Philosophers have reproved me because, as a mere biologist, I have no right to criticize the teaching of philosophy of religion in colleges, nor to call for its end. But I reject the idea that biologists have no standing to give such an opinion, just as I reject the notion that philosophers can’t pass judgement on whether some areas of science are unproductive. All that matters is that opinions must be informed and supported with arguments. And I think I know enough about the philosophy of religion, and about how it’s taught in some colleges, to pass at least a reasonably informed judgment on the value of the discipline—which is almost nil. It’s almost nil because while it can inform us about the influence of scripture and how it was invented (a useful endeavor), it also promulgates religion and prepares students for the ministry.
I think that teaching different philosophies of religion in secular schools is fine—so long as it’s in courses on comparative religion. And some Biblical scholarship is also useful for it’s a form of historical reconstruction of a document that is taken seriously. So, too, are courses in the Bible as literature, in the same way that we should have courses in Shakespeare as literature, or in any influential form of literature (or forms that deserve to be more influential).
But too often courses in the philosophy of religion turn into courses on religious apologetics: teaching Biblical exegesis as if the Bible were true. So, secular schools like Duke and Harvard (and my own school) have “divinity schools.” Those schools teach, in part, theology. I don’t see that as a valid subject for a secular school, since it’s the study of a nonexistent entity and what he/she/it wants us to do. Comparative theology is fine, but do we need whole schools of this stuff at secular universities?
Here are a few courses from the prestigious Harvard Divinity School (to be sure, this school has a lot more diversity, in terms of courses on different faiths, than other divinity schools):
Intimacy with God: Jewish Conceptions of Communion, Mystical Union and the Holy Spirit
Introduction to Islamic Mysticism: The Sufi Tradition
Greek Exegesis of John
Religion, Gender, and Culture Colloquium: Feminist Theory and Theology
Clinical Chaplaincy: Interfaith Caregiving Skills and Practice
United Methodist Polity
Meaning Making – Thinking Theologically about Ministry Experience: Seminar
Catholicism Faces Modernity: Classics of Twentieth Century Roman Catholicism
Advanced Spiritual Counseling: Taking Care of Others, Taking Care of Self: Seminar
Pentecostal Polity Note the description: The history, principles and practice of Pentecostal believers. To understand the nature and functioning of Pentecostal denominations. To prepare Pentecostal students for ordination. The course will include liturgy, worship, and theology of the Pentecostal faith. The focus primarily will be on the major Pentecostal denominations and the charismatic flavor of other major denominations.
United Church of Christ Polity: The history, polity, and practice of the United Church of Christ. Issues addressed throughout include ecclesiology, mission, professional ethics, the ordination process, justice, as well as contemporary principles and patterns of the UCC. Students seeking ordination are urged to take this course during their middler year, but all are welcome
Communication Skills for Spanish Ministry
Unitarian Universalist Religious Education: Seminar. This course is designed to equip future ministers with the knowledge, skills, resourcefulness, and self-awareness needed to form the faith of Unitarian Universalists in the 21st century.
Introduction to Christian Preaching: This course introduces students to the theology and the practice of preaching within the Christian tradition. Special attention will be paid to developing a theological understanding of both the preacher and the preached word, and students will be expected to prepare and deliver several sermons during the course of the term.
This is only a small sample. A sudden pain in my lower mesentery prevented me from going further down the list. It’s long.
But you get the point: many of these courses are designed to prepare students to learn and preach the Word of God, while others involve minute exegesis of fiction in a way that wouldn’t be tolerated for any other influential work of fiction. There are dozens and dozens of these courses. I think many are superfluous, for they’re helping students spread delusions.
But if you reject my standing to say this, listen instead to John Loftus, who used to be an evangelical Christian preacher, but gave up the faith. Loftus is now not only writing about his “deconversion,” but also offering thoughtful critiques of Christianity. I particularly like his book Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity (only about $13 on Amazon), which is far more than just a deconversion tale: it’s also an incisive critique of Christian apologetics. His anthology edited with Dan Barker, The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, is also very good, and contains a chapter on Loftus’s well-known “Outsider Test for Faith” (OTF), a rational program for examining why one should prefer one’s own religion over others (hint: you should reject them all). You can find a bunch of John’s online writings about the OTF here.
But I digress. Loftus has a new piece at his site, Debunking Christianity, with the no-nonsense title, “I’m calling for an end to the philosophy of religion as a discipline in secular universities.” (Note also that the next day he had a back-and-forth about this with Biblical scholar Jaco Gericke).
Loftus’s essay is a response to a book by philosopher Graham Oppy defending philosophy of religion, Reinventing Philosophy of Religion: An Opinionated Introduction, as well as a YouTube video interiew Oppy did about the topic/ I haven’t read the book, but I have watched the (or rather listened) to the video, where Oppy criticizes Peter Boghossian and my own views against teaching this discipline. Loftus’s criticisms of Oppy are on the mark:
Oppy tells us: “Philosophy of religion as a discipline, I would think, probably doesn’t date much earlier than the second World War.” This historical lesson is significant, I think, for we did without it for centuries and we can do without it again. Later Oppy offers his criticism, saying, “Most of the people who have done philosophy of religion have been theists.” So it stands to reason “it has had an extremely narrow focus…It hasn’t really been the philosophy of religion but rather Christianity with a very great emphasis on theism,” and even apologetics/Christian theology. Okay then, as it stands today the philosophy of religion is dominated by Christian theists who discuss concepts and arguments germane to Christianity, and even defending it. Given what he said, the philosophy of religion needs reinvented if it is to survive. The unaddressed question is why we should have a discipline in any secular university where theism, or Christian theism, Christian theology or Christian apologetics is privileged and considered to the exclusion of all 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 discipline. NOW!
Oppy calls for the broadening of the discipline to other religions. My response is similar to that of Loftus: there are thousands of religions, past and present, all with different “philosophies” (i.e., philosophies). Which ones should we study? And given that all the tenets of these religions are dubious, and their evidence for gods nonexistent, do we need entire departments to handle this stuff? Loftus responds:
To reinvent the philosophy of religion Oppy argues, “it must address questions that apply to the phenomena of religion in general.” That’s it. He argues the philosophy of religion should also discuss Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist views and religious concepts. By extension I would think, it should also discuss the views of other religions, all of them (although there is quite the discussion about what even makes a religion a religion). Oppy’s proposal would therefore include all of the dead religions too. Why not? Why assume that a dead religion, or a dead god, is no longer worthy to be discussed? Why not discuss Zoroastrianism, or Canaanite religions? Does the death of a religion mean it must not be a true one? I see no reason to think so. And who decides which religion is worthy of discussing?
. . . In any case, if the philosophy of religion was reinvented as Oppy suggests, then what we would end up with is a Religious Studies discipline and classes focusing on comparative religion, or the varieties of religious experience, where religious are compared/contrasted/considered and the secular counter-part is offered as a critique of them all. But we already have these kinds of classes.
Indeed we do. What we don’t need are entire Divinity Schools or Schools of Theology in secular universities. This privileges an entire discipline based on a human endeavor that itself rests on dubious and unsubstantiated claims. Further, they concentrate largely (but not exclusively) on active Abrahamic religions. There are few, if any, courses on atheism in divinity schools, but they should be at least as prominent as courses in religious apologetics. That is distasteful in a country that officially favors no religion in particular. If we are to have such schools, let us then have Ethical Schools, or Schools of Moral Thinking, or The School of Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy. But all of these can simply be subsumed in departments of philosophy or history.
Indeed, why not have a School of Pseudoscience, which teaches courses on creationism and its arguments, ESP and its arguments, homeopathy and its arguments, and so on? Or how about a school that one can justify far better: The School of the History and Philosophy of Science? There are programs in this area, but usually those courses—courses that deal with reality instead of fiction—are subsumed in philosophy departments. And that’s fine.
I recognize that there’s room for a difference of opinion here: religion, of course, was and is an important feature of human history and thought. My own take, though is that as religion wanes, it’s time to stop privileging it by devoting entire departments of secular universities to studying religion not only as a phenomenon, but by presenting religious apologetics and giving religious training to students. Remember, many students get degrees from these schools as a step toward becoming Christian or Jewish clerics. In that way the schools are preparing students to spread or buttress lies. And in that way divinity schools differ from medical schools or schools of sociology or economics. If we are to teach apologetics to students, let us leave that to the seminaries and religious colleges.
Finally, Loftus gives some excerpts from Hector Avalos’s book, The End of Biblical Studies, Avalos is a Professor of Religious studies in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Iowa State University. He is also a former Pentecostal preacher (I’m not sure if he’s still a believer) and a well-known opponent of creationism. In his book, Avalos calls for Biblical studies to become a vehicle for ending the hegemony of the Bible. One quote from Avalos: “The sole purpose of biblical studies, under this option, would be to help people move toward a postscriptural society.” That’s the option that Avalos prefers.
If you want to see how divinity schools in secular universities buttress Abrahamic religion, read an article from the university newspaper of a secular school, The Chronicle from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina: “Duke Divinity School says it can answer what science cannot.” Read about how the Divinity school claims to enhance secular education. Some excerpts:
At a university constantly praised for its scientific advancements, the Duke Divinity School enhances secular education with an alternate but compatible perspective.
“Honestly, there aren’t a whole lot of other places in the academic world that teach us to ask, ‘Is this good?’” said Brandon Walsh, a master of divinity candidate.
Yes there are; they’re called philosophy departments.
Students in the Divinity graduate programs come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but all of them come to seek further study in the field of faith. Each come having accepted the fundamentals of their Christian faith—just as a mathematics graduate student accepts the concept of numbers, or a medical student accepts chemistry, [Dean Richard Hays] said.
Some people might consider these assumptions illogical because they are accepted on blind faith, leading them to believe that a divinity school does not belong in a modern university, said Brian Myers, a master of divinity candidate studying to become a pastor in the United Methodist Church. He noted, however, that there are flaws with this argument.
“There is no field at Duke that doesn’t take on presuppositions,” Myers said. “I don’t think the argument should be about the crazy claims that the Christian Church makes because we all have crazy presuppositions.”
Note this, which implicitly equates theology with science because both are based on presuppositions. But science is based on hypotheses that are confirmed, while theology is indeed based on blind faith and wish-thinking that is not even confirmable:
. . . Some people might consider these assumptions illogical because they are accepted on blind faith, leading them to believe that a divinity school does not belong in a modern university, said Brian Myers, a master of divinity candidate studying to become a pastor in the United Methodist Church. He noted, however, that there are flaws with this argument.“There is no field at Duke that doesn’t take on presuppositions,” Myers said. “I don’t think the argument should be about the crazy claims that the Christian Church makes because we all have crazy presuppositions.”
. . . When Myers entered Virginia Tech as a freshman, he was an atheist who saw himself becoming a doctor or lawyer. When he graduated cum laude, Myers chose to go to divinity school because of the transformation that he saw in people’s lives when they accepted God.Myers added that contrary to secular assumptions about Christians, he believes in scientific theories like the big bang and evolution, and they do not cloud his faith in the teachings of Jesus.
“I agree with every scientific theory out there,” Myers said. “Nothing can prove or disprove God. That is a faith decision, not a logical decision.”
. . . “Science seeks to describe empirical phenomena in a material world,” Hays said. “It describes how things work. Science cannot answer questions about why it exists or for what purposes or how it came to be. Those are the questions that theology tries to address.”
Tries to address, and does address, but never answers!
. . . The liberal arts education spans many approaches to understanding the world, and the field of religion offers an integral part of a complete humanities education at a university that also pursues science, math and technology, Hays said.
These different areas of knowledge can work together effectively. Currently, there are faculty collaborations between Divinity and Duke School of Medicine scholars as well as a dual degree program between the School of Law and the Divinity School.
The study of what it means to be human is at the heart of humanities studies, and that is where religion plays a role, said Carnes, who wants to become a theology professor.
“Humanities in general have something to do with what it means to be a human in a way that math and science can’t fully address,” she said.
. . . Hays said when students critically examine the teachings of the Bible in context to modern social movements, it allows for ethical and moral development.
Really? A kind of ethical and moral development that a secular ethics class can’t teach? Do they read the Old Testament? If so, who tells them what “morality” should be rejected?
“The questions that we ask ourselves are not simple, but we believe above all else that all humans are loved equally by God, no matter previous sexual experience,” Hays said. “What that means is that this is a community where we hope to have respectful, serious conversations about what sorts of sexual practices and concerns God would want us to have.”
