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, http://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec/ ) 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.

Anna Djintcharadze on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Anna Djintcharadze specializes in history and philosophy of the religious mind. Her main research interests are Neoplatonism, medieval reception of Neoplatonic heritage, modern philosophy, history of scientific ideas, and existentialism. She has taught a variety of subjects at Boston College, the Institut de Formation Théologique de Montréal, the Saba Orbeliani Institute for Philosophy in Georgia, and the Dominican University College in Ottawa. She is currently working on a book project, entitled:”God or Nature? An attempt of Anthropocentric Theodicy”. 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.

I think the spontaneous answer would be – justify the university’s claim of universality.

The university’s many disciplines are the reflection of man’s mental and spiritual activity. Philosophy, however, is a reflexive activity on all these reflections, which is the reason why it transcends them all and we can have a philosophy of health, of art, of economics, etc. The university thus draws its universal character from the humanistic idea of being an anthropologically holistic enterprise – of yielding a portrait of the best of contemporary man, both factual and ideal.

Religion, whether it is understood as a culturally crucial institution, recognized by a given society as a mediating instance between the transcendent world and immanent society, or as a personally chosen stance vis-à-vis the transcendent, is as much an inalienable and organically produced instance of what it means to be human, as is the practice of mathematics, the writing of poetry, or the building of skyscrapers. Religion is a formally necessary ingredient of humanness, since it has been organically generated by humans throughout history. Hence, not only should religion occupy an equal status among the other disciplines philosophically reflected upon at a university, but it should be recognised as one of the most proper and necessary human activities. For it is not reason that distinguishes humans from animals, but spirituality; while beavers possess enough of intellect to build dams, spiders display calculative powers to weave intricate patterns, ants build highly structured communities, etc., none of the animals has ever produced a religion. Thus, homo religiosus is a label that captures what is distinctively human better than the term homo sapiens. Moreover, since in order to give justice to man one must describe him in a truly universal manner, the university’s anthropocentric curriculum should be crowned with the study of man’s religious dimension.

One certainly could retort that the human unique capacity to produce religion is not qualitatively different from animals, because it is due exclusively to man’s quantitatively greater rational powers, so the concept of God would be the result of greater rationality that also makes fantasies possible. However, it is impossible to defend the claim, because, although religion always receives a certain rational formalisation, the source of its very existence is not in rational discourse; no convinced religious person subscribes to his/her religion for the sake of mere rational schemes derived from unconditional premises that describe that religion. Whilst the question “How and why I am/I am not religious” is a rational, reflexively discursive question about one’s state of mind, the very formal presence of the capacity to be or not to be consciously religious definitely transcends mere reason, since the fact of being/not being religious is not the result of a choice based on merely rational conclusions. This is so because the essence of religion, unlike the essence of analytic philosophy or classical metaphysics, is never to be “about” something, but to be “that” very something; religion is never a ratio, a bit describing the whole — it wants to be the whole itself, its experiential reality, and so the primordial nature of its self-understanding is to go beyond both immanent experience and formal discourse towards a transcendent experience. When such an experience, real or claimed, receives later a logical description and justification, this discourse is always a secondary, conditional part of the religious phenomenon as such. Hence, man can rationally accept or reject the reality and possibility of a transcendent experience, but this rational choice is not the effect of a rational cause: it is rather the result of a qualitatively different order. In fact, no one accepts or rejects transcendent experience on the ground of mere logical consistency or non-consistency of the concept, but on the ground of having or not having transcendent experience(s).

This moves us closer to a definition of man as “self-transcendence”. As long as humanity is alive, it will strive to go beyond itself and to look for transcendent experiences, be it in lofty forms, such as mental and artistic creativity, or in other forms that go beyond what is strictly natural to being “human”. Especially in our times we notice a frantic drive towards everything that is trans-…. The ethics of transgression, by the way, is another abstruse form of the quest of self-transcendence.  This means that even when – and perhaps especially when – existing religion is not capable of satisfying such a going beyond oneself into the divine, man will necessarily find other outlets to outdo himself and in this sense to be religious – whether in a cyborg, or even in suicide. Thus, religion is an inescapable human reality.

Now, what about the philosophical reason that is to deal with religion? It seems that it also needs a transcendent definition, if it wants to deal with religious content. Semyon Frank – a Russian 20th century thinker has defined reason as “a rational transcendence of rational thought”. And it remains true that in order to reinvent a whole man, it is reason that urgently needs to acquire the capacity of self-transcendence, and go beyond the safe and boring petty-bourgeois soul of formal thought. Otherwise, it risks self-transcendence into folly. Modern thought has inherited a less than self-evident division between faith (religion, transcendent experience) and reason that itself is a fruit of a reductionist view of man – a peculiar reduction indeed, since aiming at extolling both reason and faith, it leaves both humiliated: reason is broken and impoverished, because it is denied the capacity of anything that goes beyond formal, calculative functions; and faith (religion as transcendent experience) is broken too, because reason is excluded as a witness of the content of faith, leaving faith  withou any rational approval. The question then is: with such a schizophrenic self-image, how do we hope to be able to be true to ourselves in a universal way? The healing of this self-image is the main challenge that the university agenda should take up if universality is what it claims to offer. Might the philosophy of religious experience contribute to activating reason’s self-transcending possibilities?

