Eric Steinhart on “Incomparable Religions”

Eric Charles Steinhart is Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University. He has degrees in computer science and in philosophy. He has authored Your Digital Afterlives, Believing in Dawkins, and Atheistic Platonism. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

By now I suppose pretty much everybody has heard the critical thesis that traditional comparative philosophy of religion (CPoR) has a rather dark past. It was a colonial project. Or even that the very category of religion (especially “world religions”) was invented by missionaries in the British Empire. It’s increasingly recognized that the history of CPoR has been extremely Christo-normative, and often very destructive for non-Christians. Still, if it can change its ways, I think CPoR can have a brighter future.

The old way of doing CPoR appears in slogans: religion is like an elephant; all religions are different paths up the same mountain. A bit more deeply: all religions share a common mystical core; God has many faces; God has many names. One elephant, one mountain, one mystical core, one God. More philosophically, CPoR produced John Hick’s pluralism, in which all religions are different human ways of experiencing and responding to “the Real”. One Real, not many Reals. God becomes more abstract, so that religions are about “the ultimate”, “the holy”, “the divine”, “the transcendent”. Always the definite article “the”, and never plural. Always one, never many.

Even more parochially, traditional CPoR accepts the Protestant axiom that religion is mainly a matter of propositional content. It’s not hard to find illustrations of the view that religions are all different “faiths” or about “beliefs”. On this view, a religion amounts to a kind of ultimate theory, which is more or less true of ultimate reality. And there is only one ultimate reality, that is, one possible world, so religions more or less correctly describe this one world. Religions obviously make incompatible truth-claims: God has a son; God has no son. For the pluralist, the favorite strategy has been to see these as different aspects or parts of the One Ultimate Reality (see “the elephant” or “the mountain”). For the pluralist, every religion gets some but not all of “the truth” about “the ultimate” or “the transcendent”. Always with the definite article, and never plural.

Yet the alternative seems to be an incoherent cultural relativism: all religions are equally true! Why is this incoherent? Because religions really do make truth-claims, and they really do conflict. The pagan says there are many gods; the monotheist that there is one god; the atheist that there are no gods. These conflicts cannot be reconciled by finding some occult unity. They are incompatible. One popular way out of these troubles just says that religions are linked by family-resemblance. Unfortunately, the family-resemblance view is true because it is trivial. Everything resembles everything else.

I think the most positive way forward for CPoR requires rejecting its central Protestant axiom. Religions are not efforts to find the one true theory of the one ultimate reality. Religions don’t have anything to do with ultimate reality (or realities), because the ultimates are studied by entirely secular logic, mathematics, and metaphysics. Far from being descriptive, religions are ways of actively relating to other possible worlds. Here I recommend the modal realism of David Lewis: there are many possible worlds, they do not overlap, and no thing is in more than one possible world. Each religion makes truth-claims about its own world, which is not the actual world, and it makes truth-claims about no other worlds besides its own. Religions are incommensurable. Different religions are comparable, for example, in the number of gods in their respective worlds. But this comparison reveals difference rather than unity. There are many transcendent ideals, many stars, many mountains, many orderings of sacred values.

If actively relating to another possible world is a kind of climbing, then every religion climbs its own mountain. Does this mean religions deal with ethics? It does not. Ethics, too, is the province of entirely secular logic and philosophy. Our common morality emerges logically, naturally, and rationally from objective and necessary facts about persons. Religions are neither descriptive theories of ultimate reality, nor ethical theories of how humans ought to treat each other. Nevertheless, there are many non-ethical questions about how humans ought to live. But even these belong to the entirely secular study of human flourishing. And here CPoR has many questions to address: how do different religions treat women? Do they treat women justly or unjustly? CPoR can use objective, secular norms to ethically evaluate religions (and gods). In what ways are religions good? In what ways are they evil?

