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).

I suggest that of all the sub-fields of philosophy, philosophy of religion is hard to surpass in terms of addressing what people actually care about. Perhaps the sub-fields of ethics and political philosophy have a stronger claim in terms of maximum relevance to all peoples, but keep in mind that both ethics and political philosophy raise concerns that are religiously significant and are treated in the philosophy of religion literature (e.g. the Euthyphro dilemma, the status of religious claims in a pluralistic, liberal democracy).

Two recent developments in philosophy of religion that are exciting involve its interdisciplinary nature and its transcending a divide between analytical and continental modes of inquiry.

On the interdisciplinary side, one has only to look at the massive attention given to the relationship between science and religion. We have come a long way from the distorted conflict model of Draper and White. To be sure there are philosophers like Daniel Dennett who charge that contemporary science undermines a host of religious claims. But there are just as many, if not more, philosophers who deny the significance of this, such as Michael Ruse, himself a secular atheist, who distinguishes science casting doubt on Biblical narratives of Eden and the Flood from addressing cosmic questions about the meaning of life. The ways in which philosophy of religion can interact with other disciplines investigating religion is evident in the 2021 The Wiley Blackwell Companion to the Study of Religion, second edition, edited by Robert Segal and Nickolas Roubekas.

On overcoming the analytic versus continental divide, a more inclusive (less partisan) method of practicing philosophy of religion is apparent among philosophers who draw on aesthetics and the philosophy of art: Mark Wynn, Victoria Harrison, Gwen Griffith-Dickson, Douglas Hedley, David Brown, Anthony O’Hear, and others. In my own work, I have sought to be neither narrowly analytic nor narrowly continental but to draw on sources in both, as in the book I recently co-authored with the American painter, Jil Evans, Is God Invisible? An Essay on Religion and Aesthetics (CUP 2021).

A further sign of the exciting vibrancy of the field will be published this summer: the four volume Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Philosophy of Religion with over 470 entries by over 350 scholars (mostly philosophers, and some historians of ideas and culture) from around the world; I am the senior co-editor with Stewart Goetz with five associate editors and fifteen assistant editors. Contributors include philosophers who practice the religious traditions they address as well as multiple secular philosophers. Readers of this blog may know that Stewart and I are philosophers who are practicing Christians, but the different editors and contributors include huge numbers (the vast majority) of non-Christians and some who are quite critical of Christian philosophy (e.g. John Schellenberg). One of the main associate editors, the outstanding philosopher of religion, Graham Oppy, is not hostile to theism or Christianity in particular, but, as a well-known advocate of non-theistic positions (atheism / agnosticism), he has insured that non-theistic arguments are in no short-supply in the Encyclopedia.

What of the complaint that philosophy of religion today is too Christian in its orientation or too stagnant and not showing signs of progress (or development) such as we see in the sciences?

On Christianity: I have, of course, indicated that the forthcoming Encyclopedia offers widespread resources for philosophers to engage in non-Christian traditions. This is most thorough in terms of religions in India, China, Nepal, Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia, but attention is also given to South America and African traditional religion (an area addressed in Is God Invisible?). A contemporary philosopher of religion, Thaddeus Metz (University of Pretoria), is engaged in excellent philosophical treatments of traditional African religions and ethics. Chad Meister and I edit a series with Routledge on contemporary philosophical investigations into religion. So far, the published volumes are on Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Judaism, Islam, and even on religious naturalism (the later by Graham Oppy). Christianity is next on the list, but we ensured first that non-Christian religions were engaged. Having taken note of the welcome expansion of philosophy of religion, it should also be noted that Christianity and Islam are the two largest religions today in terms of numbers (e.g. in terms of Africa, it is estimated that 40% of Africa is Christian and 40% Islamic); it is not odd that philosophers who want to engage large numbers of persons on this planet would prioritize their attention on Abrahamic traditions. Moreover, there is a growing appreciation of philosophical debates in Ancient and Classical Indian philosophy over monotheism and natural theology (arguments from the structure of the cosmos to Brahman, anti-theistic arguments from evil) that are of course relevant to the Abrahamic faiths but developed independent of those faiths. See, for example, God and the World’s Arrangement: Readings from Vedanta and Nyay (Hackett).

