Anat Biletzki on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Anat Biletzki is the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Philosophy at Quinnipiac University. 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.

On pain of repetition – of so many things that have already been written in this conversation – I accept as a given that the philosophy of religion answers to one’s definition of “philosophy” and “religion.” On both podia we do not all agree; and the discussions concerning “What is philosophy?” and “What is religion?” clearly impact our determination of norms and values that guide both. In fact, I venture that one’s conceptions of philosophy – call them one’s metaphilosophy – cannot but include, indeed be constituted by, one’s ideas of the normative aspects of philosophy. (And if one believes that philosophy is, or can be, predicated on empirical, descriptive, experiential theories, why even then that metaphilosophy harbors value-laden discriminations and pronouncements.) After a general metaphilosophical step has been taken decisively, the philosophy of religion, like the philosophy of science or the philosophy of language or the philosophy of art etc., posits the question that is, I dare say, its first question – “What is religion?” Other questions in the philosophy of religion then follow naturally and copiously.

That is where my metaphilosophy begins: with questioning. Philosophy is, for me, not a theory or a medley of theories, neither metaphysical, nor epistemic, nor of ethics or aesthetics. It is – or should be – rather an activity of questioning. Not all questions, however, are philosophical questions and not all methods of questioning are philosophical methods. Philosophical questions are conceptual questions and the methods of posing them are rational and analytic. In other words, they involve us in critique. Philosophy, then, is the rational, analytic, critical posing of conceptual questions. That is not to say that one need not scavenge the panoply of answers that have been given throughout history to these same questions while posing them – again and again and again. Neither is it to say that one should desist from empirical data in order to ask, ask again, ask better. Human experience, be it religious or, for that matter linguistic or aesthetic, is, itself, a wellspring of input for our questioning. In other words, philosophy and philosophical questioning need not be, must not be, an abstract, theoretical game of words that is disconnected from reality. Especially not in the philosophy of religion.

So the philosophy of religion is entrusted with investigating the question “What is religion?” and must do so, i.e., ask the question, as a rational, analytic, and critical enterprise, even if religion, its practice, and the beliefs of its practitioners are perceived by some to be irrational and lacking a critical bent. The same modes of rationality, analysis, and critique accompany further questions about further concepts – God, holiness, redemption, idolatry, creation, eternal life, sacrifice – that arise in the philosophy of religion: What, if anything, can we know about God? If God is all good, all knowing, and all powerful, then why does evil exist? What is the relationship between faith and reason? Can we rationally justify our religious beliefs/practices? What do religious beliefs refer to? Does the fact of great religious diversity mean anything for any particular religion or religious person? What is the relationship between religion and morality? What is the relationship between religion and science? Why do we have religion? What is it to be religious?

These norms – conceptuality, rationality, criticality, and analyticity – of how to deal with the (questions of the) philosophy of religion should be followed by others, that derive from the activity of questioning itself: openness to unexpected questions, toleration of odd suggestions of answers, patience with the stubbornness of dogma. In the case of religion, as opposed to, for example, philosophy of language or philosophy of mind, these values of acceptance towards the startling otherness of other thinkers are more pronounced and indispensable. This evidently has to do with the crucial place of religion in human experience, human life, and – I dare say – human politics. Perhaps it also has to do with how we teach, rather than write or research, the philosophy of religion.

All the above pertains to norms and values that we cherish and pursue in the philosophy of religion. But our question referred to excellent philosophy of religion. And it is here that we arrive at a level of engagement which must be aspired to when we acknowledge the context-dependency of doing current philosophy of religion. The contemporary “behavior” of religion, the present-day place of philosophy in the academy, and the relation between the two advocate additional standards of inquiry if we are to reach such excellence. Asking questions about religion in the philosophical arena must recognize the real-life workings of religion -existential, institutional, political – as they occur today; it must, likewise, be aware of intellectual and social changes that now permeate our philosophical endeavors. I only have time to mention three such desiderata, three necessary frameworks, without which the philosophy of religion in the 21st century would be sorely lacking; with them it can aim for excellence.

