Allen Stairs on “Comparative Philosophy Of Religion: It’s Not Just Academic”

Allen Stairs is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maryland, College Park. Though most of his research has been in philosophy of physics, he is the author, with Christopher Bernard of A Thinker’s Guide to the Philosophy of Religion. His current project explores issues that arise in connection with the idea of non-doxastic religious faith. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Like the Father’s house, philosophy has many rooms, including rooms within rooms. A philosopher of religion could honorably devote her career to exploring the Christian concept of incarnation entirely from within. But it would be astonishing if considering a range of religious traditions had nothing to contribute to the philosophy of religion. What follows isn’t written from the perspective of someone with deep knowledge of comparative religion. Rather, I want to highlight what I see as an urgent problem that could benefit from the insights that comparative philosophy of religion might bring.

Begin with a handful of features of religious traditions. The first is close to constitutive: religions are not just private. Someone might be committed to ideas and practices that they find compelling in the kind of way that a Christian or a Jew or a Sikh might see their own commitments. They might provide moral touchstones, ritual-like practices, not-merely-empirical views about the nature of reality, ways of seeing life as meaningful… But insofar as this bundle of ideas and attitudes is merely or nearly private, it would be odd to call it a religion.

Second, to adhere to a religion is typically to grant it a measure of authority. That one’s religion claims or denies or approves of or frowns on something tends to provide adherents with a reason to agree. If you see yourself as part of a religious tradition and you discover a difference between your own views and the views of the tradition, that will typically matter to you. The difference will go with giving a weight to your tradition that you wouldn’t give to another tradition — even if you can’t articulate an independent reason for treating your own tradition as authoritative. Religion isn’t unique in this respect. The customs of your country are more likely to matter to you than the customs of some other country. But in the religious case, the authority may be thought to flow from something more than worldly and beyond the reach of ordinary evidence and argument.

All of this is familiar but it also raises familiar problems. People have died because they run afoul of these kinds of commitments (apostates, heretics, “heathens”) or have accepted them at their peril (by refusing medical treatment, for example.) In other cases, people have been shunned, excluded, purged from their land, driven to despair.

Here it might be pointed out that what’s been described may take a particular form with religion, but the larger issue isn’t unique to religion. Political movements can embody the same sorts of dangers and the mechanisms are similar. Political movements may be underwritten by mythical understandings of the nation and exalted views of leaders. Religion is a source of identity, but so is political affiliation. Religious fervor can be stirred up and spread by charismatic leaders, but the same goes for political conviction. These similarities are real and important. It’s also clear that the two forces can combine in a powerful and often problematic symbiosis. But what does this have to do with comparative philosophy of religion? And why the emphasis on pathologies?

Start with the second question. For me, this issue is not just academic. I live in a country where religious and political pathology have formed a bond that ties my stomach in knots every single day. US culture wars might once have been background noise to politics as usual. These days, religious dogmatism is a key part of a political movement that continues to do real harm to real people. I do not hold the field of philosophy of religion responsible for any of this. Nonetheless, some of what philosophy of religion has produced in recent decades seems to me to push in the wrong direction, attempting to underwrite certainty where doubt is what seems apt. Yes: it’s possible to tell a kind of externalist story about knowledge on which firm believers know. And yes: by adding some astonishing epicycles, one can spin that story to account for the apparent benightedness of most of the rest of the religious world. Whether this is an accomplishment or an “accomplishment,” however, is another matter.

This brings into sharp relief one source of the value of comparative philosophy of religion. It’s possible to do serious comparative work in philosophy of religion and remain convinced that one’s own tradition is uniquely valuable and uniquely correct, but it’s not easy. That it’s not easy is a good thing all by itself. It is not a reason for abandoning one’s tradition, but it is a counter to the kinds of tendencies noted above. More to the point of why comparative philosophy of religion might matter, various traditions grapple with these issues in their own ways. This is among the things that comparative philosophy of religion can shed light on. Some traditions such as Sikhism and Baha’i are inherently more open to religious diversity. Within broad traditions such as Christianity there is more divergence. This is a reminder that comparative philosophy of religion would do well to include intra-religious as well as inter-religious comparison. The differences within parts of a tradition can be at least as striking as large-scale differences between traditions.

No one would think that philosophers can solve the practical problems described here, but comparative philosophy of religion can help provide useful intellectual tools and insights. Perhaps at least as important, if comparative philosophy of religion becomes a more central part of the discipline, it will make a difference to what students are exposed to and think about. This is a crucial way for philosophy to make a difference beyond the academy. The practical issues raised here are only one part of case for comparative philosophy of religion, but in these times, they may be at least as important as any others.

Douglas Allen – “Comparative Philosophy of Religion as Theoretically and Practically Essential”

Douglas Allen (, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maine (1974-2020) and Professor Emeritus (2020-present), is Editor of the Lexington Book Series Studies in Comparative Philosophy and Religion. He is the author and editor of 18 books and more than 150 book chapters and journal articles. A scholar-activist and activist-scholar, Doug has been deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam Antiwar Movement, and other peace and justice struggles continuing to the present. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The invitation to share thoughts on comparative philosophy of religion is very meaningful. I retired in 2020 after 46 years as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maine. I always listed Comparative Philosophy and Comparative Religion as Areas of Specialization, and this included Comparative Philosophy/Philosophies of Religion. To provide only two personal examples, I had the honor of serving for four years as President of the international Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy (SACP), and I continue to serve as Editor of the Studies in Comparative Philosophy and Religion Book Series published by Lexington Books.

It is tempting to respond to the question of whether comparative research, including comparative religion and comparative philosophy, is significant for excellent philosophy of religion with a simple affirmation. Nevertheless, relevant key questions and responses are anything but simple. Indeed, scholars who respond affirmatively about this potential for excellent philosophy of religion may disagree significantly in how they understand and formulate key comparative questions, presuppositions, perspectives, and affirmative responses. In this essay, I submit that comparative philosophy, comparative religion, and comparative philosophy of religion are not only important, but they are also essential for creative theoretical scholarship and for transformative practices and actions today.

Comparative religion, in general, and comparative philosophy of religion, in particular, are not something new, even if they have more significant urgency and constructive roles to play in the contemporary world. Going back thousands of years—in Ancient Greece, Hebraic traditions, dominant Christian formulations, Ancient Classical India, and elsewhere—one finds many examples of comparative religion and comparative philosophy of religion. Explorers, traders, missionaries, and others experienced expressions of new religious phenomena. How could they and other religious and nonreligious human beings understand such new myths, rituals, values, beliefs, and faiths? Sometimes it was claimed that such understanding could be achieved by comparing these new phenomena with one’s own dominant religious and nonreligious theoretical views, faiths, beliefs, systemic structures and relations, ideologies, and practices.

Examining the historical complexity of diverse contextualized cultural, religious, scientific, and other formulations, one can conclude that such comparative understanding did not usually involve the need to understand and respect the perspectives of others on their own terms. Rather, comparative religion was often competitive religion. Comparative religion often expressed a limited and false sense of understanding that was motivated by the need to dominate, exploit, convert, and/or reject the truth and reality of others.

