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.

Sobia Tahir on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

sobia-tahirSobia Tahir is Chairperson of the Department of Philosophy and Interdisciplinary Studies at Government College University Lahore in Pakistan. 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.

Philosophy of religion makes an important subject, not only of philosophy, but also of the humanities in general. It is the need of the hour that philosophy of religion must be sustained as part of the syllabus at all the major universities and colleges globally. It is not an exaggeration to say that it should be introduced as a compulsory subject at undergraduate level.

The author of this paper and the holder of this opinion has strong arguments and justifications to support her point of view. Our syllabi, specifically in the natural sciences, have turned out to be an utter failure in imbibing and incorporating a “scientific outlook” in our students. Unfortunately, when it comes to religion and religious beliefs, we find the scientist on par with the ignorant masses in terms of bias and drawing false causal connections/ interpretations.

To sustain this claim, let me give two examples. There is no shortage of able and competent gynecologists among Hindus and Christians. Both of them know well about human conception, the growth of the embryo in the womb, and so on. In their role as gynecologists working in their clinics, labour rooms, and laboratories; they are perfectly sane and sensible. Now come to religion; lo and behold, here the Hindu gynecologist will start believing vehemently that Cow—yes the same animal with four legs—is his (and of all Hindus’) mother, knowing well that a cow may never bear a human child!!

At this point, he would forget his entire scientific knowledge and experimentation and would insist on this incorrect and empirically falsifiable belief. Let us move now to the Christians. Are they not the most qualified and capable gynecologists in the world, who have made revolutionary progress in the field? They know well through observation and experience that no woman may conceive without having intercourse with a man. However, when it comes to the birth of Christ, they immediately start believing in the Immaculate Conception and consider Mary a virgin mother.

The case of psychiatrists is not very different; hallucinations and delusions are the hallmark symptoms of schizophrenia, the sufferers of which hear voices, see images, and have false and distorted beliefs. Nevertheless, when Abraham listens to the same voices from his Lord and takes his son to slaughter in order to fulfill the murderous command of his God; no psychiatrist questions his mental condition. No one actually bothers to question whether the voice he heard was of God or of Satan. Hence the scientists and technologists have given us a huge quantity of science and innumerable technological products, but have failed to inculcate critical thinking, not only in other people, but in themselves too. That is why the world we are inhabiting is full of science and technology but is totally devoid of civility, law, morality, rationality, tolerance, peace, and harmony.

Now, I would like to coordinate and harmonize what I want to say and what is my actual thesis. Till now, I have made two major claims:

  • Science itself does not produce a scientific outlook;
  • Excessive technology has led us towards more bloodshed and violence instead of sanity, sobriety, and sensibility.

Now, I shall move towards my final and conclusive claim or judgment. The question is: “What is the root-cause of this rampant violence, excessive terror, wars, and conflicts”? Definitely it is neither science, nor technology; these are only means not causes or reasons. The real bone of contention and the primary source of discord is religion itself. This has remained the oldest, tested and most effective tool of hatred, dispute and friction in the world since the beginning of human history and civilization.

  • Thus to create a civilized, urbane, and humane world based on the dictum of “live and let live,” we will have to promote, back, and support philosophy of religion and not religion.

And what is philosophy of religion? It is a rational, logical, impartial, neutral, dispassionate, and independent inquiry of the fundamentals of faith, beliefs, and dogmas. It analyzes the structure of religion and explores the deep seated prejudices and age-old vested interests which shape the framework of religion in order to exploit the masses; to keep them backward, poor, and illiterate; and to incite them to fight, kill, murder, and create disorder in the world.

Until philosophy of religion is introduced as a compulsory subject to all undergraduate students; we will not produce suave, moral, sophisticated, and courteous people having respect for all creeds. Instead we will continue to produce the parrots, pygmies, robots, and senseless human machines controlled by their biases, aggressive emotions, and baser sentiments.

