Rolf Ahlers on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Rolf Ahlers is the Reynolds Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Russell Sage 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.

The question is both modern and most ancient. Religion expresses finite subjects’ concern with the infinite, the Greek a-peiron, literally “the unbound”. It is since Anaximander the arche, the origin of all. Its normative, evaluative “truth”, a-letheia, literally “without forgetfulness”, necessarily remains veiled, occluded, hidden: disclosure renders it finite, thereby falsifying, hiding it. Infinity is archeologically self-sufficient, self-evident and self-justifying. It is at odds with justifying proof, a lower form of reason known in classical German philosophy as Verstand, understanding. Truth’s self-justifying infinite is therefore “known” only immediately through intuition or “faith” without the mediation of rational verification. But self-justifying infinity, the hen, the one of the hen kai pan, justifies the pan, all of determinate finitude. Christian theology knows it as “justification through grace”. Hegel said of Spinoza’s pantheist substance one must “bathe oneself” in it: Immediately known truth, also known since antiquity as “light”, is identified as higher Vernunft, reason, that enlightens both itself as also the false. It is therefore first and foremost evaluative or normative. Giordano Bruno sees it as the occhio della raggione, the eye of reason. Enlightening reason, the criterion of the true and the false, is therefore the objective and normative basis of “reality”, and yes, subjectivity can participate in it, although with difficulty. The American Spiritual knows this: “You can’t get to heaven on roller-skates”. You have to work hard to get to heaven. It is an endless, really impossible task. Grace is a gift. Normative truth is autonomous, simple and not composed, but its “world” is complex: Simple infinity and worldly complexity are coinciding opposites that imply necessary contradiction. No (infinite) soul, Leibniz said, is ever without (finite) embodiment on an endless scale of perception ranging from most to least perfection and harmony: theodiceic normativity coordinates most with least reasonableness: a coincidence of opposites – Nicholas of Cusa. The chorismos, chasm between infinity and finite outlined here far too briefly is an expression of both popular and theoretical skepsis regarding the reality of the external world that dominated all of western thought, despite Burnyeat. Skepsis, i.e. attempts to resolve conflicts between different explanations or theories, and their predictive power based on empirical evidence, is the “negative side” of normative philosophy (Hegel) and must therefore tolerate contradiction in reality which skepticism does not tolerate. Skepsis, part of true philosophy’s evaluative work, is not skepticism. Skepticism, both ancient and modern, dogmatically asserts the need for the absence of contradiction while simultaneously asserting no less dogmatically as empty dogma truth’s self-assertion, i.e. truth’s self-justification. True skepsis opposes any and all dogmatism. Skepsis, the justifying work of philosophy, tolerates contradiction in reality. Philosophy of religion expresses this provocatively in the words ho logos sarx egeneto. It states that all that is finite is fallible, not sui-sufficient and must perish but is not without hope. Hegel points to Spinoza’s self-justifying, evaluative thought and its relation to extension: finite entities are always dependent on other entities and require the concursus Dei, God’s assistance: For Spinoza all dependent objects are contained within the infinite. That is a metaphysical assumption that he has prodigiously argued. It means: contrary to finite entities, that all require other finite bodies to exist and “must perish”, they are viewed by Spinoza sub specie aeternitatis. But that has consequences for extending entities that we call “bodies”: There is a contradiction between looking at finite entities with or without that divine assistance. But this is an expression of that ancient skepsis (not skepticism!) about the reality of the external world at the threshold of modernity, a skepsis that produces the need to argue and justify these issues: They are not obvious. Sub specie aeternitatis finitude is rooted in metaphysical eternity which is, however precisely because of its pantheist infinity enclosing all and is never disembodied. That means finite entities are real only in a contradictory way. Skepticism hopes to eliminate all contradictions. such as, for example, asserting as valid both A=A which means that A=A cannot simultaneously be identical to A=B and A≠B. All finite human beings have infinite dignity, a metaphysical proposition – “John is a human being, A=A, i.e. he has infinite dignity, A=B”. But as finite human beings, the criminal – “John the criminal and has only finite, not infinite dignity, A≠B”. Predictive positive science that is empirically adequate, internally coherent, and broadly applicable does not tolerate the contradiction between asserting both A=B and A≠B. For such science does not tolerate metaphysical assumptions, seeking only secular norms. It should be added the need for consistence, coherence and predictability of judgment was asserted already by Plato who, however, also argued against that perspective coherence and the need to tolerate contradiction and incoherence. This is nothing new. But our culture, dedicated to anti-metaphysical secular science seeking seamless coherence faintly remembers the (metaphysical) grounds for asserting both A=B and A≠B. Our laws insist on inalienable human dignity in the refugee, patient, the criminal and the prisoner of war. But the quest for coherence no longer tolerates the fertile, normative grounds of an intellectual culture that has produced those cultural convictions. In sum, coherence, lack of inconsistencies and contradiction and predictability of the outcomes of theoretical assumptions based on empirical evidence can be affirmed by the major thinkers mentioned here only in the context of their assertion of the basic normativity of truth. Traditional metaphysical assumptions are not empty verbiage: Classical thinkers could spot the empty talker with unerring certainty. Socrates’ many conversation partners such as Callicles in the Gorgias often turned out to do little more than spout empty words. Callicles aims at practicality and applicability. “You must be practical” he tells Socrates. “If not, you will stand there like a fool with an open mouth not knowing how defend yourself. Not only will you look foolish with your incoherent stammering. You will endanger your life: If you lack the practical tools of logical arguments in a court of law where someone has unjustly accused you, you might well be condemned to death for a deed you did not commit.” Jesus, accused unjustly for crimes he did not commit, stands like a fool before Pilate who urges him to be practical and defend himself. Jesus, the light that enlightens not only God’s truth but also the world’s darkness, remains silent like a fool. He is most impractical.