What is left for religion? As ways of engaging other possible worlds, religions deal with ideals that are not primarily ethical, but which enter ethics in foundational ways. Is it ethical to for mountaineers to free-solo? This depends, in part, on your assessment of the non-ethical value of free-soloing. If you think free-soloing is a way for humans to participate in superhuman or transcendental ideals, your answer will be yes. Otherwise, no. Different religions reveal different ideals. There are transcendental values, values which exceed all utilitarian computations, but these are incommensurable, and they are fully realized only in diverse possible worlds. Because there are many worlds, these values do not conflict. This is pragmatic value-pluralism. These transcendental values resemble aesthetic values, ways in which human conduct gains superhuman beauty. Religions are genres of pragmatic-aesthetic practices. They are different aesthetic ways of life, different ways of pursuing styles of aesthetic excellence beyond the human.

Charles Taliaferro on “Is There A Future For The Philosophy of Religion?”

Charles Taliaferro is Professor of Philosophy and Overby Distinguished Chair at St. Olaf College. He is the author or co-author of over 30 books, including the two editions of the Blackwell Companion to Philosophy of Religion. He is the author of the Philosophy of Religion entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Editor-in-Chief of Open Theology. 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.

In my 40 years in higher education and in giving invited lectures in philosophy of religion at major universities in the USA and UK (Harvard, Yale, U of Chicago, Oxford, Cambridge…) and elsewhere (Russia, China, Brazil) I have found eager audiences hungry for philosophy of religion. Given the overwhelmingly large population of religiously identified persons on this planet (PEW estimates 84%) for philosophers to ignore the importance of religious belief and practice would be negligent. While some popular news media report a decline in religion in parts of the world, sociologists of religion like Randy Stark (in his book The Triumph of Faith; Why The World is More Religious Than Ever) contend that low numbers are often generated if ‘religion’ is defined in terms of membership in churches, temples, and so on; but if ‘religion’ is measured in terms of frequency of praying, believing there is a God or Higher Power, visiting shrines, and so on, numbers are extraordinarily high. I have also seen a study where it was assumed that if persons are self-described atheists then they are classified as non-religious (see chapter one of Stark’s book). But Buddhism is widely considered a religion and it is atheistic. The most well recognized and perhaps best loved religious leader today, the Dalia Lama, is an atheist (or, if you prefer a more modest term ‘a non-theist’; either way, he is quite explicit in denying the reality of a Creator-God). Continue reading

Craig Duncan on “What Norms and Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Craig Duncan is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Ithaca College. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Excellence in the Philosophy of Religion

An account of excellence in the sub-discipline of the philosophy of religion is, I believe, at the same time both an account of why the philosophy of religion is difficult and why the philosophy of religion is exciting.

Start first with why the philosophy of religion is difficult. A main reason consists of the wide range of expertise – both within philosophy, and outside of it – that is relevant to the questions which the sub-discipline studies. Such questions include:

Metaphysics: the nature of God (and the ideas and puzzles associated with necessary existence, omnipotence, infinity, etc.), God’s relation to time, the relation between divine foreknowledge and free will, the existence of immaterial souls and how these interact with the natural world, the nature of miracles.

Epistemology: the justification of belief in God, the justification of belief in miracles, the contest between faith and evidence.

Ethics: the debate over whether God could have sufficient reasons for permitting evil, the debate over whether moral objectivity requires the existence of God (and whether meaning in life requires the existence of God), the justice (or lack thereof) of heaven and hell, the nature of sin and forgiveness.

Outside of philosophy proper, the philosophy of religion relates to questions of natural science (e.g. an assessment of the Cosmological Argument requires some familiarity with physical cosmology), social science (a good philosopher of religion will be familiar with psychological, sociological, and anthropological approaches to the study of religion), and various techniques of the humanities (such as the translation and interpretation of religious texts, as well as the study of those texts’ histories and roles in particular cultures).

