Peter Forrest on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

pforrestPeter Forrest is Professor of Philosophy at The University of New England, Australia. 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.

Philosophy is dangerous, philosophy of religion especially so. But it also has much to offer if done the right way.

The danger of philosophy is illustrated by the charge against Socrates, corrupting youth. I imagine he corrupted by confusing, which is better than the indoctrination that can pass for academic philosophy. The undermining of young people’s beliefs on politics, ethics, or religion is a serious matter, whether it is achieved by snide remarks, laughter at naivety or, in Socrates’s case, bullying into confusion. Students who believe in guardian angels, possible reincarnation as a non-human animal or that the universe was created by God less than 10,000 years ago are mistaken, but if these are cherished beliefs they deserve gentle treatment. I recall the story of a philosopher, whom I otherwise respect, asking a student why she believed in God and on receiving the reply that she had faith, described that response as ‘wanking’. Not the right approach. But what is the right approach? In the university where I used to teach, the topic was treated by asking students to read William Clifford’s  ‘The Ethics of Belief’, and William James’ ‘The Will to Believe’ and then discuss these papers in a tutorial. Robust opposition from fellow students does not do violence the way derision from a tutor would.

This example suggests how we should teach philosophy especially when philosophical reflection impacts immensely important beliefs. Maybe selection of possible topics would be suggested with the students and it may be made plain just how many need to be studied, and a selection of readings provided. Then the tutor should aim to moderate discussion as well as promoting intellectual rigor. I expect the tutor to make her or his own position clear, but not seek to convert or de-convert.

Even given this sort of cautious approach there is still the problem of not providing the readings that exhibit the strongest arguments. And there is the further problem that the pursuit of fairness so qualifies assertions, so explores every corner of the debate, that the students become disillusioned with philosophy, judging it a degenerate intellectual exercise. Being a fair-minded conscientious but effective teacher of philosophy of religion is the hardest job in academia.

Why, then, teach philosophy of religion in universities? Because of the dangers, the university is a good place to engage in philosophy. For it conserves a threatened tradition of high academic standards. These are required in the humanities generally and philosophy in particular because of the risk of doing things wrong. So if taught at all, philosophy of religion must be taught in universities.

The justification for philosophy, especially on the more sensitive topics such as religion, is that, for whatever reason people often do ask themselves, “Well, what is the truth about religion?’ We should not force the young to ask that question by quoting the Socratic bullshit about t­he unexamined life not being worth living. (The unexamined degree is not worth giving but that is another matter). But often the young ask these questions and often older people enroll in university courses precisely because they have come to ask these questions. And in this context the university setting is of great value for two reasons. The first is that it locates the discussion in a tradition in which we can converse not merely with our peers but within a community of thinkers both present and past. The second is that many of those thinkers are somewhat obscure and help is required to understand the relevance of what they have to say.

In summary philosophy of religion deserves a place in the University curriculum because of the role it plays once students start to question their cherished beliefs, religious or anti-religious, but it should come with warnings: adult material; some participants may find this threatening; intellectual nudity.

Douglas Allen on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

webDouglas-Allen-PortraitDouglas Allen is Professor of Philosophy at The University of Maine. 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 answering the question of what the philosophy of religion offers to the modern university, it seems to me that one must engage in the difficult preliminary work of clarifying at least three key, confusing terms: the philosophy of religion, religion, and the modern university.

First, what is this “philosophy of religion” that may have something to offer the modern university? At an earlier time in what dominated the history of philosophy in the West, it seemed easier to define the traditional discipline and approach of philosophy of religion. Especially in the twentieth century, such dominant agreement and clarity have been shattered. Influential philosophers not only maintain that traditional proofs for the existence of God or solutions to the Problem of Evil are inadequate, but, more radically, that the traditional normative concerns of the philosophy of religion are based on linguistic confusion, category mistakes, and are meaningless. In my own work, I explore whether a more phenomenological approach in philosophy, in formulating the phenomenology of religion, could allow us to suspend those normative metaphysical and theological judgments and provide a more adequate basis for a philosophy of religion.

In addition, with greater exposure to and appreciation of the significance of the religious and spiritual phenomena of Asia, of indigenous peoples, and of other nonwestern cultures, one’s philosophy of religion increasingly expresses a recognition of pluralism and diversity, of hidden and camouflaged meanings, of complexity and contradiction. Therefore, it is a legitimate question as to whether there is even such a thing as “the philosophy of religion,” or whether we are examining complex, open-ended, diverse philosophies of religion.

Second, what is the subject matter, religion, of philosophy of religion? Once again, at an earlier time, it seemed easier to define religion in the dominant philosophy of religion in the West. Scholars typically assumed an essentialized concept of religion, usually formulated in Abrahamic, monotheistic terms of Judaism, usually Christianity (Judaeo-Christian usually versions of Christian), and occasionally Islam. Today, not only do we recognize that the terms religion and religions are much vaguer and more pluralistic and diverse, but we struggle with anti-essentialist and anti-universalizing challenges of relativism and of postmodernism, gender and ethnic and postcolonial studies, and other developments in recent decades.

