An Open Challenge to Dr. Keith Parsons and Other Atheist Philosophy of Religion Professors

On September 1st 2010 Keith Parsons announced he was no longer going to teach in the area of the Philosophy of Religion. He wrote:
Over the past ten years I have published, in one venue or another, about twenty things on the philosophy of religion. I have a book on the subject, God and Burden of Proof, and another criticizing Christian apologetics, Why I am not a Christian. During my academic career I have debated William Lane Craig twice and creationists twice. I have written one master’s thesis and one doctoral dissertation in the philosophy of religion, and I have taught courses on the subject numerous times. But no more. I’ve had it.

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 don’t think there is a Bernie Madoff in the bunch. 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. I’ve turned the philosophy of religion courses over to a colleague.Link
I want to challenge him to reconsider.

In 2009 David Chalmers of the Australian National University and David Bourget of London University, surveyed professional philosophers and others on their philosophical views. The survey was taken by 3226 respondents, including 1803 philosophy faculty members and/or PhDs and 829 philosophy graduate students, which can be seen here. The question that interests me is what philosophers think about God.
God: theism or atheism?
Accept or lean toward: atheism 678 / 931 (72.8%)
Accept or lean toward: theism 136 / 931 (14.6%)
Other 117 / 931 (12.5%)
If we add in the "other" category, which would include New Age beliefs, Deism, and Agnosticism, then upwards to 86% of them are not theists. Among those philosophers who are theists I dare say most of them are probably not card carrying Evangelicals, since this includes Catholics, Muslims, Jews and those who merely accept the philosopher's god.

So much for William Lane Craig's claim that there is at the present time a renaissance of Christian philosophy in today's world. *cough*

Anthony Gottlieb reports however, that among specialists in the philosophy of religion, the ratio of philosophers more likely to favor theism is 72:19. Link.

It seems clear that believing philosophers are simply more interested in the philosophy of religion so they gravitate toward teaching it. A number of my friends teach in this area who are, or have been, ministers or Bible college teachers trained in seminary. It also seems clear that at least some atheist philosophers don't find teaching in this area to be rewarding based on the "received model" of teaching philosophy.

The "received model," the one I used, is that as instructors the main goal is to help students learn to think critically. The class could be on ethics or philosophy or the philosophy of religion, but for the most part these classes are little more than extensions of an Introduction to Critical Thinking class. The subject matter is important, since there is specific factual content to teach the students for each class, like Aristotle's view on ethics for an Ethics class, or Plato's Forms for a Introduction to Philosophy class, and Anselm's Ontological Argument for a Philosophy of Religion class. But the main goal is the same, to teach students to think critically, no matter what the subject matter is before them. In general, the philosophy instructor is not to "spoon feed" students the "answers" but let them hash it out themselves. If the class leans in one direction the instructor leans in the other, and vice versa, just to make the students think critically. Let them come to their own conclusions for the most part, is the model. It's not that the professor's conclusions didn't come through at times. It's just that they are not to argue for them much at all.

With the "received model" it could be frustrating for an atheist to give equal time to theistic arguments in his or her Philosophy of Religion class, as Dr. Parsons said.

Dr. Peter Boghossian has recently challenged the "received model" in an article for Inside Higher Ed which can be read here. He argues that professors should have a primary goal of changing students beliefs if those beliefs are false and seek to replace those beliefs with true ones.
I believe our role as educators should be to teach students not just factual data, but the importance of critically examining beliefs by exposing them to facts, and then revising cherished notions when confronted with reliable but discomforting evidence....The primary goal of every academic should be to bring students’ beliefs into lawful alignment with reality.
Boghossian subsequently gave a talk on the Portland State University campus arguing that faith is a cognitive malaise and should be given no credence in the classroom. You can hear a podcast where he discusses this thesis of his.

Boghossian challenges the "received model" and I endorse it. I think that atheist philosophers should teach philosophy in this way, challenging theistic beliefs to a much greater extent whenever possible without completely alienating his or her students (which can still be a difficult balancing act depending on the students). I mean, come on, the facts are in, there is no positive (as opposed to negative) evidence for the existence of God and all arguments to the existence of God have huge holes in them. There is overwhelming disconfirming evidence for God's existence and those who argue to his existence must utilize a number of informal fallacies to do so. If we want to teach students to think critically then we must show them this is what believers must do in arguing their case.

So let's take this newer, better view of teaching the philosophy of religion and see the result. If Keith Parsons accepted it then he would still be teaching his philosophy of religion classes and enjoying them more, and he would have more of an impact on the world since these students represent the future of America.

Let's look at the available college textbooks in these areas.

Probably the most overt atheist college textbook introducing Philosophy is Robert Paul Wolff's About Philosophy (11th Edition)

When it comes to the Philosophy of Religion an atheist instructor who accepts Boghossian's view doesn't have much to recommend to his classes. I did a quick search on Amazon for "Philosophy of Religion" college textbooks. Most of them are written or edited by believers, and those edited by non-believers take the "received model" which present both sides of every question in a respectful dialogue about religion. Link.

There is one debate book introducing the subject by Michael B. Wilkinson and Hugh N. Campbell that if adopted would allow an instructor to take the atheist side while teaching it: Philosophy of Religion: An Introduction

One book an atheist instructor should consider is John Shook's The God Debates: A 21st Century Guide for Atheists and Believers (and Everyone in Between). Shook respectfully gives both sides an equal hearing but he argues the case for atheism.

But why not just use Nicholas Everitt's The Non-Existence of God? I think Everitt fairly represents both sides. It's just that he argues his case and does so on the level of the college student.

I think my forthcoming book on the Outsider Test for Faith would be something that could be brought into a Philosophy of Religion class and used very effectively toward this goal.

When it comes to teaching critical thinking, given Boghossian's view, I think there is no better book to be used in the college classroom than Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn's How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age.

There are surely texts I haven't seen before so I look forward to other suggestions. If nothing else, perhaps atheist philosophers will produce better anthologies for the kinds of classes they teach in all subjects. The problem at this point is that since there are more believing philosophers of religion that means atheist college textbooks might not sell very well.

I think adopting Boghossian's view would keep more atheist philosophy of religion instructors teaching and do more good for their students. So I challenge Dr. Parsons to get back in there and adopt the Boghossian's model for teaching philosophy. I hope he changes his mind. We need him. I'll respect him and his choice no matter what, but he could lead the charge by coming back into the philosophy of religion classroom. He could show us what it means to teach such a class, and even edit a book that other like-minded philosophers could use for teaching in that area.