How we understand and reconstruct events that took place in deep time is a deep and abiding interest for me. I have published two books on the history of dinosaur paleontology, and I am going to get back into stuff like that.
So, with the exception of things I am finishing now I am calling it quits with the philosophy of religion. I might also reply to a few criticisms of things I have already published. For instance, the Secular Web has a long critique of my essay “No Creator Need Apply,” and I might respond to that. I’ll continue to post things occasionally on Secular Outpost. As for the rest of you who are fighting the good fight against supernaturalism, please do carry on. Somebody needs to oppose this stuff. It just isn’t going to be me.

About Keith Parsons
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Keith -

    Thank you for many years of fighting the good fight against supernaturalism. I hope you enjoy many more years of exploring subjects and issues that you truly love!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16008018444588788392 Mark Vuletic

    Oh, you say you're done with it, Keith. And you want to be done with it. I say that all the time, too—"I'm going to drop this philosophy of religion stuff, while I still have the chance, and return my focus to quantum mechanics, and Hume, and Hempel!" But philosophy of religion is like potato chips—no matter how sick to the stomach you feel right now, and no matter how bad you know the stuff is for you, soon enough you will once again find yourself snacking away. "OK, maybe just one," you'll say, after grappling with Valentine's Phyla for two weeks, and before you know it, you'll find yourself sprawled out on the floor, laboring to breathe, with Cheetos dust in your hair and tell-tale grease stains on your shirt.

    But if you can, against all odds, stay away, I will be very happy for you, as sorely as I will miss the Parsons trilogy that exists in some world better than this one.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith,

    I have an issue with the phrase “good fight against supernaturalism”; rather I’d say the good fight is against bad thinking.

    I for one am sorry to see you go, but what the hell, I can understand how you feel. Had my life been a little different, never mind were I living in Texas, I might have felt the same.

    As for your next project, I wonder if you’d be interested to study the philosophy of non-classical physics and write a book about it. I find this is an incredible interesting story which occupied some of the greatest scientific minds of the past century. I think many people would be very much interested in reading a professional philosopher’s take on this issue. I have read Victor Stenger’s “Quantum Gods”, but this was a sore disappointment. “Quantum Enigma” by Rosenblum and Kuttner is better, but they too are physicists. “Quantum Reality: Beyond the New Physics” is excellent but is also written by a physicist. As are the authors of “Quantum Physics: Illusion or Reality?”, and “Quantum Reality: Theory and Philosophy”. Certainly a modern take on this issue written by a philosopher is lacking.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Thanks everyone for the kind and generous comments. Mark is right that I will probably not be able to lay off completely. However, I will try to restrict my comments to informal remarks on Secular Outpost. My professional work is going to return to what I love best, the history and philosophy of science.

    Dianelos: Thanks As I say, I'm sure we will continue to have exchanges here. I'd love to follow your suggestion and do some stuff in the philosophy of physics, but two courses with John Earman at Pittsburgh showed me what you really have to know to do that well, and I do not begin to have the necessary expertise. Earman THINKS in tensor calculus. He doesn't just use it; he thinks it as I think in English. That is a skill I can only admire, but not emulate.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17239457772830013242 tmdrange

    What is philosophy of religion? As I see it, ideally, it should be restricted to the questions "What is religion?" and "What is the value of religion?" Some connect it primarily with God-talk, but I regard that to be a mistake. God-talk is a topic (or set of topics) of its own. The question whether God-talk expresses any proposition at all is one in the philosophy of language. If it is decided that there are propositions expressed by some God-talk, there would be issues in ontology of whether or not any of them are true and issues in epistemology of how any of them might be known. The so-called "arguments for and against God's existence" are in the field of ontology. The issue of supernaturalism might arise in philosophy of science in connection with the attempt to define the natural/non-natural distinction. My own main interest these days is in the philosophy of language issue mentioned above, but I also still dabble in the issues of ontology, epistemology, and philosophy of science mentioned. I, too, have little interest in religion, which I regard to be a kind of insanity (loss of touch with reality) that advanced species perhaps go through in the course of their evolution.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00940426843455194661 retep

    I do agree that theism is nonsense but I think we still have to confront this ignorance

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12045468316613818510 Blue Devil Knight

    It's about time.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09915579495149582531 exapologist

    You went above and beyond the call of duty in bringing light to a dark place. I'm going to miss reading your work in philosophy of religion. Thanks also for your excellent work as editor (and founder?) of the journal Philo.

