Clayton Crockett on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

clayton crockettClayton Crockett is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Central Arkansas. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

In many respects, Immanuel Kant defines the theoretical situation for knowledge in the modern university. In his three Critiques, Kant accomplishes a critique of science or philosophy (pure reason), a critique of morality (pure practical reason), and a critique of art (aesthetics) that sets up an idealized model for modern knowledge. This model is institutionally implemented in neo-Kantian terms, as these sciences are divided into disciplines that are then positivized and historicized. In The Conflict of the Faculties, Kant defends the lower faculty of philosophy, which represents what becomes known as the liberal arts, against the claims of the higher faculties of theology, medicine and law. The higher faculties are the professional schools, that threaten to subsume philosophy, humanities and the liberal arts.

As the contemporary university becomes increasingly corporatized, disciplines and areas of knowledge that are less directly profitable get marginalized. The humanities, liberal arts, and what is sometimes called general education are downsized as administrators, politicians, parents and even students emphasize the value of college as a vocational training program. Students matriculate into degree programs that presumably prepare them for jobs in a precarious global economy. Philosophy and religious studies are not popular areas of study in this context, not to mention philosophy of religion.

It is significant that Kant was unable to develop a critique of religion; he viewed religion as a subset of morality, as a form of practical reason. Modern religion should function within “the limits of reason alone.” It is Hegel who articulated a modern philosophy of religion, because for Hegel religion dialectically leads to philosophy. Religion is a kind of picture-thinking, a representation that shows the true but must give way to the pure reason of the Concept (Begriff). Hegel’s teleology is problematic, but he helps historicize reason and philosophy even as he does so from a Eurocentric perspective. Adopting Freud’s idea of the return of the repressed, we could say that religion consistently returns throughout modernity to haunt reason’s desire to repress it.

A quote I often mention to my classes is one that was given by Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013. He stated: “In fact, if I went back to college today, I think I would probably major in comparative religion, because that’s how integrated it is in everything that we are working on and deciding and thinking about in life today.” Despite the pressures to study something that appears more directly useful for a career, understanding the nature and role of religion in the world today is incredibly important and valuable. And this recognition of the value of studying religion occurs within a context where more and more potential employers are recommending that students study the humanities rather than business or STEM-related topics. Recent studies show that many entrepreneurs and CEOs of thriving corporations want students to study and major in humanities subjects.

In the humanities, or more specifically the academic study of religion, philosophy of religion has a crucial role to play. Unfortunately, due to the history of academic religious studies in the United States, philosophy of religion has been devalued in religious studies programs. Kerry affirms the importance of studying comparative religion. The predominant academic model of religious studies in the US today is the comparative world religions curriculum, which replaces the Protestant seminary model for the study of religion. During much of the twentieth century, the study of religion took place under the guise of the Protestant seminary model, and this curriculum continues to influence the field because most of the major US universities have seminaries attached or connected to them. According to a seminary model, religious studies is primarily Christian, and consists of categories like scripture, ethics, church history, and theology. The secular comparative world religions model replaces and updates the Protestant seminary model.

The ascendance of a comparative world religions curriculum for religious studies is mostly a good thing, because it transcends Christian parochialism, but there is one major downside. The world religions model adopts social scientific methodologies from the social sciences. These methodologies are crucial to the academic study of religion, but they leave out any explicitly philosophical approach. Most of the time, philosophy is associated, explicitly or implicitly, with theology. And theology is what the comparative world religions model explicitly opposes. Many scholars of religion demand the expulsion of theology in order for religious studies to be a viable academic discipline. At the same time, the construction of what we call world religions is not neutral, and has a complex history that Tomoko Masuzawa explores in her important book The Invention of World Religions.

Today we can see the breakdown of a certain kind of modern secularism, defined as the delimitation of religion to a private sphere. The return of religion in political terms indicates what José Casanova calls a deprivatization of religion. The strict opposition between reason and religion, faith and knowledge, deconstructs. This is a crucial task for philosophical understanding, to make sense of what is sometimes called a postsecular world.

