Michael S. Jones on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

michael s jonesMichael S. Jones is Professor of Philosophy at Liberty 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.

What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university? If we understand the term “philosophy of religion” as broadly referring to the philosophical analysis of ideas (including evaluation of the coherence, plausibility, and truthfulness of such ideas as well as an investigation of their meaning) found in religious belief systems, then I think it is of great value to the modern university. Let me explain why.

The sine qua non of the modern university is objective, rational study. Whether this be the study of physics, chemistry, or another of the other natural sciences, of language, literature, or the arts, or of metaphysics, political theory, or any other philosophical subject, the modern university is committed to analyzing it, understanding it, and explaining it in a way that is as objective, systematic, and rational as possible. This is not to deny those inherently subjective elements of human cognition, which are important and significantly color our investigations. These, too, are a subject of study.
The range of topics studied and taught at a modern university often includes religion, though not all universities broach this important topic. Of the many that do, there are two main approaches. Universities that are affiliated with a specific religion often have programs of study focused on that religion. These programs may be oriented around training ministers in the doctrines and practices of that religion. Such training does not necessarily include critical analysis of the teachings of that or any other religion, although such critical reflection can be helpful, both to the student personally and as preparation for vocational ministry.

Universities that are not affiliated with any particular religion often have a department of religious studies. Such departments approach religion in an objective and academic fashion, describing beliefs and practices, studying the history of religions, and presenting statistics about numbers of adherents, centers of worship, and other quantifiable data. These departments are usually very broad, containing professors from many different religions and offering a very diverse array of courses. They are officially non-sectarian, though many of their professors will have a degree of allegiance to one religious tradition or another.

Because of the religious diversity of these departments, there is the potential for conflict on a number of fronts. Even scholars who are extremely amicable and harbor inclusivist or pluralist notions of religious truth can get embroiled in protracted – even heated – discussions of whose tradition is most correct, whose religion is more beneficent, whose interpretation of history is more accurate, whose arguments are more cogent, and so on. Hence such departments typically eschew such topics, cultivating a congenial and collegial atmosphere where each tradition is given space to present its own history and teachings without being subject to criticism.

While this path away from criticism has many advantages, it also has the not insignificant disadvantage of diminishing to a noteworthy degree the amount of rigorous analysis that is applied to the claims of the various religious traditions. This is where philosophy of religion steps in.

Philosophers specialize in the rigorous, logical analysis of ideas. Hence philosophers are in a good position to rigorously and logically analyze religious beliefs. Philosophy departments are not usually constructed along the lines of religious belief systems and hence are less in need of attenuating the potential for religious conflict than are religious studies departments. Nor are philosophy departments oriented around training ministers in a particular tradition, so they are less likely than theology departments or pastoral studies programs to be oriented around the promulgation or defense of some such tradition.

Hence the study of philosophy of religion offers this to the modern university: non-partisan, critical analysis of the ideas found in the world’s systems of religious belief. Inasmuch as such an investigation is necessary for the university to be comprehensive in its offerings, the study of philosophy of religion also offers to the modern university the possibility of drawing closer to a truly comprehensive program of studies.

J. R. Hustwit on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

J R HustwitJ. R. Hustwit is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Methodist University in Fayetteville, NC. 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.

Among other things, philosophy of religion offers a space for the truth claims of non-Christian religions to be taken seriously. This space may be plentiful at larger institutions in other parts of the world, but at my institution, which is small, religiously affiliated, and located in the theologically conservative American South, philosophy of religion is the refuge of trans-religious inquiry into non-Christian truth claims.

As an academic subject, religion has traditionally been approached through one of two models: religious studies or theology. What follows is an oversimplification of this debate in many contexts, but is appropriately simple at my institution and others like it. Here then, are the sides: religious studies is the approach heavily influenced by the social sciences, treating religions as social phenomena to be explained. The truth value of the religion’s claims and the salvific efficacy of the religion’s practices are off-limits, methodologically speaking, as those judgments rely on data that are unavailable. Theology on the other hand, is the “insider” approach, which asks questions of truths and salvations, and it is able to do so due to a foundational commitment to certain claims about scripture or religious reality. In short, religious studies has been a secular field, and theology has been a confessional—predominately Christian—field.