    All the best,
    EA

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00337421485586984386 Jacob

    It is in a way encouraging to read someone with your accomplishments leave a field which, in many ways, must be difficult to relinquish.

    As an atheist, I still find myself attracted to the philosophy of religion, but I know that part of this attraction is a relentless thirst and love for debate. Eventually, though, when you know the debate through and through, you may in honesty and integrity take your leave of it.

    After I have finished with the best current scholarship in the subject, I may have the courage to do what you have done, and put myself to thinking about other, more interesting questions instead.

    Thanks again for being so candid, it is rare for someone learned in a discipline which has been a cornerstone of their academic career, to be able to honestly say and act as you have done. I take a lot from it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16357514742666794260 Mike

    God speed.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Thanks again for the many kind and generous comments. I do certainly agree that those who have the stomach for it should continue to subject theistic apologetics to stringent critique. I would especially like for somebody to debunk stuff like that by Robin Collins and John Leslie in the last issue of Philo.

    When I helped found Philo, I expressed my chagrin that there were so very few replies to the theistic philosophy that had proliferated. Since that time the publication of books like Graham Oppy's Arguing About Gods, Jordan Howard Sobel's Logic and Theism and Nicholas Everitt's The Non-Existence of God have supplied the logically rigorous and sophisticated critiques that were sorely needed. To really effectively critique the theistic arguments, you need to know as much modal logic as Plantinga, as much Bayesian confirmation theory as Swinburne, and as much physical cosmology as Craig. I am glad to see that critics who have those qualifications are having their say.

    Again, I admire and encourage those who continue the battle against theistic obscurantism, but I have such a sense of ennui and disgust that I am going to be hors de combat. I saw a quote attributed to Nietzsche one time that said "I cannot spend my time swatting flies." Swatting flies is what it feels like I've been doing for some time.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15795669594230636082 eSantipapa

    The best battle to be fought, is right up your alley of interests. Please, since you are very well educated and informed, look into the falsehoods presented by the history of the America's as the Mormon faith presents it (to debunk it). They have obfuscated and hoaxed the Mormon faith into validity and there should be a definitive book written by a sound mind fully debunking the Mormon faith (entirely). Thank you so much, if you choose to take on this historically important task!! and thank you for your contributions to the philosopher community.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826568465831489492 Alex Dalton

    I didn't even finish reading this the first time as I didn't see it as all that important (or clear – e.g. what's a "fraud" signifying here?), but apparently some of the other theistic blogs are all up in arms about it.

    My thoughts on this are: "Eh."

    So Keith doesn't want to argue about God anymore. I'm trying to cut back on sugar myself.

    For the record, I will say this. He seems to be a rather pleasant fellow. Skeptics need more of this. Its a pleasure to have a blog with an atheistic philosopher who will descend to the com-box and argue with the little people.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826568465831489492 Alex Dalton

    Well – ok, after just reading some of the comments here, I may have to retract a bit. If Keith feels like discussing some of these issues with a theist like myself is like "swatting flies", maybe I overestimated his charity.

    One day, philosophically-minded theists and atheists will begin to realize that one really can't exist in their best form without the other. We should value each other a lot more than we do. I certainly don't want to sit around and talk with a bunch of theists all day, agreeing about this and that, and having minor disagreements or quibbles on auxiliary issues.

    Philosophical theists and atheists have much in common. We generally both find these issues important and exciting and we generally simply love the exhilaration of a good argument. In my mind, there is no better person to argue with than someone who strongly disagrees with you.

    Some of the most difficult debates I have had with intelligent atheists have been some of the most memorable, rewarding, and exciting moments of my life.

    While you're sitting on your computer reading a blog tonight, thumbing through one of the many books on your shelves, watching a debate, or reading a journal article, consider how alien that is to what the large majority of the rest of the world is doing; consider that, in this respect, you have much more in common with a philosophical theist than you do with the rest of the world.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826568465831489492 Alex Dalton

    I'll also add that when I was an atheist, baiting and refuting the local preacher man in front of the library (who literally thumped his Bible), with my friends standing on enjoying every minute of it, was also quite exhilarating.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Alex,

    No, discussions with you, Victor Reppert, and Dianelos are not like "swatting flies." No, the reference was to my published work dealing with theistic philosophy and religious apologetics. I got tired of constantly being in the debunking mode, especially when you find yourself debunking the same thing repeatedly. That starts to feel like swatting flies. I used to be a subscriber and regular reader of The Skeptical Inquirer, but then I let my subscription expire. How many debunkings of ghosts, UFO's, and Bigfoot do you need? Likewise with "the case for theism." I think I really have heard it all by now, and my hearing has been patient and fair. Also, as I said before, I am also aware of works by Oppy, Sobel, Gale, Everitt, Le Poidevin, Martin, Drange, Schellenberg, and many others that have done the debunking so well that I really have nothing further to add.

