“The bones aren’t there”: Philosopher of religion hangs it up

Philosopher Keith Parsons, from the University of Houston, has given up doing philosophy of religion.  According to Julia Galef, writing at Religious Dispatches, Parsons found the case for God to be insupportable.  As Parsons wrote on the website The Secular Outpost:

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 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.

Parsons later said he regretted using the word “fraud,” but of course the case for God is a fraud. He just can’t say that publicly.  But, as Galef reports:

Parsons’ background in the sciences (he obtained his doctorate in the history and philosophy of science at University of Pittsburgh) made him wary of unfettered reasoning. “There’s so little empirical grounding and constraint in philosophy. Even in paleontology, a so-called soft science, the bones are there,” Parsons says. “You can go measure them, look at them. You can’t say anything the bones won’t let you say.”

Parsons did the right thing.  Biblical scholarship is one thing, for it’s interesting and useful to dissect the human origins of religious myths.  Religious philosophy: not so gud, akshually.  Like many universities, mine has a divinity school whose faculty engages in both activities. I’ve always found it interesting that “elite” universities have schools and faculties devoted, at least in part, to rationalizing the existence of a fictitious being.

h/t: Brother Russell Blackford

41 Comments

  1. Posted January 5, 2011 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    Interesting. I always respect when someone in academia comes forward with something like this. They always risk a certain amount of alienation and reprimand from their peers, friends, and even family once the news starts spreading online. Kudos, Mr. Parsons.

    • Helen Wise
      Posted January 5, 2011 at 8:39 am | Permalink

      It’s probably even worse.

      I think it must take a great deal of ethical courage to do this; in addition to the alienation and reprimand you mention, I wouldn’t be surprised if it had an impact on his employment. He probably doesn’t have to think about employment retaliation, but he is a particular type of whistleblower, and that position is not easy.

    • MJ
      Posted January 6, 2011 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

      I’m pretty sure Parsons risks nothing here.

      First of all, he’s an atheist, and has written several books against theistic arguments. No one will be shocked that he’s given up, except for the fact that he persevered for so long.

      Second, philosophers as a whole aren’t very religious. The article quotes a figure that 73% of philosophers are atheists. I assume this is from the recent Chalmers survey of the top 99 philosophy departments in the English speaking world (I remember the figure as being around 70%).

      Indeed, philosophy of religion is one of the least respected subfields in philosophy. I was just on the job market in philosophy and out of 100s of ads for jobs, *none* of them sought philosophy of religion as an area of specialization. It’s received wisdom that people who only do philosophy of religion are unemployable, unless they plan to get hired at Notre Dame (but even then, you’d probably better specialize in metaphysics or logic as well).

  2. Tulse
    Posted January 5, 2011 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    Finally someone to counter with when the religious mention Antony Flew.

    • Posted January 5, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      What’s more, Parsons isn’t suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

  3. ennui
    Posted January 5, 2011 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    Like many universities, mine has a divinity school whose faculty engages in both activities.

    And according to Orac, the U of C is getting into alt med woo, too.

  4. Posted January 5, 2011 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    Before y’all get too excited, keep in mind that Parsons hasn’t deconverted. He wasn’t a Christian to begin with; indeed, he wrote a book criticizing Christian apologetics titled, “Why I am not a Christian.”

    Over the past decade he’s published prolifically on the philosophy of religion, yes. But as a philosopher, not as an apologist.

    What he has done is declare even the philosophy of religion to be bunk. He’s saying, as a philosopher, that religion not only has no place in science but it also has no place in philosophy.

    That’s awfully significant, but it’s not what the general tone of the previous comments would suggest is what happened.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Helen Wise
      Posted January 5, 2011 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      Thanks; that’s useful commentary.

      I think I have to go figure out what “philosophy of religion” is, or for that matter, philosophy of science.

    • Tulse
      Posted January 5, 2011 at 9:17 am | Permalink

      That’s helpful clarification, Ben.

      • Posted January 5, 2011 at 9:32 am | Permalink

        Third that thank you. And Ben is right–it *is* signifigant, and Parsons does deserve kudos for saying it out loud.

      • Posted January 5, 2011 at 9:32 am | Permalink

        Third that thank you. And Ben is right–it *is* significant, and Parsons does deserve kudos for saying it out loud.

        • Posted January 5, 2011 at 9:34 am | Permalink

          (…yokohamamama will now put herself to bed before she makes any more silly spelling errors and double-posts…)

          O-Yasumi Nasai!

    • Posted January 5, 2011 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      I’ve kinda been expecting somebody else to make this point, but I guess I have to….

      You know how theists are always berating us for not taking seriously all those “sophisticated” theological arguments?

      Parsons has just made the point that those arguments are as imaginary as the gods they argue for.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Darrell E
        Posted January 5, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

        Yes, and it is very nice to hear that from a high end philosopher. But, that point has been made countless times by sundry others. Even ordinary non philosophers such as myself. Very nice, but not unique, and quite obvious to many critics of religion. One could even say it is a commonly held position.

        • Posted January 5, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

          While the Gnus have been pounding that drum for some time, I’ve yet to hear a non-Gnu philosopher come out and state it so unequivocally.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Posted January 5, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

            But Parsons is a Gnu atheist. He became a Gnu atheist the moment he made such a strident and intolerant comment.

    • Bernard J. Ortcutt
      Posted January 5, 2011 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

      Religion hasn’t had a role in philosophy for about a century now. No one tries to answer metaphysical, epistemological, semantic, etc… questions by reference to religion. Philosophy of religion has persisted and it’s a slightly interesting field for a few months but I don’t understand how Parsons lasted as long as he did. Most of the arguments end up with one side having one intuition and the other having a different one, and intuitions aren’t worth anything. Like Parsons said, he has one intuition and Craig has a different one. Both are equally worthless. At that point, it’s time to move on to some other field that has some hope of saying something true about the world.

