Michael Potts on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Michael Potts

Michael Potts is Professor of Philosophy at Methodist University in Fayetteville, North Carolina. His Ph.D. is from The University of Georgia. He is the co-editor of Beyond Brain Death: The Case against Brain-Based Criteria for Human Death (Kluwer, 2000), and has authored numerous articles and book reviews for academic journals as well as making over fifty conference presentations. He is also the author of a novel, End of Summer (WordCrafts Press, 2011) and an award-winning poetry chapbook, From Field to Thicket. His philosophical interests are in medical and applied ethics, the philosophy of religion, medieval philosophy, and philosophy and parapsychology. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

There are so many “philosophies-of-disciplines” that my wife, who does not share my love of philosophy, sarcastically asks if “there is a philosophy of toenail clipping.” However, philosophy of religion has been a stalwart and respectable sub-discipline of philosophy. There are philosophers who disagree—A. J. Ayer once replied to a philosopher who mentioned philosophy of religion, “Oh. . .I didn’t know there was any such thing.” Other than positivists such as Ayer, philosophers of all stripes, including atheists, agree that philosophy of religion is a legitimate field.

To answer the question of “What is philosophy of religion?” a person must have some definition of “philosophy” and “religion.” Now the definition of philosophy is itself a philosophical issue. Over the course of the history of philosophy some philosophers have focused on:

  • Philosophy as a way of life (Socrates, most of the ancient Greek philosophers)
  • Philosophy as developing a systematic view of reality as a whole (Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Whitehead)
  • Philosophy as developing an ideal language (the early Russell, the logical positivists)
  • Philosophy as focusing on ordinary language (the later Wittgenstein, Austin, Strawson)
  • Philosophy as a description of experience as a whole while “bracketing” issues of the reality behind that experience (Husserl)
  • Philosophy that focuses on the existing individual searching for meaning (Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus, Marcel)

and I am sure the wise readers of this blog can think of many more. My own bias is toward the second view, that philosophy is the attempt, using reason and experience, to develop a metaphysics, a model of reality as a whole, of “being qua being.” It is interesting how philosophy, including analytic philosophy, returns to this view of philosophy as philosophers tire of debates over “What is a sentence?” “Is there a God?” is far more interesting.

To butcher Aristotle, “religion is said in many ways.” Attempts to define religion have either been too narrow, too broad, or both. Religion has been defined as:

  • The feeling of absolute dependence (Schliermacher)
  • A projection of a father figure (Feuerbach, Freud)
  • Ultimate concern (Tillich)
  • Piety to the gods (Euthyphro in Plato’s dialogue with the same name)
  • Religion as referring to transcendent reality
  • Religion as ritual
  • Religion as myth
  • A phenomenological approach—describing all phenomena of religion, bracketing questions about the truth or falsity of religious claims.

I am not convinced that religion can be defined in a set way. It may be that religion is more like “games,” that, to use Wittgenstein’s example, have “family resemblances” with one another. We could group card games together, ball games, subdivide into football-like games (soccer, rugby, and American football), baseball-like games (cricket, baseball), etc. So some religions believe in a transcendent creator God (Judaism, Islam, Christianity); others are pantheistic (most forms of Hinduism)—and some are even atheistic or at least agnostic (Theravada Buddhism). Some religions accept life after death (Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism); others either deny it or are neutral (Judaism, Confucianism, Zen Buddhism). At the edges of “religion” are addiction to football or some other sport (“ultimate concerns”). This “family resemblances” approach is probably the best we can do at “defining” religion.

“Philosophy of religion” as practiced in the United Kingdom and in the United States is de facto philosophy of theism. The predominate philosophical tradition is broadly analytic, and issues discussed include the existence and nature of God, the relationship between faith and reason, the problem of evil, and life after death. Some philosophy of religion is de facto analytic systematic theology, and is represented by the work of such philosophers as Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga, and Eleonore Stump. Religions other than the great monotheistic religions come into play only when the issue is whether one religion carries more truth than another—one can be exclusivist (salvation only is available through one religion), inclusivist (e.g, Karl Rahner’s belief that some “non-Christians” can be saved), and pluralist (the notion that truth is something that must be culled from all the world’s religions–salvation comes in many ways).

Continental philosophers of religion have taken a broader phenomenological approach, focusing on religions other than the theistic religions with origins in the Middle East. Thus, one might find a continental philosopher focusing on Hinduism or Buddhism or on Native American religions. Since eastern religions do not sharply distinguish philosophy and religion, many scholars of religion who focus on Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, and other non-western religions are often doing “philosophy of religion.”

It is understandable that Western analytic philosophy of religion focuses on what is historically the dominant religious tradition in the West, Christianity, with some Jewish and Islamic thought included as well. It is difficult in a single lifetime to understand one’s own tradition–a fortiori this applies to other traditions. For example, a religion claiming an all-powerful, all-good creator God exists must deal with the problem of evil, of why an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent being would permit to exist–that is not a problem for pantheistic religions for whom God is the universe itself.

A traditional-neutral approach to philosophy of religion is neither possible nor desirable. This does not mean a philosopher cannot evaluate truth claims outside the philosopher’s own tradition. To do so, the philosopher must seek to understand what a member of the other tradition means when using terms such as “God” or “Brahman” or “The One”–a difficult and time-consuming task. Most philosophers of religion are content to examine the coherence and truth claims of their own religious tradition. This does not imply that an atheist cannot evaluate the internal coherence and truth of a particular religious tradition. However, the atheist must seek to understand the philosophical and theological development of that tradition and be fair in criticism. Philosophy of religion, then, is the application of reason and experience to test the coherence and fit with reality of the claims of particular religions. This definition includes the de facto systematic theology practiced by some contemporary analytic philosophers.


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