Elizabeth Burns on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Elizabeth Burns is Reader in Philosophy of Religion and Programme Director, University of London. 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.

Those who teach philosophy of religion, at least in the United Kingdom, are usually required by their institutions to list the aims and learning outcomes for their courses or modules. While some might be tempted to regard this task as an exercise in pointless bureaucracy, perhaps we should, instead, see it as an important first step of any attempt to study philosophy of religion – whether this is an institutional programme or our own personal reading plan. It is, I would suggest, only when we have a clear idea of what we are trying to achieve and how we will know that we have achieved it that we will be in a position to judge what norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion.

So, what are we aiming to achieve when we study philosophy of religion? And in what respects will it make us different? Religion is an internationally important phenomenon; according to the Pew Research Center (2017, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/05/christians-remain-worlds-largest-religious-group-but-they-are-declining-in-europe/), in 2015, 6.2 billion of a world population of 7.3 billion had some kind of religious affiliation. Since, for many of these people, religion is a primary source of personal, social and, perhaps, political values, it is important that as many people as possible have an opportunity to consider whether religious beliefs are rational, or what a rational form of religious belief might look like, and the practical implications – both positive and negative – of religious beliefs. So, important aims of philosophy of religion might be:

i. To facilitate understanding and analysis of our own beliefs about religion and those of others;

ii. To promote beliefs about religion which are both rational and enable the flourishing of sentient beings.

The outcomes of our learning – although, admittedly, difficult to measure – might be assessed by examining the extent to which it leads to the changing or modification of beliefs which contribute to social cohesion and the transformation of individuals and communities.

So what methods should we use in order to achieve our aims and learning outcomes? Broadly speaking, analytic-style philosophy of religion prizes structure, clarity and precision, and proceeds towards its conclusions by means of analysis of step-wise arguments, while continental-style philosophy of religion focuses on ways in which we might change our thinking in order to transform the lives of individuals and communities, despite the inescapable difficulties of human existence.

At least some analytic philosophy of religion seems to lose sight of the aims and intended outcomes of writing and reading a text, however, and gets lost in the complexity and obscurity of arguments, sometimes translated into the symbols of symbolic logic which can be understood only by those with relevant training. The conclusions reached may seem trivial and/or uncertain; perhaps there is a form of the design argument which supports some kind of religious belief, for example, but even this would seem to fall far short of the level of significance and certainty on which someone might base their life and address the difficulties which they will inevitably encounter. Even the degree of precision afforded by the use of symbolic logic leads only to a conclusion which is dependent upon the nature of the values which are given to the symbols before the argument begins.

Those writing continental-style philosophy of religion often have a clearer focus on the practical relevance of their texts, but their relative lack of structure, clarity and precision, and sometimes the sheer length and complexity of their publications, make it hard for any but the most intellectually able and determined readers to identify the ‘message’ which they aim to convey. Sometimes, of course, part of the ‘message’ conveyed by the method is that the matters under discussion are complex and ambiguous and therefore difficult to communicate succinctly, but the reader’s task of discernment and evaluation remains challenging – perhaps too challenging for many who might otherwise have much to gain.

Complexity and obscurity in philosophical writing might sometimes be difficult to avoid in the initial stages of exploring a new philosophical position, as we struggle towards new solutions to complex problems, perhaps trying to say what has never before been said. But structured, clear and precise arguments of the kind valued by analytic-style philosophy of religion can help us to rule out positions which are unlikely to be true, and to maintain or adopt as the basis for our lives beliefs which are more likely to be true.

Part of the way in which we identify positions which should be rejected and choose those on which to base our lives is likely to involve an appeal to their practical implications, however. These are the reasons for belief which we commonly find in continental-style philosophy of religion and are often derived from the findings of other related disciplines such as ethics, psychology, sociology, politics, literature and other forms of art.

Perhaps our best hope of achieving the aims and learning outcomes of philosophy of religion, then, lies in embracing a hybrid-style philosophy of religion such as that proposed by John Cottingham in Philosophy of Religion: Towards a Humane Philosophy of Religion (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), which preserves the positive aspects of analytic-style philosophy of religion but argues that our conclusions about religious belief should also be informed by ‘all the resources of human experience that are relevant to the shaping of a philosophically-rounded worldview’ (176).

In conclusion, then, if the primary aims of philosophy of religion are to enable us to consider the rationality of religious beliefs and their practical implications so that individuals and societies might be transformed for the better, excellent philosophy of religion needs to have the following features:

i. A discernible structure;

ii. Clarity, avoiding uncommon language and technical terms where possible;

iii. Precision;

iv. Brevity, avoiding any unnecessary repetition;

v. Supporting evidence from other relevant disciplines, where applicable.

Philosophy of religion texts which have these features are likely to be accessible not only to professors and some of their students, but also to a much broader human constituency, thereby substantially increasing the beneficial impact of their ideas upon the wellbeing of humankind and other sentient beings.

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