Steven M. Cahn on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Steven M. Cahn is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the City University of New York Graduate Center. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Relatively few philosophers specialize in the philosophy of religion, but many teach an introductory problems course in which one usual topic is the existence of God. The routine approach is to present and assess the three traditional arguments for the existence of God. Then the focus shifts to the problem of evil, after which the unit on God’s existence ends.

My new book RELIGION WITHIN REASON (Columbia University Press 2017) suggests that this approach often takes place within a set of misleading assumptions that may be shared by students and faculty members. One of these assumptions is that if God’s existence were disproved, then religious commitment would have been shown to be unreasonable. Various religions, however, reject the notion of a supernatural God. These include Jainism, Theravada Buddhism, Mimamsa and Samkhya Hinduism, as well as Reconstructionist Judaism and “death of God” versions of Christianity.

Here, for example, is how Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, an opponent of supernaturalism, responds to a skeptic who asks why, if the Bible isn’t taken literally, Jews should nevertheless observe the Sabbath: “We observe the Sabbath not so much because of the account of its origin in Genesis, as because of the role it has come to play in the spiritual life of our People and of mankind…The Sabbath day sanctifies our life by what it contributes to making us truly human and helping us transcend those instincts and passions that are part of our heritage from the sub-human.”1

And here from one of the major figures in the Christian “Death of God” movement, the Anglican Bishop of Woolwich John A. T. Robinson, who denies the existence of a God “up there,” or “out there,” is an account of the Holy Communion: “ [T]oo often…it ceases to be the holy meal, and becomes a religious service in which we turn our backs on the common and the community and in individualistic devotion go to ‘make our communion with God out there.’ This is the essence of the religious perversion, when worship becomes a realm into which to withdraw from the world to ‘be with God’—even if it is only to receive strength to go back into it. In this case the entire realm of the non-religious (in other words ‘life’) is relegated to the profane.”2

Of course, a naturalistic religion can also be developed without deriving it from a supernatural religion. Consider, for example, the outlook of philosopher Charles Frankel, another opponent of supernaturalism, who nevertheless believes that religion, shorn of irrationality, can make a distinctive contribution to human life, providing deliverance from vanity, triumph over meanness, and endurance in the face of tragedy. As he puts it, “it seems to me not impossible that a religion could draw the genuine and passionate adherence of its members while it claimed nothing more than to be poetry in which [people] might participate and from which they might draw strength and light.”3

Such naturalistic options are philosophically respectable. Whether to choose any of them is for each person to decide.

Teachers and students should also recognize that theism does not imply religious commitment. After all, even if someone believes that one or more of the proofs for God’s existence is sound, the question remains whether to join a religion and, if so, which one. The proofs contain not a clue as to which religion, if any, is favored by God. Indeed, God may oppose all religious activity. Perhaps God does not wish to be prayed to, worshipped, or adored, and might even reward those who shun such activities.

Yet another misleading assumption is implicit in the definitions which are usually offered: a theist believes in God, an atheist disbelieves in God, and an agnostic neither believes or disbelieves in God. Notice that the only hypothesis being considered is the existence of God as traditionally conceived; no other supernatural alternatives are taken seriously. But why not?

Suppose, for example, the world is the scene of a struggle between God and the Demon. Both are powerful, but neither is omnipotent. When events go well, God’s benevolence is ascendant; when events go badly, the Demon’s malevolence is ascendant. Is this doctrine, historically associated width Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism, unnecessarily complex and therefore to be rejected? No, for even though in one sense it is more complex than monotheism, because it involves two supernatural beings rather than one, in another sense it is simpler, because it leaves no aspect of the world beyond human understanding. After all, theism faces the problem of evil, while dualistic hypotheses have no difficulty accounting for both good and evil.

In sum, I would suggest that both faculty members and students should remember the following four essential points: (1) belief in the existence of God is not a necessary condition for religious commitment; (2) belief in the existence of God is not a sufficient condition for religious commitment; (3) the existence of God is not the only supernatural hypothesis worth serious discussion; and (4) a successful defense of traditional theism requires not only that it be more plausible than atheism or agnosticism but that it be more plausible than all other supernatural alternatives.

I am not suggesting, of course, that the proofs for the existence of God or the problem of evil not be taught. I am urging, however, that all participants be alerted to the limited implications of that discussion.

1. Mordecai M. Kaplan, Judaism Without Supernaturalism (New York: Reconstructionist Press, 1958), 115-116.
2. John A.T. Robinson, Honest to God (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963), 86-87.
3. Charles Frankel, The Love of Anxiety, and Other Essays (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 1962.

Douglas Groothuis on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Douglas Groothuis is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

By philosophy of religion I mean the intellectual discipline of critically evaluating religious truth claims, whether individual propositions or propositional systems (or worldviews). This discipline may be self-standing, as in a philosophy of religion course at a college or university, or it may involve bringing religious assertions to bear on other disciplines, such as political theory, aesthetics, or psychology. For example, a lecture, class, or academic paper might engage how Judaism has shaped Western liberal traditions concerning religious liberty and property.

Let me illustrate this from an undergraduate class I taught at a secular university. In addressing questions of meaning and morality, I offered a theistic perspective by way of arguments. I later found—after students complained to the head of the Philosophy department—that I was accused of pushing religion in class. I really was not; rather, I was doing philosophy of religion in response to some perennial philosophical questions. These students apparently did not know there was such a thing as philosophy of religion. For them, religion was only about belief and preaching, not arguments. Of course, they were wrong; and I was asked to teach another class the next term. I take from this that doing good philosophy of religion may involve justifying the discipline as an intellectually legitimate means for testing and applying religious truth claims.

But what constitutes a virtuous pursuit of knowledge in this discipline? Philosophy of religion, like all intellectual disciplines, should be, at minimum, characterized by these values.

1. Obscurity is not usually profundity, especially not in philosophy. Whatever issues are at hand should be addressed with conceptual clarity. This requires a clear use of key terms (providing definitions, if needed). While philosophy of religion need not aspire to the analytical precision of Alvin Plantinga or Keith Yandel, it should not leave the reader lost in the mists of ill-defined terms and puzzling sentences.

2. The golden rule belongs to philosophy of religion as to everything else. Just as we are troubled when our arguments are misrepresented and wish this were not the case, so should we go the second mile in making sure that we represent all views fairly and accurately. Some of my wife’s careful arguments on the philosophy of gender in relation to religion have been made into straw men by a number of men and women. It hurts and it is wrong.

3. Philosophy is about arguments, and arguments come in various general forms: induction, deduction, abduction (or best explanation), and for the stouthearted, Bayesian probabilities. Good writing in the philosophy of religion–or any kind of philosophy–will identify argument forms. In some cases, the same conclusion flows from two different formulations of an argument. Writers should not overburden the reader by making them wonder exactly what is being argued for and how.