It is to be noted at the end that philosophy of religion must not be misconstrued as a hostile and destructive campaign against religion; it does not undermine, insult, or humiliate any religion; nor does it hurt the followers of any specific belief. It only philosophically elucidates and explicates the assumptions, hypotheses, and postulates of the religion.

Philosophy of religion is an enlightening and illuminating discourse and I have the honour of not only doing my doctorate in the same, but also, I have been teaching it in the Department of Philosophy and Interdisciplinary Studies, GCU Lahore for the past eight years. It has the capacity of answering many burning questions which arise in the mind of the students, who otherwise have no way to expound them. It leads them to a more moderate, sober, and balanced way to see teligion, both its pros and cons and its origin and foundations.

Since it is a general study and no particular religion as such is its focus; it does not cause any inter-faith tension or conflict amongst the students, even if they belong to different faiths. The study of the philosophy of religion guides readers towards objectivity and the use of intellect in the most serious spheres of life. It purges epistemology of fake sources of knowledge too.

Thomas Tracy on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

thomas-tracyThomas Tracy is Phillips Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Bates College in Lewiston, 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.

I expect that most of us who write and teach in the field of philosophy of religion have been asked various (perhaps more polemical) versions of this question throughout our working lives. Often the questioner goes straight to the bottom line: “What do students do with their degree when they graduate?”; “What is that course of study good for?” In the context of increasingly cost-conscious and utility focused appraisals of higher education, these questions are asked about the humanistic disciplines generally, though philosophy tends to be an especially popular target. Marco Rubio offered a simple expression of this view during one of the Republican presidential nomination debates (Nov. 10, 2015): “We need more welders and less philosophers” (though perhaps more grammarians would be helpful).

I am convinced that we can give compelling answers to questions like these; a strong case can be made for the instrumental value of the study of philosophy generally and philosophy of religion in particular. I think that it is a mistake to dismiss altogether arguments that treat preparation in these fields as a means to some further good end, and instead offer only high-minded defenses of their intrinsic value. It is reasonable, e.g., for parents to wonder how their offspring’s undergraduate degree in Philosophy (or Religious Studies or English or Music, and so on) will contribute to their ability to get on in life. But it is worth noting that utilitarian considerations generally do not motivate our work on these subjects. We pursue them because (among other things) they engage matters of vital and compelling importance to us, they allow us to follow the track of insistent curiosity, they illuminate our experience and deepen understanding. In these ways they make our lives richer, more interesting, and more profoundly connected both to contemporaries and to those long dead who become our textual conversation partners. We can offer a powerful utilitarian defense that points to the wider social benefits of this activity (more about this below). But part of the value of these instrumental arguments is that they themselves serve as a means to the end of defending the opportunity to study what we love.

Let me sketch just a few of the goods, both intrinsic and instrumental, that are advanced through the study of philosophy of religion.

First, philosophy of religion provides opportunities to grapple with perennial questions of fundamental importance. Human beings perpetually seek to understand the larger context in which our lives unfold, how we fit into that context, and therefore how we ought to live. Religious traditions typically address these questions about reality, identity, and value at the level of ultimacy; that is, they make proposals about the ultimate (most comprehensive) context of our lives, and they affirm that orienting our lives in this context is of ultimate importance in understanding who we are and in shaping a good course of life. The drive to explore these questions is part of being human, and this is a reason to resist exclusively instrumental defenses of teaching and research in philosophy of religion. We should insist that the first answer to the question, “What is this field of study good for?” is that it is good for human beings.

Second, philosophy of religion makes it clear that individuals and communities think about these matters in a great variety of different ways. Exploring the range of religious thought and practice can challenge our parochialism, expand the reach of imagination, open up new lines of reflection, and (we may hope) deepen empathetic appreciation of both similarity and difference. Especially at this social-political moment, it seems obvious that ignorance about unfamiliar religious communities has the potential to be socially destructive, and that richer and more complex understanding across religious difference is a social good. This is a compelling consequential reason to foster teaching and research in Philosophy of Religion (and in the study of religion generally, e.g., in Religious Studies).

