Why Philosophy of Religion Must End

John W. Loftus

What I’m about to write is against everything I was taught in college and seminary, where I earned three master’s degrees and then pursued PhD studies for a year and a half in fields related to the philosophy of religion (PoR). While I wasn’t anything special as a Christian apologist, I did train to be one under William Lane Craig, today’s most prominent apologist. I may be wrong in what I say, and readers can accept it or not—but I am not ignorant.1

I am now an atheist and no longer see any value in the way PoR is taught or thought about.

Typically, PoR, a subdiscipline of its parent philosophy, concerns itself with evaluating the cases made for and against religious claims on behalf of deities and the miracles attributed to them, if any. It seeks to understand those claims (if possible) and to examine the arguments put forth, both pro and con, by the canons of reason and evidence. The primary goal of PoR is not to merely understand religion. That’s for a religion or comparative religion discipline or class. Believing PoR scholars put forth their arguments, and nonbelieving PoR scholars attempt to debunk them. Students in PoR classes are introduced to these arguments and made to think through them. This subdiscipline is to be found in many secular universities. I argue that it should be ended. It is unworthy of thinking people and should be ejected from secular institutions. I also argue that outside the secular university, most debates back and forth typically do not treat religion and its claims correctly, which also should be ended. And I show how PoR should be done properly, if it’s to be done at all.

Philosophy of religion should end for several good reasons.

Reason One: Because (a) the PoR discipline is dominated by Christian theists who (b) argue for the claims of their faith in these classes (c) when no other intellectual discipline in a secular university would tolerate faith or the belief in supernatural beings and/or forces as explanations of particular phenomena or justify any conclusions.

First, it’s a fact that PoR is dominated by Christian philosophers. To demonstrate this, let us first determine religious attitudes among philosophers generally and then compare them to such attitudes among practitioners of PoR.
In 2009, David Chalmers of the Australian National University and David Bourget of London University surveyed professional philosophers and others on their philosophical views. The survey was completed by 3,226 respondents, including 1,803 philosophy faculty members and/or those with PhDs and 829 philosophy graduate students.
2

What did philosophers think about God?

Accept or lean toward: atheism 678 / 931 (72.8%)
Accept or lean toward: theism 136 / 931 (14.6%)
Other 117 / 931 (12.5%)

If we add in the “other“ category, which would include adherents of New Age beliefs, deism, and agnosticism, then nearly 86 percent of professional philosophers are nonbelievers. Among those philosophers who are believers, I dare say most of them are probably not card-carrying evangelicals, since this poll data includes Catholics, Muslims, Jews, and those who merely accept the so-called philosopher’s god.

By contrast, Anthony Gottlieb reports that among specialists in the philosophy of religion, the ratio of philosophers who are more likely to favor theism is 72 to 193. Believers dominate this discipline.

Second, these Christian philosophers argue for the claims of their faith in these classes. The question is why any secular university should have a subdiscipline in which theism, Christian theism, Christian theology, or Christian apologetic is privileged and considered to the exclusion of other religions or apologetics. It shouldn’t. If this is the state of affairs, then the only reasonable response is to call for the end of that subdiscipline. Now!

Third, no other intellectual discipline in a secular university would tolerate faith-based claims. This is obvious. After all, we’re talking about secular universities, ones that do not take a stand on religion but try to teach subjects without reference to God, gods, supernatural forces, or beings as explanations.

Reason Two: Because the PoR is presently in a deep twofold crisis.

First, philosophers of religion cannot even agree on what it is or how it should be taught, as one can see quite plainly at philosophyofreligion.org.

Second, as atheist philosopher Keith Parsons wrote when he quit teaching the PoR: “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.“
4

I agreed most emphatically with Parsons on this. The arguments in support of Christian theism have all been refuted. PoR should end as a discipline of higher learning.

Reason Three: Because the PoR as taught in the Western world, especially in the United States, is largely not taught correctly.


First, to teach PoR correctly, the professor should tell the truth about faith’s lack of epistemic status. Faith is an irrational leap over the need for evidence. Faith has no intellectual merit. It is not a virtue. It has no method. It solves no problems. It is not worthy of thinking people. Religion does not survive the requirement for sufficient objective evidence precisely because it’s based on faith.

