Robert C. Neville on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Robert C. Neville is Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Theology at Boston University. 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 primary instances of excellent philosophy of religion come from thinkers who have philosophies that say something important about religion. Think of Hobbes, Locke, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Schleiermacher, Schelling, Peirce, James, Whitehead, and Dewey from the modern Western tradition. These are the people we teach in historically oriented courses in philosophy of religion (along with classical and medieval thinkers, and sometimes representatives of South and East Asian religions). Secondary instances of excellent philosophy of religion come from thinkers who study aspects of religion alone, or mostly alone. I hold that there are four main norms or values defining excellence in primary philosophy of religion.

The first norm is systematic comprehensiveness in relating the many aspects of religion to each other and to everything else. Religion is so complex that no consensus exists as to how to define it, and excellent philosophy of religion needs to show how this complexity relates to the many other things a philosophy should treat. It is fairly obvious that excellent philosophy of religion should treat the nature of ultimate reality or realities and show how various parts of religion engage this. Also, excellent philosophy of religion needs to relate to epistemology so as to interpret cognitive aspects of religion, to morality to interpret how obligation lies, or does not lie, within religion, to psychology and other aspects of selfhood so as to relate to the religious quest for wholeness or alleviation of suffering, to social organization to treat that aspect of religion, to politics, jurisprudence, economics, education, art, and all those other “philosophy of …” topics as they relate to religion. To do all this, excellent philosophy of religion needs to be philosophically systematic, and many models of system exist even if system is not popular in philosophy today.

The second norm is that excellent philosophy of religion needs is to operate out of a base of comparative erudition. Most (though not all) of the thinkers I mentioned above operated out of a Western, if not generally Christian or deist, religious agenda, which biases philosophical study of other religions. Enough scholarly work has been done on most of the world’s religions for them to be brought into comparative connections. The nature of religious and theological comparison itself is a major topic within philosophy of religion today. Comparative philosophical inquiry is also part of philosophy of religion. Some comparisons are detailed and precise. Others are vaguer though still important. For instance, we know now that West Asian religions often develop conceptions of ultimacy out of symbols of persons, emphasizing heightened intentionality, agency, rationality, and will. South Asian religions often develop conceptions of ultimacy out of symbols of persons, but by eliminating just those aspects of intentionality, agency, rationality and will preferred in West Asia and emphasizing purified consciousness. East Asian religions explicitly reject personal models of ultimacy and instead develop symbols of spontaneous emergence. To be sure, many cross-overs and internal variations exist, and excellent philosophy of religion needs to operate out of erudite consciousness of these differences, variations, and counter-influences.

The third norm is that excellent philosophy of religion should seek understanding of the various aspects of religion, how they hang together (or do not hang together), and how they relate to the rest of reality. I mean to contrast understanding as grasping things in relation with explanation as showing how some aspect of religion reduces to something else, for instance evolutionary adaptability, psychological structures, or social legitimation. To be sure, aspects of religion are related to one another and to non-religious things causally sometimes and, in these instances, explanation is to be subsumed into understanding by excellent philosophy of religion. Nevertheless, causal relations are better treated as relations than as reductions because the “effect” in the relation might very well be the effect of many other things with respect to which it is also related. Understanding of an aspect of religion involves comprehending how it stands in relation to all the things to which it is related, and seeing also how it harmonizes (or fails to harmonize) those many relations within itself. No aspect of religion, or religion as a whole if there is such a thing, can be understood only in terms of its relations to other things: understanding something involves knowing how it harmonizes its relations to have its own being.

Wesley Wildman has argued that philosophy of religion is comparative, multidisciplinary inquiry; see his Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future for the Philosophy of Religion (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2010). My second norm for comparative erudition and third norm for understanding the complexities of religion express my agreement. More than Wildman, however, I stress the need for integration and system as expressed in my first norm.