Of the questions listed above, and of many others, one can say that they are not properly philosophical. Instead of being metaphysical, they may be construed as scientific; instead of dealing with epistemology, they are “merely” psychological; instead of addressing theology, they turn to politics. But it should be obvious, in the heyday of interdisciplinarity, that the ivory-towered conceptual, theoretical exclusiveness that is sometimes still mistakenly identified with philosophy has given way to a multi-perspectival cognizance of the deep significance of religious practices. That means involving in our study, for example, the Marxian critique of religion even though it carries the label of “political thought.” That entails engaging with Freud’s assault on religion although it lives in the halls of psychology. Sociological and anthropological renditions of the religious life (Geertz, but also Frazer) are fertile fields upon which to sow even more questions about religion. The philosophy of religion, even while analyzing the classical, logically astute, clearly conceptual contributions of great dead philosophers, cannot, in these interconnected intellectual times, ignore fruitful observations and interpretations from any and all persuasions.

The borders between philosophy and other disciplines have been trespassed, and wisely so. (Perhaps that should be the fate of all borders.) Similarly, the global reach of our discoveries and discussions has now made religions that are not of Western provenance more familiar and within reach. But the values which have reigned in traditional philosophy of religion have been centered on the Abrahamic religions with a sometime nod to some Eastern religions (mostly Buddhism and Confucianism). “Religions of the World” must become more than simply a descriptive name of a university class. Current attentiveness to the diversity of religions populating the world must result in a transformation of how we formulate, investigate, and adjudicate questions and their conceivable answers in the philosophy of religion. Indeed, opening up to the variety of systems of belief and concurrent practices around the world can even bring to a change in our definition(s) of “religion,” thereby radically altering the way we ask and try to answer the question “What is religion?”.

“Interdisciplinarity” and “diversity” are indeed current buzzwords; nevertheless, they should carry immense normative weight in the philosophy of religion. Similarly popular, but no less essential and perhaps even more vital here, is the axiom of gender. It is in religion that one can unambiguously ascertain the gendered history of humankind. Regrettably, it is in the philosophy of religion that one can still see the continuing gendered imbalance that rules its exercise. (I do not here refer to the numerical or even authoritative imbalance between men and women philosophers of religions, though that, too, is a normative problem.) Questions about the language of religion, which always talks of a masculine God are by now commonplace, but usually posed with a complacent smirk. Inquiries into the automatically authoritative role of men in the institutions of religion have become routine as well and look to institutional solutions. But it is in the philosophy of religion, that is, in the profound epistemological, metaphysical, and ethical analysis and critique of religion that questions of gender must be formulated. Without taking into account the work by (usually women) philosophers who interrogate the meaning of religious texts and practices from a perspective that problematizes their gender bias, the philosophy of religion in these times may be irrelevant and barren.

A final postscript: the three areas of normativity, with their associated values – interdisciplinarity, diversity, and gender – that I have adjoined to excellent philosophy of religion run the risk of being grasped as politically oriented. But if the personal is political, then the religious is manifestly political.

Jason Marsh on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Jason Marsh is Associate Professor 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.

It is hard to imagine that there is a single story to tell about what norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion. And while I bet that philosophers of religion could reach quite a bit of agreement on the question, instead of trying to give a comprehensive list of virtues, I will simply consider one form of excellence that currently has my attention. The excellence I have in mind is an almost ‘unnatural’ degree of intellectual honesty. This can take different forms. For instance, while it is relatively natural to acknowledge when one doesn’t know something, some go further by writing entire articles that evidentially run against their religious beliefs.

One example in philosophy of religion comes from Dan Moller. After writing an elaborate argument against design, he concludes with the following sentences:

. . . As a theist I don’t particularly welcome [my argument’s] existence. But it does look like evidence that life on earth wasn’t ushered onto the stage ‘by hand.’

