Craig Duncan is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Ithaca College. 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.
Excellence in the Philosophy of Religion
An account of excellence in the sub-discipline of the philosophy of religion is, I believe, at the same time both an account of why the philosophy of religion is difficult and why the philosophy of religion is exciting.
Start first with why the philosophy of religion is difficult. A main reason consists of the wide range of expertise – both within philosophy, and outside of it – that is relevant to the questions which the sub-discipline studies. Such questions include:
Metaphysics: the nature of God (and the ideas and puzzles associated with necessary existence, omnipotence, infinity, etc.), God’s relation to time, the relation between divine foreknowledge and free will, the existence of immaterial souls and how these interact with the natural world, the nature of miracles.
Epistemology: the justification of belief in God, the justification of belief in miracles, the contest between faith and evidence.
Ethics: the debate over whether God could have sufficient reasons for permitting evil, the debate over whether moral objectivity requires the existence of God (and whether meaning in life requires the existence of God), the justice (or lack thereof) of heaven and hell, the nature of sin and forgiveness.
Outside of philosophy proper, the philosophy of religion relates to questions of natural science (e.g. an assessment of the Cosmological Argument requires some familiarity with physical cosmology), social science (a good philosopher of religion will be familiar with psychological, sociological, and anthropological approaches to the study of religion), and various techniques of the humanities (such as the translation and interpretation of religious texts, as well as the study of those texts’ histories and roles in particular cultures).
That is a daunting list of relevant expertises, which can at first pass make the exploration of the philosophy of religion seem like a fool’s errand. However, I instead believe this wide range of questions accounts for the excitement of the field. For although excellence in the philosophy of religion requires a basic understanding of abstruse notions such as possible worlds, A-series and B-series time, Bayes’s Theorem, numerical identity, the Anthropic Principle, etc., these abstruse notions are put to use in an exploration of gripping questions that interest even non-philosophers: Why is there something rather than nothing? Is the universe nothing more than “accidental collocations of atoms” (in Bertrand Russell’s words), or is there a higher intelligence directing all things? What if anything becomes of us after death? Why is there so much suffering in the world? Thus, insofar as the philosophy of religion applies itself to these questions that all humans wonder about at some point in their lives, the metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics used within the philosophy of religion is truly applied metaphysics, applied epistemology, and applied ethics. Within the philosophy of religion, then, one routinely encounters the excitement of understanding how cutting-edge philosophical notions apply to these questions of perennial human concern. The philosophy of religion is difficult, yes, but with great difficulty comes potentially great reward.
In short, one element of excellence in the philosophy of religion is a wide-ranging familiarity with the various branches of philosophy, as well as with numerous forms of intellectual inquiry outside of philosophy.
As necessary as this broad familiarity is for excellence in the philosophy of religion, however, it is not sufficient. Also necessary, I believe, are various intellectual virtues that characterize excellence in philosophy generally, but that are uniquely challenging to cultivate within the philosophy of religion in particular.
Courage and Love of Truth:
Philosophy requires an overriding commitment to pursue the truth, which in turn entails a commitment to follow the strongest argument wherever it leads, even if this argument falsifies a cherished conclusion. Following the strongest argument can require courage, for pursuing the truth can sometimes put one at odds with the beliefs that one grew up with or currently finds comfort in, and it can put one at odds with family, friends, and others who continue to hold the beliefs that one’s arguments cast doubt upon. (By this virtue, I do not simply have in mind those who courageously reject the religion they grew up with. A committed atheist who comes to doubt the force of the arguments that formerly undergirded his/her atheism may have to courageously face the ridicule of atheistic peers.) Of course, intellectual courage has a role to play in all sub-disciplines of philosophy, not just the philosophy of religion. But inasmuch as philosophers of religion were often raised in religious communities whose tenets do not always survive rational scrutiny, such philosophers’ need for intellectual courage in pursuing the truth is perhaps greater than is typical across philosophy generally.
Fair-mindedness and Empathy:
As with courage and the pursuit of truth, fair-mindedness and empathy are virtues across philosophy generally, but they also face special hurdles in the case of the philosophy of religion. This is so because students of philosophy who begin from within a religious community may have been taught that those who reject their religion are for that reason sinful. That teaching can pose a barrier to the practice of empathetically viewing the world from the eyes of an outsider and fair-mindedly exploring that world view. Overcoming this barrier and practicing these virtues also guards against holding views of others that amount to caricatures. Instead, fair-mindedness and empathy foster recognition of the diversity of thought to be found within each religious tradition. For instance, a Christian practitioner of fair-mindedness and empathy will not just understand Hinduism, say, as polytheistic, but will recognize that co-existing alongside polytheistic interpretations of Hinduism are (to give only a few of many possible examples) Shankara’s non-theistic monism, Ramanuja’s monistic theism, and Madhva’s dualistic monotheism. From another direction, an atheistic practitioner of fair-mindedness and empathy will perhaps have to resist a gut-level impulse to consider all forms of religious belief ridiculous, in order not to dogmatically prejudge the questions under consideration with the philosophy of religion.
Honesty and Humility:
As with the other virtues, honesty and humility are generally valuable traits in philosophy, but they are (I believe) oftentimes made more difficult in the philosophy of religion. This is because intellectual motives for religious belief are often mixed with pragmatic motives such as a desire for certainty, for comfort, or for hope. In short, wishful thinking looms as a constant threat and one must be vigilant to avoid it by being self-aware and honest about one’s grounds for belief in this or that claim within the philosophy of religion. One should also be humble, and recognize that in a field as difficult as this, which concerns matters that lie at the very limits of human understanding, one’s grasp of the truth is likely to be partial at best.
The aforementioned forms of expertise and intellectual virtue surely do not exhaust excellence in the philosophy of religion, but I believe they will be part of any plausible account of that excellence.