Most philosophy, religion, and philosophy of religion, from ancient times to the present, has not been comparative. I’ll note two major reasons for this. First, if you embrace the religious (or economic, political, social, cultural, scientific, technological, environmental) view that you possess the absolute truth and reality, why waste time in comparing and trying to understand inadequate false perspectives? Second, most philosophies of religion have claimed or simply assumed (falsely in my view) that their analyses and interpretations function on a rather abstract, theoretical, universal, rational level. It is usually not acknowledged that such philosophies of religion are deeply shaped by religious, historical, cultural, contextualized values, presuppositions, epistemological, and ontological limiting (and enabling) values, relations, and systemic structures. This, for example, is how dominant (classic, modern, western) formulations, arguments, and debates in philosophy of religion regarding theistic Proofs for the Existence of God or regarding the Problem of Evil have been presented without addressing differing comparative interpretations.

I propose that comparative philosophy of religion/philosophies of religion are of great value and significance today and offer us very difficult and meaningful challenges theoretically and practically. To be most significantly transformative, comparative philosophies of religion can adopt holistic approaches that are contextually situated, open-ended, dynamic, and dialectally related. They can emphasize the basic unity and interconnectedness of existence, expressions of value, interpretations of meaning, and views of truth and reality. What meaningfully unites us is seen as more essential than what divides us. This is a unity with a respect for legitimate perspectival differences. Such comparative philosophies of religion are invaluable for realizing the essential experiences, dimensions, and structures of loving kindness, compassion, empathy, nonviolence, peace, justice, selfless service responding to suffering, morality, and spirituality that unite us at the most essential levels of our human mode of being in the world.

In a dynamic open-ended process that resists religious and philosophical closures, comparative philosophy of religion allows for the experience, constitution, and development of new phenomena, concepts, perspectives, meanings, and practices. This process may take many forms. For example, religious scholars may start with their own religious orientations, and then, through comparative philosophy of religion, realize how these can be compared with and related to other religious orientations that can be transformative in deepening and broadening our initial perspectives and in how we understand and relate to others.

In many comparative approaches, this illustrates the correct claim that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, but in my view of philosophy of religion, this involves a qualitative paradigm shift and is more radically transformative and revolutionary than typical whole-parts formulations. What emerges through the dynamic, creative, empathetic, open-ended, cooperatively engaged, and contextualized process of comparative philosophy of religion are new ways of understanding and being in the world; new ways of critical reflection and new emotional and imaginative ways of relating; new ways of experiencing our interconnectedness and unity that are needed to respond to our deepest existential crises that threaten human and nonhuman life on planet earth.

Because of length requirements, there are significant analyses and challenges to such an essential, theoretical, and practical philosophy of religion/philosophies of religion that I shall not address. For example, in comparative philosophy of religion there are two tendencies that are dialectically related, insightful, and invaluable in revealing new phenomena and interpretations of meaning, but which also reveal oppositional as well as unifying tensions and directions methodologically, theoretically, and practically.

On the one hand, there is the dominant movement of comparative philosophy of religion I have emphasized: unifying movement toward synthesis and fusion, with emergence of new phenomena and understandings, the experience and development of our unifying interconnectedness that responds to our relational existence, systemic structures, and contemporary crises. This is easier said than done. We face many methodological, theoretical, and other challenges. How do we formulate and justify such interconnected synthesis and fusion? Enact intersubjective and other checks to justify claims about emerging new principles, concepts, practices, and meanings? Resist historical contextualized patterns in which claims about oneness and unity have often been hegemonic and were achieved by erasing perspectival differences and/or by distorting and falsely integrating them within the framework of one’s dominant philosophy of religion?

On the other hand, there is the invaluable movement of comparative philosophy of religion that allows us to uncover, acknowledge, and include the wide diversity of perspectival differences with diverse religious approaches, paths, and views of truth and reality. Why should there be only one true perspective, one view, one path, or even one philosophy of religion? This pluralistic, multisided, and multidimensional orientation is insightful and desperately needed for greater tolerance, mutual respect, and harmonious relations, but it is easier said than done. We are left with many difficult challenges. For example, as evidenced in much of postmodernism, multiculturalism, cultural relativism, and other contemporary approaches, why does this comparative oppositional dialectical tendency and movement not result in the endless proliferation of inviolable, exclusive, absolute, separate differences? Fragmentation rejecting holistic unity? The basic rejection of all formulations of old and new interconnected relations, structures, and meanings?

I’ll end by submitting that comparative philosophy of religion, which is essential theoretically and practically today, necessarily involves rereading, reinterpreting, and reapplying philosophies of religion in new creative ways. My major attempt in this essay has not been to provide an absolute blueprint for comparative philosophy of religion, which would deny or minimize the necessary, dynamic, open-ended nature of such an orientation. Instead, I hope that the essay may engage readers and serve as a catalyst for the development of new formulations of comparative philosophy of religion that contribute to human and planetary sustainability and flourishing.

James Wetzel – “Comparative Philosophy of Religion: The Tao and the Inner Teacher”

James Wetzel is Professor of Philosophy and Augustinian Chair at Villanova University. He also directs Villanova’s Augustinian Institute. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

When I teach Villanova’s foundation course in philosophy—a course ambitiously named “Knowledge, Reality, Self”—I usually venture a bit of comparative philosophy of religion (though the “of religion” part is perhaps redundant in so heady a stew). For the last couple of tries, I have ventured a juxtaposition of Augustine’s dialogue on the teacher, De magistro, with Lao Tzu’s enigmatic wisdom teaching, the Tao Te Ching.

Augustine wrote De magistro not long after his return to Africa from Italy in 388 and not long before the death of his only child, his son Adeodatus, in 390. De magistro takes the form of a dialogue between father and son, and in the Confessions (conf. 9.6.14) Augustine swears that he doesn’t invent his son’s part. The boy’s voice, unforeseeably memorialized in De magistro, remains his own.

The Tao Te Ching comes out of the Warring States Period in ancient China—a time of great violence and volatility. Its authorship is generally attributed to Lao Tzu, but “Lao Tzu” likely just means “old man” or “old master”; it is not a proper name. The text is about a way that cannot be named, but, then again, there is an awful lot of talk there about The Tao.

It is tempting to compare the two works along the lines of a similar problematic, say the problem of communicability. At the start of De magistro, Augustine asks his adolescent son a potentially provocative question: “What do you think we want to accomplish when we talk?” (mag. 1.1). That could be a question about a difficult history. The father has, a couple of years prior, sent the boy’s mother away for the prospect of a better, more socially advantageous match. I wonder whether Augustine and Adeodatus ever talked about this, and if so, what would they have been hoping to accomplish? The same thing? But Adeodatus opts for the long view and answers for the ages. What we do, what any of us would want to do, is twofold: learn (discere) and teach (docere). For his part Augustine insists on the chasm between those two desiderata. He has us much preferring to be teachers of our own desire to being students of someone else’s. Maybe we have no real choice about this (natural?) preference, but then the divine teacher slips inside our solipsism and teaches us otherness. This is Augustine’s Christ, “the interior light of truth” (mag. 12.40).

If there is a problem of communicability in the Tao Te Ching, it doubtless has something to do with the Tao, or the intelligibility that seems so resistant to mapping. It isn’t by following the Tao that one gets from here to there; it is not that kind of guidance, if it is guidance at all. Here is how Stephen Mitchell, the great impresario of religious and poetic texts, translates the first four verses of the Tao Te Ching, the ones that declare, indirectly (sort of), what the Tao is:

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

Notice Mitchell’s contrast between small “t” tao, able to be named (pegged), and big “T” parent tao, or the tao that preempts naming as much as it grounds it. It is hard for me not to conclude, despite my best resistance, that big T tao is being set up as the superior tao.

Now compare Mitchell’s rendition with that of Ursula K. Le Guin, a literary figure of enormous verve. Same lines:

The way you can go
isn’t the real way.
The name you can say
isn’t the real name.