4. Arguments should anticipate rebuttal. It is not enough to argue that P is true and leave it at that. The philosopher should consider the relevant arguments against P in order to weigh its merits. Thomas Aquinas left us with the developed form of this back-and-forth model for discourse. We need not copy his style, but we should not forget his method.

5. Clichés or taken-for-granted ideas in the philosophy of religion sometimes need to be challenged or refuted. Philosophy is not insulated from intellectual fashions or groupthink. For example, Descartes is usually credited as influential in philosophy (sometimes called “the father of modern philosophy”), but his arguments for God’s existence are often ignored or given short shrift. When a reviewer of one of my books found that I had carefully formulated and approved of one of his theistic arguments, he or she simply said, “Philosophers don’t accept this anymore.” So what? Let us give it a try. One needs either to show that one or more of the premises are wrong or that the argument form is faulty. Otherwise, there is no counter-argument.

Even Descartes’ stated method for philosophical argument has its merits for philosophy of religion, although I will not elaborate on them. In Discourse on Method, he presents four “precepts of logic” which he resolves never to violate: (1) to believe nothing except what is clear and distinct, (2) to divide up problems into appropriate parts, (3) to proceed from the simple to the complex, and (4) to make sure nothing is left out.

6. Philosophy of religion should not shy away from prudential concerns concerning religious doctrines. If nirvana is the highest state of being, what existential difference would this make? If the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation are logically coherent, should this encourage one to consider Christianity more carefully? As philosopher Mortimer J. Adler said, “More consequences for life and action follow from the affirmation or denial of God than from any other basic question.” If the Confucian idea of propriety is a fitting way to comport oneself in family and society, how would this affect one’s manners, customs, and even voting? And so on.

7. Philosophers of religion should seek to be involved in settings in which proponents of different religions discuss the rationality of each other’s truth claims. This happens often with Christians and atheists, but there is no reason it should not extend to Muslims and Buddhists or Jews and Hindus, etc. These exchanges—which may be debates or dialogues, written or oral—help prevent misunderstanding and ignorance of each religion’s respective positions.

These seven values do not exhaust the treasury of epistemic virtue, but I take them to be vital for intellectual engagement in the philosophy of religion. I look forward to seeing what others deem worthy.

Neil A. Manson on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Neil A. Manson is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Mississippi. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

I will restrict my comments to the analytic approach to philosophy. I will also modify the question in a slight but significant way to “What personal norms or values should guide philosophers of religion?” That is, I will talk about desirable qualities in the people who do philosophy of religion rather than in the output they produce.

As philosophers, philosophers of religion ought to follow the standard norms of the field. They ought to be precise and rigorous logically, helping themselves to a toolkit including propositional logic, quantifier logic, modal logic, probability theory, set theory, and so on. They ought to be interdisciplinary, incorporating (when appropriate) physical science, social science, and history. And they ought to be intradisciplinary, integrating in their own work the best from the full array of relevant philosophical subdisciplines: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, philosophy of mind and language, history of philosophy, and so on. But those familiar with the subdiscipline “philosophy of religion” will probably recognize that, by and large, these norms are, indeed, followed. Pick up any recent book in philosophy of religion. Sprinkled throughout it you will likely see some combination of formal logical proofs, universal quantifiers, diamond operators, probability calculations, and citations of various scientific papers. In that regard, it will be hard to distinguish a philosophy of religion book from one in any other area of philosophy. Adhering to these norms thus in no way makes philosophers of religion distinctive within philosophy. Doing these things is just a precondition for doing good philosophy. Are there any, more distinctive norms that ought to guide philosophers of religion?

To answer this, we must recognize a crucial fact about philosophy of religion’s place both in philosophy more broadly and in academia as a whole. Within philosophy, philosophers of religion are regarded with considerable suspicion. Since the reasons for that are pretty widely discussed amongst philosophers of religion, especially amongst newly-minted Ph.D.s and their advisers, I will not rehearse them here. I want to focus on how analytic philosophers of religion relate to the rest of their colleagues across the university.

If we list standard subfields of philosophy, we will find that some have no non-philosophy rivals for the attention of their subject matters. For example, most metaphysical questions are ones no one else in the academic world is addressing. None but metaphysicians are trying to figure out the nature of modality, of abstract objects, of causation, of time, or of personal identity. [Some would say that this is not a virtue of metaphysicians but rather a reason to be suspicious of them.] But for many subfields, there are fields outside of philosophy addressing the same subject. For example, philosophers of mind both compete and cooperate with psychologists, brain scientists, linguists, and computer scientists in the effort to understand the mind. And philosophers of mind (for the most part) seek concordance with their non-philosopher academic counterparts. Infrequent exceptions aside, philosophers of mind try to stay abreast of and in step with developments in those other fields. And sometimes the scholars in those other fields will appeal to the work of philosophers of mind. The same is true of most other “philosophers of” – philosophers of biology, philosophers of language, philosophers of physics, and so on. They are part of a larger academic community, with a distinctive approach but overlapping goals.

The situation with philosophers of religion seems to me to be significantly different. Currently, philosophy of religion is the only field in the humanities and social sciences in which religious beliefs are often treated as matters of reason and evidence – as if they might be true. It is the only academic subdiscipline in which there are serious arguments in the current scholarly literature concerning the existence of God, the nature of God, the afterlife, the soul, and so on. Whatever one thinks of the merits of those arguments, they played (and still play) a crucial role in the religious, social, political, scientific, and intellectual life of the world. For example, one cannot really understand significant aspects of modern science without understanding the belief that reason and empirical evidence show that the entire universe was created and designed by God, and that God intended for us to understand God’s plan. But one cannot understand that belief without understanding both the Cosmological and Design arguments. While they may have been wrong, the religious figures who thought reason and science were on the side of their faith really did think it. Likewise, Calvinists and Arminians really did think one side was right and the other wrong, and they thought reasoned arguments could be offered to support their favored position and refute the position they opposed.

Yet approaching religious beliefs as if it they might be true or false is something that almost never happens nowadays in non-philosophy disciplines. In the fields of religion/religious studies, sociology, anthropology, history and literature – and even in some seminaries and divinity schools – religion is by and large approached from a postmodernist perspective. Religious beliefs and practices are viewed as encoding power relationships amongst races, classes, and genders. Religions are interesting for what they tell us about those relationships. In evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, religious beliefs are treated either as adaptations or as spandrels, benefitting the biological fitness either of the individual or the group. In both cases, it is just a presumption – an explicit methodological presumption at best and an unexamined dogma at worst – that people do not hold to religious belief X because X is true, probably true, or more likely to be true than Y. [If you see the word “true” used in these fields, there is a good chance there will be quotation marks around it.] For example, in these fields, no part of the explanation for why, historically, monotheism has tended to supplant polytheism is that it is quite reasonable to think monotheism is more likely to be true than polytheism, or that the arguments for monotheism are objectively more persuasive than those for polytheism.