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.

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.

Segun Ogungbemi on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Segun OgungbemiSegun Ogungbemi is Professor of Philosophy at Adekunle Ajasin University Akungba in Nigeria. 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.

I consider it a great honor to be invited by Professor Wesley J. Wildman (Boston University) to participate in the debate on “What does philosophy of religion have to offer to modern university?” I consider the question raised relevant in the wake of a modern trend that lays emphasis on science and technology, and entrepreneurial study or skill acquisition and other forms of education that are economically/financially self-sustaining, rather than the teaching of humanities. I want to make a little contribution from my personal experience of teaching of Philosophy of Religion as an integral part of intellectual and academic discipline in contemporary studies of humanities in Africa.

Personal experience as a student in the academy

  1. University of Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria

In the 1974/75 academic session at University of Ibadan where I first had my university training and exposure, I took a course under Dr. ‘Sola Olukunle titled: Introduction of Philosophy of Religion.  The course was thought provoking to the extent that I started wondering why I registered for it, but its intellectual challenges encouraged me to hold on. Little did I know that it would lead me out of my Christian religious parochialism and intolerance of other religious beliefs and to a more epistemologically nuanced understanding of religious propositions with robust moral values that could enrich and enhance my existential worldview. I attach a lot of importance to that humble beginning in search of true religious knowledge each time I reflect on my academic journey to where I have found myself among the intellectuals and academics all over the globe. But that humble beginning was a mere starting point. It was a necessary step I took on the academic ladder of knowledge that enabled me to move on to the next rung of the ladder.

  1. Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas

I counted myself one of the luckiest students to be admitted to the institution with admission and scholarship in 1978. Perkins became my next step on the academic ladder to discover more critical and liberal knowledge of Philosophy of Religion and other disciplines, namely: Philosophical Theology, Moral Theology, and Church History among others. I cannot forget some of the profound minds and distinguished scholars who taught me namely, Schubert M. Ogden, Joseph L. Allen, Charles M. Wood, Leroy T. Howe, and William S. Babcock who are now Professors Emeritus on whose threshold of knowledge I gingerly tread to reach my professional discipline in philosophy. In the foregoing, the question of what philosophy of religion offer to modern university is thus far explained from my intellectual curiosity in search for answers that led me to Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. It offered me the opportunity to have contacts with great minds in the field and outside it. It allowed me to explain my personal views on issues that I was initially afraid of addressing publicly among my peers in Nigeria to avoid being labeled an atheist who will find his place in hell fire. I must say that my fellow students in my classes contributed as well to my growth and wealth of knowledge because we shared different views on the great subject of philosophy of religion. Our disagreements concerning, for instance, the question of the existence of God, the problem of evil, the relationship between faith and reason, the issue of miracles, death and immortality, etc., gave me broader perspectives to view my role as a future teacher of the discipline. To see myself as a future teacher of the discipline, I still needed to take a final step on the metaphoric ladder of knowledge.

