On Teaching Philosophy of Religion

Posted on December 11, 2016 by

In his recent book, John Loftus argues that we ought to stop teaching philosophy of religion. This is not an extended review of the book; I might read it in the future and write a more fleshed out review, but rather a response to the excerpt (in the link above) that Hemant Mehta posted recently; it is an argument that I’ve heard before, though I’m sure Loftus’ articulation is somewhat more developed than the versions I’ve heard in passing.

A quick caveat; I’m currently TAing a course in philosophy of religion. I am not myself particularly interested in religion, and (as I’ll discuss) I have some sympathies to Loftus’ criticism of the state of the discipline.

The major concern is that Loftus’ characterization of philosophy of religion strikes me as just flatly wrong. There are a number of pragmatic and pedagogical reasons to teach philosophy of religion. (It gets students, most of whom are religious, motivated to look carefully at philosophical problems; it helps non-religious students understand the history and anthropology of religion and philosophy; it allows professors to cover a broad array of topics in other philosophical sub-disciplines with a unifying subject matter; etc.) Suppose that these sorts of considerations aren’t enough. As Loftus responds in his own discussion:

“The precise nature of my call is to end the philosophy of religion discipline in secular universities. It basically follows the same strategy Dr. Hector Avalos advocates in his book titled The End of Biblical Studies. Avalos argues that religion professors and those teaching in biblical studies departments should tell their students the truth about the Bible even though it’s considered sacred to many of them. Essentially his call is to debunk the Bible for the good of any future society we might have. So similarly, I’m calling upon philosophy of religion professors to do likewise with the arguments to the existence of God.”

There are parts of this to which I must admit I am very sympathetic; I think Loftus is right that the arguments to the existence of God fail, and fail fairly spectacularly. I think that the arguments, further, are generally pretty bad philosophy. (There are some exceptions, but as a general assessment of the discipline, I’m inclined to spot Loftus this point of criticism.)

I’m a bit skeptical of Loftus’ characterization of philosophy of religion, and this is partly because I’ve spent a lot of time in philosophy of religion classes at secular universities, interacting with friends who are taking introductory level courses, and now going through the process of teaching such a course. I know of cases like what Loftus describes, where a professor at a secular university confuses his class for a Campus Crusade for Christ meeting; but I don’t know if that’s a problem with teaching the subject matter so much as an observation that some people are bad at their jobs.

I’m inclined to spot Loftus this point, as well, though. Because one might imagine that if the problem were pervasive enough and localized enough to philosophy of religion, he might be justified in making this sort of claim. I think this is probably not so, and that the best explanation is that I’m biased by working with pretty good professors and his experience involves working with and hearing about pretty bad ones, but it’s the sort of thing that one could collect empirical evidence about and evaluate.

The more serious problem is that, even if I bought all of this, it doesn’t seem like this implies that we ought to abolish philosophy of religion. Similarly, nothing Avalos says in that discussion suggests that we ought to abolish Biblical Studies; rather, we (meaning those who teach philosophy of religion) ought to do a better job at establishing standards and practices for teaching. We should aspire to be James Kugel rather than a Sunday school preacher; we should aspire to be the late greats Richard Gale or Hilary Putnam, rather than… well… the folks Loftus studied with at Lincoln Christian University or Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Like teaching about safe sex, teaching students about how to make better arguments, giving them the skills to make and evaluate arguments about the things that interest them, is important. Given that, like sex, we can reasonably expect students to have discussions about God at 3am in the dorms, we ought to (like sex) do our best to ensure that they make good decisions and avoid disastrous consequences.

If the suggestion that Loftus has in mind is that we (again, those who teach philosophy of religion) ought to express our own skepticism and attitudes and dismissal of bad arguments more widely, then I suppose I’m somewhat sympathetic. It is useful for students to be aware that many of the arguments they are hearing on apologetics message boards are not just philosophically specious, but also very bad… however, my experience as a student and teacher suggests that just pointing out that arguments are bad is not the best way to engage students. Rather, the goal has to be to illustrate why the arguments are bad, and ultimately that requires (at least initially) entertaining the possibility that they might not be bad, interpreting them charitably, and evaluating them critically. That’s not really localized to philosophy of religion; that’s just a matter of what it is to teach philosophy well.