When M. David Eckel, Allen C. Speight, and I asked a group of philosophers to consider the future of the philosophy of religion—in a pair of symposia, a lecture series, a graduate seminar, and finally in the essays collected in our recent book, The Future of the Philosophy of Religion (Springer 2021)—the question already felt urgent. One of the world’s most ancient subjects, the philosophy of religion in the modern era has come to feel not so much venerable, as antiquated, tired, passé. Obsolete. Many problems lodged deep in the roots of our field have been exposed in recent decades, and it has become increasingly clear that rethinking some of its once central aspects is now necessary. The business of evaluating religious truth claims and beliefs, once our meat and potatoes, is now thought to be fraught with bias and ideology, and normativity in the study of religion is a topic of serious concern. An exaggerated focus on beliefs, to the exclusion of rigorous treatments of religious practices and communities, has impoverished the philosophical conception of religion in general. Traditional Christian philosophical concerns—the rationality of theism, the problem of evil, the relationship between faith and reason—have crowded out other issues for centuries, and religions that don’t achieve the vaunted status of “World Religion” barely receive any attention at all, relegated to a sort of underclass on the discipline’s periphery. The philosophy of religion has, for a very long time, been insular, narrow, and myopic. Continue reading
Adam Green is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oklahoma. We invited him to answer the question “Is there a future for the philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
There clearly is a future for philosophy of religion. The only question to my mind is which of a number of plausible alternatives it will be. In a previous post concerning what makes for good or bad philosophy of religion, I argued that one cannot give a complete answer to that question without accounting for “relevance,” that is, “relevance to the attempts of actual people to answer the big questions at the heart of philosophy of religion regarding whether the natural is all there is, whether there is a God or some other divine feature of reality, how our answers to the first two questions affect moral agency and the meaning of life, etc”.1 Relevance, however, invites the question “relevant to whom?” and “relevant in virtue of what qualitative standard?” And that’s where the diverging potential paths for a future philosophy of religion come into play.
The founding members of the Society of Christian Philosophers, their heirs, and their antagonists defined much of philosophy of religion from the last several decades of the twentieth century to today. They have largely consisted in Protestant and Catholic philosophers and folks who are interested in arguing with the same. The early work of Al Plantinga, William Alston, and their compatriots sought to show that religious belief and in particular Christian belief in God was not necessarily irrational, thereby carving out a space in academia for Christian philosophers to be “out.” The venture was successful and created a lot of interest amongst Christians in engaging in academic philosophy, not only to defend the cogency of their faith but to explore the philosophical questions intrinsic to it.
The project of defending the intellectual integrity of Christian belief against the perceived hegemony of a secular intelligentsia does not have to be a conservative project, but it lends itself to such a branding. As the original SCP project has matured, one of the live questions for philosophy of religion has been whether it will continue to be organized around issues and arguments that best reflect conservative Christian sensibilities or whether the concerns of more liberal leaning Christians will change the field whether by addition or subtraction. This question has only been exacerbated by the increasing divide and acrimony between conservatives and liberals in the United States in light of the #metoo movement, black lives matter, the Trump presidency, climate change, the pandemic, etc.
Furthermore, as Christian philosophy has gone from something of a sustained protest to something more like a settled field with its own gatekeepers, persons of faith who are not Christian (or at least not card-carrying Protestants and Catholics) have increasingly felt unfairly marginalized within a field that should reflect the fact that they too are thinking persons of faith with rich and philosophically interesting things to say. There have been strategic efforts to include more voices in the field to be sure. There is, though, no parity. A Jewish-Christian philosophical dialogue that turns into a special issue of a journal or a token spot for a non-Christian person of faith in every conference lineup does not change the reality on the ground that the philosophy of religion is a heavily Christianized field.
