Mark Gardiner on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Mark Gardiner

Mark Gardiner is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Mount Royal University, Canada. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Philosophy of religion is whatever philosophers of religion think that it is. Trite, yes, but this way of putting the emphasis on the practice of certain philosophers rather than on what those practices are supposed to be about allows for more nuance in the question. In particular, it gives rise to host of questions, such as:

  • descriptive: What it is that philosophers of religion, in fact, do?
  • historical: What is it that philosophers of religion at particular past times have done?
  • cultural: What is it that philosophers of religion in particular cultural settings are doing?
  • imaginative: What it is that philosophers of religion might, in the future, do?
  • normative: What it is that philosophers of religion ought (or ought not) to do?

These questions are, of course, thoroughly intertwined. Answers to the normative question may both serve to critique answers to the descriptive question as well as delimit a range of answers to the imaginative one. There is, for instance, a nascent movement which is critical of what is often described as ‘traditional’ philosophy of religion and which advocates a re-shaping of the field; indeed, the call to this movement is reflected in many of the blog entries on this website. Some have claimed that ‘traditional’ philosophy of religion is really just a form of theology—and that theology has no place in a properly constituted philosophy of religion. Others have argued, in a not dissimilar fashion, that philosophy’s ‘traditional’ emphasis on first-order truth questions unwarrantedly privileges conceptions of the object of study along the lines of abstract metaphysical systems, canons of beliefs, world-views, or purported representations of reality. Many religious adherents, it is often pointed out, just don’t understand their religion along these lines. Just as postmodernists critiqued the scientific realists during the science wars as having a conception of science which had lost touch with what it is that scientists actually do or have done, this movement calls for the object of the philosophy of religion to be actual religions and religious phenomena rather than some imagined type of Religion Itself or religious noumena.

I am sympathetic to this call, though am a bit leery of seeing it as an attempt to purify Philosophy of Religion. My early philosophical analytical training, which gave W.V.O. Quine some pride of place, has conditioned me to appreciate the benefits of orienting philosophical questions and methods along broadly pragmatic and pragmatist lines. (It has also made me cautious of assuming there are analytic truths about anything, such as what constitutes or defines Religion.) Emphasizing what it is that religious participants do, as suggestive of what it would be fruitful for philosophers of religion to investigate, echoes my initial emphasis on what it is that philosophers of religion do in answering the question of what constitutes philosophy of religion.

The danger of placing the emphasis here, though, is that it raises the specter of control and policing: who is to be admitted into the club, to be entitled to the epithet Philosopher of Religion? All I have done, it may be said, is shift the question from “What is Philosophy of Religion?” to “Who is a Philosopher of Religion?” That is a danger to be sure, but if club membership be left open as possible, no real damage need be done: philosophers of religion are all those who have philosophical interests in religion. With a properly wide conception of what constitutes philosophy in general, this may very well include theologians, historians of religion (for history well done is cognizant of philosophical theorizing on its subject matter), Biblical hermeneutists, anthropologists of religion, psychologists of religion, cognitive scientists of religion – even adherents of a given religion as long as they are prone to ask critical questions about their own beliefs and practices – in addition to those philosophers of religion who lead solitary lives in philosophy departments.

From the Philosophy of Science we have learned that there is no hard and fast distinction between theory and data (or at least those of us who were weaned on Quine have so internalized), though we practically recognize an intuitive difference between the scientist who collects a bunch of measurements and the one who formulates or evidences a theory on their basis. To put this another way, there is no hard and fast distinction between philosophically reflecting on some phenomena and describing that phenomena, even though we grant the distinction for practical purposes. Theories without descriptions are empty; descriptions without theories are blind. As such, describing and philosophizing form a continuum, where on the one end descriptions are thick and on the other theorizing is abstract. This entails that there is no ‘pure’ philosophy of religion, nor any philosophically-neutral study of religion. It is more a matter of temperament: philosophers of religion are those students of religion whose inclinations lie more towards the theoretical and the abstract end of the continuum.

As such, philosophers of religion are well advised to seek partnerships with students of religion whose training and temperaments lie more towards the descriptive end. In particular, philosophers of religion should seek collaborative opportunities with their academic cousins in Departments of Religious Studies, and vice versa. I have been fortunate enough to have enjoyed many fruitful conversations and collaborative writing opportunities with my Religious Studies colleague, Steven Engler. These have made me an immeasurably better philosopher, period, and not merely a better philosopher of religion. And he assures me that the reverse is also true, with his work in his own discipline having been enriched through our conversations and joint work.

In the same vein, appreciation of the full complexity of the full range of religious phenomena can be a boon to many areas of philosophy, including metaphysics, epistemology, and most especially in my own case, philosophy of language. Philosophers of language, especially those most interested in the prospects of constructing theories of meaning, have tended to privilege what turn out to be relatively simple (and occasionally simplistic) fragments of language—Quine’s ‘gavagai’ spoken only in the present of rabbits is a case in point. Religious language straddles belief and desire, includes non-verbal ritual, is unquestionably affective, and yet is taken by its speakers to be truth-apt. Despite many who claim otherwise, it is not, at least not always, insensitive to evidence; rather, it often calls for deeper philosophical reflection what might actually count as evidence. It is at once both literal and metaphorical; prosaic and poetic.

In my view, no theory of meaning can be considered adequate unless it is able to account for the full range of human expression, and religious language provides perhaps the richest, most diverse, and most perplexing form there is. Accommodating it is the acid test for a theory of meaning. Insofar as questions of meaning are arguably among the most basic in all of philosophy, philosophers are well advised to allocate the Philosophy of Religion a more core position than they have traditionally done.


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