Today we live amidst a plethora of religions and spiritualities. Each arises from a particular transcendent experience which finds formalization in a particular rationality that, being borne by experience, provides the latter with logical justification. Since it is eventually this justification that conditions humans to act in very different and contradictory ways, forming different and contradictory cultures, we need to take ourselves seriously as religious-capable subjects   and mend the rend between reason and religion. We must accept that it is not “pure” reason that drives man’s decisions, such reason being an empty formal tool, but a live (or claimed) content of self-transcending experiences to which reason testifies and in which it participates. Kant was more than right when he said that concepts are empty without experience and experience is blind without concepts; only, we must go beyond Kant and add “transcendent” to “experience”.

If modern university curricula are not able to recognize spiritual, religious phenomena as core driving forces behind humanity’s self-image, then it’s the modern university that needs to answer the question asked here, namely: what does the modern university offer to the world? What do humanities offer to humanity and humanness? A broken reflection of man, apetty cog, several thousand times less powerful than a computer, who vainly tries to escape himself in sheer self-dislike? Man is there for the magnificent and for the dauntlessly grand, so the agenda of holistic anthropocentrism is the university’s first and foremost function; if thinking “humpty-dumpties” are not able to put themselves together again – if the prejudicial reductionism of reason versus faith  continues to reign in the university’s mental culture and yield its bitter fruits, then the university’s pretense to promote human dignity, true self-knowledge, creative joy, and self-betterment, will be a pretentiously vain and damaging pursuit.

Lynne Rudder Baker on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Lynne Rudder Baker is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. 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.  

Many, if not most, university students are woefully ignorant of the role of religion in the history of civilizations–their own and others. Judaism and Christianity have helped shape Western values, and Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism and others have shaped values in Eastern and Middle-Eastern countries.  Intractable religious conflicts in Africa—the legacy of colonialism—are still occurring.  The religions of the world influence what happens today; so it behooves university students to learn about them. 

Granted, I didn’t teach philosophy of religion in relation to history or culture. Analytic philosophers, myself included, teach philosophy of religion as a series of logical puzzle cases: Can God make a stone so heavy that he couldn’t lift it?  Or perhaps as religious epistemology: is there any good reason to believe in a deity? Or perhaps as genealogy: Why did religion (considered generically) arise?  I now see these approaches, which are followed by many analytic philosophers, as misleadingly reductive. 

Although I would not teach philosophy of religion by draining the life and particularity out of religions, I do recognize that there is a distinctively philosophical place for religions in the university curriculum–a place that would benefit students raised in a consumerist culture that leaves people with the emptiness of routine work and the endless quest for diversion. (Pascal was on the mark when he excoriated lives focused on diversion.)

Philosophy of religion could play a signal role in helping university students understand reality as a domain-independent whole: What difference would it make if there is any reality beyond the spacetime universe, beyond the particular domains of the sciences—any reality that comprehends the cosmos as a whole? The aim of philosophy of religion could be to bring reflection to unreflective ideas of reality, and to teach students to be still and to reflect on their own lives. We are all going to die–and that includes you and me; what bearing does that fact have on how we live? 

Philosophers notoriously (and perhaps uniquely) use arguments to talk about values. The matter of what values are worth having is certainly subject to argument. Religions can and have been used to oppress people, but they also can liberate people: U.S slavery and abolition are both defended on religious grounds, some of which can be shown to be fallacious. For example, consider the pro-slavery argument that Africans benefit from slavery, because they are like children and cannot take care of themselves on their own. The argument for this claim circularly uses the claim itself to justify putting in place the very infantilizing conditions that make self-governance impossible.

Religion, in the words of Paul Tillich, studies ultimacy. A philosophy of religion course may well study ultimate values (and arguments for and against adopting various ones of them). For example, we may consider the cosmos as an ordered whole, not as an accidental mishmash of events. Of course, there are scientific laws; in order to conceive of the universe as an ordered whole, both Aquinas and Kant (albeit on different grounds), thought that the idea of God is necessary. The idea of something beyond our spacetime world is not a dogma, but it is something well worth considering.

If we do conceive of the cosmos as an ordered whole, it can be argued that we have resulting obligations to the environment and to future generations; global questions about human beings as such; and about animals as such. We should also consider anti-human implications of advances in technology. These matters are illuminated by arguments in the philosophy of religion.

Another deep question arising from thinking about the world as a whole is this:  What is natural–as opposed to artificial or cultural? What is it to act according to one’s nature? Do human beings have a natural or divine right to be delivered from murderous harm? What is the purpose of government? Is there a common good? What is the relation between fact and value? (Hume has held the stage on this question far too long.) 

Philosophy of religion may ask metaphysical questions that blossom out into social, political and ethical  questions. What is justice? If others are starving, does justice require depriving oneself to the point of self-harm? Philosophy of religion may also argue about war and its justification, and poverty and its alleviation. Are hierarchies justifiable? Even though such questions may be answered with no appeal to religion, it seems arbitrary—given the influence of religions in the world—to rule out religions as contributing to answering them.

Religions have concerned themselves with daily living–food, clothing, sexuality, domestic life. Philosophy of religion can examine the arguments for and against positions taken by religions on these matters.

The philosophy of religion stubbornly explores the Big Questions: Does life have purpose beyond individual choice? Are living people responsible for the evil of the past? Why can we not learn from the past? Is there any remedy?

