Mor Segev is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Florida. 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.
Presuming neither to capture all that excellence in the philosophy of religion requires or consists of, nor to identify a novel criterion for such excellence, I should like to zero in on one feature that I find important and personally instructive.
It seems to me that excellent philosophy of religion generally exhibits sensitivity to the mutual impact between the subdiscipline and other areas in philosophy. The prominent role that other parts of philosophy play in constructing philosophical arguments and views on matters of religion is often obvious. We may recognize it, for example, in a debate on the problem of evil appealing to the nature of goodness as understood by different ethical theories, or in discussions of the cosmological argument for God’s existence drawing on work in the metaphysics of causation. Such appeals seem appropriate, and one would indeed expect them to occur, either explicitly or implicitly, in excellent inquiries into these issues.
The influence, however, goes in the opposite direction as well. Core issues in the philosophy of religion, and the discussion of these issues in the history of ideas, can have important and direct, if sometimes inconspicuous, effects on the treatment of other philosophical issues. One potentially excellent application of the philosophy of religion, then, consists of illuminating philosophical questions concerning matters other than religion.
Take the case of political philosophy. In considering what political organization ought to look like, we should not disregard the historically ubiquitous presence in human society of religious organized practices and institutions. We must address, more specifically, the benefit of these social features for general welfare, and doing so would seem to depend, in large part, on our understanding of the religious concepts and beliefs associated with them.
It is at points such as this that philosophy of religion, properly implemented, becomes useful. Can religious institutions and practices convey beneficial ideas or encourage positive behavior? Can religion impart or lead to truths otherwise unavailable to members of the political community? Does religious faith potentially endow our lives with meaning? Are certain religious beliefs needed for human flourishing, or are they irrelevant or even harmful to it? The stance taken by political theorists on issues such as these could help to orient them toward the goals potentially worthy of being pursued by, and for, political communities and their members.
Our stance on issues in the philosophy of religion, then, informs our views of, e.g., political affairs. By the same token, clarifying the stance taken on such issues by prominent figures in the history of philosophy contributes to our understanding of their overall thinking (in a recent book, I examined Aristotle’s views on divinity and the content of traditional religion, and argued that those views help to clarify both the place of traditional religion in his political theory and his political and ethical theories more generally).
In these ways and others, the philosophy of religion proves useful for political theory as well as for our understanding of the history of ethical and political philosophy. Of course, philosophical views on matters of religion can also be relevant, and have been applied, to discussions in other subfields. Contributions to epistemology include, for instance, philosophical analyses of types of distinctly religious experience. In aesthetics, considering the beauty engendered by imitating divine creation has been viewed as informing our view of the nature, value and purpose of art.
Properly applying resources developed through work in the philosophy of religion, to be sure, requires caution. Lurking dangers include, in the case of applications to discussions in the history of philosophy, anachronism and cultural insensitivity. Heeding such qualifications, however, there is much that the philosophy of religion has to offer.
Given the great variety of possible interconnections along the lines described so far, awareness of significant points of contact between the philosophy of religion and other philosophical subfields seems an important mark of excellence in the philosophy of religion (and of excellence in those other subfields). Such an awareness need not manifest itself in every case in direct engagement with work in other domains. Quite plausibly, one could conclude correctly, in a given case, that drawing connections between the topic at hand and discussions in other areas is either unwarranted or unhelpful. The decision, however, would ideally be informed by a careful consideration of the ways in which the philosophical study of religion might effectively use, and be helpfully used by, other philosophical subdisciplines.