Two bits of epistemology will trouble this neat dichotomy. First, theology is not unique in that it presupposes certain commitments that shape its conclusions. Religious studies scholars, because they are human, also pre-commit to certain judgments—about the meaning of truth, the definition of religion, the scope of what may be considered evidence. Likewise, theologians have unexamined commitments that go beyond what their traditions demand. Second, the nature of evidence, which is used as a methodological wedge between religious studies and theology, is in dispute. For example, private mystical experience is not publicly observable, nor is it repeatable, but its limited disclosure does not entail that it cannot indicate truth. Likewise for scripture or the testimony of saints and sadhus. Such “soft evidence” may not indicate truth in the same way as observable and repeatable phenomena, but they still should play a role in the assessment of truth claims.

Despite the fuzziness that I see at the boundary of religious studies and theology, many universities are staffed with faculty who are allergic to fuzziness, which means that religious studies departments tend to not consider truth claims vis-à-vis actual truth, and theology departments tend to not venture far from their (largely Christian) commitments. As universities race to include “global” and “multicultural” elements to their curricula (a good thing!), they struggle with how and where to include this new material. Should our students learn about advaita vedanta from an anthropologist, critical theorist, or theologian? The obvious is answer is “Yes. All of the above!” The problem facing many smaller institutions, including my own, is that there simply isn’t enough talent on hand to staff courses that cover multiple methodologies. How then can a student engage non-Christian religious truth claims as a demand for credence, rather than as a museum piece to be explained? Philosophers are able to bridge the gap between religious studies and theology because like religious studies, they are generally not beholden to any religious orthodoxy, and like theology, they pursue truth in addition to explanation and understanding. When religious studies methodologically de-claims religions, and there aren’t any comparative theologians for 100 miles in any direction, PoR to the rescue!

PoR offers students an opportunity to take on the “big questions” that arise outside of Judeo-Christian traditions. Is our shared experience illusory? How is ego distinct from self? Does human striving interfere with the harmony of nature? Whereas these questions are observed in most world religions courses, philosophy of religions gives students explicit tools to adjudicate those claims. Of course, given the limits of a single course, student conclusions will hardly stand up to theological expertise. But that’s why philosophy is a good fit here, because it focuses on the process of truth-seeking, rather than the possessing of truth. A single course can only begin and steer a process of truth seeking, which is all philosophy should ever hope to do.

PoR can act as a surrogate for comparative theology in institutions that lack the resources or will to support comparative theology. But that isn’t quite fair. PoR is actually more than a surrogate, it is a different animal altogether. Unlike confessional theology, PoR is not obligated to cohere with any historical tradition (though one may argue that such coherence is truth indicative). Nor does PoR begin with any particular assumptions about the nature of reality (though every philosopher is always already constituted by some set of presuppositions ). In these respects, PoR may achieve a wider breadth of competing hypotheses than comparative theology, and in certain modes, is virtually indistinguishable from Jerry Martin’s notion of “transreligious theology” (See Open Theology, Vol. 2, No. 1 (April 2016)). The wider breadth of starting points and freedom to stray from orthodoxy could provide richer and more fruitful inquiry into the big questions. To philosophers of religion, this seems an obvious good, but to university administrators, it may be necessary to point out further benefit.

It seems to me that students who actually question the truth claims of the world’s religions (as opposed to merely contextualizing them), and grant them, at least initially, the status of being live options, have a leg up on their peers. They have practiced trying on perspectives other than their own, and more importantly, tried to reach carefully considered conclusions across the boundaries of different worldviews. These skills are increasingly demanded in nearly every occupation, and more importantly, are a necessary condition for reducing religious violence. These skills are not easy to assess, but they remain crucial all the same. For those reasons, I see the transreligious mode of PoR as an immense benefit to the university.