Is there such a thing as “religion”? Does the philosophy of religion study religion as something that has defining characteristics, which allow us to distinguish religious from nonreligious phenomena and that have some objective and universal meaning? Or does the philosophy of religion study religion as a more dynamic, open-ended process of diverse subject matters without clearly defined structures and meanings?

Third, what is the modern university for which philosophy of religion may offer something? There was a post-Enlightenment view in the West that dominated conceptions of the modern university. The liberal arts and humanities, including my discipline of philosophy, were central to conceptions of the nature and function of the modern university. The study of religion at the modern nonreligious university was often regarded with suspicion, as if this were something premodern that lacked the rigor and objectivity of modern disciplines,

What is the situation today? As is well documented, the liberal arts and humanities, which usually include philosophy of religion, are increasingly under attack, underfunded, marginalized, with drastic cuts in faculty and programs, and often regarded as largely irrelevant to the modern university. That modern university is increasingly a corporatized university, which, using the post-Eisenhower conception of Senator Fulbright, is an integral part of the military-industrial-academic complex. Those with economic, political, and military power define the ends, and universities demonstrate that they can provide the means and are good investments.

Does this mean that the future of philosophy of religion in the modern corporatized university rests on convincing huge corporations that it can provide analyses of other religions and cultures necessary for penetrating and controlling foreign markets and maximizing profits from foreign investments? Does this mean that the future of philosophy of religion rests on convincing the C.I.A., the N.S.A., and others with political and military power that it can provide an understanding invaluable for dominant views of national security and the winning of wars? Or, as I believe, can a different view of the nature and function of philosophy of religion provide understanding that involves resistance to such developments in the modern university?

What we find today is multiple philosophies of religion or religious phenomena, highly diverse, situated, in need of contextualization, with both overlapping shared characteristics but also specific irreducible features. Some philosophers of religion in the modern university will do specialized research on specific religious perspectives. Others will bring multiple perspectives into complex dynamic relations, emphasizing encounter and dialogue and how our understanding of the other can serve as a catalyst for broadening and deepening our own understanding.

In assessing what philosophy of religion may offer the modern university, we can appreciate that the key terms of “philosophy of religion,” “religion,” and “modern university” resist closure and are open to creative contestation and development. The critical study of religion in the modern world remains important and exceedingly practical, as, for example, when we try to understand why the fastest growing religions seem to embrace a radical rejection of much of modernity and the modern university or why there is so much religious violence in the contemporary world. And philosophy of religion remains important and exceedingly practical for the modern university because philosophical reflection, on religious and other phenomena, is essential for critical examination and reasoning, for formulating general structures and relations, and for arriving at evaluations and judgments that are an integral part of any understanding.

Stanley Tweyman on “What is Philosophy of Religion?” part 2

stweyman-cStanley Tweyman is University Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at York University, Canada. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The topic of God’s benevolence is discussed in Parts 10 and 11 of David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion[i]. Cleanthes is the speaker who, in Part 10, seeks to establish God’s benevolence in conjunction with God’s infinite power, or (when this hypothesis runs into difficulties) in conjunction with God’s finitely perfect power in Part 11. Philo is the one who argues against these views. While Philo argues against each hypothesis, where God’s benevolence is conjoined with some consideration of God’s power, nowhere in the text does Philo provide a proof that God is not benevolent. In this blog, I intend to show that Philo does, in fact, have such a proof, although the proof is not to be found directly in the actual words spoken by Philo in these two Parts of the Dialogues. Allow me to explain by way of analogy.

Pentimento is an art form, in which an underlying image has been painted over[ii]. In this blog, I propose to show that there is a Pentimento-type structure in Parts 10 and 11 of the Dialogues, and that it is only when we go to the underlying structure of the text that we discover Hume’s proof that God is not benevolent. Of course, Hume is not painting a picture, and, therefore, there is no underlying image. However, there is an underlying logical structure to Hume’s argument, and it is here that we learn Hume’s proof denying divine benevolence. This is the Pentimento effect in Parts 10 and 11.

The aim of the Dialogues is to determine whether the design of the world enables us to infer anything about the attributes of the divine designer. In Part 10, Cleanthes maintains that the best hypothesis for explaining the moral character of the world is that the designer is infinitely powerful and benevolent. Philo argues against this hypothesis, maintaining that an infinitely powerful benevolent designer would produce a world that is all good, and, therefore, totally devoid of evil. However, all speakers agree that evil does exist in the world, as well as good[iii], thereby forcing a shift in Cleanthes’ position in Part 11.

