I'm Calling For An End to the Philosophy of Religion As A Discipline In Secular Universities

Dr. Graham Oppy just published a book titled, Reinventing Philosophy of Religion. Below is an interview he did about it, where he both defended the philosophy of religion as a discipline and expressed a way to reinvent it.

Oppy rightly mentions that philosophy gave birth to the sciences. Philosophers discussed issues before there was any evidence for them, but once evidence was found then a new discipline was born. After all, the sciences we call physics, cosmology, and psychology were at one time considered the domain of philosophy. What Oppy doesn't talk about is whether this process can be reversed. 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? That's the argument of Richard Dawkins, Peter Boghossian, Jerry Coyne and myself. 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 look forward to him weighing in on this dispute).

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. Later Oppy offers his criticism, saying, "Most of the people who have done philosophy of religion have been theists." So it stands to reason "it has had an extremely narrow focus...It hasn't really been the philosophy of religion but rather Christianity with a very great emphasis on theism," and even apologetics/Christian theology. Okay then, as it stands today the philosophy of religion is dominated by Christian theists who discuss concepts and arguments germane to Christianity, and even defending it. Given what he said, the philosophy of religion needs reinvented if it is to survive. The unaddressed question is why we should have a discipline in any secular university where theism, or Christian theism, Christian theology or Christian apologetics is privileged and considered to the exclusion of all other religions or apologetics? It shouldn't. If this is the state of affairs then the only reasonable response is to call for the end of that discipline. NOW!

Oppy offers a solution to this malaise. He argues the discipline must be reinvented. I have a different solution based on the arguments of Dr. Hector Avalos, who has called for the end of biblical studies (see below). My position is that the philosophy of religion (and to be sure I have three master's degrees in that discipline) should end as a discipline in secular universities. This is not exactly a change from what I've stated before. This is based on further thought and reflection, for almost everyone does the philosophy of religion whenever we think about religion. Although, I find his criticism of Boghossian to be misguided, for Oppy says his rejection of the philosophy of religion "seems to be expressing views in the philosophy of religion." Boghossian's views are "just a position in the philosophy of religion," he said. The reason this criticism of Oppy's is misguided is 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. It reminds me of the criticism thrown at atheists that we believe even though we don't, or that we're religious because we take a position on religion. Not!

To reinvent the philosophy of religion Oppy argues, "it must address questions that apply to the phenomena of religion in general." That's it. He argues the philosophy of religion should also discuss Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist views and religious concepts. By extension I would think, it should also discuss the views of other religions, all of them (although there is quite the discussion about what even makes a religion a religion). Oppy's proposal would therefore include all of the dead religions too. Why not? Why assume that a dead religion, or a dead god, is no longer worthy to be discussed? Why not discuss Zoroastrianism, or Canaanite religions? Does the death of a religion mean it must not be a true one? I see no reason to think so. And who decides which religion is worthy of discussing? The professor? Why couldn't a philosophy of religion department focus on Hindu religious concepts as it probably does in Hindu dominated countries, or Muslim religious concepts as it most certainly does in Muslim dominated countries? Oppy would argue that those departments would have an extremely narrow focus too. So my question is which professors could teach this discipline adequately, if it's to be done at all? Secular or atheist ones. After all, we're talking about secular universities, ones which do not take a stand on religion but try to teach subjects without reference to God, gods, supernatural forces or beings as explanations. That too would be my position. Although, if secularists were in charge of the discipline they should seek to end it, if they agree with Dawkins, Boghossian, Coyne and myself that in these classes they should seek to disabuse their students of the view that faith is a virtue. It isn't. Secular philosophers know this. Yet this is the very basis of all religions and religious concepts. If done properly that's what the philosophy of religion should be about. But in teaching it correctly secular professors would be undercutting the discipline just by doing it right.

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 religious are compared/contrasted/considered and the secular counter-part is offered as a critique of them all. But we already have these kinds of classes. Other disciplines could deal with religious faith and faith-based theologies like Anthropology, Psychology, Neurology, Social Science, Physics and Epistemology, to name a few. In epistemology classes, which fall under the domain of philosophy in general, faith should also be shown to have no epistemic warrant, using books like The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day, or How to Think About Weird Things, and even my book, The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True.There are many others.

I'm calling for the end of the philosophy of religion as a discipline in secular universities, not unlike how Dr. Hector Avalos called for an end of biblical studies. To see the comparison read the following excerpts and see for yourselves, taken with permission from his book, The End of Biblical Studies.When it comes to biblical studies Avalos says,
The main bond is bibliolatry, which entails the conviction that the Bible is valuable and should remain the subject of academic study. Equally important, the Society of Biblical Literature, while now relatively more free of denominationalist agendas, is still religionist in orientation. Scholars still are either part of faith communities, or see their work as assisting faith communities directly or indirectly.

