Bassam Romaya is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
The philosophy of religion might seem to suggest that the subject area deals with a series of philosophical questions about religion, perhaps a “meta-theological” undertaking, a series of cryptic meditations about the nature or origin of some necessary being, mundane ruminations on the problem of evil, an examination of religious experience, analyses on the distinction between faith and reason, and so on. Apart from rudimentary questions, it appears to me that an increasingly widening approach to the various components of philosophy of religion is essential. In reflecting upon the question of meaning, articulating the nature of contemporary philosophy of religion, I have found it helpful to draw upon insights I encountered from students, as a result of undergraduate instruction in courses that intersect the margins of philosophy and religion, courses on world religion, world philosophy, Arabic/Islamic philosophy, mysticism, and the like.
One of the leading questions we consider, usually at the outset of the term, attempts to articulate methodological differences between the two disciplines in order to identify any similarities and differences, and ultimately, ground a workable account that serves as a springboard for our study of the various issues commonly examined in such courses, broadly construed. In appealing to the etymological root of religion from the Latin, religare, “to bind or tie,” in other words, to bind an individual to a relationship of obligation or one of mutual devotion (as Sri Krishna teaches us in the Bhagavad Gita) to a system, higher power/s or entity/ies believed to preside over one’s destiny, we find a lucrative account from which to correlate our understanding of the two domains of inquiry. In this sense, an informed position might mean an attitude toward the human condition, a particular perspective about the world, a generational collection of cultural or moral wisdom, largely depended on being positioned within a narrative or metaphorical story about the origin and purpose of human life. These ideas are fascinatingly close to what is sometimes meant by philosophy, as a repository of some set of principles, a weltanschauung, a value system that holds some special significance for its proponents. I do not contend that philosophy and religion are identical pursuits, nor that their methodologies are merely synonymous. What is particularly significant is the observation that students often have difficulty articulating the differences between the two subjects and their methods, mistakenly believing that philosophy is an entirely secular enterprise whereas religion is that branch of philosophy with a God/s-principle at its core. This insight illuminates the sense in which both philosophy and religion expound value systems, deemed either sacred (religion) or supremely significant (philosophy) for its adherents.