Philosophers have reproved me because, as a mere biologist, I have no right to criticize the teaching of philosophy of religion in colleges, nor to call for its end. But I reject the idea that biologists have no standing to give such an opinion, just as I reject the notion that philosophers can’t pass judgement on whether some areas of science are unproductive. All that matters is that opinions must be informed and supported with arguments. And I think I know enough about the philosophy of religion, and about how it’s taught in some colleges, to pass at least a reasonably informed judgment on the value of the discipline—which is almost nil. It’s almost nil because while it can inform us about the influence of scripture and how it was invented (a useful endeavor), it also promulgates religion and prepares students for the ministry.
I think that teaching different philosophies of religion in secular schools is fine—so long as it’s in courses on comparative religion. And some Biblical scholarship is also useful for it’s a form of historical reconstruction of a document that is taken seriously. So, too, are courses in the Bible as literature, in the same way that we should have courses in Shakespeare as literature, or in any influential form of literature (or forms that deserve to be more influential).
But too often courses in the philosophy of religion turn into courses on religious apologetics: teaching Biblical exegesis as if the Bible were true. So, secular schools like Duke and Harvard (and my own school) have “divinity schools.” Those schools teach, in part, theology. I don’t see that as a valid subject for a secular school, since it’s the study of a nonexistent entity and what he/she/it wants us to do. Comparative theology is fine, but do we need whole schools of this stuff at secular universities?
Here are a few courses from the prestigious Harvard Divinity School (to be sure, this school has a lot more diversity, in terms of courses on different faiths, than other divinity schools):
Intimacy with God: Jewish Conceptions of Communion, Mystical Union and the Holy Spirit
Introduction to Islamic Mysticism: The Sufi Tradition
Greek Exegesis of John
Religion, Gender, and Culture Colloquium: Feminist Theory and Theology
Clinical Chaplaincy: Interfaith Caregiving Skills and Practice
United Methodist Polity
Meaning Making – Thinking Theologically about Ministry Experience: Seminar
Catholicism Faces Modernity: Classics of Twentieth Century Roman Catholicism
Advanced Spiritual Counseling: Taking Care of Others, Taking Care of Self: Seminar
Pentecostal Polity Note the description: The history, principles and practice of Pentecostal believers. To understand the nature and functioning of Pentecostal denominations. To prepare Pentecostal students for ordination. The course will include liturgy, worship, and theology of the Pentecostal faith. The focus primarily will be on the major Pentecostal denominations and the charismatic flavor of other major denominations.
United Church of Christ Polity: The history, polity, and practice of the United Church of Christ. Issues addressed throughout include ecclesiology, mission, professional ethics, the ordination process, justice, as well as contemporary principles and patterns of the UCC. Students seeking ordination are urged to take this course during their middler year, but all are welcome
Communication Skills for Spanish Ministry
Unitarian Universalist Religious Education: Seminar. This course is designed to equip future ministers with the knowledge, skills, resourcefulness, and self-awareness needed to form the faith of Unitarian Universalists in the 21st century.
Introduction to Christian Preaching: This course introduces students to the theology and the practice of preaching within the Christian tradition. Special attention will be paid to developing a theological understanding of both the preacher and the preached word, and students will be expected to prepare and deliver several sermons during the course of the term.
This is only a small sample. A sudden pain in my lower mesentery prevented me from going further down the list. It’s long.
But you get the point: many of these courses are designed to prepare students to learn and preach the Word of God, while others involve minute exegesis of fiction in a way that wouldn’t be tolerated for any other influential work of fiction. There are dozens and dozens of these courses. I think many are superfluous, for they’re helping students spread delusions.
But if you reject my standing to say this, listen instead to John Loftus, who used to be an evangelical Christian preacher, but gave up the faith. Loftus is now not only writing about his “deconversion,” but also offering thoughtful critiques of Christianity. I particularly like his book Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity (only about $13 on Amazon), which is far more than just a deconversion tale: it’s also an incisive critique of Christian apologetics. His anthology edited with Dan Barker, The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, is also very good, and contains a chapter on Loftus’s well-known “Outsider Test for Faith” (OTF), a rational program for examining why one should prefer one’s own religion over others (hint: you should reject them all). You can find a bunch of John’s online writings about the OTF here.
But I digress. Loftus has a new piece at his site, Debunking Christianity, with the no-nonsense title, “I’m calling for an end to the philosophy of religion as a discipline in secular universities.” (Note also that the next day he had a back-and-forth about this with Biblical scholar Jaco Gericke).
