Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Echo Chamber: Loftus, Lindsay, Coyne & Boghossian on Philosophy of Religion

I knew it would only be a matter of time before John Loftus had to respond to my latest interview with Graham Oppy on the philosophy of religion. If nothing else, the man is tenacious. After declaring himself Boghossian's bulldog, he seems to have felt compelled by his new title to jump all over any criticisms of Boghossian, including my little post criticizing Peter for a couple of his tweets, using similarly loaded and reactionary vocabulary. John and I exchanged what I thought were polite disagreements, but it eventually devolved into personal attacks, from both sides, admittedly. I won't go into the details because they're unimportant to the subject of this post. However, it's interesting to note how John made a rapid transition (4 days, to be exact) from agreeing on my original post that, "it was unfortunate and disheartening to see Boghossian's two twitter tweets", to declaring it "genius" on par with other famous historical satires. A week later, he pronounced the philosophy of religion dead on the basis of an opinion piece written by Jerry Coyne - a biologist, not a philosopher - analyzing a philosophy of religion paper. Well, I shouldn't say analyzing as much as dismissing it out of personal distaste for its jargon (which every discipline has to those not involved with it). Jeff Lowder has more than adequately addressed Coyne's piece, so I will refrain from covering it here.

In my interview with Dr. Oppy, my aim was not to press him at every turn to offer the best possible justification for philosophy of religion. James Lindsay (a physicist, not a philosopher) offered the astonishing comment on John's blog that if the interview is really "the best defense available to the field" then philosophy of religion truly is dead. Of course, no pretense is ever made to that, but more amusing is the fact that Lindsay doesn't appear to realize that perhaps Dr. Oppy's newly published book on the subject is the kind of defense he should be engaging with. Perhaps he should be engaging with the various textbooks on the discipline, or even with the essays at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The purpose of my interview was to talk with Graham about his new book, touch on some general questions about the field, and get his opinion on some of the criticisms leveled against it. If Lindsay thinks it was a "softball" interview, I guess the most I can say is that he doesn't grasp the point or limitations of a podcast. His attempt to construe it as the best defense of the discipline is nothing short of a strawman, and his take-aways from it are, one could argue, indicative of a 'softball' understanding.

At least John Loftus tries to make some actual arguments, to his credit, instead of proffering bald assertions about the field and the status of the god debate, or speculating on why non-theists would bother with such a thing. Predictably, I disagree with most of John's conclusions, but it's more than I've seen from the others on his side. John asks, "What if philosophy spawned a discipline that, after a few centuries or decades, science has shown us it doesn't deserve to be a separate discipline?" There's a lot packed into this question. The answer to it depends at least on what assumptions one holds about the purpose and limitations of science, what properly defines a field of inquiry and distinguishes it from other fields, and what it means to say a discipline doesn't deserve to exist on its own - all of which are philosophical in nature. Science by itself won't settle the question John asks, it will have to be science premised on certain philosophical assumptions, and this is exactly the matter I don't see Loftus, Lindsay, Coyne, or Boghossian even bothering to address. Why grant these assumptions and why, if we do grant them, should we accept that they do away with philosophy of religion?

The answer to that last question is part of one's philosophy of religion. Dr. Oppy pointed this out on the show, Jeff Lowder has noted it in a recent post, and I expressed it myself over a month ago in a Facebook status. Interestingly, in his post praising the satirical "genius" of Boghossian's tweet (linked to above), John agreed with this assessment, yet in his latest response to my interview he seems to no longer agree. This view, he claims, is misguided because by the same token, "someone who rejects legitimate science by doing pseudoscience is doing science, or someone who does science badly is doing science, and so forth." I don't feel that this analogy is fitting, though. There is an obvious and relevant difference between science and philosophy, for starters. Science operates under a methodology that has been constructed and is still being developed (think of Karl Popper or Thomas Kuhn as contributing to historically recent debates on the subject) through philosophical effort. To say that doing pseudoscience is doing science is senseless because scientific claims, in the standard use of the term, have a certain methodology by which they are judged. Calling something pseudoscience is to say that it pretends at being scientific, and the implication is that it is not actually so - typically for the very reason that it does not meet methodological standards. While philosophers have their various ideas of what philosophy should be and should look like, there is no general standardized methodology for doing philosophy in the same way there is for doing science. Philosophy, to be overly simple, is the study of aspects of our existence and experience, or as per the ancient Greeks, it's the study of wisdom.

