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.

Stephen Palmquist on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Stephen Palmquist is Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Hong Kong Baptist 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.

If we regard this as a philosophical (not a scientific) question, then the first step to answering it is to determine what norms or values define excellent philosophy, in general. Once that is established, we can inquire whether the nature of religion brings with it any special features that make the task of doing excellent philosophy of religion unique.

Unlike scientific explanations, excellent philosophical explanations must be multi-perspectival. A question that has only one right answer is not philosophical; instead, it is likely to be about facts. While we philosophers should care (deeply!) about any facts relevant to our inquiries, our peculiar way of interpreting facts means that answering a philosophical question cannot be done in one absolutely “right” way. This does not mean there are no right answers to philosophical questions; rather, there are many. But this does not make any answer equally good; for there would then be no such thing as excellent philosophy.

The essentially perspectival nature of all genuinely philosophical questions means that the correctness of each purportedly “right” answer must be assessed in terms of its aptness for the perspective the questioner adopts when posing the question. A single question, such as “Does God exist?” can have many good answers, depending on whether the questioner assumes science, morality, aesthetics, or something else as the context. Each different type of inquiry has different boundary-conditions, so a good answer within each context is bound to differ from those in other contexts.

Bad philosophy typically lacks depth: like a cyclops, its approach to answering questions is mono-perspectival. But if good philosophy acknowledges perspectives, what makes philosophy excellent? Good philosophy achieves excellence when it approaches a completeness whereby we begin to understand the range of relevant perspectives from which a given question can be asked, and the distinct boundary-conditions for answering it properly from each relevant perspective.

Before applying this definition of excellent philosophy to the specific case at hand, we must pause to consider whether anything distinctive characterizes the range of philosophical topics and questions that typically come under the umbrella of philosophy of religion. In particular, does religion have features that make it especially difficult (or for that matter, easy) to think about philosophically, compared to other philosophical topics? Yes and no.

Religion is about the transcendent—i.e., the ultimate reality that often goes by the name, God—and humanity’s attempts to experience and respond appropriately to transcendence. Surely there can be only one ultimate; everything else by comparison therefore belongs to the multi-faceted reality that arises in and through our contact with the world. This, then, is a key difference. Political philosophy is about how to legislate agreements between human beings living in the world; philosophy of science is about how we understand the empirical world in which we find ourselves; philosophy of history deals with how we interpret the fact of our being in time; and the list of other applications of philosophy goes on. Viewed from the perspective of the age-old distinction between the One and the many, the subject-matter of religion is set apart from that of all other philosophical subjects by being rooted in the One rather than in the many.

Nevertheless, we might also say that the way philosophy approaches religion is no different from the way it approaches any other topic. Religion is integrally bound up with the meaning of life. Yet so are politics, science, history, and any other topic that can be addressed philosophically. Indeed, one might say that, insofar as we are addressing a question philosophically, we are inquiring into its relevance to the meaning of life. Or, put differently: philosophy is about finding the truth, not just temporarily, but what is really true. And if what is ultimately true does not change, then truth (the desired outcome of philosophical reasoning) should always be associated with the One, not the many—just as Parmenides argued so long ago. From this perspective, I would dare to suggest that all (excellent) philosophy is ultimately philosophy of religion!

Ironically, actual historical religions or religious persons sometimes actively oppose philosophy or philosophizing. Excellent philosophy of religion should provide an explanation for this odd fact. Perhaps it occurs because religion—dare I say, bad religion?—tends to view itself as having direct and therefore exclusive access to mono-perspectival Truth. Philosophy’s task of inquiring after the T/truth from multiple perspectives therefore strikes many religious people as a futile discipline. This poses a challenge to philosophers of religion who associate with a particular religious tradition and therefore hope to make a religiously relevant impact on their field.

To assist such philosophers of religion in meeting this challenge, I suggest the following answer to the question at hand. Excellent philosophy of religion takes into account the often conflicting perspectives of the whole spectrum of religious traditions, yet aims to be relevant to those who actually practice religion within at least one (possibly more than one) such tradition. While philosophizing, excellent philosophers of religion should therefore not assume the truth of their own religious tradition—otherwise they will be doing theology. Rather, they should take care to define the perspective from which rational explanations of religious truth-claims, or insightful interpretations of religious phenomena, hold true.

The foregoing answer to the question at hand has no hope of itself exhibiting excellent philosophy (much less excellent philosophy of religion) unless I conclude by admitting that, from one perspective, excellent philosophy (of religion) is anything but perspectival. Most would include Wittgenstein and Heidegger, for example, among the ranks of excellent philosophers. Yet their approaches—often mutually exclusive—seem outrageously unsympathetic to opposing perspectives. What this suggests is that, even though excellent philosophy of religion should aim to take differing perspectives into account, one may also pursue and even achieve excellence by taking one such perspective to an extreme—even though, in so doing, one may end up sacrificing truth (which is always One and many) in the pursuit of excellence.

