Graham Oppy on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Graham Oppy is Professor of Philosophy and Head of the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies (SOPHIS) at Monash University. 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.

The norms and values that determine whether something is excellent philosophy of religion depend upon what kind of thing is in question.

If we ask whether a particular text—blog post, book, book chapter, book review, encyclopedia entry, journal article, journal, magazine, magazine article, web content, etc.—is excellent philosophy of religion, then, among other considerations, we wish to know whether that text is challenging, clear, concise, informed, lively, original, rigorous, serious, significant, and so forth. It is plausible to suppose that there are many different kinds of trade-offs between relevant norms and values in excellent philosophy of religion texts.

If we ask whether a particular exchange is excellent philosophy of religion, then, among other considerations, we wish to know whether that exchange is balanced, civil, focussed, generous, informative, knowledgeable, profitable, respectful, well-tempered, and so forth. There are different kinds of written exchanges and different kinds of verbal exchanges; it is plausible to suppose that there is variation in the significance of particular norms and values for particular kinds of exchanges.

If we ask whether a particular person manifests excellence in philosophy of religion, then, among other considerations, we wish to know whether that person, in their engagements in philosophy of religion, manifests charity, education, expertise, honesty, imagination, integrity, intelligence, knowledge, reflection, sympathy, understanding, wit, and so forth. One particularly important aspect of personal excellence in philosophy of religion is imaginative sympathy: exercise of the capacity to see things from the standpoints of those with whom you are in deep disagreement.

If we ask whether a particular collective—e.g. editorial team, learned society, publishing press, university department—manifests excellence in philosophy of religion, then, among other considerations, we wish to know whether that collective is accountable, connected, improving, independent, open, transparent, well-governed, well-managed, and so forth. Of course, when we assess collectives, we assess their members, the exchanges in which they engage, the texts that they produce, and so forth. But, on top of all of this, there are norms and values that apply to collectives qua collectives.

If we ask whether, at a particular point in time, the discipline is manifesting excellence in philosophy of religion, then, among other considerations, we wish to know whether the discipline is comprehensive, developing, diverse, inclusive, tolerant, well-focussed, and so forth. Thinking about the manifestation of excellence at the level of the discipline directs attention to particularly thorny matters. Is the discipline sufficiently open to members of non-dominant groups? Is the discipline riven by factional strife? Is the discipline sufficiently informed by work in neighbouring disciplines: biology, cultural studies, economics, history, mathematics, neuroscience, physics, political science, psychology, religious studies, sociology, and so on? Does the discipline do justice to the full range of world religions? Has the discipline largely been captured by ideologues pushing particular barrows? Etc.

An obvious question prompted by the discussion to this point is whether the norms and values that determine whether something is excellent philosophy of religion are unique to philosophy of religion. It is evident to inspection that almost everything that I have said so far about texts, exchanges, people, collectives, and the discipline could also be said about other philosophical disciplines—e.g. applied ethics and political philosophy—and about other disciplines more broadly—e.g. religious studies and cultural studies. Sure, not all of these disciplines need to worry about doing justice to the full range of world religions; but all of them do need to worry about doing justice to the full range of relevant subject matters. Philosophy of religion is philosophy of religion; so, of course, it is important that philosophy of religion does justice to the full range of world religions. But, in equal measure, political philosophy is political philosophy: it is important that political philosophy does justice to the full range of political persuasions and institutions. And, in no less equal measure, religious studies is religious studies: it is important that religious studies does justice to the full range of world religions.

I am inclined to think that the norms and values that determine whether something is excellent philosophy of religion are entailed by the norms and values that determine, for any X, whether something is excellent philosophy of X. Moreover, I am inclined to think that the norms and values that determine, for any X, whether something is excellent philosophy of X are entailed by the norms and values that determine whether something is excellent philosophy. Perhaps we should consider going further: perhaps the norms and values that determine whether something is excellent philosophy are entailed by the norms and values that determine, for any discipline X, whether something is excellent X. But I am hesitant. Given the way that philosophy is related to other disciplines—and, in particular, given that philosophy is unique in nowhere having universal expert agreement on claims and methods—I think that we should not be too surprised to find that there are some norms and values unique to philosophy that enter into the determination whether something is excellent philosophy. Of course, what I have just said is compatible with the claim that almost all of the norms and values that determine whether something is excellent philosophy are entailed by the norms and values that determine, for any discipline X, whether something is excellent X. It is plausible that, if the norms and values that determine whether something is excellent philosophy are not all entailed by the norms and values that determine, for other disciplines, what makes for excellence in those disciplines, the shortfall is not very extensive.

Although the norms and values that determine whether something is excellent philosophy of religion depend upon what kind of thing is in question, we can appeal to all of those norms and values when we make judgments about the current standing of philosophy of religion. For, of course, a judgment about the current standing of philosophy of religion will be an aggregative judgment that assesses—perhaps among other things—the current overall state of texts, exchanges, people, collectives, and matters specific to the wider discipline.

Diane Proudfoot on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Diane Proudfoot is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. We invited her 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.

When I told a visiting philosopher that I was writing a book in the philosophy of religion, he said: ‘Why? Aren’t there enough books in the philosophy of religion already?’. This response was not the most delicate (I was treating him to a good lunch), but it was to the point. After all, will anyone really criticize the logical structure of teleological arguments more effectively than Hume? Write about religious experience more provocatively than Freud? Or argue about the possible benefits of religion more ingeniously than Al-Ghazālī? And, if that’s as unlikely as it seems, what justifies taking up yet more server space?

However, it would be absurd to say that, since Hume’s Dialogues are excellent philosophy of religion (or the South Island of New Zealand a spectacular place to visit), further work (or travel) is superfluous. Philosophy of religion (hereafter PR) continually changes—or should change—as a result of both intra- and extra-philosophical factors. Beginning with the former, excellent PR is up-to-date. PR is a composite of philosophical questions from a range of fields—metaphysics, logic, ethics, epistemology, political philosophy—and each of these generates new theories, ideas, and arguments. These in turn must be integrated (where relevant) into PR. In addition, PR is sensitive: it is aware that its subject is not solely the ‘Big 5’ religions—even with the addition of reinterpretations such as feminist or non-realist Christianity and secular Buddhism—but also the vast range of religions worldwide.

