Neil A. Manson on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Neil A. Manson is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Mississippi. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

I will restrict my comments to the analytic approach to philosophy. I will also modify the question in a slight but significant way to “What personal norms or values should guide philosophers of religion?” That is, I will talk about desirable qualities in the people who do philosophy of religion rather than in the output they produce.

As philosophers, philosophers of religion ought to follow the standard norms of the field. They ought to be precise and rigorous logically, helping themselves to a toolkit including propositional logic, quantifier logic, modal logic, probability theory, set theory, and so on. They ought to be interdisciplinary, incorporating (when appropriate) physical science, social science, and history. And they ought to be intradisciplinary, integrating in their own work the best from the full array of relevant philosophical subdisciplines: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, philosophy of mind and language, history of philosophy, and so on. But those familiar with the subdiscipline “philosophy of religion” will probably recognize that, by and large, these norms are, indeed, followed. Pick up any recent book in philosophy of religion. Sprinkled throughout it you will likely see some combination of formal logical proofs, universal quantifiers, diamond operators, probability calculations, and citations of various scientific papers. In that regard, it will be hard to distinguish a philosophy of religion book from one in any other area of philosophy. Adhering to these norms thus in no way makes philosophers of religion distinctive within philosophy. Doing these things is just a precondition for doing good philosophy. Are there any, more distinctive norms that ought to guide philosophers of religion?

To answer this, we must recognize a crucial fact about philosophy of religion’s place both in philosophy more broadly and in academia as a whole. Within philosophy, philosophers of religion are regarded with considerable suspicion. Since the reasons for that are pretty widely discussed amongst philosophers of religion, especially amongst newly-minted Ph.D.s and their advisers, I will not rehearse them here. I want to focus on how analytic philosophers of religion relate to the rest of their colleagues across the university.

If we list standard subfields of philosophy, we will find that some have no non-philosophy rivals for the attention of their subject matters. For example, most metaphysical questions are ones no one else in the academic world is addressing. None but metaphysicians are trying to figure out the nature of modality, of abstract objects, of causation, of time, or of personal identity. [Some would say that this is not a virtue of metaphysicians but rather a reason to be suspicious of them.] But for many subfields, there are fields outside of philosophy addressing the same subject. For example, philosophers of mind both compete and cooperate with psychologists, brain scientists, linguists, and computer scientists in the effort to understand the mind. And philosophers of mind (for the most part) seek concordance with their non-philosopher academic counterparts. Infrequent exceptions aside, philosophers of mind try to stay abreast of and in step with developments in those other fields. And sometimes the scholars in those other fields will appeal to the work of philosophers of mind. The same is true of most other “philosophers of” – philosophers of biology, philosophers of language, philosophers of physics, and so on. They are part of a larger academic community, with a distinctive approach but overlapping goals.

The situation with philosophers of religion seems to me to be significantly different. Currently, philosophy of religion is the only field in the humanities and social sciences in which religious beliefs are often treated as matters of reason and evidence – as if they might be true. It is the only academic subdiscipline in which there are serious arguments in the current scholarly literature concerning the existence of God, the nature of God, the afterlife, the soul, and so on. Whatever one thinks of the merits of those arguments, they played (and still play) a crucial role in the religious, social, political, scientific, and intellectual life of the world. For example, one cannot really understand significant aspects of modern science without understanding the belief that reason and empirical evidence show that the entire universe was created and designed by God, and that God intended for us to understand God’s plan. But one cannot understand that belief without understanding both the Cosmological and Design arguments. While they may have been wrong, the religious figures who thought reason and science were on the side of their faith really did think it. Likewise, Calvinists and Arminians really did think one side was right and the other wrong, and they thought reasoned arguments could be offered to support their favored position and refute the position they opposed.

Yet approaching religious beliefs as if it they might be true or false is something that almost never happens nowadays in non-philosophy disciplines. In the fields of religion/religious studies, sociology, anthropology, history and literature – and even in some seminaries and divinity schools – religion is by and large approached from a postmodernist perspective. Religious beliefs and practices are viewed as encoding power relationships amongst races, classes, and genders. Religions are interesting for what they tell us about those relationships. In evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, religious beliefs are treated either as adaptations or as spandrels, benefitting the biological fitness either of the individual or the group. In both cases, it is just a presumption – an explicit methodological presumption at best and an unexamined dogma at worst – that people do not hold to religious belief X because X is true, probably true, or more likely to be true than Y. [If you see the word “true” used in these fields, there is a good chance there will be quotation marks around it.] For example, in these fields, no part of the explanation for why, historically, monotheism has tended to supplant polytheism is that it is quite reasonable to think monotheism is more likely to be true than polytheism, or that the arguments for monotheism are objectively more persuasive than those for polytheism.

This blog is not the place to judge whether this enormous difference in methodological presuppositions indicates a defect in philosophy of religion or rather in the other disciplines just mentioned. [In my own view, while those taking a postmodernist or an evolutionary approach to religion succeed in identifying many very important aspects of religion, they also often ignore other important aspects of religion. See my “Religion and Metaphysical Naturalism” in *The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy of Religion*, 2015). The point is just that the philosopher of religion is a serious outlier within academia. The typical philosopher of mind is likely to find a sympathetic audience, and possibly actual collaborators, in the psychology department or the neuroscience program. Likewise with philosophy of language, philosophy of science, and so on. In all those cases, there are points of collaboration, possibilities for joint degree programs, and even opportunities for joint academic appointments. In contrast, the philosophers of religion are quite likely to find themselves in a chilly (if not flat-out adversarial) relationship with their colleagues who study religion for a living. If you are a philosopher of religion, do not expect the members of the other fields mentioned to have much interest in your research, the speakers you bring in, or the questions you think are important. Do not expect to find a shared sense that you are all participating in different ways in the same larger project. The methodological and cultural gap between analytic philosophy of religion and these other disciplines is just too great.

So, what personal values ought to guide analytic philosophers of religion? Fortitude is one. If you are the only philosopher of religion on a typical college campus in the English-speaking world, be prepared to be a solitary figure. You can assume that, if your colleagues outside of philosophy have any idea of what you do, they think it is largely or completely a waste of time – something that has nothing to do with the actual understanding of religion. Congeniality is another value to cultivate. If you want the colleagues outside of your department to identify with and support you and what you do, you will have to sell yourself and your work to them. You cannot just expect them to understand what you do or see the value in it. Have a story ready to go explaining why what you do is important. Doctoral programs train their graduates to pitch what they do to other philosophers – to people on hiring committees, most notably. But if you are a philosopher of religion and you want to flourish at your school, you need a sales pitch for the non-philosophers, too. Finally, convey humility. If you are an analytic philosopher of religion, in graduate school you probably learned to disdain the sorts of approaches to religious belief I have discussed. Drop the disdain (or hide it, at least). Not only is it counterproductive, but it alienates people with whom you might work and from whom you can learn.

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