This blog is not the place to judge whether this enormous difference in methodological presuppositions indicates a defect in philosophy of religion or rather in the other disciplines just mentioned. [In my own view, while those taking a postmodernist or an evolutionary approach to religion succeed in identifying many very important aspects of religion, they also often ignore other important aspects of religion. See my “Religion and Metaphysical Naturalism” in *The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy of Religion*, 2015). The point is just that the philosopher of religion is a serious outlier within academia. The typical philosopher of mind is likely to find a sympathetic audience, and possibly actual collaborators, in the psychology department or the neuroscience program. Likewise with philosophy of language, philosophy of science, and so on. In all those cases, there are points of collaboration, possibilities for joint degree programs, and even opportunities for joint academic appointments. In contrast, the philosophers of religion are quite likely to find themselves in a chilly (if not flat-out adversarial) relationship with their colleagues who study religion for a living. If you are a philosopher of religion, do not expect the members of the other fields mentioned to have much interest in your research, the speakers you bring in, or the questions you think are important. Do not expect to find a shared sense that you are all participating in different ways in the same larger project. The methodological and cultural gap between analytic philosophy of religion and these other disciplines is just too great.

So, what personal values ought to guide analytic philosophers of religion? Fortitude is one. If you are the only philosopher of religion on a typical college campus in the English-speaking world, be prepared to be a solitary figure. You can assume that, if your colleagues outside of philosophy have any idea of what you do, they think it is largely or completely a waste of time – something that has nothing to do with the actual understanding of religion. Congeniality is another value to cultivate. If you want the colleagues outside of your department to identify with and support you and what you do, you will have to sell yourself and your work to them. You cannot just expect them to understand what you do or see the value in it. Have a story ready to go explaining why what you do is important. Doctoral programs train their graduates to pitch what they do to other philosophers – to people on hiring committees, most notably. But if you are a philosopher of religion and you want to flourish at your school, you need a sales pitch for the non-philosophers, too. Finally, convey humility. If you are an analytic philosopher of religion, in graduate school you probably learned to disdain the sorts of approaches to religious belief I have discussed. Drop the disdain (or hide it, at least). Not only is it counterproductive, but it alienates people with whom you might work and from whom you can learn.

Rem B. Edwards on “What Values or Norms Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Rem B. Edwards is the Lindsay Young Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Tennessee. We invited him to answer the question “What values or norms define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

An excellent philosophy of religion is one that results from the efforts of excellent philosophers of religion, so my approach focuses on the ideal good-making properties of philosophers of religion.

(1) They aspire to fulfill credible criteria for any plausible rational theology or belief system. They apply rational criteria of explanatory adequacy such as logical consistency, coherence with other reasonable beliefs, simplicity without sacrificing comprehensiveness, clarity, fruitfulness for further inquiry, fairness or impartiality of judgment, freedom from external and internal non-rational pressures, and conformity with experience. “Experience” is broadly construed to include sensory, introspective, religious, aesthetic, moral, logical, and mathematical intuitive givenness.

(2) They search for religious views that are compatible with and not falsified by the structure of the world disclosed by natural science, which is itself constantly evolving. Natural science does not dictate the contents of a rational philosophy of religion, but it rules out many familiar religious beliefs and traditional cosmological convictions as unviable and untenable. For example, rational persons cannot accept a literal six days of creation in the face of astronomy and paleontology, cannot reject evolution in the face of biology, and cannot affirm rigid and universal determinism in the face of quantum physics. Excellent philosophers of religion reject the ideas that Adam and Eve once literally existed in an idyllic Garden of Eden, and that anything of any theological importance depends upon their having so existed. They cannot affirm that death originated as a consequence of human misbehavior, since organisms were dying for eons of time before human beings evolved. Being compatible with natural science is not the same as being proved by natural science. The philosophy of religion aspires to philosophical proof, evidence, and reason-giving in a very broad sense, not to empirical or sensory inductive evidence alone.

(3) They try to provide some plausible and coherent account of the immediate and the ultimate meanings and values of human life, indeed of all life and all of existence. Their accounts should be firmly grounded in and compatible with scientific knowledge and critical rational reflection, as well as with our most profound religious, moral, and aesthetic sensitivities.

(4) They strive for positive valuational and ontological results that go beyond negative critiques. They strive to help “real people” (philosophers included) find reasonable and defensible religious views that they can actually affirm and live by and with, always subject to improvement. Destructive philosophizing is easy; constructive philosophizing is much more difficult. The best philosophers of religion venture both constructive results or conclusions and destructive critiques of alternatives. High creativity transcending what has gone before will be involved in reaching constructive religious results. We want the most reasonable religious (and overall) approximation to definitive truth we can get that will help us live moral, spiritual, and conceptually meaningful lives.

(5) They recognize that rational persuasion is a significant way of respecting others, and that it is morally preferable to settling religious disagreements in non-rational ways such as social ostracism, political exile, threats, intimidations, purely emotionalistic appeals, coercion, torture, brainwashing, deceit, and bombastic rhetoric. Rational excellence in religious thinking (and elsewhere) is a moral solution to a moral problem.

(6) They develop and utilize their critical as well as their constructive capacities. Excellent critical philosophizing does not apply exclusively to pro-religious affirmations, whatever these might be. Critical thinking applies equally to anti-religious perspectives, whatever these might be—atheism, agnosticism, positivism, wholesale skepticism, or whatever. What are their basic assumptions, and are they rationally justified? Wholesale skepticism has never completed its work until all of its resources have been turned in upon itself.

(7) They are constantly aware of human limitations, which apply to the whole enterprise of philosophy. A large place is made for honest disagreement. We are now (and always?) far removed from those religious and all other philosophical beliefs on which all competent rational persons are ultimately destined to agree. All philosophers eventually just run out of reasons and evidence-giving procedures and reach “rock bottom,” where intuitions of some kind take over. Regrettably, not all competent rational authorities reach the same rock bottom intuitions. Every thought system, religious or otherwise, includes some essential convictions that cannot be proved without circularity within that system, or elsewhere. Philosophical problems may be infinite, but philosophical procedures are always finite. Rationality applied to all religious and philosophical problems is simply not powerful enough to bring all competent rational authorities into complete intersubjective agreement, however desirable that might be. This is a limitation of all of philosophy, not peculiarity of the philosophy of religion.

