Nathan Nobis is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Morehouse College. 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.
“Excellent philosophy of religion” is, unsurprisingly, excellent philosophy, about religion.
But what’s excellent philosophy and what are the norms and values associated with it? And what are the philosophical aspects of religion, whatever religions are?
To begin answering these questions, I suggest that philosophy of religion that emphasizes at least these features tends to be more excellent: (1) experiential, (2) integrated, (3) truthful and fair, and (4) done from a sense of wonder.
Philosophy of religion is better done when it engages with what people actually think about issues: it “meets more people where they are at.” This involves more carefully listening to and seeking to understand how ordinary people understand religion and engaging their concerns. This is likely more interesting and fruitful than the philosophers setting the agenda, and the philosopher is apt to learn quite a lot about what “normal people” find interesting, compelling and troubling.
This approach results in engaging a wider variety of issues and concerns than are typically engaged with, which will make teaching and public engagement better. It might help the specialist too. For example, it is doubtful that many “normal people” who have genuinely struggled with the relations between God and evil have been troubled about whether a mere speck of evil is compatible with God’s existence. If so, “refuting” the so-called “logical” problem of evil didn’t address a “live” concern of many ordinary people who, perhaps, have a better sense of what really matters and so their insights should guide philosophers’ inquiry.
An experiential focus will also lead to more diverse philosophy of religion. Religion is more than just the generic monotheisms that philosophers of religion often focus on, and even those particular monotheisms that the generic theisms are developed from. There are, of course, the many “world religions” that most of us could profit from learning more about in terms of their basic beliefs and practices and then the philosophical complexities and challenges internal and external to these religions. But there are many new beliefs and practices that people adopt or develop to try to give their lives greater meaning, arguably at the heart of religions, that could be engaged with, philosophically: see, e.g., this recent article by psychologist Clay Routledge, “From Astrology to Cult Politics-the Many Ways We Try (and Fail) to Replace Religion.”
Again, philosophy of religion should diversify by engaging a wider variety of religious experiences. True, many religions that could be discussed aren’t “live options” for many of us (yet?!). But they are live options for many people. And it’s not like even most of the views we discuss in other areas of philosophy are “live” options for us. Yet somehow we were able to learn about them and teach them. That’s how it should be with religions.
Philosophy of religion is basically “applied” philosophy: insights from metaphysics, epistemology, value theory and much, much more are applied to questions about religion. Two important applications come from Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue and recent discussions of the epistemology of disagreement.
It is still widely believed among the public that non-religious people wouldn’t have much of a moral compass: a religious source is needed for that. But, as Socrates observed, roughly, any religious source would be backed by reasons or not; if not, then judgments from that source would be arbitrary; but if there are reasons, they would be what supports the judgment and make the action wrong or whatever, not the source or authority itself. Recognizing Socrates’ points would contribute to positive interfaith ethical dialogue.
One somewhat established (yet disagreed-upon!) conclusion from the epistemology of disagreement is that when you see that seemingly reasonable people disagree about a topic, that should often lead you to lose confidence in your own views if you have no reason to believe you are more likely correct than anyone else. This principle seems applicable to many religious beliefs and believers, especially when you have really gotten to know people who have different views than your own.
3. Truthful & Fair
Religious believers, including religious disbelievers, have a tendency to be less than fully truthful about the strength of the evidence for their views: sometimes they claim to have far better evidence than they really do: at least, sometimes their evaluations of their beliefs appear to be motivated by concerns other than the evidence. In being truthful about the quality of our evidence, we are being fair: we aren’t demanding that anyone believe or do anything that the evidence does not require.
Believers and disbelievers often insist that it is important that people believe (or disbelieve) whatever religious views they hold, but they might not be truthful about the evidence in favor of thinking this: perhaps “apatheism,” a view that we should be apathetic or indifferent to religious belief (and disbelief), is a reasonable response, given the elusive and evasive kinds of evidence here, combined with the recognition of the global and historical disagreements about religions.
There is also a tendency for some people to unfairly think that religious beliefs simpliciter or in general are the cause of many moral and social ills (e.g., unfair discriminations, lack of environmental concern, xenophobia, etc.), instead of various particular religious beliefs or beliefs about morality and social policy that, for whatever reasons, some but certainly not all believers in a particular religion accept. These critics of religion also tend to ignore that secular and irreligious perspectives are in no way uniformly correlated with (and certainly don’t cause) a consistent and reliable seeking of justice, fairness, caring and any other moral and intellectual virtues. In short, there are good and bad people among the religious, the irreligious and the apathetic, and we should focus on those beliefs, attitudes, and actions that make them good or bad, not the religious or irreligious beliefs that are, at best, only contingently related to those good and bad qualities.
In sum, it’s important to not forget that religious views are, in a sense, philosophical views. In that way, Bertrand Russell’s conclusions on the value of philosophy are worth reviewing:
Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.
Russell, of course, was famously opposed to most religious belief, perhaps for reasons that were ultimately unfair and uncharitable to religions. His insights here, however, combined with some Aristotle, and some disagreements-induced healthy skepticism and general fairness towards the variety of views that are considered philosophical, might lead to a different view about philosophy of religion: philosophy of religion should begin with and sustain a sense of wonder and amazement that human beings have developed, through religions, so many different ways to seek meaning and purpose. Philosophy of religion at its best involves the honest and rigorous attempts to puzzle through all the philosophical challenges that arise from these attempts.