Trent Dougherty on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

trent doughertyTrent Dougherty (PhD Rochester) is Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department and a fellow of the Honors College at Baylor University. He publishes regularly in Epistemology, Philosophy of Religion, and Philosophy of Language.  He is the author of The Problem of Animal Pain: A Theodicy for All Creatures Great and Small (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2014).  He is the editor of Evidentialism and Its Discontents (OUP, 2011), the co-editor (with Justin McBrayer) of Skeptical Theism: New Essays (OUP, 2014), and author of numerous essays, reviews, and reference works in his areas including the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and Oxford Bibliographies. When not writing, he enjoys gravity sports, gardening, and gourmet cooking with his wife and four children. 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.

I have been asked to address the question, “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”  Here is a somewhat belligerent answer: relevance.  I’ll explain that a bit shortly, but first a little more belligerence.  Who’s asking?  I mean, if the question is coming from an administrator at my home institution, which tries to cultivate a distinctive Christian identity, I’m going to give one answer: a unique ability to articulate the foundations of our mission as a Christian university (among other things).  If it’s some big wig at a national convention of university administrators, I’m going to assume it’s just a special case of “What does philosophy offer the modern university?” and I’m going to give another answer: A framework within which to judge whether what we can do thanks to the STEM folks is something we should do (among other things).  If it’s, say, an epistemologist or philosopher of mind or language or something, then I’ll assume it’s the typical disciplinary chauvinism and give another answer: You tell me what’s so great about your discipline, so I can get a sense of what you think is valuable, and then I’ll give you my answer.  Now I’ll lay (some of my) belligerence aside and take the question somewhat sui generis and talk a little more about the relevance I have in mind.

Despite what the folks at NPR think, religion is an important part of human life.  Indeed, it is arguably the most important part in human life.  Objection: Money and material stuff.  Reply: look what people forego for their religious scruples, from monks who give up all to soccer moms mocked in What’s the Matter with Kansas?  The NPR iPhone app has the following under “Topics” in this order: U.S., World, Politics, Business, Music, Science, Health, Technology, Arts & Life, Books. Religion doesn’t even get a mention.  And rarely is it touched upon under any of these. And when it is, it is usually treated as a curiosity or an atrocity.  For big city cultural elites, religion is passé, if not embarrassing (except, that is, when it is both harmless and makes for good poolside reading at Martha’s Vineyard like Eat, Pray, Love.  But like Freud’s Future of an Illusion hopes and expectations of religion’s demise will be met with disappointment, because it’s too deep in our intellectual (and literal) DNA.  In a thousand years, no one will know (or care) what the 21st Century’s views on health and wellness were or what our “breakthroughs” on the semantics of counterfactuals or self-locating beliefs were.  Those issues may (probably, hopefully) won’t even be topics of conversation any more.  But you can bet your bottom dollar that they’ll be thinking about why God allows suffering and what we have to learn from the lives of suffering saints.  The holocaust will be a barrier to belief for some and a spur for belief to others.

Western affluence has not proven to be very satisfying, even to those who enjoy its benefits (ever fewer people).  “Man’s search for meaning” (to quote Frankl) will go on, and it will spur questions and thoughts the significance of which are of an enduring value that nothing else in the academic repertoire can match.  In a thousand years there will not be a United States of America (I’m just going to assume there’s going to be an Earth!), nor a European Union, but there will be a Catholic Church and probably other current religions and probably a few more.  Religion isn’t going away, doubt isn’t going to go away, so philosophy of religion isn’t going away.  So if current curators of curricula want their universities to be a part of History beside the dust bin, they’d better get more serious about philosophy of religion.  (Note that it is almost never taught in top “Leiterific” schools nor do those schools have hardly any faculty who publish regularly in it, nor do they ever (ever) hire specifically for it.  Meanwhile, their institutions continue to proliferate “professional” programs which can be big cash cows (sometimes producing valuable professionals like nurses, sometimes producing MBAs).)

