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

William J. Wainwright is Distinguished Professor Emeritus in Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. 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 will largely restrict my comments to philosophers of religion who have received their graduate training in the philosophy departments[i] of major universities in the English speaking world, Scandinavia, and the Netherlands. Most of those who have done so are either analytic philosophers or have been heavily influenced by them. My reason for doing so is that these philosophers not only dominate the practice of philosophy in the countries in question but are an increasing presence in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Poland, and, more recently, in universities at Milan and in other European countries.

Analytic philosophers of religion have been accused with some justification of parochialism (a narrow focus on Western theism, and an inattention to the emotional and existential aspects of religion and its social and cultural situatedness). While these accusations may have been fair in the past, a great deal of contemporary analytic philosophy of religion has been devoted to precisely these formerly neglected topics. For example, many analytically trained philosophers of religion have turned their attention to Buddhism, Vedanta, NeoConfucianism, and other non-Western religions. (It is worth noting that a number of those who have done so are themselves adherents of the religions they are examining.) Others have provided sympathetic accounts of the essential role played by what William James called our “passional nature” in the construction and assessment of religious arguments. Moreover, there is in principal no reason why analytic philosophers of religion can’t be more sensitive to instances of the ideological abuse of (e.g.) Christian or Hindu or Buddhist “theology,” or the insights of the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” and some (although in my opinion, not enough) have been.

Why, though, is the analytic philosophy of religion so important? The Western philosophical tradition as a whole has prized the search for truth for its own sake. Aristotle spoke for many philosophers when he argued the highest form of human activity is the expression of nous, not phronesis. Furthermore, in its pursuit of truth Western philosophy has placed a high value on analytic precision and rigor of argument.  (This is equally true of Indian philosophy of course.) Analytic philosophy has also been historically associated with science and shares science’s comparative confidence in reason’s ability to discover the truth. It is thus not surprising that analytic philosophers of religion have retained a certain confidence in reason’s ability to adjudicate claims of truth and falsity in a principled way, and have largely rejected relativism and what Nicholas Wolterstorff has called “interpretation relativism”—that everything is interpretation, i.e., that “things exist and are as they are only relative to one or another of our conceptual schemes.”

Why does this matter? My experience in the academy has been that when one raises questions of the truth or rational adequacy of non-dualism,[ii] say, with colleagues in the humanities or social sciences who have a professional interest in religious studies, one is often made to feel that one’s question is naïve or even somehow impolite. Yet it seems to me that we fail to respect the men and women whose beliefs and practices we are examining if we don’t take their claims to truth and rational and spiritual superiority as seriously as they themselves do

Moreover—and perhaps more important—there is a further reason for paying attention to their truth claims. As Stephen Evans has pointed out, if theism is true, it deeply matters. And of course the same can be said of other forms of theism, of Theravada, Madhyamika, NeoConfucianism, and so on. So if Christian theism, say, or Theravada Buddhism are “live possibilities,”[iii] concern with their truth is of paramont importance. It follows that a concern with the truth or rational adequacy of Christianity or theistic forms of Vaishnavism or Advaita Vedanta or Theravada Buddhism should be cavalierly dismissed only if they aren’t live possibilities—only if, in other words, their claims are either false or meaningless, or childish or existentially insignificant. What analytic philosophers of religion often find frustrating is the reluctance of their colleagues in the humanities or social sciences to defend the assumption of falsity or meaninglessness or the charge of existential insignificance against their objections or in some cases to even familiarize themselves with them.

The question of the truth or falsity of religious perspectives and worldviews is of vital interest to a significant number of our students as well as to many thoughtful and well educated lay persons. If I am correct, analytically trained philosophers of religion are pretty much the only members of the academy who are willing to directly address these issues.

[i] And not religious studies or theology departments.

[ii] Or of the anatman doctrine, or of one or another form of Western or Indian theism, or…

[iii] That is, have a significant bearing on how we should live and a non-negligible possibility of being true.

