David McNaughton on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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David McNaughton

David McNaughton is Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Is there such a subject as philosophy of religion? The answer to this question is not as obvious as it might seem. I am not, of course, claiming that there is something improper about claiming expertise in this area on your CV. What I question is whether the very disparate practices, attitudes, and beliefs that come under the heading of ‘religion’ have sufficient coherence to count as a unified topic for enquiry of any kind, whether philosophical, sociological, psychological, historical, or some mixture thereof. If I am right then, though there are many interesting specific questions that can be raised within the field traditionally called philosophy of religion, there is no topic or question common to all these enquiries in this area because the notion of religion itself lacks any unifying theme.

What reason is there to think that the field lacks appropriate unity? There seem to be two ways in which we might show that there is some common conceptual core to an area of study. The first is to point to the existence of a common subject matter. But what is it that all religions have in common, other than that they share a name? Wittgenstein famously raised this question with respect to games. What do football, chess, solitaire, and blackjack all have in common? What we find, Wittgenstein claimed, are overlapping networks of similarities and analogies, but no common core. Not all games are competitive, not all require athletic skill, not all require specialized equipment, and so on. Wittgenstein famously appealed to the analogy of a family resemblance. Often, any two members of a family will resemble each other in some respects, but not in others, without there being any feature – such as the Hapsburg chin – which they all have in common. Yet they are all recognizably members of the same family. Similarly, we may ask, what do Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism etc. all have in common? Do they all require belief in a transcendent God, or in a personal life after death, or in forgiveness of sin? Defining religion is as pointless an activity as trying to define what a game is, as anyone who has had the misfortune to plough through textbooks on religion can attest.

Indeed, I would argue that, in the case of religion, the problem is more intractable than in the case of games. For, with only a few marginal exceptions, there is almost universal agreement about what is a game and what is not, whereas there is little agreement about what should be included under the umbrella of religion. Is Humanism a religion? Is Atheism a religion, as Ronald Dworkin has contended? These are disputed matters. It seems that not only can we not give a satisfactory definition of what makes an outlook or practice a religion, we cannot even agree on where the boundaries of the concept fall.

If we cannot define religion in terms of subject matter, perhaps we can define it in terms of some appropriate attitude – the religious attitude. What defines our field of study is some outlook or emotion that is central to the religious way of life. The model here might be that branch of philosophy known as aesthetics. The objects of aesthetic appreciation are many and varied, including not only works of art but objects in nature. Nor is it the case that aesthetics primarily concerns itself with the property of beauty; its focus includes what is sublime, original, expressive, daring, nuanced, and many others. So what do Duchamp’s urinal, King Lear, the Grand Canyon, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and a snowflake all have in common? Maybe it is just that they can all be suitable objects of the aesthetic attitude. Similarly, what unites Buddhism, Islam, Humanism, and Stoicism might be that the adherents of these views take a religious attitude to the world and / or to human life. But just as no-one has come up with a substantive and helpful account of what the aesthetic attitude is, so it is very unlikely that anyone will succeed in the case of the religious attitude. And even if we did, we might want to say that there was much about religion that matters which was not captured by an attitudinal account.

Why might this matter? Just as there are many interesting questions to discuss in aesthetics, so there is a seemingly inexhaustible supply of topics that broadly fall under the rubric of philosophy of religion. So let’s accept the lack of thematic unity and get on with the philosophy. That is indeed the view I espouse, but it conflicts with some things that John Schellenberg writes in answer to this question. He argues, rightly, that the philosophy of religion need not and should not confine itself to the study of theism, even though that is the most common form that it has taken in Western philosophy. But he goes further. He emphatically denies that someone is properly engaging in philosophy of religion “when we find no curiosity about other ways of construing the notion of a Divine reality, or about religious ideas more general than that of a personal God, or about forms of religiousness without theistic belief.” I am, indeed, curious about these questions, but I do not see why being a philosopher of religion requires this interest. It is surely perfectly respectable to confine one’s enquiries to theism, and even indeed to Christianity alone. Neither Aquinas nor, in our own day, Richard Swinburne, commit some serious philosophical sin of omission by restricting the scope of their work in this way. Equally, of course, it is perfectly proper to restrict oneself to examining non-theistic religious systems.

