Diane Proudfoot on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Diane Proudfoot is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. We invited her 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.

When I told a visiting philosopher that I was writing a book in the philosophy of religion, he said: ‘Why? Aren’t there enough books in the philosophy of religion already?’. This response was not the most delicate (I was treating him to a good lunch), but it was to the point. After all, will anyone really criticize the logical structure of teleological arguments more effectively than Hume? Write about religious experience more provocatively than Freud? Or argue about the possible benefits of religion more ingeniously than Al-Ghazālī? And, if that’s as unlikely as it seems, what justifies taking up yet more server space?

However, it would be absurd to say that, since Hume’s Dialogues are excellent philosophy of religion (or the South Island of New Zealand a spectacular place to visit), further work (or travel) is superfluous. Philosophy of religion (hereafter PR) continually changes—or should change—as a result of both intra- and extra-philosophical factors. Beginning with the former, excellent PR is up-to-date. PR is a composite of philosophical questions from a range of fields—metaphysics, logic, ethics, epistemology, political philosophy—and each of these generates new theories, ideas, and arguments. These in turn must be integrated (where relevant) into PR. In addition, PR is sensitive: it is aware that its subject is not solely the ‘Big 5’ religions—even with the addition of reinterpretations such as feminist or non-realist Christianity and secular Buddhism—but also the vast range of religions worldwide.

Next, influences from outside philosophy. Here science and naturalism dominate: just as philosophy of mind has recognized the importance of the cognitive sciences, so excellent PR accommodates the results of neuroimaging and experimental psychology. Also, the shift among numerous people in the West from a religious to a ‘spiritual’ identification has the result that certain of PR’s traditional subjects—for example, the deity targeted by the problem of evil—may become peripheral. In contrast, the greater public awareness of different faiths has the result that the epistemological and ethical problems of religious diversity and freedom are inescapable topics in 21st century PR.

Certainly Hume anticipated the modern view that the origin and persistence of religion is explained by anthropomorphism and death anxiety. Yet he was constrained by the science and philosophy of his time. He began through a glass darkly to tackle assertions—including that of a divine designer—that today are articulated in markedly different ways. Even Hume’s 20th century heirs, such as John Mackie, were writing before the explosion in the cognitive science of religion. And so, as philosophy and the world change, more monographs, articles, and lecture courses on PR—as well as philosophyofreligion.org blogs—are necessary.

Of course, my colleague who challenged the need for further books on PR may simply suppose that all (fundamental) religious beliefs are false—and conclude that there is little point in philosophical analysis of the content of such beliefs. Instead, what is required is sociological study of believers. Or that religion is actually a matter more of behaviour than belief—and so again is the domain of the social scientist. This view need not eliminate courses or textbooks on PR, or even books for the general public, since it must be made clear why religious beliefs are false—but it seems to pull the rug out from any other PR project.

This, though, is to overlook the fact that naturalized PR itself leads to new philosophical questions. Can the believer consistently accept both an immaterialist metaphysics of ‘ultimate reality’ and naturalistic explanations of the origin and persistence of religion? This is a new question, prompting new arguments—for example, that a supernatural deity is the likely source of any evolved disposition to religious belief or experience.

Moreover, just as philosophy and the world evolve, so religions and the religious change. Religious writings are customized in order to be consistent with modern science. For example, Al-Ghazālī’s claim that the religious person is typically happier than the non-religious is reinvented using 21st century statistical techniques and empirical studies. Doctrines are reinterpreted in order to evade philosophical problems that (my sceptical colleague believes) defeat ‘traditional’ religious claims.

Even the metaphysics of religion is reinvented. For example, techno-prophets claim that imminent progress in computer engineering and neuroscience will make good on religion’s promise of survival after death. According to (what I call) techno-supernaturalism, souls are in essence patterns of information, in principle replicable and upgradeable; after death I am simply a digital ghost awaiting reanimation. This is a daring hypothesis, but no more so than those of supernaturalist religions—and it is more attractive to digital natives than the idea of a ‘spirit body’ or revived corpse. This is natural theology for the computer age, explicitly branded as ‘digital theology’.

In sum, excellent philosophy of religion is, among other things, responsive to its time. And now is an exciting time.

Charles Taliaferro on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Charles Taliaferro is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at St. Olaf College. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

I suggest that philosophical inquiry is similar to, but different from a great deal of scientific inquiry, especially when the latter involves repeatable experimentation, empirical data, predicting physical events. Philosophy can certainly rely on experience (as in phenomenology) and on the natural and social sciences themselves, but, in general, philosophical accounts of values, human practices (from religious to secular), of knowledge-claims, and so on, can involve some formal norms (coherence, logical consistency) and a wide variety of other considerations (from conceptual and/or linguistic analysis to the appeal to intuition). In terms of methodology, I have defended in various places what is called phenomenological realism-in the tradition of Max Scheler and von Hildebrand. This is decidedly different from some in philosophy of mind and philosophy of religion who assume as a methodological framework some form of naturalism. In the book Naturalism co-authored with Stewart Goetz, and in other books such as A Brief History of the Soul, we have argued that both strict and broad forms of naturalism are problematic.