I have long maintained that we can never hope for or expect anything more from any kind of philosophical excellence and efforts than an enlightened faith. Realistically, we will never have complete rational intersubjective agreement and certainty. (About that we can be almost certain.) Human rationality always functions somewhere between the extremes of absolutely conclusive “proof” and no proof at all. Of course, an enlightened faith is very different from, and much more desirable than, a blind faith, but variable basic human and personal values, as well as inescapable human historicity and unique personality differences, are always constitutive of anyone’s enlightened faith, which is always grounded by degrees in who we actually are and/or wish to become. Ultimately, after doing our very best, all of us just have to judge and decide for ourselves. Excellent philosophers of religion know this. Fallibilstic modesty is one of their intellectual virtues. They allow for honest intellectual doubt, disagreement, and growth.

(8) They recognize that the philosophy of religion is a value-laden enterprise through and through. This is most obvious, perhaps, in the idea of perfect spiritual excellence or supreme worshipfulness, as expressed, for example, in St. Anselm’s concept of “that being than whom none greater (better) can be conceived.” “Divine perfection” or “ultimate goodness” are axiological as well as ontological notions. Conceiving of ultimate perfection is always a valuational project, even if facts have some bearing. Excellent philosophers of religion recognize and analyze the values inherent in religion. They wonder what ultimate reality would have to be like in order to be supremely worthy of human worship, love, service, devotion, and ultimate concern. Until philosophers of religion reach agreement about what is ultimately admirable or valuable, they must agree to disagree about the perfect-making attributes of supreme reality, and about many other matters of religious concern. Their conceptions and preconceptions will occasionally yield to profound, novel, and ongoing enlightenment about and insight into supreme worshipfulness, goodness, and reality.

What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?


Here at we are hosting an ongoing discussion by philosophers of religion about philosophy of religion. Our first blog series asked simply, “What is philosophy of religion?”; and our second series inquired, “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” Our third discussion focuses on the values and norms that define excellence in our field. What qualities or characteristics make a work in philosophy of religion worthy of being read, re-read, and criticized by fellow philosophers of religion? What, in fact, do we most admire in the work of others, and what ought we to most admire? Is rigorous argumentation the be-all and end-all of philosophy of religion, or are other values also important, such as multidisciplinarity, adequacy to the diversity of living religions, sensitivity to the existential dimension of religion, etc.?

The norms and values that define excellence in an inquiry not only specify the conditions for successful, progressive inquiry, but also implicitly define the goals of the inquiry itself. Is the purpose of philosophy of religion to explain religious phenomena, to criticize and/or defend religious ideas through argumentation, to gain wisdom about the good life through the study of human religions, or something else? Through an analysis of philosopher’s answers to our question about norms and values, we hope to surface some of the diverse views of the goal of philosophy of religion that are prevalent in the field. Once our analysis of the discussion is complete, we’ll present our findings on this website.

In the meantime, we invite you to read the blog entries and learn from experts who work in the field about the values and norms that define philosophy of religion.

David Rohr is a PhD candidate at Boston University’s Graduate Division of Religious Studies, and editor of; Wesley J. Wildman is a philosopher of religion working at Boston University, and founder of

Gary Colwell on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

Gary Colwell is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Condordia University of Edmonton. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

What is Philosophy of Religion? An Almost Serious Approach

The title “Philosophy of Religion” has three words which, when examined closely, will reveal the meaning of the discipline to which the whole title refers. (Or perhaps not, as the case may be.) Let us first inspect the word “philosophy” and then the word “religion”. In the end we shall see that the little word “of” holds the key to the most useful definition of the title; for whatever “philosophy” and “religion” mean, we know right off that the title refers to a philosophy that belongs to, or is applied to, religion.

What is philosophy? Philosophy is a rational discipline from which we learn more and more about less and less until someday we know everything about nothing. Or going the other way, we learn less and less about more and more until someday we know nothing about everything. The crucial question arising from these two definitions is itself philosophical in nature. Which should you rather know: everything about nothing or nothing about everything? For the benefit of the conscientious reader there is a right answer to that question.

I faintly hear someone saying, “get serious!” OK, I will, but you won’t like it. What I’m going to offer you is a functional and compendious definition of philosophy that is not entirely serviceable. But a word of caution before you proceed. You mustn’t say this definition out loud for fear of frightening your dog or alienating your other friends, though interjecting it skilfully into a cocktail conversation among the literati will garner you a heap of praise. Here goes: Philosophy is a rational discipline in which careful attention to detail, logical thinking and imagination are used to question, describe, analyse and speculate upon the fundamental assumptions of our beliefs about reality or some limited aspect of it, while striving to be clear, truthful, consistent and reasonable in its spoken, unspoken and written accounts. Admittedly, that was a bit long. But how to shorten it without amputating some of its vital limbs – that is a vexing question. We do need to retain the ideas of both analytic and synthetic thinking, with the understanding that when we engage in such thinking we are asking questions as well as making statements. Perhaps we could employ the term synalytic thinking. On second thought, that would only complicate the issue and raise unnecessary additional questions. Let us, then, tentatively settle upon the following: philosophy is a rational discipline in which analytic and synthetic thinking are trained upon the fundamental assumptions of some aspect of the world, in this case, religion. But now we must ask, what in the world is a religion?

Defining “religion” is like trying to wallpaper an alligator. On the one hand it is tempting to say simply that a religion is a system of beliefs with god at its apex. But this would make the definition too narrow. It would eliminate Theravada Buddhism, the non-dualistic schools of Hinduism such as Advaita Vedanta, and various kinds of polytheism. Many systems of belief that are labelled “religion” do not posit the existence of one transcendent being that is thought to be worthy of worship. On the other hand one might modify one of Tillich’s ideas and say that religion is simply a belief system that organizes life around that which ultimately concerns some group of people. This, however, would include practically everything upon which we may set our highest interest and around which we can organize our lives, making the definition too broad.

Why, we may rightly ask, are all these different systems of belief called “a religion”? It’s as though a giant strode about the earth collecting one after another of these belief systems in a huge basket: B was included because it was somewhat like A; C was included because it was somewhat like B; D was included because it was somewhat like C; and so on to n-1 and n. But when the giant was done he looked in his basket and discovered that n had almost nothing in common with A. Unwittingly he had gathered his religions according to a “family resemblance” method of collection. But why did he collect A in the first place? I don’t know. Maybe it seemed like a good idea at the time. Or perhaps it was because the first system of belief he came across was focused upon a transcendent source that provided meaning for his life. Whatever the reason, his first and last collections had much less in common than his first and second collections.

Is there anything we can do to build a definition of religion that is both accurate and serviceable? One approach might be to “bite the bullet”; in other words, to go for the generality and live with the consequences. We could say that a religion is a life-guiding system of belief that often but not always has a transcendent being at its apex. We do catch communism with such a wide net, but then calling that particular belief system a religion is hardly a new idea, though admittedly communists have never liked it very much.

To avoid alienating some of our ideological colleagues, therefore, we could use the opposite approach by defining “religion” specifically, even ostensively. It is that religion, X, that I mean when I say “philosophy of religion”. And we can substitute for X any religion that holds our interest. But now rather than trying to define the “philosophy of religion” simpliciter, we will need to adjust the explanandum to read, for example, “the philosophy of Christianity”. It could as well be “the philosophy of Islam”.

