John Schellenberg is Professor of Philosophy at Mount Saint Vincent University in Canada. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
In my experience, people unfamiliar with the set of ‘philosophy-ofs’ belonging to contemporary philosophy (philosophy of science, philosophy of art, and so on), in which philosophy of religion is included, easily conflate philosophy of religion with religious philosophy. “So you do religious philosophy,” they say. Or, worse: “So you’re a religious philosopher.” A lot of things can go wrong if you start with religion instead of philosophy.
This is a lesson that even some professional philosophers concerned with religion seem still to be learning. More on that in a moment. For now, let’s put philosophy firmly in the driver’s seat. Philosophy of religion is, first of all, philosophy.
So what is philosophy? Big question. But even without adding any qualification to that term, disrespecting neither Socrates nor Laozi nor Heidegger nor Russell, I think we can say this: that philosophers are in the very hard business of trying to see clearly – sometimes this means trying to see clearly why we cannot see clearly – and, if possible, to the very bottom of the ocean. They have the sense that a light may be found there that will, at the limit, illuminate and guide all our thinkings and doings at the surface. Of course philosophers may become preoccupied with more detailed investigations along the way, but in philosophy at its best, this is always in service of larger goals. For philosophy in its various ways seeks fundamental understanding – fundamental understanding (at least) of what there is, how we should live, and what we can know about such things. And lacking any more specific methods by which to pursue its ambitious goals, aware of the unreliability of human authority, philosophy has the peculiar habit of doing so by means of sheer thought and the criticism of thought alone, abjuring all that might unnecessarily prevent the vital insight, scorning nothing that might bring it closer.
It follows (and, needing some way to grow its understanding, philosophy will respect the simple inference!) that philosophy of religion involves seeking fundamental understanding in connection with religion. What will this include? It will include the most careful and imaginative attention, drawing on results achieved elsewhere in philosophy, to such questions as the following. Allowing for various ways of taking the term, what fundamental features of human life does one find in religion? What are the possible forms of religious life? The most fundamental religious ideas? Which, if any, such religious ideas or practices are true or justified? How are they related to ideas and practices from other areas of human life, such as science or art? What place, if any, should religion have in public life? Probing such questions is something philosophers of religion will want to do for its own sake. But doing so will also allow them to discern what, if anything, religious ideas and practices can tell us about what most fundamentally exists, about the best way to live, and about what we can know.
Stubborn rational curiosity is the lifeblood of philosophy, and so we must expect to find it flowing through philosophy of religion too. Imagine someone combining an utter lack of relevant prejudice with the most insatiable hunger for understanding. Such is the condition of the philosopher – and thus of the philosopher of religion – at her best. This means that not just argumentative rigor but investigative scrupulosity will be found here: with a zest for learning philosophers of religion will develop and test a great variety of ideas pertinent to their preoccupations, and will seek to plumb the issues concerning them ever more deeply. An important feature of such investigative rigor is openness – being willing to receive insights from any relevant approach or perspective. For the sake of philosophy, and recognizing what science is teaching us about the tricks we play on ourselves, mentally, and about the early stage of human development we are in, philosophers of religion will set aside any temptation to give one approach or perspective a head start. And a central requirement of openness is corrigibility – the revisability/rejectability of any position one has taken in the context of philosophical discussion. However true her position may seem to a philosopher of religion, it will always remain subject to critical scrutiny, with acceptance of that position, at least in the context of philosophical debate, depending entirely on the support it receives from relevant arguments.
Take, for example, the issue of God’s existence. Is it philosophy of religion we see when someone spends his entire time defending belief in the existence of God, paying only perfunctory attention to arguments against such belief? Is it philosophy of religion when we find no curiosity about other ways of construing the notion of a Divine reality, or about religious ideas more general than that of a personal God, or about forms of religiousness without theistic belief? Is it philosophy of religion that is unfolding when one knows in advance that one’s interlocutor will not relinquish or revise his basic religious position regardless of the arguments turned up by discussion? No, no, and no.
By these standards it may be that much of what today is called philosophy of religion is so in name only. (It can be dangerous to think about about what philosophy of religion is!) Even if we tentatively conclude that we are doing philosophy of religion, we may still not be doing it well. But this is what is required to have, in philosophy of religion, an activity worthy of the attention of philosophers, governed by a set of attitudes deserving their aspiration at an evolutionarily early stage of inquiry.
Perhaps nowhere are the dangers of philosophy disssolving into something else – another activity such as theistic or naturalistic apologetics – greater than where religion is concerned. You might have thought that in their preoccupation with a personal God, contemporary analytical philosophers concerned with religion are getting at the most fundamental matters. But many have just taken that topic over from their predecessors or from the religious tradition which they embrace or else have rejected, without ever seriously thinking about whether the concept of God, as most philosophers have deployed it, is as fundamental as things get in the religious arena.