Nicholas Rescher on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”


Nicholas Rescher

Nicholas Rescher is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The philosophy of religion is a domain of intimidating magnitude. The whole of the space available for the present discussion could be filled with questions belonging to the field. What is a religion? What sorts of religions are possible? What is it to have or to belong to a religion? Why it is that people should (or perhaps even need) to belong to a religion? Is having a religion a matter purely of accepting beliefs or are behavioral ramifications (such as prayer or ritual) necessary? Can the existence of God be demonstrable?—And if not, can belief in God possibly be validated by other, non-demonstrative means? The list goes on and on.

Being a religious person is no prerequisite for a philosopher of religion. There are a great many theoretical issues regarding religious matters about which an atheist can ably deliberate. (One interesting example is the hypothetical question: “What sort of God, if any, would a reasonable person want to have if they could have their own way in the matter—and just why this particular sort?”) Nor, contrawise, need a committed believer necessarily engage with philosophical issues arising in this sphere. (Rustic faith is nowise illegitimate.) With religion as with other human enterprises, the relationship between the venture itself and its philosophical ramifications can be complex. Even—and indeed especially—atheism occupies a place in the spectrum of alternative philosophy-of-religion positions.

But why take a stance one way or the other on religious issues? In actual practice the question of one’s own religion never arises—any more than does the question why have an ethic at all, with its beliefs about fair and unfair, right and wrong. We are simply so constituted that this sort of thing comes our way as we mature in our social context. There is, of course, the collateral questions of whether or not it is a good thing that it should be so. But here the answer is a clear affirmative; it is only fitting that a rational being should address the big issues of existence or nonexistence, life and death, meaning and vacuity.

Does what I do with this life of mine really matter? (After all, time and tide wash all our sandcastles away.) It appears that only religion can provide a rationale for the conviction that what we do with our lives ultimately matters, and that it makes a difference in the universe—vast though it is—how we proceed in our actions within the tiny fragment of the cosmos in which we function. The problem at issue here is real and reflects the paradox confronting a rational animal being that is at once a speck of dust in the cosmic vastness and a mind-endowed creature whose thought aspires to comprehend the whole of it.

It is certainly not necessary that we should conceptualize God as the father figure of the Sistine Chapel. There is, clearly, no good reason why, the creatively productive force whose rational agency has brought the world into being should be describable in terms of the concepts needed to address the material in which our sensory apparatus provides us humans with an experiential access to physical reality.

All the same, most religious believers hold that God manages to communicate with us through various channels:

  • by signaling us by leaving hallmarks in the design of nature
  • by dazzling us with awe and admiration in the contemplation of his works
  • by inspiration in prayer and meditation
  • by indirect communication through prophets and sages
  • by somehow entering into the world’s happenings

“Which religion—if any—is right for me?” is a question that does not generally arise. By the time one is sufficiently mature to have concerns about the matter, Fate (that is, the unasked-for circumstances of one’s life) has generally resolved the issue. The individual—be he Jew or Catholic, atheist or Hindu—almost invariably achieved a state of commitment where the alternatives no longer qualify as what William James was wont to call “live options.” For most mature individuals concern for “the one true religion” is a fait accompli, albeit in a way that is not consensually shared by people at large. And so there is no such alternative to a tolerance of “live and let live.”

By and large, your mode of religious beliefs and practice is a matter of indifference to me. But by no means always. If your faith excludes beardless men in the presence of grown women, there is going to be trouble if you are a bus driver. If people are reasonable, they can work this sort of thing out in the political arena; if not, they must appeal to the arbitrariment of arms. The philosophy of religion cannot provide much help here—only the encouragement of reason.

Perhaps the biggest question in the philosophy of religion is why the fact of religious variety does not undermine the validity of the whole enterprise? Why doesn’t the consideration that there is no one-size-fits-all religion unravel the validity of religious commitment? Perhaps the best answer is that one must distinguish relativistic indifference from contextual appropriateness. Your physical conformation makes one particular shoe-size appropriate for you, and your acculturation makes one particular religion appropriate for you. If you are Polish, would you feel no more at home in Buddhism than you would feel at home in Delhi. If you don’t learn a language early on in life, you will never speak it as a native speaker does. If you don’t learn the violin as a child, you are unlikely to active virtuoso mastery. Something like this holds for religion as well. Once we have reached the age of reflection where we worry about the rationale of things it is too late to start over. We can say—and think—that one religion is as available as any other, but they are no longer equally available to us. At that stage fate has circumscribed our choice in the matter. The indifference of relativism has vanished, because contextuality has done its work. And it is every bit as reasonable for us to stick with our religion as it is for us, to stick with our language. There may be alternatives out there in some impersonal sense, but such impersonality is not an option for us?

Are religious people better off than others? This clearly is a rather sociological than philosophical question that needs to be addressed as rates of criminality, suicide, divorce, or mental illness, on the negative side and prominence in public service and philanthropy on the positive. The philosophical task then would be the provision of a theoretical rationale to account for a positive correlation here insofar as this phenomenon does actually exist.

Religious points of view can also come into conflict not only with other religions points of view, but also with points of view that lie outside the religious domain. One example is afforded by the scientific point of view based on empirical inquiry into the nature of the physical world. (Sample conflicts can arise are questions regarding the age of the universe or the origins of the human species.) Another example of a realm of potential conflict is the ethical point of view. (Sample conflicts here regard the subordinate state of women, with the practice of suttee as an example.) This is an area where the philosophy of religion has important and constructive work to do, by way of a critical analysis to explore the prospects of a negotiated harmonization that enables the core interests of both parties to such a quarrel to prevail in the setting of a well-managed rational compromise. (Granted this is easier said than done, but no-one has guaranteed that philosophical reflection is easy.)

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