The Philosophical Elitism of Keith Parsons

I'm going to try showing Keith Parsons that he stands a lot to gain by listening to me, that I know what I'm talking about, and that he's wrong about the New Atheism. While I probably won't convince him, keep in mind that an argument doesn't need to be convincing for it to be a good one. I'm going to argue his problem is philosophical elitism. I will do so respectably, although it's that same attitude that may keep him from responding. First, here's a quote from Eric MacDonald endorsing Parsons:
The problem is precisely that the New Atheists think it appropriate to dismiss theology and philosophy of religion without understanding the first thing about it. Some New Atheists say, "I know enough about it. I was brought up as a Catholic or an Anglican or ...." But that's not qualification enough. Arguing from this point of view, where you really do not know what your opponent is arguing, because you have made no attempt to find out, is a simple informal fallacy known as special pleading. And the New Atheism is full of it. That's where Keith Parsons is way ahead of the New Atheists. Be an unbeliever by all means. But don't say that you know that there is no God or that theology is all make believe until you have really tried to understand what theologians are saying. And when you have done so, you will, I think, qualify your dismissal. --Eric MacDonald
I think this criticism of the New Atheism fails to understand the very phenomena being criticized. Let's just re-purpose MacDonald's quote: "The problem is precisely that the New Atheists think it appropriate to dismiss Scientology, or Mormonism, or militant Islam, or Hindu theology, or Haitian Catholic voodoo without understanding the first thing about it..." Need I go on? If anyone is special pleading it is MacDonald, for it didn't enter his mind to consider the many other religious faiths out there he easily dismisses without knowing that much about them. So I think reasonable people don't have to know a lot about religious faiths to reject them. We can dismiss these and other faiths precisely because they are faiths. The evidence is not there and even runs contrary to them. The moralities of these faiths also count against them. Do we need to know something about them to dismiss them? Sure, we should know something about them. In fact, to reject one of them we should at least hear about it. But even a rudimentary level of knowledge is enough for that, since faith is the problem. As outsiders we don't need to look into the many varieties of faith to know the results of faith are not likely to be true. We can do this simply by generalizing from the many mutually inconsistent false faiths to the probability that any given particular faith is false, even before getting an in-depth knowledge about it.

My specialties are theology, philosophical theology and especially apologetics. I am an expert on these subjects even though it's very hard to have a good grasp of them all. Now it's one thing for theologically unsophisticated intellectuals like Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and Stenger to argue against religion. It's quite another thing for a theologically sophisticated intellectual like myself to say the "New Atheists" were within their epistemic rights to denounce religion from their perspectives. And I do. I can admit they lack the sophistication to understand and respond point for point to sophisticated theology. But it doesn't matter. The reason is because all sophisticated theology is based in faith: faith in the Bible (or Koran) as the word of God, and/or faith in the Nicene creed (or other creeds), and/or faith in a church, synagogue or temple. No amount of sophistication changes this. Even an informed ten year old can come to the correct conclusions about faith without any sophistication at all.

Let's take a serious look at what Parsons said:
Do you need a Ph.D. in philosophy to be a legitimate and respectable participant in the theism/atheism debate or the science/religion debate? Of course not. But you do need to know what you are talking about. Those, however accomplished in other fields, who leap into the debate philosophically uninformed inevitably commit freshman mistakes that expose them to the scorn of sophisticated opponents. LINK.
The reason there is sophisticated theology in the first place is because Christian theologies are responding to its critics by reinventing their faith every decade. We're trying to hit a moving target and when we hit it then it morphs into something different as I argued here. The whole reason sophisticated Christian argumentation exists in the first place is because it takes sophistication to make the Christian faith palatable. The more the sophistication then the more the obfuscation, since their faith can only be defended by confusing people who don't share that sophistication. Defenses of Christianity are nothing but special pleading hiding underneath several layers of obfuscation with a sophistication to make it appear otherwise. It's nothing less than special pleading all the way down, and it doesn't take sophistication to see this or to call it out. Even a child can recognize what it is. But according to Parsons, in order to be a legitimate and respectable participant in the theism/atheism debate or the science/religion debate we must know what we're talking about, or we will inevitably commit freshman mistakes that expose ourselves to the scorn of sophisticated opponents.

Okay. Got it.

I've read some unsophisticated responses to sophisticated theology. These responses lacked a particular distinction, or a precise definition of a term, or they failed to take into consideration a recent study that says X,Y,Z. But I have found that by using the principle of charity their arguments are still good ones despite this lack. Take for example the chapter Parsons wrote for my anthology "The End of Christianity." He quoted Luke 16:22-24 as if the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus had to do with hell (p. 237). It doesn't, but rather speaks about the mythical time between death and the final judgment. I pointed this out to him when I saw it, but he included it anyway. I didn't protest further since that quote doesn't undermine the over-all case he made in the chapter. But I thought he shouldn't have used it. It lacked the requistie sophistication needed to keep from being scorned. It's the equivalent of citing the book of "Revelations" (There's no such book with an "s").

