Philosophy of Religion Series: Introduction

By R.N. Carmona

You don’t get to advertise all the good that your religion does without first scrupulously subtracting all the harm it does and considering seriously the question of whether some other religion, or no religion at all, does better.

Dennett, Daniel. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York: Viking, 2006. 56. Print

Philosophy of religion needs an overhaul. Put another way, the discipline does not need a soft reboot. It is in dire need of a more diverse, inclusive hard reboot; let us blow up the entire universe and start over. The Christian setting and background that has informed the discipline hitherto, along with its White, predominantly male heroes, all but guarantee that the field is destined to go stale. I can go into specifics, showing how Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism is a paraphrase of C.S. Lewis’ Argument Against Naturalism, despite the former being more robust given that it uses the language of modern analytic philosophy. I can point out that Joshua Rasmussen’s Argument From Arbitrary Limits is nothing more than a rehash of the dead horse that is the Argument From Contingency, which has many iterations, none more cogent or persuasive than the other. There is also the issue that the argument makes use of Plantinga’s idea of a maximal being, which makes the argument more vulnerable than its predecessors. I will revisit Rasmussen’s argument in a separate post that is not tied to this current series.

The questions in the reader’s mind are, what’s the point? What would motivate anyone to seek a revamping of the philosophy of religion? The answer is bipartite and the first part of my answer is crucial to understanding the second half of it, which inheres why I am calling for a reformation of the entire field. In recent discussions about philosophy of religion and apologetics, even Christians were hard pressed to demarcate one from the other, with some biting the bullet and settling on the fact that they are virtually the same project. That is my initial problem. I will now reproduce a section from my recent book The Definitive Case Against Christianity: Life After The Death Of God, in hopes that this becomes a lot clearer.

Philosophy, long considered the handmaiden of theology, continues to confront the following problems: 

  1. The philosophy of religion is Christian-centric, as is made painfully obvious by the myriad discussions about the elements of Christianity: the attributes of God; arguments for God, e.g., the Kalam Cosmological Argument, the Moral Argument, the Ontological Argument, etc.; the Problem of Evil.
  2. Related to the first issue, there is no proper demarcation between philosophy, generally speaking, and apologetics. Moreover, there is no proper demarcation between philosophy of religion and apologetics.
  3. The works of atheists mostly play according to the apologist’s rules in that Mackie, Martin, Nielsen, Ayer, and so many others have written refutations of popular apologetic arguments. Many atheist philosophers have largely overlooked the first two issues. I will therefore endeavor to right the ship.

In order to solve the first problem, the second problem needs to be solved first. Draper already identifies a glaring issue, what he dubs the paradox of apologetics. What Draper strongly implies is that the enterprise of apologetics is inherently circular. Draper also describes the philosophy of religion as “too partisan…,too narrow in its focus, and too often evaluated using criteria that are theological or religious instead of philosophical,” while adding that “the only viable forms of theism are Muslim, Christian, or Jewish” (Draper, Paul, and Ryan Nichols. “Diagnosing Bias in Philosophy of Religion.” The Monist, vol. 96, no. 3, 2013, pp. 420–446. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42751260. Accessed 24 Nov. 2020.). Furthermore, he notes that philosophers of religion are dismissive of pantheism, deism, and ietsism. Wildman notes that young philosophers of religion hoping to land a job wonder if they should “stop talking about philosophy of religion in order to avoid being misunderstood as covert theological apologists on behalf of a particular religious tradition” (Wildman, Wesley J. Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future For The Philosophy of Religion. State University of New York Press. Albany, NY. 2010. xiii. Print.) For the Christian apologist, Christianity must be true, God must exist, and Jesus must have died and resurrected three days later. These biases are impossible for an apologist to disavow because doing so would result in losing his status and identity as a Christian. Keith Reich also identifies the circular reasoning of religious apologists:

Because of all of this language of logic, research, fact seeking, etc., it can seem as if apologetics and scholarship are the same thing. Yet, they are fundamentally different and the method of apologetics is fundamentally flawed in my mind. The problem with the apologetic method is its starting point.  Apologetics starts with the conclusion.  The conclusion is firmly fixed before any research begins. Therefore, for the apologist, the conclusion is the starting point which must then be “defended” through research.

