Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Don't god-bother. Philosophy of religion is dead

I got asked (by Jeff Lowder) why I think god-bothering (that being my term for philosophy of religion) is dead. The answer is straightforward, so this will be a short blog post, but first, let's see what Lowder has to say about the field,
[T]he philosophy of religion is not “dead,” but it is in serious condition, if not on life support. This can be shown by counting the number of philosophy departments at secular colleges and universities which have faculty lines for philosophy of religion. (They are very rare.) Why is this? I think that one contributing factor to this state of affairs is the blatant partisanship which is very much the norm in the philosophy of religion. Many philosophers of religion, including both atheists and theists, function as natural theologians (if theists) or natural atheologians (if atheists). In other words, they act as if their job description says, “If you’re a theist, defend theism; if you’re an atheist, defend atheism.” It’s rare for philosophers of religion to engage in genuine inquiry and to spend equal amounts of time defending theism and defending atheism. But, if a philosopher of religion is going to act like a philosopher, not an apologist, they should be engaging in inquiry. LINK. (taken from John W. Loftus's response to this remark on his own blog, here)
So Lowder recognizes that god-bothering is in "serious condition," perhaps even on life support. Yes, life support is a good analogy: amateur enthusiasts like Lowder and a handful of university philosophy departments (like Notre Dame) are keeping alive a field that would die if they stopped. They should stop. It should be allowed to die while it still has some modicum of dignity remaining.

Why is god-bothering dead?

Simply, the philosophy of religion beats a dead horse. Though lots of folks believe in God via various religions and spiritual belief systems, the ghost has been given up on the academic front. To "get to God," you have to assume God. God is a presupposition, and that means God is an element of a model about reality, an abstraction. There's no reason to believe in a reified (or, in this case, deified) abstraction. There's no need to create arguments against something that we can be almost certain doesn't exist, arguments that have the severe vice of pretending to take the idea of its existence seriously so that they can wage war outside of our boundaries of epistemic reliability.

God-botherers typically engage in arcane arguments of dubious quality concerning some lifeless notion known as "theism," usually "classical theism," which has essentially nothing to do with the living, breathing God believed in by every spiritualist, particularly the religious ones, especially fundamentalists in the Abrahamic monotheisms. The philosophers' God gets you effectively 0% of the way to the personal God of any religion, but it makes it all the easier for smarmy apologists and biased theologians to slip in their individual religion's dogmas under the guise of detached academic respectability. But they're not even talking about the same thing!

Put simply, the arguments have been won. The debate is over. God-bothering, formerly known as the philosophy of religion, has died.

Why avoid god-bothering?

God-bothering gives a veneer of academic respectability to an infectious, problematic, false idea that deserves none. This is a real issue, and it can be likened to the intellectually dishonest move of rebranding creationism as intelligent design. What used to pass as theology got gussied up as religious philosophy and then sucked in atheists and turned them into "atheologians" (a term we should disparage because atheism is not a position and thus doesn't need to be studied or defended). The game on the part of theologians and apologists, all along, like all the way back into antiquity, has been to make other respectable people take their god-bothering ideas seriously, and they succeeded with the philosophy of religion. Consider what former philosopher of religion Keith Parsons had to say about it,
One of the things the really active conservative Christians covet enormously, more than anything else, is intellectual respectability. And they think they have found it in some of the arguments from these philosophers of religion. LINK
We shouldn't contribute to that.

Once you understand that theology and religious apologetics is just a game played by people to keep respectable people taking god-bothering ideas seriously, it becomes plain that we shouldn't indulge it any more than we should seriously dig into the philosophy of astrology or the philosophy of homeopathy.

When did it die?

I may have given the impression that I think the philosophy of religion died (and became god-bothering) a long time ago, invalidating a lot of what went on in recent decades. I don't. I think it died quite recently, though, of course, I'm not sure.

I am dating the death of the philosophy of religion (as a respectable academic discipline that belongs in serious philosophy departments) to the general cultural acceptance/acquiescence of Richard Dawkins's 2006 book The God Delusion. Once the juxtaposition of the words God and delusion became part of our cultural furniture--whether accepted by everyone or not--philosophy of religion died and became god-bothering. I don't know when this happened, but I would roughly date the shift in the zeitgeist to have occurred in 2010-2011, right when Parsons was hanging it up on the field.

(Note that this is not saying that The God Delusion killed the field. Cultural acquiescence to the existence of such an attitude--a zeitgeist shift--killed it. The God Delusion is only partially responsible too. There were other good books, debates, and the rest, that all needed to happen, and Christianity had to utterly ruin its brand with most young people by clinging to hate firmly enough to be identified with unjustified bigoted attitudes at a time when so many of these arguments and debates were becoming widely available to the younger segment of the public.)

Before then, I think the philosophy of religion probably served some use. Certainly there needed to be a general sense that there were strong philosophical rebuttals to much of the twaddle that theologians endlessly spawn in rationalizing defense of their idiotic beliefs. I just think that time has passed.

Why are there still atheist god-botherers, then?

I answered that the other day. You can read it here.

So, don't god-bother. The philosophy of religion is dead.

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NB: This is meant as an offhanded explanation in plain language, not a "sophisticated" argument, though it may be responded to as the latter by people who appear unable to conceive of meaningful dialogue that isn't impenetrable philosospeak.

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Edit: Another NB--I do not care how people spend their time with puzzles they find interesting. People, as individuals, are welcome to god-bother all the want, but they should keep in mind that, though a rear-guard of this kind may be a necessary component of helping people see why theistic arguments are fraudulent games of hide-the-turd, it is a real possibility that taking god-bothering seriously yields the result of getting people to take God seriously (after all, even smart atheists do!). When I say "god-bothering is dead," I am specifically referring to pursuing it or treating it as a serious academic discipline. Puzzles, word games, and a sometimes-useful tool in helping someone see how they've been misled is pretty much the line that god-bothering no longer has any business crossing. If you enjoy engaging in the arguments or trying to see where and why they go wrong, by all means, knock yourself out. Just don't pretend it's important, and don't forget that by taking god-bothering seriously, people will think you're taking the idea of the existence of a God seriously, which is ridiculous.

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