Philosophy of religion

Posted on December 14, 2008


Regular readers (few will get the joke if I refer to them as Gladys, I expect) will have noticed that, although I have a lot to say about philosophy and perhaps even more about religion, I have never mentioned philosophy of religion. There’s a good reason for this. I do not find it interesting.

This was by no means always the case. From about age twelve, when I became a determinist and was forced to reject  the idea of hell as appropriate punishment for wrong-doers, till well into my undergrad years I was very much into philosophy of religion. It was for me the ladder I had to climb from my Catholic up-bringing to my thoroughly naturalist world-view. Obviously, the writings of a certain B. Russell played a big part in that. Having climbed the ladder, however, I have kicked it away. Not that I think the arguments I were convinced by were essentially bad. Instead, I have grown aware of how futile philosophical argumentation is when it comes to religious beliefs. So long as the philosophical arguments are not forced to be tied back to a concrete reality the to-and-fro of logic-chopping can continue almost interminably, much like a televised court case. And concrete reality is often sorely lacking when it comes to discussions of philosophy of religion. One side shows the standard notion of God is inconsistent. The other side alters the definition to avoid the problem. The first side retorts that on this view free will (to which I have come to take a more compatibilist line) is impossible. The other side replies with an argument that, if the retort is correct, it applies even if God does not exist. And so on. Traditional philosophers could keep on like this for centuries and, indeed, they have.

This is not to say such activity is pointless. It helped to get me where I’m at intellectually, for one thing. And it has helped countless others to reach their own conclusions, sometimes consistent with and sometimes inconsistent with my own: In most cases, I’d much rather deal with a thinking theist than an unthinking atheist, indeed, I find the religious distinction plays an incidental role in terms of whom I associate with. Philosophy of religion also helps us to define the logical shape of the ideas we are dealing with, of course – an achievement that I see as a very important part of what philosophy, traditional or otherwise, has given us. Hopefully, it to some degree lifts the level of public discourse on the topic so that people are less likely to be satisfied with bad arguments from either side. Which brings me to the reason I mention philosophy of religion here at all.

I have been reading Matt McCormick’s blog after he posted a comment to one of my own posts and enjoying the way he straight-forwardly presents a number of philosophy of religion arguments. One of his recent posts particularly drawn my attention:

I argue and discuss this stuff for a living (what a cool job!). And the way I think of it often is that what the arguments I present do, if they are good ones, is force someone to make some choices about what their view about X is.

Apart from the fact that he is clearly more enamoured of philosophy of religion than I am, he manages to very clearly get at the implications of what I said about the logical shape of our ideas. Neatly, the post also manages to touch on what I find interesting: the question of why people would believe such things in the first place. The one downside is that Matt seem to get a lot of depressingly unthoughtful responses.