Paul Draper is Professor of Philosophy at Purdue 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.
The academic study of religion is a tricky business, because religions make claims about reality that are as cherished by their members as they are incredible to non-members. Thus, both philosophy of religion, which is a sub-discipline of philosophy, and the relatively new discipline of religious studies face an important question about their aims. Do those aims include addressing the truth question – the question of whether any of the claims about reality that religions make are true? On the one hand, inquiry in religious studies has generally avoided this question, especially in the United States, where great effort has been made to distinguish the secular and “scientific” discipline of religious studies, which is properly taught in public universities, from the sectarian discipline of theology, which is taught only in private religious institutions and which, at least historically, sought not just to identify, clarify, and systematize the beliefs of a particular religious community (dogmatics), but also to justify them (apologetics). Philosophy of religion, on the other hand, can’t completely ignore the truth question and still be philosophy. This is not to say that the truth question is the only question philosophers of religion should address, but it is one such question, and thus it is worth asking how this one part of philosophy of religion is best approached. I offer four recommendations.
My first recommendation is for philosophers of religion to distance themselves in every way possible from apologetics, whether theistic or atheistic. I’m not a demarcationist on most issues about the boundaries between philosophy and other disciplines, but apologetics is a special case. Apologists may make use of philosophy, but they serve a religious or secular community in a way that is antithetical to objective philosophical inquiry. Of course, there once was a time when philosophy was considered to be the handmaiden of theology. But that time is long since past, and it would be a mistake to try to turn the clocks back. Genuine philosophy today is superior to apologetics precisely because it does not face the “paradox of apologetics.” Briefly, this paradox arises because apologists, unlike philosophers engaged in genuine inquiry, seek to justify their religious beliefs (as opposed to seeking to have beliefs that are justified). This implies that their inquiry, if it can be called that, is inevitably biased, and biased inquiry cannot ground justification (unless of course conclusive evidence is discovered, but we know how often that happens in philosophy). Therefore, paradoxically, one cannot obtain justification for one’s religious beliefs by seeking it directly. To obtain justification, one must directly seek, not justification, but truth.
My next two recommendations attempt to mitigate the powerful psychological forces that inevitably influence, mostly at the non-conscious level, inquiry about one’s religious and non-religious beliefs. To reduce the influence of various cognitive biases on philosophical inquiry about religion, I recommend that philosophers of religion use argument construction, less often as a method for making cases for the positions they hold, and more often as a method of testing those positions. This would require, of course, making a serious effort to construct arguments against one’s prior religious beliefs. I also recommend that philosophers of religion make a conscious effort to allow, as J.L. Schellenberg puts it, “the voice of authority to grow dim in our ears”. All too often, viable arguments and positions never occur to thinkers because dominant, traditional forms of religion overly influence those thinkers. This is true even in the case of philosophers who are not members of any traditional religious community.
Finally, my fourth recommendation is to make every effort to accept genuine risk. True inquiry requires risk, which is why philosophical inquiry is aided by doubt. In experimental science, balanced inquiry is easier (though still far from easy) to achieve. Even if a scientist is sure of some cherished hypothesis, testing that hypothesis by experiment is (in many cases) inherently risky. Apologetics by comparison is very safe insofar as pursuing it is very unlikely to result in apologists rejecting any of the central doctrines of the religious communities they serve. Philosophy should be riskier – philosophers of religion must be prepared to abandon cherished beliefs. But with that risk comes greater opportunities for growth and discovery, and for freeing oneself from service to inflexible orthodoxy.
This point is nicely illustrated by the life and work of Rudolf Otto, who was raised an evangelical Lutheran and hoped initially that his university studies would provide him with the means of defending the conservative orthodoxy to which he was committed. This is not, however, what happened. Instead, Otto says, “The earth disappeared from under my feet. That was the result of my studies at Erlangen. I went there not so much to quest for truth, but more to vindicate belief. I left with the resolve to seek nothing but the truth, even at the risk of not finding it in Christ.” Although Otto remained throughout his career a theologian by title, he was an exemplary philosopher of religion in many ways. He is famous, of course, because he wrote one of the greatest works in the history of the philosophy of religion, namely, The Idea of the Holy. It is abundantly clear that, had Otto not rejected apologetics in favor of a more philosophical approach to religious inquiry, he would not and could not have written this masterpiece.
I realize, of course, that some philosophers who are sectarian theists might be unwilling to accept my recommendations. They might regard accepting them as in some way disloyal to their religious community or to their God. Yet in some sense such an attitude evinces a lack of faith. If there really is a God and if such a God wants us to engage in inquiry concerning ultimate reality, then surely such a God would want that inquiry to be balanced. The results of balanced inquiry, however, are unpredictable. For this reason, it is arguable that a theistic philosopher who decides to follow my advice to imitate Otto must have greater faith, greater trust in God, than one who decides to pursue the paradoxical path of the apologist.