by Dr. Chad McIntosh
When I was around 7 or 8 years old, I remember thinking that if God is real, He wouldn’t let good people suffer. I also recall, around the same time, huddling up next to the heat vent in my room, thinking that if God is real and I don’t believe in Him, I’d go to Hell—so I should believe even if He isn’t real. You can imagine my excitement, then, when I discovered philosophy my freshman year of high school, learning that much smarter people than I had also thought about and discussed these things. It was like joining an important conversation, but with a lot of catching up and listening to do!
As it happens, my primary conversation partners were Nietzsche, Sartre, and Camus—oh, and B. C. Johnson’s The Atheist Debater’s Handbook—which I found in the “philosophy” section of a local bookstore. I obsessed over the questions of God’s existence and the meaning of life. Well, to make a very long story short, after a handful of wild experiences and finding much better conversation partners (e.g., William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga), I came to believe that God does exist. And not long after, different philosophical questions took center stage: What is God like? How are we related to Him? Are the Christian revelation claims true? And so on. Now, a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in philosophy later, I’m thinking about other questions (e.g., “What’s the best model of the Trinity?”).
I mention these biographical details not because I presume they’re interesting. The opposite, really. I suspect that a good number of philosophers who specialize in philosophy of religion (hereafter PoR) have similar stories. The seeds of our interest in philosophy were sown early as we thought about “the big questions”, which blossomed into more nuanced intellectual investigations. What could be more natural? Isn’t this just what philosophers do—examine the rationale and coherence of what one believes?
Yet it is not uncommon to hear philosophers complain that PoR is somehow the worse for this; i.e., for taking things like God’s existence, or the broad truth of Christian revelation claims, for granted in certain philosophical projects. These complaints—that philosophy of religion suffers from a “bias” problem, or is “mere apologetics in disguise”—are either wholly spurious or open to obvious tu quoque responses (or shall we pretend that, say, genders studies suffers from no bias problems?). So rather than go on defense by answering these charges, I will instead offer five reasons for thinking philosophy of religion, far from being philosophically subpar, is perhaps the choicest field of philosophy of all.
1. PoR a Philosophical Watershed
I doubt think there’s another field of philosophy as philosophically fecund and diverse as PoR. Nearly every topic in PoR intersects in a substantive way with other fields of philosophy. For example, most responsible treatments of the cosmological argument will require detailed discussions of the nature of explanation, necessity and contingency, causation, dependence, the principle of sufficient reason, the nature of space and time, set theory, regresses, the infinite, and various paradoxes related thereto. This is to say nothing of interdisciplinary competence in the physical sciences (e.g., cosmology). One of my own areas of interest, the doctrine of the Trinity, supplies another example. The Trinity is a veritable treasure chest of philosophical gems like the classic problem of many and the one, the concept of personhood, consciousness, identity, constitution, mereology, ontological dependence, substance, essence, intrinsic-extrinsic relations, social metaphysics, love and friendship, value theory, the nature and rationality of belief in mystery and paradox, and more. Having so many fascinating topics all in some way connected to a single thing is a philosopher’s dream.
2. PoR is Practical
Philosophy in general is commonly criticized as impractical. If there’s any truth to this criticism, it doesn’t touch PoR. Something is practical if it helps you realize your goals. And since most people have as their goals, or at least ought to have as their goals, figuring out whether God exists, what He is like, the ultimate basis of right and wrong, and what matters most in life, PoR is eminently practical. One’s views about these topics affect the way one lives. In other words, philosophers of religion often work on questions that matter, to them and to most everyone else. That’s why the readership of PoR often hops the insular fence of academia. Because people are personally invested in the subject matter of PoR, it isn’t nearly as easy to treat it as mere intellectual play.
3. PoR Requires Humility and Charity
Relatedly, questions in PoR have an obvious gravitas that questions in other fields don’t. As Robert Nozick says, “while such other philosophical intricacies as whether sets or numbers exist can be fun for a time, they do not make us tremble.” But questions in PoR do—or at least ought to. The fact is that nearly every philosopher in the history of Western philosophy, recognizing no artificial distinction between philosophy of religion and philosophy generally, took such questions seriously. Yet most contemporary philosophers do not, or at least not enough to responsibly investigate them. What hubris! Granted, religion, like politics, can often be a touchy subject, reflecting as it does our deepest commitments and values. But that’s the point! PoR therefore forces us to take seriously those who disagree with us about these things, be they the greatest thinkers of the past or our own colleagues.
4. PoR is Perennial
PoR is conversant with figures from all ages and styles. Even the most a-historically minded contemporary philosopher of religion must interact with historical figures to some degree, and must also be prepared to cross the analytic-continental divide. A single topic in PoR, such as the ontological argument, can take you from the analytic of Anselm, Descartes and Spinoza to the continental of Heidegger, Hegel, and Husserl, then back to the present analytic of Plantinga, Oppenheimer and Oppy to the continental of Hartshorne. PoR’s perennial nature, combined with its being such a philosophical watershed, virtually guarantees avoiding the temporal and topical parochialism so common in philosophy today.
5. PoR Evinces Genuine Philosophical Progress
The twin sister of the impracticality complaint against philosophy is the progress complaint. “There is no genuine progress in philosophy like there are in Science,” it is said. But PoR supplies a rare instance of what seems to be a genuine counterexample here. There’s as close to a consensus as there could be in philosophy that the logical problem of evil against the existence of God has been decisively refuted, and the discussion has advanced to alternative versions of the problem. It’s also difficult to resist the conclusion that there has been genuine progress in the field of natural theology over the past few decades. The rigor and sophistication of recent contributions to natural theology indisputably match, if not outmatch, the level of rigor and sophistication that could be brought to bear on any other philosophical position. The proliferation of this literature renders the blithe dismissals of theism in particular and PoR in general impossible to justify.
The fact that common complaints against PoR are spurious, and, in addition, that PoR has all these virtues is strong evidence that there is bias against PoR. Well, sort of. There isn’t as much bias against PoR itself as there is against those who tend to specialize in it: straight, white, Christian men who may not be as left-leaning as the rest of academia. If you don’t fit that demographic profile, however, you can specialize on something as intrinsically absurd as the metaphysics of African witchcraft religion and not be regarded as philosophically suspect. But if you do fit that profile and want to specialize on the metaphysics of theism or the epistemology of religious belief, you might be asked if seminary isn’t more suitable for you, as I was in graduate school—twice!
Chad McIntosh earned his B.A. in philosophy at Calvin College, and M.A. and Ph.D in philosophy at Cornell University.