Second, it is parochial in nature. The very issues discussed in most PoR classes, whether taught by secular or believing philosophers, are neither multicultural nor anthropologically oriented. The questions discussed are almost exclusively dominated by conservative (or evangelical) Christian philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, and William Lane Craig, to mention a few. Discussing these issues legitimizes them to the exclusion of a more global perspective and presumes far too much. Why single out conservative Christian PoR as meriting respect over the millions of animists out there, or pantheists, or still others across the East?

Third, it doesn’t treat all religious claims and paranormal claims equally. The only mature way to deal with religious faiths is to treat their claims all the same, no matter how sophisticated some of them may be, by putting them all on an equal playing field. PoR should discuss Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist views and religious concepts. By extension, I would think, it should also discuss the views of other religions. Of course, if PoR classes did this and did it well, then they would be comparative religion classes.

Reason Four: Because there are plenty of other classes in the larger discipline of philosophy that already address issues such as critical thinking, epistemology, ethics, historical surveys of the PoR, and so on. Why should the PoR deserve more respect than that, given what I have just highlighted? That’s the question.

Reason Five: Because at every juncture, science disconfirms the claims of religious faith, making them at best unnecessary, as LaPlace once quipped to Napoleon. With regard to Christianity, I recommend my anthology Christianity in the Light of Science: Critically Examining the World’s Largest Religion.


The Specific Nature of My Proposal

Let me first state what I’m not proposing when I call for the end of the PoR. I’m not saying philosophy itself is stupid or dead or that there has been no progress in philosophy itself. I’m not proposing we should end philosophical discussions about religion, much less writing about it. I’m not proposing that PoR should not be taught in secular universities. I am saying that it should be done correctly if it’s to be done at all, until such time as it is no longer needed. But if it’s done correctly, then secular philosophers of religion would be putting themselves out of a job.

My call to end PoR stems from Dr. Peter Boghossian, who has challenged the “received model“ of teaching in his book A Manual for Creating Atheists (pages 187–189): “We need to train educators not just to teach students how to think critically, but also how to nudge attitudes about faith on their downward spiral.“ Teaching students to be critical thinkers is very important, but teaching them to have a skeptical disposition is more important. “Anyone can develop a critical thinking skill set,“ he says, even people who are pretending to know things they don’t know. Educators have given faith-based claims preferential treatment. In the classrooms, “It is taken for granted that faith-based claims are invulnerable to criticism and immune from further questioning“ in the so-called “soft sciences,“ such as sociology, philosophy, anthropology, and the like. “This intellectual rigor mortis is not allowed to occur across all disciplines.“ In the hard sciences such as mathematics, chemistry, and biology, “challenging claims and questioning reasoning processes are intrinsic to what it means to teach students to reason effectively.“ So Boghossian says, “This needs to end.“ Educators in all disciplines of learning should grant faith-based conclusions “no countenance. Do not take faith claims seriously. Let the utterer know that faith is not an acceptable basis from which to draw a conclusion that can be relied upon.“

Boghossian had called for this with regard to all disciplines of learning. I’m focusing on PoR since I know more about this discipline. First, I am proposing that secular PoR professors stop teaching their classes according to the “received model“ of teaching. The received model, the one I used in my college classes, is that as instructors, the main goal is to help students learn to think critically. The class could be on ethics, philosophy, or the philosophy of religion, but for the most part these classes are little more than extensions of an introduction to critical thinking class. The subject matter is important, since there is specific factual content to teach the students for each class, such as Aristotle’s view on ethics for an ethics class, Plato’s Forms for an introduction to philosophy class, or Anselm’s Ontological Argument for a philosophy of religion class. But the main goal is the same: to teach students to think critically no matter what subject matter is before them. In general, the philosophy instructor is not to “spoon-feed“ students the “answers“ but rather to let them hash it out themselves. If the class leans in one direction, the instructor leans in the other and vice versa, just to make the students think critically. “Let them come to their own conclusions for the most part“ is the model. It’s not that the professor’s conclusions don’t come through at times. It’s just that professors are not to argue for them much, if at all.

What’s wrong with the received model is that we end up with nothing more than a critical-thinking class using PoR as its subject matter. While certain historical facts and philosophical arguments are to be learned, if that’s the case, then any subject matter will do.

“Religious philosophy“ is to philosophy what “creation science“ is to science. I see no reason to teach PoR using the received model because doing so legitimizes pseudophilosophy. Instead, I call for secular philosophers to teach PoR in the classroom the same way they write their books, though allowing for student interaction and debate. If the discipline is to be taught at all, then this is one good way to teach it right.