Jerry Walls on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Walls_JerryJerry Walls is a scholar-in-residence in the Department of Philosophy at Houston Baptist 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 most straightforward answer to this question is that philosophy of religion provides the intellectual resources necessary for a university to actually live up to its name. The word “university” of course, comes from the same root words as “universe,” and traditionally, universities were so called because they were concerned with the whole universe of truth and meaning. The uni-verse is a unity, a whole that represents the entire body of truth and meaning that universities aimed to explore. Philosophy, moreover, was the discipline that dealt with the most fundamental questions about the nature of reality that allowed us to understand our world as a universe.

This classic ambition is one that has largely fallen by the wayside in modern times. As Alasdair MacIntyre put it, “the very notion of the nature and order of things, of a single universe, different aspects of which are objects of enquiry for the various disciplines, but in such a way that each aspect needs to be related to every other, this notion no longer informs the enterprise of the contemporary American university.”[i] One of the primary reasons for this is that academic disciplines have become increasingly specialized and focused on ever more narrow and technical issues. Unfortunately, this is true of philosophy as well.

In their book Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates, Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein tell us the sort of questions that led them to sign up for philosophy classes at Harvard decades ago: what is the meaning of life, and would its significance change if we lived forever?; do we have souls?; is heaven a place and what are the chances of getting there? Unfortunately, they discovered those were not the questions their teacher wanted to explore.  “But for better or worse, we got sidetracked by professors who told us that before we could tackle the Big Questions, we had to clear up some mind numbing technical minutiae. Questions like: Does Bertrand Russell confuse ‘possible necessity’ with ‘necessary possibility’?”[ii]

Now my fellow philosophers will quickly and rightly insist that we cannot ignore those technical questions, and that answering them is essential to doing good work in philosophy. And they are right. But here is the point. All too often we never get around to the “Big Questions” and we lose sight of what is at stake in pursuing those technical issues in the first place. The “love of wisdom” that traditionally animated philosophy too frequently gives way to the “fascination with technical minutiae.” And the more technical, the better.

Here is where philosophy of religion is essential not only to the philosophical enterprise, but also to any attempt even to approximate the traditional idea of a university. For it is philosophy of religion above all that specializes in asking, and daring to answer, the Big Questions. Indeed, there is no question that is bigger, more interesting, or existentially engaging than the question of whether God exists. Whether or not God exists has enormous implications for the meaning of life, and for what sort of happiness and fulfillment we may rationally hope to experience. Is the best we can hope for to live a life of intermittent happiness and pleasure over several decades until death strikes us down once and for all, or is there reason to hope we can achieve perfect happiness that will literally never end? Likewise, it has large implications for whether we have souls, whether, (and in what sense) we are free, whether we are ultimately and inescapably responsible for our actions, whether justice will finally prevail, and so on. These are issues about which no rational person can be indifferent. To understand these questions is inevitably to care.

Philosophy of religion is a particularly interesting discipline not only because it deals with such vital questions, but also because it has rich intellectual resources for dealing with them. Arguments for (and against) God’s existence were a matter of central concern not only for the great medieval philosophers, but for the great modern philosophers as well. One cannot begin to do justice to the driving concerns of Descartes, Berkeley, Hume, Leibniz, Kant, and Nietzsche without dealing with their arguments about the existence of God and the implications for who we are and the meaning of our lives.

Moreover, there has been a resurgence of interest in philosophy of religion over the past several decades, and this includes the classic arguments for God’s existence, which many had written off as dead and buried due to the criticism leveled against them by Hume and Kant. Not only have the classic arguments been refurbished and updated in light of recent scientific developments, but several new arguments have been developed recently. Alvin Plantinga, who is widely recognized as the most influential philosopher of religion of his generation has famously sketched out two dozen such arguments. These arguments range over cosmology, morality, mathematics, beauty, human consciousness, love, and many others topics in metaphysics and epistemology.[iii] Indeed, the breadth of these arguments gives credence to the classic idea of a universe, all of whose features share an essential unity as best explained and accounted for by the creative activity of God.

