Abrahamic Interviews

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 (and potentially offensive) 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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3 thoughts on “Abrahamic Interviews

  1. Gyrus

    Wow, I’m amazed that this kind of bias is still strong within philosophy or theology. You’d have thought that a decade or few of being assaulted by neo-Darwinists would have sharpened them up a bit.

    One thing on Abraham, specifically about your graphic. Not to undercut the attack on the Abrahamic bias, but there’s something I’d never considered before which Douglas Rushkoff alerted me to. He holds that such child sacrifice was almost customary at the time, and the significance of the story is not that Abraham consented to God’s demand, but that God told Abraham to stop. He sees this as a change in the religion, God himself (= the social collective?) repudiating something traditional but abhorrent. We can’t completely whitewash Abraham with this by saying, “Well he was just a man of his time!” But it becomes a very different story. (I think the book was Rushkoff’s Nothing Sacred, which is probably an excellent example of a radical “Godless” revision of Abrahamic religion – his argument is in fact that this vanishing of God and valorization of morality focused on this life is the logical conclusion of Judaism.)

  2. jayarava

    Having read Justin Barrett’s book “Why Would Anyone Believe in God?” I’m not longer surprised that people do.

    And though Jay Garfield makes an apparently interesting point, it really has to be taken in context. The vast majority of Buddhists in Tibet, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, or China (etc), are theists too – in practical terms they worship both the Buddha as a god and often local deities as well. It’s only a minority of Buddhists, the intelligentsia, that are not theists. They see themselves as defenders of the true faith and often use the kind of rhetoric that Garfield uses above as though their views are representative. One often sees such representatives arguing that Buddhism is not really a religion, though it clearly is.

    Most Western Buddhists see themselves as part of this intellectual trend because Western Buddhism emerges from the collision of traditional Buddhism with modernity. And the result is sometimes referred to as Buddhist Modernism (See David McMahan’s book of this title for example), indicating that our views are more modernist than Buddhist – or a careful selection of Buddhist elements that work with and/or conform to modernist values. McMahan identifies three main streams of Modernism that have shaped Western Buddhism: scientific rationalism, Protestantism, and Romanticism/Idealism (English Romanticism and German Idealism which are often seen as manifestations of the same movement). Each has shaped which elements of Buddhism survive the transition to the modern, predominantly Western world Buddhism.

    The idea that taking religion to be Abrahamic religion is ethnocentric is not very accurate since many ethnicities are involved. It certainly is an exclusive view, especially if you happen to be a Buddhist modernist who is almost certainly an adult convert from an Abrahamic religion and most likely a baby boomer (with all the baggage that implies).

    In other words Garfield is to Buddhism what your man Gutting is to philosophy.

  3. Bob Wells

    Taken literally, the God of Abraham (and therefore of the world’s three “great” religions) is simply one of the most vile creatures ever conjured up by the mind of man. Christians try hard to white-wash him into something noble but fail since they still revere his worst atrocities and character defects. One could easily argue that Hitler patterned all his actions on the God of the Bible.

    Because nearly all discussions of religion are seen through an Abrahamic context, they are nearly all worthless. If the only option is to follow the God of the Bible or be an atheist, atheism is the only good choice.

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