Donald Crosby is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Colorado State University. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
“What does your dad do?” This question was raised by a friend of my younger daughter when the friend was talking with her on the telephone. My daughter said, “He teaches philosophy at the state university.” The friend then raised an obvious question: “What’s philosophy?” “I don’t really know,” said my daughter. “I’ll ask my dad.” I had no ready terse answer to this difficult and much debated question, so I replied, “Thinking deeply about deep questions.” Philosophers have no corner on such questions, of course, but one class of questions they have addressed over the ages is the class of deeply probing religious questions—questions relating to religious outlooks, expressions, arguments, and practices. When philosophers address these questions, they are called philosophers of religion.
Both philosophy and religion have long histories. They have frequently contributed positively to each other, but it has not been unusual for them at times to be at odds with one another. Plato, for example, was strongly critical of stories of the gods in Greek religion, and Peter Damian and Bernard of Clairvaux in the middle ages regarded philosophical reasoning that was not explicitly based on traditional religious faith and on purported divine revelation as a pernicious enemy of Christian truth. But philosophical reasoning and religious faith have also been woven tightly together in theological systems such as those of Augustine of Hippo, Averroes, Maimonides, and Thomas Aquinas. This story of cooperation and conflict, endorsement and adverse criticism, continues to the present.
How, then, does philosophy of religion as a subset of philosophy figure today in this picture? It can have either (or both) a critical and a constructive role. In the hands of some philosophers today the critical analysis is dominant; in the hands of others, the constructive role is paramount. But it is important to see that critical analysis can be carried out either in the interest of giving support to religious claims and issues or just in the interest of trying better to understand these claims. The first approach can be called constructive philosophy of religion, and the second can be termed analytic philosophy of religion. The first seeks to reason about and to settle, on strictly philosophical grounds, particular religious issues or claims. The second leaves the question of the truth or falsity of such claims in abeyance and tries simply to understand the nature of religious arguments and claims: something like learning the rules of chess but not actually playing the game.
We can use the analogy of philosophy of science to understand these points. Philosophers can analyze the logic of scientific methods, inquiries, and claims and make use of aspects of them but not attempt to settle any scientific questions. In doing so, however, they might also raise questions about pervasive assumptions scientists bring to their field or about the larger implications of certain scientific allegations and theories. They can do so in the name of seeking for a more coherent and comprehensive philosophical view of knowledge, values, and the world. Neither philosophers of religion nor philosophers of science typically claim to be doing the work of the fields under investigation, but only to be trying better to understand what takes place in those fields and to reflect on assumptions and assertions made within the fields and on broad implications of these assumptions and assertions. Philosophy can view religion or science as important subjects of or aids to philosophical study without presuming to substitute for either of them.
Philosophers have also devoted themselves over the years to thinking about how the various fields of human inquiry, such as science, art, politics, morality, religion, and the like relate to one another. They do so, not because they fancy themselves to be the final arbiters of claims in such fields—that would be foolish and presumptuous—but because they are seeking for ways of understanding how the various sorts of outlook and claim fit together or oppose one another in the tangled web of cultural beliefs and practices at a given time. Philosophy of religion can contribute to this search by reflecting on issues such as the nature of religion and whether there are irreducibly religious ways of knowing, valuing, envisioning, and acting.
Two principle defects have tended to characterize philosophy of religion up to the present day, and it is high time to recognize and deal with them. The first defect is a tendency in Western philosophy of religion to focus almost entirely on monotheistic religion as though it were synonymous with religion in general. The second defect is to restrict philosophy of religion to doctrinal, logical, and discursive issues and claims in religious traditions, and thus to ignore the prominent role of non-discursive symbolizations (e.g., myths, koans, parables, paradoxes, icons, architecture, rituals, songs) in those traditions. Much more attention needs to be paid in the philosophy of religion of today to comparative analysis of many different kinds of religious tradition, including those that might be coming to the fore of late (such as the various forms of religious naturalism) and to the deeply significant role of non-discursive symbolic expressions of religious outlook, practice, and faith.
A helpful way of looking at the work of philosophy of religion is to distinguish the kind of basic interest operative in this sort of query. If the interest is basically religious, and philosophical methods and approaches are put to use in satisfying this interest, then we have what might be called religious philosophy. If the interest is basically philosophical, then it is an interest in pursuing philosophical questions for their own sake and attending to the literature and lore of religion when these might be thought to aid in the quest for philosophical truth and understanding. Here we have not so much religious philosophy as philosophy of religion in a more restricted sense. Philosophy and religion are vital dimensions of thought and experience. Neither should be allowed to dominate, diminish, or eclipse the other.