Third, the study of philosophy of religion brings to light the internal complexity of religious traditions. One expression of widespread ignorance about religious communities, including those at least superficially familiar in our society, is a pernicious simplification of their beliefs, practices, and forms of social organization. Religions not only differ from one another, they contain tremendous diversity within themselves. Rather than conveying a single, unified, and unvarying content from generation to generation, religious traditions take shape in an ongoing discussion, an often passionate dialogue about what believers should believe and how the faithful should practice. The boundaries of the faith (of orthodoxy and orthopraxis) typically are matters of vigorous debate, and religious traditions are dynamic, developing, and multi-vocal. It is critically important to understand that a religion is richer than the narrow version presented by any set of absolutists within it or hostile simplifiers outside it.

Fourth, philosophy of religion illuminates the patterns of reasoning at work in religious thought, and it invites careful assessment of the claims that arise in the dialogue within and among religious traditions and in debates with their critics. This involves a discipline of charitable attention to contending points of view, commitment to clarity, openness to considering objections, and fair-minded assessment of arguments. These practices of collaborative truth-seeking, critical self-consciousness, and willingness to cope with complexity are transferable to a wide variety of contexts. They contribute to the range and richness of our conversations across differences. In a world that includes multiple religious cultures in ever increasing global interaction these habits of mind are urgently needed.

In short, a strong case can be made for the vital importance of philosophy of religion in contemporary higher education. We may or may not need more welders, but we certainly need more people (welders included) who are informed and thoughtful about religion.

William J. Wainwright on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

William J. Wainwright is Distinguished Professor Emeritus in Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. 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 will largely restrict my comments to philosophers of religion who have received their graduate training in the philosophy departments[i] of major universities in the English speaking world, Scandinavia, and the Netherlands. Most of those who have done so are either analytic philosophers or have been heavily influenced by them. My reason for doing so is that these philosophers not only dominate the practice of philosophy in the countries in question but are an increasing presence in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Poland, and, more recently, in universities at Milan and in other European countries.

Analytic philosophers of religion have been accused with some justification of parochialism (a narrow focus on Western theism, and an inattention to the emotional and existential aspects of religion and its social and cultural situatedness). While these accusations may have been fair in the past, a great deal of contemporary analytic philosophy of religion has been devoted to precisely these formerly neglected topics. For example, many analytically trained philosophers of religion have turned their attention to Buddhism, Vedanta, NeoConfucianism, and other non-Western religions. (It is worth noting that a number of those who have done so are themselves adherents of the religions they are examining.) Others have provided sympathetic accounts of the essential role played by what William James called our “passional nature” in the construction and assessment of religious arguments. Moreover, there is in principal no reason why analytic philosophers of religion can’t be more sensitive to instances of the ideological abuse of (e.g.) Christian or Hindu or Buddhist “theology,” or the insights of the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” and some (although in my opinion, not enough) have been.

Why, though, is the analytic philosophy of religion so important? The Western philosophical tradition as a whole has prized the search for truth for its own sake. Aristotle spoke for many philosophers when he argued the highest form of human activity is the expression of nous, not phronesis. Furthermore, in its pursuit of truth Western philosophy has placed a high value on analytic precision and rigor of argument.  (This is equally true of Indian philosophy of course.) Analytic philosophy has also been historically associated with science and shares science’s comparative confidence in reason’s ability to discover the truth. It is thus not surprising that analytic philosophers of religion have retained a certain confidence in reason’s ability to adjudicate claims of truth and falsity in a principled way, and have largely rejected relativism and what Nicholas Wolterstorff has called “interpretation relativism”—that everything is interpretation, i.e., that “things exist and are as they are only relative to one or another of our conceptual schemes.”

