Eric Steinhart on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Eric Steinhart is Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University. 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.

Aristotle said philosophy begins in wonder. I take this to mean that philosophy at its best is driven by an unwavering curiosity, an all-consuming desire to make sense of the world, to explore its possibilities, and to know its truth. If norms and values are ideals to which we ought to aspire, then philosophers of religion ought to be curious about religion. What is religion? What does it mean to be religious? Religious behaviors are among the weirdest things that human animals do. Why do we do it?

At its best, philosophy of religion is curious about all the religions on earth. Do they fall into taxonomies? Is there a universal grammar of religions? Why are their phylogenetic relations? What do we learn about religion from fictional religions? There are, after all, many fictional religions, in books, in movies, in video games. It would be interesting for philosophers of religion to try to make up their own religions. And especially interesting to try to make up new types of religion. Such creativity is found in almost every other branch of philosophy. Why not in philosophy of religion?

A philosopher of religion ought to be curious about how religious emerge, live, and die. They ought to be curious about how religions evolve, how older religions persist into newer religions. Philosophers of science have been very interested in the ways that science changes. The phlogiston theory of combustion became the oxygen theory. The concept of God evolved. This is not simply a historical question: it is a question of the ways in which old conceptual structures evolve into new ones.

We are lucky to be alive at one of the most exciting times in the history of religion. All over the world, religions are changing. New religions are emerging. Every philosopher of religion should try to write an essay about the future of religion, including futures in which religion disappears, or evolves into something very different. What will religion look like in one hundred years? In five hundred years? In two thousand years? If artificial super-intelligence becomes reality, will people worship AIs? But our brains have not stopped evolving. Will worship itself become obsolete?

Philosophers of religion ought to be curious about the ways in which philosophical ideas animate religions. Neoplatonism is alive and well in the United States. It is arguable that more people in the US are Neoplatonic than theistic. Philosophers of religion ought to be curious about the revivals of pagan religious philosophies. A high percentage of Americans believe that physical things are animated by a spiritual energy. What does that mean? What are the arguments for or against the existence of this energy?

Driving through the San Rafael Swell, in the middle of the Utah desert, you fall into ecstasy: the rocks with their brilliant colors become transparent to an uncanny light. Chet Raymo said: when God is gone, everything becomes holy. Do stones shine? Are their colors broken open? Paul Tillich came close to saying something new when he wrote about revelation, and when he wrote about the ground of being. Almost. His work is half-free from theistic mythology. What would it be like to free it completely? Atheists have mystical experiences. What do their experiences mean? Philosophers of religion ought to be curious about the spiritualities of nontheists.

Philosophers of religion ought to be curious about the ways religion is evolving into something new. The rise in the non-religious (the “Nones”) is accelerating across the West. But the Nones often identify as spiritual but not religious. What would it mean for religion to evolve into spirituality? How is therapeutic work on the self replacing worship? Spirituality appears in the New Age, in the revival of Stoicism, in the rapid growth of Westernized Buddhisms and Yoga, in lifehacking and self-tracking, even in the writings of the New Atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Are philosophers of religion even aware that Dawkins has written extensively about spirituality?

More than anything else, a philosopher of religion ought to stare straight into something spiritual or religious that they find utterly baffling. Read Gloria Anzaldua’s “Now Let Us Shift.” Participate in a Wiccan circle. Go on a Buddhist meditation retreat. Go to Burning Man. Drink ayahuasca with Santo Daime. Look at this light rising above the horizon. Listen to what it has to say. Write it down.

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