The Problem with Proselytism

There’s an interesting post and discussion at the Prosblogion over whether it’s acceptable to use philosophy of religion (POR) as a means of proselytizing. Although the author is generally in favor of it, she recognizes the potential dangers. In my judgment, human nature being what it is, we are going to proselytize, i.e. attempt to convince others of our religious or irreligious views, whether intentionally or unintentionally. However, there’s a difference, or should be, between POR and apologetics. The former is a academic discipline; the latter is a proselytizing enterprise. The former conforms — or should — to the norms of truth-directed discourse; the latter does not. Although it is true that apologists often use the deliverances of POR in their apologetic arguments, the goal of POR is to investigate the rationality of these arguments, not to persuade a given audience. The difference between POR and apologetics is akin to the distinction between logic and rhetoric. It’s also true that sometimes philosophers of religion engage in apologetics. In some cases, i.e. William Lane Craig, it’s difficult to tell when he’s wearing his POR hat and when he’s simply proselytizing. I think the distinction between the two activities needs to be more sharply drawn. All too often, apologists and religious proselytizers justify using bad arguments for the sake of convincing their interlocutors. It’s okay because it’s in the service of a ‘higher truth.’ In fact, you’ll often find apologists defending every argument for the existence of God under the sun simply because they agree with the conclusion. The philosopher of religion, even if he is himself religious, doesn’t do that. If it’s a bad argument, he rejects it. Again, that’s because POR is a truth-directed enterprise. The philosopher of religion may succeed in persuading a given audience, but persuasion is never an end in itself. At least it shouldn’t be.

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