In taking a closer look at the place where science and philosophy diverge, I suggest it is rare for an interesting philosophical position to be tested by empirical experiments. How would one test (for example) externalist vs internalist accounts of justification in epistemology or moral realism or nominalism vs Platonism on abstract objects or even idealism (whether with Berkeley or Hegel)? Well, I suppose the later might be a counter-example as Hegel thought he could determine philosophically the number of planets. But in most arguments in philosophy of religion-from theodicies to the evidential problem of evil versus skeptical theism articulated by William Rowe and Paul Draper, perfect being theology, Buddhist arguments against a substantive account of the self, whether God might be timeless, etc.-it is hard to see how matters might be resolved empirically.

Still, insofar as philosophy of religion is understood to be about religion, it does seem as though scientific inquiry will be needed in order to understand what are claimed by various religious communities, etc; this is, though necessary, not sufficient for philosophical inquiry.

One might also note that the field of philosophy of religion contains ongoing projects involving the appeal to evidence and testing the explanatory power of key positions (commonly this concerns comparing the merits of theism and some form of naturalism). But philosophy of religion also includes philosophers who repudiate appeals to explanatory power and the metaphysics of theism. This has been done by both theists (like John Cottingham and Paul Moser) and non-theists (such as the late D.Z. Phillips) as well as by some who repudiate the theism versus atheism debate (Howard Wettstein, for example, does not self-identify as an atheist or theist). In a sense philosophy of religion may be the most diverse sub-field of philosophy for it draws on all the other sub-fields in the discipline (metaphysics, epistemology, value theory, logic, political philosophy, philosophy of science, even aesthetics, and so on). Insofar as these sub-fields have diversity (say, instrumentalism versus realism in philosophy of science), that diversity often shows up in philosophy of religion.

Timothy Knepper on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Timothy Knepper is professor of philosophy and chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Drake 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.

In the past, I have written about philosophy of religion as a means of taking seriously religion, the world, and one’s self. Here, I will treat these ends of philosophy of religion as values for philosophy of religion. By no means do these three desiderata constitute an exhaustive list of values or norms for philosophy of religion. (In this respect, I usually defend the full gamut.) Rather, I emphasize these ends here as features or values of philosophy of religion that are underrepresented, if not neglected, in contemporary philosophy of religion.

First, philosophy of religion takes religion seriously. For me, this means fidelity to the phenomena of religion or, in epistemological terms, empirical adequacy. Simply put, if the philosophy of religion is to be philosophy of religion, then it needs to philosophize about a diversity of religious reasons and ideas, as voiced by a diversity of cultures, classes, creeds, and genders. This means paying attention to religious diversity in space and time, as well as paying attention to voices that are typically excluded from the discourses of philosophy of religion. Given the power dynamics of contemporary philosophy of religion, it involves resistance to the hegemony of Christocentric theism and theistic philosophy of religion. Contra a prevalent bias in the academic study of religion, it also requires defending the investigation of religious realities, truths, and values as one important facet of the study of religion more broadly. This might seem to be in contrast to what politically-correct societies tell us: respect religious difference by avoiding questions of truth and value. But such avoidance in fact disrespects religious traditions and communities, since they often, if not always, make claims about what is true and valuable.

Philosophy of religion also takes seriously the world. By “the world,” I primarily have in mind human others with whom we come into contact, whether immediately or not. How does philosophy of religion take seriously such others? For starters, it recognizes that others take themselves seriously, at least some of the time, asking questions of meaning, truth, and value about themselves and their world. At the same time, though, it readily admits that these others often answer such questions differently. So, if we are going to live in a flourishing society or world with these others, let alone have significant interactions with them, then we need to know at least a little something about what they take as ultimately meaningful, truthful, and valuable. We might even need to know how to discuss and debate matters that are ultimately meaningful, truthful, and valuable in ways that are respectful and peaceful. This is all the more true for the community of scholars that practices philosophy of religion as such. It is critical that this community of inquiry not only be constituted by a robust diversity of biases and biographies (etc.) but also engage this diversity in a manner that helps check biases, especially of the powerful, and enrich inquiry, especially with regard to equity and inclusion. Perhaps, then, we can call this value or norm or end “dialogical diversity.”

Finally, philosophy of religion takes seriously oneself. Undergirding this claim, for starters, is my belief that humans generally want to know what is meaningful, true, and valuable. Not always, of course. But sometimes, at least. Philosophy of religion is one very important way of doing this, since philosophy of religion asks about what is meaningful, true, and valuable with regard to ultimate beings, truths, and goods, especially where other-worldly beings or post-mortem ends are concerned. For me, this means that at the end of the day philosophy of religion is personal. What I mean by this is that philosophy of religion is a means of helping oneself think through and reason toward what is personally meaningful, true, and valuable with regard to ultimate beings, truths, and goods. Philosophy of religion is notoriously “subjective,” at least in the sense that it is darn difficult to produce “feedback” to confirm or confute hypotheses about religious reality, truth, and goodness. Thus, there is seldom inter-subjective agreement about such hypotheses. Nevertheless, philosophy of religion remains an important, if not necessary, means of taking one’s own self seriously by investigating these matters for oneself.