As for whether contemporary philosophy of religion seems stagnant to some critics, I suggest that some of these complaints come from philosophers whose arguments on various topics (e.g., contending that classical theism is incoherent or ridiculously improbable) have not been universally accepted by other philosophers of religion. Some of these critics go so far as to accuse their unpersuaded colleagues of not being truly philosophers, but apologists. I will not charge them with arrogance (for all I know, these critics are humble and believe they are open-minded), but I do suggest that they overestimate the power of their own arguments / positions, and fail to appreciate some lessons from history. From time to time, philosophers have proclaimed that this or that position is the only game in town. Not long ago, the later Wittgenstein’s work was deemed unassailable, Marxism once achieved virtual consensus, logical positivism did the same, and today there are some philosophy and religious studies departments that seem to rule out anything other than naturalism. I suggest that the current orthodoxy stands as much promise of being an enduring monolithic stance as former orthodoxies. I have been in graduate seminars at Harvard in the 1970s when anything other than nominalism was considered a joke, while only a little later and less that 100 miles away at Brown University, Platonism was all the rage. At Oxford and Cambridge up through the 1980s Wittgenstein’s private language argument was considered to be invincible, only to become a minority position in the 1990s. Bertrand Russell concluded his famous history of philosophy declaring the ontological theistic argument dead. Those keeping up with the literature know this has turned out to be false. There is a saying that old soldiers never die, they simply fade away; it has also been remarked that philosophical debates (such as theism versus naturalism) are different from old soldiers—not only do they not die, they never fade away. I believe there can be (and has been) progress in philosophy. The most recent version of the ontological argument in print is better than Anselm’s. But reaching consensus on the titanic views in metaphysics, epistemology, and value theory inside and outside philosophy of religion is as elusive as ever.

To sum up: My experience in the classroom and in multiple contexts culturally from Brazil to New York City, China, and so on, indicates to me the vibrancy of philosophy of religion. The field has been a vital site for me to bring the resources of philosophy to bear in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement. I have given pro-BLM lectures in the UK, the USA, and in my college, as well as addressing systemic racism in four books. Philosophy of religion is the highest over-enrolled course in my college with waiting lists of 50 or more students. I suggest that a philosophical education (undergraduate or graduate) without philosophy of religion, would be Hamlet without Gertrude, Hamlet, Ophelia, and the rest of the crew.

Gary Colwell on “Is There A Future For The Philosophy of Religion?”

Gary Colwell is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Condordia University of Edmonton. 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.

Thesis: As long as there is a future with a sufficient number of humans philosophy of religion will have a future.
(For, if there is no future, nothing has a future; and if there are no humans, no human endeavour has a future; and if there is not a sufficient number of humans philosophy of religion may not be one of the human endeavours.)

Definition PR: Philosophy of Religion is philosophical thinking about a religion.
(Briefly, it’s questioning the foundations of religious belief; i.e., deep questioning involving analysis and synthesis. PR is here taken to refer to a human cognitive activity, one not limited to the requirements of an academic course titled “Philosophy of Religion.”)

Assumption A: The future of humans is the only future under consideration.
(We shall set aside a consideration of supernatural beings who do philosophy. And although there is a remote possibility that aliens and squirrels do philosophy we have no evidence to support that view.)

Assumption B: A sufficient number of humans to guarantee philosophical thinking about religious belief is 1000.
(The number may be more or less, but whatever it precisely is, if indeed there is such a number, let’s assume that we will have that number.)

Assumption C: Human nature will not change.
(For, if it does change, then the cognitive inclination to do philosophy may become a casualty, and along with it philosophy of religion.)

Assumption D: The phrase “there will always be” is elliptical for “so long as there is a future with a sufficient number of humans there will always be.”

1. There will always be some humans who are religious.
(by nature, nurture or conversion).

2. Among religious humans there will always be those who question the foundations of their religious belief.
(by nature, nurture or other influence)

3. Among non-religious humans there will always be those who question the foundations of religious belief.
(by nature, nurture or other influence.)

4. Therefore, there will always be religious and non-religious questioners of the foundations of religious belief.
(A-D, 1-3)

5. Therefore, there will always be a future for the philosophy of religion.
(4, PR) Q.E.D.

* Thanks to Travis Dumsday for his encouragement.

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.