  1. The University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson, Texas

The completion of my Ph.D program at the Graduate School of Humanities, The University of Texas at Dallas (UT-D) in 1984 enabled me to synthesize my thoughts within the composite philosophical understanding of human beings in the Humanities. In other words, I concentrated on Philosophy and Humanities as an interdisciplinary field of study. My research and writings were greatly influenced by Professor Louis P. Pojman who taught me at UT-Dallas and remained my mentor and friend until his death in October 2005. He published extensively in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics with a view to deepen our knowledge, provoke our minds, motivate us to research more, and to challenge his views. He helped his audience take a second look at their religious faith and beliefs with a view to rejecting dogmatism and intolerance and creating a new awareness for good neighborliness and peaceful co-existence. It is this kind of world the teaching of philosophy of religion has offered the modern university and beyond its territory.

  1. The teaching of Philosophy of Religion in African Universities

I consider the teaching of philosophy of religion as an integral part of the humanities, which Toyin Falola aptly conceives in his recent book entitled The Humanities in Africa: “No set of disciplines understands humans and the whole essence of being better than humanities.” I have taught philosophy of religion in the following African Universities: Ogun State University, Ago-Iwoye, now Olabisi Onabanjo University Ago-Iwoye, Ogun State, Nigeria, Moi University Eldoret, Kenya, Lagos State University, Ojo, Lagos State, Nigeria and currently Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba, Ondo State Nigeria. I have had a lot of students who registered for Philosophy of Religion each time I taught it. Their curiosity to learn something new and challenging encouraged me to spend more time with them. I was prepared for their unexpected reactions because they, generally speaking, would not want the butcher’s sharp knife of reason to penetrate their orthodox beliefs. However, I did just that in my teaching and publications. Let me cite two: A Critique of African Cultural Beliefs,(Lagos: Pumark Educational Publishers, 1977) and the book I edited, God, Reason and Death: Issues in Philosophy of Religion (Ibadan: Hope Publications, 2008).  

The essential reason for teaching philosophy of religion, in my view is to decolonize and demystify the mind of students of the uncritical nature of any form of religious belief system. In other words, students should able to proportion their religious belief according to rational and empirical evidence. This is one of the compelling and critical contributions philosophy of religion has made to modern university globally.


Our modern world needs peace, harmony and development. The political and religious will of our leaders must take cognizance of the import of teaching philosophy of religion and humanities in the modern university. As Toyin Falola aptly emphasized in his recent book entitled The Humanities in Africa, “No set of disciplines understands humans and the whole essence of being better than humanities.” It is in this intellectual wisdom of Falola that the world must see philosophy of religion as an essential discipline that can reduce hostility in the world where religious extremists become terrorists and insurgents, thereby making the world unsafe for social, economic, political and religious mutual benefits. In my opinion, it is this understanding of human existence that the teaching of philosophy of religion has offered to the modern university.

Keith Parsons on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Keith ParsonsKeith Parsons is professor of philosophy at University of Houston, Clear Lake. 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 the philosophy of religion offer to the modern university? The answer is “not much” or “a great deal,” depending upon what kinds of intellectual activities and inquiries are covered by the “philosophy of religion” rubric. For quite some time, academic philosophy of religion has largely comprised a program of theistic apologetic and anti-theistic critique. Theistic philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, William Lane Craig, Robin Collins, and Edward Feser have offered defenses of the truth and/or rationality of theism. Non-theist philosophers such as Paul Draper, J.L. Schellenberg, Graham Oppy, Jordan Howard Sobel, and Michael Martin have criticized those theistic arguments and proposed various atheological arguments, i.e. arguments against the truth and/or rationality of theism. These debates have been carried out at a highly sophisticated level, often employing such tools as modal logic and Bayesian confirmation theory, while being deeply informed by such fields as physical cosmology and theoretical physics.

And what has been the result of these learned discussions? I agree with John Hick’s assessment in An Interpretation of Religion. The result is stalemate. Hick argues, cogently in my view, that neither side has established its case with finality, and that the upshot appears to be that the universe admits of either a naturalistic or a religious interpretation. That is, neither side can show that the other is committed to claims that are absurd, irrational, or in any sense epistemically censurable. This does not imply a wishy-washy relativism or a feckless neutralism. On the contrary, one may still be a committed theist or atheist, convinced by the arguments for your side. However, one must admit that those arguments, however persuasive they seem to you, are neither apodictic nor irrefragable, and that the opposing view may be articulated in ways that are consistent, coherent, and compatible with the empirical evidence. In Hick’s terms, the universe is “religiously ambiguous;” it may reasonably be regarded as a causally-closed and explanatorily self-sufficient physical whole, or it may, equally reasonably, be taken as pointing to a transcendent aspect, a “Real” beyond or beneath the physical.