Reich, Keith. “Scholarship vs. Apologetics”. Know Thyself Blogs. 4 Nov 2015. Web.

Draper adds that religious people, as well as Christian philosophers of religion, have an attachment to God the Father and a deeply rooted conviction that he exists and loves them. Being confronted by arguments concluding that their father figure does not exist prompts negative emotions and inhibits their capacity to weigh the counter-evidence in an impartial manner. This also results in unchecked confirmation bias, which readily explains the issue of circular reasoning among Christian philosophers. 

Philosophers, on the other hand, do not proceed from immutable biases of this sort. While it is true that philosophy, like science, is concerned with truth and even with investigating the nature of so-called ultimate reality, philosophy does so using entirely different methodology and fulfills tasks that support science by clarifying the definition of theory or identifying what qualifies as speciation in the animal kingdom, to state a couple of examples. Philosophy is also tasked with securing basic assumptions scientists no longer pay mind to like whether or not the scientist himself exists and whether truth can be apprehended. Philosophy also has a number of aims that once identified make it easier to distinguish between it and apologetics. The overarching purpose is acquisition of truth, but what distinguishes philosophy from anthropology, history, and science is that is has an inherent self-awareness in that it has also attempted to accurately describe what truth is. Likewise, philosophers try to get to the bottom of what constitutes knowledge. Philosophy also investigates a number of propositions, in addition to clarifying distinctions between propositions and the mental activity involved in grasping them (Sokolowski, Robert. “The Method of Philosophy: Making Distinctions.” The Review of Metaphysics, vol. 51, no. 3, 1998, pp. 515–532. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20130246. Accessed 23 Nov. 2020.). Aside from informing science, philosophy informs other disciplines; for instance, an anthropologist examining the differences between a religion and a cult will offer a series of propositions delineating one from the other, i.e., the anthropologist will philosophize to arrive at the differences between a religion and a cult. 

Philosophy also aims to discover the underlying foundations that are irreducible, necessary, and sufficient. It accomplishes this via a formal calculus or logic (“On Method.” Thoughts and Ways of Thinking: Source Theory and Its Applications, by Benjamin Brown, Ubiquity Press, London, 2017, pp. 1–4. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv3s8tn7.4. Accessed 23 Nov. 2020.). Logic, therefore, is one of the hallmark methods in philosophy. Wildman also observes that analysis is entitled in the process of inquiry and it guides “the elaboration, testing, and refinement of hypothetic explanatory models toward optimal clarity and consistency” (Ibid., 7). Similarly, Penelope Maddy observes “that a large part, if not all, of the philosopher’s job is the careful analysis of the content of concepts like ‘cause’, ‘freedom’, and…’knowledge’. Conceptual analysis led to the advent of analytic philosophy (Maddy, Penelope. What Do Philosophers Do? Skepticism and the Practice of Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 60, 62-63. Print.). As Reich observed, apologists also use the language of logic, but if they are doing so in a circular manner, then they are misusing the method. Draper’s solution to differentiate between philosophy of religion and apologetics is to require philosophers of religion to use argument construction to test their positions as opposed to using logical arguments to make a case for their positions. Given the issue of confirmation bias, he sees no other alternative (Ibid.).

To see the apologist’s misuse of logic, one need only consider their favorite mode of reasoning, namely deduction. Since apologists proceed from predilections that they confuse for axioms, a lot of them ignore that validity and soundness are not the same thing. That is because propositions do not emerge in a vacuum; nor do they stand alone. In fact, the apologist’s baseless foundationalism would fall victim to an infinite regress of epistemic justification. Take for instance, the observation that all men are mortal. We can now propose that since all men are mortal and Socrates is a man, then he is mortal. If propositions stood alone, it would be impossible to refute the negation of this deductive argument. In other words, one would be able to argue that all men are not mortal and since Socrates is a man, it follows that he is not mortal. Both arguments are valid, but only one of them is sound. The manner in which one decides between the two arguments is through the realization that propositions, generally speaking, have a correspondence to reality.