Traditionally, much of philosophy of religion has concerned itself with the existence of God, but in truth, the area is much broader and encompasses almost all domain-independent questions. Philosophy of religions ranges over all the domains of the particular sciences. It is one of the highest achievements of the human intellect to think about these matters. As ancients Greeks said, we throw away these questions to our peril.

Broadening one’s perspective in light of these questions of what is ultimate is what university education is all about. So, I think that philosophy of religion that attends to such questions undoubtedly has a place in the university curriculum.

Stewart Goetz on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

stewart-goetzStewart Goetz is Professor of Philosophy at Ursinus College. 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.

To the extent that the modern university is interested in the most basic questions of human existence, it should include among its disciplines the philosophy of religion, because the philosophy of religion provides an extremely relevant intellectual forum for raising and addressing these fundamental questions in a thoughtful way.  For example, of great interest to most people is the topic commonly referred to as “the meaning of life.”  In the minds of many people, to ask “What is the meaning of life?” is to ask “What is the purpose of life?”  And the idea of the purpose of life suggests to these individuals the idea of a creator who made them for that purpose.  The response of many, if not the majority, in the modern university is “But there can be purposes in life without a purpose of life!”  Perhaps so, but the important point is that a discussion has been opened that is naturally situated within the philosophy of religion.

A discussion has been opened, but connections with other philosophical topics exist to be explored.  Foremost among them is the idea of what counts as a legitimate explanation.  The claim that there can be purposes in life without a purpose of life assumes that there can be purposeful explanations.  What makes this assumption particularly fascinating in the present context is that most of those who argue for the possibility of purposes in life without a purpose of life are naturalists, and naturalists more often than not define themselves as those who look to modern science for guidance in thinking philosophically about issues.  This raises the question “What is science?”, to which the answer, more often than not, is something like “the discipline that insists on ultimately explaining things without any appeal to the concept of a purpose.”  But if this is the gold standard for explanation, then presumably there cannot be any irreducible purposes in life, let alone a purpose of life.

Naturalists are typically Darwinians who think not only that all explanations must ultimately be purposeless in nature but also that the paradigm for purposeless explanations are adaptive explanations found in biology: e.g., the explanation of X’s existence is that caused but purposeless changes resulted in X and X, under the prevailing circumstances, proved advantageous for survival and reproduction.  And once again we are back into the thicket of the philosophy of religion.  Because like it or not (and most naturalists do not like it), many, many people have religious beliefs.  Why so?  Naturalists maintain that it must be because those beliefs proved to be adaptive.  Or if they were not adaptive, then they must be the effects of something else that did prove adaptive.  And the truth of these adaptive beliefs?  There is no reason to think beliefs that turn out to be adaptive need to be true, because it is having the belief, not its truth, which is adaptive.  This will come as news to many religious believers.  They think, apparently wrongly, that they have reasons which explain their religious belief (leaving aside whether those reasons are good or bad).   Not surprisingly, the more sophisticated religious believer will wonder about the explanation of the naturalist’s belief in naturalism and Darwinism.  Presumably, the naturalist believes these things because believing them proved to be adaptive.  But those beliefs, too, could be adaptive without being true.  The philosophy of religion quickly proves to be home to some very interesting philosophical discussions.

Someone might interject that the discussion so far has assumed that what needs to be explained is religious belief.  But religion is about more than, or other something other than, belief.  Many think religion is about communal activity (e.g., taking care of each other, worship).  Belief is at best secondary.  But even under this understanding of religion, the question of what explains the communal activity must be answered.  Of course, the naturalist will insist the correct explanation of it is purposeless and adaptive in nature.  And the more sophisticated religious person will now want to know what explains the communal activity of scientists (because surely scientists form their own community as much as religious persons do).  Presumably, it, too, must be explained in purposeless, adaptive terms.

This discussion of the importance of the philosophy religion for the modern university began with a question about the meaning of life and an answer in terms of a purpose of life.  But there are other ways to understand the question “What is the meaning of life?”  One that is reasonable is “What, if anything, makes life worth living?”  And, once again, this is a question very much at home within the philosophy of religion.  It is a question naturally answered in terms of something of value, whether it be a moral virtue or virtues, worship, or even pleasure.  An issue going back at least to Plato’s Euthyphro is whether something has its value intrinsically or instead gets it from a decision or command of the gods.  And there is the broader issue of whether the existence of values makes more sense within a religious framework, or whether it is equally or more sensible within, say, a naturalist framework.

With mention of things making sense, there arises yet another way of understanding the question “What is the meaning of life?”, which is “What, if any, way is the best way to make sense of things?” Does the best way of making sense of things require an afterlife?  Does it require a soul?  And these are obviously questions that are appropriately addressed within the philosophy of religion.  But perhaps it is best to close with a slightly different question: “Does an education provided by the modern university make much, if any, sense without inclusion of the philosophy of religion?”  It seems it does not, because to exclude the philosophy of religion is to exclude the deepest concerns of human beings.  And if we are going to exclude these from the modern university, why have an educational system at the university level at all?

Paul Russell on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

paul-russell-2Paul Russell is Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia and the University of Gothenburg. 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.

This question may be considered in two parts; the first concerns the point of studying the philosophy of religion, and the second concerns its specific relevance to the modern university. Answering the first part of this question provides us with much of the answer to the second part. From the perspective of those who view religious claims and practices as either true and justified or, at least, as possibly true and justified (i.e. theists and agnostics) there are some obvious and easy answers to this question. The philosophy of religion serves to investigate the nature and grounds of religious beliefs and practices and to articulate and justify them to those who are so committed or are still considering them. However, from the perspective of those who operate from a more sceptical or even hostile stance (i.e. atheists or the irreligious) the answers are not so evident or straightforward.