It is possible, no doubt, to read Mitchell’s rendition as a clarification of Le Guin’s folksier language. “The way you can go”: ah, yes, that is a tao, not the Tao. For the really real way, we will need to have access to something eternal as well as a purely intuitive grasp of what a name names. Buckle up.

But there is a cost to having Mitchell devour Le Guin. We lose the possibility that a way is not the real way simply because there is more than one way to go. Naming the real need not be an exclusionary practice. Name things, by all means, but keep your mind open to other practices of naming—until naming starts to ebb and flow, and the sea is calm.

My aim here is not to defend Le Guin’s Tao Te Ching against Mitchell’s, despite how it may be sounding. What interests me is the vivid contrast of their poetic sensibilities. Neither of them is a translator of the Tao Te Ching in the strict sense: neither knows ancient Chinese, and both are heavily dependent on Paul Carus’s 1898 mapping of the Tao’s ideograms onto English words and phrases. That makes Mitchell and Le Guin translators of translation.

As are most of us. I read Augustine in Latin; I read Lao Tzu in English. My knowledge of Latin is an advantage provided that I don’t confuse philosophy with literalization. For there is an irreducibly aesthetic component to philosophical reading and reception. This is what Mitchell and Le Guin, in their comparative brilliance, remind me of.

Comparative philosophy of religion is not then just a matter of aiming foreign resources at a familiar problematic. It is also about the question that shows up between the lines.

So what happens when the divine meets you from within, wrecks your distinction between inner and outer, greens your knowledge, and leaves you, for a time, at peace with your desires?

Maybe nothing. Maybe that is the point.


Augustine, De magistro, ed. Klaus-Detlef Daur, CCSL 29, Turnholt: Brepols, 1970.

Stephen Mitchell, tao te ching, New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching, Boulder: Shambala Publications, 2019.

Leah Kalmanson – “Diversification is not Decolonization”

University of North Texas portrait of Leah Kalmanson, Philosophy and Religion, Associate Professor. Photographed on 15, December 2021 in Denton, Texas. (Sky Allen/UNT Photo).

Leah Kalmanson is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion and the Bhagwan Adinath Professor of Jain Studies at the University of North Texas. She is the author of the 2020 book Cross-Cultural Existentialism and co-author with Monika Kirloskar-Steinbach of the 2021 A Practical Guide to World Philosophies. Her essays appear in various academic journals as well as the digital magazine Aeon. We invited her to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Diversification is not decolonization. By this, I mean that we can diversify the content of our research while not necessarily altering the Eurocentric structures that define academic disciplines. These structures may include scholarly methodologies, pedagogies, curricular requirements, and canonized texts. In terms of philosophy of religion, I understand the “comparative” dimension to refer, at the least, to the project of diversification. Accordingly, I presume this project is motivated in part by a desire to expand the discourse beyond the European monotheism that has traditionally set the agenda for research in this area and to engage multiple religious traditions across diverse cultural contexts. However, as I am suggesting here, bringing more religions to the table may accomplish the task of diversification without thereby altering the Eurocentric methodological practices of philosophy in general or shifting the theocentric focus of philosophy of religion in particular.

Even at the level of diversification, the philosopher of religion must broach the question of methodology. In the case at hand, what method guides the comparative approach? For example, in Doing Philosophy Comparatively, Tim Connolly identifies four methodological frameworks that might shape our basic understanding of the function and practice of comparison: universalism, pluralism, consensus, and global philosophy. The universalist approach assumes that, at one level or another, the work of comparison will reveal shared truths that transcend particular cultures. Pluralism, in contrast, accepts the possible incommensurability of diverse traditions and makes space for differing perspective that may prove irreducible to one another. The consensus approach, like pluralism, accepts the possible incommensurability of diverse sources but nonetheless seeks to build a common philosophical ground. The last framework, global philosophy, sets aside the practice of comparison per se and cultivates instead a diverse set of philosophical tools, taken from any number of traditions, which might then be employed to address specific questions and issues.

Connolly’s work invites us to take a meta-level perspective, as it were, on the question of methodology in general. What are the disciplinary practices that are definitive of philosophy, and do such practices have cross-cultural scope? For example, how do we separate the liberal arts from the social sciences and the “hard” sciences, and do these divisions map onto similar categories in the intellectual histories of other cultural traditions? Or, how do we distinguish a “method” from a “practice” or a “ritual,” and can these distinctions be made in other languages? In short, how do we “do” whatever it is we do that constitutes our professional identities, and do other people elsewhere do things similarly? For those who identify as philosophers, what we do might include dialogue, analysis, phenomenological bracketing, deconstruction, and so forth. Both the analytic and phenomenological methods are prominent in philosophy of religion today, and so a comparative philosopher of religion might bring either approach to the study of a diverse array of religious traditions. But do these methodologies themselves have cross-cultural scope, or are they rooted in Euro-American intellectual history?

Digging deeper, a scholar might attempt to set aside assumptions about philosophy as a discipline or religion as a tradition and instead ask: What methods were employed at famous Buddhist monastic universities such as Nālandā, founded in 427? What methodological interventions is Zhu Xi credited with introducing into Ruist or “Confucian” academies in the Song dynasty (960–1279)? Given that neither a Buddhist monk nor a Confucian scholar would have seen themselves as belonging to some larger category such as “philosophy” or “religion,” then what theories and methods allowed them to separate the Buddha-dharma, as its own discipline or category, from Ruist scholarship? And, perhaps, most crucially, can we still learn and practice these methodologies as researchers today?

A scholar who digs deeper in this way may find some methods that remind her of phenomenology, such as the xinxue 心學 or “heart-mind studies” of Ruism (i.e., “Confucianism”) or the vijñapti-mātra or “representation-only” thesis of Yogācāra Buddhism. She may likewise find many methods that remind her of analysis or that employ dialogue and various systems of formal logic. But nothing will add up neatly or map point-for-point onto contemporary academic categories such as “philosophy” or “religious studies.” In other words, in reflecting on her methodologies, she challenges her own scholarly and professional identity.

Posing such a challenge is part of the “world philosophies” approach that I take in my work with Monika Kirloskar-Steinbach and others at the Bloomsbury book series Introductions to World Philosophies. Our goal is not only diversification of content but decolonization of the disciplinary methods that establish a Eurocentric framework around what it means to “do” philosophy at the basic level. It occurs to me, only in writing this blog post, that, despite its reputation for overt Eurocentrism and theocentrism, perhaps philosophy of religion is in fact uniquely positioned to do innovative work in its pursuit of “comparison.” Let me contextualize this.

One encounters the oft-repeated truism that Asian traditions such as Buddhism or Ruism cannot be adequately categorized as either philosophies or religions. However, comparative philosophers can quickly move past this point to continue operating as philosophers when engaging diverse traditions, just as scholars of comparative religion can conveniently move ahead with the various methods—perhaps hermeneutic, historical, or ethnographic—that reflect their particular disciplinary approach to the study of religion. However, the philosopher of religion immediately faces the quandary of categorization: If, when studied comparatively, certain traditions cannot be adequately categorized as philosophies or religions, then what in the world is the comparative philosopher of religion doing? The entire enterprise “comparative philosophy of religion” thus can and should take us directly to the deepest and most difficult questions about who we are as scholars, who we are as people, and who we are as practitioners of various philosophical, religious, and spiritual paths.


Connolly, Tim. Doing Philosophy Comparatively: Foundations, Problems, and Methods of Cross-Cultural Inquiry. Second edition. London: Bloomsbury, 2023.

