Laura Biron on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Laura Biron

Laura Biron is Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom. We invited her to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

One reason that ‘philosophy of religion’ may turn out to be such an elusive field is that it defies easy classification into any of philosophy’s main sub-disciplines. Understanding some of the classical theistic arguments—based on a priori ontological definitions of ‘God’, cosmological principles or experiential evidence of the teleological purposiveness of the world—makes philosophy of religion quite understandably a species of metaphysics. Indeed, much great work in contemporary philosophy of religion has been carried out within metaphysics and by metaphysicians, and it is often through metaphysics that students first encounter philosophy of religion as a subject.

However, as soon as one probes further into these arguments, questions arise that are best answered by drawing on other sub-disciplines of philosophy. Attempted definitions of God take us into the field of philosophy of language; cosmological arguments lead us to work in philosophy of science; experiential arguments about design raise epistemological questions about religious forms of knowledge, and moral questions about how evidence of design is compatible with the existence of great evil in the world. Further afield, questions in aesthetics about human creativity and the experience of beauty may prompt distinctively religious questions about beauty as a divine attribute, or the parallel between non-naturalistic explanations of human creativity and the creative powers of a divine being. In all these ways, philosophy of religion is both a species of metaphysics and beyond metaphysics.

The fact that philosophy of religion defies easy classification in these ways is also a reason to find it difficult: it requires expertise and knowledge of a number of subjects. In an era where philosophers are expected to specialize, and to specialize early, this can be frustrating. However, it is also a sign that philosophy of religion is ‘systematic’ in interesting ways that contemporary philosophy is sometimes not: it inspires an attempt to move beyond sub-disciplinary restrictions and even inter-disciplinary restrictions, as philosophers of religion discover that much of the work they strive to do requires knowledge of a field that used to be so closely bound up with philosophy— theology —but is now often so distant from it.

Although philosophy of religion is as old as philosophy itself, the religious tradition that is most represented by Western philosophy of religion is Christianity. But one of the most recent trends in philosophy of religion, which is comforting and important, is the trend towards intellectual modesty: a modesty about taking one’s own religious tradition as ‘representative’, and a movement towards pluralism and respect for other traditions. This call for intellectual modesty and respect for difference can be found both in the ways that Christian philosophers of religion engage sensitively with the work of non-Christian philosophers of religion, and also within Christian philosophy of religion itself, which has been challenged and enriched in important ways by the perspectives offered by theorists of gender, race and sexuality. For all the challenges this methodology of difference poses, to my mind it makes us all better reasoners and better philosophers: as we strive to understand the worldviews of others, we also benefit from making our own worldviews more intelligible.

One final reflection I offer here is a parallel between philosophy of religion and another sub-discipline of philosophy: philosophy of law. Just as philosophy of religion is an important sub-field of theology, philosophy of law is sometimes studied, taught and researched in an entirely different department or school: that of law, rather than philosophy. Just as philosophy of religion is not only metaphysics, philosophy of law is not only political philosophy, although that is where it is most easily classified and taught.

Probing this parallel further, we might distinguish two ways of doing philosophy of law that map onto two different approaches to doing philosophy of religion. One approach is to begin with the nature of law itself: what it is, how does it overlap with morality, how is it justified? This is the analog to the philosopher of religion’s perennial search for an understanding of divine attributes, and the question of the justification of religious belief.

But there is a second approach to philosophy of law, one that I myself subscribe to, which we might term ‘philosophical reasoning about the law’. Here, one begins with an established body of law – contract law, criminal law, intellectual property law, for example – and uses it as a prompt for philosophical inquiry, drawing on all the many sub-disciplines of philosophy that one might find relevant to such a process. The analog to this in philosophy of religion is the attempt to take existing religious doctrines or categories – incarnation, atonement, sin – and apply the tools and methods of philosophical analysis to their study. It is this second approach to philosophy of religion that, in my opinion, provides opportunities for ‘systematic’ theorizing that instances of the first method sometimes do not. One obvious reason for this, of course, is that it leads the philosopher of religion into a direct engagement with theology. This is both a challenge – insofar as knowledge of another field is hard work– and an opportunity to bridge the great chasm that has arisen in recent years between philosophy and theology.

Towards the end of Part I of Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Philo and Cleanthes discuss the following, wonderful quote from Francis Bacon: ‘A little philosophy makes a man an atheist; a great deal converts him to religion’. It is certainly my experience that the little philosophy of religion many undergraduate philosophers study is enough to make them rather counter-religious; a great deal of it, however, converts them not necessarily to religion, but to intellectual curiosity about religion. If philosophers of religion can meet the challenge of showing how their field is both a species of metaphysics and beyond metaphysics—embedded in many sub-disciplines of philosophy, though not reducible to any—perhaps students and academic philosophers will be inspired by this curiosity about religion and religious experience that they, as philosophers, have rich methodological resources to address.


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