Next, influences from outside philosophy. Here science and naturalism dominate: just as philosophy of mind has recognized the importance of the cognitive sciences, so excellent PR accommodates the results of neuroimaging and experimental psychology. Also, the shift among numerous people in the West from a religious to a ‘spiritual’ identification has the result that certain of PR’s traditional subjects—for example, the deity targeted by the problem of evil—may become peripheral. In contrast, the greater public awareness of different faiths has the result that the epistemological and ethical problems of religious diversity and freedom are inescapable topics in 21st century PR.

Certainly Hume anticipated the modern view that the origin and persistence of religion is explained by anthropomorphism and death anxiety. Yet he was constrained by the science and philosophy of his time. He began through a glass darkly to tackle assertions—including that of a divine designer—that today are articulated in markedly different ways. Even Hume’s 20th century heirs, such as John Mackie, were writing before the explosion in the cognitive science of religion. And so, as philosophy and the world change, more monographs, articles, and lecture courses on PR—as well as philosophyofreligion.org blogs—are necessary.

Of course, my colleague who challenged the need for further books on PR may simply suppose that all (fundamental) religious beliefs are false—and conclude that there is little point in philosophical analysis of the content of such beliefs. Instead, what is required is sociological study of believers. Or that religion is actually a matter more of behaviour than belief—and so again is the domain of the social scientist. This view need not eliminate courses or textbooks on PR, or even books for the general public, since it must be made clear why religious beliefs are false—but it seems to pull the rug out from any other PR project.

This, though, is to overlook the fact that naturalized PR itself leads to new philosophical questions. Can the believer consistently accept both an immaterialist metaphysics of ‘ultimate reality’ and naturalistic explanations of the origin and persistence of religion? This is a new question, prompting new arguments—for example, that a supernatural deity is the likely source of any evolved disposition to religious belief or experience.

Moreover, just as philosophy and the world evolve, so religions and the religious change. Religious writings are customized in order to be consistent with modern science. For example, Al-Ghazālī’s claim that the religious person is typically happier than the non-religious is reinvented using 21st century statistical techniques and empirical studies. Doctrines are reinterpreted in order to evade philosophical problems that (my sceptical colleague believes) defeat ‘traditional’ religious claims.

Even the metaphysics of religion is reinvented. For example, techno-prophets claim that imminent progress in computer engineering and neuroscience will make good on religion’s promise of survival after death. According to (what I call) techno-supernaturalism, souls are in essence patterns of information, in principle replicable and upgradeable; after death I am simply a digital ghost awaiting reanimation. This is a daring hypothesis, but no more so than those of supernaturalist religions—and it is more attractive to digital natives than the idea of a ‘spirit body’ or revived corpse. This is natural theology for the computer age, explicitly branded as ‘digital theology’.

In sum, excellent philosophy of religion is, among other things, responsive to its time. And now is an exciting time.

Charles Taliaferro on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Charles Taliaferro is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at St. Olaf 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.

I suggest that philosophical inquiry is similar to, but different from a great deal of scientific inquiry, especially when the latter involves repeatable experimentation, empirical data, predicting physical events. Philosophy can certainly rely on experience (as in phenomenology) and on the natural and social sciences themselves, but, in general, philosophical accounts of values, human practices (from religious to secular), of knowledge-claims, and so on, can involve some formal norms (coherence, logical consistency) and a wide variety of other considerations (from conceptual and/or linguistic analysis to the appeal to intuition). In terms of methodology, I have defended in various places what is called phenomenological realism-in the tradition of Max Scheler and von Hildebrand. This is decidedly different from some in philosophy of mind and philosophy of religion who assume as a methodological framework some form of naturalism. In the book Naturalism co-authored with Stewart Goetz, and in other books such as A Brief History of the Soul, we have argued that both strict and broad forms of naturalism are problematic.

In taking a closer look at the place where science and philosophy diverge, I suggest it is rare for an interesting philosophical position to be tested by empirical experiments. How would one test (for example) externalist vs internalist accounts of justification in epistemology or moral realism or nominalism vs Platonism on abstract objects or even idealism (whether with Berkeley or Hegel)? Well, I suppose the later might be a counter-example as Hegel thought he could determine philosophically the number of planets. But in most arguments in philosophy of religion-from theodicies to the evidential problem of evil versus skeptical theism articulated by William Rowe and Paul Draper, perfect being theology, Buddhist arguments against a substantive account of the self, whether God might be timeless, etc.-it is hard to see how matters might be resolved empirically.

Still, insofar as philosophy of religion is understood to be about religion, it does seem as though scientific inquiry will be needed in order to understand what are claimed by various religious communities, etc; this is, though necessary, not sufficient for philosophical inquiry.

One might also note that the field of philosophy of religion contains ongoing projects involving the appeal to evidence and testing the explanatory power of key positions (commonly this concerns comparing the merits of theism and some form of naturalism). But philosophy of religion also includes philosophers who repudiate appeals to explanatory power and the metaphysics of theism. This has been done by both theists (like John Cottingham and Paul Moser) and non-theists (such as the late D.Z. Phillips) as well as by some who repudiate the theism versus atheism debate (Howard Wettstein, for example, does not self-identify as an atheist or theist). In a sense philosophy of religion may be the most diverse sub-field of philosophy for it draws on all the other sub-fields in the discipline (metaphysics, epistemology, value theory, logic, political philosophy, philosophy of science, even aesthetics, and so on). Insofar as these sub-fields have diversity (say, instrumentalism versus realism in philosophy of science), that diversity often shows up in philosophy of religion.

Timothy Knepper on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Timothy Knepper is professor of philosophy and chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Drake University. 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.

In the past, I have written about philosophy of religion as a means of taking seriously religion, the world, and one’s self. Here, I will treat these ends of philosophy of religion as values for philosophy of religion. By no means do these three desiderata constitute an exhaustive list of values or norms for philosophy of religion. (In this respect, I usually defend the full gamut.) Rather, I emphasize these ends here as features or values of philosophy of religion that are underrepresented, if not neglected, in contemporary philosophy of religion.

