Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The Problem of Theistic Philosophers of Religion

Roman Catholic Dr Tim Stanley has written a paranoid piece attacking Richard Dawkins and 'atheist trolls' who constantly mock his beliefs. He writes:
When you insult my faith you go right to the heart of what makes me me. When you're trying to convince me in 140 characters of sub-GCSE philosophical abuse that God doesn't exist, you're trying to take away the faith that gets me up in the morning, gets me through the day and helps me sleep at night. You're ridiculing a God without whom I suspect I might not even be alive, and a God that I prayed to when my mother was going through cancer therapy. You're knocking a Church that provides me with compassion and friendship without asking for anything in return – perhaps the greatest, most wonderful discovery of my adult life. You see, people don't generally believe in God for reasons of convenience or intellectual laziness. It's usually fulfilling a deep need – filling a soul with love that might otherwise be quite empty and alone. In short, when you try to destroy someone's faith you're not being a brilliant logician. You're being a jerk.
Well, maybe not so paranoid. He has a point, does he not? If Stanley is typical of theists, and I suspect he may be, then they invest much more emotionally in their faith than non-believers do in their belief systems. Attacking their beliefs is an attack on them, if they identify so closely and emotionally with them. This is not to say that non-believers are not passionate about science, or truth, or rationality, or even humanism, but they appear to be typically less emotionally invested in them. They might 'pray' to science to help their mother get through cancer therapy, but that prayer would lack the personal element that marks out theism.

Stephen Law has written in his book Believing Bullshit about the emotional factor in forging people's beliefs: might harness the emotional power of iconic music and imagery. Ensure people are regularly confronted by portraits of Our Leader accompanied by smiling children and sunbeams emanating from his head (those Baghdad murals of Saddam Hussein spring to mind). Ensure your opponents and critics are always portrayed accompanied by images of catastrophe and suffering, or even Hieronymus-Bosch-like visions of hell. Make people emotional dependent on your own belief system. Ensure that what self-esteem and sense of meaning, purpose and belonging they have is derived as far as possible from their belonging to your system of belief. Make sure they recognise that abandoning that belief system will involve the loss of things about which they care deeply.
Such practices have been part of atheistic ideologies, of course, but they are the bread and butter of religion.

So it seems obvious to me that theists operating in philosophy are going to struggle to do philosophy when it touches on their faith beliefs. If such a philosopher ring-fences their faith beliefs, and has a heavy emotional investment in them, this automatically biases their work, and the less bias a philosopher can bring to their analysis, the better the philosophy. I questioned the coherence of 'Christian Philosophy' here, whilst accepting it as a term for philosophy conducted by Christians. This does not mean that I think Christians, or theists, cannot be good philosophers. Clearly they can. But just as scientists use the scientific method to counteract the problems even the best of them have investigating reality, so it would benefit philosophers to adopt practices that counteract their biases. This also applies to non-believers, but more so to believers.

Paul Draper and Ryan Nichols have a piece in the latest issue of The Monist, called Diagnosing Bias in Philosophy of Religion. Ryan Nichols writes about it here, for those who want to read some more about it. The abstract says philosophy of religion is:
... too partisan, too polemical, too narrow in its focus, and too often evaluated using criteria that are theological or religious instead of philosophical. Our diagnosis is that, because of the emotional and psychosocial aspects of religion, many philosophers of religion suffer from cognitive biases and group influence.
The piece investigates some evidence that supports my intuitions about theistic philosophers. I don't think it's an open and shut case, but it is suggestive, I think. As per the abstract, they discuss four symptoms of poor health in philosophy of religion:
[I]t is too partisan, too polemical, too narrow in its focus, and too often evaluated using criteria that are theological or religious instead of philosophical.
Partisanship seems obvious, on both sides. The polemicism they worry about includes the sort of language that is often used: the language of conflict and opposition. On focus, they write:
Typically, religion is unreflectively equated with some form of theism or even classical theism, and atheism is equated with naturalism or even physicalism, ignoring the broad and plausible territory between those extremes. Alternatives like "generic theism" (that is, theism combined with a rejection of all alleged special revelations), pantheism, ietsism, and deism are rarely mentioned, and when they are mentioned they are usually dismissed as positions that very few people hold, which is not only spectacularly false, but hardly an appropriate constraint on philosophical inquiry. Even worse, it is often just assumed that the only viable forms of theism are Muslim, Christian, or Jewish.
This is very true. William James dismissed Islam as a live option for belief and, of course, in a similar way most religious believers do not take other religious beliefs as seriously as those they have faith in. I mean, they do not invest the time and emotional energy in the many religious beliefs from around the world that theists in those countries take as seriously as their own. This means that many possible philosophical positions are dismissed out of hand because of pre-existing beliefs. This is a problem for everyone, not just believers, of course, but one would expect a religious believer's emotional investment to make it a bigger problem for them.

