Religion Dispatches: “Rumors of God’s Death are Greatly Exaggerated”

Share

craigct.jpg

Nathan Schneider emailed me today, informing me of his response to William Lane Craig’s recent cover article in Christianity Today. I mentioned that article briefly here on July 4, which was a day for family and not for blogging. Nathan’s article, Rumors of God’s Death are Greatly Exaggerated, provides a timely opportunity to say more.

Craig spoke in CT of a striking resurgence in evangelical scholarship, especially in philosophy. He illustrated this with an an all-too-brief summary of several apologetic arguments. Schneider’s response to Craig’s article is best summed up in this one sentence:

Whispering to his coreligionists in Christianity Today, to his subculture, Craig does not do justice to what the revolution is up against.

Schneider believes the resurgence of Christian scholarship is visible only from inside the culture. In other circumstances I might have acknowledged an element of truth to that. Christian readers may call to mind the names of our contemporary “heroes,” names including Chuck Swindoll, John Piper, Billy Graham; or musicians like Mercy Me, The Newsboys, or Kutless. You can add your favorites to the list. Here’s the sad fact: other than Billy Graham and Mercy Me, most of the rest of the world has never heard of them.

Schneider is saying something like that is the case with Christians in academia, and that the situation is nowhere near as rosy as Craig presents it. He dismisses Craig’s view of “bygone atheism” as “a straw man,” noting the continuing crop of atheistic bestsellers in the bookstores as evidence that atheism is not dead. He complains that Craig did not inform Christianity Today readers of objections to arguments for God, briefly outlined in the article. It is with open disdain that Schneider describes Craig as “almost cheerful about intelligent design theory, though he fails to mention its lack of support among credible biologists,” and he goes on to offer a rebuttal of the fine-tuning argument Craig had mentioned in his CT article. But he missed what Craig was intending to do with this article. He almost recognized it, as we see here:

Again, I do not mean to insist that these arguments are categorically wrong. Only that atheists and theists alike will never quite prove their “intellectual muscle” until they stop misrepresenting each other and misinforming their readers. Admittedly, Craig has limited space in the magazine format and cannot be expected to cover everything.

But it was never Craig’s purpose to properly represent the arguments, certainly not in all their substance and nuance. Rather he was trying to make readers aware of the discussion, and to illustrate the kinds of things that are being debated. To complain, as Schneider did, that he did not address the major objections is to miss the point. The article was not a work of apologetics, but a work of journalism about apologetics, with brief examples to illustrate, and a suggested reading list.

Craig obviously recognizes the reality of the debate. In the CT article he wrote,

Of course, there are replies and counterreplies to all of these arguments, and no one imagines that a consensus will be reached. Indeed, after a period of passivity, there are now signs that the sleeping giant of atheism has been roused from his dogmatic slumbers and is fighting back. J. Howard Sobel and Graham Oppy have written large, scholarly books critical of the arguments of natural theology, and Cambridge University Press released its Companion to Atheism last year. Nonetheless, the very presence of the debate in academia is itself a sign of how healthy and vibrant a theistic worldview is today.

It seems to me in view of this that Schneider is being singularly uncharitable with respect to Craig’s treatment of the arguments.

Regarding the cultural ghetto Schneider thinks Craig is mired in, he may simply have missed this brief reference Craig made to a source well outside Christian culture. It was early in the CT piece:

In a recent article, University of Western Michigan philosopher Quentin Smith laments what he calls “the desecularization of academia that evolved in philosophy departments since the late 1960s.” He complains about naturalists’ passivity in the face of the wave of “intelligent and talented theists entering academia today.” Smith concludes, “God is not ‘dead’ in academia; he returned to life in the late 1960s and is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy departments.”

You can read Smith’s article for yourself at Philo Online. Before you do that, though, read this description of the journal, from Philo’s own website:

Philo is published biannually at the Center for Inquiry [“A Global Federation Committed to Science, Reason, Free Inquiry, Secularism, and Planetary Ethics”] with assistance from Purdue University. Its goal is to publish original, conceptually precise, and argumentatively rigorous articles in all fields of philosophy. Although not devoted to any specific branch of philosophy, Philo encourages the submission of work that examines philosophical issues from an explicitly naturalist perspective…. Philo is the publication of the Society of Humanist Philosophers.