Still, something doesn’t feel quite right about my attempt to define “Philosophy of Religion”. I seem to have knotted my thinking into a mental cramp. I have accomplished this by trying to make my definition of philosophy of religion at one and the same time general and specific, as well as concise and expansive; and I also want it to be portable, so to speak. What to do? The thought now occurs to me that there is no need to satisfy all these characteristics at one stroke. For where is it written that we must say everything about something at once? So let’s make another run at the definition and do it in stages. I’ll call this effort an engaging definition, for it is supposed to engage the reader or hearer to ask successively more specific questions about previously more general answers. It will involve a dialogue that goes something like this:

Q – What is Philosophy of Religion?
A – It is a rational discipline in which philosophical thinking is applied to a religion.
The results may be spoken, unspoken or written.
Q – Why do you say rational discipline?
A – Well, because reason and the imagination are used exclusively to practice it.
There are many kinds of discipline or areas of accomplishment that invite mastery; not all of them are exclusively or predominantly rational. Taekwando is one example.
Q – But that still doesn’t explain what philosophical thinking is.
A – True, but just ask me and I’ll be glad to explain.
Q – All right, what is it?
A – I thought you’d never ask. It is the kind of thinking that strives to be clear, truthful, logical and consistent in its spoken, unspoken and written accounts. It is typically argumentative, seeking to create sound arguments for certain ideational positions, arguments with true premises and valid conclusions.
Q – But aren’t these just the features you should expect to find in the conscientiously practiced disciplines of chemistry, psychology or art history?
A – Yes, but with this very important difference: philosophical thinking is trained upon foundational assumptions. Philosophers work in the basements of other disciplines. You know, where it’s dark and the mushrooms grow.
Q – Do you mean to say that philosophical thinking never leads anyone to build superstructures? They never construct anything above the basements?
A – Goodness, No! Much of philosophy has been and continues to be speculative. Indeed, there have been some grand systems of thought built during the history of philosophy. Yet their construction was begun only after their builders had created or uncovered those foundational assumptions upon which they thought their systems could be solidly built. And the destruction of these same systems was brought about at the same fundamental level when deep cracks were discovered in the ideational foundations.
Q – You said that philosophical thinking is applied to a religion. What religion are you referring to?
A – Pick any one you like. Take Christianity, for example. Some of its foundational assumptions are: God exists; God is triune; God created the world; God is love; Jesus is divine; Jesus rose from the dead; miracles occur or have occurred; there is an afterlife; and so on. These are some of the assumptions without which the religion called Christianity wouldn’t be what it is. When philosophical thinking is trained upon these foundational assumptions those who are engaged in such thinking are doing philosophy of the Christian religion.
Q – Surely a definition of “religion” ought to include more than one religion.
A – Actually it does, at least at first approximation. But it includes all of them only indefinitely, using the article “a” in the phrase “philosophical thinking applied to a religion”. If you want greater specificity then simply ask, as you did earlier, “what religion are you referring to”, and I shall answer just as I did before, “pick any one you like”. I could just as well have referred to Judaism or Islam, and we could just as easily have trained our philosophical thinking upon the foundational assumptions of either of them.
Q – You said that one of the foundational assumptions of Christianity is that God exists. Don’t all the Abrahamic religions have this as one of their assumptions? As the most important of all their common assumptions, doesn’t it unite all of them? They all believe in a supreme being, don’t they?
A – Yes they do, but here’s the catch. The devil is in the details…Let me rephrase that. The specific natures of the supreme beings in whom they believe are radically different from one another.
Q – How could that be? What can be more than supreme?
A – It is not the degree of greatness that is at issue but rather the degree of generality and vagueness. Let me ask you a question: what do a chair, a lamp and a coffee table have in common?
Q – Well, they have many things in common. For one, they are all solid objects. As well, they are all artefacts. Most obviously, I guess, they are all pieces of furniture.
A – Good. Now, what if I told you that a chair, a lamp and a coffee table are basically the same kind of object because they share in common the property of being a piece of furniture.
Q – I’d say you were daffy.
A – Why would you say that?
Q – Because the word “furniture” is just a collecting term, one that categorizes and holds together a number of objects or even types of objects found in buildings of various kinds. It’s just a shorthand way of speaking of a number of things in a spatial collection. There isn’t something in addition to the three objects you named that we can refer to and identify as furniture. The word isn’t even a quality term like “red”.
A – Precisely! And it’s for the same reason that we cannot say that the three Abrahamic religions worship basically the same god because their gods share in common the property of being a supreme being. Just as a chair, a lamp and a coffee table are radically different pieces of furniture so the gods of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are radically different gods, even though all three gods are supreme beings in the minds of their respective devotees. You might observe that a coffee table is more similar to a chair than it is to a lamp but this greater similarity would not diminish one bit the radical differences that exist between all of them. Nor does the observation that the triune god of Christianity is more similar to the god of Judaism than he is to the god of Islam remove the profound and ineradicable differences that exist between all of them. And it’s the profound differences, Q, that prevent us from finding a definition of “religion” that one and the same time is both general and substantive. We can of course build a compendious definition of “religion”, just as we can of “philosophy”, but we lose in utility what we gain in substance. We end up with a long grocery list sprinkled with qualifications.
Q – Why then do so many intelligent people think that these religions worship basically the same god?
A – Because at a high enough level of abstraction any two things can be made to seem the same. What do a pickle and a paper clip have in common?
Q – They have many things in common. They are both visible substances; they are both oval shaped; their names both start with “p”.
A – Well done, Q! And you could also have added that neither of them can ride a bicycle. Or to put it more positively, they are both bicycularly challenged.
Q – That’s a very wispy similarity.
A – Yes, and so are the ones you mentioned, even if not quite so wispy. Saying that the two objects are “substances”, “oval shaped” and “have names beginning with ‘p’” tells me little about the essential nature of the objects you seek to compare.
Q – However that may be, the three monotheistic religions I mentioned have substantially more in common than a pickle and a paper clip have. All three religions have canonical scriptures, a revered prophet or prophets, a system of ethical teaching, a way of salvation, and so forth. There are many substantive similarities.
A – I’m afraid that I can’t entirely agree, Q. The wispiness index is still very high in the alleged similarities you mention. Certainly there is much substantive overlap between the scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. Even so, the Hebrew Bible composes only about seventy-five percent of the Christian Bible. And the twenty-five percent difference, found in the New Testament, throws a new light on the whole. The Koran, being approximately the size of the New Testament, is radically different in content from both of them. Furthermore, if you look in detail at lives of the preeminent prophets of Islam and Christianity you will again see profound differences between them. And the same holds for their respective ways of salvation.
Q – But you’re emphasizing the differences and not saying much at all about the similarities.
P – That’s deliberate. And it’s because we are talking about the definition of “religion” in the title “Philosophy of Religion”. And I’m trying to point out the futility of attempting to form a general definition of “religion” that is both accurate and substantive. It’s the profound differences between the foundational elements of the religions that give those religions their distinctive character, and it’s these differences that frustrate any effort to form an inclusive definition that is both accurate and substantive. It is better not to try to include the foundational elements of all religions in the initial stage of an engaging definition, for it widens the field too much, causing one to make vague and implicitly untrue claims. Better, I think, to send the enquirer to a religion where first s/he can uncover its foundational assumptions and then apply philosophical thinking to them. After doing this with a number of religions there will no doubt be legitimate comparisons that can be made. But once again, it’s better not to attempt the comparisons at the initial stage of the engaging definition.
Q – If your approach is correct for defining “philosophy of religion”, why couldn’t it be used to define other sub-disciplines of philosophy? Words like “science” and “art” cause no end of definitional problems. Instead of thrashing about looking for the quintessential substance of all sciences, why not just define “philosophy of science” as “philosophical thinking applied to a science”, say, physics? You could then limit the scope of your investigation to “philosophical thinking applied to physics”. And you could do the same for art: philosophical thinking applied – not to art in general – but to an art, say, music; again limiting your investigation to “philosophical thinking applied to music”.
A – Very perceptive of you, Q! But our time is running out; we shall have to leave off discussing that until we meet again.
Q – Thank you, O sage of the northern prairie, for demuddifying my understanding.
A – Please, do not make fun of me. This is nearly serious business.

