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Philosophy of Religion
Posted: 24 December 2011 09:20 PM   [ Ignore ]
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For some time now I’ve been asking myself whether there’s really any value in doing philosophy of religion at all. It seems that these people believe what they do for emotional, social and psychological reasons, and they then just do philosophy of religion in order to get clear about their world view and about various concepts. The greatest proof of the pointlessness of it all is that these people rarely if ever change their minds about anything! They go in as atheists and they remain atheists, and they go in as Chrsitians and they remain Christians. This contrasts with things like Biblical criticism and evolutionary theory, which do sometimes have the power to change hearts and minds. Philosophy of religion just goes on and on about the same old things like the problem of evil and Pascal’s wager and seems to go nowhere.

So, am I wrong in thinking the whole enterprise might be a waste of time? Is there any value in it?

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Posted: 24 December 2011 10:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Perhaps knowing the psychological need for religion might be helpful in debates about creationism and evolution. Knowing the emotional why may give answers to the influential how.

[ Edited: 25 December 2011 03:06 AM by Write4U ]
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Posted: 25 December 2011 06:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Oh, I think of all the philosophy courses that are most applicable to everyday life, philosophy of religion is right up there, given how many people are unthinkingly religious. Where else will one encounter rational argumentation about religious topics like God, reincarnation, the afterlife, etc. if not in philosophy of religion? Sure, some theology professors may be secular in their outlook but I’d wager most are not. Philosophy of religion, as opposed to theology, does not take religious dogma or the existence of God as a given.

As for its potential to change minds, I’ll only say that I went into my first philosophy of religion class an agnostic and came out an atheist, so at least it changed one mind! smile

Philosophy courses don’t often change minds, though. What they do is to sharpen one’s ability to analyze and take apart arguments, finding their assumptions and potential weaknesses. If someone is determined that X is true, they can find a way to argue such that X is true, though along the way they may have to swallow some strange or absurd corollaries. Philosophy courses also clarify the relevant issues, and if appropriately taught, work to clear out a lot of obscurantist underbrush. (E.g., God is love, God exists but is unknowable, all religions pray to the same God, etc.)

While it’s true that any given student can be hard-headed about any given belief, this is an issue that generalizes to all rational inquiry and has nothing to do with philosophy classes specifically. A creationist determined to remain a creationist can do so even after a doctorate in biology, as some (few) have.

The background issue is whether it’s the point of a philosophy course to change minds, or of a philosophy of religion course to make everyone into atheists. I don’t think either of those are true. What they should do is to make one into a more sophisticated, clear and careful expositor of your own point of view on the subject.

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Posted: 25 December 2011 08:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Yes, The believers and non-believers within the philosophy of religion can all agree about the importance of clarity and rigour, and this is because they’ve all been schooled in analytic philosophy. However, those masters of suspicion Nietzsche, Marx and Freud will suggest that all these people are doing is merely coming up with fancier and more elaborate versions of things that they already believed for other (ie non-philosophical) reasons, and I do think there’s a lot of this going on. For example, many atheists think that a universe without a God is more hygienic and more beautiful, and they hate the idea of being watched and judged all the time. And many believers are terrified of dying, and they can’t bear the idea that the Hitlers of the world won’t get what they deserve. Some of the smartest among the believers and non-believers then enter the philosophy of religion and give lots of fancy arguments for why their world view is better than the other ones, and, as I’ve suggested, they rarely seem to concede anything to the other side. What you end up with is a lot of nonsense. You have people like Swinburne and Plantinga arguing that a world with all this pain and suffering and with the atonement is better than a world with a lot less suffering but with no atonement, and then you have atheists saying ‘No, it isn’t’, and they just go on and on like this. You get all these ludicrous debates about how beautiful and valuable the atonement is and whether it makes up for all the suffering in the world and so on, and you just want it to stop. But then the modal logic comes in, and we have talk of ‘best of all possible worlds’ and trying to do a cost-benefit analysis of human freedom, the atonement, suffering and evil, and on and on. And in the end you can’t help feeling it comes down to personal preference, aesthetics, and psychological need.   

My own view on all this is that we will never know what the universe is or whether there’s some kind of force or intelligence behind it and/or some kind of plan, and so what goes on in philosophy of religion is largely about the different personalities and psychologies of the people involved. So from that point of view it’s still quite interesting, but I don’t feel that it’s really going anywhere.

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Posted: 25 December 2011 09:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Sounds like yours is a philosophical critique of philosophy generally, and as such is essentially self-refuting.