Oy vey! Really? The Divinity School helps the students figure out the ways that God wants the students to have sex? How do they decide? Do the Catholic students and Jewish students and Muslim students (if there are any) achieve comity on this vexing question? Does God want the students to use condoms? Does He think that homosexuality is a “grave disorder,” as Catholics believe? What are God’s views on extramarital sex? I’d love to sit in on one of those “serious conversations”!
This shows clearly that the Duke Divinity School is an arm of the university that helps proselytize Abrahamic religion by teaching Biblical apologetics. What we need is what Avalos wants: a “postscriptural society.” I like that phrase.
174 thoughts on “Let’s stop teaching philosophy of religion in secular colleges”
“There is no field at Duke that doesn’t take on presuppositions.”
But if presuppositions in other fields turn out to be wrong, they will be discarded. Does the same thing happen in divinity schools?
My understanding is that these presuppositions he refers to are axioms, which must be accepted and cannot be proved. An axiom cannot be shown to be right or wrong in any real sense (as far as I understand the idea). The difference though, is that the axioms upon which the various sciences and mathematics are based are accepted by all rational people around the world regardless of gender, religion, or any other category we could stick people into. Further, these axioms actually lead to useful information and real-world applications. So, it seems to me, that any axiom worth its salt should be self-evident to all rational people.
Religions are also founded on axioms. For example, a religious person might take it as an axiom that the Bible is true and written by God. The problem with basing a world-view on such an axiom is that it won’t be accepted by more than half the world’s population and it doesn’t lead to any useful knowledge.
What count as axioms is a *contextual* matter. To stick to formal science for the moment …
In Dedekind-Peano arithmetic, there are axioms governing the + function. In set theory, these are (slightly non-trivial) theorems.
In order for the religious to claim that ‘the existence of God’ or ‘the truth of the Bible’ are axioms just like the axioms in science and math, they have to assume that God’s existence and/or the Bible’s truth are indeed self-evident to all rational people. This places atheism into the category of “the perverse.”
And they wonder why atheists get so bent out of shape over this.
Actually, in science axioms are justified by their consequences too. You can think of them as “systematizing principles” more than anything in my view. For example, are Newton’s laws obvious? No, because of friction etc. which we are used to.
But axiomatic theology fails crucial tests, like looking for the referent.
Mixed emotions about this one. I’m a Phd student in a philosophy of religion degree program (western religious thought) who is also an atheist. I’m the only atheist in the program that I know of (though functionally many of the others seem not to be very stringent believers). I remember a professor once telling me (during my master’s program) that education seems to have a liberalizing effect among students of faith. Since then I determined to stick with religious studies in order to further this liberalizing agenda (i.e. help produce well-informed, thoughtful students who weren’t inclined to kill you if you don’t believe what they do). In my opinion removing these kinds of academic programs from the secular university would be a disaster, leading to more privatized religious schools where anything goes, and limiting the scope of the secular university’s influence on students of faith.
As for the divinity schools on campus, those are another matter (the religious studies department I’m a member of is part of the social sciences faculty on main campus). For the most part they have their own teachers and agenda, i.e. producing better Christians, Muslims. These students may share courses with others in the social sciences department, but that’s precisely the opportune moment to expose these students to more rigorous, out of the faith-box thinking. Take that away out of a disdain for any philosophy of religion courses and you merely isolate and strengthen their faith. Don’t overlook the power religious education has to challenge faith. Even if there’s not an outright denial of one’s faith in these programs, students begin to wonder if they had one element wrong or taken for granted, maybe there’s a lot more to their faith they should question.
That strikes me as a pretty good point. After all, “sophisticated theologians” (TM) may be fundamentally misguided, but it seems likely that they cause less harm than unsophisticated ones.
For “likely” read “arguable”. Of course, the question then becomes whether such harm reduction is the business of a university. – What’s worth bearing in mind is that early European universities started out as little more than seminaries, with secular sciences only gradually gaining a foothold (first as ancillary fields to religion, e.g. classics). That’s a heavy weight of tradition in favour of divinity schools. Which isn’t to say their continued existence is justified, just that it’s an atavism that’s likely to survive out of affection or inertia.
Look what happened to those early religious based universities. Education can have a very powerful liberalizing effect. I strongly feel that in the long run keeping your “enemy” close is the more prudent (and effective) method of bringing about change (subversively perhaps) within religions themselves. The direct militaristic confrontation only isolates and reinforces religious reactionary apologetics.
The counter-argument is that, once the error has been identified as such, does each generation need to identify it anew? To specify: Does each generation of theologians have to form, through confrontation with secular philosophy as part of their curriculum, its own doubts, or wouldn’t it just be better to do away with theology altogether? If religion were being pursued only as an academic discourse these days, one might say that theology had run its course, but as long as it remains virulent and aggressive, there’s something to be said for maintaining some level of intellectual rigour. On the other hand, maybe it’s that veneer of intellectual respectability that stops many fence-sitters from rejecting religion outright… Speaking of sitting on the fence, that’s where I remain on this issue. As an atheist, I have no desire to see theology funded; as a secularist, I can only agree that (as far as public universities are concerned – and this is a problem outside the US, too), divinity schools make a mockery of the separation between church and state; but in terms of social benefits, I’m just not sure.
Interesting point in theory, but I have my doubts as to its efficacy in practice. Your idea essentially allows the extremists to define the agenda and leaves moderates to react, which often has the effect of pulling moderates to the extreme. Political Progressives in the U.S. have pursued this strategy for several decades and the only result it has produced is a political spectrum that has crept almost inexorably to the right since the late 70’s. To put it in the form of a question, why us it the duty of secular schools to amend their academic agenda in reaction to private religious schools, rather than the responsibility of private religious colleges to temper their own extremism. The extremists shall be extreme regardless of what the rest of the world does so let them have their fundamentalism and let universities get to the work of exposing students’ minds to the facts. Ultimately, I’m in the Tyson, Hawking, Krauss crowd on this issue.
In no way does this allow the extremists to define the agenda, at least not insomuch as what’s being taught in the religious studies classrooms of secular universities. There is no need for a reactionary approach to private schools in such cases (unless perhaps the professor is coming from out of that milieu and has an axe to grind) because the epistemological approaches and sources of the public university’s religious studies department are already actualized.
Trust me, students often do come from fundamentalist backgrounds and end up in religious studies courses in public universities. The explicit attempt is not to “temper” their extreme views (but to merely educate them regarding this or that): this tempering often occurs as a consequence of liberal education, even in divinity schools.
Let the secular world be secular and leave religion to the faithful. You set-up the dynamic of religious studies at secular universities as bulwark against private schools where “anything goes” and in that context I read it as the secular must accommodate the religious or the results will be disastrous. Whether or not this constitutes “setting the agenda” is a matter of semantics. It doesn’t change the fact that, while I see your point, I don’t think it justifies a secular university including these courses of study in their catalogs. It legitimizes religious institutions. It sends the message that numinous religion belongs on the same plane as hard science. If you agree that a society in which religion is afforded no special privileges, where religion is subject to the criticism it deserves and is made accountable for the claims it makes about the universe, then you must realize that teaching religious philosophy at secular universities makes that society less likely, not more.
This brings up a point that I had wondered about, and I think you have helped answer it for me. I had wondered if students getting their divinity degree in a university are then exposed to other ways of thinking, thereby broadening their horizons to other ways of thinking. This seems to be a good thing to me.
Also, I would expect they would take classes on things like biblical history where they learn that the bible was written by people, and that the stories therein were generally based on earlier regional mythologies. That has got to be sobering.
That Satan and hell, for example, were late introductions to Judaism from Persian religion is often quite a shock to our more fundamentalist students yes (you see how this effects all three Western monotheisms).
Even without comparative religion strategies though a simple look at textual inconsistencies or even an unbiased look at the differences between denominations/sects within a single religion (along hermeneutical lines, historical, etc) can cause some students to reflect on the historical processes that have informed their religious beliefs. Private schools don’t offer these opportunities (opportunities available even in divinity schools on liberal college campuses).
My first thought on reading Jerry’s title of “Let’s stop teaching philosophy of religion in secular colleges” was no, let’s get theology out of “philosophy of religion.”
Philosophy is not going to end up being a friend to fuzzy thinking and unquestioned premises. Put the emphasis in Philosophy of Religion on the first part then. Apologetics will be useful as Bad Examples.
Theology is the study of what doesn’t exist. At least religion actually exists — which means you can potentially go somewhere reasonable with this field. If you’re right and Philosophy of Religion courses entail open enrollment and challenging faith, then shining a secular light may help illuminate a better path than the same old minister training.
Ick. A special cringe over the inherent deepity in this one. Somehow I don’t think that teaching people to think clearly and come to workable rational decisions by eschewing bullshit will be included in the way we “take care” of each other.
I agree with you on this last course. Let’s not throw the whole discipline out though (not that we have any choice in the end though honestly). Courses that are pastoral in nature are fundamentally faith-based. These are the bread and butter of divinity schools on liberal campuses (not only do they capture students of faith who may have gone elsewhere, they grant to people of faith a degree from an academically respectable institution- “Why go to X Christian College when I can say I have a degree from University of Chicago? etc). I’m somewhat cynical here: Universities are not going to drop these courses for any of the reasons Jerry or many people here have given. If they drop them it will be because their clients (students) are no longer willing to PAY for them. So in the meantime if you want meaningful change to happen, work from the inside, subversively.
As a philosophy major who was brought up an atheist, I think I missed out in not taking any religion courses. I have never attended church so am woefully unfamiliar with religion as a whole and I have not seen fit to educate myself. I think this has been a mistake on my part as I don’t get the religious allusions (illusions?) in my reading. However, I do agree that any religious courses should not be apologetics.
As I think I said several times in my post, I don’t have any quarrel with individual courses that go over comparative studies of religion. I object to courses on religious apologetics and to entire divinity schools at secular universities that are devoted in part to preparing people to be clerics. One might as well also have Schools of Intelligent Design and Schools of Homeopathy. Oh, and I have no objections to the secular Biblical scholarship in divinity schools–courses that show a linguistic and historical reconstruction of scripture (but why is it nearly always Christian and Jewish scripture?) But really, how many of those courses do you need at a secular university. We don’t need entire “schools” to teach the stuff.
I think I was clear on this, and I hope I don’t have to keep repeating it.
There’s an ambiguity here about the standing of many schools as a lot of secular schools were nonetheless founded by religious laypeople and/or clergy without being directly founded by institutional churches. Duke was founded by a group of lay Methodists and Quakers. One of there top teachers in its early days was an ordained preacher who when the school was foundering turned to churches for financial aid. Yale was founded by a group of Congregationalist ministers, and Princeton was overtly founded to train ministers by Presbyterians. JC, your own U of Chicago was founded as a secular school BY the American Baptist Education Society.
Ben Franklin overtly founded the University of Pennsylvania to be America’s very first wholly secular school free from any church influence whatsoever(!!) and Jefferson followed suit with the University of Virginia the latter of which became a state school.
I would be interested in a couple of the courses you list, not the “how to preach” ones though.
IMO if a “philosophy of religion” class in a philosophy department is trying to prepare students for the ministry, then it’s being taught wrong, and that professor doesn’t understand his/her job or the subject. In these cases, I would not say the solution is eliminating the class, I would say that the solution is to get someone in there who will teach it correctly – just as would be true if some biology professor was using biology class time to prepare students for the ministry.
That leaves the school of divinity classes. I find it odd that you use Harvard and Duke as your two main examples, because they are both private schools. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to have a Divinity school? Caveat emptor and all that, but as long as the potential student makes an informed decisision as to what they’re “buying” when they choose to go there (i.e., understands that some of their tuition is supporting a school of divinity), I don’t see the problem at all.
Eric, I am criticizing the inclusion of divinity schools in secular universities because I think they purvey largely useless information and are a waste of academic resources.Am I not allowed to voice criticisms? I guess you’d favor the inclusion of homeopathy schools as part of medical schools, too, because, after all, it’s up to the students to decide.
Sorry, but theology is the homeopathy of philosophy: the part that doesn’t work unless it’s diluted so much that it turns into philosophy.
Why shouldn’t secular universities be allowed to have Schools of Intelligent design? Because it’s NOT SCIENCE. And much of the theology taught in divinity schools is NOT EVEN TRUE.