Kirloskar-Steinbach, Monika, and Leah Kalmanson. A Practical Guide to World Philosophies: Selves, Worlds, and Ways of Knowing. London: Bloomsbury, 2021.

Jeffrey Wattles – “Comparing in Confucianism and Comparative Experiences with the Golden Rule”

For six years of available academic time, Jeffrey Wattles nourished his soul in the study of Chinese philosophy, specializing in Confucianism. He interacted with leading specialists in North America and also at the University of Beijing, where he lectured on the Confucian golden rule and the philosophy of living in truth, beauty, and goodness. Chinese tradition remains deeply embedded in his thought. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

In one form or another, the golden rule—“Do to others what you want others to do to you”—enters into both comparative philosophy and comparative religion. The life in the rule may be observed in its different levels of meaning. In Confucianism, the first level is conscientious conformity to social rules; the highest level is spontaneously following what Confucius called “the Decree of Heaven” (Analects 2:4).1

Confucianism often speaks of comparing self and other to express what it means to relate in the spirit of the golden rule.2

1. In this heritage, the core meaning is stated by Chu Hsi (1130-1200 C.E.). “By ‘comparison’ I mean to compare the mind of another with my own, and so put myself in their place.”3

2. We have an imperfect, but nevertheless intuitive, empathic understanding of one another. In The Great Learning we read: “The ‘Announcement of K’ang’ says, ‘Act as if you were watching over an infant.’ If a mother sincerely and earnestly looks for what the infant wants, she may not hit the mark but she will not be far from it. A young woman has never had to learn about nursing a baby before she marries.”4 Comparing involves heart-and-mind (one word in Chinese).

For Olivier du Roy, in several ways the greatest historian of the golden rule, the first level of the rule is empathy, which engages the depth of human feeling.5

3. We attribute aspects of our own humanity to the other, and act in the light of what we have reason to think are shared desiderata.

A man of co-humanity [benevolence, love], wishing to establish his own character, also establishes the character of others, and wishing to be prominent himself, also helps others to be prominent. To be able to judge others by what is near to ourselves may be called the method of [attaining] co-humanity. (Analects 6.28, Chan 31)6

Du Roy repeatedly cautions against projecting our likes and dislikes onto others.

4. The agent discerns patterns of relationships, for example, the asymmetrical pattern of parent- and-child and the symmetrical pattern of friend-and-friend. In a given situation, recognizing the norms implicit in the type of relationship at hand enables golden rule conduct to be guided by ethical concerns.

Du Roy’s second level of the golden rule involves a universal principle, valid for all in the same situation, as in Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative and better expressed by 4th century preacher John Chrysostom (du Roy, volume 1, 236).

5. Great persons acquire respectful and loving attitudes to those close to them, and then extend these attitudes to remote others (Mencius 1A7).

Du Roy says that we learn the practice of the golden rule with those close to us (literally “neighbors”) but the real challenge comes with those whom we cannot spontaneously love, perhaps because they are remote, encountered in the context of an institution, or enemies. He emphasizes that the golden rule in Luke 6:27-36 comes in the middle of a lesson on the love of enemies. The natural human tendency—to expect or hope for reciprocal beneficial treatment from others—falls short of the true criterion.

7. As we grow, we see others as siblings. For Confucius’ sage, “All within the Four Seas are his brothers” (Analects 12.5, Lau). Chang Tsai (1020 1077): “Heaven is my father and Earth is my mother . . . . All people are my brothers and sisters . . . .” (Chan, 103, sec 20). For Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529), “The sage . . . regards all the people of the world as his brothers and children . . . .”7

8. Mencius. The highest level of the golden rule is spiritual, spontaneously transcending rule-following.

A noble man steeps himself in the Way (tao) because he wishes to find it in himself. When he finds it in himself, he will be at ease in it; when he is at ease in it, he can draw deeply upon it; when he can draw deeply upon it, he finds its source wherever he turns. (Mencius, 4B14, D.C. Lau, tr.)

Mencius’ expression of his spiritual path invites those who would understand him to do the same.

At Kent State University, in my world religions classes, and philosophy classes, most of which included comparative philosophy segments, I centered learning on experiential projects (I would do one with them). I would select what I thought was a widely appealing and worthy teaching in what we were studying. Then I would invite the students to transplant it into the garden of what they believed and how they thought and expressed themselves—and apply it in their lives, ideally to their “front-burner issue” (if it was psychologically reasonable for them to do so and something that they felt comfortable sharing at least with me). They wrote experience reports, a majority of which narrated difficult challenges and profound transformations. Finally, they created a commentary on these reports from the perspective of the text or tradition we were studying. Thus the act of transplanting into one’s own garden stays in dialogue with the otherness of the text.

Finally, here’s my most recent experience report of a new frontier for growth as a follower of Jesus, also inspired by Mencius and taught by du Roy. I call it “living in the plural.” This means (1) living with the indwelling spirit of God (transplanting Mencius) and (2) living with the universal family of God, including each person I relate with and each group I may be present with, e.g., other drivers on the road, or those anywhere who are in the same situation that I’m in.


1. Confucius, The Analects, tr. D.C. Lau (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1979), 63.

2. This discussion is based on Jeffrey Wattles, The Golden Rule (Oxford University Press, 1996), 19-23.

3. Chu Hsi, The Philosophy of Human Nature, tr. J. Percy Bruce (New York, AMS Press, 1973), 435.

4. Translated by Wing-tsit Chan, A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press), 91.

5. Olivier du Roy, La règle d’or: Histoire d’une maxime morale universelle (Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, 2012).

6. 6:30 in Lau. David Nivison renders the last sentence thus: “The ability to make a comparison (namely, with the other person) from what is near at hand (namely, from your own case) can be called the method of (attaining) benevolence.”

7. Wang Yang-ming, Instructions for Practical Living and Other Neo-Confucian Writings, translated by Wing-tsit Chan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), Part I, section 142, page 118.

Michael Barnes Norton – “Comparative Philosophy of Religion and Climate Change”

Michael Barnes Norton is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Co-Director of the School of Human Inquiry at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

As others in this series have already pointed out, there are several different ways of understanding what comparative philosophy of religion is and in what ways it may be useful. A comparative approach may shed light on the difference between the philosophical problems that have emerged between different traditions or schools of thought, or on different ways of approaching similar problems. A comparative approach is also particularly useful in addressing the more fundamental question of what, exactly, constitutes a “religion” or a “religious” concept or practice. Given that this term has a specifically European provenance, and that its meaning has historically tended to be overdetermined by Christian theological commitments, it always behooves contemporary philosophers of religion to consider how and to what extent “religion” adequately describes traditions outside the Abrahamic umbrella.1 Assuming for practical purposes that we can meaningfully talk about religion in widely cross-cultural contexts, though, the question remains as to what issues properly belong to the category of comparative philosophy of religion. While questions about the existence and nature of souls, suprahuman beings and forces, or an afterlife are evident choices, I would like to suggest the problem of climate change as an issue that comparative philosophy of religion has unique resources to address.

The present crises associated with anthropogenic climate change, as well as those forecasted in both the near and distant future, may typically be understood as issues more appropriate for environmental, socio-political, and moral philosophy. Besides the general problem of theodicy related to the suffering involved in climate catastrophes, the ways in which such catastrophes are problems for consideration specifically within the context of philosophy of religion is perhaps not immediately apparent. Yet, confronting the advent of the so-called Anthropocene epoch, which brings with it a continually increasing threat to the continued existence of most or all of human life (not to mention the hundreds of other species already going extinct every day), raises questions about a possible end of our world that philosophy of religion ought to be well equipped to address. Climate apocalypse is not an article of faith posited by a particular religious tradition but rather an existential threat predicted on the basis of observations of the earth on which we all live. Because it is an urgent issue affecting practitioners of all religious traditions, I would contend that an approach to climate change from philosophy of religion demands a comparative approach.