Modern secular universities have few resources to overcome the fragmentation and specialization that marks the many disciplines represented within their halls, and frankly, little motivation to do so. Modern universities no longer aspire to achieve the sort of unity or ultimate coherence among its various disciplines that classical universities sought to achieve. Still, philosophy of religion provides invaluable resources for the modern university. More than any other branch of philosophy, it focuses on the “Big Questions” that animated the discipline in the first place, and that still propel students to sign up for philosophy classes today. Moreover, it has a treasure of riches in both classical and contemporary philosophy to explore those questions with rigor and depth. These are the questions that remind us that any education worth the name will do more than equip students with mastery of an academic discipline, or preparation for a career in the marketplace. And when the full resources of theistic philosophy are taken into account, students may even get a glimpse of the unity of truth and meaning in our universe, and the ideal that inspired those institutions we still call universities.

[i] Alasdair MacIntyre, God, Philosophy, Universities (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009), 16.

[ii] Thomas Cathcart & Daniel Klein, Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates (New York: Penguin, 2009), 3.

[iii] Trent Dougherty and I are co-editing a volume devoted to these arguments that will published by Oxford University Press in 2017.

Segun Ogungbemi on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Segun OgungbemiSegun Ogungbemi is Professor of Philosophy at Adekunle Ajasin University Akungba in Nigeria. 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 consider it a great honor to be invited by Professor Wesley J. Wildman (Boston University) to participate in the debate on “What does philosophy of religion have to offer to modern university?” I consider the question raised relevant in the wake of a modern trend that lays emphasis on science and technology, and entrepreneurial study or skill acquisition and other forms of education that are economically/financially self-sustaining, rather than the teaching of humanities. I want to make a little contribution from my personal experience of teaching of Philosophy of Religion as an integral part of intellectual and academic discipline in contemporary studies of humanities in Africa.

Personal experience as a student in the academy

  1. University of Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria

In the 1974/75 academic session at University of Ibadan where I first had my university training and exposure, I took a course under Dr. ‘Sola Olukunle titled: Introduction of Philosophy of Religion.  The course was thought provoking to the extent that I started wondering why I registered for it, but its intellectual challenges encouraged me to hold on. Little did I know that it would lead me out of my Christian religious parochialism and intolerance of other religious beliefs and to a more epistemologically nuanced understanding of religious propositions with robust moral values that could enrich and enhance my existential worldview. I attach a lot of importance to that humble beginning in search of true religious knowledge each time I reflect on my academic journey to where I have found myself among the intellectuals and academics all over the globe. But that humble beginning was a mere starting point. It was a necessary step I took on the academic ladder of knowledge that enabled me to move on to the next rung of the ladder.

  1. Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas

I counted myself one of the luckiest students to be admitted to the institution with admission and scholarship in 1978. Perkins became my next step on the academic ladder to discover more critical and liberal knowledge of Philosophy of Religion and other disciplines, namely: Philosophical Theology, Moral Theology, and Church History among others. I cannot forget some of the profound minds and distinguished scholars who taught me namely, Schubert M. Ogden, Joseph L. Allen, Charles M. Wood, Leroy T. Howe, and William S. Babcock who are now Professors Emeritus on whose threshold of knowledge I gingerly tread to reach my professional discipline in philosophy. In the foregoing, the question of what philosophy of religion offer to modern university is thus far explained from my intellectual curiosity in search for answers that led me to Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. It offered me the opportunity to have contacts with great minds in the field and outside it. It allowed me to explain my personal views on issues that I was initially afraid of addressing publicly among my peers in Nigeria to avoid being labeled an atheist who will find his place in hell fire. I must say that my fellow students in my classes contributed as well to my growth and wealth of knowledge because we shared different views on the great subject of philosophy of religion. Our disagreements concerning, for instance, the question of the existence of God, the problem of evil, the relationship between faith and reason, the issue of miracles, death and immortality, etc., gave me broader perspectives to view my role as a future teacher of the discipline. To see myself as a future teacher of the discipline, I still needed to take a final step on the metaphoric ladder of knowledge.