Such schools are of course outré at public universities because that would be state funded religion. But I reserve my right to criticize the existence of divinity schools at secular universities. Or do you think I should shut up about it?
I don’t want to engage in a contretemps about this with you.
Oh, absolutely you’re allowed to voice your opinion. I never said anything to the contrary. I am voicing a somewhat different one: that the academic marketplace should be allowed to offer classes that you (and I) think are useless bullflop.
Now, I fully support the rights of people who want to criticize that where they see it happening. I would be (symbolically) on the picket line with you, opposing an ID school, if any of my alma maters tried to start one. Because I think that would be a bad pegagogical decision. But you said: “Why shouldn’t secular universities be allowed to have Schools of Intelligent design? Because it’s NOT SCIENCE” (my emphasis). And I disagree with you there, because I absolutely think they should be allowed to. Not every bad choice has to be made illegal; this is the sort of thing that, for me, would fall into the category of a bad choice that should still be allowed, still be legal. And just to reiterate, you absolutely have the right (and my support) in publishing a school’s bad pegagogical choice, criticizing it as a bad choice, and trying to get them to change their minds.
okay, okay, I give up. What I MEANT was whether secular universities would be WELL ADVISED to have schools of theology. Is that okay now? I mean, who could ban a secular but non-state university from having a divinity school?
Agree, they would not be well advised to have divinity schools. Then again, IMO they would not be well advised to spend millions of dollars on semi-professional sports teams, or overpay their administrators, either. 🙂
Not sure, but we may still disagree on philosophy of religion classes. Just to be clear: I think secular universities would be well advised to cover the philosophy of religion…but do it correctly, in a nonsectarian or non-proselytizing manner.
You mean, in a secular manner? What an odd notion for a secular university! 😉
I agree that Divinity Schools need to go. My own alma mater has one with their very own building. When I was there, I felt it had no real place in the school as the actual religion as a philosophy courses were taught as religion/philosophy so the courses just had two course numbers. People getting a divinity degree took their own core courses that were decidedly unsecular. So in other words, the study of religion as a human phenomenon as well as the contemplation of religion vis a vis atheism and skepticism is already covered off. Religious degrees should be managed by private religious schools.
From my own admittedly narrow perspective as a social scientist, I think the study of religion as a human phenomenon should be relegated to the sociology and psychology departments.
Depends how you look at it. I took a combined philosophy/religion course about atheism, skepticism and religion where we studied Nietzsche and Kierkegaard.
You want the professor teaching philosophy of religion to be highly conversant in how various religions or religious figures thought about and did theology. If that person resides in the history department, they should teach it. If that person resides in the sociology department, they should teach it. In my four years of undergrad, it was my experience that the professors who knew the most about Anselm, Augustine, and the like, were to be found in the Philosophy and Theology departments. It would’ve made absolutely no sense to try and rope a sociology or psychology professor into teaching it – they had neither the expertise nor the desire to do so.
For what it is worth, Duke has “‘historical, formal, on-going, and symbolic ties’ with the United Methodist Church, but is a nonsectarian and independent institution”
Part of me would prefer that people get their religious education, even if it is to prepare them for ministry, from a liberal and otherwise secular school than have them insulate themselves in private religious colleges where claims and opinions can go unchecked. Presumably if a divinity school on a secular, liberal campus said something or published something offensive in a school publication, it would be protested and corrected fairly quickly.
But I agree though, I don’t see how it is a meaningful field of study, other than the examples that Jerry pointed out (e.g., religious history). It’s claims are no more based in evidence or reality than homeopathy or astrology.
The liberal arts college at which I taught for a long while also has ‘historical/traditional’ ties to what is now called the United Methodist Church. The philosophy of religion course (within the phil. dept.) is a vestige of that Protestant Christian tradition. Ironically, however, it is an inversion of what was taught throughout the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries: Christianity WAS philosophy, having rescued Plato from his limited sight of the ideal through the mediation of god on earth.
Why should any university be required to drop courses of study students wish to take?
So may of our colleges and universities were started by churches and evolved into secular institutions.
Of course the definition of terms is problematic. The Google definition of secular is “denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis.”
Do we want to eliminate courses with spiritual bases from our schools?
I have heard that a number of currently secular universities, like Harvard, started out as religious institutions. Is this urban myth, or fact? Were they started by religious institutions, but always as secular (in their charter)?
If places like Harvard were in the past officially religious, was there a point in time where they changed to be officially secular? Was that change resisted?
Just curious about the history.
Re. Harvard, Wikipedia has this to say: ‘The college was never affiliated with any particular denomination, but many of its earliest graduates went on to become clergymen in Congregational and Unitarian churches throughout New England. An early brochure, published in 1643, described the founding of the college as a response to the desire “to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity, dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches’.”
Well, Harvard was founded by Puritans, named for a clergyman, and a reverend was its first president. I think it’s safe to say that most universities of the time in the Christian world were “religious,” whether or not they also had secular degrees.
Here’s Harvard’s charter online: http://library.harvard.edu/university-archives/using-the-collections/online-resources/charter-of-1650
The beginning seems germane: “Whereas, through the good hand of God, many well devoted persons have been, and daily are moved, and stirred up, to give and bestow, sundry gifts, legacies, lands, and revenues for the advancement of all good literature, arts, and sciences in Harvard College, in Cambridge in the County of Middlesex, and to the maintenance of the President and Fellows, and for all accommodations of buildings, and all other necessary provisions, that may conduce to the education of the English and Indian youth of this country, in knowledge and godliness”
PS: To shill my alma mater, Cornell University was known as the Heathens on the Hill because it lacked a religious building for so long, and even now, we just have one non-denominational one. Our first president was pretty anti-religion, too: Andrew Dickson White. He wrote A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom.
Yes, I’ve always admired that about Cornell, and in fact its nonsectarian nature was specified in its founding document approved by the NY State legislature. I’m not sure, though, whether Cornell is a state school. The University of Virginia is, and Jefferson specified at its founding that it would never include a school of theology. Good man. (Now, of course, it would be a violation of the First Amendment, although its foundation postdated the Bill of Rights. But such things weren’t being adjudicated at the time.
Another admirable thing about Cornell is that its founding charter said there would be no religious test for professors, and that they could be nonbelievers. White insisted on this against a lot of opposition: some said that ALL professors should be clergymen!
Cornell is a public/private hybrid, originally founded by the state as New York’s land-grant college. Today, some parts are state supported, while others are not. I haven’t checked the tuition figures lately, but a Biology degree (in the private part) used to cost way more than a Conservation degree (in the public part), so there are some famous biologists that took Conservation degrees (you could take pretty much the same set of courses for both degrees).
Cornell is…weird. Some colleges within it are state schools, for instance, the College of Arts and Sciences. Other colleges within it are not state schools. So if you’re a NY state resident, changing your major can result in a massive tuition hike.
There’s an anecdote about an early professor: “The chapel at Cornell University, known as Sage Chapel, was enlarged and decorated in 1903 and 1904, gifts of William H. Sage. Among the new decorations included several angels, a feature that prompted Burt G. Wilder, Professor of Comparative Anatomy and Natural History, to refuse to enter Sage Chapel unless absolutely necessary. He was ‘outraged by the impossible musculature of angels with both wings and arms.'”
The college of arts and sciences at Cornell is not one of the state supported schools. Agriculture and life science is state supported. Nice story about Wilder!
Really? My mistake. I’m an awful alumnus. 🙁 I guess I just always thought it was… Good to know!
Jerry: The University of Virginia is, and Jefferson specified at its founding that it would never include a school of theology. Good man. (Now, of course, it would be a violation of the First Amendment, although its foundation postdated the Bill of Rights. But such things weren’t being adjudicated at the time.
I don’t think it would violate the 1st to have a school charter say it will never include a theology department, if there is a secular reason for doing so. A&M schools, for example, have an obvious secular mission which would make it perfectly okay for them to exclude departments extraneous to agriculture and mechanics. Whether they would choose to do so is a different question, but I think if they did, it would be constitutionally defensible.
As an aside, the state legistators in Virginia should be ashamed of the way they’ve treated their university system. Its an embarrasment how they underfund these highly respected schools. Already by 2004, UVA was receiving less than 25% of their operating funds from the state, while in 2013 W&M received a bit less than 13% of its operating funds from the state (I exclude Va Tech and the other VA universities only because I don’t have a clue as to their funding status, not to slight them). If there was any justice, the state would not be allowed to take credit for those schools or set lower tuition for in-state students, because the state isn’t paying the bills any more. They may be “state schools” on paper, but the balance sheets say otherwise. The state has been shirking its responsibilities to these schools for a decade or more.
[Jerry – I’m assuming this comment will be moderated since I changed my email contact yet again. Sorry I keep changing my profile. I just set up my own site and am still sorting out emails, etc. so I can keep various things separate. I felt the need to clarify so you wouldn’t think I’m just being annoying. I *think* I’ve got it all worked out now.]
[Others – I was camelspit… Now I’m charles]
It seems there are lots of universities that started out as at least unofficially religious. Christians want to go back in time (I just read: https://answersingenesis.org/christianity/harvard-yale-princeton-oxford-once-christian/) and stick to what the founders thought, but they don’t realize that those very same founders might think very differently today in light of current knowledge. The link I included has the question, “So what happened to cause so many schools to abandon their Christian roots?”
Hmmm… If only they would think about the answer to that question with an open mind…
Wow, that tagline. “Many of America’s and England’s oldest universities were established as religious institutions, but now they advocate evolutionary thinking. What happened?”
Might as well say, “Scientists used to think the earth was only a few thousand years old, but now they advocate for an age of billions of years. What happened?” Evidence. Evidence happened.
“Does God want the students to use condoms?”
I suppose this concern explains the necessity of an “Intimacy with God” course.
On “intimacy with God”…
“Your holy books inspire hate, despair and drama,
If your god does love you I hope you make him wear a condom” – Greydon Square Stockholm Syndrome
If only Mary had been able to take that course … and had “taken precautions” …
Oxymoronic Studies: Thinking Theologically
Redundant Studies: Mystical Theology
Denialism: Catholicism Faces Modernity
Dr Hector Avalos is most certainly NOT a believer these days. Indeed, I’m surprised that you are unaware of this fact, and that you have not, therefore, watched his debate with WLC. Look it up on YouTube. Dr Avalos makes the odd mistake in the heat of battle, but his demolition of Craig, his dismissal of the dopey religionists in the audience with their asinine ‘questions’ and his obvious contempt for Craig are a joy to behold.
Thanks for the correction, but here’s a hint about civility. When someone admits ignorance, you should not tell them that you are surprised at their ignorance. That just makes them feel stupid. This is a lesson one learns very quickly when you’re a teacher. No, I have not watched his debate with WLC. So thank you for the information, but please, in dealing with not only me, but with others, never act surprised that somebody doesn’t know something. I am a mere professor of biology, and do not know everything about internet athiesm.
Actually, it wasn’t a ‘correction’. It was an answer to your query. It was also more of a backhanded compliment than anything else. Since I am usually more than a little impressed with the breadth and depth of your knowledge of all things atheistic, I was slightly taken aback by your not having encountered Dr Avalos before. I thought his books and his debate with Craig (among one or two others) were pretty widely known and admired amongst atheists.
Thanks for pointing out my ignorance of ‘da roolz’ of civility. You didn’t make me feel stupid at all. Perhaps you should rethink that one.
Where’s the School of Diabolus? Demons are way more interesting to study.
Along similar lines: Literature programs should open more of their doors to critical science fiction writing. Have students who love science and are good at writing invest their time thinking about what paths humanity should take in the distant and near futures. It is an in-between stage of looking at possibilities with a bit of imagination that science rarely affords.
As a former philosophy department chair (albeit only briefly), I have a slightly different take on this.
As regards divinity schools, they are explicitly not secular, often are associated (both by ties of history and governance) with particular religions, and often have as part their mission the training of clergy. One may question, as Jerry does, why these schools are associated with secular universities (e.g. Harvard), and I suspect the answer is, in most cases, as it is at Harvard: historical. The universities became secular over time, and the divinity schools are relics of the religious bases of their founding. (Harvard was originally a public school for training ministers; it only later became private and secular.) Some divinity schools are more like religious studies schools, and some more like seminaries; the Harvard Divinity School is somewhere in between on this scale. (Back when I was in grad school, it did have the best cafeteria, especially their home-made soups like “Papal Pea Soup”, and it was amusing to hear people at the next table arguing over whether God was immanent or transcendent!)