Cleanthes is adamant about supporting divine benevolence throughout the discussion, but in Part 11 he is willing to give up the claim of God’s infinite power, and conjoin divine benevolence with God’s finitely perfect power: “A less evil may then be chosen, in order to avoid a greater: Inconveniences be submitted to, in order to reach a desirable end: And in a word, benevolence, regulated by wisdom, and limited by necessity, may produce just such a world as the present”. (D.161) On this account, natural evil is due to the interactions of natural objects and forces, even  though the latter were put into the world by the God for good: in short, God permits evil to occur, rather than causing evil to occur. God designs the best world He is able to design, but given that God’s power is limited, that some evil will enter the world is unavoidable. Further, since God is never an underachiever in producing good in the design of the world (God is finitely perfect), whatever evil does exist in the world, God is unable to remove or correct, as any attempt at removing or correcting the evil in the world, would actually make the world worse, not better. Philo strongly disagrees with Cleanthes’ position, by arguing that the four natural causes of evil in the world – the introduction of pain into the world; conducting the world by general laws; the great frugality, with which all powers and faculties are distributed to all sensible creatures; the inaccurate workmanship of all the springs and principles throughout nature – are neither necessary nor unavoidable[iv]. In Part 10, Cleanthes gives up the claim of God’s infinite power to save the hypothesis of God’s benevolence; in Part 11, Cleanthes is prepared to give up the claim of God’s finitely perfect power to save the hypothesis of God’s benevolence.  But, at no point in his analysis, does Philo provide an argument for denying divine benevolence. As stated earlier, my view is that Philo does have a proof that God is not benevolent, which is based on his critique of Cleanthes’ two hypotheses of divine infinite power and benevolence and divine finitely perfect power and benevolence, and which can be discerned, once the logic of these positions is understood. This is the philosophical equivalent of the Pentimento strategy I introduced at the beginning of this blog.

Using ‘B’ to stand for ‘God is benevolent’ and ‘I’ to stand for ‘God’s power is infinite’, the following captures Cleanthes’ position at the conclusion of Philo’s critique of his positions in Parts 10 and 11, namely, Philo has established that no consideration of God’s power, when conjoined with the claim of God’s benevolence, can account for the good and evil in the world. And since Cleanthes insists on God’s benevolence, Cleanthes must give up any consideration of God’s power in accounting for the good and evil in the design of the world.

Logically, employing modus ponens, we get the following:

B ⊃ ~ (I ∨~I)


∴~ (I ∨~I)

Since ~ (I ∨~I) is self-contradictory and (I ∨~I) is necessarily true, we can construct the remainder of Philo’s argument against Cleanthes’ view of divine benevolence by employing modus tollens:

B ⊃ ~ (I ∨~I)

(I ∨~I)

∴~ B

Notice that these logical proofs are not found in the text, but rather they constitute the logical underpinning of Philo’s argument against divine benevolence. This is the Pentimento- like effect in these two Parts of the Dialogues. It should be clear that Hume has not offered a free standing proof that God is not benevolent. The proof that God is not benevolent follows from Cleanthes’ insistence on the benevolence of God, and his willingness, in the light of Philo’s criticisms, to deny that God possesses either infinite power or finitely perfect power.

Part of the nature of the philosophy of religion involves putting forth arguments about God, and assessing the strengths and weaknesses of these arguments. But our analysis in this blog reveals an additional feature in the area of philosophy of religion, namely, to determine the consequences of a position that is put forth about God – consequences which the proponent of the original position does not welcome. In this blog, I have shown that Parts 10 and 11 of the Dialogues can be understood as possessing an underlying logic, which, ultimately, can be used against Cleanthes’ position regarding divine benevolence. But we can go further than this in the case of the Dialogues: in fact, the structure of the Dialogues generally involves examining the consequences of Cleanthes’ position, although this examination does not always involve a Pentimento-like approach. In this regard, it is worthwhile noting, in a passage in Part 2, what Philo says to Demea (the third speaker in the dialogue) about his, i.e. Philo’s, objections to Cleanthes’ position: “You seem not to apprehend, replied Philo, that I argue with Cleanthes in his own way; and by showing him the dangerous consequences of his tenets, hope at last to reduce him to our opinion.”(D.111) In short, Hume’s Dialogues, as a whole, can be seen as exemplifying this approach in philosophy of religion.

[i] All references to David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, are taken from David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, (from the original handwritten manuscript), edited and with an Introduction by Stanley Tweyman, Routledge (London and New York), July 1991. Revised Second Edition, issued by Caravan Books, Ann Arbor, Michigan, by arrangement with Routledge, 2000. Third edition, re-issued by Routledge, as part of their Philosophy of Religion Series, February 2012. This book will also be reissued in paperback as part of the Routledge Paperbacks Direct programme, and as an e-book.

[ii]We need not discuss possible motivations of the artist for painting in this style.

[iii] See, especially, pages 152-56.

[iv] For purposes of our discussion, we need not elaborate on Hume’s analysis of the four causes of evil in the world, and why God is unable to increase the quantity of good in the world, and diminish the amount of evil.