Debate Magazine

Abrahamic Interviews

By Cris

Some of you may have been following the interview series on religion being conducted by Gary Gutting for the New York Times philosophy blog, “The Stone.” The series began in February of 2014 when Gutting, a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, interviewed Alvin Plantinga, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Notre Dame. Because the Notre Dame philosophy department is more or less an extension of the theology department, it quickly became apparent that the interview topic — “Is Atheism Irrational?” — was just a rhetorical question for these two theologians philosophers. The back-slapping interview was about as enlightening, or obscurantist, as a course in Thomist philosophy. I couldn’t help but think that things would have gone better if Gutting had interviewed Willis Domingo, whose NSFW take-down of Plantinga is a thing of logical beauty.

The second interview, with UMass-Amherst philosophy professor Louise Antony, was fairer game. Gutting asked a series of (Abrahamic) questions and got some sensible (atheist) answers. As the interview progressed, an increasingly exasperated and apparently incredulous Gutting stated: “That makes it sounds like you don’t think it much matters whether we believe in God or not.” In a fitting end to the interview, Antony coolly answered:

Well, I do wonder about that. Why do theists care so much about belief in God? Disagreement over that question is really no more than a difference in philosophical opinion. Specifically, it’s just a disagreement about ontology — about what kinds of things exist. Why should a disagreement like that bear any moral significance? Why shouldn’t theists just look for allies among us atheists in the battles that matter — the ones concerned with justice, civil rights, peace, etc. — and forget about our differences with respect to such arcane matters as the origins of the universe?

Antony’s answer, or rather her counter-question, reminds me of this famous passage from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil:

It is high time to replace the Kantian question, “How are synthetic judgments a priori possible?” by another question, “Why is belief in such judgments necessary?”

As the interview series has unfolded (the eighth installment was published yesterday), Gutting has asked so many God-centric and God-insistent questions that I have wished someone would just say: “Gary, why is belief in God necessary?” Alternatively, albeit more impertinently and personally, someone might ask: “Gary, why do you find it necessary to believe in God?” If Gutting could give a psychologically honest answer to this question, I suspect it would be the most enlightening aspect of the entire series.

I will, however, give Gutting credit for not deviating from his Abrahamic course and consistently asking Christian questions that, if I did not know better, seem perversely designed to illustrate the weakness of his case. In the seventh installment, NYU philosopher-physicist Tim Maudlin did these favors. In the sixth, it was Columbia’s Philip Kitcher. In the fifth, Gutting ventured outside his comfort zone by discussing Buddhism with Jay Garfield. The interview began with this auspicious exchange:

Gutting: Philosophy of religion [especially at Notre Dame] typically focuses on questions and disputes about the ideas and doctrines of monotheistic religions, with Christianity the primary model. How does the discussion change if we add Buddhism, which is neither monotheistic nor polytheistic, as a primary model of a religion?

Garfield: What gets called “philosophy of religion” in most philosophy departments and journals is really the philosophy of Abrahamic religion: basically, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Most of the questions addressed in those discussions are simply irrelevant to most of the world’s other religious traditions. Philosophers look at other religious traditions with the presumption that they are more or less the same, at least in outline, as the Abrahamic religions, and even fight about whether other traditions count as religions at all based upon their sharing certain features of the Abrahamic religions. That is a serious ethnocentrism that can really blind us to important phenomena.

Garfield could not have given a better answer to an interviewer who frames most of his questions in Abrahamic terms.


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