For some, the philosophy of religion, as distinct from historical and anthropological investigations of religion, should be dismissed as nothing better than a waste of our intellectual time and energy, since it is devoted to the examination and evaluation of a set of arguments and claims that have already been adequately discredited and refuted. From this perspective, devoting further resources of any kind to the philosophy of religion is, at best, useless and redundant and, at worst, gives credibility to a system of ideas and doctrines that prop up pernicious practices and corrupt institutions. Investigations and studies of this kind, it may be said, are no more valuable and worthwhile than work devoted to discrediting astrology, the existence of ghosts, augury, or any number of other superstitious beliefs and practices. There are certainly many philosophers – including some influential philosophers – who take a view of this general kind. I think, however, that this attitude to the philosophy of religion is mistaken, or at least too sweeping, even for those who find the major forms of religion both intellectually suspect and ethically troubling.

Why, then, should atheists take the philosophy of religion seriously? There are, I believe, a number of considerations that matter here and identifying them depends on drawing several important distinctions (which philosophers are especially well placed to draw). First, we need to distinguish the importance and interest of the questions being asked from the quality or credibility of the answers that have been provided for them. Religions and religious philosophers have raised a wide range of deeply important and difficult questions that demand careful consideration and examination by everyone, including those who may reject orthodox religious or theistic answers to them. Moreover, with regard to the (wide) range of religious answers and proposals that are on offer, we need to carefully separate and distinguish those that really do not merit our attention from those that do. Furthermore, in a number of cases some religious arguments and proposals that have been found wanting have been further refined and developed in interesting and challenging ways. These refinements make clear that any thinker, who is suitably serious, intellectually modest, and genuinely open-minded, must retain an ongoing engagement with these arguments, allowing for the possibility that they may contain important truths or insights into the human condition.

Where we draw this line is, of course, a matter of judgment and there is no sharp or precise boundary to follow. There is, nevertheless, a clear difference to be made between spending time refuting, for example, the claims of Scientology and responding to problems of cosmology, as this relates to the source and origins of the order, structure and meaning that we find in the world. No one should wrap all these matters up into one large bag and toss it all away. Indeed, it is one of the concerns and aims of the philosophy of religion to help guide us on such matters and to enable us to sift through this complex varied material, with a view to separating out what does and does not merit serious consideration and further philosophical attention. Beyond all this, the sensible atheist will recognize that the boundary between the philosophy of religion and other areas of philosophical concern (e.g. “existential” problems relating to the human condition and human predicament) is not clearly demarcated and is easily crossed. Here the history of philosophy has a particularly important role to play in helping us to understand ourselves and the way we continue to think about and address these overlapping and constantly evolving set of problems.

Another aspect of the philosophy of religion of particular concern to atheists and the irreligious, related to the investigations described above, is focused on asking (challenging and troubling) questions about the causes and effects of religion. These are questions that need to be asked by anyone who recognizes that religion, whatever its credentials or merits may be, is of great consequence in the world – something that is undeniable from any point of view. The way that we frame and interpret these questions about the causes and effects of religion itself requires philosophical skill and judgment, even when the answers we seek depend on methods and techniques of another kind. These are all matters that both the religious and irreligious have a common or shared interest in whether their answers converge or conflict. The dialogue and debate involved is equally important and essential to the integrity and credibility of both parties concerned.

Finally, I take it that it is a central obligation of all universities to provide its members, and society more generally, with the opportunity and resources to investigate and examine the most basic and fundamental features of the universe and our human predicament and place within it. All such investigations generate philosophical puzzles and issues about their own methods and assumptions. For this reason, philosophy has traditionally enjoyed, as it still does, a central place at the heart of university education. For reasons I have explained above, the religious and irreligious alike must recognize the importance and value of the philosophy of religion as a core part or aspect of philosophy itself. These are issues of the most profound and inescapable theoretical and practical importance for human life, and they require the sort of exact and precise articulation that a philosophical education should provide. It is, therefore, a matter of some concern that contemporary academic philosophy, as studied in most Western universities, has rather marginalized the philosophy of religion and gives much more prestige and prominence to areas of study that are more arcane, dry and remote in nature. This is not so much a sign that either philosophy or human knowledge has “progressed” or “advanced” beyond religion, as it is that a great deal of philosophy, as studied and taught in the modern university, has become excessively narrow, over-professionalized and detached from the very sort of fundamental concerns and problems that bring most students and readers to the study of philosophy in the first place.

Jin Y. Park on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

jin-y-parkJin Y. Park is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at American University. 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.

A rationalist approach to religion marked the beginning of the field of the philosophy of religion. Rene Descartes (1596–1650) claimed that it is the work of philosophers rather than theologians to prove the existence of God. Hegel (1770–1831) began lecturing on the philosophy of religion in 1821 and did so again in 1824, 1827, and 1831. He offered a grand scheme of the evolution of religions, assigning Asian religions to a primitive stage and Christianity to the culminating stage of that evolution. Regarding religious phenomena as “homogeneous,” he did not consider the possibility that different notions of the ultimate being or of humanity’s relationship to it are an expression, not of a religion’s relative primitiveness or maturity, but of different perspectives of the world and existence. This history of the philosophy of religion tells us what the study of the philosophy of religion can offer to the modern university.