Then they point out that too often positions are criticised based on religious beliefs, such as incompatibility with scripture:
Reinforcing such behavior is the fact that the motto of one of the premier journals in the field is "faith seeking understanding." This motto echoes the belief of some of the most influential philosophers of religion (e.g. Plantinga 1984) that philosophers who happen to be Christians should take the truth of Christian doctrines (as they happen to interpret them) as a starting point for philosophical inquiry.
They look at psychological studies to see if they support these contentions. They note that for confirmation bias:
...the strongest effects were among sophisticated, smart participants, and participants with strong prior commitments about the issues.
So if stronger prior commitments are reflected in those with more emotional investment in a belief, they would suffer the strongest confirmation bias:
We have several reasons to think that similar results are sure to be found when the above experiments are replicated with arguments about religion, especially when using philosophers of religion as participants. First, philosophers are emotional creatures like other humans. Second, professional philosophers of religion would score high on tests of sophistication about arguments in philosophy of religion as opposed to control participants. Third, many religious philosophers of religion, having committed their whole lives to a body of religious doctrine, have strong emotions about their religious beliefs. The last two observations set religious philosophers of religion apart from other groups of  philosophers —from, say, four-dimensionalist metaphysicians.
I think there is some truth to this, although there seem to be many controversies in philosophy that raise high emotions and are not exclusively religious. Consider the existence of objective morals, the free will debate and the hard problem of consciousness, for example. But many theists, like Stanley, make a point of highlighting the importance of their faith, suggesting it is more deeply held than non-belief. I'm inclined to agree with them. If a theist holds this position then they would have to agree, if they accept the studies cited, that they are more prone to certain biases. Draper and Nichols continue:
There are good reasons to believe that the emotional attachments that many religious philosophers have to their religious groups are exceptionally strong. 
Among the group memberships a professional philosopher might have, few if any compete with religion for social, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive importance.
If religious philosophers of religion have social and psychological tendencies at all similar to those found in religious people in general, then symptoms like excessive partisanship and narrowness of focus, and perhaps even the blurring of religious and philosophical criteria of evaluation, are to be expected.
Echoing Stanley's sentiments, they point out:
The attachment system operates in Christianity, for example, by making Jesus, God, or Mary functional attachment figures and fictive kin.
For religious persons, including religious philosophers of religion, who are attached to God the Father and who have an emotional conviction that their Father loves them, reading an argument that their Father does not exist primes negative emotional responses (whether above or below levels of conscious awareness).
They caution:
Bias is no doubt a problem in all areas of philosophy, but given the large percentage of religious believers in philosophy of religion, the emotional depth of religious attachments, and the strong connection between bias and the emotions, there is good reason to believe that it is much more damaging to inquiry in philosophy of religion than to inquiry in most other areas of philosophy. 
I think that most theists would agree that they have a more emotional attachment to their beliefs than non-believers, so I think they should agree with this diagnosis. Draper and Nichols make some strong recommendations to counteract any bias:
Our first recommendation is for philosophers of religion to distance themselves in every way possible from apologetics, whether theistic or atheistic.
This seems sensible, and may be why I sense that quite a few non-believing philosophers of religion are antipathetic to 'new atheism'. They may consider it too polemical, too atheistically apologetic.
Second, we recommend that philosophers of religion use argument construction less often as a method for making cases for the positions they hold, and more often as a method of testing those positions.
This is a fascinating recommendation, and a difficult one to pull off; but when a philosopher puts forward a really good argument against their own position, you know that good philosophy is occurring. I know I'm not very good at it! But I admire those who are.
A third recommendation is to make a conscious effort to allow, as J.L. Schellenberg puts it, the voice of authority to grow dim.
Indeed. Argue the case; don't defer to Aquinas or Descartes. I realise I say this in a blog citing Draper and Nichols, but then, I am no philosopher!
Finally, our fourth recommendation, which is the hardest of all to follow, is to make a conscious decision to accept genuine risk.
I really think that this is where many with faith would draw the line. The point of faith, I think, is to separate doctrine and dogma, to put them beyond risk. This is counter to this recommendation.
Even if a scientist is sure of some cherished hypothesis, testing that hypothesis by experiment is (in many though admittedly not all cases) inherently risky. Apologetics by comparison is very safe insofar as pursuing it is very unlikely to result in the apologist rejecting any of the central doctrines of the religious community he or she serves. Philosophy should be riskier - the philosopher of religion must be prepared to abandon cherished beliefs.
Theists can risk their beliefs, however, or none would ever lose their faith. Draper and Nichols compare the contrasting attitudes of Rudolf Otto and Gary DeWeese.
Otto says, "The earth disappeared from under my feet. That was the result of my studies at Erlangen. I went there not so much to quest for truth, but more to vindicate belief. I left with the resolve to seek nothing but the truth, even at the risk of not finding it in Christ" (Almond 1984, 12). Although Otto remained throughout his career a theologian by title, he was an exemplary philosopher of religion in many ways. He is famous, of course, because he wrote one of the greatest works in the history of the philosophy of religion, namely. The Idea of the Holy. It is abundantly clear that, had Otto not rejected apologetics in favor of a more philosophical approach to religious inquiry, he would not and could not have written this masterpiece.
As Christian scholars we are of course free to entertain all manner of "what if" questions, some heterodox, some heretical.... While we're free to entertain such thoughts, I believe we are constrained by our faith to answer them in certain ways. If it seems to me that if a particular claim is well-argued but it contradicts a significant tenet of the faith . . . , then I should seek to refute rather than defend it.