Before reaching the end of his paper, or even after just reading his title “A Simple Argument Against Design”, many might (mistakenly) assume that Moller is an atheist. That is because few philosophers devote entire papers to formulating even just one line of evidence against their most important beliefs. There is opportunity for more excellence here.

Another form of intellectual honesty arises when people acknowledge when they don’t base their beliefs on the evidence, in the inferential sense. For instance, in a paper called “Giving Dualism its Due”, William Lycan says the following about his unwavering commitment to materialism.

I have been a materialist about the mind for forty years, since first I considered the mindbody issue . . . And like many other materialists, I have often quickly cited standard objections to dualism that are widely taken to be fatal—notoriously the dreaded Interaction Problem… Being a philosopher, of course I would like to think that my stance is rational, held not just instinctively and scientistically and in the mainstream but because the arguments do indeed favor materialism over dualism. But I do not think that, though I used to. My position may be rational, broadly speaking, but not because the arguments favor it: though the arguments for dualism do (indeed) fail, so do the arguments for materialism. And the standard objections to dualism are not very convincing . . . My purpose in this paper is to hold my own feet to the fire and admit that I do not proportion my belief to the evidence.

Passages like those from Moller and Lycan are music to my ears. They also make me want to think harder about my own beliefs. And while I think this kind of thing would lose impact if done in every article, I do think more of it would be a good thing. These virtues seem to connect up to the old Socratic ideal of following (or seeking to follow) the evidence where it leads. This ideal is hard. And it can seem to conflict with at least some faith traditions, whose values can include faithfulness, trust, and even submission of intellect to the divine. But when I see Moller make the admission that he does, I don’t get the feeling that he is being unfaithful. And I suspect that practitioners of many religious traditions might agree. Similarly, when I see Lycan’s admission, I just think he is really human. We all fail to follow the evidence in some domain or another, but it takes guts to admit where.

Now I realize that ‘evidence’ needn’t be argumentative or inferential: it arguably encompasses testimony and experience as well. But my point applies on this view, too. On occasion, philosophers of religion acknowledge ‘experiential evidence’ that shook them to the core—as a graduate student I was once in at a dinner with some leading atheistic philosophers of religion, and their testimony about their religious experiences was fascinating. I think more non-believers, to use that expression, could acknowledge if they have had religious experiences and whether it was possible to doubt during their occurrence. I also think more believers would do well to talk about possible irreligious experiences they have had. Without turning into an AA style club, maybe we could get over a bit of the common embarrassment about this kind of thing.

To use a different example, in a lecture called “The Elsewhere, Elsewhen Objection to Religious Belief”, Tomas Bogardus opens with a story about his upbringing. He had asked his grandmother why she raised his mom Lutheran rather than Catholic, given relevant Catholic family history. She replied that when his mother was young, the Lutheran church happened to be the nearest church in their Chicago neighbourhood. Bogardus goes on to describe how this story of happenstance (he could very easily have had different religious beliefs) induced notable epistemic vertigo. Although he is not persuaded by the inferential version of the challenge, the experience alone might have epistemic force.

My final version of intellectual honesty concerns axiology and involves acknowledging something of value that cannot be realized on one’s current metaphysics. Michael Tooley, who spends much of his time arguing against the claim that God exists, has noted that he hopes that God exists, and that things would be better if God exists—if the world were different than he thinks it is. This got my attention. For well-known atheists, like Richard Dawkins, will often say things to the effect that life permits at least as much grandeur on a secular version of Darwin’s worldview as it does on Paley’s view. But Tooley implies that this is a sham. I think his pro-theistic atheism is interesting. Few seem to lament in any clear way that the other side, if true, might have more value to offer.

Finally, Eleonore Stump and other traditional Christian, Islamic, and Jewish theists occasionally express the hope that everyone will eventually enjoy salvation, even if their commitment to orthodoxy rules out believing that they will. Marilyn McCord Adams also, I believe, expressed a similar desire before becoming a universalist. That, in some ways, is more virtuous than anything evidential.