By J. Brian Huffling, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Theology
Southern Evangelical Seminary
Studying reality is important. Studying ultimate reality is ultimately important. Many philosophers and theologians argue that God exists as the cause for everything else that exists. The issue of God’s existence and nature falls under the philosophy of religion, as do the issues of evil, miracles, and religious experience. These areas require years of study in metaphysics (what is real), epistemology (what is knowledge), and the history of philosophy. To be qualified to hold the title ‘Philosopher of Religion’, or any such title, one must pay his/her academic dues, such as getting a masters and doctoral degree. This certainly does not mean that one cannot study the field of philosophy of religion unless he/she is in a formal academic program. What it does mean, is that to be considered an authority, one must possess a certain level of peer-reviewed training.
Once upon a time, the research required to attain such credentials had to be done through laborious hours in a library utilizing databases, looking through books on shelves, and acquiring sources through the mail. While much of this is still is required, the Internet has drastically changed the way research is performed. It has allowed philosophers of religion around the world to collaborate faster and with greater ease, use centralized databases, and experience lightning fast communication. It has also provided the ability to acquire sources from anywhere in the world at the touch of a button. In addition, philosophers of religion have been able to post papers (Academia.edu) and articles online, subscribe to journals online, and keep abreast of the latest scholarship via search engines or databases. Such databases are invaluable for dissertation research, such as ProQuest. Other sites allow for general research for students and teachers. One such site is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP, plato.stanford.edu). There are well over 1000 articles written by accomplished and well-known philosophers, which are peer reviewed for the site. The SEP boasts of many ways that it is distinct from traditional journals. For example, unlike traditional journals, the SEP can continually update articles as the authors see fit. Also, they can write on a more comprehensive list of topics that are not covered in traditional journals. The SEP allows for digital cross-referencing between articles. Further, the SEP can have a broader audience than academic journals, as the latter tend to focus on specialists in the field of study. Many of the articles in the SEP are in the area of philosophy of religion, or relate to it. Such a digital database of topics is a great resource for students and teachers.
Many philosophers of religion have their own websites, blogs, etc., such as Richard Howe (richardghowe.com), William Lane Craig (reasonablefaith.com) and Edward Feser (edwardfeser.com). This is a great way to allow students and the public to access their papers, thoughts, and to some extent the ability to converse. Such sites, as well as sites like YouTube, allow for these philosophers to host debates, lectures, and interviews so that students and interested persons can avail themselves of such a treasury of information and knowledge.
With the advent and popularity of the Internet, however, there have been some negative consequences as well. As most people know, anyone can create a website, blog, or whatever online. Professors and students alike know of the convenience and potential dangerous effects of sites like Wikipedia.com. Because of such sites, schools in general have imposed a rule that no more than about 10% of students’ resources can come from the Internet. (Oftentimes this does not limit the use of sites such as the SEP, online access to academic journals, or eBooks.) The reason for such limits is because educators do not want students pulling from just any website. Many online have no formal training in the area in which they write or discuss. This is the case with printed and published books as well; however, the ability to be able to write online is much easier than having to go through a publisher. Just buy a domain name, and one can be in business. While sites can be good for specialists to help promote and study research, as well as teach the general public or students, the uninitiated can also make sites with no peer evaluation or formal training—much to the detriment of the field, and to the chagrin of legitimate philosophers of religion.
Possibly the Internet’s most profound effect for philosophers of religion is online education. No longer does one have to move to get certain degrees (especially BA and MA degrees). Now, one can study the philosophy of religion from home. The merits (convenience) and demerits (alleged lowering of educational quality) of such education are debated almost endlessly. What is not debated is that the Internet has changed and is changing education in drastic ways.
For those interested in studying the most profound questions and issues of ultimate reality, the philosophy of religion is an intriguing and fascinating area to devote one’s time and efforts. The Internet has made it much easier to explore the issues. It has also tended to blur the lines between scholarship and ignorance. If you are reading this and are interested in the philosophy of religion, be thankful for the advent of the Internet. But also beware. Choose sites and schools wisely, and enjoy one of the most important and rewarding fields of study.