William J. Wainwright on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

William J. Wainwright is Distinguished Professor Emeritus in Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. 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 will largely restrict my comments to philosophers of religion who have received their graduate training in the philosophy departments[i] of major universities in the English speaking world, Scandinavia, and the Netherlands. Most of those who have done so are either analytic philosophers or have been heavily influenced by them. My reason for doing so is that these philosophers not only dominate the practice of philosophy in the countries in question but are an increasing presence in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Poland, and, more recently, in universities at Milan and in other European countries.

Analytic philosophers of religion have been accused with some justification of parochialism (a narrow focus on Western theism, and an inattention to the emotional and existential aspects of religion and its social and cultural situatedness). While these accusations may have been fair in the past, a great deal of contemporary analytic philosophy of religion has been devoted to precisely these formerly neglected topics. For example, many analytically trained philosophers of religion have turned their attention to Buddhism, Vedanta, NeoConfucianism, and other non-Western religions. (It is worth noting that a number of those who have done so are themselves adherents of the religions they are examining.) Others have provided sympathetic accounts of the essential role played by what William James called our “passional nature” in the construction and assessment of religious arguments. Moreover, there is in principal no reason why analytic philosophers of religion can’t be more sensitive to instances of the ideological abuse of (e.g.) Christian or Hindu or Buddhist “theology,” or the insights of the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” and some (although in my opinion, not enough) have been.

Why, though, is the analytic philosophy of religion so important? The Western philosophical tradition as a whole has prized the search for truth for its own sake. Aristotle spoke for many philosophers when he argued the highest form of human activity is the expression of nous, not phronesis. Furthermore, in its pursuit of truth Western philosophy has placed a high value on analytic precision and rigor of argument.  (This is equally true of Indian philosophy of course.) Analytic philosophy has also been historically associated with science and shares science’s comparative confidence in reason’s ability to discover the truth. It is thus not surprising that analytic philosophers of religion have retained a certain confidence in reason’s ability to adjudicate claims of truth and falsity in a principled way, and have largely rejected relativism and what Nicholas Wolterstorff has called “interpretation relativism”—that everything is interpretation, i.e., that “things exist and are as they are only relative to one or another of our conceptual schemes.”

Why does this matter? My experience in the academy has been that when one raises questions of the truth or rational adequacy of non-dualism,[ii] say, with colleagues in the humanities or social sciences who have a professional interest in religious studies, one is often made to feel that one’s question is naïve or even somehow impolite. Yet it seems to me that we fail to respect the men and women whose beliefs and practices we are examining if we don’t take their claims to truth and rational and spiritual superiority as seriously as they themselves do

Moreover—and perhaps more important—there is a further reason for paying attention to their truth claims. As Stephen Evans has pointed out, if theism is true, it deeply matters. And of course the same can be said of other forms of theism, of Theravada, Madhyamika, NeoConfucianism, and so on. So if Christian theism, say, or Theravada Buddhism are “live possibilities,”[iii] concern with their truth is of paramont importance. It follows that a concern with the truth or rational adequacy of Christianity or theistic forms of Vaishnavism or Advaita Vedanta or Theravada Buddhism should be cavalierly dismissed only if they aren’t live possibilities—only if, in other words, their claims are either false or meaningless, or childish or existentially insignificant. What analytic philosophers of religion often find frustrating is the reluctance of their colleagues in the humanities or social sciences to defend the assumption of falsity or meaninglessness or the charge of existential insignificance against their objections or in some cases to even familiarize themselves with them.

The question of the truth or falsity of religious perspectives and worldviews is of vital interest to a significant number of our students as well as to many thoughtful and well educated lay persons. If I am correct, analytically trained philosophers of religion are pretty much the only members of the academy who are willing to directly address these issues.

[i] And not religious studies or theology departments.

[ii] Or of the anatman doctrine, or of one or another form of Western or Indian theism, or…

[iii] That is, have a significant bearing on how we should live and a non-negligible possibility of being true.

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