Stephen T. Davis on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

stephen davisStephen T. Davis is the Russell K. Pitzer Professor of Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

There are of course Catholic and Protestant institutions of higher learning, but when I speak of “the modern University,” I mean secular academia as it presently exists in North America and Europe. And the fact is that religion seems to come in for little good press in those circles these days. There are doubtless many reasons for this phenomenon. Let me mention two.

First, religious people are criticized. Although lip service is usually paid to the fact that not all religious people are bad, nevertheless we live in a time when Muslims are tarred with the brush of Islamic terrorism, Jews are associated with (what are considered by some to be) those imperialistic war-mongers the Israelis, and Christians (and especially conservative Catholics and Evangelical Protestants) are dismissed as narrow-minded, dogmatic, and homophobic deniers of science. These are the kinds of things that religion can do—so the University implies.

Second, religion conflicts with the dominant world-view of the University; we can call it Naturalism. This theory says: (1) the physical universe exhausts reality (everything that exists is atoms in motion); there are no souls, spirits, gods, or God; (2) no true natural laws can ever be violated; and accordingly (3) everything that occurs can in principle be explained by methods similar to those used in the natural sciences. Naturalists admit that there are things we cannot now explain, but that is because we do not know enough. The point is that there are no intractable mysteries, permanent anomalies, or divine miracles. In short, there is no room for God or (supernatural) religion in naturalism.

For these and doubtless other reasons, religion is a voice that seems to be unwelcome as part of the conversation in today’s University. It is largely ignored or deemphasized. We even see historians writing religion out of the past as much as possible—e.g., trying to explain the Civil Rights movement or even the Protestant Reformation in largely non-religious terms. Of course philosophy of religion cannot by itself reverse these trends, but I think it can do something.

But what exactly is the philosophy of religion? I understand it to be in large part the careful philosophical examination of religious claims. (Of course religion is not limited to religious beliefs or claims—there are religious practices, laws, attitudes, holidays, buildings, forms of government, etc., but the philosophy of religion, like all of philosophy, is greatly concerned with beliefs.) Its practitioners ask questions like:

  • Does God exist?
  • If God exists, why is there so much evil and suffering?
  • Is reincarnation true?
  • Is it ever rational to believe in something you cannot see or touch or prove?
  • Is one religion superior to others?
  • Does life have any transcendent meaning?

Although philosophers of religion usually take sides in such debates, the discipline of philosophy of religion is neither a philosophical defense of religious claims nor a philosophical attack on them.

What then can this discipline do in the current situation? I will mention two things. First, it can serve as an excellent way to introduce students to the larger discipline of which it is a part, philosophy. This is because the questions it deals with significantly overlap with traditional questions that are raised in the central branches in philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, logic, philosophy of mind, etc.). Moreover, many themes in the philosophy of religion can be found in the works of almost every great historical philosopher.

Second, and more importantly, it can show the contemporary University that there exists rational, rigorous, and painstaking examination of various important and fascinating religious claims and that there are highly intelligent people on both sides of such debates. Given not just its past but its present influence on human behavior in today’s world, religion ought to be a deep concern in academia. Religion isn’t just obscurantist fundamentalists pontificating and fighting over nonsense. In religion, people try to make sense of their lives. That is something the University ought to be deeply interested in.

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