My call to end this subdiscipline mirrors Dr. Hector Avalos’s call to end biblical studies as we know them in his book The End of Biblical Studies (Prometheus Books, 2007). Avalos summarizes his plea with two main premises:

  1. Modern biblical scholarship has demonstrated that the Bible is the product of cultures whose values and beliefs about the origin, nature, and purpose of our world are no longer held to be relevant, even by most Christians and Jews.
  2. Paradoxically, despite the recognition of such irrelevance, the profession of academic biblical studies still centers on maintaining the illusion of relevance.

In calling for change, Avalos seeks openly to eliminate the influence of the Bible in the modern world, to help people “move toward a postscriptural society.“ He argues that his plea is “the most logical position, given the discovery of the Bible’s alien character.“ He adds:

What I seek is liberation from the very idea that any sacred text should be an authority for modern human existence. Abolishing human reliance on sacred texts is imperative when those sacred texts imperil the existence of human civilization as it is currently configured. The letter can kill. That is why the only mission of biblical studies should be to end biblical studies as we know it.

What I seek is the elimination of faith from our society and the university. Faith has no method, solves no problems, and is an utterly unreliable guide to knowing anything objective about the nature of nature. Faith itself is the problem, as Stephen Law observes in his book Believing Bullshit: “Anything based on faith, no matter how ludicrous, can be made to be consistent with the available evidence, given a little patience and ingenuity.“

The arguments on behalf of faith-based religious doctrines have no merit. So to the degree secular philosophers agree, they can agree with my proposals.

What Are the Best Ways to Evaluate Religions?

First, we can replace PoR with more classes in science using the scientific method that are similar to geology, physics, astrophysics, astronomy, psychology, and neurology. Other disciplines could deal with religious faith and faith-based theologies such as anthropology, social science, and especially epistemology, to name a few. In epistemology classes—which fall under the domain of philosophy in general—faith should also be shown to have no epistemic warrant. Until Christians can come up with sufficient evidence on which to believe, we should no longer have to deal in depth with their special pleadings, gerrymanderings, non sequiturs, and baseless assertions masquerading as reasonable discussion in a pseudo-subdiscipline. Teaching science overwhelmingly disconfirms all faith-based claims of religionists, exposing them as unnecessary at best, if not factually false. Evolution, for instance, destroys most religions, and you don’t even have to pay attention to a particular religion when teaching the fact of evolution to do this. Teach evolution, and most religions die. I actually think such a university class should be a mandatory requirement in all universities, even if a student is majoring in disciplines such as philosophy, business, food management, English, and so forth.

Second, we can replace PoR with more secular classes taught the way Avalos has argued for and modeled in his own classes. Boghossian has called upon more atheists to be Street Epistemologists. We need Academic Epistemologists too. Students should be forced to examine the origin and early history of particular religions against the backdrop of the times in which they arose. Examining the basis for a given faith is a much better way to examine the claims of particular religions. There is only one type of philosophy of religion that has any merit: secular philosophy of religion. If done correctly, as Avalos has urged with regard to biblical studies, then secular philosophers will end the philosophy of religion just like secular biblical scholars will end biblical studies as we know them.

To teach PoR correctly, a professor must argue that faith has no epistemic warrant; as such, all religionist PoR is pseudophilosophy. No religionist will teach any PoR class this way, so none of them should teach these classes, especially in a secular university where faith is never entertained as a solution to a question in other disciplines. Religionists in PoR departments should not be invited to teach in the first place, and they should not be granted tenure. Existing PoR professors should be drummed out of the secular university, since what they are actually doing is teaching theology in a secular university. If a department is dominated by pseudophilosophers, administrators should be pressured to eliminate that department, just as no creationists should be teaching classes on evolution.

