Jan-Olav Henriksen on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

jan-olav henriksenJan-Olav Henriksen is Professor of Systematic Theology at Norwegian School of Theology and Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Agder, Kristiansand. 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 of religion: To expand and deepen the understanding of religions

Why philosophy of religion?  An obvious answer to this question is that we (the human community, and not only academics) need to develop understandings of the phenomena we call religions that are not based on any pre-determined decision about what they are and how to assess them. Too much discourse about religion today starts with a pre-determined opinion about how good or bad religion is for humanity. Such decisions do not help us to understand the role, function, effect, content, and relevance of religions in concrete human life. Accordingly, we need a discipline that can analyze and develop interpretations of religions that are not based in idealization or demonization of religions, but which, instead, acknowledge the basically ambiguous character of those phenomena we call religious. This should be done with openness, curiosity, and rigor.

To maintain the ambiguous character of religions implies a critical as well as an open approach to religions and to what people think are religious experiences. Our approach need to be critical, in terms of not taking at face value the already-existing opinions about religions and the religious; and it should be open, in terms of being attentive to what people might say about their experiences with, and responses to, the reality that presents itself as something that deserves – for different reasons – to be considered religious. To point consistently to the ambiguous character of religions is important not only in light of contemporary public debate and the potential role of religion in politics but also in order to promote a self-critical attitude towards one’s own opinion about religion in believers and non-believers alike.

As a discipline that has emerged out of the Enlightenment, philosophy of religion has mostly been about interpreting religion from an external point of view—one that does not require a pre-given commitment to any specific beliefs, confession, or doctrine. This approach has to some extent, of course, been informed by existing religion, but the philosophy of religion has mostly been exactly that: a philosophical, not an empirical, approach to religion. This has led to a lot of fruitful interpretations, but also to a certain isolation from other ways to deal with the subject. At present, I think we can see that this is changing. There is an increasing tendency in the contemporary scene for philosophies of religions (the plural is deliberate) to be more extensively informed by all that empirical studies can tell us about religion.  For this reason—and also because philosophy of religion is better informed about problems related to oversimplification and reductionism—philosophy of religion is an obvious candidate for dealing with the different approaches to religion that presently exist within the sphere of the university. Thus, its contribution to religious studies departments in universities should be beyond dispute.

There are obvious reasons for demanding a stronger empirical basis within the discipline. One is the contemporary focus on the possible relationship between religion and violence or terrorism, which calls for a critical scrutiny of empirical as well as theoretical over-simplifications. It is hard to see how this task can be done without a strong basis in empirical studies, be it on the side of sociology or psychology. Another reason is the growing discussion about the natural, or evolutionary, conditions of religion, which is in a similar need for clarification of concepts, but also of basic features related to the understanding of religion. An obvious example in the latter discussion concerns assumptions about “supernatural beings”, and the lack of substantial knowledge about religions among those who seek to explain it merely on the basis of evolutionary theory. On the other hand, religious people need to take into account that their beliefs also are rooted in natural conditions. To develop a comprehensive understanding of religion (and not only of belief, or faith) is an obvious task for empirically informed philosophies of religions.

Among the important contributions of the philosophy of religion to the contemporary discourse about religion is our ability to point out that religions are not, and cannot be, a competitor to science. This absurd claim, which is upheld among believers and non-believers (and mutually reinforced by their mutual antagonisms) and regrettably also repeated in university circles, ignores that all religion builds on, relates to and presupposes everyday knowledge that sometimes also gives rise to scientific reasoning, but without itself producing what we call science.  Religions are basically about practices of orientation in human life and transformation of the human condition, and people need other things than science to articulate and achieve the goals related to these practices. To see religion as a competitor to science is, therefore, a gross under-determination of both. Practices of orientation and transformation are rooted in the deep evolutionary history of humanity, and among the important tasks for the philosophy of religion today is to develop further the understanding of how and why the need for religion (as practices of orientation and transformation) is so persistent in humanity.

All this means that philosophy of religion cannot simply be about analyzing peoples’ beliefs and the opinions they hold about this or that.  Religions are about a human response to reality, and about employing specific resources for response and engagement with reality in order to go beyond the mere immediate and obvious. Rather than seeing religion as something invented in peoples’ minds, we should see religions as emerging out of the basic conditions for what has made humans in the first place. This approach need not require that one has to assume some belief in the supernatural or in the divine – but it could, nevertheless, also help us understand better why people still find it worthwhile to engage with such ideas.

A final note: the “empirical” dimension that I here suggest should be a more visible part of our discipline is also pedagogically motivated. There is sometimes a detectable and growing distance between public opinions about religion (in believers and non-believers) and the ways academics deal with these subjects. To remain anchored in the empirical even when we do philosophy might help people to better see why we do what we do, and think what we think, when we philosophize about religions. Thereby we might contribute to deepening and expanding public understanding of religion as it appears in everyday life.

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