But as regards, philosophy of religion, I believe it should be taught in secular philosophy departments. At my university, we offer such a course, which takes up questions such as the existence of God, the problem of evil, the basis of morality, and the relationship between faith and reason. Although a popular course, quite a few students drop out in the first week or two, because, as a frequent instructor (an American Buddhist well-versed in the Christian tradition by upbringing and training) told me, some students come to have their pieties reinforced, and are shocked to learn that that is not what the philosophy of religion is; rather all their pieties are put up for questioning. This kind of course, I believe, is an essential component of a philosophy curriculum, and should not be mistaken for the “how to preach” courses taught at seminaries and some divinity schools.
So, while the association of at least certain kinds of divinity schools with secular universities may seem anomalous (and largely explained by history), courses in philosophy of religion (which, as Cornell puts it, are “built on the established scholarly tradition of the study of religion as an academic, as opposed to confessional, pursuit”) are an important component of secular universities’ philosophy programs.
It’s very important to !*not*! confuse “philosophy of religion” with “religious philsophy”. They are two different things and I think they’re being confused here!! And in particular philosophy of religion is somewhat distinct from theology, though the latter has more overlap with religious philosophy!!! Theology takes some things for granted that philosophy of religion does not!! Aquinas is a theologian and religious philosopher. John Locke and David Hume are a philosophers of religion, though Locke is a Christian apologist, while Hume is a sceptic of all supernatural metaphysics and so-called “natural theology”.
There remain sadly many many philosophy of religion classes overly focused on Christian concerns like the various arguments for and against the existence of God and the problem of evil, but at its best philosophy of religion examines the nature of religion as a whole and in many schools discusses multiple religions and is in principle something non-believers can engage in, whereas religious philosophy and theology always analyze a particular belief system!! Since the 1970s, it has been standard in the more reputable philosophy of religion classes to study religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. [Oppy says it is NOW time to broaden philosophy of religion to include non-Christian religions! The University of California has already doing that for the past 40 years(!!!), although perhaps Notre Dame has not, and it may be little done in Oppy’s native Australia.]
The best philosophy of religion classes asks questions about whether other ways of knowing are legit or not and opinion differs. Classically, Clifford and William James are on opposite sides of this fence, espousing “evidentialism” and “fideism” respectively. When this issue surfaces, sceptical thinkers like David Hume are definitely discussed in philosophy of religion venues.
As a religious studies professor, my father was appalled at the way Princeton’s religious studies department was largely a mini-seminary dominated by Christian apologetics courses. But the department at University of Pennsylvania was a different story. One was required to take an entire semester reading religious sceptics like Nietzsche and Freud to have a religion major!!! This was in the 1970s!!!! (And one also had to study a semester of religion-friendly philosophers who were nonetheless not fully traditional believers).
Several of the Harvard courses listed above are neither philosophy of religion or theology. Every candidate for ministry has to take a course on the governance structure of their own denomination, just as a candidate for lawyership needs to learn about the state in which they practice law. That is what the 3 “polity” courses listed above are for, and potential hospital chaplains have to take training in how to give care to a patient that is a different(!!) religion from their own, which is presumably what the “interfaith” caregiving class is for. Others are history or sociology of religion classes, though their presentation may be skewed.
I have no idea when the phrase “philosophy of religion” was coined but it’s a label for a relatively ancient form of inquiry.
And “philosophy of religion” is not theology, either. Arguably, if the courses were fair, we need more of the former, to disabuse more people of relgious claims, etc.
Some aren’t fair, but then there are philosophy of science courses who give too much credence to pomos and such …
Sorry, but I fail to see any meaningful distinction between theology and philosophy of religion. The latter subsumes the former, but theology is, by and large, philosophy.
It seems to me (perhaps presumptuously!) that what you’re arguing for is (the enforcement of) a meaningful distinction between the two: A philosophical !*justification*! of religion and faith in a supernatural agent (theology), that should be deprecated by secular schools, and a philosophical !*analysis*! of religion as a human construct (philosophy of religion), which can sit happily within secular schools’ philosophy departments.
A bit like the difference between a Star Trek fan convention, and a modern sociology course on sci fi…?
But theology is, by and large, bad philosophy. A good philosophy of religion course would eventually lead to this conclusion.
That’s a meaningful distinction. It would be like placing a course on homeopathy in the chemistry department. Assuming honesty (which no, you can’t always assume) this would NOT go well for the friends of alternative medicine. And if homeopathy was as culturally popular and sacrosanct as religion, I’d call it a good idea, too.
JC, there is a kinda sorta overlap between theology and philosophy of religion, and the term “theology” has been used in both a narrower sense (that would make you wrong) and a wider sense (that would make you mostly right).
But Walter Kaufmann had a PhD specifically in the field of philosophy of religion(!!), taught courses labeled as “philosophy of religion” and is listed in Wikipedia as a philosopher of religion along with William Lane Craig, Bertrand Russell, and Alvin Plantinga!!
Narrowly construed, theology involves attempting directly to understand the nature of God and the interpretation of Scriptural texts, religious experience, and (if one is a Christian) the meaning of the life and words of Jesus. For Plato and Aristotle, theology meant discourse on the divine and is a form of philosophy. More broadly construed, “theology” has been taken to include religion-based ethical reflection, comparative religion, apologetic, and such like. It is admittedly a vaguely defined term that is a bit too fluid.
Philosophy of religion is a bit different in scope and much more importantly has fewer presuppositions!! Theology presupposes at least some of the truth-claims of a religious tradition, which philosophy of religion need not do any more so than does sociology of religion or history of religion! As such, one can make a good case for not having courses in theology in secular schools, but I don’t think so of P of R.
Philosophy of religion both tries to decide what general points of wisdom may or may not come from religious thinkers/communities that might or might not be persuasive to those outside the communities, and is also interested in analyzing the dynamics and structures of religious communities and belief systems.
P of R often devolves into (and is taught as) an exercise in Christian apologetics, but as noted above it was the official field of Walter K.
Patrick Grim, for example, has written in philosophy of religion. Some of his work analyzes religious concepts with the aid of contemporary logic and set theory, sometimes with startling results. For example, he has pointed out that there is no set of all truths, so there is nothing for omniscience to be about. (He also happens to be a non-believer.)
I was trying (apparently unsuccessfully) to make the very distinction you make: philosophy of religion is not (as I quoted Cornell), a confessional pursuit, but an academic one; and philosophy of religion does belong in secular philosophy departments. A confessional study may presume some particular answer to the questions addressed, but a philosophy of religion course would not.
Different divinity schools (and, on your evidence, different religious studies departments) have different mixes of the academic and the confessional. Harvard’s divinity school, as I noted, is a mixed bag of academic and confessional (including practical advice for soon-to-be-ministers) studies. I was endorsing the academic approach (which includes multiple religions) for secular philosophy departments, as taken by my university, and apparently, the University of California.
More exclamation marks, please, Jon!
Steven Weinberg definitely agrees with me on this one: American football should be removed from academic college institutions. Is this a good solution? Probably not. In the same manner, I think divinity schools are a waste of resources in very much the same way that football is a waste of time. Does the divinity program bring money to the university? Probably not. Most football programs actually do not pay for themselves, so, again, a divinity program is like a football program. What’s the point?
I think the solution is to think really long term, like 500+ years from now. Will they have football programs at universities? Maybe something like it (without head injuries). Will they have divinity schools? Probably not. I think humans will no longer establish that kind of relationship between secular universities and divinity schools. There just would not be any pragmatic or programmatic relation.
Maybe they will have divinity schools without the head injuries 🙂
It is my information that Prof. Avolos is agnostic tending toward unbelief.
It is my information that Zoroasterism is not quite dead as there are some adherents, most of whom are in Iran where they are heavily persecuted by the mad mullahs that misrule the country.
The largest concentration of Zoroastrians these days is in India, where they are known as Parsees (because they originally came from Persia). Zubin Mehta and Freddy Mercury were Parsees.
Brian Myers says: “Nothing can prove or disprove God. That is a faith decision not a logical decision.”
Brian, what are you talking about when you use the term or name “God?” What is this “god” so many people speak of?
This talk of “proving or disproving” is sheer nonsense because nobody knows what it is you can or cannot “prove or disprove” in the first place!
So when you say you have “faith” in “god,” that means nothing. If you cannot even say what “god” means, then why talk about it?
A woman scientist (name unknown) summed up the whole thing this way: “‘God’ is just another word for ‘I don’t know.'”
: the study of religious faith, practice, and experience; especially : the study of God and of God’s relation to the world
Unknown scientist: “God” is just another word for “I don’t know.”
: the study of religious faith, practice, and experience; especially : the study of “I don’t know” and of the relationship of “I don’t know (but make fantastic claims anyway)” to the world
The top definition has the advantage of familiarity and ease of pronunciation and conformity to accepted spelling convention, but those are the only points in its favor over the bottom one.
Heh. I recently asked a very spiritual friend what her definition of “faith” was.
She said “I don’t know.”
What, you don’t know what religious faith is?
“No, faith is admitting that you know nothing. Faith means ‘I don’t know.'”
So if someone asked me what the capital of Kyrgyzstan is and I admitted I had no idea, that would be religious faith??
“Um, no. Religious faith is when you admit that you know nothing … and open up and let a Higher Power in.”
Uh huh. Seems to me that that initial meek emphasis on the ground of humble ignorance just took off flying on a magic carpet with gold spangles and trumpets. But doesn’t it sound nice on the surface? It’s the sort of definition designed to remove any charge of arrogance from the selfless Spiritual Seeker. “I don’t know.” Awww.
It works on them. Any attempt to point out the teeny flaw here automatically shows somebody must think they know something, and lacks humility.
“I don’t think the argument should be bout the crazy claims that the Christian Church makes because we all have crazy presuppositions.”
To continue a theme from an earlier thread, find me a talking snake or donkey in a physics text book and this guy will have a point. I have to question whether someone whom views the rigorously vetted facts of science and the numinous mythology of religion as the same type of “presuppositions” should be awarded a degree from a prestigious university. Ask for your hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of tuition back Mr. Myers. I don’t think Duke has taught you as well as you think it has. In all seriousness though, it costs about $65,000 USD annually to attend Duke University, according to the most recent article I’ve read on the subject. Is this the kind of mind we should expect an education that costs more than Bentley Continental GT to produce? Very disappointing.
Once the teaching of comparative religion(s) becomes identical to the teaching of Latin, then we can assume that “belief” would be sort-of-safely out of the education equation at secular colleges and universities. But keep in mind that the Latin class does not attract many students. If the God becomes as popular as Latin, only a minority of college students would have curiosity for it, although scholars shall continue studying it, and the educated public valuing it. Latin, as practicing language, is virtually extinct, but its descendants are around (= all the Romance languages), plus its influences in non-Romance idioms, which Latin has permeated into via horizontal export of words and syntax (= comparable to horizontal gene transfer). But there is no worshiping of Latin in the language class, or its connections to the Roman Empire and its Gods, nor “Latin indoctrination.” Simply, the language per se is taught, from multiple perspectives, at colleges and universities, and its historical connections to the Roman culture are exquisitely examined by competent linguists.
If the teaching of “religious studies” were just like that, like the teaching of Latin, our students and campuses would be safe. But, and what a big “but,” the notion of religious studies, chaplains of all denominations (“to be fair, diverse and inclusive”) at secular colleges and universities, brings light or heavy religious content, the intent to spread religious doctrine to the students and preserve religious practices at campuses. And this is done under the safety umbrella of the academic system: Department of Religious Studies, Center for “such and such” Religious Denomination Studies, etc. This diversity of Departments and Centers only grows under the expectation that ALL religious denominations should count with their corresponding Departments and Centers, to reach “balance.”
Thus, at commencements, dedications of buildings and impressive science complexes, inaugurations, eulogies, tragedies, shootings, some of those involved in religious studies stand up at the stage, side by side with the diversity of chaplains who offer collective support to the events, and shoulder to shoulder with the high Administration. If the idea was to simply educate about religions, comparatively, philosophically or scholarly at secular colleges and universities (which, as an academic practice, would be as valid as teaching Latin and its world influence during human history), why do some of those involved in religious studies endorse, promote, participate and defend ordinary religious practices, weekly services at secular campuses? Why chaplains of all denominations rely on the religious studies faculty to co-organize events in campus, give them a twist of academic content? Do they rely on Biology or Physics departments to do the same? Are there as many faculty in Biology and Physics departments endorsing religious practices in campuses as there are religious-studies faculty? Religious studies programs and centers receive extramural funding, or intra-institutional funding, or community funding for the work they do; in this respect they are similar to other academic programs, or are they?
