What’s Wrong with the World

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Speaking from ignorance

This would explain why many philosophers who do not specialize in philosophy of religion manifestly don’t know what they’re talking about when they open up their mouths on the subject (as we have seen here, here, and here). If you “don’t take the subject seriously” enough to study it, then naturally all you are going to “know” about it are the simple-minded clichés you and your secularist colleagues smugly bounce around your echo chamber. HT: Prosblogion.

Comments (13)

This problem is surely compounded by atrophy in religious studies departments. One Yale alum complains about former Yale prof Marilyn McCord Adams:

Adams' staunch opposition to Thomists, especially to Catholic Thomists, has kept Yale without any Medieval philosophy professors (except her!) since the early 1990s. She has personally opposed hiring some truly great assistant professors, who will remained unnamed because I don't want to make life more complicated for them. She exemplifies the typical attitude of the liberal academic: always promoting "tolerance and diversity" in her own agenda, but behaving in an opportunistic and intolerant fashion to subordinates who do not share her academic opinions. An ardent nominalist, I've known Adams to penalize undergraduate papers simply because they defended a moderate-realist theory of universals. God forbid you express the opinion that St. Thomas was correct and Ockham's nominalism was the beginning of the slide toward the irreparable epistemology of the Enlightenment. Or that Ockham's voluntarist theology of God is the source of manifold problems in the theology of providence, justification and grace in the Reformation. Kiss anything higher than a B goodbye.

He wrote this in 2003, when it was announced that Adams had accepted the Regius Chair at Oxford.

In the linked post at Prosblogion, he says,

[S]upposing it did tell us something about that, what would that tell us about whether philosophy of religion is serious philosophy? It makes me wonder about the real point of the post.

You know what makes me wonder about the real point of the post? The huge frickin' masthead that reads COMMONSENSE ATHEISM, which the author obviously considers a redundancy. The subhead is a tiresome quote that atheists clearly find compelling, as they repeat it so often I am sure that one of their number will soon set it to music:

“When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” – Stephen Roberts

Never mind that the typical atheist's reasons for dismissing all religions--materialism, for example--share close to nothing in common with a religious person's reasons for dismissing some religions. It's the presumption that really irritates--that the speaker knows my reasons without even having heard them. But if you think it's all a matter of "common sense," then of course no arguments are necessary, and if no real arguments are necessary, then there's no point hearing anybody out.

Now that's off my chest, I'll just add that the real problem with "religious studies" is that as it currently is constituted in most places, it's not a philosophical discipline at all, but rather a small and unprestigious branch of the sociology department, generally inhabited by non-religious Marxists whose principle aim is the finding of commonalities between religious experience and presenting those commonalities as evidence against the existence of the things to which those experiences refer. Alternatively, the numinous is reduced by a process of phenomenological legerdemain to something which has value only insomuch as human beings value it. For example, "the sacred" is defined as those things which are set apart as such by human beings. I once answered a sociologist that the difference between my view and his was that I knelt before the altar because it was sacred, where he believed the altar to be sacred because I knelt before it.

Philosophy of religion, particularly as done within the analytic tradition, is very far removed from religious studies.

But I'm afraid the sociological trend within philosophy to disfavor philosophy of religion and people who do work in it is a real one. I'm very much afraid that a person who applies for a job in, say, philosophy of mind, having real credentials in philosophy of mind but having also done work in philosophy of religion, may find that he is disfavored for the job in virtue of having also done work in phil. of rel. We all know that these kinds of things happen in a more general way. If someone applies for a job in history of modern having done a number of papers in epistemology, the department may question his interest in and commitment to history of modern, even if he also has papers in that sub-discipline. But my own opinion is that it's getting worse than just that w.r.t. phil. of religion nowadays. I hope that I am wrong about this.

With so many beliefs to mock it's something of a wonder that so many are fixated on religion. I mean really, belief in government as the engine of progress, itself deserving of a dollop or two of mockery.
Maybe it's the secular side of placing false gods before them, seeing religion as a competitor where allegiance before the chief agent of materialist faith, government, is demanded. Heresy here is not to be abided, tolerance among the open minded having its limits, after all. it's the Age of Power.
I wonder who is more foolish, they who know they worship a God, a spiritual presence central to their lives, One who enters through grace but offers not an Earthly Kingdom, or those who live like Burke's "flies of the summer", inclusive of which are the devotee's of a vague progress, never satisfied or reached, and place their loyalties in faction and vulgar politics?

But then I already know the answer.
Other men will believe, come what may and in whatever is at hand. That condition inheres in the aimless wandering of modernity and it's twin, ignorance.

I know a brilliant philosophy professor whose application was turned down at a certain college because he was also a clergyman, and the head of the philosophy department, an atheist, "didn't want any ministers on his faculty." The department head's favorite philosopher? Voltaire.

Which would be funny if it weren't so sad.

It would have served them right if he'd sued for religious discrimination. You can't imagine their being that bold in not hiring a Muslim imam.

