Paul Russell is Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia and the University of Gothenburg. 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.
This question may be considered in two parts; the first concerns the point of studying the philosophy of religion, and the second concerns its specific relevance to the modern university. Answering the first part of this question provides us with much of the answer to the second part. From the perspective of those who view religious claims and practices as either true and justified or, at least, as possibly true and justified (i.e. theists and agnostics) there are some obvious and easy answers to this question. The philosophy of religion serves to investigate the nature and grounds of religious beliefs and practices and to articulate and justify them to those who are so committed or are still considering them. However, from the perspective of those who operate from a more sceptical or even hostile stance (i.e. atheists or the irreligious) the answers are not so evident or straightforward.
For some, the philosophy of religion, as distinct from historical and anthropological investigations of religion, should be dismissed as nothing better than a waste of our intellectual time and energy, since it is devoted to the examination and evaluation of a set of arguments and claims that have already been adequately discredited and refuted. From this perspective, devoting further resources of any kind to the philosophy of religion is, at best, useless and redundant and, at worst, gives credibility to a system of ideas and doctrines that prop up pernicious practices and corrupt institutions. Investigations and studies of this kind, it may be said, are no more valuable and worthwhile than work devoted to discrediting astrology, the existence of ghosts, augury, or any number of other superstitious beliefs and practices. There are certainly many philosophers – including some influential philosophers – who take a view of this general kind. I think, however, that this attitude to the philosophy of religion is mistaken, or at least too sweeping, even for those who find the major forms of religion both intellectually suspect and ethically troubling.
Why, then, should atheists take the philosophy of religion seriously? There are, I believe, a number of considerations that matter here and identifying them depends on drawing several important distinctions (which philosophers are especially well placed to draw). First, we need to distinguish the importance and interest of the questions being asked from the quality or credibility of the answers that have been provided for them. Religions and religious philosophers have raised a wide range of deeply important and difficult questions that demand careful consideration and examination by everyone, including those who may reject orthodox religious or theistic answers to them. Moreover, with regard to the (wide) range of religious answers and proposals that are on offer, we need to carefully separate and distinguish those that really do not merit our attention from those that do. Furthermore, in a number of cases some religious arguments and proposals that have been found wanting have been further refined and developed in interesting and challenging ways. These refinements make clear that any thinker, who is suitably serious, intellectually modest, and genuinely open-minded, must retain an ongoing engagement with these arguments, allowing for the possibility that they may contain important truths or insights into the human condition.
Where we draw this line is, of course, a matter of judgment and there is no sharp or precise boundary to follow. There is, nevertheless, a clear difference to be made between spending time refuting, for example, the claims of Scientology and responding to problems of cosmology, as this relates to the source and origins of the order, structure and meaning that we find in the world. No one should wrap all these matters up into one large bag and toss it all away. Indeed, it is one of the concerns and aims of the philosophy of religion to help guide us on such matters and to enable us to sift through this complex varied material, with a view to separating out what does and does not merit serious consideration and further philosophical attention. Beyond all this, the sensible atheist will recognize that the boundary between the philosophy of religion and other areas of philosophical concern (e.g. “existential” problems relating to the human condition and human predicament) is not clearly demarcated and is easily crossed. Here the history of philosophy has a particularly important role to play in helping us to understand ourselves and the way we continue to think about and address these overlapping and constantly evolving set of problems.
Another aspect of the philosophy of religion of particular concern to atheists and the irreligious, related to the investigations described above, is focused on asking (challenging and troubling) questions about the causes and effects of religion. These are questions that need to be asked by anyone who recognizes that religion, whatever its credentials or merits may be, is of great consequence in the world – something that is undeniable from any point of view. The way that we frame and interpret these questions about the causes and effects of religion itself requires philosophical skill and judgment, even when the answers we seek depend on methods and techniques of another kind. These are all matters that both the religious and irreligious have a common or shared interest in whether their answers converge or conflict. The dialogue and debate involved is equally important and essential to the integrity and credibility of both parties concerned.
Finally, I take it that it is a central obligation of all universities to provide its members, and society more generally, with the opportunity and resources to investigate and examine the most basic and fundamental features of the universe and our human predicament and place within it. All such investigations generate philosophical puzzles and issues about their own methods and assumptions. For this reason, philosophy has traditionally enjoyed, as it still does, a central place at the heart of university education. For reasons I have explained above, the religious and irreligious alike must recognize the importance and value of the philosophy of religion as a core part or aspect of philosophy itself. These are issues of the most profound and inescapable theoretical and practical importance for human life, and they require the sort of exact and precise articulation that a philosophical education should provide. It is, therefore, a matter of some concern that contemporary academic philosophy, as studied in most Western universities, has rather marginalized the philosophy of religion and gives much more prestige and prominence to areas of study that are more arcane, dry and remote in nature. This is not so much a sign that either philosophy or human knowledge has “progressed” or “advanced” beyond religion, as it is that a great deal of philosophy, as studied and taught in the modern university, has become excessively narrow, over-professionalized and detached from the very sort of fundamental concerns and problems that bring most students and readers to the study of philosophy in the first place.