My contention is that whatever one thinks about theology and the postsecular, the elimination of philosophy from the academic study of religion is a huge loss. Philosophy of religion is vital to the study of religion, not just a subset of philosophical inquiry. We need an explicitly philosophical commitment to exploring the persistent phenomenon of religion, a word that Jacques Derrida calls “the clearest and the most obscure” in his essay on “Faith and Knowledge.” Philosophy of religion studies the word, the meaning, the history, and the situation of religion as it expresses itself in the world today, which is integrated with everything that one works with, decides upon, and thinks about in life today, as Kerry affirms. The modern and contemporary university does not know how to properly value this form of thinking and understanding. But it is blind without it.

Stephen T. Davis on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

stephen davisStephen T. Davis is the Russell K. Pitzer Professor of Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

There are of course Catholic and Protestant institutions of higher learning, but when I speak of “the modern University,” I mean secular academia as it presently exists in North America and Europe. And the fact is that religion seems to come in for little good press in those circles these days. There are doubtless many reasons for this phenomenon. Let me mention two.

First, religious people are criticized. Although lip service is usually paid to the fact that not all religious people are bad, nevertheless we live in a time when Muslims are tarred with the brush of Islamic terrorism, Jews are associated with (what are considered by some to be) those imperialistic war-mongers the Israelis, and Christians (and especially conservative Catholics and Evangelical Protestants) are dismissed as narrow-minded, dogmatic, and homophobic deniers of science. These are the kinds of things that religion can do—so the University implies.

Second, religion conflicts with the dominant world-view of the University; we can call it Naturalism. This theory says: (1) the physical universe exhausts reality (everything that exists is atoms in motion); there are no souls, spirits, gods, or God; (2) no true natural laws can ever be violated; and accordingly (3) everything that occurs can in principle be explained by methods similar to those used in the natural sciences. Naturalists admit that there are things we cannot now explain, but that is because we do not know enough. The point is that there are no intractable mysteries, permanent anomalies, or divine miracles. In short, there is no room for God or (supernatural) religion in naturalism.

For these and doubtless other reasons, religion is a voice that seems to be unwelcome as part of the conversation in today’s University. It is largely ignored or deemphasized. We even see historians writing religion out of the past as much as possible—e.g., trying to explain the Civil Rights movement or even the Protestant Reformation in largely non-religious terms. Of course philosophy of religion cannot by itself reverse these trends, but I think it can do something.

But what exactly is the philosophy of religion? I understand it to be in large part the careful philosophical examination of religious claims. (Of course religion is not limited to religious beliefs or claims—there are religious practices, laws, attitudes, holidays, buildings, forms of government, etc., but the philosophy of religion, like all of philosophy, is greatly concerned with beliefs.) Its practitioners ask questions like:

  • Does God exist?
  • If God exists, why is there so much evil and suffering?
  • Is reincarnation true?
  • Is it ever rational to believe in something you cannot see or touch or prove?
  • Is one religion superior to others?
  • Does life have any transcendent meaning?

Although philosophers of religion usually take sides in such debates, the discipline of philosophy of religion is neither a philosophical defense of religious claims nor a philosophical attack on them.

What then can this discipline do in the current situation? I will mention two things. First, it can serve as an excellent way to introduce students to the larger discipline of which it is a part, philosophy. This is because the questions it deals with significantly overlap with traditional questions that are raised in the central branches in philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, logic, philosophy of mind, etc.). Moreover, many themes in the philosophy of religion can be found in the works of almost every great historical philosopher.

Second, and more importantly, it can show the contemporary University that there exists rational, rigorous, and painstaking examination of various important and fascinating religious claims and that there are highly intelligent people on both sides of such debates. Given not just its past but its present influence on human behavior in today’s world, religion ought to be a deep concern in academia. Religion isn’t just obscurantist fundamentalists pontificating and fighting over nonsense. In religion, people try to make sense of their lives. That is something the University ought to be deeply interested in.