Third, we can replace the PoR subdiscipline with global, multicultural, anthropological, and comparative-religion approaches to religion, privileging none. We would do this by treating all religions the same because they’re all based on faith to some degree, which is an utterly unreliable method for knowing anything objective about the nature of nature. Cultural anthropology professor Dr. David Eller wrote the book Atheism Advanced: Further Thoughts of a Freethinker, which should be in every atheist’s library. In it he argues against religion itself rather than any parochial version of it. Why is it that most debates in Western cultures are debates on such topics as Christianity vs. atheism? Eller wants us to think in larger terms than that. For him, the real debate should be set in terms of Christianity vs. itself, since there are so many branches of it, or Christianity vs. all other religions, since that’s the proper way to think about religion. Eller writes: “Nothing is more destructive to religion than other religions; it is like meeting one’s own anti-matter twin.“

Fourth, use the Outsider Test for Faith to force believers to seriously consider which religion is true, if there is one. I explain this method in my book The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True.


Answering Four Objections

Several objections have been raised against my proposal, mostly by believers (as you might expect). But some come from nonbelievers as well. Let’s deal with just four of them here.

First, by trying to eliminate religion from modern society in these university classes, aren’t we being sectarian, presuming to know the truth, and showing disinterest in “genuine inquiry“ in the classroom? Secular professor Paul Draper has raised this objection.5 From my perspective, and that of most other secular philosophy professors, there is simply no basis for faith. The arguments for faith fail abysmally; no one can reasonably dispute that they are rooted in cognitive biases and logical fallacies. Science doesn’t show that religion is wrong, but it has disconfirmed it so many times that the religious hypothesis is unnecessary at best. It is time to end faith itself in the secular classroom and elevate objective evidence. The primary reason for this is that faith has no basis; secondarily, there is no reason to invite faith into a state-run secular university. I propose instead that professors teach the truth to students. Genuine inquiry begins the day one quits punting to faith to solve a problem about the nature of nature, its workings, and its origins.

Second, is this censorship? No. It’s about the nature of faith-based arguments coming from pseudophilosophers. Faith has no method and never solved any problem. It’s an utterly unreliable guide to get at the truth. In fact, faith hinders the truth by hindering genuine inquiry into the nature of nature. It should no more be allowed in the university classroom than is creationism.

Third, does this violate the Constitution? No. These are state-run universities. If anything, religionists are already violating the First Amendment since they’re improperly teaching and/or arguing for religion in our secular universities.

Fourth, doesn’t the rejection of PoR involve doing PoR? Reasoning is not to be equated with philosophy or PoR, otherwise all course titles should be philosophy classes. Just consider how someone could argue to end PoR if it cannot be done without doing it? The only alternative is to stop saying anything at all about PoR, which is an unreasonable demand if one wants to end PoR. We could even bite the bullet and agree that we’re doing PoR, if only for the purpose of ending it. We’d be doing so pragmatically, in hopes that our arguments might succeed in ending PoR. This wouldn’t strictly be doing PoR but rather doing metaphilosophy of religion. The metadistinction is legitimate in other disciplines such as ethics, so it’s legitimate here as well.

As another way to look at this, if we need to do so, is to note the distinction between theologians and atheologians, which I think was first introduced by Alvin Plantinga. Theologians do what theologians do by obfuscating theology to make it palatable to an evolving community of modernized believers. Atheologians are atheists who are critical of obfuscationist theology (the only kind of theology there is). Can it really be said that atheologians are doing or participating or practicing or explicating theology when they argue as atheologians? I think not. They are arguing against theology, not doing theology. We might similarly say that believing philosophers who advocate religion are to be considered philosophers of religion, whereas atheist philosophers who argue against religion are to be called “aphilosophers“ of religion. Aphilosophers of religion seek to disabuse philosophers of religion of PoR. They are not to be considered doing PoR. They are arguing against PoR. Period.

 


Notes

  1. For a more complete explanation, see my book Unapologetic: Why Philosophy of Religion Must End (Pitchstone Publishing, 2016).
  2. Results of this study can be seen at http://philpapers.org/surveys/.
  3. Results available at: http://crucialconsiderations.org/rationality/theism -and-expert-knowledge/.
  4. http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2010/09/dr-keith-parsons-calls-it-quits.html.
  5. Paul Draper, “What Is Philosophy of Religion?“ Philosophy of Religion, http://philosophyofreligion.org/?p=14582.

John W. Loftus

John W. Loftus is a former Christian minister and apologist who studied under William Lane Craig. He is the author of Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity (2008) and the editor of The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails (2010) and The End of Christianity (2011), all from Prometheus Books.


What I’m about to write is against everything I was taught in college and seminary, where I earned three master’s degrees and then pursued PhD studies for a year and a half in fields related to the philosophy of religion (PoR).

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