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

Dean Zimmerman is Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University and Director of the Rutgers Center for Philosophy of Religion. 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. More specifically, we asked, “In scientific inquiry, preference is given to theories exemplifying theoretical virtues like explanatory power, predictive accuracy, empirical adequacy, coherence with working theory, broad applicability, fruitfulness for further inquiry, and simplicity. Are these same theoretical virtues important in philosophy of religion?”

I begin with a not entirely irrelevant aside about the unfortunate label “analytic philosophy”: Today, philosophers flying under this flag can be idealists, materialists, empiricists, rationalists, you-name-it. They are united by no deep agreement about doctrines or methods. The best one can say about them is that they are united by their attitude to the two sides of the debate which generated the label “analytic”.

“The philosophy of analysis” was used to refer to the realist metaphysics and epistemology of Russell and Moore, who were opposed to the holistic idealists like Bradley and Bosanquet. The latter thought you could not analyze a fact into its components; every attempt led to something false; Moore and Russell denied this, and attacked the arguments idealists typically gave for it. Moore and Russell wrote clearly, they were extremely careful about making distinctions between different things one might mean by this or that word, they deeply valued logic and strove to display the logical validity of their arguments. More generally, they cared about the theoretical virtues mentioned above in the description of the scientific method – clarity, coherence, simplicity, scope, that sort of thing. The most famous British idealists were not nearly so careful in their use of terms as Russell and Moore, they were not up-to-date in their logic, and they sometimes gave frightfully bad arguments.

Analytic philosophers, today, can be operationally defined as the ones who, in looking back at the debates between the British philosophers of analysis and the British idealists, think that the former were much better philosophers. One can, today, defend the chief doctrines that the idealists accepted, and that Russell and Moore rejected, and still be called an analytic philosopher. To embrace the label “analytic” is just to affirm a set of norms for doing philosophy that, in that time and place, was chiefly satisfied by the philosophers who believed in the possibility of “analysis” (of facts – in the beginning, analytic philosophy was not primarily about the analysis of language).

I will restrict my discussion to philosophy of religion as it is carried out by philosophers within the analytic tradition (some obviously analytic philosophers reject the label, because it is such an arbitrary and misleading one; it would be better if we could just ditch it, but there is a contrast class with an equally inappropriate label).

I think of the philosophy of religion as simply the attempt to answer philosophical questions that arise (i) for people who are themselves religious (or are inclined to be religious), or (ii) for people who are reflecting upon religions in a more abstract way. There may be other, useful ways to define the expression “philosophy of religion”, but this seems a reasonable one. It is a usage similar to “philosophy of science”, which can be divided up into questions analgous to (i) and (ii). Philosophers of science examine philosophical problems posed by the practitioners of this or that science; they also ask bigger questions about science as a whole – e.g. questions about scientific method or about the relations between the sciences. The category “value theory” has a similar application. In everyday life, we all engage in all kinds of first-order moralizing, telling one another what’s right and wrong, good and bad (that’s like ordinary religious believers, doing their religious stuff). Normative ethics aims at the systematic articulation of the claims we are making in doing so (that’s like (i)); metaethics comes at the subject matter in a more abstract way, at a higher level (that’s more like (ii)). Value theory as a subfield includes them both. There is nothing wrong with with value theory’s containing both kinds of question. Nor is there any reason philosophy of religion shouldn’t include reflection upon questions arising under both categories (i) and (ii).

Sometimes philosophy of religion tackles the kinds of philosophical questions that arise for ordinary, thoughtful religious believers – e.g., is reincarnation compatible with materialism about human beings? could I be free in my choices even if God infallibly knows ahead of time what they will be? Sometimes it tackles “meta” questions, ones that only arise for people who are reflecting upon the plurality of religions, or upon the deliverances of the social sciences that study religion: e.g., could all the things we call religions (at least all the most appealing examples) be equally true, or all be aimed at something other than truth? what is religion, anyway? and can evolutionary psychology or anthropology uncover some kind of common core to all religions or an underlying source of our religious inclinations?

The first thing I should like to reject as a candidate for a special method or norm for practicing philosophy of religion is the idea that only questions falling under (ii) are worthy of being addressed by philosophers. It may be that analytic philosophers of religion have majored in (i), and should start paying more attention to (ii). But addressing (ii) shouldn’t be necessary in order for something to be an example of good philosophy of religion.