At the same time, developments in other academic fields have put pressure on the methodology of philosophy of religion for Christian and non-Christian alike. It was already the case that the emergence of Christian philosophy in its current form was heavily influenced and probably helped by the coemergence of externalism in the epistemology of the 80s. Certainly it is not the case that every Christian philosopher is a reformed epistemologists, but externalism put a monkey wrench into the easy critique of religion as either obviously irrational or at least the sort of thing that should not be talked about in a respectable public forum being as it supposedly rests on private experiential evidence. It is something of an open question, though, how certain developments since then will affect the field. Within epistemology, there has been a turn to the social (as seen by the explosion of work on testimony and disagreement) followed by the mainstreaming of work in feminist epistemology (e.g. since Fricker’s 2007 book Epistemic Injustice). This work, again in dialogue with related social and political developments outside of philosophy, has put a great deal of focus on the intersection of morality, politics, and epistemology. This development’s application to religion has not yet been thoroughly metabolized but significantly changes the background against which we ask what it means to believe in God.
Likewise, the advent of experimental philosophy and the consequent interrogation of philosophical intuitions as evidence has called into question vast swaths of philosophical practice that certainly include the philosophy of religion. In like manner, Bayesianism and other formal epistemic methods have increasingly been applied to traditional philosophical discussions in ways that call into question the sensitivity of traditional philosophical methods to probabilistic considerations. Meanwhile, evolutionary psychology has matured as an academic field and the cognitive science of religion was invented. These fields present new empirical facts and plausible hypotheses that must be accounted for in addition to sometimes calling into question the validity and even the origin of some of the intuitions that we might otherwise rely on when theorizing about religion. Likewise, philosophers are just beginning to realize that anthropology and social science house a wealth of relevant evidence for theses in the philosophy of religion and that much of the religious phenomena of the past and present has very little to do with the orthodoxy or even the orthopraxy of the major world religions.
Finally, the John Templeton Foundation and Templeton Religion Trust have emerged as incredibly important, field-shaping funding sources. Unless either Templeton organization were to lose interest in the philosophy of religion or several alternative deep-pocketed funders were to enter the picture, I cannot imagine a future in the next 10-20 years (if not longer) that is not deeply impacted by their priorities. What’s interesting about that is (I) Templeton has traditionally been very interested in sponsoring the work of leading SCP figures while also (II) being more interested in the science-religion dialogue generally than in a particular religious group and (III) showing interest in making the philosophy of religion a more global conversation, especially recently.
In conclusion, then, philosophy of religion will certainly have a future, at least de re, but it is an open question which of two kinds of future it will have. Over the last 40-50 years, philosophy of religion has managed to maintain a decent degree of integration across the field. We have been having one conversation or close enough. This state of things has been propped up, however, by the fact that one religion (or one subset thereof) has been disproportionately represented as the voice of religion in that conversation. I find that history perfectly understandable all things considered, and a lot of good work has been produced. It’s unlikely to continue in just the same way, though, as a single Christianized field that gradually includes non-Christian persons of faith at the fringes. It is still possible for philosophy of religion to evolve as a single conversation (or close enough) with even more voices and methodological approaches represented. Insofar as philosophical diversity mirrors social diversity and the social and political context is one of toxic polarization, maintaining the relative integration the field has enjoyed will prove difficult in the long haul but not impossible. The alternative is that, as more voices and methodologies fight for a piece of the field with a zero-sum game mindset, that the field functionally breaks up into many different sub-fields that end up having to brand themselves accordingly. If this is the way things go, I would predict that the end result will actually be that the field will stagnate, shrink, or grow much more slowly and often at the expense of the smallest and most marginal groups. The different philosophies of religion will compete for resources and members without sufficient infrastructure and prestige mechanisms necessary to reward much membership in different philosophy of religion communities. As “philosophy of religion” as a whole becomes a mere category label for a domain that houses a thousand functionally insulated projects, the interest of funders and institutions in philosophy of religion as a whole will dwindle. Even on this second path, however, I cannot see it completely disappearing. There is too much intrinsic folk interest in religion for academia to ignore it quite that completely, however well or poorly philosophers of religion play together.