Lynn White’s well-known 1967 Science article “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” posits that our contemporary climate crises are the result not just of rampant industrialization, overreliance on fossil fuels, deforestation, etc., but more fundamentally of the influence of a particular Christian theological view of the relationship between humans and nature on the West.2 This view holds that humans stand in a privileged position in nature, at the center of a world created by God for our use and placed under our more or less absolute authority. White argues that confronting climate change necessarily involves confronting the problematic legacy of this view and replacing it with a more ecological perspective, such as that offered by Francis of Assisi. In the years since its publication, White’s article has received both positive and negative reactions, with many of the latter claiming (correctly, I believe) that it offers an overly simplistic account of a much more complex issue.

I do think White’s core point is undeniable: there is a religious dimension to the historical and social forces that have led the world into the Anthropocene. White’s call to reevaluate the legacy of Christian anthropocentrism in the West in light of climate change, and to look for alternatives both within and outside of the history of Christian thought, can serve as a call for a comparative philosophy of religion approach to this crucial issue. In both religious studies and theology, comparative treatments of “religion and ecology” as a topic have abounded in the last couple of decades, yet there has been less such work within the boundaries of philosophy of religion.3 I suggest that this is fertile ground from which new comparative philosophy can emerge. For instance: one point for which White’s essay has been criticized is its claims that non-Western traditions are inherently more ecologically-minded than Western Christianity. Soon after the essay’s publication, Yi-Fu Tuan challenged this by pointing to China’s industrialization practices in the mid-twentieth century and comparing it to those of Europe.4 A comparative approach to philosophy of religion and the environment might take the critical position of work like Tuan’s and interweave it with constructive accounts of more ecologically friendly religious resources in both Christianity and Chinese culture.5

As another example, using comparative philosophy of religion to respond to climate crises also creates an opportunity to engage with indigenous thought about both environmental and religious concepts. Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro contrast indigenous American and European views on both the limits of the world (past and future) and the place of humans within nature, showing how eschatological, metaphysical, and ecological concerns are inextricably intertwined within the horizon of the Anthropocene.6 The possible end of human life on earth is clearly a matter at the center of the thought of many religious traditions, and as such philosophical considerations of such a topic qua religious would do well to proceed comparatively just as philosophical approaches that are already comparative would do well do recognize the religious aspects of the matter.

The earth is of course finite, and no point on it is merely local. Climate, by definition, is global, and what occurs in one area will in some way or other affect us all. Climate change thus serves as a context within which the diversity of religious thought and practice around the world becomes a crucial consideration. The practical demands of our present climate crises make comparative work in philosophy of religion all the more important.

1. On this point, see for example Richard King: “Philosophy of Religion as Border Control: Globalization and the Decolonization of the ‘Love of Wisdom’ (philosophia).” In Postcolonial Philosophy of Religion, edited by Purushottama Bilimoria and Andrew B. Irvine (Dordrecht: Springer, 2009), 35-53.

2. White, Lynn. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” Science 155, no. 3767 (March 10, 1967): 1203–7.

3. I recognize this raises the question of the proper distinctions between philosophy of religion, religious philosophy, and theology. The contributions to a volume such as Ecospirit (edited by Laurel Kearns and Catherine Keller, New York: Fordham University Press, 2007) – coming from perspectives that are clearly theological, clearly philosophical, and somewhere in between – make this question even more difficult, as perhaps it should be.

4. Tuan, Yi-Fu. “Discrepancies Between Environmental Attitude and Behaviour: Examples from Europe and China.” The Canadian Geographer/Le Géographe Canadien 12, no. 3 (September 1968): 176–91.

5. An example of the latter is: James Miller. China’s Green Religion: Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

6. Danowski, Déborah, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. The Ends of the World. Malden, MA: Polity, 2017.

Jonathan Weidenbaum on Comparative Philosophy of Religion

Jonathan Weidenbaum teaches World Religions, Ethics, and Philosophy in the Division of General Education at Berkeley College, NYC, and St John’s University in Queens (email: We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

I recall a stirring set of paintings on the inside wall of a pagoda in Sri Lanka. Above the image of demons tearing apart the bodies of those spirits unfortunate enough to have been reborn in the hell realm is a depiction of the deities in their heavenly abode—each one graceful, serene, and blissfully reposed. Or, blissful in comparison with the denizens of the other realms which comprise Buddhist cosmology. For this is a context in which the gods, like any other sentient being, are conditioned by karma and would do well to be born in the human realm in order to reach nirvana—thereby gaining release, once and for all, from the wheel of life and death. The beliefs surrounding this complex image from the pagoda wall always struck me as signifying a stronger rejection of theistic belief than even atheism. It is one thing to deny the existence of deities, another to deem them as of lesser spiritual importance.

Of course, the divide within a single religion can be equally vast, if not more so, than those between different religions. The Theravada Buddhism found in Sri Lanka is not, say, the Pure Land Buddhism of China and Japan. And within a single theistic faith God may be conceived as, among other things, a personal creator being who speaks through prophets and cares about humankind—Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “divine pathos”—or the transcendental One with which the soul of the contemplative is to identify (Harper Torchbooks, 1975).

One evening, during a discussion group composed mostly of renegade and heterodox Jews from around the New York City area, a stately and elderly gentleman sought to dissuade me from ruminating too much over such theological contrasts. Examining and comparing different religions and denominations is fine and even useful as an academic game, he explained, but it is a mere intellectual exercise, a skating over surfaces and of less significance for genuine theological insight. It was when I began to respond that I discovered, finally, where I truly stood in regard to the relationship of a vital philosophical theology to the examination of other denominations and traditions.

Several theological orientations toward faiths other than our own could only lend support to my older acquaintance’s attitude toward comparative religions. Drawing upon some well-known definitions, these include an exclusivism in which only our own tradition is understood as leading toward spiritual fulfilment/salvation, and an inclusivism in which other traditions possess value only insofar as they approximate our own. If a pluralism holds that all major religions lead to a salvation of sorts, an identist pluralism perceives these traditions as pointing toward the same salvific truth. A classic example of the latter is the perennial philosophy which argues that, while religions unquestionably differ on the exoteric surface, their esoteric core (to borrow a distinction from Frithjof Schuon) all lead to the same transpersonal and metaphysical ground (Quest Books, 1984).

Once a proponent of the last of these positions, the past years have increasingly alerted me to one of the severe limitations of an identist pluralism when drawn so tightly: if all higher spiritual traditions cohere upon the same ultimate, then what do other religions truly have to teach me? That is, beyond alternative methods of leading to the One, or simply different ways of expressing it. Next to the search after honest spiritual illumination, examining other religious traditions in such an understanding is a mere cataloging of similarities and differences, more anthropology than theology. In order for the mission of comparative religions to have sincere depth, the differences between traditions need to be more than their surface, and, in fact, must be seen as reaching all the way down.

