Sonia Sikka on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Sonia Sikka

Sonia Sikka is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Ottawa, Canada. We invited her to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Martin Heidegger once wrote that the idea of a “Christian philosophy” is like that of a square circle, because philosophy is essential questioning and faith cannot participate in such questioning. Philosophy asks, “Why is there something rather than nothing,” whereas for faith the question is answered before even being posed: all that is, is created by God, the supreme being. While many theologians would likely want to make more room for reason within their method of inquiry than such a position allows, Heidegger is typical among Western philosophers in drawing a sharp distinction between the realms of faith and philosophy. Faith means acceptance of some doctrines as given, whether these are revealed in a text or communicated by a religious authority, and commitment to living in accordance with these doctrines. Philosophy, by contrast, is supposed to take nothing as given. Although it may address itself sometimes to a topic that is also an object of faith, it relates to that topic in a different way.

In wider contemporary discourse, moreover, “religion” is often taken to be synonymous with faith. After all, the world’s various religions are commonly referred to as “faiths.” On this understanding, “philosophy of religion” becomes rational investigation of views that religions accept on faith. I have never found this approach to be quite satisfactory. I would question the assumption that “faith” necessarily defines religion, and that the content of religion is given through such faith, with philosophy’s task then being to investigate the truth of that content in a fashion that is “external” to religion. In addition, I am troubled by the conception of “religions” as fixed bundles of creed, so that “religious” people must belong to one or another of these.

One problem here is that the view of “faith” as defining religion is drawn from a particular set of religious traditions. It is, for instance, as John Hick points out, more at home in the Semitic traditions than in Indian ones. I strongly feel that if one talks about religion, one should have in mind at least the major religious traditions of the world. That certainly includes those of Asia which do not centre on faith. It has always irritated me that most Western textbooks in Philosophy of Religion hardly acknowledge that these traditions exist. They certainly don’t take them into account in any serious or sustained fashion within their analyses.

But the point that bothers me most about the identification of “religion” with faith and faiths isn’t Eurocentrism. It is the idea that what is held to be true by a religious person is settled, and that such a person, if he or she is truly religious, does not question or doubt. She certainly is not supposed to base her beliefs on her own experience and reflection rather than on the pre-established doctrines of a given “religion.” But in fact there are substantial wisdom traditions – European, Indian, Chinese, and many others – where conclusions about God, the afterlife, and so on were reached through thoughtful reflection (where that does not exclude experience, intuition, and emotion) rather than being held through belief in divine revelation recorded in a book or authoritative body. To me, part of the task of “Philosophy of Religion” is to engage in precisely such reflection.

Thus, to give an illustration, I do not see philosophy of religion merely as asking, Does God exist? when it is pre-established by a religious doctrine what “God” means. Rather, it can and should also ask about the nature of “God,” and in so doing consider possible views that do not fit neatly into “theism” and “atheism.” The Indian concept of Brahman belongs here, and so do the metaphysical views of Spinoza and Hegel. In this regard, I would also draw attention to recent literature of the “I’m not a theist, but . . . ” variety, such as Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos and the late Ronald Dworkin’s Religion without God. I think these works reflect a broader trend, visible in phenomena like people describing themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious.”

In such cases, being “religious” is associated with membership in one or another pre-established religious community and commitment to a settled set of beliefs and forms of worship. Although sometimes the preference for spirituality as an alternative has been analyzed as part of what Charles Taylor calls the “subjective turn,” I believe it often results instead from people being uncertain of what is the case with respect to the deep questions of religion: God or some transcendent realm, the deep nature of reality, the character of consciousness and its place within nature, the possibility of some aspect of our being surviving death, the meaning (in the sense of “purpose”) of life, whether human existence is an event of some significance in the cosmic order or a random occurrence.

“Philosophy of religion,” I have always felt, should include open-minded reflection on these questions and shouldn’t be equivalent to philosophizing about “religion” as an objective body of belief. I find it interesting that this kind of philosophical reflection continued within Western philosophy well into the 20th century; one can find it in Husserl, for example, and Whitehead. And yet it has now become quite alien to philosophy, perhaps at the same time as “religion” has hardened into the wholly separate space of “faith,” mapped by beliefs which the ongoing use of reason and experience play no role in establishing. In this situation, philosophy of religion is one of the few intellectual spaces left for non-dogmatic inquiry into questions about the possibility and character of theos as an aspect of the real.


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