Lynne Rudder Baker on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Lynne Rudder Baker is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. We invited her 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.  

Many, if not most, university students are woefully ignorant of the role of religion in the history of civilizations–their own and others. Judaism and Christianity have helped shape Western values, and Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism and others have shaped values in Eastern and Middle-Eastern countries.  Intractable religious conflicts in Africa—the legacy of colonialism—are still occurring.  The religions of the world influence what happens today; so it behooves university students to learn about them. 

Granted, I didn’t teach philosophy of religion in relation to history or culture. Analytic philosophers, myself included, teach philosophy of religion as a series of logical puzzle cases: Can God make a stone so heavy that he couldn’t lift it?  Or perhaps as religious epistemology: is there any good reason to believe in a deity? Or perhaps as genealogy: Why did religion (considered generically) arise?  I now see these approaches, which are followed by many analytic philosophers, as misleadingly reductive. 

Although I would not teach philosophy of religion by draining the life and particularity out of religions, I do recognize that there is a distinctively philosophical place for religions in the university curriculum–a place that would benefit students raised in a consumerist culture that leaves people with the emptiness of routine work and the endless quest for diversion. (Pascal was on the mark when he excoriated lives focused on diversion.)

Philosophy of religion could play a signal role in helping university students understand reality as a domain-independent whole: What difference would it make if there is any reality beyond the spacetime universe, beyond the particular domains of the sciences—any reality that comprehends the cosmos as a whole? The aim of philosophy of religion could be to bring reflection to unreflective ideas of reality, and to teach students to be still and to reflect on their own lives. We are all going to die–and that includes you and me; what bearing does that fact have on how we live? 

Philosophers notoriously (and perhaps uniquely) use arguments to talk about values. The matter of what values are worth having is certainly subject to argument. Religions can and have been used to oppress people, but they also can liberate people: U.S slavery and abolition are both defended on religious grounds, some of which can be shown to be fallacious. For example, consider the pro-slavery argument that Africans benefit from slavery, because they are like children and cannot take care of themselves on their own. The argument for this claim circularly uses the claim itself to justify putting in place the very infantilizing conditions that make self-governance impossible.

Religion, in the words of Paul Tillich, studies ultimacy. A philosophy of religion course may well study ultimate values (and arguments for and against adopting various ones of them). For example, we may consider the cosmos as an ordered whole, not as an accidental mishmash of events. Of course, there are scientific laws; in order to conceive of the universe as an ordered whole, both Aquinas and Kant (albeit on different grounds), thought that the idea of God is necessary. The idea of something beyond our spacetime world is not a dogma, but it is something well worth considering.

If we do conceive of the cosmos as an ordered whole, it can be argued that we have resulting obligations to the environment and to future generations; global questions about human beings as such; and about animals as such. We should also consider anti-human implications of advances in technology. These matters are illuminated by arguments in the philosophy of religion.

Another deep question arising from thinking about the world as a whole is this:  What is natural–as opposed to artificial or cultural? What is it to act according to one’s nature? Do human beings have a natural or divine right to be delivered from murderous harm? What is the purpose of government? Is there a common good? What is the relation between fact and value? (Hume has held the stage on this question far too long.) 

Philosophy of religion may ask metaphysical questions that blossom out into social, political and ethical  questions. What is justice? If others are starving, does justice require depriving oneself to the point of self-harm? Philosophy of religion may also argue about war and its justification, and poverty and its alleviation. Are hierarchies justifiable? Even though such questions may be answered with no appeal to religion, it seems arbitrary—given the influence of religions in the world—to rule out religions as contributing to answering them.

Religions have concerned themselves with daily living–food, clothing, sexuality, domestic life. Philosophy of religion can examine the arguments for and against positions taken by religions on these matters.

The philosophy of religion stubbornly explores the Big Questions: Does life have purpose beyond individual choice? Are living people responsible for the evil of the past? Why can we not learn from the past? Is there any remedy?

Traditionally, much of philosophy of religion has concerned itself with the existence of God, but in truth, the area is much broader and encompasses almost all domain-independent questions. Philosophy of religions ranges over all the domains of the particular sciences. It is one of the highest achievements of the human intellect to think about these matters. As ancients Greeks said, we throw away these questions to our peril.

Broadening one’s perspective in light of these questions of what is ultimate is what university education is all about. So, I think that philosophy of religion that attends to such questions undoubtedly has a place in the university curriculum.

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