Happily, richer forms of pluralism are readily available for those, like me, who seek robust support for the different ways in which the divine has been conceived. I will briefly mention three. First, the main project of Theology Without Walls rests upon what Jerry Martin, its founder, calls an “ineluctable syllogism” (forthcoming). If theology’s goal is to grasp the divine, and knowledge of the ultimate is not found only within one tradition, then what is required is a theological effort beyond and across “confessional boundaries.” Martin’s own investigations and personal religious experiences lead him to affirm a “many-sided” divine reality, one that is partly personal, partly transpersonal, and much more. Second, theologian John Thatamanil has worked out a novel Trinitarian vision in which our comprehension of the divine is enhanced as we open ourselves to religions devoted toward, alternatively, a loving and personal deity, an underlying and all-inclusive cosmic unity, and a realization of the interdependent nature of all things as espoused, for instance, by Mahayana Buddhism (Fordham University Press, 2020).

Third, if Martin and Thatamanil argue for one ultimate with multiple sides or aspects, the deep religious pluralism of process theology generally envisions a reality complex enough to feature more than one ultimate (Westminster John Knox Press, 2005). Without going into their exquisite and detailed metaphysics, these ultimates are proposed to correspond with how the divine is understood by different religions—namely, as personal, impersonal, and the sacred character of the natural world, as perceived by some.

Currently, I sympathize more with a deep religious pluralism than those which argue for a single and complex ultimate. It has always seemed to me that the blissful inner state of nirvana and the personal deity of the Abrahamic religions, among others, can be appreciated more richly and fully as different portions of existence than as two sides of a single absolute. But I admit this preference, at least at this point, is intuitive. A stronger justification for this, along with the broader implications of it, is for a future essay.

Works Cited

Griffin, David Ray (ed.). Deep Religious Pluralism. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.

Heschel, Abraham J. The Prophets, Volume II. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1975.

Martin, Jerry. Radically Personal: God and Ourselves in the New Axial Age. Forthcoming.

Schuon, Frithjof. The Transcendent Unity of Religions. Wheaton: Quest Books, 1984.

Thatamanil, John J. Circling the Elephant: A Comparative Theology of Religious Diversity. New York: Fordham University Press, 2020.

Stephen R. L. Clark – “Comparative Philosophy: Right Reason?”

Stephen R. L. Clark is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at University of Liverpool. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

“Religion” names a collection of rituals, stories, idols and icons, hierarchies, texts, credal statements, and philosophies of a roughly familiar sort that are encountered almost everywhere within the human species (and perhaps in the past, in other hominin species). Dictionary definitions often identify “religion” with “a belief in supernatural entities,” but without any clear account either of “belief” or “supernatural.” The definitions owe more to modern, Western assumptions about “religion” than any detailed investigation: not all religious traditions distinguish “nature” and “supernature”; not all acknowledge or invoke – let alone worship – supposedly “supernatural” entities; very few, from a global perspective, make “belief” a central requirement of “religious” life. Anthropologists, most often, prefer to speak of “religious” practices as devices to strengthen social cohesion, especially by distinguishing one gender, caste, tribe, or nation from another. Psychologists may rather attend to divisions within a single person, marking off successive stages of life, potentially conflicting motives and ideals. A tribe’s mythology – which may or may not incorporate clear credal statements – puts that tribe’s motives, ideals, and problems on display.

So what role might suit “philosophy” in regard to such “religion”? Some religious forms allow a few people to speculate, more or less cogently and clearly, about the real nature of the world or our real duties in it. Some even make room for radical criticism of prevailing social norms, whether or not those critics actually opt out of the duties to which they were born: Socrates continued to serve as a soldier and a citizen within the city whose norms he questioned; Gautama left his family and palace behind to seek a cure for what was wrong with the world (but still took on a recognizable social role – the wandering ascetic). Must “philosophers” always speak and think from within the worlds and tribes where they were born and reared? Or may they, sometimes, opt to surrender citizenship in any existing tribe or class, and seek out a “truth” that is more than a social norm? “The philosopher,” said Wittgenstein, “is not a citizen of any community of ideas. That is what makes him into a philosopher.”1 And do the latter kind of “philosophers” reach anything like the same conclusions about life, the world, and everything? Or are they self-deceived about the manifold sources of their convictions?

What shall we seek to compare, if we hope to practice a “comparative” philosophy? On the one hand, anthropological and psychological enquiry can identify both amazing differences and amazing similarities between disparate tribes and ages. Human beings don’t all behave in exactly the same ways, or tell exactly the same stories – but we do all seem to appreciate song and dance and feasting, and all of us listen to stories, both to learn what is expected of us and to have shared plots and characters to gossip about. Maybe we invent spirits and gods and heroes precisely so that whole communities have characters and plots for gossip: soap operas, blockbusters, competitive sports, and even (nowadays) popularised scientific theories fill a similar set of needs. Philosophers may wonder whether these shared games and stories serve only to disguise a darker truth: that we are chance-bred hominins on an accidental rock, with no good reason either to know what is really happening, or to suppose we could. The thought may come especially to those who consider ancient or alien rituals, stories, and “sacred” texts or objects. If most of those stories are now considered fictions, and most of the supposed revelations mere delusions, why exactly are our own stories and easy rituals exempt? How can it be reasonable to think that we alone are happily born into a “religion,” a shared world-view (including in that category current popular Western dogmas2) which is, it happens, right? In Kipling’s words:

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And everyone else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They!3

Or else, more optimistically, philosophers might wonder instead whether there might really be some way of identifying the truth in ancient, alien or modern ways of thinking and living.4 Is it enough to judge them by the standards that we happen to have ourselves, or should we at least consider whether there might be other standards at least as sound as ours, or whether there are shared truths, hidden beneath the outward dissimilarities? Is it so clear, for example, that a “belief in supernatural entities” is entirely alien to our own thought, even the most “modern” and “scientific”? Do we have sound reason to think that there is a “natural order” which is closed against intrusion? Do we have sound reason to know what counts as a “natural entity” at all? When we compare stories, rituals, hierarchies, and creeds, what motivates our own easy rejection of anything that disturbs our habits?

“Philosophers,” perhaps, have reason of some sort to suppose that there are ways of identifying errors, ways of securing some reliable conclusion, which transcend any particular inherited ways of thinking. Is that the power of abstract, “Cartesian,” reasoning? Or must it require a more empirical enquiry? In the words of Thomas Sprat, in his proleptic history of the Royal Society:

The poets of old to make all things look more venerable than they were devised a thousand false Chimaeras; on every Field, River, Grove and Cave they bestowed a Fantasm of their own making: With these they amazed the world. … And in the modern Ages these Fantastical Forms were reviv’d and possessed Christendom. … All which abuses if those acute Philosophers did not promote, yet they were never able to overcome; nay, not even so much as King Oberon and his invisible Army. But from the time in which the Real Philosophy has appear’d there is scarce any whisper remaining of such horrors. … The cours of things goes quietly along, in its own true channel of Natural Causes and Effects. For this we are beholden to Experiments; which though they have not yet completed the discovery of the true world, yet they have already vanquished those wild inhabitants of the false world, that us’d to astonish the minds of men.5

That “experimental philosophy” has since led in directions that Sprat would have found disturbing: standard axioms of common sense and Enlightenment metaphysics (objectivity, locality, uniformity) are themselves now contested in ways that are more astonishing than Oberon! The assumptions that lie behind the elevation of “experiment,” and the rejection of personal testimony, once noticed as the axioms of a very particular age and place, are no longer so compelling. What seems most rational is often only what is most familiar – and an honest comparison of creeds and intellectual explorations across the world still has power to unsettle those familiar themes.