The upshot, as I see it, is that the ancient debate between theists and non-theists has pretty much played out, and is no longer deserving of the massive amount of intellectual effort, time, and energy that has been devoted to it for several centuries. The project of natural theology, or natural atheology, has now reached a point of exhaustion. Both sides have had a full and fair say, using arguments that are as sophisticated and articulate as we are likely to get. Enough. No doubt the question of the existence of the theistic God will continue to be hashed and re-hashed ad nauseam for the foreseeable future in one venue or another (largely online, I would think). However, it is now time for the philosophy of religion, as an academic discipline, to move on to other, perhaps more fruitful, lines of inquiry if it wishes to retain relevance and make a genuine intellectual contribution.

What, then, would a rejuvenated and progressive program in the philosophy of religion look like? First, it will have to be genuinely pluralistic. I am not here offering a sort of knee-jerk paean to multi-culturalism of the kind we often hear in academic contexts. It is simply the case that there are many deep issues in such traditions as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and other non-Judeo-Christian contexts that could lend themselves to rigorous investigations using the potent tools and techniques of analytic philosophy. Such concepts as dharma, karma, and moksha would richly repay study and attempted elucidation by Western philosophers. Issues now regarded as largely internal to religions could be made topics of broader study. For instance, how, really, should we understand the relations between sharia law and the secular, liberal, and pluralistic aspirations of democratic societies? Philosophy could offer responsible analysis beyond the vacuous polemic and censure that now dominate such discussions. Is religious pluralism of the sort that Hick advocated a viable and reasonable program? Is any form of religious exclusivism or particularism still plausible, or are these merely expressions of religious imperialism or chauvinism?

What about the concept of secularism? Under the influence of Enlightenment values, liberals have long argued for secular societies, but are they really possible? Might not secularism itself be rife with myths, contradictions, and absurdities, as philosophers such as Charles Taylor have argued? Also, issues in the relationship between science and religion continue to arise. While historians of science have long since rejected the old “warfare” view that the relation between science and religion is a zero-sum game, it is not clear that there are no points of conflict. For instance, discoveries of neuroscience appear to flatly conflict with religious interpretations of human nature, meaning, and significance. Does neuroscience imply the radically deflationary view of humanity proposed, e.g., by Alex Rosenberg, or is Owen Flanagan right that much of traditional teaching can be retained, if only in modified form?

One issue of particular interest to me is whether it is now possible to have a rational paganism and what it would look like. Recent decades have seen a remarkable resurgence of pagan traditions and practice. Some of this is rather silly, an excrescence of shallow “New Age” pseudo-spirituality. On the other hand, in Reykjavik, Iceland, there is now a temple to the Norse gods, who are being worshipped again for the first time in a thousand years. Now, while I take it for granted that few now literally believe in hammer-wielding Thor smiting the giants or in one-eyed Odin riding his six-legged horse, pagan traditions encompassed profound concepts, often in nascent form. For instance, pagan traditions are at least implicitly pantheistic, and the prospects for genuinely pantheistic religiosity should be explored.

In short, when we conceive of getting past the hackneyed theist/atheist stalemate, many possibilities for new and exciting inquiry open up. If philosophy of religion can move into these much more spacious realms, it will have much in the way of intellectually exciting discussion to enrich the modern university.


Robert C. Neville on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

RNevilleRobert C. Neville is Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Theology at Boston 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.

Of the many things that philosophy of religion offers the modern university, the most important, in my view, is disciplined inquiry into ultimate realities and what is involved in understanding and relating to them. Thus, philosophy of religion is primarily a research project and then secondarily teaching that introduces students into that research. That emphasis might be flipped for philosophy of religion in non-university colleges.

The most controversial point in my view of the matter is the bald assertion that there are ultimate realities that need to be studied. In Western universities, this would not have been controversial before the 20th century, but now it needs to be explicitly affirmed. There are at least five ultimate realities around which religions have developed problematics and that need philosophical discussion and understanding. The first is whatever answers the question of why or how there is something rather than nothing. The world in all long-standing religious traditions as well as most scientific traditions is felt as radically contingent. Philosophy of religion is needed to understand that contingency and understand also how various religious traditions have given such diverse interpretations of it.

The second ultimate comes from the boundary condition for human life that sets it up that people have to choose among future possibilities that have different value. What value is in future alternatives, how to tell what is valuable, how to make choices well, what to do with wrong choices, how choices are both individual and conjoint—these are all aspects of the general problematic of what might be called righteousness and every religious tradition addresses this problematic. Philosophy of religion is needed to understand this and how religions have dealt with it.

The third ultimate is that human beings have to integrate complex lives, aiming at wholeness. Suffering, finding a location, relating to one’s body, family, social circumstances and a host of other things add up to an ultimate condition of questing for wholeness. Religions have many ways of defining this problematic of wholeness. Philosophy of religion is needed to understand how those ways relate to wholeness or the ideal self.