Conclusion: If you are asked what Philosophy of Religion is, don’t try to say everything at once. If you do you will find yourself either composing a very long definition that may be accurate but won’t be serviceable, or, settling for a shorter version that will quickly invite counter-examples. Begin instead with a short and grammatically correct definition that properly relates the two main ideas whose contents at first you keep indefinite. Then, with questions and answers, define the contents. You can begin by saying that it is a rational discipline in which philosophical thinking is applied to a religion. You can even leave off the first part, “a rational discipline in which”, if the context is agreeable to doing so. The short of it is this: “philosophical thinking applied to a religion”. If you have a penchant for parsimony you can shorten even further to “philosophical thinking about a religion”. You can then begin to fill it with accurate content by asking your audience, “What further questions do you have?”

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Thank you Steven Muir and Travis Dumsday for your helpful comments on the penultimate draft.

Raymond VanArragon on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Raymond VanArragon is Professor of Philosophy at Bethel University. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The question is, “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” I propose to answer by considering, as examples of the modern university, schools like my own: Christian liberal arts universities where the vast majority of students consider religion to be of significant and even supreme importance.

Philosophy of religion can benefit these students in a variety of ways, and in so doing can help Christian universities better fulfill their missions. To see this, let’s consider how two opposing types of students attending such schools might be impacted by taking a course in philosophy of religion.

The first type of student is the dogmatist. This student has hard and fast religious views, perhaps produced through a sheltered upbringing or a recent and enthusiastic conversion, where answers to profound questions are already settled and people who disagree are seen as ignorant or evil or both.

The dogmatist enrolls at a Christian university with settled beliefs on such topics as the existence of God (obvious), why God allows evil (to make possible our exercise of free will), who gets to go to heaven (people who believe more or less as they do), and much else besides. The fundamental point of this life, our dogmatist contends, is to determine one’s place in the afterlife; and those who do not embrace the Christian faith are going to hell.

Now these issues are in fact much more complex than the dogmatist may think. And there is great benefit to recognizing the complexity! That’s where philosophy of religion comes in. Philosophy of religion can help dogmatists recognize problems with their own views and reasonable features of opposing ones. It can help them begin to see that religious questions run extraordinarily deep, and that pat answers don’t end the discussion.

Return to the sample beliefs I just mentioned. Through study of philosophy of religion a dogmatist may learn that it is not so obvious or easy to prove that God exists, and hence that failing to believe may not be irrational. Perhaps the pervasive horror of this world’s evils cannot be understood purely as God’s way of creating an environment appropriate to the exercise of free will. Perhaps the existence of multiple religions, with their rich traditions and devout representatives, should render us less certain of God’s judgment on them and more inclined to emphasize what all believers have in common, even if there remains much on which we disagree.

The second type of student, opposite the dogmatist, can be called a cynic. Cynics are dismissive of religious belief and tend to feel superior to those who aren’t. Most students do not arrive at Christian universities in this state – they’d likely not attend if they were. Instead, they move in this direction upon exposure to readings that are part of a liberal arts curriculum, some of which contain challenges to religious belief. And cynics may think that their benighted classmates are simply not getting it; they aren’t opening their minds; they don’t recognize their own ignorance.

Philosophy of religion can have a similar impact on cynics, but from another direction. It can reveal that religious beliefs have something positive to be said for them – that there are reasons to believe, reasons put forward by highly intelligent people who have been exposed to those very same challenges but have nonetheless kept the faith. Further, cynics may be prone to assuming that the essence of religious faith is captured by the beliefs and posture of the dogmatist; and philosophy of religion makes clear that faith can be much richer than that.

Now, not only can study of philosophy of religion impact the beliefs of dogmatists and cynics in the ways just suggested. Just as importantly, it can produce an informed and virtuous kind of humility in students on the extremes as well as all those in between. Let me explain.

A central feature of philosophy of religion, and of philosophy more generally, is that while many arguments in the field are strong (and of course many are weak), relatively few are utterly conclusive. That is to say, for nearly any argument (for or against God’s existence, for or against our having freewill, and so on), rejecting it does not mean that you are stupid, dishonest, or in some other way a bad person.

It’s easy to see how recognizing this can promote humility. Philosophy of religion need not lead students to give up all their religious beliefs, but it hopefully will change how they assess those beliefs and the people who reject them. The fact that, as you see it, your beliefs about religion are true does not stem from your being so much smarter or rational or morally upright than everyone who disagrees with you. There must be some other explanation. Students who maintain Christian belief – even after careful reflection on arguments for and against – might come to see their grasp of the truth as a gracious gift, and thus as grounds for humble service rather than for pride. It is no coincidence, I think, that this is what Christianity has taught all along.

I teach philosophy at Bethel University, a Christian university one of whose stated goals is to produce students who are “world-changers and reconcilers.” The statement continues: “As we humbly and honestly engage with our own biases and preconceptions, we grow closer to understanding Christ’s infinite love and selfless mission of redemption.” Many Christian universities make similar statements. They desire, in short, to cultivate religious faith of the best kind.

That goal is elusive. Religion can be the source of so many vices – I’ve only hinted at a few of them. But study of philosophy of religion can counteract those vices. It can temper both dogmatism and cynicism. It can replace aggressive disagreement and debate with humility, with respect, and with a focus on the pursuit of common goals.