“Comparative Philosophy of Religion,” in short, may sometimes be an excuse to criticise ancient and alien ideas and habits in the name of a supposedly higher and more realistic insight, a “Real Philosophy” into how things are and should be. But it may also be a humbler endeavour: an attempt to understand those ancient and alien ways, and join together in a continuing exploration of the human psyche and the world around us. Maybe our ancestors, and our present neighbours, are right after all to think that there are “supernatural powers”—though they wouldn’t call them “supernatural”—with a real influence on our thoughts and habits, as well as on the wider world we hope to imagine clearly. Maybe we are more than chance-bred hominins ourselves, and therefore do indeed have some possible way to discover the meaning of things: maybe, as most of our own philosophical ancestors suggested, there is after all some congruence between the powers of human reason and the world’s reason. We have room in our hearts and minds for a true vision of the universe because our spirit is a fragment of the divine, and there are other spirits around us. Conversely, if we have no such standing, and have only those powers that our sort of primates could have in a merely “naturalistic,” Darwinian universe, then we have little reason to suppose that any of our dreams and practices are more than currently convenient; and good reason (if any reason of ours is good) to suspect that ancient and alien ways, being ancient, are at least as good as ours.


1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel, edds., G.E.M. Anscombe & G.H. Von Wright (Oxford: Blackwell 1967).

2. Cf. Joseph Henrich, The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (London: Penguin, 2020).

3. Rudyard Kipling, Debits and Credits (Macmillan: London, 1926).

4. Cf. Marshall Sahlins, The New Science of the Enchanted Universe: An Anthropology of Most of Humanity (Princeton University Press: New Jersey), p.11: “It should be clear enough that, though I have not always succeeded, I try to explicate the cultures at issue by their own immanentist premises—what used to be known as ‘the natives’ point of view’ and sometimes now as ‘reverse anthropology’. I try to unfold the peoples’ cultural practices by means of their own onto-logics.”

5. Thomas Sprat, History of the Royal Society (New York: Elibron 2005 [1722]), p.340.

Fritz Detwiler – “Native American Philosophy and Unified Knowledge”

Fritz Detwiler is a retired professor who taught philosophy and religion for the last 39 years at Adrian College in Michigan. His specialty is Native American philosophy with a subspecialty in Tlingit, Navajo, and Lakota lifeways and worldviews. You can contact him at We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Unified Knowledge

Vine Deloria, Jr., one of the most highly respected Native philosophers and critics of Western metaphysics, spent his life’s work pursuing commonality between Native and Western philosophy. His goal was “understanding the unifying reality underlying all existence”.1 His critique of the West was their belief in the superiority of Western thought and their unwillingness to take alternative perspectives seriously.

Following Deloria’s lead, the purpose of this essay is not to critique Western philosophy but to open Western philosophers to alternative worldviews to enrich their own perspectives. Following Western ways of thinking, the article divides Indigenous thought into categories familiar to Western thought. The goal, however, is to show how all these pieces fit together in a unified whole.

In the following essay, I use “Indigenous” as a blanket term for Native Americans and the First Nations people of Canada. While much of what follows extends to Indigenous peoples beyond North America, I will let others with more expertise in those areas draw their conclusions. The unified knowledge to which the title refers does not mean that all Indigenous peoples have the same conceptions of the universe. The opposite is more accurate. Indigenous peoples honor multiple viewpoints even within their communities. The argument here is that they share many of the conceptualizations developed below. Unified knowledge here refers to how all aspects of their worldviews flow into each other in contrast to many Western approaches that segment knowledge into various domains.2

Indigenous Worldviews

Metaphysics: The most distinguishing aspect of Indigenous metaphysics is “life force.”3 Life force is a power that wills the well-being of all types of persons and aims for harmony among beings. Like a woven tapestry, life force animates everything and flows through and connects everything. While present in all beings, life force is unique to every type of being and every member of different classes. Bears have bear life force, corn has corn force, and individual bears or corn plants have their unique life force. Some bears are stronger than others, for example. The uniqueness of bears or corn plants arises from their particular interactions with other life forces; just as two people may share a dog, a dog’s life force flows to and through us differently. Separate nations call life force by various names: manitou (Ojibwa), orenda (Haudenosaunee), takuskanskan (Lakota), niłch’i (Navajo), among others.

Cosmology: Indigenous cosmologies are relational and moral.4 Every being through whom life force flows connects to everything else with a dynamic and fluid intersubjective cosmos.5 The intersubjective cosmos is based on “the responsible actions of creative living beings acting collectively.”6 The moral force of the cosmos is discussed below. Relationality acts in two ways to connect beings with each other. First, all beings derive from a single source, and second, as mentioned above, life force flows through everything and interpenetrates the other beings by directly interacting with them. The cosmos is in a constant process of relationality where beings continuously exchange life force, and relationships are continually changing and reconstituting.

Ontology: The cosmological scope of the above claim becomes more evident through Indigenous ontologies. To this point, I have used the term “beings.” The better ontological term is “persons.” The category extends to all phenomena who are animate or potentially animate. All persons are sentient, active, volitional, have interests, and act intentionally.7 In a relational world, potentiality becomes actuality through encountering other persons. As a Lakota elder once remarked when asked, “Are all stone alive?” He answered, “No, but some are.”8 Those who are alive become animate to him when he enters into a direct relationship with them. In an interrelated world, everything is animate in relation to something else. Depending on the Indigenous culture, persons include animals, plants, lunar and solar phenomena, water, mountains, and in some cases, prayers, songs, glaciers, looms, and moccasins. In most traditions, persons share their power with others. Persons have inherent moral worth and are deserving of moral respect. The wording here is intentional. Moral worth is not an attribute of persons that can be separated from persons, and it is inherent in all beings.

Epistemology: Indigenous epistemologies are experiential, individual, empirical, practical, and flexible. Knowledge arises through interactions with other persons. It is personal, and relations with others create a shared knowledge community. Because knowledge is individual, Native peoples tend to be humble and avoid universal claims. Solutions for life’s problems drive knowledge acquisition and reflect the group’s interests, but their physical and theoretical environment limits the range of solutions available.9 The particular strategies employed or discarded depend on what works. If some acquired knowledge no longer has practical value, it can be discarded. Indigenous unified knowledge brings together theory and practice.

Ethics: For Indigenous people, the relational cosmos is moral, driven by life force. The main ethical principle is reciprocal responsibility.10 Persons have an obligation to respect the interests of others and find ways of interacting that promote mutual growth. Thus, the fundamental ethical problem relates to the need to survive, and survival requires food: “Who gets to eat whom, and under what circumstances?” If life force promotes growth, then the interests of the hunter and the hunted conflict. Neither’s interests outweigh the other’s. What matters is the survival of the group, not necessarily any individual. Often, moral covenants establish the proper etiquette and protocols required for maintaining appropriate relationships of respect.
Philosophy as a Moral Enterprise

From Indigenous perspectives, philosophy is a moral endeavor in three ways. First, it constructs a cognitive conception of the world. Second, as a unified approach to knowledge, it integrates all aspects of philosophy toward practical solutions. It places a moral responsibility on the philosopher to take Indigenous worldviews and lifeways seriously in a spirit of mutual respect and to broaden their own understandings of the world. To view their philosophies as curiosities and not take them seriously, the philosopher contributes to the difficulties Native peoples experience in their struggle to protect their sovereignty and land.

Final Comment

The essay attempts to open new avenues of thought among Western philosophers unfamiliar with Indigenous worldviews. The approach is to give a general overview. Space limits the detailed information necessary to provide specific applications of the theoretical notions described herein. But “one size does not fit all.” Navajo conceptions of reality are strikingly different from those of Tlingit, Lakota, or Iroquois. All, however, share aspects of the theoretical points developed above. All emphasize praxis. And all reflect a drive toward a unified theory of knowledge which integrates all aspects of philosophy. In sum, life force creates a relational cosmos through which persons come to know their world and act in ways that promote mutual care for others’ interests and well-being.