First, philosophy of religion takes religion seriously. For me, this means fidelity to the phenomena of religion or, in epistemological terms, empirical adequacy. Simply put, if the philosophy of religion is to be philosophy of religion, then it needs to philosophize about a diversity of religious reasons and ideas, as voiced by a diversity of cultures, classes, creeds, and genders. This means paying attention to religious diversity in space and time, as well as paying attention to voices that are typically excluded from the discourses of philosophy of religion. Given the power dynamics of contemporary philosophy of religion, it involves resistance to the hegemony of Christocentric theism and theistic philosophy of religion. Contra a prevalent bias in the academic study of religion, it also requires defending the investigation of religious realities, truths, and values as one important facet of the study of religion more broadly. This might seem to be in contrast to what politically-correct societies tell us: respect religious difference by avoiding questions of truth and value. But such avoidance in fact disrespects religious traditions and communities, since they often, if not always, make claims about what is true and valuable.

Philosophy of religion also takes seriously the world. By “the world,” I primarily have in mind human others with whom we come into contact, whether immediately or not. How does philosophy of religion take seriously such others? For starters, it recognizes that others take themselves seriously, at least some of the time, asking questions of meaning, truth, and value about themselves and their world. At the same time, though, it readily admits that these others often answer such questions differently. So, if we are going to live in a flourishing society or world with these others, let alone have significant interactions with them, then we need to know at least a little something about what they take as ultimately meaningful, truthful, and valuable. We might even need to know how to discuss and debate matters that are ultimately meaningful, truthful, and valuable in ways that are respectful and peaceful. This is all the more true for the community of scholars that practices philosophy of religion as such. It is critical that this community of inquiry not only be constituted by a robust diversity of biases and biographies (etc.) but also engage this diversity in a manner that helps check biases, especially of the powerful, and enrich inquiry, especially with regard to equity and inclusion. Perhaps, then, we can call this value or norm or end “dialogical diversity.”

Finally, philosophy of religion takes seriously oneself. Undergirding this claim, for starters, is my belief that humans generally want to know what is meaningful, true, and valuable. Not always, of course. But sometimes, at least. Philosophy of religion is one very important way of doing this, since philosophy of religion asks about what is meaningful, true, and valuable with regard to ultimate beings, truths, and goods, especially where other-worldly beings or post-mortem ends are concerned. For me, this means that at the end of the day philosophy of religion is personal. What I mean by this is that philosophy of religion is a means of helping oneself think through and reason toward what is personally meaningful, true, and valuable with regard to ultimate beings, truths, and goods. Philosophy of religion is notoriously “subjective,” at least in the sense that it is darn difficult to produce “feedback” to confirm or confute hypotheses about religious reality, truth, and goodness. Thus, there is seldom inter-subjective agreement about such hypotheses. Nevertheless, philosophy of religion remains an important, if not necessary, means of taking one’s own self seriously by investigating these matters for oneself.

Ilaria L. E. Ramelli on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Ilaria L.E. Ramelli is Full Professor of Theology and K.Britt endowed Chair (Graduate School of Theology, SHMS, “Angelicum” University) and elected Senior Research Fellow at Durham University, at the University of Oxford (Fowler Hamilton fellowship) and at Erfurt University, Max Weber Center, within a Research Award / “Forschungspreis” from the Humboldt Foundation. We invited her 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 [PoR] could be defined by values that are interrelated with the virtues of Philosophy and virtues of Religion together. These virtues are ἀρεταί in their Greek etymological sense: virtues as excellences, and therefore as norms and models. Overall, values that define excellent Philosophy are truth (or better the quest thereof) and logical/rational rigour. Values that define excellent Religion are the pursuit of the Good and the moral and spiritual elevation of humanity.

Ancient philosophy, which included theology as its highest peak and offers the first examples of PoR, often described its own goal as the “assimilation to God,” God being the core of Religion but also the highest object of Philosophy (see below). The exercise of philosophy in antiquity aimed neither at academic career nor at political power nor at acquisition of money or similar goals, but at the philosopher’s assimilation to God-God being the supreme Good, and theology being the pinnacle of philosophy. The life of the philosopher had to conform to this noble telos or aim. Therefore, the ideal was no corruption, no injustice, no iniquity, no envy, no calumny, no meanness, nor any other pathos (passion or bad emotion) or evil deed for every day of the philosopher’s life-nothing unworthy of God, who is the model for humans-but rather all virtues, which are exemplified primarily in God.

Excellent PoR is rational investigation applied to things divine and the relation between the Divine and the world, especially the relation between the divine and humanity-as already Origen thought of it, PoR is essentially Philosophical Theology. I agree, and Origen would agree, that philosophy matters a great deal in the study of religion, and religion-theology in philosophy.1 Ancient epoptics, i.e. theology, was the highest part of philosophy for all Platonists (and other philosophers), ‘pagan’ and Christian alike.2 Vis-à-vis a criticism of PoR as offering little to religious studies and as being too close to Philosophical Theology and a kind of crypto-theology,3 I would share the general drift of Bradley Onishi, who argues that PoR, and philosophy in general, offers much to religious studies-although he concentrates on Continental PoR, while the discourse could be broadened to all of PoR, from the disciplinary viewpoint.4

Reflecting on the values and norms of PoR must take into account that PoR can investigate into protology, metaphysics, cataphatic and apophatic theology and what I call “the dialectics of apophatic theology,” mystical theology, Christology and its philosophical interpretations (including philosophical interpretations of dogmas and Logos Christology), theories of creation, theories of time and eternity, ethics and its metaphysical foundations, the problem of evil and innocent suffering, free will, responsibility, ethical intellectualism, hamartiology, philosophical anthropology, the mind-body relation, philosophical asceticism, soteriology, death and the afterlife, inter-religious relations (e.g. Jewish-Christian and others), Trinitarian theology in Christianity, Binitarian theologies in Judaism and Christianity, monotheisms, henotheisms, polytheisms, and pantheisms (including forms of Christian pantheism), faith and knowledge, religion and science, universalism, the philosophical analysis of religious doctrines, and religions and their philosophical interpretations.