To answer the question about whether proper methods and norms of inquiry in philosophy of religion are the same as those in the sciences, I say: Yes, sort of; at least, they are continuous with those of the sciences, incorporating a subset of the norms and virtues valued in a good scientific theory. Which common methods and norms? The very ones that are necessary for good work in all other areas of philosophy – ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, etc. A set of philosophical claims about a certain subject matter, like the statements at the core of a scientific theory, should be clearly articulated so one can see what follows from them; they should receive higher marks when they constitute a simpler theory of the subject matter, or a more coherent one, or one that also fits well with the best theories about nearby subjects; and so on, for all the extremely vague theoretical virtues that philosophers – at least analytic philosophers – tend to appeal to in their work. These make for good science, too; or good thinking, in general!

Philosophy of religion – just like ethics, metaphysics, etc. – has no alternative but to appeal to the same often non-decisive, vague theoretical virtues in its self-assessment. These are the basic norms or standards for judging an attempt to answer a philosophical question posed by religion.

Some philosophers of religion add some special, domain specific norms that are supposed to govern theorizing in the philosophy of religion, analogues of which are not generally taken to hold in other parts of philosophy. So, philosophers of religion are supposed to have failed to do their job unless they 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. Or they are supposed scrupulously to avoid affirming any particular religious doctrine in their work, always only exploring the internal coherence of a set of religious beliefs (although perhaps one might be allowed to say a few negative things, like “These doctrines are internally incoherent, and so cannot be true”). Those who fail to abide by the second norm are said to have taken the fatal plunge into theology. And it’s very important to draw a sharp line between philosophy of religion and theology (or so they say). Those who fail to abide by the first norm do not address religious questions with a sufficiently open mind; they are in serious danger of merely engaging in apologetics (far worse than slipping into theology). I accept neither the “no apologetics” norm nor the “no theology” norm as definitive of good philosophy of religion.

I think the no apologetics norm is unrealistic and unfair. We do not apply its analogue in other areas of philosophy that are no less fraught with disagreement and even danger; and it’s no easier to apply, and no more important to apply, when it comes to religion. I do not expect the Kantian ethicist to hold her view lightly, nor do I believe every utilitarian who does good work defending himself against Kantians must always be poised on a razor’s edge between the two views. Why not, though? After all, there is deep disagreement here about large-scale ethical theories.

The no apologetics norm, in practice, is an instance of what van Inwagen calls “the difference thesis”: Plantinga and Grünbaum are supposed to be flouting a norm for good philosophy of religion if they are not each easily persuadable by the other. But Korsgaard and Singer are not regarded as bad ethicists, even though we know that they are not each equally likely to trade views with the other whenever they read one another’s work. Openness to argument, to being wrong, is indeed a virtue. Being able, sympathetically, to get into the shoes of those with very different beliefs and values is a virtue. These virtues will help the philosopher to get to the truth. But the Cartesian project of suspension of all belief is a fantasy; and religion is not the one special little province where it applies. At least I have seen no good reason to accept that it is.

Some are determined to use “apologetics” as a term of abuse, so that it means, in effect, “arguments for religious doctrines that are put forth by someone who doesn’t care how good they are, but only intends to persuade”. I should rather call that “sophistical apologetics”, and allow that the word “apologetics” applies just as well to the philosophical apologia of someone like Pascal, who cared very much whether his philosophical arguments were good. Using “apologetics” with an invariably negative connotation reminds me of the way “dualism” is now often used to mean “an illegitimate distinction between two things”. Both are abuses of perfectly good words for rhetorical purposes. A dualistic theory of electrical charge, according to which it comes in positive and negative varieties, is just the truth about charge; Columbus rejected dualism about the ocean to the east of Africa and the ocean to the west of Africa, but he was wrong. Just like some dualisms are true and some false, some apologetics is good and some bad – depending upon the quality of the argumentation. When the arguments are philosophical ones, the apologetics is also an example of philosophy of religion.

The second norm – no theology – makes little sense, on the face of it. Philosophy and theology simply do blend into one another, and part of theology is philosophical theology. By my definition of “philosophy of religion”, philosophical theology is obviously an example of philosophy of religion; it addresses questions falling under (i).

The no theology norm does make some sense, in the very special context of a secular society with public education and a commitment not to favor one religion over others. The motivation to identify a species of philosophy of religion that cannot be accused of advocating for any particular religion is, I suspect, the result of anxiety about whether a teacher at a public university can affirm religious beliefs and defend them. Should the “no establishment” clause really be applied in such a way that a religious professor cannot speak her mind in the classroom or in print? I take it that we have, collectively, decided that the answer is “no”; this is a free speech issue, and we do not want the government muzzling religious professors on state campuses any more than we want the government muzzling communists – or, for that matter, Peter Singer (who often encounters vehement protest). Philosophers do care about the truth or falsehood of the claims they examine; it would be a distortion of any subfield of philosophy to allow its practitioners only to ask hypothetical questions, and never to address the question of the truth of the most fundamental beliefs people have about its subject matter.