The fourth ultimate is that an ultimate condition for human life is relating to others—other people, social institutions, and nature—as they are in themselves and not only insofar as they enter into the lifecourse of one’s group or one’s self. Axial Age religions share some version of the Golden Rule, but that is not the only way of relating to Otherness. Philosophy of religion is needed to understand this.

The fifth ultimate is the boundary condition of life having a meaning, or not. Sometimes this is understood in terms of the value one’s life achieves, or one’s group. Although this way of putting it reflects 20th century existentialism and its discovery that life is not meaningful in ways determined by external authority, every religion has some way of dealing with this problematic.

Notice that I’ve argued that religions have developed their problematic in relation to realities that are ultimate boundary conditions for life irrespective of what religions do about them. The world is contingent as such, choices between alternative of different value have to be made, life is a puzzle to integrate, others have a nature and value over and above the roles they play for us, the facticity of life either has or has not a meaning. Just as climate is real, and diverse over the globe, so these boundary conditions for human life are real for wherever there is human life. All the ways in which religions develop problematics regarding the ultimate realities are historically constructed. But the ultimate realities to which they respond are real and the diverse constructed religious responses can be understood and compared as ways of responding to them.  Philosophy of religion is needed to understand all this.

My view thus rejects the claim of many philosophers, especially postmodern ones, that there is no reference to religious claims and attitudes and that all religious realities are mere human constructions. That constructionist approach easily leads to claims that each religion is nothing more than a cultural tradition. Moreover it leads to doubting that religion is a universal category at all. But my view interprets religion as the human engagement of those ultimate realities in cognitive, existentially defining, and practical ways. Religion is basic, religions are various historically conditioned ways of being religious.

Isn’t it obvious that the modern university needs some discipline for inquiry into the ultimate realities and how human beings can cope with them? The university would be seriously amiss if it neglected this vitally important topic. This is especially true nowadays when globalization has made it abundantly clear that there are many different religious ways of addressing how to engage ultimate realities, and that these can be seriously competitive. Look at the issues of religiously motivated violence! This is not just a matter of conflicting cultures or competing interests: it is a matter of different ways of dealing with what is ultimately important and demanding of ultimate concern. Moreover, the rise of modern science is creating ways of understanding the world that undermines many of the traditional senses of authority that have organized religions. Although many religions can reassert those authorities in confessional ways, to understand how to evaluate that requires looking at the ways those religions alternatively address what is ultimately real.

Wisdom in the modern university for understanding and addressing ultimate realities can come from a single tradition, philosophically interpreted. It’s better to have as many traditions studied as possible. But philosophy of religion is not just the self-understanding or philosophical hermeneutics of any or all religious traditions. It is the examination of how the ultimate realities are best addressed in our day, and how the various religions are different ways of doing that, for better or worse.

Douglas Allen on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

webDouglas-Allen-PortraitDouglas Allen is Professor of Philosophy at The University of Maine. 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.

In answering the question of what the philosophy of religion offers to the modern university, it seems to me that one must engage in the difficult preliminary work of clarifying at least three key, confusing terms: the philosophy of religion, religion, and the modern university.

First, what is this “philosophy of religion” that may have something to offer the modern university? At an earlier time in what dominated the history of philosophy in the West, it seemed easier to define the traditional discipline and approach of philosophy of religion. Especially in the twentieth century, such dominant agreement and clarity have been shattered. Influential philosophers not only maintain that traditional proofs for the existence of God or solutions to the Problem of Evil are inadequate, but, more radically, that the traditional normative concerns of the philosophy of religion are based on linguistic confusion, category mistakes, and are meaningless. In my own work, I explore whether a more phenomenological approach in philosophy, in formulating the phenomenology of religion, could allow us to suspend those normative metaphysical and theological judgments and provide a more adequate basis for a philosophy of religion.

In addition, with greater exposure to and appreciation of the significance of the religious and spiritual phenomena of Asia, of indigenous peoples, and of other nonwestern cultures, one’s philosophy of religion increasingly expresses a recognition of pluralism and diversity, of hidden and camouflaged meanings, of complexity and contradiction. Therefore, it is a legitimate question as to whether there is even such a thing as “the philosophy of religion,” or whether we are examining complex, open-ended, diverse philosophies of religion.