I just want to share my experience with a philosophy of religion course before anyone concludes that these courses can only be religious apologetics courses.
One of the first things the professor said was “I’m not going to cover the arguments for the existence of God, because I don’t have anything to say about that” (which I took to imply that he didn’t think they were worth discussing). The course leaned heavily toward refuting the central religious claims of Christianity, which included covering different responses Christians had made to the conceptual issues with the Trinity and pointing out the problems with those responses. He also pointed out the problems with Hinduism, focusing on the conflict between the doctrine of reincarnation and the doctrine that there is no self (if there is no self, what gets reincarnated?) and pointing out the problems with the responses Hindus have made to this tension in their religion.
So, while I don’t doubt that many philosophy of religion courses have a pro-religious focus, I still think it can be worthwhile to take a philosophy of religion course if you have a taste for abstractions and you are careful about who you take the course from.
Personally, I’d sign on to the first four words of the title as sufficient.
Religious studies certainly have a place in academia, especially in the history, anthropology, sociology, and psychology departments. Maybe the arts, but I’m not sure that there’s enough literature in the Bible worthy of a dedicated class the same way that one can reasonably dedicate a class to Shakespeare.
But those dozen or so classes you listed? Purest bullshit, every last one.
At McGill the joke was theology was for those who believe, religious studies is for those who don’t (or are unsure/waffling). Religious Studies did include a lot of “cross-disciplinary arts”.
I don’t know what it is like now, since there’s actually now a whole program in Philosophy and Western Religions, which in part seems to be motivated by McGill being somehow regarded as a good place for Islamic Studies …
Of all the comments above I am most impressed by Gregory C. Mayer’s justification for teaching philosophy of religion. And, I must say, of all the “Christian ministers converted to atheism” writers I find John Loftus the most unimpressive of the lot. As a stylist he is hopeless, and his pious nitpicking is as exciting as watching grass grow. It is possible, of course, to teach philosophy of religion entirely from an atheist point of view, but even if it includes the teaching of other religions, it will deal with how those religions deal (philosophically) with the existence of God, the problem of evil, the nature of religious experience and its philosophical implications (if any), and various other things which, while not being confessional as such, would expound some of the ways in which various religions justify their beliefs philosophically (which, of course, while being philosophical, could amount to apologetics as well). Thus, while, as one commenter says, Aquinas is a religious philosopher, he is also a philosopher of religion, and whether we agree with his arguments are not, they provide pretty close argumentation of a number of purely philosophical issues concerning being as such and the being of God which must be dealt with in their own terms. The problem seems to be, however, that philosophy of religion is considered to be a adjunct of religion, and, in one sense it may be. Many apologetic arguments are (as suggested above) in fact arguments in the philosophy of religion. It is hard to avoid this, though when it jumps from philosophy into specific confessional beliefs, questions have to be asked as to the legitimacy of such a move, and whether it can be made philosophically. (I think of this in terms of Rudolf Otto and his The Idea of the Holy where, at one point, he uses his idea of the numinous to justify specifically Christian beliefs, a move which is, in fact, not supported by his theory of numinous experience.) On the other hand, despite the cavalier claim that philosophy of religion is intrinsically confessional (as Loftus seems to imply), it would be strange if philosophy of religion never asked the question about the legitimacy or truth of some religious claims. Indeed, as a branch of philosophy, philosophy of religion is bound to ask such questions. Only a form of scientism, which considers that all and only statements that are scientifically verifiable constitute knowledge, could claim, beforehand, before, that is, considering the details of the philosophical arguments involved, that the most that philosophy of religion can do is to teach comparative religion (which is not philosophy at all). And, remember, scientism is either self-refuting, for the claim that all and only scientific knowledge constitutes knowledge is not itself a scientific statement, or it is merely trivial, being so “broadly construed” (to use the standard vocabulary) that practically anything (unless a precise definition of ‘broadly construed’ can be given) would constitute a scientific statement. And again, the statement that only scientific knowledge, broadly construed, constitutes knowledge, is not itself a statement of science, broadly construed — and if it is, then the definition of ‘broadly construed’ is circular. Additionally, if the aim of denying philosophy of religion place in a secular university (remembering here that ‘secular’ here does not mean atheistical) is to make the claim that no statement in the philosophy of religion can be true, then that in itself is a statement in the philosophy of religion which it is the province of the philosophy of religion to decide.
“…a number of purely philosophical issues concerning being as such and the being of God…”
I wonder what is the “being” of the “ground of being”?
I know I shouldn’t mock without understanding what I am mocking… I confess I don’t understand the philosophical concept of “ground of being”. But it gets thrown around and is worthy of acronymization, and it seems mockable in the sense that its so obscure I’m not sure how one would worship it.
No, Charles, you shouldn’t mock something if you don’t understand what you are mocking. And I didn’t by the way, use the term, “Ground of Being,” which is more theological that philosophical (not that it couldn’t be used in a philosophical context).
But the question of being is not really as transparent as it seems to be. What is it for something to have being? What is it for something “to be”? This is the Sein of Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit, and he has some dismissive things to say about what he calls ‘onto-theology’, the attempt to use ontological language to make theological affirmations. Before you can do this, you have to have a pretty good grasp of what it is that you mean by ‘Being’ (‘Sein’), and have some understandings of what is required for something to be or to exist.
Some of Aquinas’ arguments certainly claim to show that the logical dependence of the world of empirical beings (the kinds of beings investigated by the sciences) upon transcendent being, upon some”thing” (being careful not think of ‘thing’ in empirical-existential terms) that cannot be comprehended in empirical-existential terms (which is why the argument “if God created the universe, then what created God?” doesn’t work, because Being (or God in Aquinas’ lexicon) is not empirical-existential, and if it were (as the counter argument supposes), then it would still (so goes the argument) require a transcendent being to account for its existence, for the claim is precisely that contingent being cannot simply be, of itself). As I say, I’m not arguing the point, but if you really want to respond to Aquinas, you must at least provide a response to his specific arguments, showing where they have gone wrong, why such and such logical leaps cannot be made, and so on.
Mocking, however, is just mocking, and is not an answer. A lot that poses as atheist argumentation is sadly, I think, really just a matter of mockery. However, there are philosophers who take the arguments seriously, and try to respond to the arguments in their own terms. (See Kenny, Aquinas on Being; Mackie’s Miracle of Theism, or Ed Feser’s Aquinas.) Kenny thinks he has found an error in Aquinas’ argument about being, Feser thinks he has found an error in Kenny’s. But this is what philosophy of religion consists in: providing arguments for or against religious beliefs, and analyses of religious concepts.
I’m way out of my depth in this discussion… I’m going to try to do what I should have done in the first place – listen and learn. Thx!
If Feser is right about Aquinas, and I am understanding Feser correctly, then Aquinas was wrong.
According to Feser, Aquinas argued that every movement (or change) in the universe requires an unmoved mover at its base. Thus, Catholics say, “Through Him we live and move and have our being.” God sustains the universe at every moment.
The example Feser uses several times is a person throwing a rock: hand moves rock, arm moves hand, body moves arm, and somewhere underneath is an unmoved mover. This is false, as each action can (in theory) be traced back to energy resulting from the Big Bang. There is no need for (nor evidence of) a sustaining force that never changes.
And there is no evidence that the big bang is anything but an origin of the local hubble expansion, too.
It bears repeating: this “ground of being” nonsense can be nipped in the bud from the get go. There is no evidence, and much antievidence against, in favour of the idea that the universe would lapse from existence if not somehow sustained. The theological idea is very old, but very wrong. Democritus and other ancient materialists (even Aristotle, who is something of a crypto-materialist, in some moods) realized this, but the Christians and others who make this “god sustains” haven’t learned.
Oh, I am all ears! Please provide the evidence. Don’t forget the unmoved movers in Aristotle’s physics. However, what philosophy of religion offers is not evidence (and it is not likely that physics can do so either), but argument, and in order to say that this is nonsense, one has at least to try to understand the arguments. The refusal to do this is not particularly impressive as a form of commitment to the truth.
“However, what philosophy of religion offers is not evidence …, but argument, and in order to say that this is nonsense, one has at least to try to understand the arguments.’
PZ’s Courtier’s Reply [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Courtier’s_Reply] goes here.
Oh, please, Eric. Aristotelian unmoved movers are an even more idiotic primitive superstition than the flat Earth. Newton slammed the door shut on that one with his universal laws of motion. Darwin bolted the door and tossed the key with his explanation of the origin of species. And the CERN team just used the LHC to discover the Higgs and, in the process, ensure that unmoved movers are trapped on the other side of an infinite-mass black hole.
…and that’s why philosophy is bullshit. I mean, seriously? Metaphysics is something that we still need to address? When it’s even more debunked than astrology? Hell, why not toss in homeopathy and idiot design cretinism?
What you’re offering isn’t commitment to truth. It’s passionate self-deception. Not only is the emperor naked, not only is he ugly…he never even existed outside of a really bad copy of a copy of an anonymous painting of a naked old fat woman.
Every fundamental conservation law (energy, momentum, angular momentum), to the extent that they are well supported by *everything* in every scientific field. They are also built into technology and policy – no perpetual motion machine patents will be investigated in many juristictions.
And before the Big Bang? Or at the origination of the Big Bang? As David Deutch told Jim Holt (who recorded his encounter with Deutch in his book Why does the world exist?),
But whatever the philosophic argument for the existence of the quantum vacuums or inflaton field or branes or whatever !*is*! fundamental is (if one is even needed), would you seriously contend that there’s more than a vanishingly small chance that it comes from theology or the philosophy of religion?
Unless you want to go into the realm of conspiracy theory — we’re trapped in the Matrix and the Big Bang was the boot-up sequence, that sort of thing — then any notion of an intelligent creative force as having even tangential responsibility for cosmogenesis is beyond the lunacy of believing in the faeries at the foot of the garden.
If you think there’s anything to such notions that need to be taken seriously, your knowledge of modern science isn’t even up to the levels required for my Bachelor of Music degree at Arizona State University a couple decades ago.
The Big Bang is just the origin of the hubble expansion we happen to be in. (See any text on astronomy which doesn’t get sloppy on “universe”). Worse, any input from the “parent region” is obliterated, as Vic Stenger has repeatedly reminded us.
As for “nothing” – show that there *can* be nothing first before worrying about why there isn’t nothing. Again conservation laws show this can’t be the case.
Perhaps an “imposition” view of laws is in the way. In which case, please discard it; in an naturalistic metaphysics, laws are just patterns of being and becoming. The basic laws are therefore as eternal as the matter they apply to.
The conservation laws are huge in this whole discussion. If there’s one thing that all our observations have shown us, it’s that the conservation laws are inviolate. If we are to take anything seriously about science, it is the conservation laws.
And those conservation laws make plain that there’s no way to get nothing from something, or something from nothing. We clearly have something, so nothing becomes a moot point.
It might be interesting to ponder why it should be that there is something rather than nothing, but there is no more justification for insisting that one explain how existence transitioned from nothing to something than there is justification for entertaining serious speculation on the design of a perpetual motion machine. (And even that first part is likely on the other side of the border of coherence…you’re either left with incomprehensibilities such as wondering what’s north of the North Pole, or asking childish “Why?” questions, such as, “Why is the sky blue instead of orange?”)
Why is the sky blue instead of orange?
Actually, I think that thats a excellent question.
Well, of course, Feynman could have built an entire semester off of that one question, and probably still not cover it in sufficient depth.
But philosophers who ask those types of questions come up with answers like GBJames just did…save they don’t have their tongues in their cheeks….
+1 for getting the reference
Yeah, Feynman crossed my mind as I thought up the original post…but I couldn’t think of a better example off the top of my head, so I ran with it anyway.
As usual, xkcd is ahead of us.
If the Sun were !*much*! colder, I think the sky could be orange, but we wouldn’t be here to see it.
As it is, /part/ of the sky /can/ be orange, e.g., at sunset.