Loftus’s essay is a response to a book by philosopher Graham Oppy defending philosophy of religion, Reinventing Philosophy of Religion: An Opinionated Introduction, as well as a YouTube video interiew Oppy did about the topic/ I haven’t read the book, but I have watched the (or rather listened) to the video, where Oppy criticizes Peter Boghossian and my own views against teaching this discipline. Loftus’s criticisms of Oppy are on the mark:
Oppy tells us: “Philosophy of religion as a discipline, I would think, probably doesn’t date much earlier than the second World War.” This historical lesson is significant, I think, for we did without it for centuries and we can do without it again. Later Oppy offers his criticism, saying, “Most of the people who have done philosophy of religion have been theists.” So it stands to reason “it has had an extremely narrow focus…It hasn’t really been the philosophy of religion but rather Christianity with a very great emphasis on theism,” and even apologetics/Christian theology. Okay then, as it stands today the philosophy of religion is dominated by Christian theists who discuss concepts and arguments germane to Christianity, and even defending it. Given what he said, the philosophy of religion needs reinvented if it is to survive. The unaddressed question is why we should have a discipline in any secular university where theism, or Christian theism, Christian theology or Christian apologetics is privileged and considered to the exclusion of all other religions or apologetics? It shouldn’t. If this is the state of affairs then the only reasonable response is to call for the end of that discipline. NOW!
Oppy calls for the broadening of the discipline to other religions. My response is similar to that of Loftus: there are thousands of religions, past and present, all with different “philosophies” (i.e., philosophies). Which ones should we study? And given that all the tenets of these religions are dubious, and their evidence for gods nonexistent, do we need entire departments to handle this stuff? Loftus responds:
To reinvent the philosophy of religion Oppy argues, “it must address questions that apply to the phenomena of religion in general.” That’s it. He argues the philosophy of religion should also discuss Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist views and religious concepts. By extension I would think, it should also discuss the views of other religions, all of them (although there is quite the discussion about what even makes a religion a religion). Oppy’s proposal would therefore include all of the dead religions too. Why not? Why assume that a dead religion, or a dead god, is no longer worthy to be discussed? Why not discuss Zoroastrianism, or Canaanite religions? Does the death of a religion mean it must not be a true one? I see no reason to think so. And who decides which religion is worthy of discussing?
. . . In any case, if the philosophy of religion was reinvented as Oppy suggests, then what we would end up with is a Religious Studies discipline and classes focusing on comparative religion, or the varieties of religious experience, where religious are compared/contrasted/considered and the secular counter-part is offered as a critique of them all. But we already have these kinds of classes.
Indeed we do. What we don’t need are entire Divinity Schools or Schools of Theology in secular universities. This privileges an entire discipline based on a human endeavor that itself rests on dubious and unsubstantiated claims. Further, they concentrate largely (but not exclusively) on active Abrahamic religions. There are few, if any, courses on atheism in divinity schools, but they should be at least as prominent as courses in religious apologetics. That is distasteful in a country that officially favors no religion in particular. If we are to have such schools, let us then have Ethical Schools, or Schools of Moral Thinking, or The School of Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy. But all of these can simply be subsumed in departments of philosophy or history.
Indeed, why not have a School of Pseudoscience, which teaches courses on creationism and its arguments, ESP and its arguments, homeopathy and its arguments, and so on? Or how about a school that one can justify far better: The School of the History and Philosophy of Science? There are programs in this area, but usually those courses—courses that deal with reality instead of fiction—are subsumed in philosophy departments. And that’s fine.
I recognize that there’s room for a difference of opinion here: religion, of course, was and is an important feature of human history and thought. My own take, though is that as religion wanes, it’s time to stop privileging it by devoting entire departments of secular universities to studying religion not only as a phenomenon, but by presenting religious apologetics and giving religious training to students. Remember, many students get degrees from these schools as a step toward becoming Christian or Jewish clerics. In that way the schools are preparing students to spread or buttress lies. And in that way divinity schools differ from medical schools or schools of sociology or economics. If we are to teach apologetics to students, let us leave that to the seminaries and religious colleges.
Finally, Loftus gives some excerpts from Hector Avalos’s book, The End of Biblical Studies, Avalos is a Professor of Religious studies in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Iowa State University. He is also a former Pentecostal preacher (I’m not sure if he’s still a believer) and a well-known opponent of creationism. In his book, Avalos calls for Biblical studies to become a vehicle for ending the hegemony of the Bible. One quote from Avalos: “The sole purpose of biblical studies, under this option, would be to help people move toward a postscriptural society.” That’s the option that Avalos prefers.