Thomas Metcalf is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Program in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama. We invited him to answer the question “Is there a future for the philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
It’s rare to ask whether a certain academic discipline, or its subfields, have a future. But it’s reasonable to ask that question about the philosophy of religion, given that religiosity has declined so much in recent years, and given that philosophers sometimes ask whether philosophy of religion as we know it should exist at all. I’ve already read several interesting and plausible entries on this blog about how philosophy of religion’s future partly lies in diversifying its subject matter and audience. But what about a future for its historically central topics in the academic, Anglophone world, such as arguments for and against the existence of the classical-theistic or Anselmian God? In this post, I want to suggest that this area of philosophy of religion will have a future as long as the sciences have a future.
Anyone reasonably familiar with analytic or Anglophone-style philosophy of religion is aware of the very close connections that debates in the philosophy of religion have with the natural sciences. Much of my own work, for example, has been about the Fine-Tuning Argument, which depends on relatively recent scientific discoveries. Other justifiably famous arguments in the philosophy of religion at-least-partly depend on cosmology or on natural history or evolutionary biology. Indeed, neuroscience and some of the social sciences are also relevant to the philosophy of religion, for example to the topics of religious experiences, the afterlife, dualism-versus-physicalism, and religious disagreement. Therefore, I think we should provisionally expect that there will be a future for philosophy of religion. Continue reading
Segun Ogungbemi is Professor of Philosophy at Adekunle Ajasin University Akungba, Ondo State Nigeria. We invited him to answer the question “Is there a future for the philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
Let me say from the outset that I don’t intend to answer directly all the questions raised in the letter because of the limited words and space. With my backgrounds in Philosophy, Theology, Ethics and Religious Studies, I am delighted to make my little contribution because that is the essence of being in the field of philosophy including philosophy of religion. I want to premise my argument on three things that will guarantee the future of philosophy of religion which are: human beings, institutions and knowledge production.
Philosophy of Religion: a multicultural approach
The world has become a global village hence the predominant analytical and continental approaches in the western world have to be receptive to other approaches across diverse cultural dimensions of philosophy of religion to enhance its future relevance. In other words, from time immemorial every race and nationality had produced its traditional intellectuals who sought to rationalize their religious beliefs systems. In Kenya, Africa, Professor H. Odera Oruka called them Sage philosophers. In modern Africa, there are professional philosophers who specialize in Philosophy of Religion. Africa has therefore, both Sage and modern philosophers of religion using both approaches to guarantee the future of Philosophy of Religion. When philosophy of religion is taught from the cultural background of students either in the western world or in Africa, their inquisitiveness to know more gave me the encouragement to believe that philosophy of religion has a future. Let me give some concrete examples of African universities where I have taught philosophy of religion for several decades i.e., Ogun State University Ago-Iwoye now Olabisi Onabanjo University, Nigeria, Moi University, Eldoret Kenya, Lagos State University, Nigeria and Adekunle Ajasin University, Nigeria. The number of students that have been impacted by philosophy of religion has multiplying effects that will, in my opinion, continue from generation to generation. Continue reading
Jim Kanaris is Professor of Religious Studies at McGill University. We invited him to answer the question “Is there a future for the philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
In1 the invitation to write this piece on the future of philosophy of religion, several questions were posed for my consideration, the most significant for my current professional purposes was the following: What does philosophy of religion contribute to ongoing discussions of normativity in philosophy and religious studies? In what follows, I propose something of a controversial answer to this question, one which I believe offers a needed critique of, and constructive response to, the normative discourse surrounding the differential of subjectivity and objectivity, a discourse that obstructs a responsibility toward self in philosophizing religion.
