Paul Draper on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Paul Draper

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.


4 thoughts on “Paul Draper on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

  1. “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 seems to be an argument against motivation. e.g. anyone investigating specifically the truth claims of their religious tradition (apologetics) is tainted and their arguments untrustworthy. Furthermore it accuses such ppl of not even seeking the truth. Perhaps all you are trying to claim is that there is a conflict of interest, but surely that doesn’t apply to the student. Perhaps it applies to the professional, but no more so than any grant seeking scientist seeking grant money to study a problem has to actually find a significant problem and generate greater motivation to make funds available for further study.

    Interesting fact, one of the surest ways to convince me something is false is to let me examine the best evidence for it and come away unimpressed. Oh, seriously?.. *that* is the best they have?… is a powerful reaction. This has happened to me a number of times- causing me to reject the very belief a class/series was designed to instill.

  2. I think this article makes some very broad, sweeping generalizations. There have been a significant number of apologists who never started out with an assumption of faith.

    Also, I’m an apologist, and a former young earth creationist. I very much attached my religious beliefs to the age of the earth. But I was not *above* reason and evidence. Apologetics actually *rationalized* my beliefs, and *challenged* me to ask if what I believed was really based on objective reason and evidence or not.

    This aside. I think this article boils down to nothing more than a very lengthy, rational sounding, ad hominem. It offers no evidence in support of its views whatsoever, and it simply makes some very questionable assumptions which, if reversed, show how self-defeating those assumptions are.

    For example, one could just as easily say that the author is merely *beginning* with the assumption that apologetics begins by pursuing assumptions. That, itself, might be a sub-conscious bias that the author begins with and, then, attempts to defend.

  3. I find something mildly troubling about this post but I’m not sure what it is. Perhaps it is that it seems to trade on a clear distinction between the activity of apologetics and the activity of philosophy. Further it seems to locate that distinction in the motivations and mindset of the person engaged in that activity. But much of the activity of either seems to be to be distinct from the mindset or motivations of the agent argument construction and analysis, clarification of terms and relations, identifying entailments or other logical commitments). And Professor Draper is not suggesting that one accomplishes these activities more efficiently with one set of intentions over another. (The road to hell and all that after all.) Further, people’s intentions don’t fall into anything approaching such neat categories nor do our mindsets remain constant and fixed throughout the performance of a task. We may begin with one intention and we may conclude the initial task with quite a different one, this in the performance of the one and the same very same activity (unless you want to make one of the identity criteria of the activity the intuition of the agent). I might begin a comment on a blog post with the intention to be nasty but finish wishing the other person well. (Cleary a hypothetical example mind you.) The blog comment writing was a single activity with shifting motivations. Something like that I think can (perhaps frequently does) go on when discussing questions of God and religion. Indeed as Professor Draper cited, this is precisely what happened to Rudolf Otto. Are we left to ask, “Was he engaged in apologetics or philosophy and when did it change?” Or was his life work a seamless single drive described from different perspectives and enduring varied moods and noetic phases?

    I think the idea of an individual who is utterly unconcerned with truth but merely wishes to give the appearance of rationality and truthfulness to a set of beliefs she cherishes must be a rare event, perhaps even be a fiction. Were she really unconcerned with truth, what value would the appearance of truthfulness provide? No doubt a certain amount of sham reasoning goes on (both in and out of philosophy and science), but I would wager it is almost never a case of deliberate sham reasoning. On the other hand if it’s genuine self-deception than this is regrettable, but to some extent pardonable. And of course there is little to be gained by telling the genuinely self-deceived to stop being self-deceived. While I, fortunately, never engage in self-deception myself, I know many others who do (again, both in and out of philosophy and science). Orthodoxy rarely feels like faith; more often it feels like merely “seeing what’s there.”

    Genuine doubt is paralyzing and genuine doubt motivates inquiry so as to free us of our paralysis so that we can act in the world. So a person who is in genuine doubt about the truth of a religious claim or the existence of God is paralyzed and cannot act. But as James reminded us, sometimes we must act (practically believe) even while in (theoretical) doubt. Perhaps faith is the will to act when one is nevertheless in a state of doubt. If so then people of faith have the courage to act despite doubt.

    But back to apologetics as sham reasoning for a moment. To think of an apologist as aware of the fact that her beliefs are unjustifiable or even false (if that’s even possible, to believe something and to also believe that it is false), but nevertheless wishing to disguise this realty with apologetics and sophistry again seems unreasonable fiction. There may be such individuals out there, perhaps. The unscrupulous televangelist, knowingly misleading and misdirecting his congregation, gaining economic or political advantage in doing just this. But the sincere apologist, it seems to me, is no less interested in genuine truth then the philosopher. Perhaps she has a great confidence that she has discovered the truth (one thinks of James’ “illuminations, revelations,…” that while “inarticulate” “carry with them a curious sense of authority.” But she recognizes that these give her little or no justification or even a full understanding of what, precisely, it is that she believes. And certainly no justification for other to join her. So she wishes to share with others that of which she is confident or convinced. This evidences passionate concern for truth, understanding and wisdom. It is certainly a more sympathetic picture of apologetics and one which does not presume the practice of apologetics and the practice of philosophy are mutually exclusive.

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