Diversity and inclusion are a mantra of contemporary American universities. Frequently, though, this mantra fails to bring real change to college campuses, instead remaining as just rhetoric. By definition, the philosophy of religion investigates the act of religion. As I discussed in my earlier blog post “What is philosophy of religion?,” however, the widely accepted definitions of both “philosophy” and “religion” can be contested. In the East Asian traditions, these two terms might be understood in a very different way from how they are understood within the familiar Judeo-Christian religions. Hegel’s marginalization and depreciation of Asian religions clearly shows the limitations of the West-centered worldview. Likewise, studying the history of the philosophy of religion itself can help the modern university to challenge closed perspectives regarding diversity and inclusion by introducing different ways of viewing religions.

This leads to the second point that I would like to make. Modern society has been characterized as a secular one in which the meaning of religion and religious practice have gradually diminished. In his book A Secular Age, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor asked, “Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?” In the religious worldview, he tells us, “Human agents are embedded in society, society in the cosmos, and the cosmos incorporates the divine.” This holistic vision has gradually disintegrated in the modern world, as the standards for values have become secularized and individuals have developed a human-centered worldview as an alternative to the traditional theocentric world—the world in which the transcendental divine figure functions as a source of meaning and values in human life.

The religious world is a world in which people experience “a boundless awe” and “boundless wonders,” according to German theologian Rudolf Otto (1869–1937). In a secular age, however, the awe- and wonder-generating source of our existence is no longer an essential part of our meaning and value systems. This, however, does not mean that we humans are no longer looking for value and meaning in our existence. How do we resolve the conundrum of escaping the religion-centered world, but still keeping ourselves in the mode of constantly feeling boundless awe and looking for the source of our meaning-giving activities and values? I believe that the philosophy of religion offers this to modern universities and their students by reminding them of the values and meanings that used to play important roles in our lives.

The philosophy of religion is a mindful—not just rational—investigation of the act of religion. It reminds us that our modern busy lives constantly distract us from thinking about the real meaning and values of our existence, even if we’re constantly trying to define the fundamentals of being through the milieu of socializing and connecting with others through social media. It offers moments to dig up the aspirations that are buried in our hearts, forgotten because of the daily hustle and bustle of our routines.

In our time, the term “religion” frequently has a negative connotation, in part because it is now understood in the context of institutionalized religions in which the authority, conventions, and rituals mar, rather than encourage, religious practice. However, the drawbacks of institutionalized religion do not erase the need for religion in the human mind. In lieu of institutional religion, religiosity or spirituality should begin to represent the “content” of religious practice, freed from the power play performed by religious institutions.

Kim Iryŏp, a Korean Buddhist nun/thinker, repeatedly emphasized the importance of religious education and religious practice, which she considered as enabling us to realize the fundamental meaning of existence. For Iryŏp, religion did not constitute obedience to a creator God or transcendental figure’s moral commandments. The existential strain in her understanding of religion demanded a separation of religion from moral implications: “Religious education is not about making us do good things. It is about helping us recover the mind that knows how to erase the discriminating judgment of good and evil—that is, the original mind of human beings—so that we can live not by following fixed rules, but by relating to the contexts in which we find ourselves.” For Iryŏp, secular education helps in attaining knowledge, but religious education could lead an individual to “attain awakening.” Being awake meant having “established the foundation of your thought” and not being “manipulated by your circumstances. You form clear decisions about your projects and make consistent efforts to accomplish them.” Religion, for Iryŏp, was a way to discover the basis of human existence, and religious education was what enables us to be fully in charge of ourselves. We can replace Iryŏp’s term “religious education” with the philosophy of religion and then go back to the point that I made at the beginning of this essay regarding diversity and inclusion. Authoritarian morality divides us into a good people and bad ones instead of aiding us in understanding each other. The philosophy of religion helps us look deeper than the surficial differences and hierarchical moral judgments that accompany a superficial look at our lives, a feat that is truly needed in the modern university.

Norris Frederick on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

frederick-headshotNorris Frederick is Professor of Philosophy at Queens University of Charlotte. 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.

“What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” The question seemed so clear when I first considered it, but now I can think of many directions that answers might go.

If we think of the university not as an organizational structure or a set of buildings, but a group of people joining together in addressing questions, perennial and/or current, philosophy of religion offers three things that seem rather rare these days: an opportunity to examine deeply-held beliefs both sympathetically and critically; an opportunity to build a community of people who learn that others have deeply-held beliefs that may be in sharp opposition to their own; and an opportunity to look for a synthesis of differing beliefs.

As I write this, the people of the United States are perhaps more divided than ever on major issues of politics and ethics. Hatred has led to mass murders by individuals and to senseless killings by police: Charleston, Orlando, Dallas, Ferguson, Baton Rouge….and the list continues. Political rhetoric in the presidential campaigns has been based largely on fear and personal attacks. Public confidence in political figures is at all-time lows.

Many of our students — in response to these hatreds and fears and in their desire to welcome others—confuse acceptance of differences with subjectivism: “Whatever you believe, that’s right for you.”

The best philosophy of religion classes, in my view, model a sympathetic approach to deeply held beliefs, and also move beyond subjectivism to critically examine current beliefs in order to move toward more adequate beliefs, thus benefitting both the individual and our society.

