Leigh Vicens is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Augustana College. We invited her to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
Since I teach philosophy within a religion department at a Lutheran college, where many students study Christian theology as well as world religions before taking my class in philosophy of religion, I find it helpful to begin the semester by discussing how what we will be doing together in that class differs from what they may have done in other classes before.
So first, I ask my students what it means to do theology. They tend to have the best grasp of this discipline, having completed the required course “Exploring the Christian Faith” before taking my class. What they often say, and what seems to me to be a good characterization of theology, is that it is the study of a religious tradition from “inside” that tradition. That is to say, for instance, that Christian theology is normally done by those who are professing Christians. The sources that are most important to theologians differ from religion to religion, but usually involve some set of texts considered sacred, proclamations (e.g. creeds, confessions, or canons) considered authoritative, and one’s own reason and experience, as well as that of the religious community, past and present. What theologians aim to do with these sources is to interpret and systematize them. So, for example, Christian theologians might work out a theology of the atonement, or an account of the way in which humans are made “at one” with God through the death of Jesus, using the books of the New Testament, the writings of the Patristic Fathers, the Creeds of the Church, and contemporary developments in ethical theory, moral psychology, and so on. Their purpose, in doing so, is to better understand their own faith, and to advance (or perhaps reform) their religious tradition.
Religious studies, in contrast, is most often done from “outside” a religious tradition, by those who want to learn more about the beliefs, practices, and institutions of those who are part of it. It is an interdisciplinary field, encompassing anthropology, sociology, psychology, and history, among other disciplines. Most academic departments of religious studies explicitly disavow adherence to any particular faith. While scholars of religion (my term for those who do religious studies) may appeal to similar sources as theologians, such as texts considered sacred by a faith tradition, they use these sources for a different end. A scholar of religion might, for instance, study the similarities of protagonists in ancient religious mythology and what purposes these stories served for the people who told them. Their aim in doing religious studies is not to investigate the truth or value of particular religious beliefs or practices, but to better understand what it is that people of various religions actually believe and practice, and why.
Unlike theology, philosophy of religion need not be done from inside a particular religious tradition; the philosopher of religion need not take any text or institution to be authoritative. But unlike a scholar of religion, the philosopher of religion is most fundamentally concerned with the truth or plausibility of particular religious claims. The philosopher of religion may look at the same sources as the theologian or scholar of religion, but with different questions in mind than either, such as: what reasons, if any, do we have for taking these institutions or texts to be authoritative or reliable? Are their central claims—for instance, the Christian claim that the one God is triune, or the Buddhist claim that there are no enduring selves, but only momentary states of consciousness—internally coherent? Are they consistent with other things we might believe? The philosopher of religion may also begin with no sources at all save her own rational faculties and experience of the world, and try to arrive at various conclusions with respect to religious matters. For instance, one central (metaphysical) question in the philosophy of religion regards the existence of God, and whether we have any evidence (e.g. apparent design of nature, or suffering of innocent people) for God’s existence or non-existence. Another (epistemological) question concerns the extent to which religious knowledge (i.e. knowledge of some spiritual reality) is even possible, and the possible bases for such knowledge (mystical experience being of particular interest to philosophers of religion in recent years).
It should be clear, from my descriptions of theology, religious studies, and philosophy of religion, that these three disciplines are not necessarily opposed to each other, and that one may engage in all three. However, it also seems to me that it may be difficult to engage in all three simultaneously. For, in doing religious studies, for instance, one is supposed to set aside normative questions about the reasonableness or goodness of a particular religious belief or practice, and aim at a completely descriptive account, while, in doing philosophy of religion, such normative questions are of central importance. And, in doing theology, one must take upon oneself at least some religious assumptions to start with, such as the truth of some biblical text or confessional statement, whereas in philosophy, one may call into doubt any and every such assumption and proceed in one’s reasoning without deferring to any religious authority. So, one may have to settle for switching back and forth between these different disciplines, wearing the “theologian” or “scholar of religion” hat at one time, and the “philosopher of religion” hat at another. This “hat-trick” seems worth the while, however, since all three disciplines are worthy of our time and attention.