Calls For Ending the Philosophy of Religion Are Doing Nothing More Than Advocating For the Secularization Of Our Secular Universities

Recently Jerry Coyne wrote about the Philosophy of Religion:
Insofar as "theology" includes courses that presuppose the existence of the divine, take seriously the existence of God or Jesus, or prepare people for the ministry or to promulgate religious beliefs, then those courses not only have no place in a University, but are exercises in delusion. Now I think the higher-class divinity schools, like Chicago's and Harvard's, have very few of those courses, but there are some. They should not be part of a secular university. Maybe I'm missing something here, but it seems to me that Hitchens's razor is correct: "What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence." That applies to any form of theology that takes gods or superstitions as real. Universities should not be in the business of taking seriously those myths that have no evidence behind them. They can, of course, teach myths, but at no point should they imply that there is evidence for their truth. LINK
I've written on this topic several times before, collected here. But I don't think I've articulated my viewpoint in any single post better than I do in this one. I'm not surprised there is still a lot of misunderstanding about what I'm talking about. So here's another attempt--a book may need to be written on it.

My position seems to be the same as Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay when it comes to ending the Philosophy of Religion (PoR) discipline in the secular universities. The classes covered could be taught under the umbrella of the Philosophy discipline itself (with no need for a subdivision of PoR) or in the Comparative Religion departments, and especially science classes. Just think of it this way. We don't have PoR classes on Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, Mithraism, Norse theology, Haitian Voodoo, Paganism etc., in any secular university that I know about. We don't see this for good reasons. Now think real hard about why, okay? The main purpose of the PoR discipline is to examine the evidence and the arguments for religion. Evidence. Arguments. Its main purpose is not merely to get students to understand religion. Rather, it seeks to assess the claims of religion by looking at the evidence (if there is any) and the arguments (if there are any good ones based on the evidence). By contrast, the main purpose of classes in Comparative Religions departments is to understand religion.

Where should we look to find any evidence for religion? If it's to be found at all we should look to science (which is an umbrella term for all of the sciences). So far the results of looking to science for the evidence is that there is no evidence for god, God or goddesses. None. Believers should honestly admit this since there can be no scientific evidence for a spiritual being (I'm taking nonsense here since I have no idea what a spiritual being is). Given that we're looking for evidence of a spiritual being then the only way to detect if she/he/it exists is if she/he/it has acted in history and the evidence for divine action exists. However, there is no good scientific evidence to show this either. Believers misconstrue the evidence by claiming a mystery is to be considered evidence. No. A mystery is a mystery. That we cannot explain something merely means we cannot explain something, given the kinds of things we actually experience that need explaining (bizarre hypotheticals don't count).

In any case, if a PoR professor had a class on the evidence and arguments for Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, Mithraism, Norse theology, Haitian Voodoo, Paganism, etc., then doing so would be to take those religions seriously. Believers in Religion A no more take the religions they reject seriously, as believers in Religions B,C,D,E,F,G... take Religion A seriously, and vice versa. Highlighting one religion for rational examination and discussion over others presupposes that it has more going for it. But if all religions are based in faith (by degree) and if faith type answers are no answers at all, and if atheist professors want to be honest about the PoR classes they teach, then paradoxically they should not even teach these classes. This proposal seems counter-productive and very impractical, I know, especially since most students in the Western world are de facto Christians and need to be forced to think skeptically through their faith, and also because PoR professors have a need to earn a living from their education.

So the solution I offer is a pragmatic one given these harsh realities. Atheist professors should never forget that the eventual goal should be the eliminatation of PoR departments and classes. Think about this. In an atheist society they wouldn't even exist. So up until the time when one's PoR department no longer exists then atheist professors should simply teach the truth. They should tell their students that faith based answers are no answers at all. They should be just as much activists in their universities as there are activists fighting for the separation of the state from the church. To do that they have to stand up and tell the truth about their own discipline in the classroom, something Dr. Boghossian does in his philosophy classes, and Dr. Hector Avalos does when it comes to biblical studies.

As I see it, from my atheist perspective, faith solutions should have no countenance in a secular university. When it comes to politics or morality the same standard applies. No one should punt to faith when trying to solve the disputes in those disciplines either. I'm advocating for the secularization of our secular universities in the same way that Dr. Avalos is advocating for the secularization of biblical studies, in the same way that activists are advocating for the secularization of our government. I don't think you can argue against calls for ending the PoR discipline unless you're against atheist activism in general. The problem with the PoR discipline in our secular universities is faith. Faith solutions should have no countenance in secular universities.

I don't expect any Christian philosophers to agree, and since this is a new challenge for philosophers in general to consider--not unlike the mythicist challenge to biblical scholars regarding Jesus studies--I don't expect philosophers in general to agree with it, especially those who have a vested interest in teaching in secular universities. I don't even expect atheist philosophers to agree with it, although I'm appealing to them. I'm challenging atheist philosophers to teach PoR classes correctly. Yes, there is a correct way to teach the PoR. They should teach their discipline in the correct manner by telling the truth, that faith-based answers are no answers at all, and those answers will not be allowed in their classrooms because they have a proven track record of not solving anything. By teaching their discipline correctly they will be arguing themselves out of a job.

No one is suggesting we should not discuss the issues of the PoR or write books on these topics. I do. But since the topics themselves are usually ones that are parochial in nature, then by highlighting them for a university class in the secular university we're saying these parochial concerns have more legitimacy to them than others in the Middle Eastern and Eastern worlds along with the Southern Hemisphere (which in turn teach their own parochial PoR classes). When it comes to religious faith we need a global perspective, and that's best taken up inside the confines of scientific and Comparative Religions departments.


Secular attitudes have advanced knowledge. Faith attitudes have not. If we want to know the truth about something, anything, we should therefore adopt secular attitudes. Period.