I think there is a better analogy to be drawn out of Loftus' analogy. Pseudoscience proponents may not be doing science, but they do have a philosophy of science. That is, they have certain ideas about what science should be, how it should be done, or to tie it back in with philosophy in general they have ideas about what science can and should study of our existence and experience. It's not legitimizing their views to hold this position, either, as there can undoubtedly be bad philosophy of science. Many postmodernist philosophies of science are bad philosophies of science, I would say. When we debate with pseudoscience proponents like homeopaths, the debate often involves the question of what science is and what it can and cannot explain. To the extent that it is a methodological debate, it is also a philosophical one. To be an anti-realist about scientific concepts is to hold a particular philosophy of science. But maybe this much doesn't even need to be said, as it could be that when we refer to "doing science", there is just an underlying assumption made that we are doing a particular kind of thing, science according to a particular philosophy. A successful and practical philosophy, but a philosophy nonetheless, and I think this shows why it's the philosophy part of philosophy of religion that matters, and why even rejecting the discipline on the grounds that Loftus and others reject it is itself a philosophy of religion.

John attempts to draw out something surprising from one of Oppy's other remarks:
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.

Of course, if this is reason enough to ditch philosophy of religion, it is reason enough to ditch science too, since we did without the discipline of science (I'm speaking here of the enterprise and not the generic inquiry into nature) for centuries before the Scientific Revolution began.

John has many times made reference to Keith Parsons leaving the discipline in 2010, as he does in his latest post:

The discipline is so bad that Dr. Keith Parsons decided to quit teaching it because he could not take it seriously any longer. If he decided to quit teaching it then he agrees it should end as a discipline of learning...

I have actually talked with Dr. Parsons on just this issue, however, and he explains that he left the field over frustration with the "case for theism", and does not see the philosophy of religion as dead. On the contrary, he mentioned John Hick's An Interpretation of Religion as one of the things he sees as fostering worthwhile study.

The other primary point of focus in John's post seems to be the issue of what I'll term religious diversity. Why should we have a discipline in any secular university, he asks, "where theism, or Christian theism, Christian theology or Christian apologetics is privileged and considered to the exclusion of all other religions or apologetics?" Note that this is a point on which there is little disagreement. I think even a good number of Christian philosophers would agree that there needs to be more diversity in the field. What this is not, however, is an argument for a wholesale demolition of the discipline. John seems to feel it is, though, when he claims the only reasonable response is to call for the discipline's end. I continue to see this hopeless picture of things painted by those who want to bring down philosophy of religion, yet I keep finding no substantive justifications for why exactly demolition is in order rather than reform. Imagine abolishing an entire country as a political presence because one party came to hold majority power!

To the secular part of his question, there are many possible responses. Despite how many Christians and apologists are in philosophy of religion, that doesn't mean it is or has to be merely a boot camp for theism. Not all Christian philosophers argue for Christian theism in the courses they teach. By contrast, I've been listening to a lecture series where Shelly Kagan argues directly against the soul, an afterlife, etc. He explains to his students at the very beginning what his class will be like, and they have the option of staying in or moving to another class. Hell, I live in Texas and my Philosophy of Religion professor was openly atheist. Universities are not high schools, and as a university student myself I feel very strongly that we benefit from exposure to other views. It's one of the reasons I engage with people I disagree with. In this age of the internet, there are plenty of resources for students to hear competing views, so offering courses at secular universities that *might* feature arguments for the existence of god, delivered by a professing Christian or by an unsympathetic atheist, hardly seems like a sign of the end times.