The fourth norm for excellent philosophy of religion is that it should provide philosophic guidance for how to live in the various aspects of religion. I group these aspects into three main kinds. The first are cognitive aspects of religion, and therefore philosophy of religion needs to include philosophical theology, broadly considered; philosophy of religion should not pretend to be a study of beliefs only, but also of their merit. The second are existential aspects whereby individuals’ and groups’ most basic identity is determined religiously, and therefore philosophy of religion needs to include understanding of how people are defined religiously, well-defined, not poorly defined. The third are the practical, institutional, organizational, artistic, and spiritual aspects of religion; philosophy of religion needs to understand how to live well in all these aspects of religion.

In sum, the four norms I think should constrain excellent philosophy of religion are comprehensiveness within a system of philosophy that treats religion, erudition in comparative matters of religion and philosophy/theology, understanding as a mode of knowledge rather than explanation of religion in terms of something else, and philosophic guidance in religious matters.

Evan Fales on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Evan Fales is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Iowa. 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.

There are two rather disparate matters that I’d like to draw attention to. One is a properly philosophical concern; it touches the business of explanation in theism, and the metaphysics of causation. So it falls fairly easily within the range of topics the blog is meant to address. The second matter does so a bit less naturally: it concerns what makes one a good philosopher of religion, rather than what makes for good philosophy of religion; in particular, it touches on the public role of philosophers of religion.

Now it doesn’t seem to me that there is very much that is distinctively good-making in work in philosophy of religion, apart from those virtues that make for good philosophy generally. But there is an issue that arises rather peculiarly in philosophy of religion, inasmuch as most religions posit the existence of disembodied persons – gods, spirits, souls, angels and demons, and a bouquet of other non-material denizens of the supernatural world. And these denizens are supposed to do things: there are ways in which the world is visibly different, in consequence of their actions. Their activities, in a word, are supposed to explain some things that happen – including, sometimes, things that couldn’t happen, but for their agency.

The question is: how do they manage it? The question becomes especially sharp when the agency in question is, ultimately at least, a single agent, whose performances explain, completely or in part, a great deal – perhaps even “everything.” My complaint is simply that, in the latter case especially, the answer too often is that the being in question is omnipotent.

But this is simply to put a label on what needs to be understood. (Indeed, it has proved to be devilishly hard even to provide a general specification or definition of what omnipotence amounts to.) My concern is with the nuts and bolts of this explanatory, or causal, relation. There has been, to be sure, a fair amount of literature of late about the possibility of an immaterial being causing matter to move, in the case of miracles. But it is all too common to find philosophers invoking “omnipotence,” as if that itself answers to the explanatory need. It does not; it merely attaches a label to what wants to be understood.

Perhaps the most plausible attempt (that I know of) to fill the gap is Robert John Russell’s suggestion that God is, in effect, the “hidden variable” that settles all indeterminacy when a quantum superposition state collapses into an eigenvalue – and God can co-ordinate eigenvalues so that something physically extraordinary happens, without violation of energy and momentum conservation. This might be promising – if we could understand how God effects such controlled wave-function collapses – and how such controlled collapses actually could effect, e.g., the near-instant turning of water into wine.

For the most part, we philosophers don’t concern ourselves too much about such arcane matters, but, for my part, it seems that that’s the first question that must be resolved if we are to entertain the explanatory power of supernatural agency. Of course, it is always open to one to just posit some kind of causal or quasi-causal relation between God and the quantum world that allows God to do the job. We invoke theoretical posits all the time; why not posit a new fundamental relation? Fair enough: but – certainly in this case – the relation would be unusual enough, significantly enough disanalogous to anything in ordinary experience, that we should be anxious to discover whether such a relation could be coherently posited, and whether it would be physically possible for an immaterial, and arguably atemporal, being to stand in such a relation to fundamental particles of matter. Lacking such control, the supernatural becomes, religiously speaking, pretty much a dead letter.