In this connection, among the most important values for PoR are Truth, Justice, Good, the akolouthia or consequentiality of all virtues; and, methodologically, logical rigour, fruitfulness for further inquiry, and a “zetetic” or heuristic attitude in research concerning the Divinity, with the awareness of the limits of this investigation-which historically gave rise to what I call “the dialectics of apophaticism”.5 These values are all related to “assimilation to God” as the main telos: God is Truth, Justice, the supreme Good, the paradigm of all virtues, and has given reason, the logos, to all rational creatures in order to choose virtues and reject evil consciously and voluntarily (this, within a broad framework of ethical intellectualism).

Origen of Alexandria, one of the best ancient philosophers of religion and a model of “zetetic” inquiry, exemplifies the thirst for Truth and Justice.6 These are among the main epinoiai or conceptualizations of Christ, God’s Son, along with Logos and Wisdom. According to Origen, the norm of PoR is God’s Logos, who is all virtues, Justice, Mercy, Wisdom, Righteousness, etc. (essentially, Plato’s Value Forms). Christ-Logos collects all values and norms. Hence the ideal of assimilation to Christ, who is God. For Origen, PoR and Philosophical Theology, i.e. the rational investigation of things divine, helps people to attain the highest goal of human life (which was also Plato’s definition of the telos of human life): assimilation to God. Assimilation, or likeness, to God, ὁμοίωσις Θεῷ, was both a Biblical (Gen 1:26) and a Platonic ideal (Theaet. 176AC), received by Aristotle, Antiochus of Ascalon, Philo, and “Middle Platonists” such as Eudorus, Albinus, Alcinous, and the anonymous Commentary on the Theaetetus (7.18).7

For Origen this convergence was-along with many others-a further proof that Plato was inspired either by Scripture or by the same Logos who inspired, and is “incarnate” in, Scripture. Indeed, in Princ. 3.6.1 Origen states that the ideal of assimilation to God expressed by Plato in Theaet. 176B is the same as that mentioned in Gen 1:26. Tübingen Theosophy 1.40, too, recognised that not only “pagans” (i.e. Plato and his followers) but also Moses embraced this ideal. The basis for “assimilation to God,” in Origen’s view, is the “affinity” between human nous and God-nous (Princ. 1.1.7. This is one of Origen’s uses of the theory of Oikeiosis, later taken over by Gregory of Nyssa as well.8 Clement of Alexandria, well known to Origen, praised Plato’s ideal of ὁμοίωσις θεῷ as eudaemonistic: “Plato, the philosopher who posited happiness as the highest goal, claims this is assimilation to God as much as possible” (Strom. 2.100.1-101.1).

For Origen, assimilation to God is also assimilation to Christ, who is God (Comm.Io. 1.23), one of the three Hypostaseis who are the Principles (ἀρχαί) of all.9 In Princ. 3.6.1, Origen delineates the passage from “image of God,” an initial datum for humans, to “likeness/assimilation to God” (which in Plato implied becoming “just, holy, and wise”), and from likeness to unity in the end: εἰκών from the beginning > ὁμοίωσις through moral improvement in this or the future life > ἕν / ἕνωσις, unity/unification (another Platonic ideal) in the eventual apokatastasis and “deification” (θέωσις), when God will eschatologically be “all in all” (based on 1Cor 15:28). “God’s image” is an initial datum, but the “likeness/assimilation to God” has still to come (Hom.Ez. 13.2). It is the ideal of PoR and of every human and rational life for these ancient philosophers of religion. I think it maintains its validity for us today.

John Schellenberg on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

John Schellenberg is Professor of Philosophy at Mount Saint Vincent University in Canada. 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.

Given religion’s questionable maturity, one norm or value I would propose for philosophy of religion is that work in the field, to attain excellence, must be fitted to this fact.

What do I mean by ‘questionable maturity’? Not that beneficial and profound strands of religiousness have yet to appear, or that we should look solely to the future for illuminating religious insights, ignoring the past. What I have in mind is that numerous facets of human culture are opposed to the behaviours that, sufficiently long pursued, might reasonably make us confident that we have gone as far as we can toward the following goal: bringing to light and thoroughly entering into the deepest and most profound transcendently-focused ideas and practices our species is capable of generating. Call this the goal of fully tapping human transcendent aspirations. We could hardly live up to our evolutionary designation without making this a goal for religion as a dimension of human culture. But for the reason given, it is not a goal that we would properly think of ourselves as having come close to achieving.

Let me fill out the reason. Human culture currently includes ideologies of the most resilient and unbending kind, fervent beliefs that make related inquiries seem unnecessary, cultural prejudices and in-group biases galore. Such factors have long been operating so as to favour particular contentious religious views. We are commonly influenced by them prior to the deep and wide, openminded and openhearted religious investigation that could properly acquaint us with many orientations other than those with which we are familiar, as well as in utter innocence of the thought that there may be more religious ideas in intellectual space than we have conceived during the past few thousand years – an eyeblink in evolutionary time. With women long consigned to being seen but not heard, we are still partially in innocence even of what half of our own race might contribute to religious discussion. And then there is religious violence, which bleeds freely into the present from the past. It is surely reasonable to wonder: Would the elimination of such factors allow transcendent aspirations to speak to us in new and more profound tones?

It is striking that very few religious inquirers have even tried to bridge religious intellectual divides, or to get a clear view of all the religious ideas we have conceived. One token of this is how recently religious studies departments have begun appearing in our universities. Another is that even the currently best-known critics of religious belief – the New Atheists – exhibit such faults as are listed in the previous paragraph. Witness how often they proceed as though the only religions in the world are the religions of the West, and how immune they appear to be from instruction as to the possibility of human religious immaturity by their own evolutionary worldview.

