Right after typing out some of my recent reflexions on atheism, I came across this post at Religion Dispatches magazine, telling of a prominent philosopher of religion who has come to the conclusion that he has devoted his career to a subdiscipline that is in essence a fraud. Keith Parsons of the University of Houston is now abandoning this area of teaching and research (presumably to work on something else).
Is the philosophy of religion a fraud? As it is currently taught, yes, it most certainly is. It is, again, a huge waste of time to argue about the existence of God, not because both sides will stick stubbornly to their guns, but because this is not a universally meaningful question. We might as well be arguing about whether the Australian Aboriginal ritual object called a tjurunga is in fact responsible for impregnating Aboriginal women.
But as we might have predicted, one thing that Parsons does not consider is that, short of simply declaring a research program bankrupt, one might first consider whether there are not more fruitful approaches or more fitting methodologies for getting at the core of the thing that has long interested you. And here I just have to shake my head in amazement that my fellow philosophers seldom even notice the possibility of an ethnographic turn. Such a turn would make philosophy of religion into a data-driven, interpretive program, and thus it would parallel the turn currently being defended with some reason by advocates of the new, so-called 'experimental philosophy'. It would not ask, "Does God exist?" or "Is the soul immortal?", but rather "How does culture x's belief in such-and-such transcendent entity fit, logically and structurally, within that culture's universe of meanings?" When this task is accomplished, one can move on to cultures, y, z, and so on, and eventually come up with a schema for the universal parameters for the range of possible beliefs about some entity, say God or the soul, that is of interest to philosophers of religion.
Parsons is still beholden to that prime directive of philosophy (to which many x-phi advocates, at the cost of coherence, also remain committed), that "if you cannot take something seriously, you should not try to devote serious academic attention to it." But this would mean that no one should devote serious attention to Australian Aboriginal theories of reproduction, and to my mind that would be to let something interesting and important fall off the academic agenda. Of course, when Parsons says 'serious academic attention' what he means is 'serious attention from academic philosophy', and one might reasonably ask whether the comparative and data-driven turn is not a turn away from philosophy (a similar question is being asked of x-phi advocates who are interested in psychology experiments).
My own inclination is to respond: who cares? As long as it gives better results, then why should we be afraid to cross disciplinary boundaries? But upon further reflection I also have to add that Durkheim and Mauss, for example, are also better philosophers than, say, John Hick or Louis Pojman. They are asking vastly more sophisticated questions, and using vastly more rigorous methodologies, to find answers to problems that they themselves recognize as emerging from the Western philosophical tradition.
The one great difference between the French comparative-religionists and the later philosophers of religion is that the former are perfectly willing to take seriously beliefs that they aren't considering adopting themselves. This is what philosophers simply can't do, as Parsons nicely demonstrates for us, and this limitation is the root cause of my estrangement from my own discipline (though the emergence of boundary-defying tendencies in academic philosophy in recent years, including experimental philosophy, does give me some hope that in the long run it will be worthwhile to stick around).