I take it we are discussing very abstract norms here – how should some work in philosophy of religion be judged, just as a piece of philosophy? But there are other normative questions that need to be addressed by philosophers of religion: for example, what ought philosophers of religion in philosophy departments be doing more or less of? Where have we not put enough emphasis? Where are there societal needs for philosophical thinking about religion that have gone unmet by us? I’d say we’ve done a good job of addressing the kinds of questions that arise for Christians and those for whom Christianity is the only “live option”. But we haven’t done much to address philosophical questions arising from other faiths, primarily because those who specialize in philosophy of religion in the philosophy departments of the Anglophone world do not know much about religions other than Christianity. (I speak here only of philosophers in philosophy departments; there are many philosophers whose homes are in religion departments, including a few analytic philosophers; unsurprisingly, given their institutional homes, they are generally much better informed about and more interested in other religions.)

Are we parochial analytic philosophers of religion (I include myself here) flouting a norm when very few of us attempt to learn enough about Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, etc. so that we can address philosophical questions that arise in these traditions with the same expertise we apply in our “home” religion? Not a norm imposed by the nature of the subject, I think. What would it take for philosophers raised in the West, and relatively unfamiliar with Eastern religions, to reach the point at which they could contribute to scholarship on the philosophy of Buddhism or Hinduism? It would be a huge undertaking, requiring the study of difficult languages and the acquisition of culturally alien concepts. To ask me to gain the relevant expertise would be like asking an expert on the aesthetics of music to write a book on the aesthetics of moving pictures, when she has only seen a few movies and never read any film theory. One might dabble, but we shouldn’t expect great results. Of course there are the geniuses, polymaths. But most of us aren’t like that. Do many of us have an obligation to become so fluent in the philosophical traditions of more than one religion that we are able to carry out cutting edge research in them? Few of us have the time and talent for it.

But that doesn’t mean we are all completely off the hook, free to focus entirely on the one religion we love (or hate) the most. I believe that many of us have an obligation either to learn enough about non-Christian religions to credibly, sympathetically teach philosophy courses for undergraduates about them; or at least we have an obligation to work towards hiring people at our universities who have such expertise. We should be helping all of our students to think through the philosophical questions they have about the religion they know best, and to understand the philosophical traditions that are woven into the history of their religion. The strongest obligation here falls upon people like myself, at institutions with very religiously diverse student bodies. In some schools, there are philosophers based in religious studies departments who help pick up some of the slack left by their philosophy departments. (This is true of the religion department here at Rutgers, where professors who study the religions of India and China include philosophers or scholars with philosophical interests.) But there are often big holes – particularly, I think, when it comes to the philosophical traditions of Judaism and Islam.

Philip H. Wiebe on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Philip H. Wiebe is Professor of Philosophy at Trinity Western University, 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.

With a growing understanding of the importance of theories that postulate the existence of unobservable objects in science, and the (near-) demise of positivism half-way through the 20th century, recognition of Principles that have a bearing on the evidence for theories has grown. If religion is construed to postulate the existence of spirits (cf. Daniel Pals, Seven Theories of Religion, OUP 1996), which are more-or-less unobservable minds, it can benefit from a survey of the Principles that guide science. The following are readily found in philosophical discussions of science:

A. Principle of Positive Instances: A hypothesis is supported by its positive instances, e.g. ‘All ravens are black’ is supported by the observation of black ravens.

B. Special Consequence Condition: If evidence E confirms (increases the firmness of) a hypothesis H, and ‘H’ → ‘I’, then E confirms I.

C. Converse Consequence Condition: If evidence E confirms (increases the firmness of) a hypothesis H, and ‘K’ → ‘H’, then E confirms K.

D. Confirming Evidence Principle: If evidence E confirms (increases the firmness of) a hypothesis H, then Prob (H,E) > Prob (H).

E. Entailment Condition: If ‘E’ → ‘H’ then E confirms (increases the firmness of) H.

F. Assessment of Probabilities: The axioms of the probability calculus offer methods by which probability values can be determined, estimated, or conditionalized. Not all interpretations satisfy the calculus:

a. Relative Frequency: e.g., Probability of purchasing defective tires
b. Equiprobable Case: e.g., Probabilities re throwing dice
c. Subjective: e.g., “Gut feeling” re some future event
d. Personal: Forcing subjective probability values to conform to the Probability Calculus (Axioms & Theorems derived therefrom) or some other factors deemed rational
e. Logical: Prob (H,E) is the evidential support of evidence E on hypothesis H
f. Propensity: Physical tendencies of one thing to cause another, e.g., propensity of dynamite explosions to produce avalanches

G. Principle of Classical Empiricism: Data items consist minimally of sense perception, memories, feelings and other states of supposedly “immediate” awareness.