Hmmm…that would be an interesting one to work out. I think you’d have better luck getting an orange daylight sky with a different atmospheric composition, though. Nitrogen is sky-blue, just very transparent; compare the color of a close mountain with a distant one.
…or orange ceiling paint….
Here’s the great man himself on that mirror question:
If God created something from nothing, what’s God? Chopped liver?!
We should be so lucky! Were God chopped liver, we could at least get a decent meal out of him!
/Paté de foie grâce/
It would go well with the tasty Jesus wafers.
Cheeses fried, with lamb and cod!
The sky is orange. It just looks blue.
But is it really so difficult to show just how batshit insane Aquinas is on that point?
Our entire experience of the world is through our senses. Our senses are far from perfect, of course; there’s much we can’t directly observe, and also a fair amount that we observe that isn’t real — see your favorite optical illusion. But we’re able to overcome both limitations, and to make multiple observations that reveal some sort of consistency that we reasonably accept as an observation more useful than the direct one. You can’t see the zoo in your mouth with you bare eyes, but grab van Leeuwenhoek’s ‘scope and you’ll see it just fine. The two lines may look like they’re different lengths, but you can grab a ruler and confirm they’re the same.
What Aquinas is proposing here is that this eponymously-named God god of his does very significant stuff in the world, but we’re not only unable to directly observe it, we can’t even indirectly observe it. It’s a married bachelor, a virgin mother, the living dead. Either God influences the universe at least as much as the Higgs field, in which case we’d have indirectly observed its effects by now; or it’s impossible to detect because it doesn’t actually do anything. But here Aquinas is trying to have his Kate and Edith, too, and insist that God is more important than anything in physics but still somehow perfectly hidden. It just don’t work like that.
It’s true that mocking isn’t an answer. However, there are times when it’s perfectly appropriate. If some “learned scholar” were to write tortured exegeses on how Santa is responsible for Christmas Eve toy delivery — and sincerely, not the way NORAD tracks Santa every year — then mocking would be the only truly reasonable and worthy response.
So how is Jesus any different from Santa?
Theologians sincerely want us to believe in a zombie who got his rocks off by having his thralls fondle his intestines through a gaping chest wound — and don’t you dare tell me they don’t, because I’ve heard a Jesuit theologian and head of an elite Catholic high school use that exact story as the centerpiece of a sermon for why everybody should have faith. How are we supposed to not mock such nonsense?
Ben, I did not say that there are not religious beliefs which may be justifiably mocked. All I am saying is that if new atheists want to be taken seriously, they will at least attempt to meet philosophical arguments on their own ground, and not merely to mock them. In this I think, after much thought, that Terry Eagleton was right. God, in most philosophy of religion, is not a piece of furniture in the universe, but something (or, in religious terms, someone) who transcends all physical existence. I’m not myself sure that I understand the arguments, so I have not offered them here. However, not understanding them does not provide a basis for mockery.
As to exaggerated accounts of the incarnation, all I can say is that homiletic flights of fancy are often offensively physical (compare the homily on hell in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). If the meaning of incarnation means anything (and I am not at all sure that it does) it is not clear that, by the “body” of Jesus (in the way that Thomas is said to do in a very late source — viz. the gospel of John), something so grossly physical is intended. From the gospel accounts, were we to take them seriously, the resurrection was visionary, not physical; it was somehow an eschatological vision, and not the revivified body of a crucified victim. The later exaggerations of the idea of resurrection, strained through the doctrine of transubstantiation, is a parody of anything believed by the first Christians, who were encouraged to see themselves as the risen body of the Lord. Your Jesuit “theologian’s” description of (in your words) a “zombie who got his rocks off” having his entrails fondled is justly mocked.
As to the difference between Jesus and Santa Claus, it is, I think, likely that a Galilean Jew called (in its anglicised form) Jesus, did actually live and gather a following by his teaching and what were believed then to be miraculous works (miracles then, of course, were a dime a dozen). Santa Claus is a bit like Kipling’s “Just So” stories, and is used to make one day of the year magical for little children. The doctrines that were subsequently erected around the first century stories and sayings of a first century Jew are all of them mythical constructions which, as all myths do, provided a narrative within which people could live their lives, and which could, in a sense, “magic away” their suffering and their faults and foibles, and comfort them in their final hours. It has less power to do this now, since our world is saturated with narrative in a way that was not possible in simpler, less technological times. However, we still live within our narratives, which inescapably have an influence upon us. But this is really all by the way, and has nothing in particular to do with philosophy of religion.
And yet, the overwhelming majority of Christiandom would agree with this priest — priests, the laity, the heads of churches, the various catechisms, the works. It’s only a tiny minority of “sophisticated” theologians whom, with rounding, 0% of the population has heard of who would even suggest that the risen Christ didn’t have touchable wounds.
Yet you yourself just passionately argued one of the strongest mythicist points: that early Christians didn’t even think of Christ as corporeal. Paul certainly never saw Jesus in the flesh, and he establishes his bona fides by claiming to have experienced Christ the same way all the other Christians had.
Have you not read Justin Martyr’s First Apology? Did you somehow miss his central thesis that Jesus’s story is indistinguishable from the “Just So” stories of the Mediterranean of the first century?
Who, exactly, do you think this “real” Jesus would have been? Was he presenting himself as the Logos incarnate? If so, how did he escape mention by Philo? Was he tried in a travesty of justice by the Sanhedrin and ordered crucified by Pilate? If so, how did he escape mention by Josephus? And if not, in what sense was the the “real” Jesus?
And do you have any actual evidence to support a mere moral flesh-and-blood Jesus? And is that evidence as extraordinary as it must be to contradict literally everything ever written by Christians in the Classical era?
… a tiny minority of “sophisticated” theologians whom, with rounding, 0% of the population has heard of who would even suggest that the risen Christ didn’t have touchable wounds …
This had to elicit at least a tiny little titter, no, Eric? Maybe even a bit of a chortle, possibly a guffaw?
Aquinas was a very smart man, perhaps even a genius and his ideas were probably some of the most original of his time. You are right, there are people who have dismantled his arguments (especially the ones who use a combination of empirical findings of science plus philosophy to do it).
The way I see it, the most convincing objection to Aquinas is that adding “contingent” and “necessary” as qualifiers for beings merely pushes the question back a step and eliminates the problem of an infinite regress. It doesn’t eliminate the pushing back part. Apply Occam’s Razor and there’s still no need for God, especially with modern scientific evidence showing that the assumption that the Universe must be contingent is completely unnecessary, if not yet demonstrably false. Thus, one could take Aquinas to be perfectly coherent in this matter and still rationally say he hasn’t demonstrated with any reasonable probability that God exists. He’s simply demonstrated that necessary “beings” exist, and the necessary being may be the Universe itself.
There are other problems with his arguments, but you only need one solid rebuttal to demonstrate it’s incorrect and this says nothing about the enormous leap that must be taken to arrive at a specific flavor of Christianity from this argument.
Back to the topic at hand, I think philosophy of religion is useful in that it has influence on the world and it’s best to be educated about what it is that your opponents think if you are going to change their minds. Perhaps the biggest reason for effectively debunking these claims is that one of the most powerful and influential institutions on the planet, the Roman Catholic Church, grounds itself in these claims. If we’re going to reduce that influence, best we do it from the foundation.
In your critique of Jerry’s assertion that courses need be reduced to comparative religious studies, I didn’t interpret that as meaning that the internal philosophies of the religions need to be removed as it appears you did. I think merely removing the apologetic nature of the classes would suffice, but not the teaching with regard to the nature of those apologetics. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, so maybe Jerry will clarify this point.
The problem is that purely philosophical reasoning may be apologetic. If I argue for the existence of God, and believe that my arguments provide a conclusive basis upon which to base belief in God, then I have both been providing philosophical arguments as well as apologetic ones. To think that philosophy of religion must conclude that God does not exist is to have pre-empted all the arguments, which is why mockery is pointless.
Well, Ben, but that is something you have to establish by considering the arguments involved. You can’t say this simply by making deprecating remarks about my level of education. Nor do I see what a music degree has to do with what I have been talking about. However, there’s a joker in every pack. Show the relevance of your remark. Just having what you consider to be a clever remark (did you read it over before posting?) doesn’t really answer any of the questions I asked.
No, Eric — that’s the point. “Arguments” are bullshit. Purest sophistry. Arguments only need be considered insofar as they make testable predictions, and only so long as those predictions hold up. If they make no predictions, there’s nothing there to consider. If the predictions don’t pan out, whatever the argument is arguing for isn’t reality.
Evidence is where the rubber meets the road.
Considered as a philosophical argument, the Luminiferous Aether remains to this day far more sophisticated than anything coming out of philosophy departments. But, thanks to Michelson and Morley, we know that all that sophistication don’t mean jack. Nice idea, but it has no bearing on reality whatsoever.
You’d mock me if I were to suggest that a flat Earth is a sound philosophical argument that needs to be taken seriously, right? But a flat Earth is actually far more scientifically sound than a prime mover (or anything else in Aristotle’s metaphysics). Just grab any street map and spread it on a table; there’s your supremely useful scientifically accurate empirically verifiable flat Earth model — and it works because the curvature of the Earth is at such a different scale from humans and houses and streets and cities and even many countries that it really is reasonably described as flat at those scales.
There is, however, not one single context in which any prime mover theory will usefully model reality.
Exactly. If this is the sort of thing that fine arts majors learn in general studies science classes for non-science majors, what does it say about philosophy that it lacks even that near-homeopathic level of scientific awareness?
“while … Aquinas is a religious philosopher, he is also a philosopher of religion, and whether we agree with his arguments are not, they provide pretty close argumentation of a number of purely philosophical issues concerning being as such and the being of God which must be dealt with in their own terms.”
I’d argue that the difference between theology and (proper) philosophy of religion is that the former seeks philosophic crutches (justifications, apologetics, redefining the problem away, …) for faith while the latter (should) subject(s) those crutches to critical analysis.
Philosophy might not me a scientistic way of knowing, but can be a very good way of exposing bad arguments!
Ant, I think you’re wrong. I think, in the end, that philosophical argument in philosophy of religion might (logically) lead to religious conclusions. Supposing that theology uses philosophy just as a crutch is to suppose (in advance, as it were) that we know all the arguments and all the conclusions to which philosophy of religion might come. Otherwise why suppose they are crutches. It might just be that you are wrong, and that philosophical argument might lead to affirmative religious conclusions. And while I think, as Jerry repeatedly says, that the multitude of religions shows that the probability of one of them being right is vanishingly small, it does not follow that philosophical argument could not lead to religious conclusions which might provide a defence for the adoption of a range of positive religious beliefs as, in Plato’s sense, likely stories of a reality that can be shown philosophically to obtain. I don’t myself think, at the moment, that this has been demonstrated, but I could be wrong, which is why your division of philosophy and theology in the way you suggest illegitimately pre-empts philosophical conclusions.
Of course it’s logically possible that philosophy of religion might surface some original “best argument for god”, for example, without any question begging.
But to call theology’s arguments “crutches” is not a criticism of philosophy of religion but of theology’s bending philosophy to theological/teleological ends, in support of some pre-existing conception of Θεός.
See my response to Chris Buckley above. Philosophy of religion might quite reasonably constitute what is often called natural theology, not based on a preconception of God, but on the argument itself. I’m not saying that such arguments can be made, or that they are decisive, but it is very difficult, in most cases, to say exactly what is wrong with the arguments provided, which is why, to most philosophers of religion, a lot of new atheist mockery and introductory level philosophy of religion, seems not only childish, but also to display an doctrinaire unwillingness to learn the philosophy necessary to meet such arguments on their own ground. I am far from certain about the arguments, and I daresay I know more philosophy of religion than many new atheists. What I am arguing for is a little epistemological humility. It’s said to be a scientific virtue, but it is uncommonly rare in new atheist argumentation. I cringe at the T-shirt worn by Richard Dawkins with the slogan: “Religion – someday we’ll find a cure” (or something to this effect). This is not just stupid, it is also dangerous. This is in fact what the Russian communists believed about dissenters, and they put them in psychiatric hospitals. One narrow-minded person believing this may not be a problem, but if widespread it could indeed form the shadow side of an overambitious political programme.
You may well consider gnu atheists to be philosophically naïve, Eric, but the fact remains that religion as criticised by gnu atheists is characterised by the belief in a supernatural agent, however abstracted, for which there is no evidence.