William James’ The Variety of Religious Experience, with its phenomenological and pluralistic bases, is the backbone of my approach. And I also find a guiding idea to my pedagogy in his Talks to Teachers. On its first page, he urges teachers to “reproduce sympathetically in [our] imagination, the mental life of [the] pupil as the sort of active unity which he himself feels it to be.” Note that this respect is both ethical and pedagogical. It assigns a worth to the current life of each student as that student experiences it. It’s a worth very different from the “I respect your right to be an idiot.” It’s different because we’re asked to sympathetically imagine the unity that the student feels. The ethical is based in the pedagogical and phenomenological in that the mental lives of the students and our own as teachers are based in the same processes of the stream of consciousness, association, habit, and so on. Every person’s life—including that of the esteemed professor—is built largely on the same principles.

That very recognition of the contingency and historicity of all our ideals and passions is one of the things that made James such a superb teacher. We hardly feel that everyone in the profession of teaching philosophy—let alone in teaching other disciplines—should come to the exact same conceptions about the nature of the good life and what the aims of life should be. Our lives and our democracy are better to the extent that we can sympathetically imagine the lives of others and thus extend respect to their lives. So it is with the lives of our students.

As I think back upon my teaching, some of the best moments in class and I hope some of the best learning took place with assignments that allowed the students to think about their lives and at the same time allowed me to sympathetically imagine their lives. In my introductory Philosophy of Religion class, the assignment for the second meeting was to write one – two pages on “What influences did your parents have on your worldview? Do one’s parents determine one’s worldview?” The students were told in advance that I’d ask them to discuss or read part of their papers in class, although they could pass if they weren’t comfortable with sharing what they’d written.

There were a wide variety of responses that led to a lively class discussion which offered the opportunity for the students to sympathetically imagine the mental lives of each other. Many chose to describe their religious upbringing or absence thereof. Some asked others for more details about their upbringing. The second question (“Do one’s parents determine one’s worldview?”) allowed for students not only to further describe their parents’ influence and the student’s actions, but also to develop a definition of “determine,” and to offer evidence and reasons.

The assignment was connected to the topic of the day’s reading on “worldviews,” and it appealed to each student’s strong interest in the self and to their curiosity about concrete and lively details in the upbringing of others.

And the discussion gave me an opportunity both to learn more about my students’ lives and also in that context to strive for distinctions (such as the difference between “influence” and “determine”) and to ask whether some of the evidence offered was sufficient or relevant to claims being offered. When I commented in class and later when I read and wrote comments on the papers, I not only sympathetically responded to the student’s present self, but also invited him to grow into a wider and deeper self. As James makes clear, sympathetically imagining the unity of a student’s mental life is not mutually exclusive with challenging a student’s thought. We who teach philosophy have an obligation to our students to move them toward a broader and deeper set of ideas that is more adequate for meeting life.

With that introduction to the course, the students felt more free both to express their own views and to realize that critically examining those views might get to a more adequate response. In my most recent philosophy of religion class some memorable discussions occurred between two of my students who in many ways could not have been more different. She was a middle-aged African-American woman from a rural town in the South, whose strong Christian faith was formed in youth and sustained by community.  He was a 20-something white male from the Northeast whose major in biology and military deployment in several countries had led to a sort of reverse conversion, through which he now happily found himself a naturalist, an atheist.

These students played a leading role in class discussions in which several realizations occurred over the course of the semester. She came to realize that there are plausible arguments for atheism, even though she would never find them strong enough to become an atheist. He was particularly interested in reading and discussing instances of conversion and transcendence. He had at first dismissed these experiences as non-scientific and thus non-veridical, but as we discussed and read the arguments of James and others, he came to see the value of the experience of transcendence. For him, the object of that transcendent experience was not God, but nature. Both he and the theist came to a realization that each found value in a transcendent experience.

While they might have left the semester’s discussions alienated and estranged, instead they found themselves companioned, in community. And both had deepened their understanding of philosophy, religion, and self. That’s one valuable thing philosophy of religion can offer to the modern university, and to our culture.


Jeppe Sinding Jensen on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

jeppe-sinding-jensenJeppe Sinding Jensen is Associate Professor in the Department for the Study of Religion at Aarhus 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 philosophy of religion may offer a lot to the modern university, but currently it does not. Why? It should be about religion –  but a look at what commonly and currently carries the label ‘philosophy of religion’ in the academic world will inform any reviewer that such is not the case. The literature (etc.) abounds with evidently theological topics and concerns (see Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for an easily accessible overview). The lines between philosophy and dogmatics may appear blurred – if there at all. Of course, theological concerns are the province of theologians and theology is where these could and should be taken care of, even when carried out in more philosophical (rather than dogmatic) modes. Most practitioners of common philosophy of religion also appear to be theologians with philosophical inclinations, rather than philosophers interested in religion. In fact, these days very few (non-theological) philosophers seem to take any interest in the philosophy of religion. This is quite remarkable given the historical record of great philosophers being keenly interested in religion and religious issues. Other historical records provide the accounts of how and why this happened. As time went by with modernity, increased secularism in education and scientific breakthroughs, the spell of religion was gradually removed from the academy. It now persists mostly in religious domains and institutions and this creates the impression that religion is the property of religious people and of interest to them only.[1]

However, it is time for philosophers to regain an interest in religion as one of the most intriguing dimensions of humanity: Why is it that when modern humans were afforded the use of rational thinking, they lapsed into religion, all over the globe and as far back as can be ascertained? The Dutch anthropologist Jan van Baal once dubbed this datum the ‘scandal of religion’. Any philosopher concerned with human thought and behavior (who is not?) should take an interest in religion and the study of ‘it’ – rather than just engage in polemics as some philosphers have done recently. Whether one normatively considers religion to be an example of spiritual elevation or of archstupidity there is still an object to be so considered. As Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed out, humans always see things ‘as something’.