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Posted: 25 December 2011 05:46 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Maybe the problem is just with philosophy of religion at a very abstract level. It may have more value if it’s combined with historical and Biblical criticism. It just seems to me that atheists find Mackie convincing and theists find Swinburne convincing, and there’s nowhere to go from there. Swinburne will argue that this is the best of all possible worlds in that it maximizes the number of genuinely free creature with real choices who freely choose to love and worship God, and nothing atheists say about the problem of evil and suffering is going to make any difference here. They’re trying to weigh up the relative value of things like freedom, existence, suffering and the atonement, and the whole thing becomes impossible. Anyway, I did recently buy this ‘Oxford Handbook of the Philosophy of Religion’, and it’s a damn good read, even though many of the contributors seem to be theists. Maybe I’ll come to have more respect for the discipline after I’ve finished it. But right now I think that people like Bob Price and Bart Ehrman are much more of a threat to Christian belief then any atheist philosopher of religion ever could be!

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Posted: 25 December 2011 05:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Dom1978 - 25 December 2011 05:46 PM

Maybe the problem is just with philosophy of religion at a very abstract level. It may have more value if it’s combined with historical and Biblical criticism. It just seems to me that atheists find Mackie convincing and theists find Swinburne convincing, and there’s nowhere to go from there. Swinburne will argue that this is the best of all possible worlds in that it maximizes the number of genuinely free creature with real choices who freely choose to love and worship God, and nothing atheists say about the problem of evil and suffering is going to make any difference here. They’re trying to weigh up the relative value of things like freedom, existence, suffering and the atonement, and the whole thing becomes impossible. Anyway, I did recently buy this ‘Oxford Handbook of the Philosophy of Religion’, and it’s a damn good read, even though many of the contributors seem to be theists. Maybe I’ll come to have more respect for the discipline after I’ve finished it. But right now I think that people like Bob Price and Bart Ehrman are much more of a threat to Christian belief then any atheist philosopher of religion ever could be!

I’ve certainly read Swinburne, Plantinga and many others. I find them at times interesting and persuasive thinkers, but utterly unconvincing on the basic points. To take but one example above, the issue with free will is at the end of the day empirical, and one which IMO has long since been decided against the absurd notion of libertarian free will. (Even if one could make sense of it, which one can’t). So that dog won’t hunt.

The fact that there are people who disagree with a position doesn’t mean it’s incorrect, any more than the fact that there are people who adopt a position means that it hasn’t been definitively refuted. It’s a standard beginning retort to any philosophical position whatsoever that there are people who disagree with it. If that were sufficient argument, we’d be long since epistemically lost.

All that said, I have no opinion on whether Mackie is a better proponent for atheistic causes than Ehrman. I imagine it depends on the audience. And though Mackie argues specifically for atheism, let’s not forget that Ehrman does not. But anyhow I hold both thinkers in very high regard.

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Posted: 25 December 2011 06:17 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Dom1978
For example, many atheists think that a universe without a God is more hygienic and more beautiful, and they hate the idea of being watched and judged all the time

IMO, atheists think that the universe without a “supernatural being” is more natural without losing it’s beauty. Atheism promotes the idea of personal responsibility and accountability, without finding “absolution” from their sins by reciting 10 Holy Mary’s and making a tithing (monetary contribution) to the cloaked figure who claims to be representing that supernatural being.

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Posted: 25 December 2011 08:47 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Doug, even if you put the issue of free-will to one side, you still have a situation where atheists are saying that a loving and rational god would never create a world like this, whereas Christians are saying that a world like this, with the fall and the atonement and all the rest, is in fact more beautiful and more valuable than any other possible world, and so yes indeed a loving and rational god would choose to create this world. My point is simply that no atheist or Christian, upon reading this literature, is at all likely to change their mind. 

Also, it’s not just the fact that there’s disagreement. It’s that there’s no conceivable way we’re ever going to sort any of this out. The whole thing is so absurdly arrogant, and so anthropomorphic. You have atheists and Christian philosophers arguing about what a loving god would do or about what kind of world it would be rational for god to create, when for all we know there could be a creator who loves cockroaches and doesn’t give a damn about human beings. It just seems pointless speculating about this, and the idea that we can figure it all out through pure reason just stikes me as ridiculous.

[ Edited: 26 December 2011 03:16 AM by Dom1978 ]
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Posted: 25 December 2011 11:20 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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While philosophy courses that I began taking when I was 49 didn’t change my beliefs, they sure as hell helped me clarify my thinking.  In addition, reading the works of the early and mid-century philosophers gave me a great reservoir of thinking when I ran into new situations.  I particularly loved reading stuff by St. Thomas Acquinus, Bishop Barkeley, and others who were religious philosophers.  They had beautiful, absolutely logical proofs of the existence of a god, and I had a great time studying their tracts very carefully to track down the flaw they hid in their presentation. 