H. Division of Evidence: Evidence can be classified as (i) Experimental, (ii) Semi-experimental, and (iii) Anecdotal.

I. Semi-experimental evidence: If the amount of semi-experimental evidence is large, it has significant evidential value.

J. Theory-laden Data: All data items are set within a framework (paradigm, worldview, conceptual scheme) in which certain theories about the nature of the world are already presupposed.

K. Principle of Credulity: The way things appear are probably the way they are, unless we have reason to question this.

L. Principle of Testimony: Reports from those who claim to have directly experienced something ought to be accepted, unless we have reason to question these reports.

M. Principle of Cumulative Effect: The cumulative effect of separate items of evidence confirming of a hypothesis, is greater than the mere sum of these individual items.

N. Extreme Illuminates Obscure: Examining an extreme phenomenon can illuminate cases in which that phenomenon also occurs, but in more obscure form.

O. Principle of Simplicity: A hypothesis that is simpler than another is more likely to be true.

P. Principle of Naturalism: Natural explanations should first be sought for phenomena, before considering any supernatural one.

Q. Principle of Modest Hypotheses: When attempting to explain a phenomenon, it is more plausible to form a hypothesis with respect to a smaller reference class than a larger one. E.g., when we discover that a thing of a certain shape, size, build, etc. has a certain color, it is more plausible to conjecture that all things of that shape, size, build, etc. have that color than that all things have that color.

R. Comparative Falsifiability: Theory T is preferable to theory S if T is more falsifiable than S (perhaps because T has more content than S)

S. Explanatory Power: A theory T that provides a single explanation for diverse phenomena is more plausible than a theory S that provides a single explanation for fewer of the phenomena that T explains.

T. Clarity and Precision: A theory T that is more precise or clearer than a competitor theory S is more plausible than S

U. Ad hoc hypotheses: Hypotheses that are advanced only to accord with known data are less plausible than hypotheses that have considerable import beyond the data already in hand.

V. Comparative Plausibility: A paradigm that prevails in the completion of paradigms is rendered more plausible by doing so.

I offer the following observations concerning these Principles and their possible applicability to religion:

1. These Principles are central to an empirical epistemology, and speak to (a) descriptions of phenomena, (b) theories advanced to explain phenomena, and (c) paradigms (conceptual schemes) within which descriptions and theories are found.

2. More Principles than these could be found. No way of limiting their number seems feasible. They appear to be obtained in much the same way that theories are, and are both confirmable and falsifiable. They are constraints on rationality, not its formal definition.

3. Some proponents of religion make much of the paradigm featured in it, and add that paradigms are not testable in the way that theories are. This seems flawed, for paradigms in science have given way to evidence just as theories have; also, this view removes religion from criticism, and encourages the imposition of a religious paradigm on data.

4. We cannot say that every critical inquiry embraces all of these Principles, e.g., the theory postulating the Higgs-Boson particle was confirmed, but was (arguably) not falsifiable. Comparable expectations are appropriate for religion.

5. Identical subsets of these Principles will not be found in every critical inquiry, e.g., Ernst Mayr argues for a distinction between functional biology and historical biology, and holds that biology differs methodologically from physics (“The Autonomy of Biology,” Quart. Rev. Biol. 1996).

6. The empirical epistemology I am sketching here (cf. my God and Other Spirits, OUP 2004) cannot be applied to a Being whose attributes are infinite, for no empirical distinction between a very large powers and an infinite power is determinable. Such a Being might exist and interact in the cosmos, however.

7. A detailed study of religion would reveal the plausible (and implausible) Principles adopted in it; this work has hardly begun.

Leslie A. Muray on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Leslie A. Muray is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Curry 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.

When asked “What are the norms or values that define excellent philosophy of religion,” I think of Whitehead’s norms for judging the excellence of metaphysics. These are: 1. a worldview that is consistent; 2. coherent; and 3. and adequate to the facts of experience. In other words, it will present a comprehensive (but not totalizing) worldview in which “everything hangs together,” in which there are no contradictions.

As far as “religion” in “philosophy of religion” is concerned, true to its etymological roots, the words imply a comprehensive vision of reality in which the parts are not swallowed up but affirmed, in which “the many become one, and are increased by one.” With this kind of emphasis in Western thought, it is easy to see why excellence in “philosophy of religion” has been described with words like “simplicity” and “elegance.” Both of these words, and others like them, are descriptive of philosophical excellence in rational argumentation and systematic thinking.