Of course, the meta-ignorance is the real problem. It's only to be expected that most secularists are ignorant about religious traditions they aren't a part of. The problem is that they *think* they know an awful lot about what religious people think on the basis of inane caricatures. I recall that, in the thread dissecting the APA resolution, one commenter referred to the "serious" arguments that had been made in its favor over on Leiter's blog. That these "arguments" could be considered serious for even a minute is quite revealing.

I would ask a secular reader to imagine the following scenario. Suppose that philosophy was professionally dominated by religious thinkers, and that these religious thinkers not only rejected naturalism, they routinely mocked it, laughed at it, and tauch caricatures of it to their students. Whenever these philosophers are called upon the explain why they dismiss naturalism so casually, the best they can typically do is to trot out arguments like "If God didn't make the world, who did?" or "Darwinists think a monkey turned into a human one day, isn't that stupid?" Naturally, you would be indignant, and you would be utterly dismayed that such simple-minded and stupid arguments could carry the day on such an important topic.

If the secularist reader believes that they would be a little bit frustrated and perhaps a little bit angry if this scenario were to obtain, then welcome to our world.

Here's an interesting thing, though, Untenured: Some people who are very "into" Philosophy of Religion and are known for it are atheists. (Quentin Smith being an example here.) In other words, they are known as philosophers of religion from the atheist side. I get the feeling too that when atheist Luke Muelhauser says in one of the linked posts above that philosophy of religion is great (or whatever phrase he uses), he really means it. There are anti-Christian philosophers of religion out there who find all of these discussions very interesting, if only because they have detailed anti-Christian arguments that they like to promulgate. (I'm blanking right now on the name of a fairly well-known philosopher who does work in probability theory and has a _gigantic_ philosophy of religion book with all sorts of equations from the non-Christian side.)

I think it will be politically interesting to see how the new, generalized hostility to the sub-discipline of philosophy of religion plays out, given this fact. Admittedly, there aren't (AFAIK) a _lot_ of such atheist philosophers of religion, but it may be necessary for the new political movement that wishes to shun phil. of rel. altogether to fudge on the existence of the ones there are in order to treat phil. of rel. as a fuzzy or not-to-be-respected sub-discipline. Of course, it may be that a side effect of such a movement will be to discourage work in philosophy of religion by young non-Christians who might otherwise be interested in the questions, but that's for the future.

@Lydia: I don't disagree with you. My comments are directed at the professional culture within academic philosophy, which is thoroughly pervaded by a kind of thoughtless and reflexive secularism. Such ignorance isn't a serious problem in and of itself- everyone is ignorant about something or other. I don't know the first thing about Eastern philosophy, for example. I would, however, *never* purport to speak authoritatively about Eastern philosophy, or refer to some know-nothing who is mouthing off in a combox as though he were presenting a "serious" critique of it when he calls Eastern philosophy a bunch of "vague mystical rubbish" or whatever. Nor would I teach an auditorium full of impressionable students my own uninformed thoughts on the topic as though they were state-of-the-art discussion material. I think most philosophers share these scruples, and yet they often go out the window entirely when the topic turns to religion.

FWIW, I am at a well-positioned university on the east coast. My experiences have repeatedly shown me that most academic philosophers know a lot less than they think they do. They are, however, incredibly skilled at justifying their beliefs verbally and in print, and this gives them a sense of dialectical invulnerability when they start mouthing-off about topics like religion, intellectual and scientific history, the continental tradition, and so on. These are just observations, and don't mean to demean philosophy as a whole. It is just incredibly frustrating to deal with the prevalent attitudes in our profession on a daily basis.

Philosophers (and here, to some degree, I include myself, though I have no institutional affiliation) have far too much prestige in America (I can't speak much to Britain but suspect it is true there too). It makes them sort of instant pundits (just add water), which can be _very_ bad for them/us.

It's almost enough to make one sympathize with what is otherwise very irritating: the ignorant man on the street who has utter contempt for philosophy as a pointless, ivory-tower discipline.


The book you're thinking of is Jordan Howard Soble's Logic and Theism.

And yes, knowing Luke personally, I can tell you that he really likes talking and thinking about philosophy of religion, and has respect for it (though he really doesn't understand why people take reformed epistemology seriously). He even takes a crack at some bad atheist arguments on his blog, for instance:

http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=6113 (refuting the "who designed the designer?" argument)
http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=27 (attacking Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus)
http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=5213 (refuting the claim that Jesus is magic)

Dear Lydia, FWIW, I haven't noticed a preponderance of philosophers on news and current affairs shows here in the U.K. Whenever a question of applied ethics, say, hits the news, a programme like News Night will turn to some think-tank or 'health care official' for a position. The implication seems to be that ethical questions are obviously just questions of public policy or medicine. So, I'm not so sure that the visible absence of philosophy from the public square is much of an improvement, even though here at WWWTW we may doubt that the average secular philosopher would say much that could be considered an improvement upon this view.

Or should that be 'W4'?

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