For our purposes, we can summarize our plea to end biblical studies as we know it with two main premises:
1. Modern biblical scholarship has demonstrated that the Bible is the product of cultures whose values and beliefs about the origin, nature, and purpose of our world are no longer held to be relevant, even by most Christians and Jews.
2. Paradoxically, despite the recognition of such irrelevance, the profession of academic biblical studies still centers on maintaining the illusion of relevance by:

A. A variety of scholarly disciplines whose methods and conclusions are often philosophically flawed (e.g., translation, textual criticism, archaeology, history, and biblical theology).
B. An infrastructure that supports biblical studies (e.g., universities, a media-publishing complex, churches, and professional organizations).
The first premise acknowledges that we have indeed discovered much new information about the Bible. The Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) and the enormous archaeological treasures found in the ancient Near East in the last one hundred fifty years or so have set the Bible more firmly in its original cultural context. However, it is those very discoveries that show that the Bible is irrelevant, insofar as it is part of a world radically dissimilar to ours in its conception of the cosmos, the supernatural, and the human sense of morality. In fact, in a 1975 report published by the American Academy of Religion, one scholar frankly admitted that "[i]ndeed, one of the enduring contributions of biblical studies in this century has been the discovery of the strangeness of the thought-forms of the biblical literature of the 'western' tradition to US." In short, scholars of religion themselves, not just secular humanists, admit that the Bible is a product of an ancient and very different culture.

Our second major premise is that despite this admission of irrelevance the profession of academic biblical scholarship paradoxically and self-servingly promotes the illusion of relevance. The maintenance of this illusion is intended to make believers think that they have "the Bible" when all they really have is a book constructed by modern elite scholars. So even if 99.9 percent of modern Christians said that the Bible was relevant to them, such relevance is based on their illusory assumption that modern versions do reflect the original "Bible" to some extent. Promoting the illusion of relevance serves to justify the very existence of the profession of biblical scholarship, and not much more.

Biblical studies as we know it should end.

From my perspective, there are really only three alternatives for what is now called biblical studies.
1. Eliminate biblical studies completely from the modern world
2. Retain biblical studies as is, but admit that it is a religionist enterprise
3. Retain biblical studies, but redefine its purpose so that it is tasked with eliminating completely the influence of the Bible in the modern world.
I do not advocate the first option, at least for the moment, because I do believe that the Bible should be studied, if only as a lesson in why human beings should not privilege such books again. My objection has been to the religionist and bibliolatrous purpose for which it is studied. The second option is actually what is found in most seminaries, but we must advertise that scholars in all of academia are doing the same thing, though they are not being very open and honest about it.

I prefer the third option. The sole purpose of biblical studies, under this option, would be to help people move toward a postscriptural society. It may be paternalistic to "help people," but no more so than when translators hide the truth or when scholars don't aggressively disclose the truth for fear of upsetting believers. All of education is to some extent paternalistic, since an elite professoriate is there to provide information that uneducated people lack. The third option is also the most logical position, given the discovery of the Bible's alien character.

But is elimination of the Bible's authority feasible in the modern world? I believe it is feasible for at least two reasons:

(1) I have already argued that even believers use very little of "the Bible." (2) Believers who do use the Bible do so under the illusion that they have the Bible, the unmediated word of God.

To move believers from their minimal use of the Bible to no use at all is not a big quantitative step, but it is a formidable qualitative step. The reason is that it is scholars, translators, priests, and ministers themselves who must be convinced to join an educational mission centered on exposing the alien nature of the Bible. They must find the will to proclaim to their congregations that they do not have "the Bible," but really only a document constructed for them by elite scholars.

Some might object that I am contradicting myself in expending so much effort arguing against the study of a Bible that is so little used. My response is twofold. First, the small amount of the Bible still being used remains a significant problem, especially in justifying violence and oppression. Thus, total abolition of biblical authority becomes a moral obligation and a key to this world's survival. Second, by maintaining the idea that the Bible is any sort of divine or moral authority there always remains the potential to use it more than it is being used now. Unfortunately, the pen often has proved mightier than the truth.

So our purpose is to excise from modern life what little of the Bible is being used and also to eliminate the potential use of any sacred scripture as an authority in the modem world. Sacred texts are the problem that most scholars are not willing to confront. What I seek is liberation from the very idea that any sacred text should be an authority for modem human existence. Abolishing human reliance on sacred texts is imperative when those sacred texts imperil the existence of human civilization as it is currently configured. The letter can kill. That is why the only mission of biblical studies should be to end biblical studies as we know it. LINK.

Here is Graham Oppy's interview:

Nothing personal Dr. Oppy. I look forward to your response too.

[Edit: Biblical scholar and philosopher of religion Dr. Jaco Gericke responded with some objections. To read them and my response click here.]