If you want to see how divinity schools in secular universities buttress Abrahamic religion, read an article from the university newspaper of a secular school, The Chronicle from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina: “Duke Divinity School says it can answer what science cannot.” Read about how the Divinity school claims to enhance secular education. Some excerpts:
At a university constantly praised for its scientific advancements, the Duke Divinity School enhances secular education with an alternate but compatible perspective.
“Honestly, there aren’t a whole lot of other places in the academic world that teach us to ask, ‘Is this good?’” said Brandon Walsh, a master of divinity candidate.
Yes there are; they’re called philosophy departments.
Students in the Divinity graduate programs come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but all of them come to seek further study in the field of faith. Each come having accepted the fundamentals of their Christian faith—just as a mathematics graduate student accepts the concept of numbers, or a medical student accepts chemistry, [Dean Richard Hays] said.
Some people might consider these assumptions illogical because they are accepted on blind faith, leading them to believe that a divinity school does not belong in a modern university, said Brian Myers, a master of divinity candidate studying to become a pastor in the United Methodist Church. He noted, however, that there are flaws with this argument.
“There is no field at Duke that doesn’t take on presuppositions,” Myers said. “I don’t think the argument should be about the crazy claims that the Christian Church makes because we all have crazy presuppositions.”
Note this, which implicitly equates theology with science because both are based on presuppositions. But science is based on hypotheses that are confirmed, while theology is indeed based on blind faith and wish-thinking that is not even confirmable:
. . . Some people might consider these assumptions illogical because they are accepted on blind faith, leading them to believe that a divinity school does not belong in a modern university, said Brian Myers, a master of divinity candidate studying to become a pastor in the United Methodist Church. He noted, however, that there are flaws with this argument.“There is no field at Duke that doesn’t take on presuppositions,” Myers said. “I don’t think the argument should be about the crazy claims that the Christian Church makes because we all have crazy presuppositions.”
. . . When Myers entered Virginia Tech as a freshman, he was an atheist who saw himself becoming a doctor or lawyer. When he graduated cum laude, Myers chose to go to divinity school because of the transformation that he saw in people’s lives when they accepted God.Myers added that contrary to secular assumptions about Christians, he believes in scientific theories like the big bang and evolution, and they do not cloud his faith in the teachings of Jesus.
“I agree with every scientific theory out there,” Myers said. “Nothing can prove or disprove God. That is a faith decision, not a logical decision.”
. . . “Science seeks to describe empirical phenomena in a material world,” Hays said. “It describes how things work. Science cannot answer questions about why it exists or for what purposes or how it came to be. Those are the questions that theology tries to address.”
Tries to address, and does address, but never answers!
. . . The liberal arts education spans many approaches to understanding the world, and the field of religion offers an integral part of a complete humanities education at a university that also pursues science, math and technology, Hays said.
These different areas of knowledge can work together effectively. Currently, there are faculty collaborations between Divinity and Duke School of Medicine scholars as well as a dual degree program between the School of Law and the Divinity School.
The study of what it means to be human is at the heart of humanities studies, and that is where religion plays a role, said Carnes, who wants to become a theology professor.
“Humanities in general have something to do with what it means to be a human in a way that math and science can’t fully address,” she said.
. . . Hays said when students critically examine the teachings of the Bible in context to modern social movements, it allows for ethical and moral development.
Really? A kind of ethical and moral development that a secular ethics class can’t teach? Do they read the Old Testament? If so, who tells them what “morality” should be rejected?
“The questions that we ask ourselves are not simple, but we believe above all else that all humans are loved equally by God, no matter previous sexual experience,” Hays said. “What that means is that this is a community where we hope to have respectful, serious conversations about what sorts of sexual practices and concerns God would want us to have.”
Oy vey! Really? The Divinity School helps the students figure out the ways that God wants the students to have sex? How do they decide? Do the Catholic students and Jewish students and Muslim students (if there are any) achieve comity on this vexing question? Does God want the students to use condoms? Does He think that homosexuality is a “grave disorder,” as Catholics believe? What are God’s views on extramarital sex? I’d love to sit in on one of those “serious conversations”!
This shows clearly that the Duke Divinity School is an arm of the university that helps proselytize Abrahamic religion by teaching Biblical apologetics. What we need is what Avalos wants: a “postscriptural society.” I like that phrase.