February 25, 2011
Why atheism is winning-6: The death of religious philosophy
(For previous posts in this series, see here.)
Keith Parsons, a professor of philosophy at the University of Houston, recently caused a bit of a stir when he said that he has given up teaching the philosophy of religion to his students because all the arguments for religion, old and new, have been so effectively debunked that he simply could not even pretend to take them seriously anymore. He felt that he would be doing a disservice to his students because of his inability to present those arguments as if they made any sense, which is what good teachers try to do when teaching ideas that they personally disagree with.
For one thing, I think a number of philosophers have made the case for atheism and naturalism about as well as it can be made. Graham Oppy, Jordan Howard Sobel, Nicholas Everitt, Michael Martin, Robin Le Poidevin and Richard Gale have produced works of enormous sophistication that devastate the theistic arguments in their classical and most recent formulations. Ted Drange, J.L. Schellenberg, Andrea Weisberger, and Nicholas Trakakis have presented powerful, and, in my view, unanswerable atheological arguments. Gregory Dawes has a terrific little book showing just what is wrong with theistic "explanations." Erik Wielenberg shows very clearly that ethics does not need God. With honest humility, I really do not think that I have much to add to these extraordinary works.
Chiefly, though, I am motivated by a sense of ennui on the one hand and urgency on the other. A couple of years ago I was teaching a course in the philosophy of religion. We were using, among other works, C. Stephen Layman's Letters to a Doubting Thomas: A Case for the Existence of God. In teaching class I try to present material that I find antithetical to my own views as fairly and in as unbiased a manner as possible. With the Layman book I was having a real struggle to do so. I found myself literally dreading having to go over this material in class—NOT, let me emphasize, because I was intimidated by the cogency of the arguments. On the contrary, I found the arguments so execrably awful and pointless that they bored and disgusted me (Layman is not a kook or an ignoramus; he is the author of a very useful logic textbook). I have to confess that I now regard "the case for theism" as a fraud and I can no longer take it seriously enough to present it to a class as a respectable philosophical position—no more than I could present intelligent design as a legitimate biological theory. BTW, in saying that I now consider the case for theism to be a fraud, I do not mean to charge that the people making that case are frauds who aim to fool us with claims they know to be empty. No, theistic philosophers and apologists are almost painfully earnest and honest; I don't think there is a Bernie Madoff in the bunch. I just cannot take their arguments seriously any more, and if you cannot take something seriously, you should not try to devote serious academic attention to it. I've turned the philosophy of religion courses over to a colleague. (My italics)
In response to a request from a commenter, Parsons provides a list of books by philosophers that he says provide excellent arguments for atheism: (1) Wallace Matson: The Existence of God; (2) Michael Martin: Atheism: A Philosophical Justification; (3) Graham Oppy: Arguing About Gods; (4) Jordan Howard Sobel: Logic and Theism; (5) Richard Gale: On the Nature and Existence of God; (6) Nicholas Everitt: The Nonexistence of God; (7) J.L. Mackie: The Miracle of Theism; (8) Theodore M. Drange: Nonbelief and Evil; (9) J.L. Schellennberg: Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason; (10) Nick Trakakis: The God Beyond Belief; (11) Robin Le Poidevin: Arguing for Atheism; (12) Richard Robinson: An Atheist's Values; (13) Erik Wielenberg: Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe.
He adds that "these books provide a far better justification for atheism than can be found in the recently popular Dawkins/Hitchens/Harris style books."
I have no reason to doubt Parson's claim that the above books are philosophically more sound in their arguments for atheism than the current crop of atheist best sellers. But note that these are all heavy-duty philosophical books aimed at other philosophers, both religious and atheistic. It is a safe bet that most ordinary religious people have never even heard of these authors, let alone read their works. That is true for me (I have read one essay by Mackie and that's about it) and I have been a serious atheist for some time.
The point of the books by Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, Stenger, and others is that they are not targeted at philosophers of religion but are taking direct aim at ordinary religious believers and the bases of their beliefs. These people constitute almost the entirety of the religious populace and for them religion is not an abstract philosophy but requires a real god who acts in this world to influence actual history. This is why these authors have riled up the religious establishment in a very short time (new atheists books have been around only since 2004 when Harris published The End of Faith) in a way that atheist philosophers of religion haven't, even though the latter have been around for much longer and, as Parsons says, may have made much more cogent arguments.
The fact that the works of sophisticated philosophers have had little impact on popular religious beliefs while those of the new atheists have is why I think that the strategy of the new atheists is the correct one.
Next: Signs of religion's decline.