That’s what philosophy of religion offers today’s Christian liberal arts universities, an offering that is as important now as it has ever been.

Andrew Gleeson on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Andrew Gleeson is Lecturer in Philosophy at Flinders University. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

When philosophy is defended as part of a humane, liberal education – I say when, for these days often it isn’t – this is seen as a matter of providing a simplified introduction to the research pursued at graduate and faculty level. Contemporary undergraduate teaching in non-professional subjects has increasingly become a primer to graduate study. Teachers have their eye less on the progress of intelligent students in general than on picking out budding researchers. This is not a general education as opposed to a specialized one, but an initiation into specialized inquiry, an initiation which casts the net wide – across the mass of undergraduates – in the hope of trolling the able few. It is a sort of sieve for finding academic philosophical talent. This is of a piece with the gradual marginalization in our culture of the ideal of the generally educated person, and of what was once called the ‘man-of-letters’, eclipsed by the rise of the cloistered specialist or expert.

This is not a system which serves most students well. Between the enthusiasts for specialized research at one pole, and the long-suffering student-victims (increasing with each year’s new intake) unable to cope with a university education of any sort at the other, there exists a large number of thoughtful students – no less intelligent than the first group – who are missing out on something valuable. I do not suggest they get nothing of value from their education – they may certainly get things of interest. They may become passionately interested in arguments for the existence of God – Intelligent Design for example – and continue, as best they can, to follow popular discussions of these for the rest of their lives. The problem is that discussions of these arguments by philosophers – not only in the era of mass institutionalized research-education, but most intensely and pervasively there – have become dissociated from their real roots in human life, in this case in religious life. The arguments have become dry, abstracted intellectual exercises – conundrums or puzzles – that employ only a limited, impersonal dimension of human intelligence: logic, rationality, argumentative dexterity, sensitivity to relevant factual (especially scientific) information. The teaching becomes a kind of squandered opportunity. We are teaching our students to be only lop-sided thinkers and lop-sided human beings.

I do not mean the students miss out on something practical, something they can apply in their subsequent professional lives (the rationale for teaching ethics or critical thinking to students in professional courses). I would call it something ‘spiritual’, if only over-use hadn’t made that word so pretentious. Examples best show what I mean. There is the way mainstream discussion of the idea that contingent being implies necessary being treats the notions of contingency and necessity exclusively as logical or scientific ones, and gives no role to contingency as a sense of the perishability of worldly things, in contrast to the eternity of God, as these are (for instance) sung by the psalmist (‘Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God’). Or consider the failure of so much discussion of the problem of evil to hold itself accountable to real life examples of evil, a failure theorized by the field as the distinction between the genuinely intellectual problem (the proper business of philosophers) and the personal or existential problem (the business of pastors, counselors and social reformers) and valorized as an ensign of its intellectual probity. (Philosophers discussing theodicy will often begin by quoting Dostoevsky, but typically as mere prettification which is quickly passed over to get on with the serious work of theory construction.) The point is not that these mainstream treatments of the philosophy of religion employ the proper methods for discovering the truth and achieving understanding, but in the class-room they should be complemented by a humanist uplift that is edifying for the students but strictly irrelevant to the genuinely cognitive core of the discipline. That idea simply recapitulates the impoverished conception of intellectual life that extols impersonal thought at the expense of personal responsiveness, and thereby misses its own ostensible subject-matter, a subject-matter that cannot be understood by the tools of the merely impersonal outlook (indispensable as they are). Philosophers proceeding in this way get God and Evil wrong. Perhaps most fundamentally the very methodological assumption of treating them as objects of speculation already distorts the understanding by directing attention on to the wrong intentional objects, or at least ones that are badly out of focus: the God whom the theodicist defends in his arguments during the day is not the same one he prays to at night. I can merely assert these strong claims here. I have argued for them in my book A Frightening Love: Recasting the Problem of Evil.

An alternative conception of philosophical thought about religion makes consideration of serious examples (of, say, evil, or the sense of life’s contingency, or the hidden-ness of God, or what it is to trust God) fundamental to philosophical practice. They need not come from the philosophers’ own lives, but philosophical consideration of them must be qua (thoughtful) human beings, not merely qua thinkers (philosophers) in the narrow sense of being responsive only to logic, rationality, etc. (It is admittedly a subtle question what marks thought as thought qua human being rather than qua philosopher, or qua literary critic, or qua historian, or …. My best quick stab is that it is thought presentable in any format – prose, poetry, painting, music – and without essential reference to any disciplinary canon or set of problems.) This casts philosophers in a quite different role in relation to the wider, non-specialist world than they standardly take themselves to have. The standard role assumes that philosophy can prove or disprove God, or make God more or less likely, and thus the point and rationality of religious practice in the world at large is made hostage to the results of highly specialized inquiry. I am suggesting things should be the other way round: that the philosophers should be learning from the world outside the seminar room. The students in that seminar room are usually young, and only just learning about both the academic world and the wider one. If the former condescends to the latter, and even dismisses it, we run the risk of disenfranchising them from both.

Susanna L. Goodin on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Susann L. Goodin is Associate Professor of Philosophy at The University of Wyoming. We invited her to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Religion in general provides guidance on what is important, how to live and, in some cases, what to think about almost every aspect of life. By being so ingrained and so long-standing, religious beliefs are very influential, but similarly, by being so ingrained and long-standing religious beliefs are largely resistant to revision. Humans have a tendency to accept the beliefs held by those around them and by those in positions of authority over them. And all of that makes religious beliefs a very useful tool of social control.

When beliefs are accepted unthinkingly, then others have a greater opportunity to exert control over what you think – and what you do. If one comes to have a nuanced understanding of their religious beliefs, they stand a much better chance of seeing whether their religion does or does not mandate a stand on a particular social issue. A true understanding of the foundation behind religious claims will limit the use by others of one’s religion to support any of a number of particular political and social views. Ideally, having a deeper understanding of what various religious claims mean (and don’t mean) will limit the ability to inject social and personal prejudices and biases into the religious teachings, thus limiting the use of the religion to cement those views into social norms and policies.

When you learn to unpack your beliefs for yourself, the power of others to control what you think and do is greatly, even if not totally, diminished.

Philosophy in general offers clarity, insight, and a way to step away from dogmatic acceptance of concepts that are often nothing more than oft-repeated phrases with no real understanding of them. To be able to show students how to achieve clarity, insight, and a way to step away from dogmatically-held beliefs regarding something as fundamental to one’s religious beliefs is to give students a self-reflective control over their beliefs, and thus over their lives. Also, humility about what one knows and what one can know, acquired through rigorous logical analysis that results in a deeper understanding about the beliefs one holds, promotes a way to step away from fundamentalism (religious or otherwise)—which is a very good thing.

