Diane Proudfoot on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Diane Proudfoot is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. We invited her 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.

When I told a visiting philosopher that I was writing a book in the philosophy of religion, he said: ‘Why? Aren’t there enough books in the philosophy of religion already?’. This response was not the most delicate (I was treating him to a good lunch), but it was to the point. After all, will anyone really criticize the logical structure of teleological arguments more effectively than Hume? Write about religious experience more provocatively than Freud? Or argue about the possible benefits of religion more ingeniously than Al-Ghazālī? And, if that’s as unlikely as it seems, what justifies taking up yet more server space?

However, it would be absurd to say that, since Hume’s Dialogues are excellent philosophy of religion (or the South Island of New Zealand a spectacular place to visit), further work (or travel) is superfluous. Philosophy of religion (hereafter PR) continually changes—or should change—as a result of both intra- and extra-philosophical factors. Beginning with the former, excellent PR is up-to-date. PR is a composite of philosophical questions from a range of fields—metaphysics, logic, ethics, epistemology, political philosophy—and each of these generates new theories, ideas, and arguments. These in turn must be integrated (where relevant) into PR. In addition, PR is sensitive: it is aware that its subject is not solely the ‘Big 5’ religions—even with the addition of reinterpretations such as feminist or non-realist Christianity and secular Buddhism—but also the vast range of religions worldwide.

Next, influences from outside philosophy. Here science and naturalism dominate: just as philosophy of mind has recognized the importance of the cognitive sciences, so excellent PR accommodates the results of neuroimaging and experimental psychology. Also, the shift among numerous people in the West from a religious to a ‘spiritual’ identification has the result that certain of PR’s traditional subjects—for example, the deity targeted by the problem of evil—may become peripheral. In contrast, the greater public awareness of different faiths has the result that the epistemological and ethical problems of religious diversity and freedom are inescapable topics in 21st century PR.

Certainly Hume anticipated the modern view that the origin and persistence of religion is explained by anthropomorphism and death anxiety. Yet he was constrained by the science and philosophy of his time. He began through a glass darkly to tackle assertions—including that of a divine designer—that today are articulated in markedly different ways. Even Hume’s 20th century heirs, such as John Mackie, were writing before the explosion in the cognitive science of religion. And so, as philosophy and the world change, more monographs, articles, and lecture courses on PR—as well as philosophyofreligion.org blogs—are necessary.

Of course, my colleague who challenged the need for further books on PR may simply suppose that all (fundamental) religious beliefs are false—and conclude that there is little point in philosophical analysis of the content of such beliefs. Instead, what is required is sociological study of believers. Or that religion is actually a matter more of behaviour than belief—and so again is the domain of the social scientist. This view need not eliminate courses or textbooks on PR, or even books for the general public, since it must be made clear why religious beliefs are false—but it seems to pull the rug out from any other PR project.

This, though, is to overlook the fact that naturalized PR itself leads to new philosophical questions. Can the believer consistently accept both an immaterialist metaphysics of ‘ultimate reality’ and naturalistic explanations of the origin and persistence of religion? This is a new question, prompting new arguments—for example, that a supernatural deity is the likely source of any evolved disposition to religious belief or experience.

Moreover, just as philosophy and the world evolve, so religions and the religious change. Religious writings are customized in order to be consistent with modern science. For example, Al-Ghazālī’s claim that the religious person is typically happier than the non-religious is reinvented using 21st century statistical techniques and empirical studies. Doctrines are reinterpreted in order to evade philosophical problems that (my sceptical colleague believes) defeat ‘traditional’ religious claims.

Even the metaphysics of religion is reinvented. For example, techno-prophets claim that imminent progress in computer engineering and neuroscience will make good on religion’s promise of survival after death. According to (what I call) techno-supernaturalism, souls are in essence patterns of information, in principle replicable and upgradeable; after death I am simply a digital ghost awaiting reanimation. This is a daring hypothesis, but no more so than those of supernaturalist religions—and it is more attractive to digital natives than the idea of a ‘spirit body’ or revived corpse. This is natural theology for the computer age, explicitly branded as ‘digital theology’.

In sum, excellent philosophy of religion is, among other things, responsive to its time. And now is an exciting time.

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