    As for the use of the term "fraud," I tried to make clear that I am talking about the arguments, not the arguers. Actually, "fraud" was probably a bad choice of words since it inevitably connotes deceit and dishonesty. My view of the "case for theism" is not that it is a dishonest fabrication but that it is completely vacuous.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06283931383770759507 D. Ghirlandaio

    It's always amusing when philosophers give up on religious logic. Do literature professors give up on fiction because it's not "true"?

    Philosophy descends from theology, and for all the discussion of pragmatism it's concerned with the idea of pragmatism more than the implementation.

    Quinean naturalism is no more than an arch formalism, descending from the dreams, as "speculative metaphysics" of a scientific Marxism or Freudianism. The human imagination slides from reason to unreason pretty quickly, and no system will protect us from that.
    The physicist and atheist Steven Weinberg is a racist, with a politics as founded in irrationalism as the equally atheist Donald Rumsfeld. Atheism is no cure. Various attempts at a universal system of belief are as founded on irrationalism and doctrine as is the Universal Church.
    But the irrationalism is hidden under mountains of rigorously formal logic. Scholasticism is still scholasticism: logic founded on illogical assumptions.

    Philosophy and philosophers seem still to dream of meanings in the world, as too many scientists do: there are things we must know. The search for more facts is transposed to the search for more "truth". It's like mountain-climbing and no less absurd. But like mountain-climbing and unlike religion or literature, the process is technically rigorous and specific. You can "make mistakes" and mistakes can be costly. But the end result of this fixation on technics is that fact-mongering regarding the reproductive life of a subspecies of Sri Lankan moth becomes justified by higher philosophical reason in a way that studying Shakespeare or Bach, let alone performing their works[!] is not.

    "Philosophers" [professors of philosophy] dream of replacing the false certainty of religion with another form of certainty. That need for certainty is just that: a need. And the dream is fundamentally religious. Desire is irrational.

    There are no meanings in the world, only facts we will always shade into values. Taking values for granted is the biggest mistake we can make.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11134318090116261049 Eric

    My view of the "case for theism" is not that it is a dishonest fabrication but that it is completely vacuous."

    Dr. Parsons, while I appreciate your personal reasons for your decision, I have to wonder: What would your response have been if five years ago, say, Purtill or Kreeft came out and said that he would no longer be working in philosophy of religion because the arguments for atheism (or agsinst theism) are vacuous, and that he could no longer take them seriously?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    I can understand a person getting tired, or bored, or even disgusted with a particular field, and finding that other philosophical fields are much more interesting. On the other hand I am not sure that Keith is saying that philosophy of religion is a spent issue. I don’t think it is, as evidenced, for example, by the fact that the fall-winter 2009 issue of Philo is dedicated to the theism versus naturalism debate.

    It’s certainly not the case that we have a definite answer to the question of whether the strongest naturalistic ontology or the strongest theistic ontology is more probably true. And from that answer some very important questions hang. For me the most important question is not whether there is conscious identity after death (even though I find that the belief that there is increases my quality of life and empowers me to live as I wish to live). I’d say that the really important questions that hang on the theism very naturalism debate are related to ethical concerns. In particular I’d like to know this: Can doing what one thinks is the right thing ever be in vain? Can doing what one thinks is the wrong thing ever be a smart choice?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Eric,

    Thanks for your question. First of all, let me make clear that personal asseverations about what one does or does not find vacuous–whether asserted by me, Richard Purtill, Peter Kreeft, or anybody–have zero epistemic significance. I take that to be obvious. That is why I am astonished, simply astonished to see that my "retirement notice" posted here (and only here) has "gone viral" (in a modest way) and drawn so much comment from Prosblogion and the Leiter Reports. I thought my notice would matter to maybe a dozen people, most of whom are readers of Secular Outpost, so I put it here.

