Robert McKim on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Robert McKim is Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Religion at the University of Illinois. 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.

On Excellence in Philosophy of Religion

It seems to me that what is required for excellence on the part of an individual philosopher of religion (“individual excellence”) is somewhat different from what is required for excellence in the entire field of philosophy of religion (“disciplinary excellence,” as I shall call it) though there are interesting connections between the two.

Individual excellence
is, in part at least, easy to outline. It includes thinking systematically, deeply, and with care about philosophical issues, questions, and conundrums raised by religion, and being mindful of relevant views and concepts that others have developed and of the history of relevant debates and controversies.

The work of philosophers of religion whose projects are very narrow in focus is sometimes excellent. Such work might focus on the merits of particular arguments or on the interpretation of particular concepts. Or it might be limited to issues that are unique to a particular religion.

And why shouldn’t philosophers of religion focus on arguments or concepts that are of particular interest to them, however limited in scope they may be? Why shouldn’t they dig deeply into their own religious perspective, or the perspective with which they are most familiar, or that is of most interest or most importance to them, or that is the subject of discussion in the academic and intellectual circles in which they move, using the best tools available? Thus their aim might be to probe the best way to articulate some of the ideas associated with their perspective or to provide philosophical arguments in its defense.

Whether or not reason is the slave of the passions, in the case of philosophy of religion – and indeed in many other fields in philosophy – reason functions to a considerable extent as the willing accomplice of prior commitments. People have views and those views seem to them to be correct. And philosophers have a set of tools for the clarification, analysis, and defense of their views. Why shouldn’t philosophers of religion deploy such tools with respect to their own views or the views they find most interesting?

Disciplinary excellence certainly involves encouraging and fostering individual excellence. It also involves fairly widespread distribution of individual excellence among its practitioners. However, it could be that everyone who plies the trade conducts themselves in an excellent fashion and yet the field as a whole fails to be excellent in an important respect.

This is because disciplinary excellence has a distinctive aspect – one that is not a feature of individual excellence though, I suggest, it has implications for individual excellence. In particular, as many scholars have argued in recent decades, the field as a whole should not be narrow in focus. By now there may even be a consensus to this effect among people who reflect about these matters; certainly the voices calling for this are getting louder, and for good reason.

Disciplinary excellence requires attending to the variety of forms that religion has assumed, and even forms it could assume. It requires recognition that one religion’s beliefs, claims, ideas, and so on are no more deserving of exploration or clarification or analysis, or in general of philosophical reflection in all of its aspects, than those of other religions.

Hence when we consider the field as a whole, and how it conducts itself, it does not make sense to think that, say, the Buddhist idea of a relational self is more worthy of reflection than the Islamic idea of prophethood, or vice versa. Nor does it make sense to think that the Navajo concept of the earth as our mother is more worthy of reflection than the Christian concept of the incarnation, or vice versa. The field as a whole should be on the side of inclusion and broad-ranging exploration. It should endeavor to contribute to deeper thinking across many religious traditions, taking a careful analytical approach to all manner of concepts here, there, and yonder across the religious landscape.

Philosophy of religion that is broader in scope, taking religious phenomena of all sorts within its purview, would be more useful, providing more people with ways to deepen and enrich their thinking. It would also be more relevant to the present moment in which people all over the world are plunged into ever-increasing connections with others from other religious traditions, and information about many religions is more available than ever. Moreover, given the variety of religions, the range and scope of their claims, and the sheer abundance of their ideas, a broader philosophy of religion will be more interesting than philosophical reflection that is limited to a single tradition. It is therefore likely to receive more attention from non-specialists. To sum up, a broader philosophy of religion would be more relevant, more useful, and more interesting.

Consider some parallels. It would be absurd for anthropology of religion to confine itself to, say, African religions. And it would be equally absurd for reflection about contemporary democratic institutions in the field of political science to limit itself to, say, the current scene in Europe. The same applies to philosophy of religion. Academic fields and subfields, and the directions they take, are the collective responsibility of those who engage in them, and this includes philosophy of religion.

However, the breadth that is characteristic of disciplinary excellence may not reasonably be expected from individual scholars though there certainly have been pioneers who have made innovative moves in this regard, and I am pretty sure there will be more. We are very limited beings who are prone to bias and partiality. More important, when deciding what to think about religious matters, probably there is more relevant evidence that needs to be taken account of than individuals are capable of taking account of.

On the other hand, once an individual appreciates the need for the field to be excellent in the way suggested, then they may wish to make it part of their task to promote excellence in the field even if their own work remains relatively limited in scope. And even, say, the interpretation of concepts that are unique to one religion may be enriched by exposure to similar or related concepts of others. In fine, individual excellence can be enhanced by being mindful of a particular aspect of disciplinary excellence.

For this reason some training in the general area of the academic study of religion – and in particular the broad understanding of the religious experience of humanity that this can provide – probably will be helpful to most and maybe all philosophers of religion. Likewise the academic study of religion, and those who engage in it, probably would benefit from a broader philosophy of religion.