To think critically is to seek out assumptions and acquire clarity over the unstated background beliefs, those foundations that are necessary for your belief to stand but are largely unrealized and thus unquestioned. Critical analysis places under review the assumptions behind our beliefs and allows for possible revision or elimination. Critical analysis also reveals the consequences of our beliefs and causes us reevaluate whether we wish to continue holding a belief at that cost. Critical analysis reveals internal contradictions among the beliefs held. Fuzzy beliefs get refined (if possible), and if not possible, then are either discarded or are held but with an awareness of the limitations inherent in such beliefs.

To learn how to engage in critical analysis of religion is to see that religious beliefs can be explored with the goal of understanding and evaluating absent a goal of winning, persuading, renouncing or denouncing. The goal is to see what is entailed in continuing to hold onto an oft-repeated belief. One might say that a philosophy of religion class makes one earn the right to hold a specific religious belief.

Philosophy of religion teaches, via repeated demonstrations regarding the analysis of divine attributes or centuries old proofs for the existence of the traditional Western classical conception of God or the implications of the claim that a miracle occurred, how to engage in rigorous critical thinking. Teaching students how to think about big important issues in one sphere will allow them to begin to think about important issues in other spheres.

Philosophy of religion courses show that it is okay to question religious beliefs and show how to do it well.

By having such courses in the curriculum, U.S. universities show support for a critical and questioning approach to religious beliefs. And by showing that one can do this with beliefs as important and fundamental as religious beliefs opens up the possibility of treating all of one’s beliefs in the same way.

For U.S. to offer such courses is to reject an endorsement for an unthinking populace that simply accepts what it is told. When religious beliefs are put in the hands of the individual and the individual is educated in how to think critically about those beliefs, the possibility of a fundamentalist hold is dramatically weakened and the possibility of religion being used to control the populace or any portion of the populace is significantly lessened.

Elizabeth Burns on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Elizabeth Burns is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy of Religion at Heythrop College, University of London. We invited her to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Religion is an important cultural phenomenon. A recent study (‘The Global Religious Landscape’, The Pew Research Center, 2012, ) claimed that, of the world’s 7 billion people, about 5.8 billion of them are religious believers of some kind. This figure includes 2.2 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, a billion Hindus, and about 500 million Buddhists. Religious beliefs are not just abstract ideas; they have a major impact, both positive and negative, on individuals and societies throughout the world. They can address fundamental human concerns, offering meaning and purpose and helping believers to cope with suffering and the inevitability of death. They are also a source of values which influence the behaviour of individuals and shape societies, and they can form the focus of caring communities of like-minded believers. Regrettably, they can also be a source of conflict which can lead, in some cases, to terrorist activity and/or warfare. It is therefore important that as many people as possible are able to contribute thoughtfully to discussion about the meaning, truth, and practical application of religious beliefs. As the author of Ecclesiasticus said, many centuries ago: “Discussion is the beginning of every work, and counsel precedes every undertaking. The mind is the root of all conduct” (Sirach 37: 16-17). It is this discussion which the study of philosophy of religion seeks to facilitate.

Philosophers of religion aim to help both individuals and societies consider what it makes sense to say about religious beliefs, and whether or not there might be any evidence for their truth – or, indeed, falsity. If we talk nonsense about our beliefs, whatever they might be, or if we are unable to respond to common objections, or ignore evidence which suggests that they might be false, our beliefs are vulnerable and therefore less likely to provide the benefits set out in the paragraph above. More seriously, if our beliefs shape our behaviour and our societies, and those beliefs turn out to be mistaken, the consequences may be very harmful for both individuals and societies.

Philosophers of religion therefore study different ways of understanding divinity and its attributes, and various arguments both for and against its existence. Questions about the  apparent conflict between belief in a divinity which is both all-powerful and good and the existence of evil and suffering are, perhaps, some of the most commonly discussed in philosophy of religion, both because the prevalence of suffering constitutes one of the most significant drivers for finding “believable” religious beliefs, but also because this apparent conflict is one of the most frequently-cited reasons for the rejection of religious belief and the development of alternative, humanist world-views.

Although philosophy of religion cannot provide a set of conclusive answers to life’s fundamental questions, it can help us to choose between possible answers, and, perhaps, to rule out those which are the most likely to be mistaken, including the superstitious or the fanatical. Lack of ability to provide “right” answers may even be a blessing in disguise, since preserving the possibility that we could be mistaken might help us to prevent the horrors and terrors which are sometimes associated with fundamentalist forms of religious belief. If philosophy of religion is able to contribute to a developing international awareness of the shaky ground upon which religious fanatics stand it can make an important contribution to the advancement of global security. We need enough certainty to create meaningful lives, but enough doubt to preserve the possibility that there might be better answers to life’s fundamental questions, the search for which is unceasing.

It is not only lack of certainty which can be seen as an important aid in the prevention of religious fanaticism and terrorism, however; philosophy of religion can also enhance dialogue between the world’s religions by focusing both on features that are common to more than one religion (such as divine attributes) and on features which are distinctive (such as beliefs about what happens to us when we die). In the first case, realisation that other religions and world-views contain beliefs which are similar to our own can diminish the sense of “otherness” and “alienation” which we might experience with respect to those religions and world-views. In the second, the opportunity to consider the reasons which underpin religious beliefs which differ from our own can help to foster relationships with those of different faiths and none, when it might otherwise have been tempting to dismiss their beliefs as groundless.

Philosophy of religion is also interdisciplinary. It requires or teaches a basic understanding of a range of key sub-disciplines of philosophy – epistemology, methodology, logic, metaphysics, ethics, and philosophy of mind, for example. It requires or teaches an adequate understanding of key beliefs from the world’s major religions, since we cannot ask philosophical questions concerning beliefs about which we lack knowledge and understanding, and a knowledge of key features of religious belief is important for those who wish to understand other humanities subjects such as literature in its various forms, the visual arts, music, and so on. And, since philosophers of religion are concerned with what might reasonably be said about the divine, the insights of philosophy of religion also have the potential to contribute to the study and development of religious liturgy – the words which are offered to religious believers for use in their individual and communal religious practice.

Although it is possible to believe something without that belief informing our action, action is not possible unless it is informed by belief. And, while it is possible for good actions to arise from bad beliefs – for example, we might help a person in distress because we think that we will suffer eternal torment in hell if we fail to do so, even if there is no evidence for such a belief and, for others at least, it has very unpleasant consequences – it is more likely that good actions will arise from good beliefs. Through ongoing debate in universities, in the internationally-disseminated publications which arise from and inform that debate, and from the impact of those who are thereby well-informed upon society more generally, philosophy of religion helps to increase our stock of possible good beliefs while diminishing the plausibility of bad ones in the hope that, together, humankind will continue to work towards the creation of a better world for all of its inhabitants.