1. Jefferey D. Anderson, “Space, Time and Unified Knowledge: Following the Path of Vine Deloria, Jr,” in Indigenous Philosophies and Critical Education, ed. George Dei (New York: Peter Lang, 2011), 95.

2. Anderson, “Space, Time and Unified Knowledge,” 101.

3. Gregory Cajete, Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence, foreword by Leroy Little Bear (Santa Fe, N.M.: Clear Light Publishers, 2000), 216.

4. For a detailed discussion of the moral nature of the cosmos, see Fritz Detwiler, “Moral Foundations of Tlingit Cosmology,” in The Handbook of Contemporary Animism, ed. Graham Harvey (Durham: Acumen Pub., 2013), 167–80.

5. Kenneth M. Morrison, “Animism and a Proposal for a Post-Carteian Anthropology,” in The Handbook of Contemporary Animism [Electronic Resource], in The Handbook of Contemporary Animism, ed. Graham Harvey (Durham, UK: Acumen, 2013), 49.

6. John Fulbright, “Hopi and Zuni Prayer-Sticks: Magic, Symbolic Texts, Barter, or Self-Sacrifice,” Religion 22, no. July 1992 (1992): 223.

7. Fritz Detwiler, “All My Relatives: Persons in Oglala Religion,” Religion 22, no. 3 (1992): 239.

8. Thomas M. Norton-Smith, The Dance of Person and Place: One Interpretation of American Indian Philosophy, SUNY Series in Living Indigenous Philosophies (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010), 88.

9. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, The Relative Native: Essays on Indigenous Conceptual Worlds, Special Collections in Ethnographic Theory (Chicago: Hau Books, 2015), 16–18.

10. Eva Marie Garroutte, Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 118.

Gregory W. Dawes “Immanentist Religiosity: Broadening the Scope of Comparative Studies”

Gregory Dawes gained his first graduate degree at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome (1988) before completing PhDs in Biblical Studies (1995) and Philosophy (2007). His earlier work examined the challenges to belief that arose from the historical study of Christian origins. This led him to the study of the relations between science and religion and, more generally, of the various ‘modes of thought’ found across cultures. His recent books include Galileo and the Conflict between Religion and Science (Routledge, 2016), Religion, Philosophy and Knowledge (Palgrave Pivot, 2016), and Deprovincializing Science and Religion (Cambridge Elements, 2021). We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

When hearing the phrase ‘comparative philosophy of religion’, you may think of a comparison of major religious traditions, in particular the ‘big five’: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Such comparisons are surely valuable. But in the context of the longue durée of human history, religions of this kind are in the minority. They resemble each other insofar as each has been reshaped (in varying degrees) by the ‘axial age’ revolutions in human thought. These revolutions led to a distinction between divinity and what came to be known as the ‘natural world,’ coupled with a strong focus on individual ethical behavior with a view to an otherworldly salvation or liberation. For most of their history, human beings have lived in communities whose religious practices had a very different character. We can understand this difference by way of a distinction that has recently become influential in the study of religion. It is that between transcendentalist and immanentist forms of religiosity.

This distinction has been popularized by the work of Alan Strathern and Marshall Sahlins. But its earliest use appears to have been in the work of Iwao Munakata, a scholar of Japanese ‘folk religion.’ For Munakata, the indigenous religious practices of Japan were characterized by a conviction that ‘although the gods reside in the world of souls, they have ready access to this world’, engaging in ‘continual intercourse with village life.’ Divinity is represented by such practices as immanent in the world.

Strathern’s development of this idea generalizes it, setting out ten characteristics of immanentist religion. These include a ‘promiscuous attribution of personhood,’ a pragmatic orientation towards collective flourishing in the here and now, gods (or ‘metapersons’) whose activities are characterized by power rather than ethics, and little interest in questions of ‘belief.’ In all these respects, immanentist religions can be contrasted with ‘transcendentalist’ ones (like the ‘big five’). Transcendalist religions restrict the range of entities to whom personhood is attributed, are oriented towards ‘otherworldly’ and individual rather than collective goals, have a strong ethical component, and develop of bodies of doctrine.

Strathern’s important insight is that even transcendentalist religions retain significant elements of immanentist practice. In medieval Europe, for example ‘people continued to populate their environment with a multitude of sprites, ghosts, goblins, witches, demons, [and] tree spirits,’ while Roman Catholic practices became merged with ideas that their opponents regarded as magical. Foremost among those opponents were the Protestant Reformers, whose movement can be regarded as an effort to purge Christianity of its immanentism, an effort that seems doomed to failure. Pentecostal Christianity, for instance, has returned to forms of religious practice that bear some of the marks of immanentism.

My suggestion is that a comparative philosophy of religion should broaden its scope to include the more purely immanentist forms of religiosity. There are already a few examples of this, such as the recent volume on Animism and Philosophy of Religion, edited by Tiddy Smith. But as Smith himself notes, this is an outlier in the field. So we need more works of this kind. Including immanentist forms of religiosity in the scope of our work would enrich the philosophy of religion in a number of ways.

A first is that such ‘religions’ – the term is not helpful here, since these forms of religiosity are neither institutionalized nor set apart from everyday life – have little interest in matters of belief, and even less in systems of theology. To ask of practitioners what they ‘believe’ is unlikely to yield a consistent picture. So a study of immanentist religiosity will involve abandoning the conception of religion that thinks of its defining feature as belief. Immanentist religiosity is primarily a matter of practice, with ‘beliefs’ (in the sense of ways in which practices are understood) being varying and context-dependent. To understand such ‘religions’ philosophically, we will need to reflect on their practices. What do such practices do? What effect do they seek to have? What is their value?

A second important feature of such religions is that they are (in Strathern’s words) ‘empirical, pragmatic, and experimental.’ Philosophers are fond of saying that religious beliefs have a low degree of empirical content, being largely unfalsifiable. But because the focus of immanentist religious practices is well-being in the ‘here and now,’ practitioners can assess the efficacy of those practices. If they are apparently failing – if children die, crops do not grow, or animals do not flourish – the practice (and the ‘beliefs’ that go with it) may be abandoned. The anthropologist Joel Robbins cites a story from Papua New Guinea in which the arrival of Christianity resulted in elders putting the new religion to the test. They planted two gardens, treating one with Christian prayer and the other with traditional incantations. Some Polynesian peoples even had rituals for getting rid of gods that were judged to be no longer useful.

Finally, a focus on immanentist ‘religions’ can remind us of the separability of religion and ethics. The gods of immanentist societies are not particularly ethical, even by the standards of the society that interacts with them. Plato, for example, proposed censoring Homer and Hesiod because of the ways in which they depicted the behaviour of the gods. Gods of this kind are characterized primarily in terms of their power to bring about certain effects. Nor are immanentist notions of the afterlife associated with morality. While practically all peoples assume that humans continue to exist (for a period, at least) after their death, immanentist societies do not link this assumption with the idea of post-mortem reward or punishment.

It was not uncommon for Christian missionaries, when encountering immanentist religious practice, to deny that these peoples had a religion at all, so different was it from the religions with which they were familiar. My fellow philosophers may not be pleased by the suggestion, but their focus on the ‘big five’ religions (or, more commonly, just one of these) suggests they may share this missionary prejudice.