That’s not exactly the monthly mimeograph newsletter from Chigger Creek Baptist Church (begging J. P. Moreland’s pardon—Chigger Creek Church being a favorite phrase of his). And what does Quentin Smith say, that Craig did not have space to quote more fully? Things like this:

The secularization of mainstream academia began to quickly unravel upon the publication of Plantinga’s influential book on realist theism, God and Other Minds, in 1967….

Naturalists passively watched as realist versions of theism, most influenced by Plantinga’s writings, began to sweep through the philosophical community, until today perhaps one-quarter or one-third of philosophy professors are theists, with most being orthodox Christians.

Elsewhere Craig actually says he thinks the “one-quarter or one-third” estimate may be high. He is by no means breathlessly and blissfully unaware of what’s going on in the wider world, as Schneider seems to think he is. In view of his concern over theists and atheists “misrepresenting each other and misinforming their readers,” Schneider may want to re-examine how he has treated William Lane Craig’s work of journalism on a scholarly topic.

17 Responses

  1. ordinary seeker says:

    Where are these one-quarter to one-third, most of whom are orthodox Christians, teaching? I may be wrong, but I think few are teaching at the leading colleges and universities in this country. If they are teaching at Christian colleges, then they are just preaching to the choir…

  2. Charlie says:

    A handful of names I know of …
    Dallas Willard is at USC.
    Alvin Plantinga is at Notre Dame.
    Richard Swinburne is at Oxford.
    Alexander Pruss is at Georgetown.
    Nicholas Wolterstorff is at Yale.
    Timothy O’Connor is at Indiana.
    Robert Koons is at the University of Texas.
    Tom Crisp is at Florida State.
    William Alston is professor emeritus at Syracuse University.
    Timothy McGrew is at Western Michigan University.

  3. Tom Gilson says:

    Peter Kreeft is at Boston College
    Thomas Flint is at University of Notre Dame
    Peter van Inwagen is also at Notre Dame
    See further the list here

    Not just that, but if they were all preaching to the choir, Quentin Smith would hardly have raised an alarm.

  4. Tom Gilson says:

    Nathan Schneider emailed me again, and I would like to draw your attention to his impressively gracious response to this.

  5. ordinary seeker says:

    Of your lists, I would say that only two are leading schools: Yale and Georgetown. BC and Notre Dame are both Catholic.

  6. Tom Gilson says:

    I get the sense that you are trying very hard…

  7. Tom Gilson says:

    Further, and not wanting to get in an unseemly argument over whether USC, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Florida State, University of Texas, Indiana, Oxford, and others listed here are actually influential in the world of academia:

    Location is only partly relevant, anyway. It’s an indicator of stature and reputation, to be sure, but the real question at hand is not “where do you work?” but “who is paying attention to your work?”

    I believe Alvin Plantinga was still at tiny, Christian conservative Calvin College when he wrote the above-mentioned God and Other Minds, and also God, Freedom, and Evil, which very many philosophers agree settled the logical problem of evil. Other scholars noticed, because of the quality of the work, not the name of the institution.

    Edited at 8:50 am

  8. Charlie says:

    Those uninformed opinions based upon prejudice are the hardest to dislodge.
    It’s not as though I’m going to research this subject and investigate the metrics involved in answering this dubious objection, but here are some national rankings to go with this unscientific and woefully incomplete list:
    http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/usnews/edu/college/rankings/brief/t1natudoc_brief.php

    Dallas Willard is at USC. 27
    Alvin Plantinga is at Notre Dame. 19
    Richard Swinburne is at Oxford.
    Alexander Pruss is at Georgetown. 23
    Nicholas Wolterstorff is at Yale. 2
    Timothy O’Connor is at Indiana. 75
    Robert Koons is at the University of Texas. 44
    Tom Crisp is at Florida State. 112
    William Alston is professor emeritus at Syracuse University. 50
    Timothy McGrew is at Western Michigan University.

    Peter Kreeft is at Boston College 35
    Thomas Flint is at University of Notre Dame 19
    Peter van Inwagen is also at Notre Dame 19

  9. ordinary seeker says:

    Well, I’ll concede on Oxford (although I did say schools in this country.)

    Seriously, you have a point Tom about what is written being more important than where, and with tenured positions in academia being so hard to get these days, I’m sure excellent scholars end up in not-so-excellent schools. That said, I still think the leading schools are producing more liberal religious ideas than conservative ones.

  10. A point of clarification: I believe Alexander Pruss is at Baylor now (or so says his blog).

  11. William Lane Craig has responded to Nathan Schneider’s article HERE:

    BTW, does anyone know of a comprehensive list of Christian philosophers and the institutions they teach at anywhere on the net? The Society of Christian Philosophers doesn’t name that many.

