Via Leiter, this quasi-liveblog of a public showdown between Alvin Plantinga and Daniel Dennett is fascinating, and will make for a gripping read for anyone interested in philosophy, religion, the philosophy of religion, or the sociology of any of the above. Sadly, however, and notwithstanding the fact that Dennett is one of my very favorite philosophers, I have to say that I don’t find this part of the account especially hard to believe (though note that the transcriber makes no pretense at detachment):
3:29 pm – Sure, the intelligent theist can keep going on believing. He calls theistic belief a fairy tale. Now he’s getting explicitly insulting. He thinks theistic belief can corrupt our common epistemological fabric and involve theism into politics. He shows a slide mocking the eschatological views of Christians. He calls theism an unrespectable position, and compares it to astrology. He says it is irrational and doesn’t deserve respect. He gets laughs. He doesn’t look good to the theists. Once he got nasty, a cold pall covered the room. He compares theism to holocaust deniers and things have gone off the rails. This is outrageous. All Plantinga must do to beat Dennett now is to reply with grace. For Plantingian dry wit, this is easy.
3:32 pm – “Is Plantinga’s theism in any better position than these other fantasies?” He’s going to create a Plantinga-guided natural selection. It is hard to explain, but the argument basically mocks Plantinga. I am incensed. The response is a long string of insults, and little more. This is pathetic. I had more faith in Dennett. He is just making the Flying Spaghetti Monster argument and getting laughs from real, intolerant jerks. It is going on and on. Sigh. I wanted this to be interesting! Dennett does not understand what a disservice he does his cause by not taking his smartest opponents seriously. He will lose thoughtful acolytes as a result.
I should add that I know first-hand that arguing with Al Plantinga can be an exasperating affair: that legendary “Plantingian wit” can be charming, to be sure, but it can also make him seem quite unserious and impervious to the force of competing views. But surely Dennett knows that that is just an illusion! Plantinga is a very serious thinker, about philosophical and theological matters alike; and in any case the apparent unseriousness of one’s interlocutor is no excuse for a-rational rhetoric of one’s own. And while I’m in no position to say whether either of the two left the room with any more thoughtful acolytes than they came in with, I think it’s crucial to see that if Dennett wished to do anything more than preach to the already (as it were) converted, then mockery was not the way to do it: even if he does think that Christians are like believers in Santa Claus or Superman, the fact remains that most thoughtful Christians don’t think about themselves in this way, and so insisting a conclusion was bound to bring many in the audience to conclude that he simply didn’t know what he was talking about. Put slightly differently, even if we grant the criticisms of those commenters who’ve claimed that the above misrepresents both the tone and the substance of Dennett’s remarks, it remains true that if you think philosophical discourse ought to aim at persuading those who have yet to be persuaded, it’s probably best to go about it in the way that minimizes the opportunity for this sort of reaction.
This part of the account, which really just marks a recurring theme, was also quite striking (from 2:55 pm):
Plantinga’s orthodoxy is completely unabashed. It is commendable that he is wholly without embarrassment, something rare for a modern Christian. Perhaps it signals an attitude to come.
And as anyone familiar with Plantinga or his ideas will be unsurprised to hear, it did exactly that.
But now compare these remarks, from the introduction to the account of the session:
I prefer to remain anonymous for various reasons, in particular because I am inclined towards Plantinga’s position over Dennett’s and were this to become well-known it could damage or destroy my career in analytic philosophy. This is something I prefer not to put my family through. I almost didn’t publish these comments at all, but as far as I could tell, this would be the only public record of the discussion.
Friends, if you can identify me, I request that you keep my identity secret. I am sharing my thoughts as a service to the philosophical community and all those who have an interest in such debates. But I prefer not to suffer at the hands of my ardently secular colleagues. This is not to say that all secular analytic philosophers are this way; they most certainly are not. But enough of them are that I cannot risk being known publicly.
Now, I’m certainly not demanding that every Christian scholar be as brash and self-assured as Alvin Plantinga, but really? Especially after the way that the groundbreaking and widely-respected work of Plantinga and the significant number of other Christian philosophers (even our anonymous author speaks of “academic philosophy’s desecularization”! – which may be too strong, but still …) has affected so many philosophers’ attitudes toward religion, it’s hard to imagine that overt religiosity could have anything that even begins to approach the negative professional consequences that are presumed here. In any case, I’m sure that the vast majority of professional philosophers would deny that this is so, as would most of the significant number of Christian philosophers who are employed at very prominent research departments (including my own); to insist otherwise is to postulate a remarkable degree of false consciousness, and I’m hard-pressed to think that a commitment to even the most massively unpopular beliefs could do any more damage to one’s career than the presence of these sorts of assumptions about one’s potential colleagues’ discriminatory closed-mindedness.
Moreover, and here I speak once again from personal experience, it’s hugely important to consider the effects that this sort of separation of life among “friends” from the more cagey relationship one has to one’s “ardently secular colleagues” can have on one’s religious convictions themselves. The pretense of irreligiosity, or if not quite that then even an explicitly purposive silence about one’s own religion (what are you doing on Sunday?), can very quickly become habitual, and just as faith breeds works and works themselves breed faith, so can lack of works lead faith itself to lack. There is surely something to the distinction between public and private that’s operative here, and it’s a distinction that’s appropriately put to work in quite a lot of cases, but these are nevertheless dimensions of one’s life that it is really quite difficult to keep so neatly apart from one another; something’s going to give, and when that’s so one hopes that it’s public image rather than “private” faith that has the greater flexibility.
Finally, even if one’s religious convictions were to emerge unscarred from such a period of hidenness, it’s rather hard for me to imagine how their eventual unveiling would go. We are, I am assuming, meant to assume that this sort of secretiveness is allowed eventually (after obtaining a job, perhaps, or maybe after tenure is granted, or that book is published, or …) to expire, but then what? All these relationships that one has formed, the professional image that one has cultivated, and so on – all of this has been based on the premise that one is not, or at least that it does not much matter if one is known to be, a Christian, and now that mask is removed. Why should we not think that the professional and personal consequences of such a decision would not be even worse than those that would attend to “outing” oneself as a believer right from the start? Yes, you’ve got a salary, and a title, and the academic bully pulpit that goes with the latter, but you’ve also got a reputation as someone who played a strange sort of game through the first part of his or her career, keeping hidden what has turned out to be an extensive and really quite fundamental set of convictions due entirely to a puzzling (to many) fear of professional reprisals. If this is the only kind of “career in academic philosophy” that a serious Christian gets to have, then it’s not at all clear why such a career should really be a thing to hope for.
All that and I haven’t even touched on that famous stuff about the blessings of insult and persecution. Obviously I don’t know the writer and so may be making more of this handful of remarks than they actually warrant, but given the number of people I’ve heard give expression to similar thoughts it seemed worth putting my concerns out there nevertheless.