One of the most challenging aspects of teaching is the bewildering spectrum of interests and experiences of students and teachers alike. It is especially challenging when one’s area of specialization is remote from the questions and concerns in that spectrum. Because educators desire, ideally, to be engaging, they aim to alleviate the dissociation students and colleagues experience when faced with their subject matter. This general, though important, circumstance has challenged me to configure a teaching strategy apropos to my field, religious studies, specifically philosophy of religion, and to clear a path for students to formalize their philosophical foundations that directly or indirectly guide their research. Continue reading
Doug Allen is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Maine. We invited him to answer the question “Is there a future for the philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
The simple answer to the question of whether there is a future for the philosophy of religion is that there is. However, our answers must be dynamic, open-ended, complex, and contextually significant as we reimagine and reconceptualize our future and the role that philosophy of religion may play in relating to that future.
In simple terms, philosophy of religion has a future because philosophy and philosophical reflection on religious phenomena have a future. In many essential ways, philosophy addresses our deepest existential and normative concerns. As long as there is a future with human life, human beings identifying themselves with human cultures will experience existential crises. They will often respond with philosophical reflections, answers, ideologies, and systemic formulations that provide solutions or at least some meaning to their lives. This may be true, but such simple affirmative answers remain on the abstract, universal, essentialized, and decontextualized level. They are not sufficient for answering whether philosophy or whether any particular philosophies have a future in our contextualized relational world of 2022. Continue reading
Mike Almeida is Professor of Philosophy and Classics at the University of Texas, San Antonio, and Josh Thurow is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Classics at the University of Texas, San Antonio. We invited them to answer the question “Is there a future for the philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
Some intriguing arguments have recently been advanced for the thesis that the practice of the philosophy of religion suffers from serious epistemic deficiencies. According to Paul Draper and Ryan Nichols, for instance, the practice of philosophy of religion—and especially its theistically committed practitioners—regularly violate norms of rationality, objectivity, and impartiality in the review, assessment, and weighing of evidence (Draper and Nichols, 2013).
In §§2-3, we consider the charge of epistemic partisanship and show that the observational data does not in fact illustrate a norm-violating form of inquiry. We argue that the major oversight in the charge of epistemic partiality is the epistemically central role of prior probabilities in determining the significance of incongruent evidence. We argue that reasonably divergent views on the likelihood of theism on incongruent evidence can also account for differences in significance. We conclude that it is an epistemic requirement that committed theists regard incongruent evils as much less significant evidence against theism than do lukewarm theists, agnostics, or atheists. Differences in the significance of evidence properly reflect differences in commitments to theism. Continue reading
J. Aaron Simmons is Professor of Philosophy at Furman University. We invited him to answer the question “Is there a future for the philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
Teleology has rarely proven helpful for moral life and social flourishing. Claims regarding the “end of history” or necessary directions in discursive practice are all fraught due to the contingencies that define embodied finitude. History is not best understood as a story about how we got to where we were supposed to be, but about the fragility of where we could have ended up. In this way, prognostication is less about clear vision and more about announcing an invitation that would be worthy of our effort. However, we should own up to the very real difference between what we would like to see and what is likely to be seen. Desire does not serve to constitute actuality. If it did, I would catch more fish and be able to dunk a basketball. Instead, actuality often serves to circumscribe our desire. One of the great benefits of philosophy, though, is that we are not bound by the logistics of what is, but instead are able to pursue the horizons of what could be.
Working through the question “Is there a future for philosophy of religion?” requires that we acknowledge that there is no necessary or obvious future for anything. The future is what we allow to occur. As such, maybe the better question is “What future is worth pursuing for philosophy of religion?” This question moves us away from what we think will actually be the case and instead encourages us to explore what case is worth making actual. When framed in this way, we can both admit of promising aspects in the current discourse and yet better see where problems remain. Philosophy of religion’s future is brighter than it could have been due to an increasing emphasis within the field on religious practice, a concerted effort to think about embodied issues concerning disability, gender, and race, and hints at attempts to abandon the historical opposition between analytic and continental approaches. Nonetheless, challenges remain for the sort of future that I believe is worth pursuing. Continue reading
For the sake of conversation, let’s say: The future of philosophy of religion is existential. In other words, one way to philosophize about religious matters is to ask questions about the meaning of existence, sources of meaning, and practices for meaning-making. As I’ll propose here, such a future philosophy of religion will be better able to engage diverse traditions on the politicized terrain of religious diversity, where by “politicized” I mean the shifting dynamics of social power under conditions of disparity. Let me contextualize this.