Why does this matter? My experience in the academy has been that when one raises questions of the truth or rational adequacy of non-dualism,[ii] say, with colleagues in the humanities or social sciences who have a professional interest in religious studies, one is often made to feel that one’s question is naïve or even somehow impolite. Yet it seems to me that we fail to respect the men and women whose beliefs and practices we are examining if we don’t take their claims to truth and rational and spiritual superiority as seriously as they themselves do

Moreover—and perhaps more important—there is a further reason for paying attention to their truth claims. As Stephen Evans has pointed out, if theism is true, it deeply matters. And of course the same can be said of other forms of theism, of Theravada, Madhyamika, NeoConfucianism, and so on. So if Christian theism, say, or Theravada Buddhism are “live possibilities,”[iii] concern with their truth is of paramont importance. It follows that a concern with the truth or rational adequacy of Christianity or theistic forms of Vaishnavism or Advaita Vedanta or Theravada Buddhism should be cavalierly dismissed only if they aren’t live possibilities—only if, in other words, their claims are either false or meaningless, or childish or existentially insignificant. What analytic philosophers of religion often find frustrating is the reluctance of their colleagues in the humanities or social sciences to defend the assumption of falsity or meaninglessness or the charge of existential insignificance against their objections or in some cases to even familiarize themselves with them.

The question of the truth or falsity of religious perspectives and worldviews is of vital interest to a significant number of our students as well as to many thoughtful and well educated lay persons. If I am correct, analytically trained philosophers of religion are pretty much the only members of the academy who are willing to directly address these issues.

[i] And not religious studies or theology departments.

[ii] Or of the anatman doctrine, or of one or another form of Western or Indian theism, or…

[iii] That is, have a significant bearing on how we should live and a non-negligible possibility of being true.

Jerry Walls on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Walls_JerryJerry Walls is a scholar-in-residence in the Department of Philosophy at Houston Baptist 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 most straightforward answer to this question is that philosophy of religion provides the intellectual resources necessary for a university to actually live up to its name. The word “university” of course, comes from the same root words as “universe,” and traditionally, universities were so called because they were concerned with the whole universe of truth and meaning. The uni-verse is a unity, a whole that represents the entire body of truth and meaning that universities aimed to explore. Philosophy, moreover, was the discipline that dealt with the most fundamental questions about the nature of reality that allowed us to understand our world as a universe.

This classic ambition is one that has largely fallen by the wayside in modern times. As Alasdair MacIntyre put it, “the very notion of the nature and order of things, of a single universe, different aspects of which are objects of enquiry for the various disciplines, but in such a way that each aspect needs to be related to every other, this notion no longer informs the enterprise of the contemporary American university.”[i] One of the primary reasons for this is that academic disciplines have become increasingly specialized and focused on ever more narrow and technical issues. Unfortunately, this is true of philosophy as well.

In their book Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates, Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein tell us the sort of questions that led them to sign up for philosophy classes at Harvard decades ago: what is the meaning of life, and would its significance change if we lived forever?; do we have souls?; is heaven a place and what are the chances of getting there? Unfortunately, they discovered those were not the questions their teacher wanted to explore.  “But for better or worse, we got sidetracked by professors who told us that before we could tackle the Big Questions, we had to clear up some mind numbing technical minutiae. Questions like: Does Bertrand Russell confuse ‘possible necessity’ with ‘necessary possibility’?”[ii]

Now my fellow philosophers will quickly and rightly insist that we cannot ignore those technical questions, and that answering them is essential to doing good work in philosophy. And they are right. But here is the point. All too often we never get around to the “Big Questions” and we lose sight of what is at stake in pursuing those technical issues in the first place. The “love of wisdom” that traditionally animated philosophy too frequently gives way to the “fascination with technical minutiae.” And the more technical, the better.