    Anyway, back to your question: Had Purtill or Kreeft made such an announcement, my response would have been "meh," and a shrug of the shoulders. That is exactly what I would expect from anyone hearing me assert that I regard the "case for theism" as vacuous if that person disagrees. Now if someone wanted to know the reasons I consider theistic arguments vacuous, I could refer them to a number of sources, some of which I have already indicated. If someone, theist or atheist, still finds the arguments for and against theism stimulating and worth their time and effort, then bully for them! I just plan to fry other fish from now on.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11111405959451703182 PhysicistDave

    Keith,

    I’m a bit curious about the actual situation you face: it seems to me that your real issue may be sociological/political, not intellectual.

    Let me illustrate what I mean: I have a Ph.D. in physics. If I were teaching a physics class, I would have no reservation pointing out that the universe is billions of years old and that we have overwhelming evidence that proves this fact, from physics, astronomy, etc., *without* giving “equal time” to the other side.

    I know of course that there are people who passionately deny the age of the universe (largely for religious reasons), but I would see no reason to mention their objections at all in a physics class, except, perhaps, as the butt of some weak jokes. Intellectually, they are irrelevant.

    Why is philosophy different? If the subject of astrology or phrenology comes up in a philosophy class, are you under a professional obligation seriously to give “equal time” to arguments in favor of astrology or phrenology? If not, why is religion any different from astrology or phrenology?

    As a scientist, I frankly find phrenology a good deal more credible (after all, there is specialization in different brain regions, which might conceivably show up in bumps on the skull, though it seems not to) than most of the arguments presented by religious believers.

    Of course, here in the US, we suffer from a “social contract” that says that we should not ridicule people’s religious beliefs, no matter how ridiculous those beliefs may be. So… is the real problem here that religion should, from an intellectual viewpoint, be treated by philosophers in the same way that they treat astrology or phrenology, but that social and political pressures prevent that?

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith,

    I’d like to thank you for mentioning the various good sources, as I am always looking for high quality atheistic thought to read and think about.

    In particular you write: “Ted Drange, J.L. Schellenberg, Andrea Weisberger, and Nicholas Trakakis have presented powerful, and, in my view, unanswerable atheological arguments.

    It’s interesting to note that Trakakis is a theist.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17961096650184788709 Jorgon Gorgon

    Keith:

    You mention Craig's knowledge of cosmology. Not to be a pill, but after studying his arguments, I have come to believe that while he may know quite a bit *about* cosmology he does not really *know* any. How else to explain his continuing misrepresentation of facts, of probabilities; his apparent inability to grasp the mathematical motivation for various stringy hypotheses; his insistence on molding BBT into what he wants it to be, disregarding scientific consensus on the matter? I, for one, am not convinced he has actually studied the underlying mathematics and physics in any detail. Oh well.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05780379082567261537 Milos

    Keith – in your (eminently reasonable) explanation, you named many authors who provided a good case against theism and for atheism. Before you, so to say, "leave the room," could you give us a short bibliography of what you consider to be the most important works in this area? It would be much appreciated! :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Milos,

    In no particular order, here are a dozen good books that provide excellent arguments in support of atheism:

    1) Wallace Matson: The Existence of God

    2) Michael Martin: Atheism: A Philosophical Justification

    3) Graham Oppy: Arguing About Gods

    4) Jordan Howard Sobel: Logic and Theism

    5)Richard Gale: On the Nature and Existence of God

    5) Nicholas Everitt: The Nonexistence of God

    6) J.L. Mackie: The Miracle of Theism

    7) Theodore M. Drange: Nonbelief and Evil

    8) J.L. Schellennberg: Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason

    9) Nick Trakakis: The God Beyond Belief

    10) Robin Le Poidevin: Arguing for Atheism

    11) Richard Robinson: An Atheist's Values

    12) Erik Wielenberg: Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe

    These books provide a far better justification for atheism than can be found in the recently popular Dawkins/Hitchens/Harris style books.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    000PS! Looks like I accidentally made that a baker's dozen. All are fine books.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05780379082567261537 Milos

    Much appreciated! :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05463074148195784152 Barbara Carlson

    Years ago when I read Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
    it only confirmed my prejudice that grown-ups put aside all the god-bothering stuff, being no longer children who need a "daddy" to make it all better. We have evolved in so many other physical ways– what up with so many humans still having superstitious bicameral minds and DEMANDING everybody else "think" the way they do? i.e., terror/wars/religious ideology.

    I you read this (saw it linked on Andrew Sullivan's great blog — The Daily Dish) today altho your piece was written last September. How is it going — do you feel a weight's been lifted — not having to trudge over the same silly ground over and over?

    By the way, where are the writings by Christopher Hitchens in your list?

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