I think theistic philosophers might argue that non-believers are as susceptible to the problems outlined by Draper and Nichols. In this piece, for example, Christian philosopher Randal Rauser considers the naturalist response to Thomas Nagel's recent book as indicative of something:
What happens if you violate naturalism? Here I’ll be brief because the fallout from Thomas Nagel’s book Mind and Cosmos has been well documented elsewhere. Just consider Andrew Ferguson’s fascinating article “The Heretic: Who is Thomas Nagel and why are so many of his fellow academics condemning him?” It is no surprise that scholars are heaping insults on Nagel, a worldclass philosopher and atheist, for daring to challenge philosophical naturalism. After all, this ain’t just mere epiphenomenalism. This is a theory that goes to the very foundations for many of these folk. Kind of like challenging the incarnation at a Christian school, eh?
I'm not sure this is a true analog with religious belief, but it may be. And if it is, then the religious will have to give up any claim to special respect for their beliefs, à la Stanley. Either they claim they have a more emotional connection to their beliefs than non-believers, and accept the psychological consequences of that, whatever they turn out to be, or they agree that non-believers can treat their religious beliefs as any other non-religious belief; Dawkins and 'atheist trolls' are free to attack them without believers claiming a 'special' identity with their beliefs.


  • Diacanu says:
    31 July 2013 at 20:48

    Theists take an attack on their philosophy so personally, because THEY are their God, and this admits it's play-pretend.

    If God were a real dude, he'd be a big enough boy to handle his own battles.

    And knowing he's a big enough boy to handle his own battles, no theist would ever sniffle on his behalf.

    Not a single tear, not a drop of sweat would ever be spilled.

    But that's not what you ever see, is it?

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