Second, what is the subject matter, religion, of philosophy of religion? Once again, at an earlier time, it seemed easier to define religion in the dominant philosophy of religion in the West. Scholars typically assumed an essentialized concept of religion, usually formulated in Abrahamic, monotheistic terms of Judaism, usually Christianity (Judaeo-Christian usually versions of Christian), and occasionally Islam. Today, not only do we recognize that the terms religion and religions are much vaguer and more pluralistic and diverse, but we struggle with anti-essentialist and anti-universalizing challenges of relativism and of postmodernism, gender and ethnic and postcolonial studies, and other developments in recent decades.

Is there such a thing as “religion”? Does the philosophy of religion study religion as something that has defining characteristics, which allow us to distinguish religious from nonreligious phenomena and that have some objective and universal meaning? Or does the philosophy of religion study religion as a more dynamic, open-ended process of diverse subject matters without clearly defined structures and meanings?

Third, what is the modern university for which philosophy of religion may offer something? There was a post-Enlightenment view in the West that dominated conceptions of the modern university. The liberal arts and humanities, including my discipline of philosophy, were central to conceptions of the nature and function of the modern university. The study of religion at the modern nonreligious university was often regarded with suspicion, as if this were something premodern that lacked the rigor and objectivity of modern disciplines,

What is the situation today? As is well documented, the liberal arts and humanities, which usually include philosophy of religion, are increasingly under attack, underfunded, marginalized, with drastic cuts in faculty and programs, and often regarded as largely irrelevant to the modern university. That modern university is increasingly a corporatized university, which, using the post-Eisenhower conception of Senator Fulbright, is an integral part of the military-industrial-academic complex. Those with economic, political, and military power define the ends, and universities demonstrate that they can provide the means and are good investments.

Does this mean that the future of philosophy of religion in the modern corporatized university rests on convincing huge corporations that it can provide analyses of other religions and cultures necessary for penetrating and controlling foreign markets and maximizing profits from foreign investments? Does this mean that the future of philosophy of religion rests on convincing the C.I.A., the N.S.A., and others with political and military power that it can provide an understanding invaluable for dominant views of national security and the winning of wars? Or, as I believe, can a different view of the nature and function of philosophy of religion provide understanding that involves resistance to such developments in the modern university?

What we find today is multiple philosophies of religion or religious phenomena, highly diverse, situated, in need of contextualization, with both overlapping shared characteristics but also specific irreducible features. Some philosophers of religion in the modern university will do specialized research on specific religious perspectives. Others will bring multiple perspectives into complex dynamic relations, emphasizing encounter and dialogue and how our understanding of the other can serve as a catalyst for broadening and deepening our own understanding.

In assessing what philosophy of religion may offer the modern university, we can appreciate that the key terms of “philosophy of religion,” “religion,” and “modern university” resist closure and are open to creative contestation and development. The critical study of religion in the modern world remains important and exceedingly practical, as, for example, when we try to understand why the fastest growing religions seem to embrace a radical rejection of much of modernity and the modern university or why there is so much religious violence in the contemporary world. And philosophy of religion remains important and exceedingly practical for the modern university because philosophical reflection, on religious and other phenomena, is essential for critical examination and reasoning, for formulating general structures and relations, and for arriving at evaluations and judgments that are an integral part of any understanding.

Stephen Clark on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

StephenRLClarkStephen Clark is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Liverpool 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.

Anything that human beings do is likely to interest philosophers, especially if what they do seems odd, unnecessary or irrational for a simply cost-benefit understanding: pure science, sex, or sport, for obvious example. The guddle of ritual practices, sacred sites and texts and people, that are popularly summed up as ‘religion’ is no exception. Why do people devote their energies to building churches, dressing up in wholly impractical garments, reading and re-reading ancient and often incomprehensible texts? Why do they need to imagine ‘other worlds’ or plan for their imagined afterlife (even if only to plan their funerals or their memorial tablets)?  Why do they feel (or pretend to feel) particular respect for ancestors, or the aged, or infants, or the insane? Why do they alternately revere and sacrifice particular animals? Why mark the changing seasons with stories and celebrations, or with fasts and floggings? Many similar questions can be asked about our common concern with ‘Art’ or ‘Sport’ or ‘Science’ or ‘Celebrity’. Why don’t we behave like sensible, ‘rational’ animals, seeking merely ‘natural’ goals by whatever convenient means?