Stephen Clark on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

StephenRLClarkStephen Clark is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Liverpool University. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Anything that human beings do is likely to interest philosophers, especially if what they do seems odd, unnecessary or irrational for a simply cost-benefit understanding: pure science, sex, or sport, for obvious example. The guddle of ritual practices, sacred sites and texts and people, that are popularly summed up as ‘religion’ is no exception. Why do people devote their energies to building churches, dressing up in wholly impractical garments, reading and re-reading ancient and often incomprehensible texts? Why do they need to imagine ‘other worlds’ or plan for their imagined afterlife (even if only to plan their funerals or their memorial tablets)?  Why do they feel (or pretend to feel) particular respect for ancestors, or the aged, or infants, or the insane? Why do they alternately revere and sacrifice particular animals? Why mark the changing seasons with stories and celebrations, or with fasts and floggings? Many similar questions can be asked about our common concern with ‘Art’ or ‘Sport’ or ‘Science’ or ‘Celebrity’. Why don’t we behave like sensible, ‘rational’ animals, seeking merely ‘natural’ goals by whatever convenient means?

There are at least two ways of practising ‘philosophy’. We may seek to analyse the ways that people actually behave: what is it to win a game, in any particular sport; what are the qualities that sportsmen value, or what their sins and failings? When is ‘cheating’ simply an acknowledged, proper, tactic (even if it is penalized when noticed), and when a sign of something deeply wrong, ‘unsporting’? These conversations may feed into the development of ‘sport’ in general, or particular sporting enterprises. The other way of ‘philosophising’ is to challenge the whole practice, requiring – for example – that sportsmen and their followers justify their strange devotion. Maybe they will succeed, and ‘sport’ at last seem ‘rational’ in whatever terms that audience prefers. Or maybe that audience will itself be challenged, and so come to see what strange assumptions – perhaps about the importance of ‘being serious’ or acting only for some non-sportive gain – they have been making, and should now abandon. Maybe all human life will come to seem ‘a game’, and skilled sportsmen only doing, more consciously and carefully, what everyone should do: preferring the effort of taking part, the beauty of the means, to any literal success.

The same split effort may be seen in dealing with ‘Religion’. One sort of philosopher will prefer to analyse what is said and done by particular ‘believers’, and discover (for example) whether the stories and the rituals have a coherent sense. Who and what is ‘saintly’? What does ‘piety’ require? What connections are there between ritual and moral rules (if any)? What is taken to be a sacred text, in any particular community, and what are the implications of its being thus ‘sacred’? What does omnipotence entail, or what does it mean to say that there is No Self? Another sort – or the same philosophers in other moods – may instead enquire into what external justification there is for this or another set of rules, rituals and stories. They may even wonder whether there is any such thing as ‘religion’: maybe that is only a term invented to associate many various activities that are all, perhaps, indulged ‘religiously’ (as we might say, ‘enthusiastically’ or ‘habitually’: with or without our genuine attention). Maybe ‘sacred’ is only a term employed by anthropologists or archaeologists to describe practices or objects whose ‘real’ use they have not yet discovered. In what sense, if any, is the Christian Bible, Jewish Torah, Muslim Koran a ‘sacred text’? Are the Vedas? Are the Homeric epics? Star Wars? Are the arguments of particular ‘religions’ (hypostatized as discrete entities, rather than simply as occasions when people are talking or acting ‘religiously’) of real significance, or are they meditation exercises, or quaint diversions from – and partial contributions to – the life of everyday? Can we conceive a world entirely without ‘religion’? – or is that very effort yet another example, exactly, of ‘religion’: the imagining of ‘another world’ than this, with other global priorities, to be achieved by carefully disinfecting our usual thoughts and feelings, in obedience to new texts and prophets?

