Paul Draper on Dean Zimmerman on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Paul Draper is Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Religious Studies at Purdue University. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series. He answered by responding to Dean Zimmerman’s answer to the same question.

In response to the question of what norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion, Dean Zimmerman says that philosophy of religion must appeal to the same theoretical virtues to which other areas of philosophy appeal — the same ones that make for good science and good thinking in general. I could not agree more. Zimmerman then shifts his attention to the question of whether, in addition to these universal norms, there are “special norms” that apply specifically to philosophy of religion and that cannot be derived from universal norms. Zimmerman’s answer to this question is “no.” Once again, I agree. For example, it is a mistake to think, as some philosophers do, that only members of a particular religion or only people who are at least religious in some broad sense can have the attitudes, the dispositions, or the (insider) knowledge needed to excel in philosophical inquiry about religion. Similarly, being a religious outsider is not required for doing excellent work in philosophy of religion.

Such insider/outsider norms, however, are not the norms that draw Zimmerman’s scrutiny. Instead, his targets are what he calls the “no apologetics norm” and the “no theology norm.” I will ignore what he says about the no theology norm. Though I think there are some important differences between theological inquiry and philosophical inquiry about religion, I agree with Zimmerman that philosophy of religion and theology overlap and for that reason a strict “no theology norm” makes no sense. I do, however, want to respond to what Zimmerman says about the “no apologetics norm.” I will defend this norm by criticizing both his definition of “apologetics” and his understanding of what is supposed to justify the no apologetics norm. In addition, I will argue that this norm is not really “special” (in the relevant sense) because it can be derived from universal norms.

What, then, does the term “apologetics” mean? According to Zimmerman, “some are determined to use ‘apologetics’ as a term of abuse, so that it means, ‘arguments for religious doctrines that are put forth by someone who doesn’t care how good they are, but only intends to persuade’.” I certainly agree that this is a bad definition of “apologetics.” It is far too narrow. For example, there is plenty of really bad apologetics that is nevertheless quite sincere. Zimmerman’s definition, however, has the opposite problem. He thinks that any argument for a religious doctrine counts as apologetics, regardless of the motives of the arguer. He concludes that, since arguments (and the motives of arguers) can be good or bad, apologetics can be good or bad. Further, when the relevant arguments are philosophical, apologetics and philosophy of religion overlap.

If Zimmerman were right that apologetics is just the construction of arguments for the conclusion that a religious doctrine is true, then his thesis that apologetics is a proper part of philosophy would be trivial. Since that thesis is not trivial, it follows that something must be wrong with his definition. If this isn’t obvious, consider the fact that, in a philosophy of religion course I taught last fall, I spent a good part of the semester constructing and revising an argument from numinous experience for God’s existence. My students, including the Christian students in the class (both undergraduate and graduate) spent much time criticizing and considerably less time defending this argument. My purpose in constructing increasingly more convincing versions of this argument was not to persuade. For me, constructing arguments both for and against a position is, at least initially, a method of philosophical inquiry — a philosophical way of testing hypotheses (like the hypothesis that there is no God) — not an attempt to show that some position is true. Zimmerman’s definition of “apologetics,” however, implies falsely that I was doing apologetics, so clearly that definition is too broad.

I should mention that I’m not claiming that my specific approach to doing philosophy of religion (e.g. using argument construction to test hypotheses) is the only way a philosopher of religion can avoid doing apologetics. I’m just claiming that it is clearly one way of avoiding apologetics, which shows that Zimmerman’s definition of “apologetics” is incorrect. Another way to avoid apologetics is to do the sort of perspectival work that Alvin Plantinga recommends: assume that certain religious beliefs are true, examine their philosophical implications, and try to work out a coherent account of how they fit with the rest of what one believes. (Unfortunately, Plantinga is also an advocate of apologetics, but that is easily forgiven given how much he has contributed to philosophy of religion.)

