Thomas Tracy on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

thomas-tracyThomas Tracy is Phillips Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. 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 expect that most of us who write and teach in the field of philosophy of religion have been asked various (perhaps more polemical) versions of this question throughout our working lives. Often the questioner goes straight to the bottom line: “What do students do with their degree when they graduate?”; “What is that course of study good for?” In the context of increasingly cost-conscious and utility focused appraisals of higher education, these questions are asked about the humanistic disciplines generally, though philosophy tends to be an especially popular target. Marco Rubio offered a simple expression of this view during one of the Republican presidential nomination debates (Nov. 10, 2015): “We need more welders and less philosophers” (though perhaps more grammarians would be helpful).

I am convinced that we can give compelling answers to questions like these; a strong case can be made for the instrumental value of the study of philosophy generally and philosophy of religion in particular. I think that it is a mistake to dismiss altogether arguments that treat preparation in these fields as a means to some further good end, and instead offer only high-minded defenses of their intrinsic value. It is reasonable, e.g., for parents to wonder how their offspring’s undergraduate degree in Philosophy (or Religious Studies or English or Music, and so on) will contribute to their ability to get on in life. But it is worth noting that utilitarian considerations generally do not motivate our work on these subjects. We pursue them because (among other things) they engage matters of vital and compelling importance to us, they allow us to follow the track of insistent curiosity, they illuminate our experience and deepen understanding. In these ways they make our lives richer, more interesting, and more profoundly connected both to contemporaries and to those long dead who become our textual conversation partners. We can offer a powerful utilitarian defense that points to the wider social benefits of this activity (more about this below). But part of the value of these instrumental arguments is that they themselves serve as a means to the end of defending the opportunity to study what we love.

Let me sketch just a few of the goods, both intrinsic and instrumental, that are advanced through the study of philosophy of religion.

First, philosophy of religion provides opportunities to grapple with perennial questions of fundamental importance. Human beings perpetually seek to understand the larger context in which our lives unfold, how we fit into that context, and therefore how we ought to live. Religious traditions typically address these questions about reality, identity, and value at the level of ultimacy; that is, they make proposals about the ultimate (most comprehensive) context of our lives, and they affirm that orienting our lives in this context is of ultimate importance in understanding who we are and in shaping a good course of life. The drive to explore these questions is part of being human, and this is a reason to resist exclusively instrumental defenses of teaching and research in philosophy of religion. We should insist that the first answer to the question, “What is this field of study good for?” is that it is good for human beings.

Second, philosophy of religion makes it clear that individuals and communities think about these matters in a great variety of different ways. Exploring the range of religious thought and practice can challenge our parochialism, expand the reach of imagination, open up new lines of reflection, and (we may hope) deepen empathetic appreciation of both similarity and difference. Especially at this social-political moment, it seems obvious that ignorance about unfamiliar religious communities has the potential to be socially destructive, and that richer and more complex understanding across religious difference is a social good. This is a compelling consequential reason to foster teaching and research in Philosophy of Religion (and in the study of religion generally, e.g., in Religious Studies).

Third, the study of philosophy of religion brings to light the internal complexity of religious traditions. One expression of widespread ignorance about religious communities, including those at least superficially familiar in our society, is a pernicious simplification of their beliefs, practices, and forms of social organization. Religions not only differ from one another, they contain tremendous diversity within themselves. Rather than conveying a single, unified, and unvarying content from generation to generation, religious traditions take shape in an ongoing discussion, an often passionate dialogue about what believers should believe and how the faithful should practice. The boundaries of the faith (of orthodoxy and orthopraxis) typically are matters of vigorous debate, and religious traditions are dynamic, developing, and multi-vocal. It is critically important to understand that a religion is richer than the narrow version presented by any set of absolutists within it or hostile simplifiers outside it.

Fourth, philosophy of religion illuminates the patterns of reasoning at work in religious thought, and it invites careful assessment of the claims that arise in the dialogue within and among religious traditions and in debates with their critics. This involves a discipline of charitable attention to contending points of view, commitment to clarity, openness to considering objections, and fair-minded assessment of arguments. These practices of collaborative truth-seeking, critical self-consciousness, and willingness to cope with complexity are transferable to a wide variety of contexts. They contribute to the range and richness of our conversations across differences. In a world that includes multiple religious cultures in ever increasing global interaction these habits of mind are urgently needed.

In short, a strong case can be made for the vital importance of philosophy of religion in contemporary higher education. We may or may not need more welders, but we certainly need more people (welders included) who are informed and thoughtful about religion.

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