To paraphrase Richard Feynman, “It doesn’t make a difference how sophisticated your theology is. It doesn’t make a difference how well-read you are, who originated the arguments, or what their name is. If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong.”
Per my reply to leon, if you want to understand humankind’s relationship to the universe, beyond the cold, hard facts that science has so successfully and uniquely revealed, discard any notion of Θεός (however real or allegorical) and start anew.
Sean Carroll said:
But any such wisdom should be examined afresh outside the context of theology and all the supernatural baggage that pollutes it.
Go, do some philosophy of religion, and then come back and justify that remark. All I’m saying is that there are arguments both for and against the existence of a transcendent being (forget supernatural for the moment), and in order to respond to those arguments (either way) you have to have learned about them. Just saying that there is no evidence is not an argument, for philosophy seldom produces empirical evidence (which I assume you are referring to here), but uses argument to come to conclusions which, whether supplied with empirical evidence or not (and probably not) still need to be countered. All I am saying or have ever said in this discussion (remember it is about teaching philosophy of religion in secular universities) is that philosophy of religion is not theology, and, while it may come to conclusions regarding what exists, cannot be answered by simply saying that there is no (empirical) evidence. I think I’ve put this point often enough that you should have got it by now, but most of the responses so far are simply that there is no evidence, that I should read PZ Myers Courtier’s Reply, and other completely irrelevant comments. It’s a bit tiresome, but also confirming, to see all of you stretching at gnats when all I am saying is that philosophy of religion does provide important arguments for the existence of God or the justification of the rationality of religious beliefs which no one has so far even addressed. Thus it is obviously pointless arguing with you. You’ve picked up some very bad habits from Dawkins and Co., and are clearly impervious to the claim that you may be wrong.
Eric, you’ve just damned philosophy in the most compelling and irredeemable manner possible. You have unambiguously demonstrated that philosophy is a scam, a fraud, purest humbug.
Would you buy an used car on philosophical argument, or would you want evidence that the transmission really isn’t filled with sawdust?
Would you vote for a politician on philosophical argument, or would you want evidence that she really hadn’t run three companies into the ground and had served time for tax fraud?
Would you have married your wife on philosophical argument, or did you rely on the evidence in I’m sure countless ways that she was the best thing that ever happened to you?
I think you’ll find that philosophical argument is only ever called upon to support dubious claims, and that, without fail, when argument is called upon to trump evidence, it’s only ever because the argument is a lie.
The point of the Courtier’s Reply is that you don’t need to go down the rabbit hole if you can see on the face of it that no horse — let alone an unicorn with horn — could even fit an hoof in it, let alone the rest of the body.
It matters not how sophisticated the philosophical argument Aristotle had for his prime mover; thanks to Newton and Darwin and CERN and countless others, we know that it has no bearing on reality. If you’re curious to know where Aristotle went off the rails, it might be interesting to follow through the arguments and check each step against experiment — but it’s by no means necessary to do so to simply reject the whole thing outright.
It’s the exact same thing with theology. We already know the answer: the gods are every bit as imaginary as the faeries at the foot of the garden. Any analysis of the theological arguments, if it is to be honest, can do no more than attempt to identify the particular aspects that are flawed…but that’s not what theologians do, and it’s not what you’re arguing for.
If you want theology to be taken seriously, you’ll have to provide evidence of a divine force that’s at least as compelling as the evidence for the four forces we already know of. Considering that those four forces form a complete explanation and that we would already have found evidence of other forces as surely as you would have found evidence for the angry T-Rex in the room with you, that’s an infinitely all order for you.
And here you go again, setting yourself up for the Courtier’s Reply.
Which remark am I supposed to justify?
This: “that religion as criticised by gnu atheists is characterised by the belief in a supernatural agent”? Well, this is how gnu atheists characterise religion. You might claim that [a] religion does not need belief in a supernatural agent, but A. C. Grayling — who you surely cannot think is philosophically naïve! — would disagree with you (see his definition of “religion” in Ideas That Matter and elsewhere).
Or this: “for which there is no evidence”? No philosophical argument alone, however sophisticated, constitutes evidence. And really, here’s the nub: Why should I read such philosophical arguments for the existence of “God” when (a) there’s no evidence that such a supernatural agent¹ exists, and (b) there is plenty of evidence from physics (as Ben, and Keith, and I, and others have elucidated elsewhere) that no supernatural agent³ can exist!
¹ See above; I’m not even sure what a transcendent² being would be if not supernatural.
² “(of God) existing apart from and not subject to the limitations of the material universe” [NOAD]
³ At least, one that can interact with the natural world.
This is the counter to these philosophical arguments (for the existence of “God”): They do not agree with reality. If you have the most beautiful, subtle, well-constructed philosophical argument in the world that concludes that something exists, but there is no evidence for that thing in the world (and substantial evidence that it cannot exist), engaging with that argument is simply futile. The argument is utterly unimportant.
If we want to examine the rationality of religious beliefs, fine, let’s do that, but that depends only on the existence of the idea of God, which is incontestable (although what that idea is remains fuzzy). But anthropology, sociology, psychology and neuroscience are much likelier to give us concrete answers than philosophy of religion is.
And sadly, Eric, one could equally well say that you’ve picked up some very bad habits from your seminary and your ministry, and that you are clearly impervious to the claim that you may be wrong.
I am baffled by what “affirmative religious conclusion” is supposed to mean, as I would be by “negative religious conclusion.”
Why baffled? Suppose that I offer an argument for the existence of God which I believe actually serves to prove God’s existence, as well as to prove that the God to which argument leads us exists with such-and-such charateristics. This would be an affirmative religious conclusion to a philosophical argument. It would affirm a conclusion that has religious content, and would be, to that extent, apologetic. There would not be a negative religious conclusion, for a philosophical argument showing that any form of religious belief (which may, in fact, not include belief in God — see certain forms of Jainism and Buddhism here) cannot be justified, would provide, not a negative religious conclusion, but a negative conclusion concerning the rationality of religious belief.
‘Why baffled? Suppose that I offer an argument for the existence of God which I believe actually serves to prove God’s existence, as well as to prove that the God to which argument leads us exists with such-and-such charateristics. This would be an affirmative religious conclusion to a philosophical argument. It would affirm a conclusion that has religious content, and would be, to that extent, apologetic. There would not be a negative religious conclusion, for a philosophical argument showing that any form of religious belief (which may, in fact, not include belief in God — see certain forms of Jainism and Buddhism here) cannot be justified, would provide, not a negative religious conclusion, but a negative conclusion concerning the rationality of religious belief.’
I begin to realize that maybe I am completely misinterpreting what you are discussing, Eric. Is this, perhaps, the issue you address:
Depending upon the content of the argument you proffer, any claim from you that an “argument for the existence of God” is one that may or may not meet standards of validity in philosophical jargon. However, whether you personally believe it “actually serves to prove God’s existence” is neither here nor there, and may well not even be a consideration in the claim. Am I in the ballpark, here?
Almost all of the conversations I find myself in about arguments for the existence of god, and about religions, are with people who argue within the context that god is real, and their religious beliefs and commitment to those beliefs are based on this perception of reality. That type of conversation may not be at all relevant to what you discuss. Yes/no?
As I wrote to Leon below (paraphrasing here), when professional philosophers use identical terminology as the lay public to talk about quite different perspectives of religion and theology than the one I, and each and every theist I have ever (mostly futilely) argued with carry in our heads on a daily basis, I sometimes fail to recognize when it is necessary to activate my translator gizmo. I wish you folks had a unique term for your purposes, or some standout qualifying adjective, to alert me.
Amen to your final paragraph!
Ant, you may say Amen to the last para, but it is, in fact, empty of rational content.
Sorry, Eric, but your thinking so is exactly the problem.
Working in IT, where technologist, regulators, and analysts use identical terminology as the general public to talk about quite different things from IT users (and oftentimes each other!)*, I sympathise completely with lsnrchrd1. In my professional writing, I strive to take pains to provide the right translation gizmo for our clients. 😉
* I mean, you may think that an authentication token is something quite different from a password, but NIST SP 800-63-1 uses “token” to encompass both!
Does he know about using paragraphs to make it easier to read his material?
Touché GBJ! I do tend to run things together in comments. These are written very quickly and almost never edited, so they are occasional, not for publication, and fairly “spur of the moment.” (This by way of defence, if there is one!)
Eric, I don’t think you understand the very precise definition we’re using for the broad construction of science.
Again, my version of it (which is mine): the apportioning of belief in proportions indicated by a rational analysis of objective observation.
Can you offer an example a different method of apportioning belief that you would consider valid or useful? That would constitute one of these infamous “other ways of knowing” we keep hearing so much about. I think you’ll agree with me that either these other ways are indeed perfectly in line with my definition, or else they’re an exercise in delusion or deception or some other invalid mental exercise.
Also, the “circularity” cry is completely off base here. Circularity is the only way that we know that empiricism actually works. We must recursively compare our mental models with reality if we want to have any hope of attaining mental models that are in close alignment of reality. If the goal is to measure, say, the width of the doorway so you’ll know whether or not you’ll be able to fit the box through the door, it does you no good to pull a couple numbers out of your ass or otherwise philosophically intuit them. Rather, you’ve got to compare the width against a known standard — a ruler. That fits your definition of circularity; you’re defining the number of inches in the width of the door in terms of inches. But it’s also the only thing that can even theoretically work.
Ignoring the bit about empiricism, which I have said my piece elsewhere, this is important:
A naturalistic world view can make it understandable how we come to know, and is starting to.
Supernaturalistic components, including, now, psychoneural dualism *are not explanatory*. How does the cartesian soul come to know? We know in the case of brains something about how, say, LTP, works. But with souls we literally have no idea. the same applies to ghosts, (immaterial) goblins and gods. Worse, we know any such proposal runs into immediate problems with things we *do* know, like conservation laws. Even *Descartes* agreed that matter-on-non-matter and conversely was a *big* problem. He appealed to a conservation law which turned out to be *false*. Now we know momentum is conserved, not magnitude of momentum. So …
Yes! Supernatural explanations lack explanatory power! “You still have all your work before you,” as I’m fond of quoting in these contexts. Or, “You might as well say, ‘Fred did it’,” to quote Grayling rather than Hitchens.
Hey — you leave Fred out of this!
(And that’s one episode worth watching, even for adults. The first guest is a much younger version of one of today’s elder gods of the tuba.)
Not something that ever made it over this side of the pond, afaik.
So sorry for your loss….
Seems to me they use “polity” to gussy up the likely dreadful mess they are really teaching. My dictionary doesn’t use “polity” in the sense they do.
LOL “sudden pain in my lower mesentery” – translatiion: shpilkis in meinem genechtagazoink … !
IMHO, they are religion optional, not secular colleges. I would agree if they were atheist colleges, which I suspect may want to offer philosophy of religion courses so their atheist students know what’s up.
As far as I am aware, all universities established in the original colonies were Christian universities for the purpose of turning out Christian ministers. I don’t recall when the first secular university came into being here, but I do know that Jefferson and Madison tried to create and maintain secularity at the University of Virginia.
In England, all universities were for the purpose of teaching Christianity and turning out Anglican ministers until the rise of the Dissenters in the 1600s or so who were excluded from existing universities, so started their own. I wouldn’t call Dissenter universities secular, but they taught in the English language rather than Latin and they taught sciences rather than the traditional classical education.
I would prefer that secular universities not be in the business of teaching Christian religion and producing Christian ministers. As with others who’ve written here, I have no major problem with courses on comparative religions, the Bible as history, the Bible as literature, etc. In the last two instances,if these courses are taught, similar courses also hould be taught on the history and literature of non-Christian religions.
I think it best that such courses be offered only in religious universities. However,I have become aware of numerous professors of religion who started down the questioning path to becoming humanists, secularists, agnostics or atheists as a result of their education in Christianity at either or both religious and secular universities. Not that this is an excuse for spending secular university money to teach Christianity exclusively.
I totally forgot to mention the Catholics in England preceding the Anglicans. Universities in England prior to the Dissenters/Protestants were for the purpose of producing clerics of the state-sanctioned religion.
And please excuse the typos.
Hector Avalos is an atheist. He has written another great book*, “Se Puede Saber si Dios Existe?” (Can We Know if God Exists?) He discusses his transition from boy evangelical preacher in Mexico to obtaining a Ph. D. at Harvard. Appendix II in his book: “From Christianity to Atheism, My Personal Experience.”