Here is where philosophy of religion is essential not only to the philosophical enterprise, but also to any attempt even to approximate the traditional idea of a university. For it is philosophy of religion above all that specializes in asking, and daring to answer, the Big Questions. Indeed, there is no question that is bigger, more interesting, or existentially engaging than the question of whether God exists. Whether or not God exists has enormous implications for the meaning of life, and for what sort of happiness and fulfillment we may rationally hope to experience. Is the best we can hope for to live a life of intermittent happiness and pleasure over several decades until death strikes us down once and for all, or is there reason to hope we can achieve perfect happiness that will literally never end? Likewise, it has large implications for whether we have souls, whether, (and in what sense) we are free, whether we are ultimately and inescapably responsible for our actions, whether justice will finally prevail, and so on. These are issues about which no rational person can be indifferent. To understand these questions is inevitably to care.

Philosophy of religion is a particularly interesting discipline not only because it deals with such vital questions, but also because it has rich intellectual resources for dealing with them. Arguments for (and against) God’s existence were a matter of central concern not only for the great medieval philosophers, but for the great modern philosophers as well. One cannot begin to do justice to the driving concerns of Descartes, Berkeley, Hume, Leibniz, Kant, and Nietzsche without dealing with their arguments about the existence of God and the implications for who we are and the meaning of our lives.

Moreover, there has been a resurgence of interest in philosophy of religion over the past several decades, and this includes the classic arguments for God’s existence, which many had written off as dead and buried due to the criticism leveled against them by Hume and Kant. Not only have the classic arguments been refurbished and updated in light of recent scientific developments, but several new arguments have been developed recently. Alvin Plantinga, who is widely recognized as the most influential philosopher of religion of his generation has famously sketched out two dozen such arguments. These arguments range over cosmology, morality, mathematics, beauty, human consciousness, love, and many others topics in metaphysics and epistemology.[iii] Indeed, the breadth of these arguments gives credence to the classic idea of a universe, all of whose features share an essential unity as best explained and accounted for by the creative activity of God.

Modern secular universities have few resources to overcome the fragmentation and specialization that marks the many disciplines represented within their halls, and frankly, little motivation to do so. Modern universities no longer aspire to achieve the sort of unity or ultimate coherence among its various disciplines that classical universities sought to achieve. Still, philosophy of religion provides invaluable resources for the modern university. More than any other branch of philosophy, it focuses on the “Big Questions” that animated the discipline in the first place, and that still propel students to sign up for philosophy classes today. Moreover, it has a treasure of riches in both classical and contemporary philosophy to explore those questions with rigor and depth. These are the questions that remind us that any education worth the name will do more than equip students with mastery of an academic discipline, or preparation for a career in the marketplace. And when the full resources of theistic philosophy are taken into account, students may even get a glimpse of the unity of truth and meaning in our universe, and the ideal that inspired those institutions we still call universities.

[i] Alasdair MacIntyre, God, Philosophy, Universities (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009), 16.

[ii] Thomas Cathcart & Daniel Klein, Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates (New York: Penguin, 2009), 3.

[iii] Trent Dougherty and I are co-editing a volume devoted to these arguments that will published by Oxford University Press in 2017.

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.

Jan-Olav Henriksen on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

jan-olav henriksenJan-Olav Henriksen is Professor of Systematic Theology at Norwegian School of Theology and Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Agder, Kristiansand. 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.

Philosophy of religion: To expand and deepen the understanding of religions

Why philosophy of religion?  An obvious answer to this question is that we (the human community, and not only academics) need to develop understandings of the phenomena we call religions that are not based on any pre-determined decision about what they are and how to assess them. Too much discourse about religion today starts with a pre-determined opinion about how good or bad religion is for humanity. Such decisions do not help us to understand the role, function, effect, content, and relevance of religions in concrete human life. Accordingly, we need a discipline that can analyze and develop interpretations of religions that are not based in idealization or demonization of religions, but which, instead, acknowledge the basically ambiguous character of those phenomena we call religious. This should be done with openness, curiosity, and rigor.

