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Contemporary Philosophy of Religion and NCEA Religious Studies: Part two

October 19th, 2017 by Matt

This is a talk I gave to the New Zealand Association of Philosophy Teachers annual conference at St Cutherberts College in September this year. Several people have asked me to make this talk available.

I have broken my talk up into four parts. Part One introduces what philosophy of religion. In part two I will outline two movements within analytic philosophy during the early to mid-century which I think resulted in religious beliefs not being taken very seriously within philosophy and philosophy of religion taking a fairly minor role. Part three will look at some responses to these movements offered in the late 20th century and how they changed the philosophical landscape. Part four will look at the question of “how to do philosophy of religion” comparing the methods used by two different atheist’s J L Mackie and Graham Oppy, and how this relates the National Certificate of Educational Achievement Standards. This post will contain part two.

The purpose of my talk this morning, however, isn’t to discuss the philosophy of religion in the early modern period. I have been asked to talk about contemporary philosophy of religion.  As I said in my introduction, I will focus on the analytic tradition because it is the tradition I was trained in and hence the one I am most familiar with.

Philosophy of Religion in the Earlier 20th century
The reason this is necessary is that in the early 20th-century  analytic philosophy of religion was not taken terribly seriously.  I will briefly mention a couple of reasons as to why I think this was the case:

1 Evidentialism

The first was that the early 20th century, within analytical Philosophy.  A particular methodological stance was adopted towards religious or theological beliefs which has been dubbed by religious epistemologists of today “Evidentialism”. The basic idea can be seen in an article written by William Clifford called the entitled The Ethics of Belief.[1] Clifford writes, “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.”[2] The same thesis can be seen in the writings of prominent atheists such as Michael Scriven,[3] Bertrand Russell,[4] A  lucid example of the same approach is seen in the writings of Antony Flew:philosophy-of-religion

[T]he debate about the existence of God should properly begin from the presumption of atheism, that the onus of proof must lie upon the theist…What the protagonist of my presumption of atheism wants to show is that the debate about the existence of God ought to be conducted in a particular way, and that the issue should be seen in a certain perspective. His thesis about the onus of proof involves that it is up to the theist: first to introduce and to defend his proposed concept of God; and second, to provide sufficient reason for believing that this concept of his does, in fact, have an application.[5]

A similar position is seen John Mackie’s  work the Miracle of Theism:

If it is agreed that the central assertions of theism are literally meaningful, it must also be admitted that they are not directly verified or directly verifiable. It follows that any rational consideration of whether they are true or not will involve arguments . . .[I]t [whether or not God exists] must be examined either by deductive or inductive reasoning or if that yields no decision, by arguments to the best explanation; for in such a context nothing else can have any coherent bearing on the issue.[6]

Central to these writers is an important contention. Theism is philosophically acceptable only if there is good evidence for it. The word evidence can be used in all sorts of nuanced ways in epistemology. However, in this context,  the word evidence is being used synonymously with the idea of an argument or proof. Mackie states, “[whether or not God exists] must be examined either by deductive or inductive reasoning or, if that yields no decision, by arguments to the best explanation;” Flew talks of a “burden of proof” their contention is that if theism cannot be proven in the manner laid down, it is irrational.

Evidentialism then meant that atheism or disbelief was the default position in philosophy until a successful argument for Gods existence had been proposed. Until such arguments were forthcoming, discussions within philosophy would assume a secular stance and assume God did not exist until someone offered proof they did.  Religious beliefs or assumptions, therefore, were prima facie out of place in serious philosophical discourse and theory construction.

2. Verificationism:

A second reason Philosophy of religion wasn’t taken terribly seriously in the earlier 20th century was the influence of a movement known as verificationism this was a movement in philosophy of language that gained a lot of traction in the late 30’s up to the 1960s. According to verificationists, a sentence is only meaningful if it is either analytic, that is true in virtue of the meaning of terms or if it can be in principle be empirically verified or falsified.  Thinkers such as the Viena Circle, A J Ayer, Carnap and others proposed different formulations of this position. But the basic idea was that any statement which could not in principle be verified or falsified empirically was meaningless.

Note the thesis here: it’s not that the sentence it’s not scientific, or that its false or that it’s not rationally justified or warranted, it’s that the sentence is meaningless it doesn’t express any proposition at all.

The influence of verificationism on Philosophy of religion can be seen in the famous “University Discussion” that took place in the text  New Essays in Philosophical Theology in 1955. The focus of this discussion was whether religious language actually had any meaning. When a person claims God created the earth, the question was less whether this claim is true or false, warranted or unwarranted, but “was he making a meaningful claim at all?” Was religious language really what John Hare called a “blik” an expression of an attitude as opposed to an assertion about the world?  If this position is adopted then much of what occurs in the historic philosophy of religion is either meaningless or radically misguided, it treats expressions of attitude as assertions about the world and tries to analysis, the implications, relationships, between, truth and falsity of such assertions. The problem is they aren’t assertions.

So there were twin engines in the early to mid-twentieth century meant that philosophy of religion played a fairly marginal place in analytic philosophy. It was doubtful religious statements could even be taken seriously as meaningful statements, and if there was a presumption against their truth, they carried a burden of proof to be demonstrated or philosophically proven before anyone would take them seriously.

[1] William Kingdon Clifford “The Ethics of Belief” in Lecture and Essays ed. William Kingdon Clifford (London: Macmillan, 1879) 339-63.

[2]  Ibid, 186

[3] Michael Scriven Primary Philosophy (New York: McGraw Hill, 1966) 87.

[4] Bertrand Russell “Why I am not a Christian,” in Why I am not a Christian, ed. Bertrand Russell (London: Routledge Publishing, 2004) 3.

[5] Antony Flew The Presumption of Atheism (London: Pemberton Publishing, 1976). 14-15

[6] John Mackie The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983) 4-6


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