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 religio[n]s are compared/contrasted/considered and the secular counter-part is offered as a critique of them all.

I don't think this is what Professor Oppy advocates. Wanting more variety is not the same thing as wanting to line up every single opinion in a classroom and present it by the numbers and challenge each view by the numbers. Surveying different religious beliefs doesn't strike me as any more inappropriate to a secular institution than it is to survey countries outside your own in a History class. If the complaint really boils down to, 'we already have other disciplines for that', then I'm tempted to ask, 'so what?' There is already lots of overlap between different disciplines taught at universities, and the question of where one ends and another begins is, as already noted, a philosophical question. If it comes down to the harm caused by religions, I'll say: 1) treating all religions as harmful presupposes a singular definition of religion; 2) the same claim could equally be used to argue that we should not study countries with violent tendencies in our History classes. I also have to admit to being perplexed by John's objection to his misconstrual of Oppy's view, since he advocates that teachers "seek to disabuse their students of the view that faith is a virtue". Is that all that different from offering naturalism as a critique of religion?

It looks, then, as if what John and the echo chamber want is not so much the abolition of philosophy of religion as it is for their particular brand of it to reign supreme in secular universities. Is this better than having a religiously sectarian discipline taught in schools? Part of me sympathizes with thinking outside the box of faith, but another part recognizes that goal as a dangerously authoritarian one. The purpose of institutions of learning should not be to indoctrinate, as our formerly religious universities used to do. This is why I'm just as hesitant to endorse Hector Avalos' project of redefining biblical studies to eliminate the influence of the Bible in modernity. Whatever happened to allowing people to think for themselves? Isn't that what the term 'freethinker' is supposed to mean? How you can claim that label for yourself and simultaneously call for the institutionally-supported indoctrination of others into your own view is beyond me. A freethinker with the need to make everyone think as they do seems undeserving of the name. In fact, isn't that one major characteristic of religious fundamentalists that freethinkers have historically seemed to be so dead-set against?

At the risk of further infuriating some of my critics, I'll end with something I've been wondering for a while - which I genuinely do not intend to be mean-spirited. John Loftus is obviously very proud of his three master's degrees in philosophy of religion. He has brought them up in several posts, in discussions on Facebook, and elsewhere, often to imply that he is qualified to discuss philosophy of religion, while those of us poor young students who haven't earned our degrees yet are not. Normally, I don't bother with petty quibbles over credentials unless there is actually a legitimate appeal to authority to be made. The problem here is that John Loftus quite clearly thinks the field from which he earned his degrees is an illegitimate field. To be frank, he got his three master's, from two Christian universities, in a discipline that his friend Jerry Coyne has referred to as "garbage". So, in all sincerity, I'm left wondering why John Loftus doesn't seem to accept that his degrees are in nonsense. I don't believe that they are, but if philosophy of religion is truly dead, and we should all stop "god-bothering", as James Lindsay calls it, why continue to run a blog like Debunking Christianity, or write books like Christianity is Not Great? You might argue that you're doing your part to bring others into that realization, but why not lead by example?

What I would like to see end is the viciously uncharitable attitude some of my fellow atheists have to anything and everything remotely related to religion, including those who can be construed in the loosest ways as "legitimizing" it. Sometimes I have to wonder what planet certain people live on, where they seem to feel they are in danger of imminent attack from the religious. We should know better. How often do we bring up confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, ingroup and outgroup psychology, and other factors that can play a role in the religious mindset? We are not insusceptible to these, either, no matter how rational we tell ourselves we are. If we really want to make any difference in the way other people think and act, to make a difference in the world at large, we have to start with the ways we think and act, and that has to be an ongoing process. Accepting that god doesn't exist does not change who and what we are as human beings, it doesn't make us more rational, nor does it make us better people. As we ask for theists to find more existential and epistemic humility, we ought to strive toward that end, too. A scorched-earth policy benefits no one, no matter how right we believe ourselves to be.

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