    • Nathan
      Posted January 6, 2011 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      In fact I think it’s fair to say that he was, at the very least, a secularist.

      Also from the blog:

      “I’ve had it. I’m going back to my real interests in the history and philosophy of science and, after finishing a few current commitments, I’m writing nothing more on the subject. I could give lots of reasons. 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.”

  5. Hempenstein
    Posted January 5, 2011 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Bravo! And, he has a Pittsburgh connection!

  6. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted January 5, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Keeping an eye on the truth was also a matter of practical importance for Parsons, who was alarmed by the support for Intelligent Design creationism among philosophy of religion’s most influential names. These include Alvin Plantinga and Peter van Inwagen, who led the subfield’s resurgence in the 1970s and ’80s, and William Lane Craig, an Evangelical who popularizes the subfield’s arguments for God in widely-attended public debates.

    Amen. They, at the very least, ought to realize that their brand of bulshitting is not applicable to evidence-based fields.

  7. Scott B
    Posted January 5, 2011 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    Just an observation: Instead of concluding “religion is a fraud”, which gets into the back-and-forth of what is philosophically false and what is true, I prefer a conclusion of ‘there is no life after death; there is no afterlife. Thus all human activities involved with supposed future meetings, dealings, judgments, in a supernatural realm after one dies, are useless and superfluous (e.g. prayer, church attendance, invocations). This is analogous to observing a sign stating “No Outlet” and so changing one’s direction and road, versus a passenger claiming “You’re going the wrong way!!” and all the discussion that follows.

    • Posted January 5, 2011 at 10:43 am | Permalink

      When the sign reads not, “No Outlet” but, “Bridge Out,” then it’s most appropriate for a passenger to scream, “You’re going the worng way!”

      Cheers,

      b&

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted January 5, 2011 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      Scott B: Instead of concluding “religion is a fraud”

      Why did you put that phrase in quotation marks when it is not what he said? What he actually said was: “I now consider the case for theism to be a fraud”
      (bold added by me for emphasis)

      Please, be honest in stating your argument, whatever it may be.

  8. Scott
    Posted January 5, 2011 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    Holy crap, that’s my school! :)

    Something tells me that I won’t be hearing anything about this, though.

    • Posted January 6, 2011 at 7:17 am | Permalink

      Yeah, I took some Spanish classes, there, too.

  9. Charles Sullivan
    Posted January 5, 2011 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    When I took a philosophy of religion class as an undergrad we were taught to pay special attention to the flaws in the arguments for the existence of God.

    I found that approach quite useful.

  10. daveau
    Posted January 5, 2011 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    You’d think those who study the “philosophy of religion” would know a fallacy when they see one. Isn’t that Philosophy 102?

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted January 5, 2011 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      The current trend in philosophy of religion is to take a classic failed argument for theism and extend it to great length, in order to provide more opportunities for hiding the question-begging. Examples include the ontological argument (Plantinga) and the Kalam cosmological argument (Craig). This is merely an ever more convoluted game of hide-and-seek and leads to no advance in knowledge or understanding.

      • daveau
        Posted January 5, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

        Better known as: polishing a turd.

      • Bernard J. Ortcutt
        Posted January 5, 2011 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

        For example, for those who don’t follow this stuff (and I’m working off of memory from 15 years ago so correct me if I’m mistaken), the critical intuition difference in the Plantinga ontological argument (other than some modal logic principles which are also questionable) is whether you believe that is a possible that a necessary being exist. My answer is how the hell do I know. Even if I had an intuition on the subject I would want to know on what basis my intuition is truth-tracking. And then what do you say? Nothing.

      • Andrew Lucas
        Posted June 16, 2014 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

        Parsons and Craig had a debate back in 1998, it’s on You Tube. My recollection is that the pundits on this sort of thing regard him as one of the more successful Craig debaters.

  11. Dominic
    Posted January 5, 2011 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    God’s bones!

  12. Insightful Ape
    Posted January 5, 2011 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Kudos.

  13. Posted January 5, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Is this a good thing, if it leaves the religious free to peddle their woo uninterruped? Shouldn’t a conscientious philosopher of religion stay on to answer the “new” and “more sophisticated” arguments that will inevitably be raised?

    • Marella
      Posted January 5, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

      He was saying he wouldn’t teach it to a class of students, not that he wouldn’t ‘interrupt’ the religious.

  14. Dr. Jim
    Posted January 5, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    “Biblical scholarship is one thing, for it’s interesting and useful to dissect the human origins of religious myths.”
    Thanks for recognizing this. As an atheist biblical scholar, it is nice to get a bit of acknowledgment for someone in the sciences!

    Alas, my own discipline has no clear institutional boundaries between the secular and the believing pseudo and para-scholarship. This is so in many universities and in professional organizations. Even in some secular universities, admin thinks the religious studies dept. is (or even should be) training clergy.

    I can appreciate Parson’s frustration as most university library’s holdings in biblical studies are not all that scholarly.

  15. Dave S
    Posted January 5, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Suggest reading “The Lost Symbol” By Dan Brown” It supppoots Mr Parson’s philosophy of religon.

  16. Posted June 16, 2014 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t the academic discipline Philosophy of Religion independent of claims of belief or faith in religious claims?

  17. Posted June 17, 2014 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    A philosopher of religion could always devote efforts to rebutting the arguments of those “rationalizing the existence of a fictional being.”

    This book, an anthology of essays edited by Steven Katz, contains examples of skeptical approaches to the topic.


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