Diane Proudfoot on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Diane Proudfoot

Diane Proudfoot is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. We invited her to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Defining philosophy of religion is an impossible task. Philosophy of religion is, to quote Ludwig Wittgenstein’s view of language, like ‘an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs’. The ancient quarters include Theravada Buddhism’s account of karma and Tertullian’s elevation of revelation over reason; and the medieval districts include Al-Ghazali on the happiness of faith and Moses Maimonides on the coercion of unbelievers. The new boroughs include Wittgenstein’s own comparison of the believer to ‘a tightrope walker’. Some older streets have fallen out of fashion in favour of new neighbourhoods such as feminist and comparative philosophy of religion. Current inhabitants of the city employ a variety of modern tools, for example hermeneutics and symbolic logic. They appeal to diverse source materials, for example ethnographic studies or linguistic analyses of scripture. They also have diverse aims, for example answering the ‘big’ questions (e.g. ‘Did God create life?’) or mapping similarities between religions in order to promote inter-faith dialogue. The locals include ‘folk’ philosophers (anyone talking about the ‘supernatural’ over coffee or the water-cooler), religious professionals (e.g. clerics practising authorized theology), and academic scholars. Some endorse a particular religion or religious world-view, while others reject the very idea of the supernatural. Definition is not possible: there are no (necessary and sufficient) conditions that define the activity—past, present, and future—of this dynamic city.

My own neighbourhood is, roughly speaking, the area carved out by analytic philosophers from David Hume to Alvin Plantinga—both sceptics in the best sense. It includes the streets customarily walked by ‘Anglo-American’ philosophers. There are good reasons to visit this neighbourhood, along with the rest of the city. Philosophy of religion encourages and assists us to justify beliefs about the nature of ‘ultimate reality’, or to justify our lack of justification—or even to justify our lack of such beliefs. It addresses a number of the most important questions from metaphysics, theory of knowledge, ethics, and political philosophy. It investigates troubling problems for the religious, including how to reconcile the presence of a loving God with widespread horrendous suffering, how to maintain one’s own religion when other religions appear to have equal claim to the truth, and how to fix the limits of religious freedom in a secular society. Even its most esoteric areas may appeal to the particular traits of the philosophically-minded: if you relish the intellectual challenges of logic proofs, you’ll probably enjoy ingenious theological puzzles.

It is, though, the aridity of several of these puzzles that prompts derision in some observers. They lament, ‘Your city is dull—it’s a preserved relic, like Ephesus and Pompeii. Only historians of philosophy need visit’. On this view, philosophy of religion contains intellectual curiosities, such as the analysis of the divine attributes, but nothing of current importance.

I disagree. There are relics, but also exciting new zones under construction. One is the modern makeover of the science-and-religion debate. This includes the ‘new atheists’ and their critics, and some of the latest theories in cosmology, physics, and evolutionary biology. It also includes discussions of ‘methodological naturalism’ (the scientific rule-of-thumb that nothing exists except the natural world) and of the criteria for evaluating high-level metaphysical theories (such as Taoism’s claim that Tao is ‘Mother of the Whole’). How are we to select these criteria without deciding in advance the relative value of naturalistic and supernatural explanations?

The second new district is the cognitive science of religion, including the psychology and biology of religious beliefs, behaviour, and experience. This is scientific or ‘naturalized’ philosophy of religion. It extends the official (in my neighbourhood at least) shortlist of philosophical problems to include investigation of the origin and persistence of religious phenomena. It responds to old questions (e.g. ‘Does life have a meaning?’) with novel answers (‘Don’t ask this pseudo-question—only an evolutionary glitch makes you think this way!’). It also generates new questions (e.g. ‘Do near-death experiences provide scientific evidence for an afterlife?’). As you would expect, the cognitive science of religion also adds to the science-and-religion debate. For many cognitive scientists, naturalistic explanations of religion are a knockout blow to fundamental religious claims. The mere fact that we have naturalistic explanations, it’s claimed, diminishes the probability that supernaturalist hypotheses are true. And another well-known scientific heuristic—all things being equal, pick the simpler explanation—points away from mysterious religious hypotheses, naturalists argue. On the other hand, critics of naturalism may wonder whether a scientific philosophy of religion merely replaces the religious orthodoxies of the past with a new naturalistic orthodoxy.

The third exciting development is the emergence of what I call techno-supernaturalism. This includes the new technophile quasi-religion known as Singularitarianism—a synthesis of science and religion, which claims that technological change will ‘infuse the universe with spirit’. Several techno-prophets say that imminent progress in computer engineering and neuroscience will make good on many of the traditional promises of religion. Can we survive death, for example? On this question, techno-supernaturalists are 21st-century Aristotelians: you and I are ‘human-soul programs’ that can in principle be duplicated or upgraded indefinitely, just like today’s apps. This intoxicating combination of religion’s big questions and futuristic technology has proved attractive. For digital natives, the concept of software-based immortality seems to be more credible than the notion of a disembodied Cartesian soul or unity with the One. It also suits materialists with a leaning to supernaturalism. Work in this area contributes centrally to modern theorizing about personal identity and survival.

As societies and technologies change at breakneck speed, a scientific philosophy of religion is important for updating our view of human nature and the place of human beings in the universe. This new philosophy concentrates on the three city districts just described, along with others. Some philosophers, including some philosophers of religion, may dispute this approach. They may say, for example, that one or more of these new districts properly belongs in some other city. But these three developments are built on older foundations that incontrovertibly are central to the philosophy of religion. We should welcome this expansion—you never know where enlightenment is to be found.


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