Sport may turn out to be a metaphor for the ordinary lives even of those who did not think of themselves as ‘sporty’. Religion may also have a wider force than ‘irreligious’ philosophers imagine. Philosophers of Sport (whether descriptive or revisionist) need not themselves, in any ordinary sense, be sportsmen, but it may be presumed that they have some sympathy with sport, and some acquaintance with the actual practices and feelings of sportsmen and spectators. The same should be true for philosophers of ‘religion’. In practice it often seems that such philosophers have so little sympathy with ‘religion’ that they perennially miss the point: they come to the study, perhaps, from the more arcane regions of logic or epistemology – and are satisfied to pose logical puzzles, for example, about ‘omnipotence’ (as an attribute of the divine) or epistemological, about the source of ‘faith’, without asking what is important to ‘believers’. They may also be blind to their own convictions, habits and attractions, and so not realize how often their own devotion to a purely ‘rational’ account of things, their own intellectual ascesis, even their veiled contempt for those with another conviction is, exactly, of the form of (evangelical) religion! What effort is involved in keeping faith with Dawkins?

So what may ‘philosophers of religion’ chiefly contribute to the University? Any human enterprise, and especially those with major and sometimes catastrophic effects on everyone’s experience, deserves to be understood. But perhaps the chief contribution should be to hold a mirror up before the most cost-benefit, would-be ‘utilitarian’ and ‘realistic’ administrators, to remind them that their own assumptions, habits, goals, ways of life and thinking, are as much at the mercy of old stories and ancestral pieties as the most brash of familiar ‘fundamentalists’.

Donald Crosby on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

donaldcrosbyDonald Crosby is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Colorado State University. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The term university connotes to me the idea of universality, meaning that the university has by its very nature an intense concern with what is universal or all-encompassing. It exists, that is to say, for the sake of what Aristotle called nous, theoria, or sophia: contemplative, reflective knowledge, vision, and wisdom. It also concerns itself with techné and phronēsis or practical skill and discernment, but always in the context of an encompassing and deeply informed inquiry into the many aspects of the world and of the appropriate place of human beings in the world. Its concern is not just with “how” but “why,” not just with getting things done but with what things ought or ought not to be done and why.

Among the university’s many important concerns is the role of religious questions, commitments, and institutions in the history of human civilizations and in the lives of individual human beings. This concern is partly addressed by fields of investigation such as religious studies and the history of religions, history in general, evolutionary biology, anthropology, sociology, and psychology. But these fields are primarily devoted to descriptive and causally explanatory accounts of the role of religion in human life. They may sometimes veer into normative evaluations of religion in general or of particular religious systems, ideas, or claims, but that is not their usual or principal function.

Should the normative task be left to confessional or apologetic spokespersons for particular religious traditions? I do not believe that these have a legitimate role in secular universities if their task is conceived as one of proselytizing on behalf of a particular religious point of without due consideration of other possible points of view. However, in light of the prominent place of religious institutions and religious persons in the history of human civilizations and cultures, a place that continues to this day, it is essential that some part of the university devote itself to thoughtful, critical, and fair-minded analysis of religious claims and counter-claims, of religious modes of symbolization and expression, of religious practices—both individual and social—and of religious questions and proposed answers to these questions that have haunted and beguiled humankind from its earliest days to the present.

These questions and answers are existential ones about how to live and what to commit one’s life to, how to envision one’s ultimate responsibilities and those of other humans in the world, and how to cope with the threats, uncertainties, sufferings, and seductions to evil in the world. The young who enter the university are often burdened with issues such as these and are in need of guidance on how to approach them and deal honestly, constructively, and creatively with them. Philosophy of religion can provide important kinds of assistance and insight in these respects. For that reason alone it should be recognized as an indispensable part of the university’s curriculum.