Tangentially, it can be granted that a weak pluralism should be allowed if only because foundationalist axioms can apply to logical and mathematical theorems. There are pure or abstract logical and mathematical theorems that have no correspondence to reality and as such, correspondence theory of truth has limits. For example, when doing mathematical proofs, there are multiples sets N (the set of natural numbers), Z ( the set of integers), Q (the set of rational numbers), and R (the set of real numbers); there are also D (the set of decimals) and C (the set of complex numbers), which are less common in proofs. One may come across a statement that reads “n ∈ Z,” which states that n is an element within the set of integers. More specifically, one might be asked to prove the statement “∀n ∈ Z . n(n + 1) is even.” This can be done by assuming that some natural number n is either odd or even. Upon making n = 2m, one will find that 2(m(n+1) and 2(nm) are both even, which proves the statement. This mathematical proof does not rely on tangible reality in the way someone may point to a polar bear on television to prove that the proposition “polar bears are white” is true. There are also properties in mathematics that are true by definition, i.e., a priori, e.g., zero product property, associative property. In logic, the laws of logic are also generally considered to be axiomatic.

While foundationalism may have a place at the table of epistemic justification, the Christian apologist’s misuse of it is not tantamount to how it is employed in mathematics and logic. Consider, for example, the first premise of Craig’s Moral Argument: “If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.” There is simply something suspicious about this statement when compared to “If it is not raining, I will not take my umbrella.” A satisfactory deductive premise entails generally accepted facts. These facts are not controversial in any way. Any reasonable person would agree that if it is raining, they will take an umbrella or find other means to protect themselves from the elements. However, denying Craig’s first premise is not unreasonable and it is a premise that, in fact, has been and continues to be denied. Craig and other apologists may assert that the premises in their deductive arguments are true, but that does not make them true. The arguments for God continue to be batted around precisely because they start out with controversial premises that stem from an equally contentious foundational assumption.

The fact of the matter is that foundationalism has been largely abandoned. Foundationalists’ obsession with certainty, an infatuation that descends from Descartes, ultimately is not apt for mathematics, despite its limited application to the field. It is also unsuitable for science. Peirce, Dewey, Quine, and other pragmatists introduced a non-foundationalist paradigm know as fallibilism. This is implicit in Popper’s notion of falsification. This new approach assists philosophers in navigating philosophical inquiry for purposes of correcting hypotheses as opposed to instilling in them the confidence that the available resources are already enough prior to engaging in inquiry.

Draper’s solution, although noble, is unlikely to be implemented. Similarly, asking Christian philosophers of religion and apologists to adhere to Maddy and Wildman’s philosophical methods is futile. Nielsen’s solution, despite being more radical, is the only one that makes sense for anyone concerned with Draper’s reservations about the philosophy of religion. Nielsen suggests the following:

It is a waste of time to rehearse arguments about the proofs or evidences for God or immortality. There are no grounds — or at least no such grounds — for belief in God or belief that God exists and/or that we are immortal. Hume and Kant (perhaps with a little rational reconstruction from philosophers like J.L. Mackie and Wallace Matson) pretty much settled that. Such matters have been thoroughly thrashed out and there is no point of raking over the dead coals. Philosophers who return to them are being thoroughly retrograde.

Nielsen, Kai. Naturalism and Religion. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2001. 399-400. Print.

So Nielsen’s radical solution is to end all discussions about arguments for God or other theological arguments concerning immortality. These matters continue to be discussed because most philosophers of religion and virtually all Christian apologists prioritize their propositions and underlying beliefs over the facts and evidence. Refusing to discuss these arguments further ends the stalemate between Christian theists and atheists that concerns Draper — a concern echoed in the third issue above — and will allow for philosophers of religion to consider the concepts of non-Christian, non-monotheistic religions.