Philosophy of any kind, and certainly philosophy of religion, finding itself in such circumstances, should feel compelled to push very hard in the opposite direction instead of remaining in the shadow of ignorance. Since the aims of philosophy of religion prominently include fundamental understanding (which includes fundamental evaluation) of things religious, this field of inquiry naturally must endorse the goal of fully tapping human transcendent aspirations. Indeed, on the intellectual side, it must share it. How else can we avoid the danger of premature assessment? Thus a proper sensitivity to the facets of human culture described above is paramount; in relation to them, philosophy of religion must seek to be, as they say, part of the solution instead of part of the problem. Given its nature, we could hardly call work in the field excellent if it did not fit its circumstances in this way.

Sadly, much contemporary philosophy of religion is still part of the problem, providing additional examples of influence by deleterious cultural factors to set alongside the sins of the New Atheists. Like them, most philosophers of religion have been preoccupied with personal conceptions of the divine popular in the West. And lately, with ‘Christian philosophy of religion’ in the ascendancy, we have become rather complacent about allowing parochial points of reference to define the terrain in which a philosopher of religion operates. Such behaviour evinces a presupposition of religious maturity rather than sensitivity to the distinct possibility that maturity is still a long way off. If I am right, we should not call philosophical work entangled with this presupposition excellent.

How can we do better? What, more specifically, will this mean? It will certainly mean choosing the pro-maturity option whenever both a maturity-conducive way of proceeding and an alternative making concessions to the status quo present themselves.

So suppose you can either ignore new religious options and new attempts to cross boundaries of race and gender and style when they are introduced, or seek to give them careful attention, willing to adjust previous allegiances according to what you discover. Given the maturity-oriented criterion, to attain excellence you must pretty clearly do the latter. Or suppose you can either import your pre-existing religious or anti-religious belief into philosophical inquiry and defend it at all costs, or turn your belief into a position to be brought into friendly conversation with the positions of disagreeing others in as many ways as you can, willing to exchange it for a new position as, through such conversation, the body of available information is enlarged. To attain excellence, you must again choose the latter course.

You must choose it because we are all influenced by the factors contributing to religion’s questionable maturity. In these circumstances, we should agree to make disagreements work for us and for maturity: their purpose, we might learn to think, is to expand our imaginations and to enlarge and improve, for everyone, the body of available information about religious matters. Likewise, it is imperative to assume that much in the religious realm may not yet have been encountered by human beings and that many ways of coming to grips with religious matters may well have gone undetected. Only in these ways can we minimize the likelihood of remaining ignorant of vital facts with a bearing on our work should they currently be hidden from us – as, given our track record, may well be the case – and so do justice to our status as philosophers.

James McLachlan on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

James McLachlan is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Western Carolina University. 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.

Ethical Transcendence and Critical Historical Immanence

The norms and values that I think define excellent philosophy of religion are openness to otherness as the effort to see how different religious logics might work in relation to different basic assumptions about the world. And a critical/historical consciousness that sees all human activities as situated in historical and cultural development.

I start with both hyperbole and a way too overly negative statement of the state of the discipline. I will greatly oversimplify things by dividing philosophy of religion between what I take to be the two major approaches from the two disciplines that use the term: philosophy and religious studies. Philosophy of Religion as it practiced in philosophy departments must realize that it has to focus on much more than theism or the types of theisms that has been the standard of philosophy of religion as a primarily Western and even more narrowly Christian discipline. Though this has certainly been changing over the last couple of decades any random survey of introductory philosophy of religion texts indicates the narrowness of the questions considered in the field. The usual arguments for the existence of God, the tension between faith and reason, miracles, the problem of evil (related to an omnipotent and omniscient deity), and the relation of religion and ethics, or rather, theism and ethics. But the narrowness of the traditional approaches to the discipline go beyond its narrowly Western focus.1 It also seems to ignore the history of Western Theism. It behaves as if the last two hundred years of historical/critical studies of Christian doctrines like theism itself had not occurred. The philosophers of religion sometimes appear to better fit Donald Wiebe’s characterization of religionists as crypto-theologians than do the phenomenologists of religion. They seem only really concerned with Christian theology or at the most theism, despite the fact that Christianity only accounts for about a third of what we could call religious people on the planet and theism only about half. They seem to have taken the part of Mr. Thwackum, the Divine, at least in part against Mr. Square, the Philosopher, in that wonderful dispute in Henry Fielding’s The Adventures of Tom Jones: “When I mention religion, I mean the Christian religion and not only the Christian religion, but the Protestant religion, and not only the Protestant religion, but the Church of England” (Fielding 1917).

It is only correct that philosophers of religion from religious studies should be critical of such an approach. However, many religionists may also be crypto-theological in seeking to find something irreducibly religious in all religions and excluding any other approaches as reductionist. These are countered by a gang of theorists in the study of religion that includes, among others, Wiebe and Russell McCutcheon. They argue for methodological atheism in the study of religious phenomena and will not allow any philosophical approach that would evaluate what might be the truth or value of religious groups’ claims or practices. Such approaches reveal much about the phenomena that is to be explored but in their insistence on method as revealer of truth about the phenomenon they are not open to the phenomena themselves. As Merleau-Ponty famously quipped at the beginning of “Eye and Mind” “Science manipulates things and gives up living in them.”

This does not mean that there is something irreducibly religious about religious phenomena, as suggested by the phenomenologists of religions. What is needed instead is a phenomenological approach championed by Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Levinas that would see religion as part of the life world.

The title to H. G. Gadamer’s Truth and Method is deliberately ironic. Truth evades the methodological approach. Understanding is not the act of a subject over against an object but the way of being. Truth is not reached methodically but dialectically, through question and answer, the constant passing from whole to part and part to whole. The dialectical approach to truth is the antithesis of method, indeed it is a pre-structure of the individual’s way of seeing. It recognizes the historicality of both religion, the investigator searching to understand it, and his method. Method only renders explicit what was implicit in the method. In the dialectical situation, the matter encountered is that to which we respond. The interpretive encounter is no longer that of a questioner and an object, with the questioner having to construct methods to bring the object into his grasp. On the contrary, the questioner suddenly finds himself the being who is interrogated by the subject matter. Here one is situated in history and sees her own position as produced historically. Religion would be approached much as art, as a human creation that is at least an effort at transcendence.

