Nicholas Rescher on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Nicholas Rescher is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. 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.


Crucial for merit in the philosophy of religion—as in any other branch of philosophy—is an individually cogent and systemically coherent treatment of the issues of the domain. This desideratum has many ramifications.

A sensible philosophy of religion must avoid staking unreasonable demands. It must desist from making promises that cannot be met and foster unrealistic expectations. It should not make demands for doing something that cannot possibly be realized, and should confine its demands within the limits of the possible. Also, various obvious fallacies should be avoided, as, for example begging the question or placing reliance on problematic and unsupported premisses. And an-other key aspect of this is the normative proportionality of maintaining a proper alignment between the elaborativeness of treatment and the importance of the issues.

Like any other branch of philosophy, the philosophy of religion is defined as a particular field of investigation by a characteristic problem-agenda. This includes such questions as:

—What considerations must be weighed in contemplating a religious commitment?

—Does one size fit all? And for a given individual is there a single uniquely appropriate religious tradition?

—How does religiosity relate to theology? Can one be a member in good standing of one’s religions tradition without endorsing all, or most, or at least the most significant of its doctrinal teachings?

—Is it incoherent to adopt the practices of a religious tradition without endorsing its doctrines—or conversely?

—Is a sincere commitment to one’s religion compromised by a failure to disapprove of people who hold a different position?

Stepping back from such specifics, it deserves note that the problems of the domain fall into four groups.

I. Methodological. Reflective questions regarding the nature of the field, its problem agenda, the rationale of its constituents.

II. Ontological. The existence and nature of the transcendental discourse with which religion is concerned.

III. Epistemological. The means and method with which the problems of the field should be achieved.

IV. Practical. What is called for in the practical and procedural implementation of religious beliefs. In what ways can and should a mode of life attending to such commitment be conducted?

The ultimate standard of performance is that of adequacy in handling such questions in a way that reduces the manifold of open questions and unresolved issues. It pursues this goal in four ways

—Question removal: Showing that the questions are inappropriate, do not require any answers, and should be dismissed.

—Question-resolution: Providing rationally cogent answers to questions.

—Question-diminution: Resolving those agenda questions without raising new, additional, and possibly even more perplexing questions.

—Question-reinforcement: Substantiating and rendering more tenable the presuppositions on which the prevailing agenda questions are predicated.

But a pivotal issue yet remains untouched. Are there any merits and virtues that specifically apply to the philosophy of religion in contrast to other branches of philosophy?

It would seem that there indeed are. Salient among them is the factor of religious urbanity. For the philosophy of religion should come to terms at the very outset with the fact of plurality—that there are different religions, and that however deeply attached we ourselves are to one or another of them, it is neither realistic nor just to expect that others would align themselves to us in these regards. And this means that the philosophy of religion, unlike religion itself, must, qua philosophy, stand free of doctrinal commitments.

And here we come to another salient virtue in the field—religious objectivity. Philosophy of religion is not apologetics, and philosophy OF religion is not philosophy WITHIN religion or religious philosophizing. Philosophy of religion, that is to say, should not be predicated on substantive doctrinal commitments; it should not be a matter of preaching to the choir.

But how can one discuss matters of religion without substantive commitments? How can one proceed committed-neutrally here and avoid any doctrinal undertakings? The answer lies in yet another virtue that should characterize the philosophy of religion: doctrinal neutrality in regard to religious matters.

But how can this objective possibly be achieved? How can one possibly discuss religious beliefs without entering into them? The answer is as old as logic—it roots in an idea that has many names: supposition, hypothesis, assumption. And on this basis, it transpires that the philosophy of religion should talk in the language of IF rather than SINCE. Its approach to doctrinal matters should be suppositional with substantive commitment be left “as an exercise for the reader.” Clarification not advocacy should be the aim of the enterprise. Merit lies in doing well at the philosopher’s job of helping people to understand the implications of and interconnections between the matters of substance to which they have or contemplate commitment.

Accordingly, the philosophy of religion can and should deliberate about the ramifications and consequences of accepting a certain religious doctrine—what presuppositions and consequence one must be prepared to accept in the wake of one’s religious commitments? But what it cannot do is to undertake advocacy for the basic doctrinal commitments themselves. The case is not unlike that of the philosophy of friendship. It can tell you about what to look for in a friend, what you should expect of friend and they of you. But it cannot tell you whom to pick for your friends. That is a matter of opportunity, disposition, and personal affinity.

How effectively can the philosophy of religion contribute to religiosity? Quite likely not very. There is no reason to think that good philosophy of mathematics makes for better mathematicians, that good philosophy of science makes for better scientists, that acuity in moral philosophy makes for people with better morals. And much the same holds for the philosophy of religion. Better philosophizing in matters of religion need not make for better practice.

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