Should Philosophy of Religion Be Ended?
According to Peter Boghossian, John Loftus, James A. Lindsay, Jerry Coyne, and others, the academic discipline known as Philosophy of Religion has no legitimate place in a modern secular university. Now our friend over at the Skeptic Zone blog, IM Skeptical, has joined their ranks. Taking a paper by James N. Anderson and Greg Welty, "The Lord of Non-Contradiction: An Argument for God from Logic," as emblematic for the entire discipline of Philosophy of Religion (or PoR), he proceeds to critique their argument and draw this grand conclusion: "It [theistic philosophy] is entirely based on theistic assumptions. It does not provide any assurance that those assumptions are true. Those assumptions are never properly justified."
Now I certainly would not accept Skeptical's critique as valid. For example, he disputes Anderson and Welty's premise, "The laws of logic are necessary truths" on the grounds that, well, no one knows what is possible and what is not. A world in which logical truths are not necessary truths "would be," he says, "a world of chaos (by our standards), but does that mean such a world can't possibly exist? I don't know, and neither does anyone else, despite any claims to the contrary." But Skeptical's brash denial of the premise that logical axioms are necessarily true misses the point. The whole purpose for the philosophical notion of modal logic and possible worlds is to ascertain what may be possible or necessary according to the rules of logic. Clearly if there is any world at all that is "not possible," it's one in which the rules of logic do not hold!
Given Skeptical's premise, then, he has no basis for asserting it, for the very reason that our world – according to his premise, not mine – may in fact be a world in which logical truths do not hold necessarily. We may think that arguments in which the premises are true and the conclusion follows from them are sound, when actually they are not – but of course that's just the sort of thing to expect of an illogical world. In an illogical world, what would appear chaotic ("by our standards") in a logical world might well appear logical instead. Propositions that are actually false would appear true, and vice-versa. In short: If logical truths aren't true in every possible world, there's no possible means of determining whether or not they are true in ours.
Nor would I agree that all the arguments by theist philosophers of religion are "based on theist premises." Take Plantinga's now-famous "free will defense," acknowledged widely by philosophers theist and atheist alike as an effective response to the logical argument from evil: The free will defense is actually based on atheistic premises, as laid out by noted unbelievers such as Epicurus, Hume and J.L. Mackie. Plantinga merely points out that the set of premises supporting the argument from evil as a reductio ad absurdum are not, strictly speaking, logically contradictory, and therefore the reductio fails. He then proposes human free will as one possible reason God might have for permitting evil.
But stepping back from Skeptical's atheistic world of logically impossible possibilities, and from the theistic world of plain old-fashioned logical possibilities, to the issue at hand: Skeptical's larger point seems to be that PoR, as practiced by Christian theists, amounts to a large and expensive exercise in question-begging apologetics. I don't think that's true but let's say he's right. I would think that if this were really the case, the various atheist, non-theist and non-Christian philosophers within the discipline of PoR could simply point that out, or at least could point out the many instances of question-begging. Indeed the discipline is largely dedicated to exploring just those sorts or arguments. Meanwhile, either religion is worth arguing or it's not. My message to the critics of PoR is this: If religion is not worth arguing about, then by all means don't argue about it. But if you argue about it, expect counterarguments. I say that only because it seems to me as if the atheist critics of PoR are more than willing to make grand pronouncements about religion being indefensible, but are not willing to defend those very pronouncements. Or at least I can imagine no other reason why they would be moving to do away with PoR in the first place.