Religion claims a transcendent but the idea that I ought to be open to the other, either as an individual or to her tradition is ethical. This is basically Levinas’s distinction between the “Holy” and the “Sacred.” He claims the ways that these terms are usually defined is the essence of idolatry. Levinas uses the word sacred as a notion of a single ground that unites everything. This would be the irreducibly religious of the old phenomenology of religion movement. Otto calls it the “Mysterium Tremendom et Fascinans” that fills us with awe and terror. This can be quite wonderful but could also provoke the kind of enthusiasm that was provoked in Nazi rallies. It can be a source of violence. Levinas defines the Holy as the respectful relation to another person who “transcends” me and all my ideas.

Scott Smith on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Scott Smith is Professor of Ethics and Christian Apologetics at Biola University. 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.

One of the most fundamental, operating assumptions in academic religious studies is that religion basically is a construct, whether by individuals or social groups. While philosophers from different conceptual paradigms differ about this assumption, nonetheless it still seems that the majority of philosophers, being naturalists, embrace what is known as the fact-value split. On that view, religion does not give us knowledge; rather, it gives us personal opinions, values, preferences, and our constructs.

Yet, a virtue of good philosophy is a willingness to subject our assumptions to rigorous debate. I suggest this same mindset should be applied to this widely held assumption about religious knowledge.

Now, in this short essay, it is not feasible to make a full evaluation of the fact-value split. (I have addressed it more thoroughly, however, in two books, Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality: Testing Religious Truth-claims (Routledge, 2012), and In Search of Moral Knowledge: Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy (IVP, 2014).) Nevertheless, here I want to suggest that science, if based on naturalism, cannot give us knowledge at all. That undermines the “fact” side of the split.

But, clearly, we do have knowledge of many things, including in science. I will suggest that happens, however, due to the existence of nonnatural entities, which naturalism cannot countenance. What, then, is needed to exist in order for us to have knowledge? Here, I suggest that the best explanation for these nonnatural, universal qualities is that they are grounded in God. If so, I suggest that this would provide knowledge in the area of religion. (I also think we can have moral knowledge, too, though that is an argument to be made in another place).

Consider the ontological resources naturalism has to give us knowledge. In his book, The Intentional Stance, Daniel Dennett has developed this tactic which he advocates to interpret the behavior of “intentional systems” (humans, frogs, computers, etc.). Dennett treats mental content functionally; thoughts, beliefs, desires, purposes, and other mental states, along with their intentionality, are just attributions from the intentional stance to predict behavior. There are only brain states, physical patterns, and behavior that we take, or interpret, to be about something.

Furthermore, for Dennett, there are no “deeper facts” beyond behavior as to what someone “really had in mind” when behaving in some way, precisely because there are no essences. Yet, he admits that if there were essences, there could be deeper facts as to what someone meant. There also could be a fact of the matter, beyond interpretation, what that person’s (alleged) mental state really was of or about.

This makes sense on naturalism, and not merely Dennett’s particular views. For on naturalism, there are no intrinsically mental entities. Nor is there anything intrinsically intentional. Still, we may conceive of, or treat, something as intentional, much like Dennett does.

But, we should notice that Dennett’s own views seem to presuppose the reality of intentionality. For when he and others engage in observations of behaviors of some system, it seems those observations need intentionality themselves, and not merely an attribution thereof. Moreover, his attributions, which are interpretations of behavior, also seem to require real intentionality; otherwise, how could these be about the behavior?

Even more importantly, without any essences (or “deeper facts”) to thoughts, beliefs, or even Dennett’s interpretations, it always will be an open question what some behavior “means.” Without any intrinsic qualities, there will not be any intrinsic qualities to a behavior, or an intrinsic meaning of a text. Moreover, thoughts are brain-writings, and thus they are just as subject to interpretation as any other text.

So, as Dennett hints, but apparently does not fully realize, his views are subject to the same indefiniteness of interpretation as the views of Jacques Derrida. It seems that for Dennett, like Derrida, that everything is interpretation. Yet, if that is the case, we face the prospects of an infinite regress of interpretations, making us unable even to get started.

To stress, Dennett admits why this happens – if there were essences, such as the intrinsic intentionality of some thought, interpretation, or observation, there would be a deeper fact of what it really is about. But, on naturalism, there are no essences.

However, if we pay attention to what is before us in conscious awareness, I think we can become aware that (for example) our thoughts really do have intentionality, and they have it intrinsically. For it seems we cannot have a thought that is not about something, whether or not that thing obtains in reality. I can think of Pegasus, even though Pegasus does not obtain. Also, consider a thought of a Starbuck’s Mocha Frappuccino®. It does not seem that thought could be about something else (say, a soccer match) and still be the same thought. Instead, the thought of the soccer match would be a different thought. Thoughts seem to have their intentional contents intrinsically.

The same seems to apply to interpretations and beliefs. But, without real intentionality, and real essences, it seems there will not be any real interpretations or beliefs. Moreover, propositional knowledge also seems to require intentionality, but without it, there will not be such knowledge.

I suggest that naturalism lacks the ontology needed for us to have knowledge of reality. But, since the “fact” side of the split seems to trade upon a naturalistic ontology, this finding should undermine the split. However, I have suggested that knowledge requires the reality of essences. What might be their best explanation? While they might be brute facts, I suggest that would be rather odd, given how they seem to enable us to know reality. Essences, however, would fit within the ontological and design implications of theism.

Now, clearly, I have been able to make only suggestions. Much more work needs to be done in this area. But, I think that a criterion for good philosophy of religion should be a willingness to question some of our deepest assumptions, and I have sought to motivate that study regarding the deeply entrenched fact-value split.

David Basinger on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

David Basinger is Professor of Philosophy and Ethics at Northeastern Seminary. 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.
As I see it, one of the most important values that should be instilled/reinforced by excellent philosophy of religion is epistemic humility, defined as the acknowledgement that equally knowledgeable, sincere individuals differ on almost all significant religious issues.

