On the philosopher of religion who quit

Although the philosopher Keith Parsons posted his reasons for giving up philosopy of religion several months ago, it has for some reason become part of the online dialogue again — and after teaching philosophy of religion (and abortively interviewing for a position in philosophy of religion), I thought it may be appropriate to “weigh in.”

My first reaction to the piece was to ask, incredulously, “that’s supposed to be philosophy of religion?!” In my happy continental bubble, where philosophers who talk about religion tend to interpret religious texts or trace the legacy (potential or actual) of religious concepts, I had no idea that there was a whole subdiscipline full of people trying to prove the existence of God. That is indeed a curious enterprise, but it doesn’t sound much like philosophy of religion to me. It sounds like philosophy of God, or philosophical theology — or, when done by the devout, apologetics. A discipline that’s supposedly concerned with critically investigating religion can’t even get past the axiomatic (and obviously wrong) view that religion is simply “about” belief in God. A few moments of reflection would indicate that that is indeed definitive of Christianity, but not many other major religions — and indeed, it hardly exhausts the lived reality of Christianity, either.

In my own class — after spending some token time on proofs for the existence of God, which I mainly included to set up the contrast between the ancient/medieval worldviews and the modern world in which religion becomes much more questionable than it had been — I’ve structured things more or less around the questions of the nature (and role) of religion and the origin of religion. In order to do this, I’m going through some of the major texts in the modern European philosophical tradition that discuss religion, most of which don’t thematize the question of whether belief in God is rationally justifiable.

If I were doing a course on the philosophy of God, that could be pretty interesting, too, but even then I wouldn’t limit myself to proofs of the existence of God — there are all the rich speculative accounts of God from the modern philosophical tradition (Spinoza, Leibniz, Whitehead, etc.), as well as pre-modern discourses like Neoplatonism that have a lot to say about what we would call “God.” In that case, discussing the traditional proofs would likely be useful, but again only as a contrastive setup.

28 thoughts on “On the philosopher of religion who quit

  1. This is the only kind of philosophy of religion that is acceptable to the analytically oriented philosophy departments that prevail in the Anglo-American world. I speak from first hand knowledge, having done my PhD in the early 1970s with John Hick on the modal version of the ontological argument. Btw, William Lane Craig was a fellow student doing his dissertation on the cosmological argument.

    I published one article from the dissertation and gave up the philosophy of religion for critical theory and political philosophy, with no absolutely regrets so far.

  2. Speaking of the narrowness of the discipline: Justin E. H. Smith has a post up about this topic that purported to be a radical shift in perspective but was actually just a roundabout way of staying within the existing parameters of analytic philosophy of religion.

  3. I did, as it happens, teach a course on the topic of God last semester–the course was simply titled “God?”–and it dealt with this question, but outside of an intro to philosophy course which might deal with ontological arguments, the existence of God is not a question typical in my courses.

    Anyway, since “God?” was a small class of mostly religion majors, and they ate up everything I gave them to read for the first 2/3 of the course, the students selected a book to read together and their own reading lists for the last several weeks of the course, and they were much more interested in questions about the nature of God and literary approaches to God–including the new book arguing for a “misotheism” or hatred of God.

  4. It is not just the narrowness of the field (though it is certainly that). For me the unending pain in the neck with doing this kind of philosophy of religion is that it’s invariably based on some version or other of the logic of self-refutation. Example?

    “At the start of your argument you assert P. But now you affirm Q. But, by the principles of logic, we can demonstrate that Q = not-P. But we have no logical warrant for asserting simultaneously P and not-P. Therefore you refute yourself”.

  5. Justin E. H. Smith has a post up about this topic that purported to be a radical shift in perspective but was actually just a roundabout way of staying within the existing parameters of analytic philosophy of religion.


