Steven Nemes informs me that Keith Parsons is giving up teaching and writing in the philosophy of religion. His reasons are stated in his post Goodbye to All That. The following appears to be his chief reason:
I have to confess that 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 . . . . 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.
John Beversluis is also quitting:
Keith [Parsons] and I have emailed about getting out of the philosophy of religion. I've made the same decision. I'm through wasting my time trying to convince people who don't want to be convinced of the irrationality of their beliefs. And I have had more than enough verbal abuse from the Richard Purtills, the Peter Kreefts, and the Thomas Talbotts. We are all getting older and I, for my part, would much rather read books I want to read (or reread) and listen to great music that I either don't know or want to know better. Not to mention, spending more time with my wife instead of constantly yielding to the lure of the computer to work on yet another project that will convince few, antagonize some, and be ignored by most. Interestingly, Keith and I came to this conclusion more or less simultaneously but independently.
Steven Nemes comments in his e-mail to me:
I don't imagine you think the case for theism is so bad . . . . Any arguments in particular you think are promising? Any anti-theistic arguments you think are particularly good, too? (It was Parsons who said that the case for atheism/naturalism has been presented about as well as it ever can be by philosophers like Michael Martin, Schellenberg, Oppy, Gale, et al.)
Or perhaps you don't think the issues are so clear and obvious one way or the other in the philosophy of religion? In fact, is such dismissive hand-waving like Parsons' and Beversluis' ever acceptable in philosophy? Are there any issues that are settled?
Steven has once again peppered me with some pertinent and challenging questions. Here is a quick response.
Of course, I don't consider the case for theism to be a "fraud," to use Parson's word. I also don't understand how the case could be called a fraud if the people who make it are not frauds. But let's not enter into an analysis of the concept fraud. We may charitably chalk up Parsons' use of 'fraud' to rhetorical overkill, which is certainly not a censurable offense in the blogosphere. And when Parsons tells us that he cannot take the theistic arguments seriously any more, he is presumably not making a merely autobiographical remark. He is not merely informing us about his present disgusted state of mind, although he is doing that. He is asserting that the case for theism is not intellectually respectable, while the case for atheism and naturalism (which Parsons in his post brackets together) are intellectually respectable. (It is worth noting that while nauralism entails atheism, atheism does not entail naturalism: McTaggart was an atheist but not a naturalist. But this nuance needn't concern us at present.)
Parsons' metaphilosophical assertion does not impress me. I make a different assertion: There are intellectually respectable cases to be made both for theism/anti-naturalism and for atheism/naturalism. I don't think there are any 'knock-down' arguments on either side. There are arguments for the existence of God, but no proofs of the existence of God. And there are arguments for the nonexistence of God, but no proofs of the nonexistence of God. But of course it depends on what is meant by 'proof.'
I suggest that a proof is a deductive argument, free of informal fallacy, valid in point of logical form, all of the premises of which are objectively self-evident. I will illustrate what I mean by 'objectively self-evident' with an anecdote. In a discussion with a Thomist a while back I mentioned that the first premise of his reconstruction of Aquinas' argument from motion (the First of the Five Ways) was not (objectively) self-evident, and that therefore the First Way did not amount to a proof. The premise in the reconstruction was to the effect that it is evident to the senses that the reduction of potency to act is a real feature of the world.
I granted to my interlocutor that what Thomas calls motion, i.e., change, is evident to the senses as a real feature of the world. But I pointed out that it is not evident to the senses that the actualization of potency is a real feature of the world. That change is the reduction of potency to act is a theoretical claim that goes beyond what is given to sense perception. For this reason, the first premise of the reconstruction of the First Way, though plausible and indeed reasonable, is not objectively self-evident. One can of course give many logically correct arguments for the Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics, but we can ask with respect to the premises of these arguments whether they are objectively self-evident. If they are not, then they do not amount to proofs given my stringent definition of 'proof.'
It is equally true, however, that one cannot prove the nonexistence of God, from evil say.
But it is no different outside the philosophy of religion. God and the soul are meta-physical in the sense of supersensible. But there is nothing supersensible about the bust of Beethoven sitting atop my CD player. It is a material object, a middle-sized artifact, open to unaided perception. But such a humble object inspires interminable and seemingly intractable debate among the most brilliant philosophers. I am currently exploring some of these issues in other threads, and so I won't go into details here. But consider Peter van Inwagen's denial of the existence of artifacts (which is part of a broader denial of the existence of all nonliving composite objects). You could say, very loosely, that van Inwagen is an 'atheist' about artifacts. Other philosophers, equally brilliant and well-informed, deny his denial.
Now it would take an excess of chutzpah to label van Inwagen's carefully argued denial of artifacts as intellectually unrespectable. I suggest that it takes an equal excess of chutzpah to label the case for theism intellectually unrespectable.
Steven asked me whether the dismissive attitude of Parsons and Beversluis is acceptable. I would say no. It is no more acceptable in the philosophy of religion than it is in other branches of philosophy where there are equally genuine but equally difficult and interminably discussable problems.
Let me end with this question: If one's reason for abandoning the philosophy of religion is that one cannot convince those on the other side -- "I'm through wasting my time trying to convince people who don't want to be convinced of the irrationality of their beliefs." (Beversluis) -- then is this not also a reason for abandoning philosophy tout court? After all, the brilliant van Inwagen did not convince the brilliant David Lewis that the latter was wrong about Composition as Identity -- and this is a very well-defined and mundane and ideology-free question.