We initially acquire our beliefs, including any religious beliefs, in at least two ways. Some are subconsciously soft-wired into us. Specifically, most of us subconsciously acquire soft-wired beliefs about what our world is like in general and the nature and status of those different from us in particular. Other beliefs are acquired early in life from parents, religious leaders, school teachers, and friends. Such beliefs increase our understanding about the nature of reality, including the status of those different than ourselves, and how we ought to behave in the world as we see it.

The good news is that if we acknowledge these shaping influences and consciously reflect on our beliefs and the beliefs of our epistemic competitors – that is, purposefully engage in comparative assessment of why we and those who hold differing perspectives on those bestowed beliefs that seem to us both normal and correct – it is possible to refine, modify, or give up these initial bestowed beliefs. The bad news is that our normal, natural epistemic state is not to engage in objective, comparative belief assessment of bestowed beliefs – to rationally view the relevant evidence and lines of reasoning and reaffirm, modify, or relinquish our bestowed beliefs. Rather, our normal default response to challenges to our bestowed beliefs is to defend these beliefs. They become the control beliefs by which we interpret, assess, and ultimately explain away seeming counter-evidence.

In addition, I believe there to be what some see as an important limitation on what serious comparative belief assessment can accomplish. As argued in other contexts, I deny that there exists a set of objective, non-question-begging criteria in relation to which we can demonstrate that many of our bestowed beliefs on important social, political, economic, moral, and religious issues are in fact superior to all other competing perspectives on these issues. Rather, I hold that in most cases, serious comparative belief assessment will force us into the epistemically humble position of acknowledging that equally sincere, knowledgeable individuals can justifiably affirm differing self-consistent, comprehensive perspectives on such issues.

To be epistemically humble in this sense does not mean that we cannot hold our beliefs firmly and act upon them. However, it will significantly alter how we in engage in discussions with our epistemic competitors. If we believe there to be objective, demonstrable evidence that our perspective on a given issue is alone the correct one, then our goal in discussions with those holding differing perspective is rightly to help them see the truth – i.e., to help them see that they are missing crucial information or not processing that information correctly – or to challenge their sincerity – i.e., to speculate on why they are unwilling to acknowledge what they really know to be true. If, however, we believe that some of our epistemic competitors have as much information as do we, are processing it in the same fashion, and are as dedicated as we are to finding the truth of the matter – i.e., truly are our epistemic peers – we are then much more likely to engage in respectful, civil discussion of the issue in question, with the primary purpose to encourage our competitors to reconsider their perspectives rather than to belittle their intellectual capacity or accuse them of having a morally deficient hidden agenda. And, from my perspective, there’s never been a more important time for all to engage in epistemically humble discussions that will not only preserve respect and dignity but also afford us the best chance of being able to arrive at productive responses to differences that must be resolved.

I believe that philosophy of religion, when functioning as the study of diverse religious beliefs, is well-suited to encourage epistemic humility.

Individuals don’t become epistemically humble because they are told they have no compelling reason to deny that their epistemic peers are equally knowledgeable or sincere. Rather, it’s been my experience that individuals are most likely to become epistemically humble when they become aware of meaningful epistemic tensions in their own belief system. It’s clear that religious beliefs are meaningful in that they often significantly impact how individuals explain their life experiences and justify their behavior toward themselves and others.

The tensions that lead to epistemic humility are of two types. First, individuals often find themselves becoming more epistemically humble when they discover that some of their significant bestowed beliefs are inconsistent with each other. Since important religious beliefs about God’s attributes and behavior or about the negative impact of religion are often acquired from different authority figures at different times, it’s not surprising that such beliefs are often inconsistent. When individuals come to see that this is so, they often experience an internal tension that compels them to assess the relevant beliefs in an attempt to resolve the tension. For example, religious believers often experience tension when their general view of God’s control over all things is not compatible with the role they believe human freedom plays in what occurs. Second, individuals, including religious individuals, often find themselves becoming more epistemically humble when they come to see that those who possess the same information and the same criteria for interpreting this information differ on significant issues. For example, when believers come to realize that other believers who hold the same forms of authoritative divine revelation differ significantly on an important issue, they often naturally find themselves engaging in belief assessment to discover why this is so.

Developing epistemic humility is clearly not the only role for philosophy of religion. But the current state of dialog around issues of significance leads me to believe that none is more important.

Paul Draper on Dean Zimmerman on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Paul Draper is Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Religious Studies at Purdue University. 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. He answered by responding to Dean Zimmerman’s answer to the same question.

In response to the question of what norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion, Dean Zimmerman says that philosophy of religion must appeal to the same theoretical virtues to which other areas of philosophy appeal — the same ones that make for good science and good thinking in general. I could not agree more. Zimmerman then shifts his attention to the question of whether, in addition to these universal norms, there are “special norms” that apply specifically to philosophy of religion and that cannot be derived from universal norms. Zimmerman’s answer to this question is “no.” Once again, I agree. For example, it is a mistake to think, as some philosophers do, that only members of a particular religion or only people who are at least religious in some broad sense can have the attitudes, the dispositions, or the (insider) knowledge needed to excel in philosophical inquiry about religion. Similarly, being a religious outsider is not required for doing excellent work in philosophy of religion.

Such insider/outsider norms, however, are not the norms that draw Zimmerman’s scrutiny. Instead, his targets are what he calls the “no apologetics norm” and the “no theology norm.” I will ignore what he says about the no theology norm. Though I think there are some important differences between theological inquiry and philosophical inquiry about religion, I agree with Zimmerman that philosophy of religion and theology overlap and for that reason a strict “no theology norm” makes no sense. I do, however, want to respond to what Zimmerman says about the “no apologetics norm.” I will defend this norm by criticizing both his definition of “apologetics” and his understanding of what is supposed to justify the no apologetics norm. In addition, I will argue that this norm is not really “special” (in the relevant sense) because it can be derived from universal norms.

What, then, does the term “apologetics” mean? According to Zimmerman, “some are determined to use ‘apologetics’ as a term of abuse, so that it means, ‘arguments for religious doctrines that are put forth by someone who doesn’t care how good they are, but only intends to persuade’.” I certainly agree that this is a bad definition of “apologetics.” It is far too narrow. For example, there is plenty of really bad apologetics that is nevertheless quite sincere. Zimmerman’s definition, however, has the opposite problem. He thinks that any argument for a religious doctrine counts as apologetics, regardless of the motives of the arguer. He concludes that, since arguments (and the motives of arguers) can be good or bad, apologetics can be good or bad. Further, when the relevant arguments are philosophical, apologetics and philosophy of religion overlap.