  12. Philip says:

    Perhaps this list would be a bit more helpful:

    http://www.philosophicalgourmet.com/overall.asp

  13. Philip is absolutely correct. What matters for the sake of academia is not the reputation of the university or college but the reputation of the department within the discipline. The Philosophical Gourmet Report is arguably the best way of determining that right now. Dean Zimmerman’s presence as an evangelical (a Pentecostal, no less) in the second-highest ranked philosophy department in the country is very significant, even if it’s a second-rate university overall, even among state universities, which usually aren’t cream-of-the-crop. Dean is widely recognized as one of the best metaphysicians of his generation (he’s somewhere around 40 now, I believe). Everyone knows he’s an evangelical. That’s no secret. Similarly, Roger White’s presence at the #1 department NYU until two years ago (he did get tenure, but MIT gave him a better offer) is nothing short of remarkable in a field where Christians pretty much had to leave there faith aside and hide it to do their work as recently as 50 years ago, until Alvin Plantinga started publishing his work on theism in the 60s that got the whole thing going (and others soon followed suit).

    As for Notre Dame, it’s #13 on the list of top philosophy departments. You have to be really good to get a job there. Peter van Inwagen is one of the top three or four philosophers in the areas he works on, which is a relatively narrow area of topics in metaphysics but ones that are included in my specialty, and his name comes up all the time. So it doesn’t matter that it’s Catholic. Being Christian is not a requirement for teaching there, and their hiring standards are almost as high as Princeton’s. It’s very hard to get a job there.

    I do think Craig over-exaggerates on this. Christians in the field are more aware of it than anyone else is. It’s not as if they all feel as if Christians are invading philosophy (although graduate students in certain departments may think their department is being invaded). Quentin Smith is rare in thinking that (and he’s trying to wake the rest of them up to it). It’s also not as if they’re much more inclined toward theism than they otherwise would have been. But they do have to recognize that very smart people who are very good philosophers can maintain a theistic worldview despite knowing all the philosophy that convinced them to be atheists. That’s the significance of this.

    Richard Swinburne is retired, but Brian Leftow has replaced him, and John Hawthorne is now there also. Both of them have endowed chairs. Robert Adams is also there (now having retired from Yale).

    Alex Pruss is at Baylor now, which isn’t a sign that a Baptist university is just hiring its own. Alex is a devout Catholic (although his views on providence are the kind of Catholic view that sounds more like Calvin). For what amounts to a Southern-Baptist university in most respects, that’s unusual.

    For the sake of naming some more names, there’s Keith DeRose and John Hare at Yale (and Marilyn Adams is still there part-time in retirement) and Scott MacDonald at Cornell. There are several others at Notre Dame besides those named, but I don’t know which ones, because I think several of the people I might be inclined to guess at might be just friendly to Christian views. I know UT-Austin has at least one, and I might be two, but I’m also fuzzy on those to be sure enough to name names.

  14. Ordinary Seeker said: “That said, I still think the leading schools are producing more liberal religious ideas than conservative ones.”

    Well, that depends on what you mean. If open theism is a liberal religious idea, then many of the Christians in philosophy are doing that. But if you mean departures from the classic creeds, then I don’t think that’s remotely true. There are very few philosophers who are religious but not Christian, and the ones who are Christian tend to be orthodox in the sense of endorsing the creeds of something very close to them. There are a lot of theologically liberal academics, but hardly any of them are in philosophy, at least analytic philosophy (which is mainly what the article was focusing on). Take a look through an issue of Faith and Philosophy to see the kinds of views being defended. Most of them are traditional, Christian views and are in-house among theological moderates to conservatives and not debates with theological liberals. That journal is the main gathering place for theistic philosophy.

    Continental philosophers of religion in the U.S. tend not to be in philosophy departments anyway. Syracuse has one of the top figures in continental philosophy of religion, John Caputo, but he was hired by the religion department and just teaches one class a year listed as philosophy, at his own insistence.

  15. Charlie says:

    My previous thank you to Philip and to Jeremy Pierce disappeared in the spam-filter.
    I just want to note my appreciation for the source and for Jeremy’s insight.

  1. July 19, 2008

    […] to Tom Gilson’s critique, I have already pulled back somewhat on things I said in my article this week at Religion […]

  2. August 8, 2008

    […] Comment on Religion Dispatches: “Rumors of God’s Death are Greatly … […]