Dwayne Tunstall on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”


Dwayne A. Tunstall

Dwayne A. Tunstall is Associate Professor of Philosophy and African/African American Studies at Grand Valley State University. His most recent book is Doing Philosophy Personally: Thinking about Metaphysics, Theism, and Antiblack Racism (Fordham University Press, 2013). We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

In my more cynical moments, I am tempted to regard philosophy of religion as an ongoing quixotic quest to study an analytically inadequate concept—namely, religion. My cynical self would contend that philosophers of “religion” no longer need to use any substantive concept of religion to study phenomena once classified as religious in nature. Philosophers of “religion” can just study the beliefs held by members of communities traditionally considered to be religious communities. Then, they can construct accounts of those beliefs, alongside accounts of the practices and rituals performed by members of those communities, using knowledge acquired from the most adequate ethnographic studies and historical accounts of those communities. This approach would be a cynical appropriation of G. Scott Davis’s advice to students of comparative religions and ethics in Believing and Acting (Oxford University Press, 2012): “[U]nderstanding religion requires nothing more than the sensitive and imaginative reading of human phenomena informed by the best available ethnography set in the best available historical narrative” (3). Thankfully, I haven’t let those cynical moments determine how I define the field.

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Christine Overall on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”


Christine Overall

Christine Overall is a Professor of Philosophy and holds a University Research Chair at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. Her most recent book is Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate (MIT Press, 2012). We invited her to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

As I child I was a bookworm, and the kind of books I loved most were about magic. I started with the endlessly proliferating Oz books, but soon found them facile and implausible. I then devoured Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I was also captivated by Edwardian novelist E. Nesbit’s books, especially her trilogy, Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Amulet. And I immersed myself in the works of twentieth-century American writer Edward Eager, in particular Half Magic, Knight’s Castle, Magic by the Lake, and The Time Garden. These books introduced me to alternate histories, time travel, identity shifts, magical charms, powerful incantations, and supernatural capacities.

Although I knew that these books were not literally true, I fervently hoped that they might turn out to be the fictional representation of a real world of magic—a world where one might buy a magic carpet and be transported through space and time, where one could find a magic coin that granted wishes (or even half-wishes), where an enchanted animal called a Psammead would transform dull normalcy into endless possibilities, and where children could be masters of their fate and independent agents of their own choices.

But the books that enchanted me most were C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I had been raised as an Anglican. As a child I often prayed for God’s help, although I never received any noticeable response. Thanks to weekly Sunday School classes, which taught me stories and verses from the King James Version of the Bible, I was an avid and unquestioning believer.

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