  6. The two kinds of philosophy of religion contrasted in this dialogical trail points up a fundamental fissure between two uses of the word “ontology”: Whereas analytic philosophy still wields the term as referring to a positivist (and unjustifiably unalterable, permanent) “being” apprehended by pure (or at least hyper-rarified) noetic reflection (good luck!), Continental philosophy deploys the term in a staunchly sociopolitical mode designed to drive a new subject formation that finds effective agency (and not just individual) where the previous citizen-subject has long since flailed (see Surin’s latest book). In a way the Continental critique of what failed Parsons follows the Heidegger gripe against ontotheology, but its own diverse use of “ontology” unnecessarily follows the (oversized) terminological footprint of Parmenides, and thus presents a confusing misfit with the subsequent logic of identity that has long shadowed Parmenides. To me, “affectivity” (in the Spinozist tradition) holds greater promise both in clarity and power — PROVIDED it is unchained from the current (and asphyxiating) orgy on affect as (only or chiefly) human emotion.

  7. Can you provide directions to the asphyxiating orgy on human emotion? I think I should probably take public transit, or maybe a taxi.

  8. BB:

    Yes, if you take the bus, it is the last stop on the “humanism” line. I would not recommend a taxi ride; it would be a waste of money – unless if you are a tenured professor (or an investment banker with a philosophy degree) in a mid-life crisis. A walk, on the other hand, is certainly out of the questions; it is too exhausting, and by the time you get there, you won’t have any energy left for the orgy itself. But who am I to give advice? Some people like to pass out.

  9. I exist pretty much inside a continental bubble, but even many of my colleagues (fellow grad students) think that philosophy of religion is basically proofs for God. We still have some work to do.

  10. May I ask a lay question? Philosophy of religion sans understanding (other than “token”) of the role of god sounds foundationless. Unless what you’re doing is sociology of a sorts: critical analysis of the role religion plays in the society. Is that right?

    Let me come at it from another direction. After Nietzsche’s declaration of the death of God, religion—certainly in the rational West—seems merely vestigial. The desacralization of the everyday is a given; the demystification of the sacred texts old hat; and the secularization of the sacraments has been with us since at least Calvin. Is what’s left merely form without substance? Formality which lingers on by dint of habit/tradition? That is to say, is religion simply “about” nothing, on your view?

  11. “Remarkably unhelpful”?

    Schelling’s Historical-Critical Introduction to the Philosophy of History, Zizek’s Puppet and the Dwarf, Bergson’s Two Sources of Morality and Religion, Jambet’s La grande résurrection d’Alamût; these are all doing the kind of thing we’re suggesting and doing so in extremely different ways. Go read them.

  12. Or for another vision of a more capacious kind of philosophy of religion, albeit not of exactly the kind most of us here are proposing, you could try Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion — you know, one of the founding texts of the discipline.

  13. I think the texts listed by Anthony and Adam are good places to start. I’d also add in Heidegger’s _Phenomenology of Religious Life_.

  14. I got similar analytic philosophy of religion in my undergrad; Ps and Qs everywhere, the problem of evil taught as an academic conundrum. My honours supervisor spent much of his time arguing that the discipline was a fraud conducted by creationists and their kin, but largely used analytic philosophy to do so. Even something like Westphal on suspicion and faith (i.e. Marx, Freud and Nietzsche are good Christians) was out there to them. Thank hell I found a copy of Roland’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door for $1.50 at the co-op bookshop…

  15. Some of you all sound a bit tense. If you want to chill out, David U. B. Liu has a lead on a fantastic party: directions above.

    (David, excellent response, by the way. The problem with your directions, however, is that the “humanism” bus line got defunded, and now we have to implement a temporary rickshaw service, in which you and I have to do all the rickshawing. I’ll meet you out back in ten.)

  16. Despite my layabout status, my first thought was that this sounded more like “analytic Unitarianism” than like “philosophy of religion,” and my second thought was that this sounded like a very bad idea. But then my favorite undergraduate philosophy class was on Nagarjuna.

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