Neil A. Manson on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Neil A. Manson is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Mississippi. 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.

I will restrict my comments to the analytic approach to philosophy. I will also modify the question in a slight but significant way to “What personal norms or values should guide philosophers of religion?” That is, I will talk about desirable qualities in the people who do philosophy of religion rather than in the output they produce.

As philosophers, philosophers of religion ought to follow the standard norms of the field. They ought to be precise and rigorous logically, helping themselves to a toolkit including propositional logic, quantifier logic, modal logic, probability theory, set theory, and so on. They ought to be interdisciplinary, incorporating (when appropriate) physical science, social science, and history. And they ought to be intradisciplinary, integrating in their own work the best from the full array of relevant philosophical subdisciplines: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, philosophy of mind and language, history of philosophy, and so on. But those familiar with the subdiscipline “philosophy of religion” will probably recognize that, by and large, these norms are, indeed, followed. Pick up any recent book in philosophy of religion. Sprinkled throughout it you will likely see some combination of formal logical proofs, universal quantifiers, diamond operators, probability calculations, and citations of various scientific papers. In that regard, it will be hard to distinguish a philosophy of religion book from one in any other area of philosophy. Adhering to these norms thus in no way makes philosophers of religion distinctive within philosophy. Doing these things is just a precondition for doing good philosophy. Are there any, more distinctive norms that ought to guide philosophers of religion?

To answer this, we must recognize a crucial fact about philosophy of religion’s place both in philosophy more broadly and in academia as a whole. Within philosophy, philosophers of religion are regarded with considerable suspicion. Since the reasons for that are pretty widely discussed amongst philosophers of religion, especially amongst newly-minted Ph.D.s and their advisers, I will not rehearse them here. I want to focus on how analytic philosophers of religion relate to the rest of their colleagues across the university.

If we list standard subfields of philosophy, we will find that some have no non-philosophy rivals for the attention of their subject matters. For example, most metaphysical questions are ones no one else in the academic world is addressing. None but metaphysicians are trying to figure out the nature of modality, of abstract objects, of causation, of time, or of personal identity. [Some would say that this is not a virtue of metaphysicians but rather a reason to be suspicious of them.] But for many subfields, there are fields outside of philosophy addressing the same subject. For example, philosophers of mind both compete and cooperate with psychologists, brain scientists, linguists, and computer scientists in the effort to understand the mind. And philosophers of mind (for the most part) seek concordance with their non-philosopher academic counterparts. Infrequent exceptions aside, philosophers of mind try to stay abreast of and in step with developments in those other fields. And sometimes the scholars in those other fields will appeal to the work of philosophers of mind. The same is true of most other “philosophers of” – philosophers of biology, philosophers of language, philosophers of physics, and so on. They are part of a larger academic community, with a distinctive approach but overlapping goals.

The situation with philosophers of religion seems to me to be significantly different. Currently, philosophy of religion is the only field in the humanities and social sciences in which religious beliefs are often treated as matters of reason and evidence – as if they might be true. It is the only academic subdiscipline in which there are serious arguments in the current scholarly literature concerning the existence of God, the nature of God, the afterlife, the soul, and so on. Whatever one thinks of the merits of those arguments, they played (and still play) a crucial role in the religious, social, political, scientific, and intellectual life of the world. For example, one cannot really understand significant aspects of modern science without understanding the belief that reason and empirical evidence show that the entire universe was created and designed by God, and that God intended for us to understand God’s plan. But one cannot understand that belief without understanding both the Cosmological and Design arguments. While they may have been wrong, the religious figures who thought reason and science were on the side of their faith really did think it. Likewise, Calvinists and Arminians really did think one side was right and the other wrong, and they thought reasoned arguments could be offered to support their favored position and refute the position they opposed.

Yet approaching religious beliefs as if it they might be true or false is something that almost never happens nowadays in non-philosophy disciplines. In the fields of religion/religious studies, sociology, anthropology, history and literature – and even in some seminaries and divinity schools – religion is by and large approached from a postmodernist perspective. Religious beliefs and practices are viewed as encoding power relationships amongst races, classes, and genders. Religions are interesting for what they tell us about those relationships. In evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, religious beliefs are treated either as adaptations or as spandrels, benefitting the biological fitness either of the individual or the group. In both cases, it is just a presumption – an explicit methodological presumption at best and an unexamined dogma at worst – that people do not hold to religious belief X because X is true, probably true, or more likely to be true than Y. [If you see the word “true” used in these fields, there is a good chance there will be quotation marks around it.] For example, in these fields, no part of the explanation for why, historically, monotheism has tended to supplant polytheism is that it is quite reasonable to think monotheism is more likely to be true than polytheism, or that the arguments for monotheism are objectively more persuasive than those for polytheism.

