Jack Mulder is Professor of Philosophy at Hope College. 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 a fascinating area in the study of philosophy. Part of the reason it is so interesting is that it can encompass philosophy theology, philosophical a-theology, and philosophical inquiry into the meaningfulness of those very categories. Let me try to explain.
Let us call philosophical a-theology the kind of philosophy one might engage in when one considers reasons against the factual existence or coherence of some type of supernatural being that we’ll call “God.” Most of the time, philosophical a-theologians and theologians are going to part ways. Usually, the a-theologian has done her homework well enough to attack genuine articles of religious belief, and the philosophical theologian may feel a burden to respond. This, is an excellent example of philosophy of religion, as we see when theists and atheists square off in connection with the problem of evil, the relationship between God and morality, or concerns over particular forms of religious practice (for example, when a-theologians express concerns that certain common forms of prayer are incoherent or morally pernicious). It is possible, however, especially since there are so many concepts that fly under the flag of “God,” that sometimes what an a-theologian engages in when she sees herself at work in philosophical a-theology a philosophical theologian might view as a positive contribution to her own enterprise. Thus, an a-theologian might offer reasons against a particular concept of God, say an overly anthropomorphic concept, but a philosophical theologian might be quite willing to accept her critique since he never believed in that sort of “God” anyway.
Let us then call philosophical theology both the effort to determine what sort of God is worth defending, what religious practices or experiences are worth defending (as well as what might count as a religious practice or experience), and (sometimes) the effort actually to defend those things. Again, the philosophical theologian and the philosophical a-theologian may have a certain amount of common cause on the first item. Both could be engaged in the effort to determine what sort of God is worth defending or what sorts of religious practices are worth defending, but the a-theologian’s investigation will yield the verdict that no such concepts are worth defending, whereas the philosophical theologian’s work will yield a different verdict. The theistic result needn’t always be arrived at by rational demonstration from things known to everyone. Some of the data may be subjective, e.g., a religious experience, though this could be evaluated epistemically and for the kind of information it seemed to deliver.
The philosophical theologian may or may not think highly of what is called natural theology, or the attempt to demonstrate or detail the existence or attributes of God. Nevertheless, the philosophical theologian will believe that reason has a positive role to play in some way as it regards the life of faith. Some may think that reason’s primary role is to reveal its own blindspots as it relates to the life of faith. Others may think that reason is quite capable of showing any rational person the merits of some religious doctrines given enough time and consideration.
In some cases, though, a philosophical theologian may use the resources and data of philosophical reflection to aid in the articulation and defense of some religious doctrine. For example, a Christian theologian might argue, using philosophical concepts and categories, from the doctrine of Christ’s incarnation, to some other doctrine regarding the Virgin Mary. This may be preaching to the choir, but if it is a suitably philosophical choir, no rules need be broken, and some edification for religious faith may result. This means that, in my view, the line between philosophy of religion and apologetics, or the defense of articles of a particular religious faith, is not always so sharp. Granted, a purely logical connection between two religious doctrines could be argued even by people who reject both doctrines, but it is no bad thing for philosophy of religion in my view if a philosophical theologian who believes both doctrines is arguing that people who do hold one doctrine should also hold the other on philosophical grounds. And if that effort in philosophy of religion is also an effort in apologetics, so be it.
Some philosophers of religion might find this binary way of approaching the matter a bit limiting. Some such philosophers might focus on the mystical element in religions, what can be discerned from these experiences (whether they are delusory or veridical, whether they warrant belief in their objects, and what sorts of beliefs they warrant). This focus might proceed from different suppositions or yield different results. On the one hand, it might issue in a kind of religious pluralism (where particular religions are culturally conditioned ways of coming to know Ultimate Reality), or, it might, for example, take one position (say Christian philosophical theology or Buddhist philosophical a-theology) for granted and simply emphasize that the more appropriate way to conduct philosophy of religion is to focus on the transformation of the self into or into a relationship with, God, or Ultimate Reality, which may have revealed itself, or been discerned best, in a particular tradition, yet still glimpsed, albeit partially, in others.
Philosophy of religion is a very wide umbrella. To some extent, one cannot avoid doing it. If one argues against God’s existence, for God’s existence, or attempts to safeguard Ultimate Reality as beyond the finite resources of our language, one is doing philosophy of religion. This is also true if one focuses on particular religious practices: if one argues against them, for them, or argues that they need to be reimagined, one is doing philosophy of religion. The standards of logic, scholarship, and even, at times, faithfulness, can have something to say about whether it is done well.