Thus, if one reads a classic philosophical text from continental philosophy, one would read a meticulously translated, rigorously thought out argument, with positions rebutted and the rebuttal wrestled with and/or rejected. Each topic follows logically from the preceding topic. Whatever school of thought a philosopher belongs to, this is the pattern. They are inviting us into a neatly ordered word.

But what if the world, including the world of the philosophers, is not like that? What if philosophers of religion see their task with greater humility, drawing conclusions with great tentativeness? I am thinking of the ways in which process thinkers Bernard M. Loomer and Bernard E. Meland opted for a more radically empirical version of process than the influential rationalistic one of Charles Hartshorne (Meland in fact was called “a rebel among process theologians).” Meland tirelessly reminded his audiences that “we live more deeply than we can think.”

The kind of philosopher I am thinking of may very well write the kind of rationalistic, scholarly philosophical tracts described above. But there is another kind of writing, sometimes by the same authors (Bergson, Berdyaev, Dewey) who write less specialized, more popular pieces. What they contribute to philosophy is no less important to the norms of excellence of philosophy of religion. A quick example is provided by Whitehead’s The Aims of Education. The three stages of education are romance, precision, and generalization. Precision and generalization are the sorts of philosophical norms we expect-but there is more: romance! There is an emotional tone to all learning, to all life!

I think we have all read works, including by our favorite authors’ that are not well thought out, not well organized-yet they contain gems of insight that one can spend a lifetime looking for and not find. Although I think we can find this with virtually every thinker, I am thinking especially of Bergson and Berdyaev. For Bergson, intuition is the primary way we know things. It can be a motivating factor in other modes of knowledge. It may seem to give incomplete answers. Bergson’s works were condemned by the Roman Catholic Church for “irrationalism.” Berdyaev would get exasperated with people who chided him for his seeming lack of consistency and unremittent emphasis on intuition and creativity. Hartshorne has described his motto as being, “Be creative and foster creativity in others!” Thus, there are elements that go into the making of excellent philosophy of religion, even if seemingly underdeveloped: intuition, insight, creativity. Without these philosophy of any kind does not flourish.

I would like to tell a story that is pertinent to the position espoused here. More than twenty years ago, I was attending a Buddhist-Christian Dialogue which coincided with an Episcopal Chaplains’ meeting at Purdue University. One night at dinner, some of my fellow chaplains and I sat at a table next to which sat three luminaries of the theological world. Langdon Gilkey, Hans Kung, and David Tracy. I overhead David Tracy saying, “If the unexamined life is not worth living, the unlived life is not worth examining.”

J. Aaron Simmons on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

J. Aaron Simmons is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Furman 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.
What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?

I have described my own approach to philosophy of religion as “mashup philosophy of religion” because I think that there is virtue in drawing broadly on different philosophical traditions, religious perspectives, and disciplinary methodologies.

Personally, I am deeply influenced by continental trajectories in philosophical inquiry, but I often resist the characterization of my work as “continental philosophy of religion” because such a description too often allows for fundamentally different (and largely opposed) norms to be operative in different types of philosophy of religion. Rather than understanding these different approaches as metaphorical streams all feeding into a larger river, what one too often finds are seemingly different bodies of water altogether and each claiming to be the best, or only, river in the watershed. I find this to be unfortunate and amounts to a missed opportunity for robust engagement with others who think about similar questions from different perspectives. That we might come down differently from our interlocutors does not necessarily mean that we are engaging in a different sort of philosophy (though that might be the case), but that we disagree about where the arguments lead us as philosophers.

Despite my deep commitment to such pluralistic “mashup” work, I do think that philosophy of religion must remain self-consciously philosophical, as opposed to claiming theological authority, on the one hand, or attempting simply to provide poetic inspiration, on the other hand. As far as I am concerned, far too much of contemporary analytic philosophy of religion slides too easily into confessional theology, and far too much of contemporary continental philosophy of religion becomes not much more than imaginative creative writing. Although there is significant value in both theology and also in creative writing, neither should be understood as easily interchangeable with philosophy of religion.

Without question, philosophy of religion should be in conversation with a variety of texts (those that claim revealed authority within a particular community as well as those that aim to inspire particular forms of life are both quite valid resources), but philosophy, whether understood as a way of life or as a professional discourse, should be devoted ultimately to offering sound arguments supported by evidence. Such evidence should be, in principle, available to all members of the philosophical community in order for that community to have appropriately functional (even if porous and contingent) boundaries. So, whereas “analytic” theology, say, sometimes seems problematically to limit the community to whom it is speaking to those philosophers already agreed about basic matters of religious existence, “radical” continental theology sometimes seems equally problematically to replace argumentation with rhetorical flourish.