What sorts of person should teach philosophy of religion? I believe that such persons should meet at least the following ten requirements: (1) They should be thoroughly schooled in the history of religions. (2) They should be well trained in the history of philosophy. (3) They should be deeply sensitive to religious questions and concerns, not tone-deaf to them as some philosophers and some academicians in other fields may tend to be. (4) They should be receptive to what can be learned from and reflected on in a variety of religious traditions and not just in a single one. (5) They should have strong facility in philosophical questioning, reasoning, and thinking. (6) They should be knowledgeable about the central role of religious beliefs and practices in the history of civilizations. (7) They should be able effectively to communicate to their students religious and philosophical modes of thinking and their interrelations with one another. (8) They should be able to bring religious and secular visions of the world into constructive dialogue with one another. (9) They should be capable of helping students to put all of these ways of thinking and inquiring to effective use in developing their own outlooks on religious questions and their personal religious or secular ways of living in the world.  (10) Philosophers of religion should be actively involved in important kinds of original research and writing in their field. These ten requirements constitute a tall order of competency in philosophers of religion who teach and do research in the university. No one can hope to measure up to all of them in full or in equal measure, but they stand as critical standards and goals for teachers and researchers in the field of philosophy of religion.

My basic contention concerning the place of philosophy of religion in the curriculum of the university turns on the observation that religion has always been an important part of human history, human institutions, and individual human outlooks and practices, and that it is so today. Religion has admittedly sometimes been a force for evil as well as good in human history, but so have politics, economics, science, and technology. Great powers and achievements can be used for evil as well as for good. But religious questions and concerns are fundamental, far-reaching, and in the last analysis inescapable. They remain so in the perennial and ongoing human search for deep-lying orientation, obligation, and meaning. If universities are to be truly universal in the sense of addressing all of the basic areas of human consideration, thought, and practice, they should by no means neglect or minimize the philosophical study of religion and philosophical assessment of religious claims and ways of life.

Such study should give a prominent role to analysis and investigation of the truth or falsity of religious claims in particular religious systems, of how these claims relate to one another in the logic of each system, of how they connect with its symbolic expressions and practices of each system, and of how these elements compare with the claims, symbols, and practices of different religious systems. Philosophy of religion does not just offer neutral descriptions or portrayals of the claims, systems, and practices of various religions, nor does it typically seek for causal explanations of why they have persisted as intricate aspects of human life and experience—important as the latter two endeavors undeniably are. But these two endeavors can contribute to the work of philosophy of religion by providing descriptive phenomena and explanatory proposals for it to ponder.

Philosophy of religion richly deserves a seat at the table of the university’s offerings. Its contribution to the university is much more than a disposable luxury or optional add-on to an otherwise adequate university curriculum. Leaving it out of the curriculum would be analogous to failing to introduce a critical component in the preparation of a meal based on a favorite recipe. What would eggplant parmesan be without the bread crumbs or cheese? Philosophy of religion is a necessity in a university deserving of its name, and it is no less so than the currently touted and certainly important areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The university’s concern, properly conceived, is with the whole of life, and philosophy of religion makes an essential contribution to the character and range of this concern.

What can Philosophy of Religion Offer to the University?

Here at, we are asking philosophers of religion to tell us what philosophy of religion can offer to the modern university, considered either as a whole or through the lens of one or more university disciplines. Our blog is full of fascinating contributions of this kind.

Last year we witnessed a fabulous response to our challenge to look inwards and say what our field is and does, and we’ll soon present our analysis of those creative blog contributions. This year we are looking outwards as well as inwards, asking philosophers of religion to tell us how our field can impact the university or specific university disciplines.

For this theme, as for last year’s theme, we prefer to ask and listen rather than stipulate and define; it’s how we live up to our intention to speak for the entire unruly world of philosophy of religion. Ultimately we hope to analyze the themes in these blog entries and present our findings to you.

So read the blog entries and learn about philosophy of religion in the modern university from the experts who work in the field.

Wesley J. Wildman is a philosopher of religion working at Boston University, and founder of