Now, a philosophy of anything must have a referential grounding – it must be about something. A philosophy of religion must thus be about religion just as the philosophy of language, of social science, or of physics must be ‘philosophizing’ about those matters. Leaving the vexed questions of the definition of religion aside, I see the philosophy of religion as concerned with ‘forms of life’ and not with the putative qualities of any ‘godhead’. The philosophy of religion is not about god, nor should it be restricted to the scrutiny of Christian dogmatics or ethics.[2] It should potentially be about all kinds and modes of religion and so it would be about human existence in general. As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz pointed out long ago, the ‘religious perspective’ infuses the intuitive perceptions of the world with purpose, coherence and meaning. Religious perspectives are socio-cultural networks of cognitive governance; they instruct humans in how to see, think and feel. Religious perspectives are abstract behavioural guidelines that constitute strong forms of normative cognition. They are metaphysical constructs supervening on and making the physical world habitable for humans. Humans cannot avoid thinking about how we know and about how we could know. All religious traditions attest to this human epistemic urge and before the ‘abstract turn’ such epistemic concerns were expressed in anthropomorhic constructions, the gods were human-like. One may recall Frederick Strawson’s ‘descriptive metaphysics’ as being about humanity’s ‘deepest assumptions’. In this post-metaphysical age, most scientists at best consider metaphysics word-games, albeit perplexingly nonsensical and profoundly atavistic. If metaphysics is anything it is a property of humanity: without humans there would be no metaphysics on this planet. This is epistemology because it is about human knowledge (even if mistaken such). There is only one place to look for metaphysics and that is in human minds and in the products thereof, say, in religion. Then, the humanities – including philosophy – is probably where we should consider the ‘new’ metaphysics about matters beyond nature and so beyond the sciences, but matters that matter  for the life-worlds of humans. All religious cosmologies are human constructions. Some (the devoutly religious) do see this differently, but wherever the instructions may come from it is humans that observe them.

Religions are social products – humans ‘do’ them. The study of social products needs two philosophies: one of social products and one for the study of social products. And so, there is a metaphysics of social products, that is, investigations into what we may mean by ‘social ontology’. That is a metaphysical question: what are the universal properties in the ontology of the social? This has consequences for religious studies and so for the philosophy of religion. The philosophy of religion(s) would thus be restricted to what can be sensibly said of social constructs, in evolution, in history, in minds, and in institutions. But they would simultaneously – and constructively  – be supported by the knowledge acquired in all those fields that study such matters from all possible angles. Whether religious phenomena, claims, or discourses are ‘true’ or not is irrelevant. It is their social ontology that matters, how they inform human thought and practice. Religion is not mysterious; it can be studied and ‘philosophized’ about as can all other forms of human life. Their meaning lies in what they do, how they are constituted and used in social interaction. Thus, the philosophy of religion would appear to be a specialization in the philosophy of the social. The philosophy of language and pragmatics are role models already available.


[1] This account refers to changes in the Western world.

[2] There are notable exceptions this Western bias in some Asian academic institutions.

James Wetzel on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

james-wetzelJames Wetzel is Professor of Philosophy and holds the Augustinian Endowed Chair at Villanova 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.

There are many different constituencies, often rival, that get housed in the modern university. Difference, these days, is widely thought of as a desirable and necessary thing; if fostered in the right way, difference conveys openness of spirit and so liberation from the silos of estranged subjectivities. We become, for one another, exit doors from fear and ignorance—and exits into the wonder. Sounds lovely. But there is of course the other part. The cultivation, protection, and even enforcement of difference—different disciplines, different histories, different sensibilities, different looks, different loves—can become estrangement by other means; we burrow into constituencies that are anxiously intent, like tribes post Babel, on policing their borders. The university has traditionally aspired to unity of some kind, a unity that gets draped in the language of higher values, where words like truth, love, light, God, and justice have pride of place. The university, in its modern history, has had to weather considerable skepticism about grandiose calls to higher unity (whose?), and yet it still wishes for a diversity that comes to more than a cacophony of separately funded interests.

Can philosophy of religion be of help here? It is a strange and forlorn question if we have already boxed up philosophy of religion as a sub-discipline within a discipline that prides itself on the mastery of reason. Rigorous arguments for or against the coherence of theism and the likelihood of God’s existence are not likely to advance the modern university’s educational interests in diversity, and not simply because the God of all the omni proprieties—omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence—turns out to be as much of a cultural artifact as any other human conception of divinity. Add other conceptions to your heart’s content; venture into different cultures and histories; embrace religious pluralism; respect secularism. If your conception of reasoning is still so formal that you can imagine mastering it apart from the untidy business of sharing your life with others, then your higher values will remain unpopulated.