Warning against such tendencies, however, should not amount to a radical rejection of the discourses in which they occur. Hopefully philosophy of religion can appropriate what is right about both theology and also poetics without forgetting its own historical identity as philosophy. Namely, like theology and poetic writing, philosophy of religion should be personally compelling by speaking to where we find ourselves as finite beings trying to find meaning in a complex world.

Theology impressively fosters personal investment, for example, by cultivating a profound sense of humility in relation that which is variously termed “the transcendent,” “the divine,” or “God.” As such, our lived existence is perhaps at stake in theology in a way that is not often true for philosophy of religion due to its frequent attempt to be detached, objective, or neutral. Rather than reminding us of our humanity, such objectivist gestures can sometimes serve to separate us as inquirers from ourselves as existing individuals. Alternatively, creative poetic writing fosters existential awareness, perhaps, by reminding us that existence is never reducible to the conclusion of an argument regarding the content of the good life.

Excellent philosophy of religion understands that arguments matter, but always remembers that such arguments always only matter for someone, somewhere, and for some reason. Like poets and theologians, philosophers are people too!

Theology and poetry, thus, both give concrete expression to the idea that we are beings made for more than symbolic logic-but this very point is something for which philosophers can provide very good arguments. Borrowing slightly from Heidegger, we might say while poetics realizes that we should sing and dance before God, theology understands that it is probably a good idea not just to sing and dance before anything whatsoever. Accordingly, philosophers of religion should care about holding true beliefs about traditionally religious concepts, but also about taking seriously the lived human condition that serves as the existential context in which philosophers find themselves seeking such truth.

So, as a matter of professional identity, how can excellent philosophy of religion strike this balance of being appropriately personal without being narrowly confessional, on the one hand, while being existentially vibrant without abandoning argumentative rigor, on the other hand? Asked slightly more phenomenologically, how can philosophy of religion be “objective” enough to remain a proper academic discipline while also being “subjective” enough to speak to the all-too-human search for meaning, value, and truth? Or, asked as a question about academic disciplines, how can philosophy of religion remain a thoroughly humanistic discourse while also being able to speak with and to the social and natural sciences?

As just a first step toward thinking through these questions, let me recommend two concrete practices in particular that I think are likely to help philosophy of religion to strike such complicated balancing acts.

First, in order to maintain the “objective” traits that ought to characterize academic discourse, broadly construed, philosophy of religion should more self-consciously appreciate the diversity of global religious traditions by drawing deeply on the work done in the academic study of religion. Attending to such work helps to overcome the temptation to think that religion is exclusively, or even primarily, a matter of correct belief. Moreover, by looking to the historical practices of those cultural movements categorized as “religious,” philosophers can overcome the suspicion that philosophy of religion is just disguised theology by becoming a critical conversation partner with the social sciences. Learning from sociology of religion, history of religion, and comparative religious studies, for example, philosophy of religion can remain committed to argumentation as its primary mode of humanistic engagement, but now with a much more expanded social data set from which such arguments might proceed.

Second, the “subjective” aspects of philosophy of religion can be helpfully reinforced when philosophers attend more openly to the conceptual difficulties of the category of “religion” itself. Personal investment is philosophy of religion can be productively invited when individuals see themselves at stake in the arguments being offered. To that end, there is a lot for philosophers of religion to learn from those working in critical theories of religion. The basic terms of our discourse, ‘God’, ‘divine,’ ‘faith’, ‘salvation’, etc., are themselves products of very particular social histories in which our own identities are formed, shaped, and constantly renegotiated. Far from placing the category of “religion” at arm’s length from our lives, philosophy of religion should engage what we call “religion” as an historical phenomenon that invites our intimacy, trust, and investment. In this way, philosophy of religion can, itself, serve as something of a corrective to the objectivist tendencies that so often characterize the academy as defined by STEM priorities.

Philosophy of religion should not seek to eliminate theology or poetics. Similarly, philosophy of religion should engage the sciences without abandoning its own identity and humanistic values. Ultimately, philosophy of religion maximally displays an excellence all its own when it navigates the space between these different areas of human expression without simply becoming merely a subsidiary of any of them.

Gregory Dawes on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Gregory Dawes is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at University of Otago in New Zealand. 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.