*Besides The End of Bibllical Studies; Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence; and Slavery Abolitionism and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship.
I don’t think Harvard was founded as a secular university — it was founded as a religious university.
The Congregationalists founded Harvard when Massachusetts was a colony.
When the Unitarians and Congregationalists split, the Unitarians took over Harvard and the Congregationalists founded Yale in retaliation.
Duke was also founded as a religious university by the Methodists and Quakers.
Tufts (where Daniel Dennett does his research and teaching) was founded as a religious university by the Universalists (prior to the mid-20th century merger of the Unitarians and Universalists).
It seems to me that if theism took on a little more scientism in its deliberations it wouldn’t be in the unholy mess it now fins itself as an explanatory tool.
Theism. Scientism. The ends of the Culture Wars continuum. Humanity has for too long rattled round and round the cul-de-sac of rampant supernaturalism, imagination unfettered by the laws of logic, and occultic superstition. So self-absorbed and obsessed have we been in this faery tale that we are incapable of, unable to comprehend and appreciate for one moment the extent to which science has provided us an explanatory window into reality. Those that pejoratively and counterfactually toss out the ‘scientism’ canard for no good reason other than to preserve supernatural superstition, as ‘another way of knowing’ are simply capitulating to the ‘warm and fuzzies’, surrendering to untutored and undisciplined primal intuition, a notoriously unreliable epistemic basis for decision-making.
should read: “Those that pejoratively and counterfactually toss around the ‘scientism’ canard …….
Philosophy and theology are quite different. Having Master degrees in both, I would offer (somewhat simplistically) the following distinction.
Philosophy (unlike ideology which is a fixed set of ideas) is a mode of crticial thinking that focuses upon raising questions about any issue, world view, nature or the universe. The Pre-Socratics, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus all engaged in this process and articulated “philosophies.” At the core of their endeavors was a critique of religion, i.e., an effort to offer alternatives to the religious beliefs of Greek culture/society. So, there is a distinction between “philosophy” as a verb and “philosophy” as a noun. As a “verb” is a critical, rational process. As a “noun,” it’s a product, an outcome of the “verbing.” As others have hinted, there can be “philosophy” of anything, e.g., philosphy of science, philosophy of architecture, philosophy of religion, philosphy of sports, etc. Philosophy thus as a “verb” is a process of critique, of challenge, of persistent pursuit of the foundations of any topic of engagement. When one studies philosophy, one inevitably studies a specific philosopher such as Aristotle. One can do this to learn what Aristotle thought (Aristotle as a “noun”) or one can study to learn how Aristotle thought critically (Aristotle as a “verb”). Hopefully, one does both.
Theology is directly associated with beliefs and in a basic sense presupposes belief (a least traditionally). Theology can be very parochial. Theology is generally done in the context of a belief system. It’s purpose should be to bring a critical analysis to the system of beliefs that create its context of operation. Theology must challenge the validity of beliefs in the context of historical knowledge. This is “theology” as “verb.” “Theology” as “noun” is the product of this investigation. Today there are the “Sophicated Theologians” that Jerry has presented that are arguing for the relevance and validity of their beliefs or relevance of some underlying theistic or dualistic principles, even if watered down to the “Ground of Being” (a la Tillich). The major task that other theologians have undertaken is to carry the theological critique of religious beliefs, especially Christianity, to a radical level. Their result is that a theistic, dualist (matter & spirit/soul), literalist interpretations of traditional berliefs is completely invalid. This “religious worldview” does not exist and is a detrimental historic holdover. The result for such a theology is that RELIGION IS POETRY. Theology now as a “verb” is to “write” the best poetry. Theology as a “noun” now is the various POEMS one might voice.
As an aside, I see being an “atheist” as a “verb” far more than being a “noun.”
Sorry for the length. I welcome any feedback.
Leon, I copied this sentence: Theology is directly associated with beliefs and in a basic sense presupposes belief (a least traditionally).
Dictionaries tell me that “theo” is Greek for god or gods at the time the word theology entered the language. As you note, it presupposes belief in god(s), but am I incorrect if I claim it does even more, that the term is a statement that presupposes the existence of god(s)?
Is it possible for one to have a belief commitment to a theology of some sort that does not include a divine supernatural entity? I hope the answer is that if “theo” is in the term employed, then by definition some sort of god is posited.
And that takes us directly to presupposition. Ontological, teleological, cosmological: there are lists of arguments for the existence of god I’ve seen that go from four to over 100.
Most of the list’s that include more than about a dozen are (imo) nitnoid head scratcher puzzler’s which only dedicated philosopher’s enjoy wrangling over, and I do not know of any existing pro argument that does not finally and absolutely depend on the presupposition of the unverifiable claim that a supernatural entity presently exists and always has.
If there is one argument that proves god(s), I wish it were produced so believers can end their bloody totalitarian machinations to determine who is boss, and we can all get down to the real business of worship, or being totalitarian drones, or whatever the hell this god expects of us. If such a thing exists, I for one will immediately accept the fact as reality and adjust my thinking as necessary.
Thank you for your comments.
A definition of “theology” in a dictionary will undoubtedly be based upon a traditional “theistic” understanding of religion and theology. Likewise, “theism” is based upon dualism and ontology. I agree that these definitions have historically presupposed the existence of god(s). The core of these arguments are rooted in Greek philosophers, primarily Plato and Aristotle. Epicurus is worth studying because he was a materialist.
As I mentioned, one can practice “theology” as an atheist (“verb” more so than “noun”) if one recognizes that RELIGION IS POETRY (as I mentioned in my initial comments) and that the role of THEOLOGY is to do relevant poetry. In this context any use of the word “god” must be used strictly as a metaphor for that in which we live, and move and have our existence, namely, matter’s energy. However, this is a risky approach. I prefer not to use the word “god” at all even as a metaphor. It’s really not needed.
If one wants to do “theology,” then one must accept the following: 1) the end of Dualism (matter vs spirit; body vs soul; Being vs being; First Cause vs secondary causes, etc 2) religion has no claim to any facts or data about existence, the universe; (3) religion/theology is about our relationship to the universe which is the role of art and poetry; 4) recognizes the role that Platonism, Neo-Platonism, Stoicism, Aristotelianism have played in western civilization regarding the pervasive role of Dualism and all efforts to argue for the existence of god(s). (Once there is a grasp of this philosophical underpinning, the effort to argue for the existence of a god(s) evaporates).
For religious people, this is a hurdle that is difficult to jump. Many have and are making it. But I have carried on a recent conversation with a religiously oriented person who at the end of several exchanges still couldn’t grasp the fundamentals of the argumentation for a Monistic Materialism that does not need nor want the traditional ontological, dualistic perspective.
I appreciate the opportunity to respond to your focus. Leon
That seems a very idiosyncratic view of theology! If you do without Θεός as such, why even bother with it as a metaphor for anything? Why not save a step (as someone once said) and simply focus on your relationship to the universe proper?
Yes, to a traditional theist this approach to theology may well appear to be idiosyncratic, but to those who are committed to a rational and critical critique in light of science, it is the only way to go. Theology’s responsibility is to do a rational and critical analysis of religious beliefs and follow wherever that may lead. All too often theology has been compliant, accommodating and rationalizing with religious institutions and their authority.
One can certainly skip the metaphors of religion and theology all together. I definitely appreciate, affirm and engage that as a valid way to go. One can utilize the arts and humanities in one’s effort to humanize our relationship to nature and the universe.
Thank you for your comments.
One can certainly skip the metaphors of religion and theology all together. I definitely appreciate, affirm and engage that as a valid way to go. One can utilize the arts and humanities in ones effort to humanize our relationship to nature and the universe.
Sure, theres value in the arts and humanities. But why even bother with theology as such?
One might ask “why read the Iliad or the Odyssey?” which is filled with the Olympian gods and goddesses that no one now takes literally. Is there something one can legitimately derive from Homer’s classics that might be relevant to our human existence? Or consider the founding myths of Athens, i.e., Athena’s victory over Poseidon and the deeds of Theseus. Can not the same be said? If one can be open to these religious myths, symbols and rituals, critically analyze them and enter into their inner core, one may be able to derive a benefit that may enlighten our contemporary human journey that struggles with the same or similar issues as the ancient Greeks. This, dare I say, is a “theologizing” vis-à-vis the symbols, myths and rituals of a seemly distant culture and its religion. When I visited Greece 3 years ago for nearly a month, I went to nearly all the major archaeological sites and tried connect to their significance both intellectually and emotionally. Isn’t that the point of “travel”… be it by book or plane? Encountering other cultures is ultimately going to be an encounter with their religions. If our approach is to simply reject them or hold them in an objective, detached manner that has no relevance to us, then I think we have made ourselves all the poorer. If we simply say that they’re not true, that they’re fiction and go no further than that, then we will show ourselves to be narrow minded. Call it “theologizing,” call it “psychoanalysis” a la Freud or the “collective unconscious” a la Jung or simply curiosity. By whatever name it goes by, rational and critical analysis of myths, symbols and rituals not just of religion but of the culture itself in a effort to distill the gems of wrestling with life and mortality is a sine qua non of enriching our own lives. Yes, there is a winnowing process that needs to separate the wheat from the chaff but that’s what it means to be a thinking person and not just a faitheist.
Thank you again for challenging me to develop my thoughts in this regard. If you care to respond, I will let that be the final word.
“By whatever name it goes by, rational and critical analysis of myths, symbols and rituals not just of religion but of the culture itself in a effort to distill the gems of wrestling with life and mortality is a sine qua non of enriching our own lives.”
Well, yes. But it’s a stretch to call /that/ “theology”!
@leon – I’m not entirely sure what you are arguing here but I may have an idea.
When we study The Odyssey, The Iliad, etc. we see it within the context of Greek society. You may read them purely for their poetic beauty and purely because they are good stories, but if you are to study them in an academic setting, you do so within this greater context. That context includes religion but the religion is no greater than the rest of their culture (which didn’t separate religion from private life, business life or political life).
So, I don’t think these examples really support why we should keep the theos in theology. It seems we should be able to understand biblical stories and passages as examples of the thinking, values and customs of the times they were written and within the context of the greater culture as determined through archaeology and history just as we would with the study of The Iliad or The Odyssey.
Thank you for this reply, Leon. You certainly addressed the substance of my questions, and provide me with useful context for understanding professional philosopher terminology regarding theism.
Eric McDonald may be operating from the same definitions you provide above. I think a problem arises when academics and others utilizing this vocabulary to consider issues from the perspective you present, and when a layperson with my perspective reads “theology.” Everyone I interact with speaks/writes about “theology” in the sense of a creation entity, at root, even though at times pinning this fact down is exactly like peeling the layers off the onion of a William Lane Craig debate argument. It takes effort and time, but inevitably that is what one finds comprises the core.
Things would be more clear (and accurate), in my own mind at least, if the term “theology” (and religion, also) is(are) confined strictly to the existence, or not, of supernatural god entities. It seems to me that your work is valuable and, while related to ancient origins of all the components that make up religions, unique from the “theo” aspects them.
You harness your horse to a plow mired permanently in a furrow leading to nothing, when you could work in your field without this unnecessary burden and more easily sow your seed in the mind of the lay public. Well, this lay public mind, at any rate.
There is a lot of history one must be aware of to completely grok transitional definitions (my term) like those you employ in your excellent explanation above, my buffer is too crowded already, and seldom do I have the time to research an interesting argument I encounter (hence my snarky ‘nitnoid’ remark; I apologize, jargon would have been at least as apt, and I hope you get my drift). I appreciate the time/effort of your response.
Thank you for citing The End of Biblical Studies, which discusses the problems with Harvard Divinity School and the University of Chicago Divinity School on pp. 295-98, where I also suggest abolishing these schools.
I am indeed an atheist, and one of the few openly atheist biblical scholars in academia. I do think that cooperation between scientists and secular biblical scholars is the best way to combat biblical creationism.
Aside from the obvious scientific flaws of creationism, the most important problem is that most creationists do not even know the Bible’s cosmology, which is often obfuscated by translations.
Most scientists don’t understand Genesis or Hebrew sufficiently either, and so they end up conceding too much from the start in some debates. For an example, see:
In any case, thanks again for your work on behalf of evolutionary biology.
I love these Marshall McLuhan moments!!
And I’d love to see Drs. Avalos and Coyne team up on something-or-other….