There are at least two ways of practising ‘philosophy’. We may seek to analyse the ways that people actually behave: what is it to win a game, in any particular sport; what are the qualities that sportsmen value, or what their sins and failings? When is ‘cheating’ simply an acknowledged, proper, tactic (even if it is penalized when noticed), and when a sign of something deeply wrong, ‘unsporting’? These conversations may feed into the development of ‘sport’ in general, or particular sporting enterprises. The other way of ‘philosophising’ is to challenge the whole practice, requiring – for example – that sportsmen and their followers justify their strange devotion. Maybe they will succeed, and ‘sport’ at last seem ‘rational’ in whatever terms that audience prefers. Or maybe that audience will itself be challenged, and so come to see what strange assumptions – perhaps about the importance of ‘being serious’ or acting only for some non-sportive gain – they have been making, and should now abandon. Maybe all human life will come to seem ‘a game’, and skilled sportsmen only doing, more consciously and carefully, what everyone should do: preferring the effort of taking part, the beauty of the means, to any literal success.

The same split effort may be seen in dealing with ‘Religion’. One sort of philosopher will prefer to analyse what is said and done by particular ‘believers’, and discover (for example) whether the stories and the rituals have a coherent sense. Who and what is ‘saintly’? What does ‘piety’ require? What connections are there between ritual and moral rules (if any)? What is taken to be a sacred text, in any particular community, and what are the implications of its being thus ‘sacred’? What does omnipotence entail, or what does it mean to say that there is No Self? Another sort – or the same philosophers in other moods – may instead enquire into what external justification there is for this or another set of rules, rituals and stories. They may even wonder whether there is any such thing as ‘religion’: maybe that is only a term invented to associate many various activities that are all, perhaps, indulged ‘religiously’ (as we might say, ‘enthusiastically’ or ‘habitually’: with or without our genuine attention). Maybe ‘sacred’ is only a term employed by anthropologists or archaeologists to describe practices or objects whose ‘real’ use they have not yet discovered. In what sense, if any, is the Christian Bible, Jewish Torah, Muslim Koran a ‘sacred text’? Are the Vedas? Are the Homeric epics? Star Wars? Are the arguments of particular ‘religions’ (hypostatized as discrete entities, rather than simply as occasions when people are talking or acting ‘religiously’) of real significance, or are they meditation exercises, or quaint diversions from – and partial contributions to – the life of everyday? Can we conceive a world entirely without ‘religion’? – or is that very effort yet another example, exactly, of ‘religion’: the imagining of ‘another world’ than this, with other global priorities, to be achieved by carefully disinfecting our usual thoughts and feelings, in obedience to new texts and prophets?

Sport may turn out to be a metaphor for the ordinary lives even of those who did not think of themselves as ‘sporty’. Religion may also have a wider force than ‘irreligious’ philosophers imagine. Philosophers of Sport (whether descriptive or revisionist) need not themselves, in any ordinary sense, be sportsmen, but it may be presumed that they have some sympathy with sport, and some acquaintance with the actual practices and feelings of sportsmen and spectators. The same should be true for philosophers of ‘religion’. In practice it often seems that such philosophers have so little sympathy with ‘religion’ that they perennially miss the point: they come to the study, perhaps, from the more arcane regions of logic or epistemology – and are satisfied to pose logical puzzles, for example, about ‘omnipotence’ (as an attribute of the divine) or epistemological, about the source of ‘faith’, without asking what is important to ‘believers’. They may also be blind to their own convictions, habits and attractions, and so not realize how often their own devotion to a purely ‘rational’ account of things, their own intellectual ascesis, even their veiled contempt for those with another conviction is, exactly, of the form of (evangelical) religion! What effort is involved in keeping faith with Dawkins?

So what may ‘philosophers of religion’ chiefly contribute to the University? Any human enterprise, and especially those with major and sometimes catastrophic effects on everyone’s experience, deserves to be understood. But perhaps the chief contribution should be to hold a mirror up before the most cost-benefit, would-be ‘utilitarian’ and ‘realistic’ administrators, to remind them that their own assumptions, habits, goals, ways of life and thinking, are as much at the mercy of old stories and ancestral pieties as the most brash of familiar ‘fundamentalists’.

Donald Crosby on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

donaldcrosbyDonald Crosby is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Colorado State 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 term university connotes to me the idea of universality, meaning that the university has by its very nature an intense concern with what is universal or all-encompassing. It exists, that is to say, for the sake of what Aristotle called nous, theoria, or sophia: contemplative, reflective knowledge, vision, and wisdom. It also concerns itself with techné and phronēsis or practical skill and discernment, but always in the context of an encompassing and deeply informed inquiry into the many aspects of the world and of the appropriate place of human beings in the world. Its concern is not just with “how” but “why,” not just with getting things done but with what things ought or ought not to be done and why.