To maintain the ambiguous character of religions implies a critical as well as an open approach to religions and to what people think are religious experiences. Our approach need to be critical, in terms of not taking at face value the already-existing opinions about religions and the religious; and it should be open, in terms of being attentive to what people might say about their experiences with, and responses to, the reality that presents itself as something that deserves – for different reasons – to be considered religious. To point consistently to the ambiguous character of religions is important not only in light of contemporary public debate and the potential role of religion in politics but also in order to promote a self-critical attitude towards one’s own opinion about religion in believers and non-believers alike.

As a discipline that has emerged out of the Enlightenment, philosophy of religion has mostly been about interpreting religion from an external point of view—one that does not require a pre-given commitment to any specific beliefs, confession, or doctrine. This approach has to some extent, of course, been informed by existing religion, but the philosophy of religion has mostly been exactly that: a philosophical, not an empirical, approach to religion. This has led to a lot of fruitful interpretations, but also to a certain isolation from other ways to deal with the subject. At present, I think we can see that this is changing. There is an increasing tendency in the contemporary scene for philosophies of religions (the plural is deliberate) to be more extensively informed by all that empirical studies can tell us about religion.  For this reason—and also because philosophy of religion is better informed about problems related to oversimplification and reductionism—philosophy of religion is an obvious candidate for dealing with the different approaches to religion that presently exist within the sphere of the university. Thus, its contribution to religious studies departments in universities should be beyond dispute.

There are obvious reasons for demanding a stronger empirical basis within the discipline. One is the contemporary focus on the possible relationship between religion and violence or terrorism, which calls for a critical scrutiny of empirical as well as theoretical over-simplifications. It is hard to see how this task can be done without a strong basis in empirical studies, be it on the side of sociology or psychology. Another reason is the growing discussion about the natural, or evolutionary, conditions of religion, which is in a similar need for clarification of concepts, but also of basic features related to the understanding of religion. An obvious example in the latter discussion concerns assumptions about “supernatural beings”, and the lack of substantial knowledge about religions among those who seek to explain it merely on the basis of evolutionary theory. On the other hand, religious people need to take into account that their beliefs also are rooted in natural conditions. To develop a comprehensive understanding of religion (and not only of belief, or faith) is an obvious task for empirically informed philosophies of religions.

Among the important contributions of the philosophy of religion to the contemporary discourse about religion is our ability to point out that religions are not, and cannot be, a competitor to science. This absurd claim, which is upheld among believers and non-believers (and mutually reinforced by their mutual antagonisms) and regrettably also repeated in university circles, ignores that all religion builds on, relates to and presupposes everyday knowledge that sometimes also gives rise to scientific reasoning, but without itself producing what we call science.  Religions are basically about practices of orientation in human life and transformation of the human condition, and people need other things than science to articulate and achieve the goals related to these practices. To see religion as a competitor to science is, therefore, a gross under-determination of both. Practices of orientation and transformation are rooted in the deep evolutionary history of humanity, and among the important tasks for the philosophy of religion today is to develop further the understanding of how and why the need for religion (as practices of orientation and transformation) is so persistent in humanity.

All this means that philosophy of religion cannot simply be about analyzing peoples’ beliefs and the opinions they hold about this or that.  Religions are about a human response to reality, and about employing specific resources for response and engagement with reality in order to go beyond the mere immediate and obvious. Rather than seeing religion as something invented in peoples’ minds, we should see religions as emerging out of the basic conditions for what has made humans in the first place. This approach need not require that one has to assume some belief in the supernatural or in the divine – but it could, nevertheless, also help us understand better why people still find it worthwhile to engage with such ideas.

A final note: the “empirical” dimension that I here suggest should be a more visible part of our discipline is also pedagogically motivated. There is sometimes a detectable and growing distance between public opinions about religion (in believers and non-believers) and the ways academics deal with these subjects. To remain anchored in the empirical even when we do philosophy might help people to better see why we do what we do, and think what we think, when we philosophize about religions. Thereby we might contribute to deepening and expanding public understanding of religion as it appears in everyday life.