William J. Wainwright on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

William J. Wainwright is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 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.

The norms and values defining excellence in philosophy of religion include most of those characterizing excellence in the practice of philosophy in general—criteria for assessing world views (explanatory power, simplicity, and the like), logical acumen, a thorough familiarity with the history of discussions of the problems at issue, and so on. It also includes possession of relevant epistemic virtues—openness to criticism, for example, and a passion for truth (as distinguished from a primary interest in winning intellectual games).

Philosophical reflection on value laden subject matters requires additional norms, however. Aesthetics and ethics provide examples. Those who are blind to the excellence of Beethoven’s late string quartets, T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, G. B. Tiepolo’s ceiling paintings, or Henry James’s fiction, and so on are unlikely to do good work in the philosophy of art. Again, Aristotle and Plato believed that bad people were poor judges of moral or ethical truth. The former, for instance, thought that the major premises of practical syllogisms were “universal judgments of what is good for” people “in general, or as a rule,” or what is generally good for certain classes of people, or for people in certain circumstances. These judgments are (partial) articulations of the good life. Only a person in “a healthy emotional state” can grasp the truth of correct ethical principles. If that person’s desires, impulses, and feelings have been perverted or atrophied by neglect or by wrong training, then he or she will be unable to do so.

The resolution of technical and ordinary factual issues in the philosophy of religion (assessment of the validity of formal arguments, for instance, or [more controversially] of the historical accuracy of certain religious texts) require only logical skills and scholarly proficiency—skills and proficiencies which can be mastered by atheists and agnostics as well as by religious believers.

But religion too is a value laden subject matter. One is unlikely to do good work in the philosophy of religion, for example, if one is tone deaf to religion’s appeal and hence doesn’t really understand it. That is one reason why the work of Dennett, Dawkins, and other so-called “new atheists” can be largely disregarded while the work of atheists such as William Rowe or Graham Oppy cannot. Furthermore, if the object of religious inquiry is an alleged Goodness underlying, or at the heart of, reality (God, the Brahman, Nirvana, the Tao, etc., etc.), then it would hardly be surprising if those who neither love nor desire the Good fail to discover the truth about it.

Perhaps the most obvious instance of the role our affective attitudes and feelings play in the formation of our religious beliefs, though, is furnished by conflicts over comprehensive world views. Some of these world views are religious but many are not. It is arguable, however, that all comprehensive world views incorporate or reflect values.

Contemporary naturalism, for instance, is typically reductive, incorporating a taste for “desert landscapes.” It valorizes science as the only source of truth and dismisses any epistemic claims made by religion, poetry, or the arts. In some cases, a preference for naturalism may also reflect a desire that the world not contain “spooky” realities. Thomas Nagel, for instance, exclaims “it isn’t that I don’t believe in God…It is that I hope that there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the world to be like that.” Plato, on the other hand, argued that “no man’s soul can feel intense pleasure or pain in anything without also at the same time believing that the chief object of these his emotions is transparently clear and utterly real.” If this is correct, then what pains and pleases us will affect our judgments of what is and is not real. Bodily pleasures and pains, for example, “drive a rivet into the soul, pinning it down to the body and so assimilating it thereto that it believes everything to be real which the body declares to be so” and regards everything else as comparatively unreal.

If world views do incorporate values, and values can’t be grasped in the absence of the right feelings and attitudes, then appropriate dispositions of the heart will be needed to discern their truth and the falsity of their rivals. Wrong dispositions, on the other hand, will result in false judgments and intellectual blindness. Thus, if any religious world views are true, the right affective attitudes will be needed to discern their truth. The criteria for determining excellence in the practice of philosophy of religion must therefore include criteria for sorting out epistemically right from epistemically wrong affective attitudes and feelings.

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