Among the university’s many important concerns is the role of religious questions, commitments, and institutions in the history of human civilizations and in the lives of individual human beings. This concern is partly addressed by fields of investigation such as religious studies and the history of religions, history in general, evolutionary biology, anthropology, sociology, and psychology. But these fields are primarily devoted to descriptive and causally explanatory accounts of the role of religion in human life. They may sometimes veer into normative evaluations of religion in general or of particular religious systems, ideas, or claims, but that is not their usual or principal function.

Should the normative task be left to confessional or apologetic spokespersons for particular religious traditions? I do not believe that these have a legitimate role in secular universities if their task is conceived as one of proselytizing on behalf of a particular religious point of without due consideration of other possible points of view. However, in light of the prominent place of religious institutions and religious persons in the history of human civilizations and cultures, a place that continues to this day, it is essential that some part of the university devote itself to thoughtful, critical, and fair-minded analysis of religious claims and counter-claims, of religious modes of symbolization and expression, of religious practices—both individual and social—and of religious questions and proposed answers to these questions that have haunted and beguiled humankind from its earliest days to the present.

These questions and answers are existential ones about how to live and what to commit one’s life to, how to envision one’s ultimate responsibilities and those of other humans in the world, and how to cope with the threats, uncertainties, sufferings, and seductions to evil in the world. The young who enter the university are often burdened with issues such as these and are in need of guidance on how to approach them and deal honestly, constructively, and creatively with them. Philosophy of religion can provide important kinds of assistance and insight in these respects. For that reason alone it should be recognized as an indispensable part of the university’s curriculum.

What sorts of person should teach philosophy of religion? I believe that such persons should meet at least the following ten requirements: (1) They should be thoroughly schooled in the history of religions. (2) They should be well trained in the history of philosophy. (3) They should be deeply sensitive to religious questions and concerns, not tone-deaf to them as some philosophers and some academicians in other fields may tend to be. (4) They should be receptive to what can be learned from and reflected on in a variety of religious traditions and not just in a single one. (5) They should have strong facility in philosophical questioning, reasoning, and thinking. (6) They should be knowledgeable about the central role of religious beliefs and practices in the history of civilizations. (7) They should be able effectively to communicate to their students religious and philosophical modes of thinking and their interrelations with one another. (8) They should be able to bring religious and secular visions of the world into constructive dialogue with one another. (9) They should be capable of helping students to put all of these ways of thinking and inquiring to effective use in developing their own outlooks on religious questions and their personal religious or secular ways of living in the world.  (10) Philosophers of religion should be actively involved in important kinds of original research and writing in their field. These ten requirements constitute a tall order of competency in philosophers of religion who teach and do research in the university. No one can hope to measure up to all of them in full or in equal measure, but they stand as critical standards and goals for teachers and researchers in the field of philosophy of religion.

My basic contention concerning the place of philosophy of religion in the curriculum of the university turns on the observation that religion has always been an important part of human history, human institutions, and individual human outlooks and practices, and that it is so today. Religion has admittedly sometimes been a force for evil as well as good in human history, but so have politics, economics, science, and technology. Great powers and achievements can be used for evil as well as for good. But religious questions and concerns are fundamental, far-reaching, and in the last analysis inescapable. They remain so in the perennial and ongoing human search for deep-lying orientation, obligation, and meaning. If universities are to be truly universal in the sense of addressing all of the basic areas of human consideration, thought, and practice, they should by no means neglect or minimize the philosophical study of religion and philosophical assessment of religious claims and ways of life.

Such study should give a prominent role to analysis and investigation of the truth or falsity of religious claims in particular religious systems, of how these claims relate to one another in the logic of each system, of how they connect with its symbolic expressions and practices of each system, and of how these elements compare with the claims, symbols, and practices of different religious systems. Philosophy of religion does not just offer neutral descriptions or portrayals of the claims, systems, and practices of various religions, nor does it typically seek for causal explanations of why they have persisted as intricate aspects of human life and experience—important as the latter two endeavors undeniably are. But these two endeavors can contribute to the work of philosophy of religion by providing descriptive phenomena and explanatory proposals for it to ponder.

Philosophy of religion richly deserves a seat at the table of the university’s offerings. Its contribution to the university is much more than a disposable luxury or optional add-on to an otherwise adequate university curriculum. Leaving it out of the curriculum would be analogous to failing to introduce a critical component in the preparation of a meal based on a favorite recipe. What would eggplant parmesan be without the bread crumbs or cheese? Philosophy of religion is a necessity in a university deserving of its name, and it is no less so than the currently touted and certainly important areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The university’s concern, properly conceived, is with the whole of life, and philosophy of religion makes an essential contribution to the character and range of this concern.