Eric Steinhart is Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson 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.
Philosophy of religion evolved out of the religions of the first Axial Age. At least in the West, it has evolved into reasoning for or against Abrahamic theism, mainly Christianity. But religion is changing rapidly, and we may even be in a second Axial Age. As religion evolves away from its past into the future, philosophy of religion will evolve with it. Thinkers like Schellenberg have pointed to this futurity.
Although philosophy has long been dominated by white men with European roots, it is growing more diverse. It is easy to imagine a future in which Hispanic philosophers write analytically about Santeria. Perhaps the indigenous peoples of the Americas will use modal logic to study the visions they get from ayahuasca or peyote. As more women do philosophy, they may leave the Abrahamic traditions. Women may lead the way in developing new religions, and new ways of reasoning about them.
But the data point to deeper changes. If the ARIS 2013 survey is right, then only one third of American college students are theists. Another third are irreligious or secular, while the final third is spiritual but not theistic. Similar surveys, done by Pew in the US, show young people rapidly rejecting the Abrahamic traditions. Religions are born; they mutate; and they can go extinct. To paraphrase Foucault, the Abrahamic deity may vanish “like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea”. New generations of nontheists will become spiritual, and religious, and they will philosophize.
Perhaps some of these future philosophers will study new religions using old methods. If philosophers can ask about the rationality of Christianity, then, for instance, they can also ask about the rationality of new religions like Wicca. Many Christian arguments came from ancient pagans, and can easily be adopted by new pagans. Cosmological and ontological arguments can justify the existence of the Wiccan ultimate power. Christians argued for the Trinity; but Wiccans may modify those arguments to justify their divine male-female couple. And many ways of criticizing Abrahamic theism can be applied to new religions. There are plenty of ways to criticize Wicca.
But the evolution of religion away from Abrahamism suggests an evolution away from its epistemology. Religions will no longer claim to be sources of unnatural truth; revelation, faith, and authority will go extinct. As the religions of the first Axial Age die out, their pre-scientific beliefs and practices will die with them. All future religions may accept the natural sciences. Philosophers of religion can be employed to develop theories which satisfy our spiritual needs while retaining consistency with the natural sciences.
The natural sciences are also evolving. The computational sciences are inspiring powerful new ways of thinking about reality. Perhaps nature is a vast computation running wildly across the iterative hierarchy of pure sets. At the bottom of reality, recursively self-improving codes write codes. Some old religious ideas may gain new lives: the flesh computes, and the soul is its program; the universe computes, and the logos is its program; the multiverse computes, and karma is its program. Yet even those ideas will mutate. Religions of algorithms may replace religions of deities. Siri and Google provide intelligent guidance, but they are not people.
Since all religions emerge from human brains and bodies, the cognitive science of religion may help philosophers define religion. The cognitive science of religion may give birth to new religions. Wesley Wildman hints that the devout of the future may take engineered entheogens, and participate in rituals designed by neuroscientists for the cultivation of virtue or mystical joy. If future religions develop out of our scientific self-knowledge, they may begin to prioritize practice over belief. Future philosophers of religion may study and create spiritual practices, which, like genes, can be separated and recombined to make religions. We may learn to sing and dance in new ways; we may find new spiritual meanings in the solstices and equinoxes.
Many people outside of the academy are designing their own religions. They are engaging in spiritual engineering, often using cut-and-paste, trial-and-error methods. Consider new Westernized types of Buddhism or the revival of Stoicism. Consider the hybrids of atheism and paganism, such as Humanistic Paganism, or Atheopaganism. Consider the atheistic movements like Pastafarianism or Syntheism. Consider the religious naturalists and the spiritual naturalists. What about Burning Man? What about the religious raves? Then there are the singularitarians and the transhumanists. Look at the Mormon Transhumanist Association. It’s a lovely, vital, fertile mess. Philosophers of religion can also do spiritual engineering. In the evolution of religion, natural selection may give way to artificial selection.
Some philosophers already have designed religions. Toland worked out a religious pantheism. Comte developed his “Religion of Humanity”. Roy Sellars helped generate religious humanism. Don Crosby has recently worked on his “Religion of Nature”. Luce Irigaray and Grace Jantzen have proposed new ways of being religious. Schellenberg has opened pathways to evolutionary religion. A synthetic method in philosophy of religion draws on our increasingly scientific knowledge of humanity and transhumanity to produce novel forms of religious life. We may hope these new forms will have the benefits of the old without their negativities.
If religion concerns ultimacy, then the bio-cultural study of religion teaches an uncanny lesson: if evolution produced our old religions, then evolution will ultimately surpass them. A small mutation, say, to the oxytocin receptor gene, might spread to produce profound religious change. As humanity itself evolves into new species, its religiosity may evolve into a semiosis whose nature can only be conceived by posthuman thinkers. Philosophy of religion has many exciting futures. None of them will resemble its past. The future of religion is wild, and the future of its philosophy is wild too. Among the New England Transcendentalists, this wildness has been valued. As Thoreau said: “In Wildness is the preservation of the world”.