I make no criticism here that I do not make of myself.  I have been fiddling with the packaging of philosophy of religion for decades, and still I barely have a grip on the difference that, for me, lies at the beating heart of the philosophy of religion: knowledge in contrast to wisdom. (Perhaps part of my problem here is that I am too fixated on the metaphor of grasping.) Rather than define the difference between knowledge and wisdom for you (more grasping), I offer a scene from Plato’s Phaedo, the dialogue that details the death of the philosopher, and a few words of interpretation.

In the scene I have in mind, the great teacher, Socrates, has been helping his students think toward the life that has been freed from the specter of fear of death. His students wish from him, especially the foreign ones, Simmias and Cebes, a rigorous proof of the soul’s immortality; they want a guarantee, in other words, that they go on, even when their bodies do not. The issue is very topical for Socrates, who faces having to drink hemlock at sunset and die for the suspect religion he calls philosophy. The arguments for the soul’s immortality go well at first, until, all of a sudden, they do not. (It proves difficult, if not impossible, to think of soul other than in bodily terms, and bodies disintegrate.) Socrates cautions his students not to become “misologists”—a Platonic coinage that means “haters of logos.” The sense of logos here is usually taken to be “argument” or “reason.” Most people, Socrates says reassuringly, are still reasoners in training; they should not be dismayed when their best arguments are later revealed to be deficient. He advises both Simmias and Cebes, who have put the most stake in the revelatory power of a good argument, to value the truth more than they do Socrates and continue the hunt for a better logos.

I see two quite different ways to read this scene. In one, Socrates is advising his students to perfect their reasoning beyond all possibility of further revision. That may take lifetimes, if indeed there are lifetimes to be had, and along the way they will continue to fear what has yet to be wholly rationalized. No matter; they are to value truth over anyone, even Socrates, their beloved teacher. (They did at first want to to console him with consoling arguments.) In the other reading of this scene, the one I favor, Socrates unburdens his students of the need to reassure him: yes, care more for truth than for the man you presume to pity. The integrity of a Socrates in the face of death is in no way dependent on a form of argumentation that circumvents the need of one human being to keep company, in the midst of ineliminable uncertainties, with another. Here there is no ambition to perfect reason (a Cartesian and broadly modern fantasy); there is only the question of whether we will use words to commend one another to the imminent good of a shared life or whether we will use them to dress up ignorance and fear as some kind of mental toughness.

I would like to think that philosophers of religion—or those of us who have yet to exile love from the citadel of reason—offer the modern university a measure of respite from the obsessiveness of knowing. The uncertainty that is home to wisdom is to be inhabited, not resolved. It is space for the goodness that no one possesses or consumes.

Raoul Mortley on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

raoul-mortleyRaoul Mortley is Executive Dean and Pro Vice Chancellor of the Faculty of Society and Design at Bond University, Australia. 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 value of the philosophy of religion in a curriculum and in a general education lies in the ability to explore a great many different things, not ordinarily covered in a philosophy curriculum. In the first place there is the standard menu involving the deployment of logic, the acknowledgement and understanding of traditional arguments for the existence of God, the analysis of their weaknesses, and the intellectual texture to which they belong. Thus ordinary argumentation is learned, including the ability to mount arguments in support of the case, and the ability to make arguments against a case. But equally the context of belief is important: what people have believed and why they have believed it.

The argument from design fits into a general approach which is teleological, and this fits into an approach which goes back to Aristotle, Plato and earlier, and gave way in the face of scientific revolution. This all needs to be understood so that we can look with a critical eye on the orthodoxies of our own time, and to try to glimpse their limitations. This of course is always easier in retrospect, but it is an important part of self-understanding to learn that orthodoxies eventually come to their term.

Many other and similar points could be made about the traditional arguments for the existence of God and where they fit into the history of world thought.

There is a second issue to do with the exploration of the full capacity of the human being. This is what Plato does in the Phaedrus, which begins with a kind of symptomatology of the ordinary experience of erotic behaviour, but then turns to the blessings of madness, or of mania, and the capacity for mystical and transcendent apprehension of things. What might now be closed off as a discussion of bipolar disorder, is fully developed by Socrates into a eulogy of the ecstatic, extra-logical apprehension of higher things: this also arises out of an observation of human behaviour in ancient Athens, that of the mystery religions and of the maenads of the Dionysiac rites. Here is human nature in its fullest expression, pursuing a form of knowledge which may be wordless, beyond logic and beyond knowledge itself, under certain definitions.

The idea of the unspeakability of the divine, and the tradition of the via negativa, broaden the scope of the philosophy of religion considerably and bring to bear a certain scepticism over the value of language, and the confidence we might have in our form of knowledge. This opens up a broad sweep of ideas running from Plato’s allegory of the cave through to the mediaeval Platonists.

If one moves into the theological realm and discusses for example the nature of Christian love, and its contrast with the eros of the Greeks, its apparent passionlessness, its approximation to duty – all these kinds of issues give a deeper appreciation of human nature and of the possibilities of philosophy than one might encounter in other courses. This is not to say that one abandons one’s critical faculties, or the ability to point out contradictions and limitations, nor is it to diminish other disciplines, such as political philosophy, or the philosophy of mind. Rather, it is to say that the philosophy of religion provides not only training in reasoning and argumentation, but also a rich insight into human nature and human capacity. The more involvement with theology there is, the richer is the consideration of human life, its opportunities and its dead ends. This kind of richness is greatly appreciated by students.