The problem is that until recently (the last 200 years) many of the best philosophers were in religious institutions or at least believers.  But they dealt with far more than just the existence of a god so I think one misses quite a bit of worthwhile philosophical ideas by rejecting the religious philosophers.

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Posted: 26 December 2011 07:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Dom1978 - 25 December 2011 08:47 PM

Doug, even if you put the issue of free-will to one side, you still have a situation where atheists are saying that a loving and rational god would never create a world like this, whereas Christians are saying that a world like this, with the fall and the atonement and all the rest, is in fact more beautiful and more valuable than any other possible world, and so yes indeed a loving and rational god would choose to create this world. My point is simply that no atheist or Christian, upon reading this literature, is at all likely to change their mind. 

You give their side too much credit, Dom. The question is whether given the amount of pain and evil that we see around us today, and in world history we have reason to believe that every bit of it is necessary to create a world worthy of a deity of perfect morality.

The answer to this question is plainly, “No”. No theist I know of has made anything close to an argument capable of demonstrating this.

What the theists typically do is a bait-and-switch. They take the straw man argument that God’s existence is logically incompatible with there being pain and evil in the world, and make a clever argument to the conclusion that it is consistent with a perfectly good God that there be pain and evil.

This is a very much weaker argument than the one you were having them make, above, which is indefensible: viz., that “a world like this, with the fall and the atonement and all the rest, is in fact more beautiful and more valuable than any other possible world.” That would have it that the Holocaust, the torture and murders in Rwanda, in Cambodia, by Genghis Khan, by every serial killer in history, by tsunamis, earthquakes, mudslides, volcanoes, avalanches, hurricanes; cancer, viruses, infections, parasites, etc., etc., etc. was all absolutely necessary. This is the argument they would in fact be having to make, but they don’t make it (or don’t make it with anything like the necessary depth) because it flies in the face of reason.

So sure, it’s possible that God had some inscrutable reason for putting billions of people through torture and hell. There’s nothing logically inconsistent about it (as some careless atheists have claimed). But as to the basic point about there being good reason to believe such a God exists? Sorry, that’s an argument they haven’t made, they never make, and it’s an argument that’s crass and grotesque on its face.

Dom1978 - 25 December 2011 08:47 PM

Also, it’s not just the fact that there’s disagreement. It’s that there’s no conceivable way we’re ever going to sort any of this out. The whole thing is so absurdly arrogant, and so anthropomorphic. You have atheists and Christian philosophers arguing about what a loving god would do or about what kind of world it would be rational for god to create, when for all we know there could be a creator who loves cockroaches and doesn’t give a damn about human beings. It just seems pointless speculating about this, and the idea that we can figure it all out through pure reason just stikes me as ridiculous.

Once again, I think you’re giving too much credit to bad arguments. The whole thrust of western theology is that we are made in God’s image, which means that we share God’s reasoning powers. Further, the typical God of western theology is perfectly good. If this is to have any meaning at all, “good” for God must be the same as “good” for us, generally speaking. It’s sophistry to claim that God is perfectly good but that “good” could mean absolutely anything. (E.g., “good” means “good for cockroaches” or “good for Jack the Ripper”). Some more ‘modern’ theists make this sort of move, but it’s a complete capitulation to irrationality.

The fact that not everyone will be convinced by good, clear argumentation is irrelevant. There are people who remain unconvinced about ESP, about evolution, about the germ theory of disease. Those don’t lead us to throw up our hands and say that we can’t figure these things out with reason and evidence. They just show that people can be fundamentally foolish, which is no real surprise.

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Posted: 26 December 2011 07:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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OK, just poking around the internet this morning and ran across a couple of small but terrible events yesterday, Christmas. Is it reasonable to claim that THIS and THIS are the work of a perfectly good deity?

Notice: I’m not asking if they are consistent with the existence of a perfectly good deity. I’m asking if given their occurrence, it remains reasonable to believe in such a deity. To establish that, one would need to establish the reasons such a deity would have for these ... (what amount to) murders, given that the deity could have intervened but decided not to.

(And in the scheme of things throughout world history, these are very small events).

If the theist has reasons for them, we can find hundreds of millions more. And recall, one unnecessary death or torture is impossible for a morally perfect being.

The standard response is, “We don’t understand God’s mysterious ways.” But that’s saying precisely the same thing as “We have no reason to believe that a perfectly good God exists, given this event.”

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Posted: 26 December 2011 03:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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dougsmith
The standard response is, “We don’t understand God’s mysterious ways.” But that’s saying precisely the same thing as “We have no reason to believe that a perfectly good God exists, given this event.”

