Graham Oppy on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

graham_oppy-profile1Graham Oppy is Professor of Philosophy and Head of the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies (SOPHIS) at Monash University. 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.

Philosophy is the discipline that addresses questions for which we do not know how to produce—and perhaps cannot even imagine how to produce—consensus answers among experts using methods more or less universally agreed by experts. In any other discipline, there are borderline questions for which we do not know how to produce—and perhaps cannot even imagine how to produce—consensus answers among experts using methods more or less universally agreed by experts; these questions belong to the philosophy of that discipline. However, there are also questions that are proper to the central sub-disciplines of philosophy—metaphysics, epistemology, logic, ethics, aesthetics, and so forth: we do not know how to produce—and perhaps cannot even imagine how to produce—consensus answers to these questions among experts using methods more or less universally agreed by experts.

Given what philosophy is, it is clear that we—collectively—want some among us to be philosophers. Pretty much every discipline starts out as philosophy; many people who work in other disciplines run into questions that currently belong to the philosophy of that discipline; and everyone comes up against questions—including, in particular, normative questions—that remain squarely and stubbornly philosophical. While progress is slow, there continue to be new disciplines branching off from philosophy; and philosophers—people who spend their time addressing philosophical questions—play an important role in that process. What philosophy offers to ‘the modern university’ is something that ‘the modern university’ should not—and perhaps even cannot—be without, whether or not ‘the modern university’ recognises this to be the case.

The main thing that religion brings to ‘the modern university’ is trouble. Religion—like sex, politics, and other ‘markers of identity’—creates circumstances that require negotiation of difference. For ‘the modern university’, this negotiation is often a very messy juggling act. On the one hand, ‘the modern university’ values freedom of speech, including free and open discussion of contested beliefs and values. But, on the other hand, ‘the modern university’ also values respect for the diverse worldviews represented among its constituents, even when that ‘respect’ allegedly requires not entering into free and open discussion of contested beliefs and values.

Philosophy of religion focuses the attention of ‘the modern university’ on the particular problem that arises in connection with contested religious beliefs and values. Philosophy of religion can be a domain in which there is—and in which there is expected to be—genuinely free and open discussion of contested religious beliefs and values. In that domain, it can be that there are no contested religious beliefs and values that are on the conversational scoreboard; it can be that beliefs and values only get on to the conversational scoreboard if they are agreed by all participants in the conversation. Moreover, it can be that, in that domain, there are no religious beliefs and values that are placed off limits: it can be that all religious beliefs and values are entitled to—and required to be subject to—consideration in philosophy of religion. Whatever may be the case elsewhere in ‘the modern university’, it can be that, in philosophy of religion respect demands entering into free and open discussion of contested religious beliefs and values.

Needless to say, it need not be that case that ‘the modern university’ allows philosophy of religion to be a domain in which there is—and in which there is expected to be—genuinely free and open discussion of contested religious beliefs and values. However, given that the primary subject matter of philosophy of religion is questions about religion for which we do not know how to produce—and perhaps cannot even imagine how to produce—consensus answers among experts using methods more or less universally agreed by experts, there is a clear sense in which it ought to be the case that ‘the modern university’ allows philosophy of religion to be a domain in which there is—and in which there is expected to be—genuinely free and open discussion of contested religious beliefs and values. Even if we allow that there are circumstances—times and places—in which it is not appropriate to try to pursue free and open discussion of contested religious beliefs and values—i.e. even if we allow that, sometimes, respect for those with worldviews very different from our own requires us to abstain from trying to pursue free and open discussion of those worldviews with their adherents—we should nonetheless insist that there must be places such as classrooms for philosophy of religion whose essential purpose is to facilitate the pursuit of free and open discussion of contested religious beliefs and values. For, while we may hold out very little hope that discussion in the philosophy of religion classroom will lead to convergence of expert opinion on contested religious beliefs and values, we can certainly expect that free and open discussion of contested religious beliefs and values in circumstances in which nothing short of universal consensus permits claims to be entered onto the conversational scoreboard will promote improved mutual expert understanding of those contested religious beliefs and values.

The account that I have given of what philosophy of religion offers to ‘the modern university’ is premised on two assumptions. The first, somewhat sceptical, assumption is that there is no prospect of convergence of expert opinion with respect to currently contested religious beliefs and values. The second, somewhat optimistic, assumption is that we will all benefit from improved expert understanding of currently contested religious beliefs and values. Much of what passes for philosophy of religion in ‘the modern university’ is taught by people who accept neither of these assumptions. In my opinion, this fact plays a significant role in explaining why philosophy of religion is currently so much less than it could be.

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