Donald Blakeley on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

BLAKELEY BioPicDonald Blakeley is emeritus professor of philosophy at California State University, Fresno and adjunct lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. 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.

Religions make claims about the most important things. They aim to provide guidance on the basis of their assumed truths and values. People learn the importance of religious beliefs and values in their particular family, social, geographical and historical settings. Few have the opportunity to learn about other religions. Individual religions have no incentive to encourage the learning of other religions. As a result, people generally are ill equipped to make informed judgments not only about their own religious beliefs but also about the beliefs and practices of other religious and non-religious worldviews.

The modern university can help address this important deficit condition by providing instruction that focuses on religion as a subject matter deserving serious multi-disciplinary attention. Typically, departments of anthropology, sociology, history, psychology, philosophy, and others offer such classes. Sometimes these disciplines are included in a religious studies department.

The availability of such educational instruction by experts in their various fields is important in order to develop a well-informed appreciation of the enormous and varied contributions that have been made by religions. Learning to be religious is not part of the agenda of academic teaching. But learning about what it means to be religious, becoming informed about beliefs, values, and practices of major religions, is an important aspect of learning how life can be understood and lived.

Since religions involve the most basic and intimate aspects of personal and social life, care in learning how to reflect upon, compare, and assess such life options would seem to be of utmost importance to everyone. Additionally, as beneficial as religions may be, they can also be dangerous. Dogmatic single-mindedness can find sanctification in special experiences or scriptural resources and assume exclusive certitude. In extreme cases, this can result in destructive campaigns and horrifying atrocities that have and continue to wreak havoc on this planet. Familiarity with other religions can help to reduce misunderstandings that lead to suffering and disruption in personal, social, and international affairs.

What such university-based educational opportunities provide is a safe, disciplined, and informed environment that encourages independent thinking. Discussions can explore the meanings, ways of reasoning, and values of different religions and advance skills in disciplined clarification of agreements and disagreements. Religious beliefs are deserving of cautious and critical examination of the most rigorous and well-informed sort. Considering the value of a knowledgeable populace, it is surprising that the societal settings which encourage the development of competence in the analysis and communication of religious ideas are so rare.

Religion(s) will face unprecedented challenges in the future. Forms of on-line access to information about religions certainly increase the opportunity for learning which is not restricted to local sources. Other prominent challenges include advances in the comparative study of belief systems, scientific cosmology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, robotics, medicine, and environmental studies. Religions can hardly escape the consequences of these contributions. Transformations will surely result. Students need to be provided adequate information about such matters generally and as these have an impact on religion.

Because anyone can all-too-easily become a duped adherent of some way of understanding things, educational institutions should function as a resource to strengthen and equip people with tools to help protect them from their own vulnerabilities. A good and responsible society, with its educational institutions, cannot afford to ignore ignorance and inadequately informed beliefs even as it affirms the right of everyone to exercise freedom of religion (thought, belief, conscience). As the saying might go: A well-informed citizenry requires the development of a robust disposition to encounter and reflect on religious belief claims in adept and respectful ways. Social discourse and social media should be supportive of occasions where informed interchanges on such matters can take place. In ideal conditions, this project of “religious education” should begin in early childhood and be a widely held social-political commitment. The modern university should exemplify this mission at advanced levels of instruction.

‘Philosophy of religion’ can be understood in various ways. (#1) Every religion expresses itself in a set of convictions. Whatever forms these may take, that assemblage of information functions as its way of thinking about things, i.e., its philosophy.

(#2) Religious beliefs can be formulated on the basis of different philosophical perspectives on religion such as realist (foundationalist), phenomenological, pragmatic, existential, symbolic, mystical, or fideist.

(#3) ‘Philosophy of religion’ might come in forms such as Gandhi’s, the Dalai Lama’s, or al Ghazali’s philosophy of religion. These would be constructive philosophical interpretations of religion or interpretations of the philosophical significance of religion. Bits and pieces of such perspectives can show up pretty much anywhere, e.g., from novels, poems, films, editorials, to cartoons and jokes.

(#4) In an educational setting, these approaches are part of the content to be examined by the discipline of philosophy. It proceeds without depending on commitments to any religion. It takes an etic or outside approach to its subject matter.

Philosophy of religion (in sense #4) focuses on religious worldviews/belief systems and their distinctive ideas in order to understand and evaluate what is being maintained. Exposition and critical assessment rely on empirical and formal (conceptual, logical, rational) considerations. Major concepts (e.g., God, Brahman, Dao, Buddha Nature, Spirit Power) are interlinked with numerous epistemic (knowledge, belief, faith), linguistic (meaning, reference), existential and moral (life, death, love, freedom, justice) issues. Anything goes, as a starter, but everything is subject to a variety of standards (verification, consistency, coherency, comprehensiveness), with such standards themselves requiring justification.

The general aim of philosophy of religion is to engage in a skillful, transparent, fair, welcoming, cooperative examination of religious beliefs and values. Because religion has been and continues to be important worldwide, a resourceful and judicious handling of these matters is imperative.

The goal of producing an educated person who is able to function resourcefully in the world composed of very diverse peoples and cultures requires the capacity to reflect perceptively and knowledgeably when encountering religious beliefs and practices.

The modern university, tending as it should to the best interests of its students, has much at stake in its support (or lack thereof) of programs that address religion in educationally responsible ways.

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