OTOH, it perfectly confirms a godless universe that acts as it must without intent, purpose, or emotion. What we call good and evil can only apply to human morals and behavior.
The universe must be amoral for creation and evolution to take place. From the death of a star, life is created on a planet perhaps 13 billion years later.
There is no universal intent, no universal good, no universal evil. It is just how the universe works (not how god labors).

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Posted: 26 December 2011 08:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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dougsmith - 25 December 2011 06:55 AM

Oh, I think of all the philosophy courses that are most applicable to everyday life, philosophy of religion is right up there, given how many people are unthinkingly religious. Where else will one encounter rational argumentation about religious topics like God, reincarnation, the afterlife, etc. if not in philosophy of religion? Sure, some theology professors may be secular in their outlook but I’d wager most are not. Philosophy of religion, as opposed to theology, does not take religious dogma or the existence of God as a given.

As for its potential to change minds, I’ll only say that I went into my first philosophy of religion class an agnostic and came out an atheist, so at least it changed one mind! smile

Philosophy courses don’t often change minds, though. What they do is to sharpen one’s ability to analyze and take apart arguments, finding their assumptions and potential weaknesses. If someone is determined that X is true, they can find a way to argue such that X is true, though along the way they may have to swallow some strange or absurd corollaries. Philosophy courses also clarify the relevant issues, and if appropriately taught, work to clear out a lot of obscurantist underbrush. (E.g., God is love, God exists but is unknowable, all religions pray to the same God, etc.)

While it’s true that any given student can be hard-headed about any given belief, this is an issue that generalizes to all rational inquiry and has nothing to do with philosophy classes specifically. A creationist determined to remain a creationist can do so even after a doctorate in biology, as some (few) have.

The background issue is whether it’s the point of a philosophy course to change minds, or of a philosophy of religion course to make everyone into atheists. I don’t think either of those are true. What they should do is to make one into a more sophisticated, clear and careful expositor of your own point of view on the subject.

How exactly did the philosophy of religion class you took change your view from agnostic to atheist?

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Posted: 26 December 2011 09:49 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Doug, you made some good points there. Christians do like to use the logical problem of evil as a straw man, and they do like to change the meaning of words like ‘goodness’ and ‘kindness’ when it suits them. This second one really drives me up the wall, by the way. I’m always asking theistic evolutionists why a loving God would use a painful and brutal process like evolution when He could just snap His fingers and create Adam and Eve immediately. It sounds like a really dumb and childish question, but I’ve yet to hear a decent response. They will usually say something like, ‘You have a really simplistic understanding of love and kindness.’ The upshot here is that when these people call God loving or gentle or kind, nobody really knows exactly what they mean.   

As for the various evils and horrors of life, the Christian philosopher will say that the meaning of life is not to have a nice comfortable life without suffering or tragedy. Rather the meaning of life is to know God and to love and worship Him. This is why he created the universe. And this is so valuable that it somehow makes up for all of life’s horrors. Swinburne seems to think that you can’t have free beings with real choices and not also have all of the horrors. The Christian thinks it’s worth it, and other people disagree, but it’s hard to see how you could settle this question.   

Incidentally, you should all listen to the episode of ‘Unbelievable’ (a UK Christian radio show) where Richard Swinburne and Bart Ehrman go head to head on the problem of evil. It is embarrassing and painful to listen to. Personally I think Swinburne is an absolute disgrace. Bart Ehrman tried his best not to lose his cool, but it’s very difficult listening to a cold and unfeeling ivory-tower Christian philosopher talking about recent floods and earthquakes and so on. Bart almost certainly wanted to punch him, and so did I. But again, as to the question of whether philosophy can settle any of this, I don’t think it can. Swinburne, Plantinga and their many followers will continue putting out this stuff, and Christian philosophy will probably go from strength to strength.

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Posted: 27 December 2011 07:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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mid atlantic - 26 December 2011 08:30 PM

How exactly did the philosophy of religion class you took change your view from agnostic to atheist?

Because the professor of the course (a Christian theist) made for me a very good case that there was a traditional theological definition of God; that not any definition would do. That definition is ‘the omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good person who created or sustains the universe’. Before the course I was sort of loosey-goosey about how I defined God. After the course I felt that there was one particular, strong theological definition that deserved the name “God” and the rest were basically ill-defined or unimportant, that didn’t deserve the name. Either they were little more than confused placeholders (various sorts of obscurantist gods) or they had no religious significance. (E.g. the Deist deity).

Basically he clarified the issues for me. I realized I was quite clear on the fact that this person didn’t exist any more than Santa Claus did, so I was an atheist.

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