Jason Marsh on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Jason Marsh is Associate Professor of Philosophy at St. Olaf College. 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.

It is hard to imagine that there is a single story to tell about what norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion. And while I bet that philosophers of religion could reach quite a bit of agreement on the question, instead of trying to give a comprehensive list of virtues, I will simply consider one form of excellence that currently has my attention. The excellence I have in mind is an almost ‘unnatural’ degree of intellectual honesty. This can take different forms. For instance, while it is relatively natural to acknowledge when one doesn’t know something, some go further by writing entire articles that evidentially run against their religious beliefs.

One example in philosophy of religion comes from Dan Moller. After writing an elaborate argument against design, he concludes with the following sentences:

. . . As a theist I don’t particularly welcome [my argument’s] existence. But it does look like evidence that life on earth wasn’t ushered onto the stage ‘by hand.’

Before reaching the end of his paper, or even after just reading his title “A Simple Argument Against Design”, many might (mistakenly) assume that Moller is an atheist. That is because few philosophers devote entire papers to formulating even just one line of evidence against their most important beliefs. There is opportunity for more excellence here.

Another form of intellectual honesty arises when people acknowledge when they don’t base their beliefs on the evidence, in the inferential sense. For instance, in a paper called “Giving Dualism its Due”, William Lycan says the following about his unwavering commitment to materialism.

I have been a materialist about the mind for forty years, since first I considered the mindbody issue . . . And like many other materialists, I have often quickly cited standard objections to dualism that are widely taken to be fatal—notoriously the dreaded Interaction Problem… Being a philosopher, of course I would like to think that my stance is rational, held not just instinctively and scientistically and in the mainstream but because the arguments do indeed favor materialism over dualism. But I do not think that, though I used to. My position may be rational, broadly speaking, but not because the arguments favor it: though the arguments for dualism do (indeed) fail, so do the arguments for materialism. And the standard objections to dualism are not very convincing . . . My purpose in this paper is to hold my own feet to the fire and admit that I do not proportion my belief to the evidence.

Passages like those from Moller and Lycan are music to my ears. They also make me want to think harder about my own beliefs. And while I think this kind of thing would lose impact if done in every article, I do think more of it would be a good thing. These virtues seem to connect up to the old Socratic ideal of following (or seeking to follow) the evidence where it leads. This ideal is hard. And it can seem to conflict with at least some faith traditions, whose values can include faithfulness, trust, and even submission of intellect to the divine. But when I see Moller make the admission that he does, I don’t get the feeling that he is being unfaithful. And I suspect that practitioners of many religious traditions might agree. Similarly, when I see Lycan’s admission, I just think he is really human. We all fail to follow the evidence in some domain or another, but it takes guts to admit where.

Now I realize that ‘evidence’ needn’t be argumentative or inferential: it arguably encompasses testimony and experience as well. But my point applies on this view, too. On occasion, philosophers of religion acknowledge ‘experiential evidence’ that shook them to the core—as a graduate student I was once in at a dinner with some leading atheistic philosophers of religion, and their testimony about their religious experiences was fascinating. I think more non-believers, to use that expression, could acknowledge if they have had religious experiences and whether it was possible to doubt during their occurrence. I also think more believers would do well to talk about possible irreligious experiences they have had. Without turning into an AA style club, maybe we could get over a bit of the common embarrassment about this kind of thing.

To use a different example, in a lecture called “The Elsewhere, Elsewhen Objection to Religious Belief”, Tomas Bogardus opens with a story about his upbringing. He had asked his grandmother why she raised his mom Lutheran rather than Catholic, given relevant Catholic family history. She replied that when his mother was young, the Lutheran church happened to be the nearest church in their Chicago neighbourhood. Bogardus goes on to describe how this story of happenstance (he could very easily have had different religious beliefs) induced notable epistemic vertigo. Although he is not persuaded by the inferential version of the challenge, the experience alone might have epistemic force.

My final version of intellectual honesty concerns axiology and involves acknowledging something of value that cannot be realized on one’s current metaphysics. Michael Tooley, who spends much of his time arguing against the claim that God exists, has noted that he hopes that God exists, and that things would be better if God exists—if the world were different than he thinks it is. This got my attention. For well-known atheists, like Richard Dawkins, will often say things to the effect that life permits at least as much grandeur on a secular version of Darwin’s worldview as it does on Paley’s view. But Tooley implies that this is a sham. I think his pro-theistic atheism is interesting. Few seem to lament in any clear way that the other side, if true, might have more value to offer.

Finally, Eleonore Stump and other traditional Christian, Islamic, and Jewish theists occasionally express the hope that everyone will eventually enjoy salvation, even if their commitment to orthodoxy rules out believing that they will. Marilyn McCord Adams also, I believe, expressed a similar desire before becoming a universalist. That, in some ways, is more virtuous than anything evidential.

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