If Zimmerman were right that apologetics is just the construction of arguments for the conclusion that a religious doctrine is true, then his thesis that apologetics is a proper part of philosophy would be trivial. Since that thesis is not trivial, it follows that something must be wrong with his definition. If this isn’t obvious, consider the fact that, in a philosophy of religion course I taught last fall, I spent a good part of the semester constructing and revising an argument from numinous experience for God’s existence. My students, including the Christian students in the class (both undergraduate and graduate) spent much time criticizing and considerably less time defending this argument. My purpose in constructing increasingly more convincing versions of this argument was not to persuade. For me, constructing arguments both for and against a position is, at least initially, a method of philosophical inquiry — a philosophical way of testing hypotheses (like the hypothesis that there is no God) — not an attempt to show that some position is true. Zimmerman’s definition of “apologetics,” however, implies falsely that I was doing apologetics, so clearly that definition is too broad.

I should mention that I’m not claiming that my specific approach to doing philosophy of religion (e.g. using argument construction to test hypotheses) is the only way a philosopher of religion can avoid doing apologetics. I’m just claiming that it is clearly one way of avoiding apologetics, which shows that Zimmerman’s definition of “apologetics” is incorrect. Another way to avoid apologetics is to do the sort of perspectival work that Alvin Plantinga recommends: assume that certain religious beliefs are true, examine their philosophical implications, and try to work out a coherent account of how they fit with the rest of what one believes. (Unfortunately, Plantinga is also an advocate of apologetics, but that is easily forgiven given how much he has contributed to philosophy of religion.)

What, then, is a better definition of “apologetics”? Something like the traditional theological (and standard dictionary) definition is well suited for our discussion. Theology, as traditionally conceived, seeks (i) to clarify and systematize the doctrines of a religion and also (ii) to justify those doctrines, both by attempting to show (positively) that they are true and by attempting to show (negatively) that attempts to show that they are false fail. The first endeavor is called “dogmatics” and the second “apologetics” (both positive and negative). To the extent that “recruitment and retention” are important goals in a religious community, one might argue that apologetics is a sensible project for theologians, especially given their special obligations to such communities. Notice that I said one might argue that. I don’t think I would argue that, for reasons that will soon be clear. In any case, whether or not apologetics ought to be a part of theology, apologetics is definitely not a sensible project for philosophers of religion. Why not?

Zimmerman’s unnamed opponent claims that the problem with apologetics is that those who engage in it “fail to approach their questions with an absolutely open mind, with no preconceptions about what the answer will be, in a state that is as close to suspension of belief as possible.” In other words, to be a good philosopher of religion according to Zimmerman’s opponent, one must always be “poised on a razor’s edge between the two views” being debated and “easily persuadable by” one’s interlocutor. Zimmerman’s response is the obvious one: such demands are “unrealistic and unfair . . . the Cartesian project of suspension of all belief is a fantasy; and religion is not the one special little province where it applies.”

Surely, however, there is a better justification of why philosophers should not engage in apologetics than the one Zimmerman criticizes. To find that justification, we need only focus on the fact that the apologist by definition sets out to prove, or to find evidence that supports, the religious doctrines to which they are committed. Similarly, in our adversarial criminal justice system, a prosecutor seeks to prove that defendants are guilty. Even if the prosecutor offers only arguments that they sincerely believe are sound, still no one would want to claim that what the prosecutor does is the best way to find out the truth about whether or not a defendant is really guilty. Instead, seeking evidence, whether that evidence confirms or disconfirms, is likely to be much more effective. This is the real reason that philosophers of religion should avoid apologetics. It is antithetical to the norm of avoiding bias in one’s inquiry, to the norm of seeking any relevant evidence there is, regardless of which direction it points. And that is not a special, domain specific norm at all, but a norm that applies to all truth-directed thought.

Of course, we all know that human beings, including philosophers and scientists, regularly violate this norm. No one is perfect here. But that doesn’t justify ignoring the norm. Further, imperfection in satisfying this norm comes in a wide range of degrees, and there is good reason to believe that the potential for falling far short is especially great when committed Christians, for example, focus on certain topics in philosophy of religion. One reason for this is that there is enormous pressure on members of religions like Christianity not to stray from accepted doctrine. Such group influence, combined with the ability of philosophers to construct elaborate rationalizations for just about any position one can imagine, is bound to lead to trouble, making a no apologetics norm all the more essential. (For a detailed discussion and defense of this point, see section 5 of “Diagnosing Bias in Philosophy of Religion,” The Monist 96.3, 422-448. My co-author, Ryan Nichols, was the primary author of this section of the paper.)

This is not to say that the potential for biased inquiry is not also severe in some other areas of philosophy and also in some areas of science. It is also not to say that atheists make better philosophers of religion than religious believers. Most non-religious philosophers of religion are ex-Christians, which hardly makes objectivity easy. Analogy: while a person is likely to be biased when examining evidence that their own spouse is guilty of some crime, ex-spouses may be even more biased the other way, especially if the break-up was a messy one. I should add that, in making this analogy, I do not mean to support Zimmerman’s assumption that philosophers of religion whose work focuses on a single religion either “love or hate” (my italics) that religion. That assumption is false, and the fact that philosophers of religion make assumptions like this is symptomatic of the sort of problems discussed in the Monist article just mentioned.

I will close by pointing out that there is considerable bigotry in academia in general and in philosophy in particular against committed Christians. This makes it easy for Christian philosophers of religion to be defensive when it appears that they are being singled out for criticism. I don’t believe, however, that my concern about apologetics and biased inquiry in philosophy of religion should be interpreted in this way. The norm of avoiding apologetics, whether theistic or atheistic, is actually relatively easy to justify in terms of universal norms of good thinking. Defending such a norm is not in any way anti-religious.