What norms or values characterize top-rate philosophy of religion? The most important norm with which such philosophy ought to comply is that of being wissenschaftlich, ‘scientific’ in the broad sense of that German term.
I do not mean that the philosophy of religion should follow some scientific method. Philosophy may well be, as Quine thought, continuous with the sciences. But it does not seem to have a distinctive method, or set of methods, as the sciences have distinctive methods. There is no procedure, no algorithm, that would allow one to formulate and test a philosophical claim. There are, of course, styles of argument and discussion in philosophy. But these are both diverse and contested. Think, for example, of the very different styles employed in what are (misleadingly) called the ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ traditions. Analytic philosophers do not normally do philosophy by writing novels or plays, as did Jean-Paul Sartre, and are inclined to find a ‘literary’ style of philosophy irritating. Even if Jacques Derrida’s conclusions resemble those of Quine, or Davidson, or Kripke’s Wittgenstein, many analytic philosophers believe he is not doing philosophy ‘in the right way’. But if we abstain from such judgements and accept that all these people are philosophers, it looks as though there is no philosophical method, or agreed set of methods.

So I am not claiming that the philosophy of religion ought to be scientific in this sense. What I am claiming is that it ought to be scientific in the sense of being both detached from and critical of its object of study. Its object of study is, of course, religion. Definitions of religion are as diverse as are methods in philosophy. But a distinctive characteristic of religions is that they hold certain practices, beliefs, persons, or institutions to be sacred. To be sacred is to have a normative significance that arises from an other-than-human origin. If religions regard certain practices, beliefs, persons, or institutions as action-guiding, it is not because of any arguments that can be offered in their support. It is because devotees regard them as revealed by the gods, or willed by the ancestors, or arising from an individual’s contact with a non-natural realm, one inaccessible to everyday methods of perception.

The philosophy of religion, however, cannot regard any beliefs as sacred, in this sense. Our object of study will certainly be beliefs that are considered sacred by various communities. But philosophers must renounce the religious claim to an other-than-human source of knowledge. As even medieval thinkers recognized, the task of philosophy is to study ‘natural things naturally’ and the philosophy of religion must regard religion as yet another natural phenomenon.

This does not mean we must regard religious beliefs as false. After all, the sciences are also natural phenomena, and yet most of us would regard at least some scientific claims as worthy of belief. And even if prophets and shamans mistakenly believe themselves to be inspired by God or in contact with a supernatural realm, they could still be delivering messages that are true. The human mind operates in ways of which we are often unaware and can arrive at insights that appear to come from without. (The moments of ‘inspiration’ enjoyed by poets, musicians, and yes, even scientists, can be of this kind.) But if we believe what the prophet or shaman tells us, it is not because of his claim to divine inspiration. It is because his words have survived testing by methods we know to be independently reliable. They have proven themselves to be worthy of belief in ways that are independent of their claimed origin.

One might think that all this should go without saying. In all other areas of knowledge a broadly ‘naturalistic’ stance of this kind is simply taken for granted. Scientists may experience moments of what feels like inspiration, but they recognize that their insights must then be proven, in ways that are accessible to all competent observers. Why it is necessary to say this when it comes to religion?

It is necessary because the philosophy of religion continues to fall short of this norm. Its all-but-exclusive focus on Christian theism betrays a widespread assumption that if there is any truth to be found in religion, it will be found within this particular form of religion. While this assumption could, of course, be true – Christianity may be the only form of religion worth taking seriously – it remains an assumption. It is rarely supported by evidence or argument. My suggestion is that it is not, in fact, based on evidence or argument, but on the religious commitments of those philosophers who have shaped, and continue to dominate, the field.

Worse still, a recent trend within the field is to try to make the religious claim to an other-than-human source of knowledge philosophically respectable. The ‘Reformed Epistemology’ of Alvin Plantinga is the most striking example. If it were taken seriously (and there is, to my mind, no reason to do so), it would allow Christian philosophers to claim they are in possession of knowledge that comes from God, by way of what John Calvin called ‘the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit’. This is indeed what many Christians believe. They ‘know’ (that is to say, believe they know) certain propositions to be true because God has told them they are true. Such a claim can certainly be the object of philosophical scrutiny, which would quickly show it to be question-begging or vacuous. But it can never be the basis of a philosophical argument.

Until such claims are renounced, the philosophy of religion will never be truly wissenschaftlich. It will continue to be a quasi-religious exercise that non-believers will feel little need to engage with. To be truly wissenschaftlich will mean regarding all religious claims as worthy of study. As a philosopher of religion I should regard no form of religiosity as alien to me. I should regard the Yoruba religion of West Africa as worthy of study no less than Christianity or Islam. But (as Benjamin Jowett wrote about the Bible), I will assess them all by ‘the same rules of evidence and the same canons of criticism’, rejecting any claim they make to be of an other-than-human origin.