But more to my point. In that chapter Parsons chose to write against an easy target, the traditional view of eternal suffering in an eternal fire. He did so with an understanding of the sophistication of its defenders, I gladly admit. But more sophisticated theologians could say Parsons doesn't understand the nuances of the Bible, or the creeds or their sophisticated theology. In fact, more sophisticated theologians would scoff at his chapter in the same way as he does to Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and Stenger. They could say he makes glaring mistakes if he thought he was actually dealing with the Bible, the creeds and theology. That is the point. They do. That's what I've heard anyway. I knew they would say this too. But Parsons wasn't willing to listen to me here either, since he had already formulated a draft of the chapter before I saw it for comment--which is okay as far as that goes. Other sophisticated theologians would deny that his chapter has anything to do with their sophisticated views of hell. The scorn of sophisticated opponents about his chapter on hell is real, something about which Parsons just warned the rest of us against. Their more sophisticated views deny the requirement for belief unto salvation, or hell as eternal, or hell as a punishment or even hell having any occupants. The point is that even though Parsons writes as if he's dealing with sophisticated theology he is not doing so. He's not taking on the heavyweights like Edward Fudge, Clark Pinnock, Thomas Talbott, Karen Armstrong, John F. Haught, and others.

There is no end to sophisticated theology, none. No matter what theology we criticize there are always others claiming to be more sophisticated who reject that view, who will heap scorn on any of us who dares to criticize it. There are even defenders of other theologies who don't claim to be sophisticated, who claim God's word is easy to understand and that sophistication is a vice to be shunned at all costs. In their view they have the higher ground since the simpler the theology is then the more likely that theology is true, even invoking Ockham's razor if they know of it. In essence, they claim the higher ground and take umbrage against the sophisticates.

So when it comes to sophisticated theology what exactly is Parsons talking about? One's theological heavyweights are another's theological lightweights, and vice versa. And why should we really care if we bring scorn down upon ourselves as atheist critics? Just think of restaurant or movie critics. Do we care if they upset the businesses they write about? Why should we care? We want to know the truth. Only the critic would care, if she stands to gain something by skewing the results unfairly in favor of that which she's supposed to honestly criticize.

What we have here is philosophical elitism. Parsons is telling us which theologies to respond to if we don't want the scorn of other theologians heaped upon us. He's chosen them for the rest of us. He's their sophisticated counter-part and he's telling everyone which theologies we should respect more. Apparently in his chapter on hell he thinks we should respect the traditional view of hell over others, you see. And if we follow his advice by keeping silent when he says we should, then he gains respect from the theologians who will continue asking him to write chapters for their books, since he's their good old boy, propping up their theology over others because, well, their theology has more going for it than others, right? Right?! Furthermore, by keeping silent in deference to Parsons and MacDonald, many of us would subsequently fail to tell others what we think, which in itself is important. Just consider for a moment if there were never any new atheists, or atheist movement? Then where would atheism in America be right now? My view is that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. If we should wait to do things right, then a lot less will get done. I think it's good to do important things even if we can only do them badly.

Parsons and MacDonald need to tell us what there is about sophisticated arguments that make something truer than beliefs lacking them. Let's say someone claims she was abducted by aliens. That's a simple claim isn't it? Why would its truth be contingent upon making all kinds of complex definitions that have Bayesian math to support it? I don't get it. Faith-based reasoning without any solid evidence is the only indicator (i.e., the sufficient condition) for rejecting a claim. Without sufficient evidence then sophistication doesn't change a thing. Faith is faith is faith. It has no method, solves nothing, and even gets in the way of knowledge. It should be rejected by all intellectuals. Not to reject it is to be an anti-intellectual in my opinion, for only by rejecting faith-based answers in favor of evidence-based answers are we on the road to knowledge in every discipline in the university.

Enough for now. I'm writing a book on this so I'm practicing here.


Other questions:

Maybe in order to criticize a given theology our criticisms must take into consideration the sophistry of its defenders? Maybe we must have the same level of sophistication as the defenders of any given religious faith we seek to criticize? Or, maybe religious faiths that have a higher sophistication to them have a better chance to be correct? Do they? Why is that? Furthermore, who is the target audience for our discussions? Is it the sophisticated defenders themselves? Or their followers? And what are the goals of such discussions? Is it to learn from one another? Is it to gain respect from the other side? Is it to engage in puzzle solving just like people enjoy solving crossword puzzles? Is the goal to play this as a game like one plays chess for prestige among others who play the game? Is it to convince others? Is it to change the religious landscape? Which of these goals are ranked the highest? Can we learn anything about the world by discussing religious ideas produced by faith with deluded minds, if in fact faith is a virus of the mind? These are all good questions, the kind we need to ask.