The terms “religion” and “philosophy” are specific to European history, or as Robert Ford Campany (2003) says: “To speak of ‘religions’ is to demarcate things in ways that are not inevitable or immutable but, rather, are contingent on the shape of Western history, thought, and institutions. Other cultures may, and do, lack closely equivalent demarcations” (289). My own training is not in philosophy of religion but in various intellectual and scholarly traditions that, to borrow Campany’s words, demarcate things differently. Continue reading
Hunter Brown is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Religious Studies at King’s University College, Western University, London Canada. We invited him to answer the question “Is there a future for the philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
The compartmentalization of philosophy of religion into areas of distinctive subject matter such as theistic arguments, the problem of evil, and so forth, also involves the compartmentalization of distinctive experiences related to those subjects such as causal inquisitiveness and moral repugnance toward evil. One does not often find such boundaries being crossed in a major way. Aesthetic experience, for example, does not normally play a significant part in engagements of cosmological arguments. Most philosophers of religion are comfortable with this structure of the discipline. It allows for analytically focused debate which has been responsible for much progress over the years.
On the other hand, however, it can impede attention to important ways in which such subjects and experiences are intertwined in lived life. In this respect, philosophy of religion risks participating in what William James called the great blunder of modern thought. That blunder is the failure to recognize how profoundly the retrospective form in which experience makes itself available for philosophical reflection and analysis fails to represent the fullness of experience in its original, immediate occurrence. As he showed repeatedly in the Principles of Psychology and elsewhere, the component elements of experience in its immediacy are bound together in complex webs of mutually influential relationships which have a significant impact upon the identities of those elements. The relationships themselves, however, escape the retrospective stabilization required for sustained philosophical examination and analysis. As a result, experience presents itself to philosophical reflection as an atomistic collection of distinctive parts which can be segregated from one another without major consequence. Continue reading
Jonathan Weidenbaum teaches World Religions, Ethics, and Philosophy in the Division of General Education at Berkeley College, NYC (email: firstname.lastname@example.org). We invited him to answer the question “Is there a future for the philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
One cannot stand before classrooms in a vibrantly diverse and international setting and fail to see the importance of the themes proposed by Troy DuJardin’s blog invitation (full disclosure: I have been teaching in New York City for the better part of two decades). To disregard a global perspective, the burning relevance of social issues, an attentiveness to how different faiths are actually lived and practiced, and the potential contributions of other intellectual disciplines, is to vindicate the suspicion that the philosophy of religion requires some very serious updating.
This is not to trivialize or dismiss the classic topics of our beloved subdiscipline, or to claim that such perennial questions—from the formal arguments for God’s existence to the relationship between faith and reason—can no longer be demonstrated as pertinent and compelling to students of all backgrounds. On the contrary: I believe that the themes listed by DuJardin and others may enrich the old questions rather than replace them.
An appeal of South Asian culture for philosophers of religion are its great metaphysical and theological systems; those of Sankara, Ramanuja…etc. And yet, it is some well-known imagery from the later Heidegger which came most readily to mind during my volunteer work in Northern India. It is not the landscape that affords the meaning of a Greek Temple, we are told in “The Origin of the Work of Art,” but the temple which sets the meanings of the landscape (Harper & Row, 1971). All genuine art, for Heidegger, discloses a broad context of significance, just as it is both shaped out of, and points to, what resists our full understanding. A temple sits at the core of almost every colorful village hanging off the foothills of the Himalaya, a region known as “the land of the gods” for its countless shrines and major places of pilgrimage. It is through conducting puja or worship at such places wherein the pious reinforce an entire value system and view of the cosmos in addition to communing with a deity. Continue reading