That is a daunting list of relevant expertises, which can at first pass make the exploration of the philosophy of religion seem like a fool’s errand. However, I instead believe this wide range of questions accounts for the excitement of the field. For although excellence in the philosophy of religion requires a basic understanding of abstruse notions such as possible worlds, A-series and B-series time, Bayes’s Theorem, numerical identity, the Anthropic Principle, etc., these abstruse notions are put to use in an exploration of gripping questions that interest even non-philosophers: Why is there something rather than nothing? Is the universe nothing more than “accidental collocations of atoms” (in Bertrand Russell’s words), or is there a higher intelligence directing all things? What if anything becomes of us after death? Why is there so much suffering in the world? Thus, insofar as the philosophy of religion applies itself to these questions that all humans wonder about at some point in their lives, the metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics used within the philosophy of religion is truly applied metaphysics, applied epistemology, and applied ethics. Within the philosophy of religion, then, one routinely encounters the excitement of understanding how cutting-edge philosophical notions apply to these questions of perennial human concern. The philosophy of religion is difficult, yes, but with great difficulty comes potentially great reward.

In short, one element of excellence in the philosophy of religion is a wide-ranging familiarity with the various branches of philosophy, as well as with numerous forms of intellectual inquiry outside of philosophy.

As necessary as this broad familiarity is for excellence in the philosophy of religion, however, it is not sufficient. Also necessary, I believe, are various intellectual virtues that characterize excellence in philosophy generally, but that are uniquely challenging to cultivate within the philosophy of religion in particular.

Courage and Love of Truth:

Philosophy requires an overriding commitment to pursue the truth, which in turn entails a commitment to follow the strongest argument wherever it leads, even if this argument falsifies a cherished conclusion. Following the strongest argument can require courage, for pursuing the truth can sometimes put one at odds with the beliefs that one grew up with or currently finds comfort in, and it can put one at odds with family, friends, and others who continue to hold the beliefs that one’s arguments cast doubt upon. (By this virtue, I do not simply have in mind those who courageously reject the religion they grew up with. A committed atheist who comes to doubt the force of the arguments that formerly undergirded his/her atheism may have to courageously face the ridicule of atheistic peers.) Of course, intellectual courage has a role to play in all sub-disciplines of philosophy, not just the philosophy of religion. But inasmuch as philosophers of religion were often raised in religious communities whose tenets do not always survive rational scrutiny, such philosophers’ need for intellectual courage in pursuing the truth is perhaps greater than is typical across philosophy generally.

Fair-mindedness and Empathy:

As with courage and the pursuit of truth, fair-mindedness and empathy are virtues across philosophy generally, but they also face special hurdles in the case of the philosophy of religion. This is so because students of philosophy who begin from within a religious community may have been taught that those who reject their religion are for that reason sinful. That teaching can pose a barrier to the practice of empathetically viewing the world from the eyes of an outsider and fair-mindedly exploring that world view. Overcoming this barrier and practicing these virtues also guards against holding views of others that amount to caricatures. Instead, fair-mindedness and empathy foster recognition of the diversity of thought to be found within each religious tradition. For instance, a Christian practitioner of fair-mindedness and empathy will not just understand Hinduism, say, as polytheistic, but will recognize that co-existing alongside polytheistic interpretations of Hinduism are (to give only a few of many possible examples) Shankara’s non-theistic monism, Ramanuja’s monistic theism, and Madhva’s dualistic monotheism. From another direction, an atheistic practitioner of fair-mindedness and empathy will perhaps have to resist a gut-level impulse to consider all forms of religious belief ridiculous, in order not to dogmatically prejudge the questions under consideration with the philosophy of religion.

Honesty and Humility:

As with the other virtues, honesty and humility are generally valuable traits in philosophy, but they are (I believe) oftentimes made more difficult in the philosophy of religion. This is because intellectual motives for religious belief are often mixed with pragmatic motives such as a desire for certainty, for comfort, or for hope. In short, wishful thinking looms as a constant threat and one must be vigilant to avoid it by being self-aware and honest about one’s grounds for belief in this or that claim within the philosophy of religion. One should also be humble, and recognize that in a field as difficult as this, which concerns matters that lie at the very limits of human understanding, one’s grasp of the truth is likely to be partial at best.

The aforementioned forms of expertise and intellectual virtue surely do not exhaust excellence in the philosophy of religion, but I believe they will be part of any plausible account of that excellence.