There is considerably more that might be said about this first matter, but let me turn to the second; and here I have in mind in particular the contemporary cultural terrain in the US, though my remarks will have quite general application. Philosophers of religion, perhaps as much as those in any of philosophy’s sub-disciplines, have things to say on matters of existential importance to a great many people. So it is no accident that we have been drawn into the tides of cultural debate and, indeed, political division. It is also no accident – and perhaps equally unfortunate – that the psychological forces that lure us into forming views with a strength of certainty that outstrips available evidence are equally pervasive in religion and in the political arena. Philosophers are not immune to these forces, nor, disconcertingly, are they always immune to the temptations of animus that animate so many political and religious disagreements.

We have, surely, a responsibility to wield such wisdom as we may have with grace – more grace than our public arena seems, for the most part, to support. Partly this involves, or should involve, a sense of intellectual humility. How sure do we deserve to be, really, that we’ve got things right? We may have a far more nuanced view of complex issues and difficult problems than many others; but how much distance in the journey to knowledge have we really travelled?

There is, however, a deeper issue that I want to engage. It is pertinent in three arenas in our philosophical lives: the classroom, if we inhabit the academy, the community of fellow-philosophers, and the broader community with which we publically engage. I have in mind something familiar and simple: friendship. Friendship, as I see it, is both a social virtue (as is obvious) and an intellectual one – if only because, at minimum, the capacity for friendship requires an ability to discern and navigate another’s inner world: how they are feeling, what they think and why, what their lived experience of the world is and has been. That kind of understanding goes well beyond – though it certainly demands – the effort to grasp another’s system of beliefs and the outlook they generate. The “something more” that I have particularly in mind is a genuine feeling of empathy, a desire, not only to grasp the views of another, but to grasp what it’s like to see and feel things from their perspective. Though this can be distinguished from sheer intellectual penetration, it is, in my view, one of the most powerful tools that human sensibility has for real insight into and appreciation of another’s point of view.

This is perhaps platitudinous. But it’s my perception that this kind of empathic insight is in rather short supply, even among academics who sit on opposite sides of the various aisles that criss-cross the theological terrain, to say nothing of the general public. And this at a time when real geniality is so badly needed. Too often I’ve seen, and am probably unthinkingly guilty myself, of a kind of obdurate inability or disinclination to allow that an opposing position might be worthy of serious entertainment or another’s heartfelt devotion. Sometimes intellectual progress emerges from heated debate. But often, the most significant illumination emerges, in quieter fashion, in open exchanges between good friends who differ but treasure one another. We can become better philosophers of religion by becoming better friends.

Steven M. Cahn on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Steven M. Cahn is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the City University of New York Graduate Center. 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.

Relatively few philosophers specialize in the philosophy of religion, but many teach an introductory problems course in which one usual topic is the existence of God. The routine approach is to present and assess the three traditional arguments for the existence of God. Then the focus shifts to the problem of evil, after which the unit on God’s existence ends.

My new book RELIGION WITHIN REASON (Columbia University Press 2017) suggests that this approach often takes place within a set of misleading assumptions that may be shared by students and faculty members. One of these assumptions is that if God’s existence were disproved, then religious commitment would have been shown to be unreasonable. Various religions, however, reject the notion of a supernatural God. These include Jainism, Theravada Buddhism, Mimamsa and Samkhya Hinduism, as well as Reconstructionist Judaism and “death of God” versions of Christianity.

