Trent Dougherty on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

trent doughertyTrent Dougherty (PhD Rochester) is Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department and a fellow of the Honors College at Baylor University. He publishes regularly in Epistemology, Philosophy of Religion, and Philosophy of Language.  He is the author of The Problem of Animal Pain: A Theodicy for All Creatures Great and Small (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2014).  He is the editor of Evidentialism and Its Discontents (OUP, 2011), the co-editor (with Justin McBrayer) of Skeptical Theism: New Essays (OUP, 2014), and author of numerous essays, reviews, and reference works in his areas including the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and Oxford Bibliographies. When not writing, he enjoys gravity sports, gardening, and gourmet cooking with his wife and four children. 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.

I have been asked to address the question, “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”  Here is a somewhat belligerent answer: relevance.  I’ll explain that a bit shortly, but first a little more belligerence.  Who’s asking?  I mean, if the question is coming from an administrator at my home institution, which tries to cultivate a distinctive Christian identity, I’m going to give one answer: a unique ability to articulate the foundations of our mission as a Christian university (among other things).  If it’s some big wig at a national convention of university administrators, I’m going to assume it’s just a special case of “What does philosophy offer the modern university?” and I’m going to give another answer: A framework within which to judge whether what we can do thanks to the STEM folks is something we should do (among other things).  If it’s, say, an epistemologist or philosopher of mind or language or something, then I’ll assume it’s the typical disciplinary chauvinism and give another answer: You tell me what’s so great about your discipline, so I can get a sense of what you think is valuable, and then I’ll give you my answer.  Now I’ll lay (some of my) belligerence aside and take the question somewhat sui generis and talk a little more about the relevance I have in mind.

Despite what the folks at NPR think, religion is an important part of human life.  Indeed, it is arguably the most important part in human life.  Objection: Money and material stuff.  Reply: look what people forego for their religious scruples, from monks who give up all to soccer moms mocked in What’s the Matter with Kansas?  The NPR iPhone app has the following under “Topics” in this order: U.S., World, Politics, Business, Music, Science, Health, Technology, Arts & Life, Books. Religion doesn’t even get a mention.  And rarely is it touched upon under any of these. And when it is, it is usually treated as a curiosity or an atrocity.  For big city cultural elites, religion is passé, if not embarrassing (except, that is, when it is both harmless and makes for good poolside reading at Martha’s Vineyard like Eat, Pray, Love.  But like Freud’s Future of an Illusion hopes and expectations of religion’s demise will be met with disappointment, because it’s too deep in our intellectual (and literal) DNA.  In a thousand years, no one will know (or care) what the 21st Century’s views on health and wellness were or what our “breakthroughs” on the semantics of counterfactuals or self-locating beliefs were.  Those issues may (probably, hopefully) won’t even be topics of conversation any more.  But you can bet your bottom dollar that they’ll be thinking about why God allows suffering and what we have to learn from the lives of suffering saints.  The holocaust will be a barrier to belief for some and a spur for belief to others.

Western affluence has not proven to be very satisfying, even to those who enjoy its benefits (ever fewer people).  “Man’s search for meaning” (to quote Frankl) will go on, and it will spur questions and thoughts the significance of which are of an enduring value that nothing else in the academic repertoire can match.  In a thousand years there will not be a United States of America (I’m just going to assume there’s going to be an Earth!), nor a European Union, but there will be a Catholic Church and probably other current religions and probably a few more.  Religion isn’t going away, doubt isn’t going to go away, so philosophy of religion isn’t going away.  So if current curators of curricula want their universities to be a part of History beside the dust bin, they’d better get more serious about philosophy of religion.  (Note that it is almost never taught in top “Leiterific” schools nor do those schools have hardly any faculty who publish regularly in it, nor do they ever (ever) hire specifically for it.  Meanwhile, their institutions continue to proliferate “professional” programs which can be big cash cows (sometimes producing valuable professionals like nurses, sometimes producing MBAs).)

Isn’t this true of other areas in the academy, like ethics and political thought?  To a certain extent, yes, and that’s perfectly compatible with my thesis, but I wasn’t asked to describe what they can offer.  And I’ll wager that these disciplines won’t survive well without the religious element.  Philosophy of religion enjoys a continuity with the thought of the last 2500 years from Plato to present in a way rivaled only by ethics, which still comes in a clear second.  I once wrote a letter to Kripke (undelivered) with the opening lines “Want to be remembered in 500 years?  Then you’d better get cracking on some philosophy of religion.”  I go on to point out that every major philosopher in the Western canon was some kind of theist, and even in the 20th century, atheists had to weigh in.  Objection: Oh but Secularity Thesis.  Reply: Don’t bet on it.  And, anyway, I’ve been talking about relevance in the long run, but there is of course relevance in the short run, where it is abundantly obvious that religion is a major motivating force in human life (outside the modern university faculty offices).  So if relevance to current students is an end in view, philosophy of religion offers a lot.  At least it offers a lot more than the folks who determine what classes are offered at top modern universities. A philosophy of religion course (one which didn’t utterly ignore the traditions with which the students are actually acquainted) would help bridge the gap between the insular secularism of most faculty in the modern university and the genuine interest in religion among most students.  That seems like a good thing to me.

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