Now, to state my solution less provocatively and controversially, I think that intellectual reparations are in order. Christians need to let other philosophers who practice other faiths have a long turn at the mic. Christianity, for instance, has a meandering history with the problem of evil and virtually anyone can take note of the considerable difficulty Christians have had. All of their theodicies are problematic and there is no reconciliation to be had between a perfectly benevolent deity and the evil and suffering in the world, or with the notion that this is somehow the best possible world God could have created. As Dennett suggests, perhaps another religion can square this problem away. Perhaps Buddhism or Zoroastrianism have better theodicies to offer or some way of explaining evil and suffering that coheres with modern science and offers ways to solve this problem. This series will explore some of these issues. I have no pretenses of exhausting all possibilities with respect to what philosophy of religion can become.

The other, more pressing, issue is that I am not sure whether modern philosophers of religion are competent enough or equipped to start fielding non-Christian perspectives. The problem is akin to having me review some student’s econometrics homework. I have no idea what any of that is about and I am therefore, unfit to review his work. Likewise, if people write about esoteric topics in Near or Far East religions, how can I expect a predominantly Christian group of peers to review their journal submissions? This is perhaps one reason the so-called International Journal For Philosophy of Religion is rife with Christian articles right through this month’s issue. Here is a list of the articles in February’s issue:

  • Kant’s religious ethics: the ineluctable link between morality and theism
  • The ineffability of God
  • God’s place in the world
  • Whiteness and religious experience
  • Progressive atheism: how moral evolution changes the god debate
  • Truth is subjectivity: kierkegaard and political theology.

What are these reviewers to do with a viable submission concerning indigenous African or South American religions? I can go through this same exercise in one philosophy journal after the next; Christian Theism has an iron grip on the entire enterprise, a virtual monopoly. While there has been moderate effort to rectify this, the solution has been to segregate non-Christian perspectives. Someone might be content with the fact that Journal of Indian Philosophy and Religion and Journal of Buddhist Ethics exist, but this is still exclusionary and not integrated enough. Never mind that college-level curricula also prioritize the Christian perspective.

Ultimately, to divorce philosophy of religion from Christianity and from Christian apologetics, a thorough demarcation is necessary. Apologetics is to philosophy what creationism is to science. Apologetics is not philosophy, plain and simple. It is an inversion of the philosophical process, a bastardization of its methods, and ultimately, devoid of sound argumentation and caters to cognitive biases like confirmation bias and fallacious reasoning like circular reasoning, special pleading, ad hoc rationalization, and non sequitur. It is pseudo-philosophy and must be recognized as such and eliminated as an academic field of inquiry. Any Christian who is concerned with this suggestion perhaps recognizes that much of Christian philosophy of religion is indistinguishable from apologetics. Proselytism simply has no place in an academic setting where religious freedom and more importantly, human autonomy is valued. I would not go as far as saying that all of Christian philosophy of religion falls to the wayside if apologetics is ousted in the same way Intelligent Design was. Perhaps there is a baby in the bath water, but it is not my duty to decide that.

Philosophy of religion needs to move forward and the best way forward is in discussing non-Christian perspectives and topics, and giving them ample time to gain traction in the field. I do not see these perspectives coexisting alongside yet another lengthy dialogue about the Kalam Cosmological Argument or yet another reiteration of a long-defeated argument like the Argument From Contingency. Nor can we allow the field to be dictated by Christians because they have controlled the narrative in the philosophy of religion since its inception. Foundationalism became evidentialism, and now both have given way to existentialist fideism on one side and an attempt to undermine scientific explanation with metaphysical explanation, specifically via neo-Aristotelianism, on the other. In truth, exercises of this sort are either not philosophical or if those involved can prove otherwise, these projects ought to be relegated to other specialized journals in philosophy, for sake of satisfying anyone interested in the niche topics discussed in those areas. So long as Christian perspectives monopolize the field, there is no real incentive for philosophers of religion to broaden their horizons and acquire competence with respect to these perspectives. It seems philosophers of religion are in a haste to perpetually rake the dead coals of the theism-atheism debate. There are other perspectives to consider and what better time than now in the 21st century, a period that will be defined by equality, inclusion, and diversity. Philosophy is no longer the handmaiden of theology, and that includes the philosophy of religion. This series will pave a way and show us how we can move on and move forward. The next entry in this series will focus on Buddhism and The Problem of Evil.

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