This blog is not the place to judge whether this enormous difference in methodological presuppositions indicates a defect in philosophy of religion or rather in the other disciplines just mentioned. [In my own view, while those taking a postmodernist or an evolutionary approach to religion succeed in identifying many very important aspects of religion, they also often ignore other important aspects of religion. See my “Religion and Metaphysical Naturalism” in *The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy of Religion*, 2015). The point is just that the philosopher of religion is a serious outlier within academia. The typical philosopher of mind is likely to find a sympathetic audience, and possibly actual collaborators, in the psychology department or the neuroscience program. Likewise with philosophy of language, philosophy of science, and so on. In all those cases, there are points of collaboration, possibilities for joint degree programs, and even opportunities for joint academic appointments. In contrast, the philosophers of religion are quite likely to find themselves in a chilly (if not flat-out adversarial) relationship with their colleagues who study religion for a living. If you are a philosopher of religion, do not expect the members of the other fields mentioned to have much interest in your research, the speakers you bring in, or the questions you think are important. Do not expect to find a shared sense that you are all participating in different ways in the same larger project. The methodological and cultural gap between analytic philosophy of religion and these other disciplines is just too great.

So, what personal values ought to guide analytic philosophers of religion? Fortitude is one. If you are the only philosopher of religion on a typical college campus in the English-speaking world, be prepared to be a solitary figure. You can assume that, if your colleagues outside of philosophy have any idea of what you do, they think it is largely or completely a waste of time – something that has nothing to do with the actual understanding of religion. Congeniality is another value to cultivate. If you want the colleagues outside of your department to identify with and support you and what you do, you will have to sell yourself and your work to them. You cannot just expect them to understand what you do or see the value in it. Have a story ready to go explaining why what you do is important. Doctoral programs train their graduates to pitch what they do to other philosophers – to people on hiring committees, most notably. But if you are a philosopher of religion and you want to flourish at your school, you need a sales pitch for the non-philosophers, too. Finally, convey humility. If you are an analytic philosopher of religion, in graduate school you probably learned to disdain the sorts of approaches to religious belief I have discussed. Drop the disdain (or hide it, at least). Not only is it counterproductive, but it alienates people with whom you might work and from whom you can learn.

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.

What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?

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Here at PhilosophyOfReligion.org we are hosting an ongoing discussion by philosophers of religion about philosophy of religion. Our first blog series asked simply, “What is philosophy of religion?”; and our second series inquired, “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” Our third discussion focuses on the values and norms that define excellence in our field. What qualities or characteristics make a work in philosophy of religion worthy of being read, re-read, and criticized by fellow philosophers of religion? What, in fact, do we most admire in the work of others, and what ought we to most admire? Is rigorous argumentation the be-all and end-all of philosophy of religion, or are other values also important, such as multidisciplinarity, adequacy to the diversity of living religions, sensitivity to the existential dimension of religion, etc.?

The norms and values that define excellence in an inquiry not only specify the conditions for successful, progressive inquiry, but also implicitly define the goals of the inquiry itself. Is the purpose of philosophy of religion to explain religious phenomena, to criticize and/or defend religious ideas through argumentation, to gain wisdom about the good life through the study of human religions, or something else? Through an analysis of philosopher’s answers to our question about norms and values, we hope to surface some of the diverse views of the goal of philosophy of religion that are prevalent in the field. Once our analysis of the discussion is complete, we’ll present our findings on this website.

In the meantime, we invite you to read the blog entries and learn from experts who work in the field about the values and norms that define philosophy of religion.

David Rohr is a PhD candidate at Boston University’s Graduate Division of Religious Studies, and editor of PhilosophyOfReligion.org; Wesley J. Wildman is a philosopher of religion working at Boston University, and founder of PhilosophyOfReligion.org.