Why does Schellenberg think that philosophers of religion have a positive duty to enquire into non-theistic systems? Because, I suspect, he has not taken the lessons of Wittgenstein on board. Philosophy, he claims seeks “fundamental understanding”, so philosophy of religion seeks “fundamental understanding in association with religion.” But it does not follow from this claim that there is some fundamental unifying theme that characterizes religion itself. If there were such a theme, a philosopher of religion would perhaps be remiss in studying his own small corner. I have been arguing, however, that there probably is no such central theme.

That Schellenberg supposes that there is a common theme comes out in a number of places. He numbers among the questions for philosophy of religion: What fundamental features of human life does one find in religion? and What are the most fundamental religious ideas? And he closes by criticizing analytic philosophers of religion who have never seriously thought about “whether the concept of God, as most philosophers have deployed it, is as fundamental as things get in the religious arena” (my emphasis). But why suppose that there is something that is fundamental in the religious arena? Philosophers from Socrates onwards have been tempted to presuppose that there must be some one thing which virtue, or wisdom, or religion, is fundamentally about. There is a certain irony here, since Schellenberg is encouraging us to question presuppositions – especially the presupposition that theism must be the primary topic in philosophy of religion. However, if I am right, then he himself has failed to question an important presupposition, the one that informs the quest for Socratic Definitions: the assumption that, at bottom, there must be something else that holds together all those disparate activities and attitudes, other than that we label them all ‘religious’.


2 thoughts on “David McNaughton on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

  1. Thank you, David, for engaging my piece. Your points are well stated and well worth considering. But two quick words of reply.

    First, although you’re right that one or two of the things I say can be read this way, I do not in fact hold the view about religion that you attribute to me. (This is just barely suggested by my words in the piece about there being “various ways of taking the term.”) There can be more or less fundamental ideas in religion, as judged by philosophy’s lights, even if there is nothing fundamental to religion itself, in the sense you abjure. In the first chapter of my book Prolegomena to a Philosophy of Religion I deal with these matters (including the ‘family resemblance’ arguments) more fully and finally plump for a technical definition drafted to meet philosophy’s needs, not leaving anything in the rest of my argument to depend on there being something to unify everything everywhere and everywhen that might appropriately be called ‘religion.’

    Second, if I’m not mistaken, your own point that philosophers of religion (you mention Aquinas and Swinburne) need not concern themselves with ideas more philosophically roomy than Christian theism is only energetically stated a couple of times and not defended by argument.

  2. Many thanks for your reply, John. My apologies for misrepresenting your views – sheer ignorance on my part, I confess. I look forward to getting to grips with them.

    I also plead guilty to merely asserting rather than arguing that philosophers of religion need not concern themselves with more roomy philosophical notions than just theism. In a way I had supposed, perhaps wrongly, that the point did not need arguing independently of such arguments as I mustered for the claim that there is little real thematic unity in the large range of topics covered by the term religion. There are certain fundamental ideas in philosophy as a whole – to do with justification, semantics, ontology etc. – and these, of course, apply to topics in the philosophy of religion, and maybe do so in specific and special ways. But I cannot see that someone who restricts their inquiry to classical theism, a well-plowed field in the philosophy of religion, is guilty of any omission, any more than a philosopher of science who focuses on, say, philosophical issues in quantum mechanics but has nothing to say about biology, is guilty of any omission. This is not to deny that it may be very fruitful to look at several sciences, and not to suppose that they are all alike. Similarly, it may be fruitful to look at the possibility of wider religious outlooks or stances than those adopted in classical theism. Indeed, I think it is very fruitful. What I deny, or at least doubt, is that the philosopher working on a narrower topic IN the area of philosophy of religion is required, by the very nature of the subject, to engage in a broader enquiry about other stances that may reasonably be described as religious. Maybe the problem here is partly semantic. One might suppose that someone who studies the philosophy of X must consider X as a whole. But, as I hope the analogy of philosophy of science shows, this need not be true. Where the terrain that a discipline covers is very diverse it is perfectly proper to home in on some smaller part or aspect of it. What such a specialist studies will not be the whole of science or of religion, even though she may be properly described as a philosopher of science, or of religion.

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