Here, for example, is how Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, an opponent of supernaturalism, responds to a skeptic who asks why, if the Bible isn’t taken literally, Jews should nevertheless observe the Sabbath: “We observe the Sabbath not so much because of the account of its origin in Genesis, as because of the role it has come to play in the spiritual life of our People and of mankind…The Sabbath day sanctifies our life by what it contributes to making us truly human and helping us transcend those instincts and passions that are part of our heritage from the sub-human.”1

And here from one of the major figures in the Christian “Death of God” movement, the Anglican Bishop of Woolwich John A. T. Robinson, who denies the existence of a God “up there,” or “out there,” is an account of the Holy Communion: “ [T]oo often…it ceases to be the holy meal, and becomes a religious service in which we turn our backs on the common and the community and in individualistic devotion go to ‘make our communion with God out there.’ This is the essence of the religious perversion, when worship becomes a realm into which to withdraw from the world to ‘be with God’—even if it is only to receive strength to go back into it. In this case the entire realm of the non-religious (in other words ‘life’) is relegated to the profane.”2

Of course, a naturalistic religion can also be developed without deriving it from a supernatural religion. Consider, for example, the outlook of philosopher Charles Frankel, another opponent of supernaturalism, who nevertheless believes that religion, shorn of irrationality, can make a distinctive contribution to human life, providing deliverance from vanity, triumph over meanness, and endurance in the face of tragedy. As he puts it, “it seems to me not impossible that a religion could draw the genuine and passionate adherence of its members while it claimed nothing more than to be poetry in which [people] might participate and from which they might draw strength and light.”3

Such naturalistic options are philosophically respectable. Whether to choose any of them is for each person to decide.

Teachers and students should also recognize that theism does not imply religious commitment. After all, even if someone believes that one or more of the proofs for God’s existence is sound, the question remains whether to join a religion and, if so, which one. The proofs contain not a clue as to which religion, if any, is favored by God. Indeed, God may oppose all religious activity. Perhaps God does not wish to be prayed to, worshipped, or adored, and might even reward those who shun such activities.

Yet another misleading assumption is implicit in the definitions which are usually offered: a theist believes in God, an atheist disbelieves in God, and an agnostic neither believes or disbelieves in God. Notice that the only hypothesis being considered is the existence of God as traditionally conceived; no other supernatural alternatives are taken seriously. But why not?

Suppose, for example, the world is the scene of a struggle between God and the Demon. Both are powerful, but neither is omnipotent. When events go well, God’s benevolence is ascendant; when events go badly, the Demon’s malevolence is ascendant. Is this doctrine, historically associated width Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism, unnecessarily complex and therefore to be rejected? No, for even though in one sense it is more complex than monotheism, because it involves two supernatural beings rather than one, in another sense it is simpler, because it leaves no aspect of the world beyond human understanding. After all, theism faces the problem of evil, while dualistic hypotheses have no difficulty accounting for both good and evil.

In sum, I would suggest that both faculty members and students should remember the following four essential points: (1) belief in the existence of God is not a necessary condition for religious commitment; (2) belief in the existence of God is not a sufficient condition for religious commitment; (3) the existence of God is not the only supernatural hypothesis worth serious discussion; and (4) a successful defense of traditional theism requires not only that it be more plausible than atheism or agnosticism but that it be more plausible than all other supernatural alternatives.

I am not suggesting, of course, that the proofs for the existence of God or the problem of evil not be taught. I am urging, however, that all participants be alerted to the limited implications of that discussion.

1. Mordecai M. Kaplan, Judaism Without Supernaturalism (New York: Reconstructionist Press, 1958), 115-116.
2. John A.T. Robinson, Honest to God (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963), 86-87.
3. Charles Frankel, The Love of Anxiety, and Other Essays (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 1962.

Douglas Groothuis on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Douglas Groothuis is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary. 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.

By philosophy of religion I mean the intellectual discipline of critically evaluating religious truth claims, whether individual propositions or propositional systems (or worldviews). This discipline may be self-standing, as in a philosophy of religion course at a college or university, or it may involve bringing religious assertions to bear on other disciplines, such as political theory, aesthetics, or psychology. For example, a lecture, class, or academic paper might engage how Judaism has shaped Western liberal traditions concerning religious liberty and property.