What, then, is a better definition of “apologetics”? Something like the traditional theological (and standard dictionary) definition is well suited for our discussion. Theology, as traditionally conceived, seeks (i) to clarify and systematize the doctrines of a religion and also (ii) to justify those doctrines, both by attempting to show (positively) that they are true and by attempting to show (negatively) that attempts to show that they are false fail. The first endeavor is called “dogmatics” and the second “apologetics” (both positive and negative). To the extent that “recruitment and retention” are important goals in a religious community, one might argue that apologetics is a sensible project for theologians, especially given their special obligations to such communities. Notice that I said one might argue that. I don’t think I would argue that, for reasons that will soon be clear. In any case, whether or not apologetics ought to be a part of theology, apologetics is definitely not a sensible project for philosophers of religion. Why not?

Zimmerman’s unnamed opponent claims that the problem with apologetics is that those who engage in it “fail to approach their questions with an absolutely open mind, with no preconceptions about what the answer will be, in a state that is as close to suspension of belief as possible.” In other words, to be a good philosopher of religion according to Zimmerman’s opponent, one must always be “poised on a razor’s edge between the two views” being debated and “easily persuadable by” one’s interlocutor. Zimmerman’s response is the obvious one: such demands are “unrealistic and unfair . . . the Cartesian project of suspension of all belief is a fantasy; and religion is not the one special little province where it applies.”

Surely, however, there is a better justification of why philosophers should not engage in apologetics than the one Zimmerman criticizes. To find that justification, we need only focus on the fact that the apologist by definition sets out to prove, or to find evidence that supports, the religious doctrines to which they are committed. Similarly, in our adversarial criminal justice system, a prosecutor seeks to prove that defendants are guilty. Even if the prosecutor offers only arguments that they sincerely believe are sound, still no one would want to claim that what the prosecutor does is the best way to find out the truth about whether or not a defendant is really guilty. Instead, seeking evidence, whether that evidence confirms or disconfirms, is likely to be much more effective. This is the real reason that philosophers of religion should avoid apologetics. It is antithetical to the norm of avoiding bias in one’s inquiry, to the norm of seeking any relevant evidence there is, regardless of which direction it points. And that is not a special, domain specific norm at all, but a norm that applies to all truth-directed thought.

Of course, we all know that human beings, including philosophers and scientists, regularly violate this norm. No one is perfect here. But that doesn’t justify ignoring the norm. Further, imperfection in satisfying this norm comes in a wide range of degrees, and there is good reason to believe that the potential for falling far short is especially great when committed Christians, for example, focus on certain topics in philosophy of religion. One reason for this is that there is enormous pressure on members of religions like Christianity not to stray from accepted doctrine. Such group influence, combined with the ability of philosophers to construct elaborate rationalizations for just about any position one can imagine, is bound to lead to trouble, making a no apologetics norm all the more essential. (For a detailed discussion and defense of this point, see section 5 of “Diagnosing Bias in Philosophy of Religion,” The Monist 96.3, 422-448. My co-author, Ryan Nichols, was the primary author of this section of the paper.)

This is not to say that the potential for biased inquiry is not also severe in some other areas of philosophy and also in some areas of science. It is also not to say that atheists make better philosophers of religion than religious believers. Most non-religious philosophers of religion are ex-Christians, which hardly makes objectivity easy. Analogy: while a person is likely to be biased when examining evidence that their own spouse is guilty of some crime, ex-spouses may be even more biased the other way, especially if the break-up was a messy one. I should add that, in making this analogy, I do not mean to support Zimmerman’s assumption that philosophers of religion whose work focuses on a single religion either “love or hate” (my italics) that religion. That assumption is false, and the fact that philosophers of religion make assumptions like this is symptomatic of the sort of problems discussed in the Monist article just mentioned.

I will close by pointing out that there is considerable bigotry in academia in general and in philosophy in particular against committed Christians. This makes it easy for Christian philosophers of religion to be defensive when it appears that they are being singled out for criticism. I don’t believe, however, that my concern about apologetics and biased inquiry in philosophy of religion should be interpreted in this way. The norm of avoiding apologetics, whether theistic or atheistic, is actually relatively easy to justify in terms of universal norms of good thinking. Defending such a norm is not in any way anti-religious.

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