Isn’t this true of other areas in the academy, like ethics and political thought?  To a certain extent, yes, and that’s perfectly compatible with my thesis, but I wasn’t asked to describe what they can offer.  And I’ll wager that these disciplines won’t survive well without the religious element.  Philosophy of religion enjoys a continuity with the thought of the last 2500 years from Plato to present in a way rivaled only by ethics, which still comes in a clear second.  I once wrote a letter to Kripke (undelivered) with the opening lines “Want to be remembered in 500 years?  Then you’d better get cracking on some philosophy of religion.”  I go on to point out that every major philosopher in the Western canon was some kind of theist, and even in the 20th century, atheists had to weigh in.  Objection: Oh but Secularity Thesis.  Reply: Don’t bet on it.  And, anyway, I’ve been talking about relevance in the long run, but there is of course relevance in the short run, where it is abundantly obvious that religion is a major motivating force in human life (outside the modern university faculty offices).  So if relevance to current students is an end in view, philosophy of religion offers a lot.  At least it offers a lot more than the folks who determine what classes are offered at top modern universities. A philosophy of religion course (one which didn’t utterly ignore the traditions with which the students are actually acquainted) would help bridge the gap between the insular secularism of most faculty in the modern university and the genuine interest in religion among most students.  That seems like a good thing to me.

Tim Labron on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

tim labronTim Labron is Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Concordia University of Edmonton. 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.

“What can Philosophy of Religion Offer to the Modern University?” This is an odd question. Not because Philosophy of Religion offers a great deal or nothing to the University; rather, it makes the whole affair seem like a business. Perhaps Universities are unfortunately becoming more businesslike and various disciplines are consequently trying to claim their productive status to remain employed.  To follow this line of thought, in my opinion, can lead to further confusions and problems. On the other hand, perhaps some will argue for the general value of Philosophy of Religion. I think that there certainly is a value, but an argument for value is likely to either fall upon deaf ears or to be an exercise in naval gazing.

I will provide a snippet in a specific context as an example showing Philosophy of Religion at ‘work’.

According to many, Philosophy of Religion had its day and now that day is long gone. Those still pursuing this discipline are clearly the remnant who will eventually be displaced by economically viable workers and clear thinking scholars. However, those supposedly ‘clear thinking’ folks are actually creating a venue for Philosophy of Religion. For example, I was recently talking with a Scientist/Christian at Oxford University and he told me that the atheists at Oxford (those who readily condemn Philosophy of Religion and its continuation) frequently become tired of discussions centred on their materialistic world-view and purposefully seek contact with him and Philosophers of Religion. I agreed and pointed out that they are regularly parasitic upon Philosophy of Religion. Perhaps this is too suggestive, but those who advocate for the death of Philosophy of Religion would dearly miss their foil and conversation partners.

From another angle, the sciences are not simply materialistic. Indeed, decades ago matter was discovered to not just be some physical lumps that plod along in a deterministic fashion.  Instead, it is also energy within which particles come in and out of existence. Moreover, the role of humans has become central for many physicists (e.g., Niels Bohr, Anton Zeilinger) in terms of measurement in quantum mechanics. That is, it is arguable that a human’s free will to make a measurement with X instrument at Y time determines a particle’s existence. Another perplexing question is the nature of time. Some physicists argue that it is an emergent property (e.g., Don Page) which then naturally leads to questions regarding infinity and eternity. Lastly, and equally condensed, there is a shift from a simple materialistic reductionism to a foundation based on information (and may I add that in the beginning was the Word). The old clockwork machine is dead. Of course, this does not mean that the scientific atheists are abandoning ship; rather, it means that now science is discussing points of view and paradoxes that bump against Philosophy of Religion. In short, John Wheeler, one of the most well-known physicists, remarked: “You can talk about people like Buddha, Jesus, Moses, Confucius, but the thing that convinced me that such people existed were the conversations with Bohr.”

Despite quantitative business models and qualitative denunciations, one only needs to look at the Academy and will see that Philosophy of Religion has a clear and active participation in many Universities. Indeed, hypothetically speaking, if all philosophers of religion were removed from every University then Philosophy of Religion would spontaneously arise again in those very Universities—even if not as an institutional department.