Let me illustrate this from an undergraduate class I taught at a secular university. In addressing questions of meaning and morality, I offered a theistic perspective by way of arguments. I later found—after students complained to the head of the Philosophy department—that I was accused of pushing religion in class. I really was not; rather, I was doing philosophy of religion in response to some perennial philosophical questions. These students apparently did not know there was such a thing as philosophy of religion. For them, religion was only about belief and preaching, not arguments. Of course, they were wrong; and I was asked to teach another class the next term. I take from this that doing good philosophy of religion may involve justifying the discipline as an intellectually legitimate means for testing and applying religious truth claims.

But what constitutes a virtuous pursuit of knowledge in this discipline? Philosophy of religion, like all intellectual disciplines, should be, at minimum, characterized by these values.

1. Obscurity is not usually profundity, especially not in philosophy. Whatever issues are at hand should be addressed with conceptual clarity. This requires a clear use of key terms (providing definitions, if needed). While philosophy of religion need not aspire to the analytical precision of Alvin Plantinga or Keith Yandel, it should not leave the reader lost in the mists of ill-defined terms and puzzling sentences.

2. The golden rule belongs to philosophy of religion as to everything else. Just as we are troubled when our arguments are misrepresented and wish this were not the case, so should we go the second mile in making sure that we represent all views fairly and accurately. Some of my wife’s careful arguments on the philosophy of gender in relation to religion have been made into straw men by a number of men and women. It hurts and it is wrong.

3. Philosophy is about arguments, and arguments come in various general forms: induction, deduction, abduction (or best explanation), and for the stouthearted, Bayesian probabilities. Good writing in the philosophy of religion–or any kind of philosophy–will identify argument forms. In some cases, the same conclusion flows from two different formulations of an argument. Writers should not overburden the reader by making them wonder exactly what is being argued for and how.

4. Arguments should anticipate rebuttal. It is not enough to argue that P is true and leave it at that. The philosopher should consider the relevant arguments against P in order to weigh its merits. Thomas Aquinas left us with the developed form of this back-and-forth model for discourse. We need not copy his style, but we should not forget his method.

5. Clichés or taken-for-granted ideas in the philosophy of religion sometimes need to be challenged or refuted. Philosophy is not insulated from intellectual fashions or groupthink. For example, Descartes is usually credited as influential in philosophy (sometimes called “the father of modern philosophy”), but his arguments for God’s existence are often ignored or given short shrift. When a reviewer of one of my books found that I had carefully formulated and approved of one of his theistic arguments, he or she simply said, “Philosophers don’t accept this anymore.” So what? Let us give it a try. One needs either to show that one or more of the premises are wrong or that the argument form is faulty. Otherwise, there is no counter-argument.

Even Descartes’ stated method for philosophical argument has its merits for philosophy of religion, although I will not elaborate on them. In Discourse on Method, he presents four “precepts of logic” which he resolves never to violate: (1) to believe nothing except what is clear and distinct, (2) to divide up problems into appropriate parts, (3) to proceed from the simple to the complex, and (4) to make sure nothing is left out.

6. Philosophy of religion should not shy away from prudential concerns concerning religious doctrines. If nirvana is the highest state of being, what existential difference would this make? If the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation are logically coherent, should this encourage one to consider Christianity more carefully? As philosopher Mortimer J. Adler said, “More consequences for life and action follow from the affirmation or denial of God than from any other basic question.” If the Confucian idea of propriety is a fitting way to comport oneself in family and society, how would this affect one’s manners, customs, and even voting? And so on.

7. Philosophers of religion should seek to be involved in settings in which proponents of different religions discuss the rationality of each other’s truth claims. This happens often with Christians and atheists, but there is no reason it should not extend to Muslims and Buddhists or Jews and Hindus, etc. These exchanges—which may be debates or dialogues, written or oral—help prevent misunderstanding and ignorance of each religion’s respective positions.

These seven values do not exhaust the treasury of epistemic virtue, but I take them to be vital for intellectual engagement in the philosophy of religion. I look forward to seeing what others deem worthy.