  1. The University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson, Texas

The completion of my Ph.D program at the Graduate School of Humanities, The University of Texas at Dallas (UT-D) in 1984 enabled me to synthesize my thoughts within the composite philosophical understanding of human beings in the Humanities. In other words, I concentrated on Philosophy and Humanities as an interdisciplinary field of study. My research and writings were greatly influenced by Professor Louis P. Pojman who taught me at UT-Dallas and remained my mentor and friend until his death in October 2005. He published extensively in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics with a view to deepen our knowledge, provoke our minds, motivate us to research more, and to challenge his views. He helped his audience take a second look at their religious faith and beliefs with a view to rejecting dogmatism and intolerance and creating a new awareness for good neighborliness and peaceful co-existence. It is this kind of world the teaching of philosophy of religion has offered the modern university and beyond its territory.

  1. The teaching of Philosophy of Religion in African Universities

I consider the teaching of philosophy of religion as an integral part of the humanities, which Toyin Falola aptly conceives in his recent book entitled The Humanities in Africa: “No set of disciplines understands humans and the whole essence of being better than humanities.” I have taught philosophy of religion in the following African Universities: Ogun State University, Ago-Iwoye, now Olabisi Onabanjo University Ago-Iwoye, Ogun State, Nigeria, Moi University Eldoret, Kenya, Lagos State University, Ojo, Lagos State, Nigeria and currently Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba, Ondo State Nigeria. I have had a lot of students who registered for Philosophy of Religion each time I taught it. Their curiosity to learn something new and challenging encouraged me to spend more time with them. I was prepared for their unexpected reactions because they, generally speaking, would not want the butcher’s sharp knife of reason to penetrate their orthodox beliefs. However, I did just that in my teaching and publications. Let me cite two: A Critique of African Cultural Beliefs,(Lagos: Pumark Educational Publishers, 1977) and the book I edited, God, Reason and Death: Issues in Philosophy of Religion (Ibadan: Hope Publications, 2008).  

The essential reason for teaching philosophy of religion, in my view is to decolonize and demystify the mind of students of the uncritical nature of any form of religious belief system. In other words, students should able to proportion their religious belief according to rational and empirical evidence. This is one of the compelling and critical contributions philosophy of religion has made to modern university globally.


Our modern world needs peace, harmony and development. The political and religious will of our leaders must take cognizance of the import of teaching philosophy of religion and humanities in the modern university. As Toyin Falola aptly emphasized in his recent book entitled The Humanities in Africa, “No set of disciplines understands humans and the whole essence of being better than humanities.” It is in this intellectual wisdom of Falola that the world must see philosophy of religion as an essential discipline that can reduce hostility in the world where religious extremists become terrorists and insurgents, thereby making the world unsafe for social, economic, political and religious mutual benefits. In my opinion, it is this understanding of human existence that the teaching of philosophy of religion has offered to the modern university.

Jan-Olav Henriksen on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

jan-olav henriksenJan-Olav Henriksen is Professor of Systematic Theology at Norwegian School of Theology and Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Agder, Kristiansand. 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 of religion: To expand and deepen the understanding of religions

Why philosophy of religion?  An obvious answer to this question is that we (the human community, and not only academics) need to develop understandings of the phenomena we call religions that are not based on any pre-determined decision about what they are and how to assess them. Too much discourse about religion today starts with a pre-determined opinion about how good or bad religion is for humanity. Such decisions do not help us to understand the role, function, effect, content, and relevance of religions in concrete human life. Accordingly, we need a discipline that can analyze and develop interpretations of religions that are not based in idealization or demonization of religions, but which, instead, acknowledge the basically ambiguous character of those phenomena we call religious. This should be done with openness, curiosity, and rigor.

To maintain the ambiguous character of religions implies a critical as well as an open approach to religions and to what people think are religious experiences. Our approach need to be critical, in terms of not taking at face value the already-existing opinions about religions and the religious; and it should be open, in terms of being attentive to what people might say about their experiences with, and responses to, the reality that presents itself as something that deserves – for different reasons – to be considered religious. To point consistently to the ambiguous character of religions is important not only in light of contemporary public debate and the potential role of religion in politics but also in order to promote a self-critical attitude towards one’s own opinion about religion in believers and non-believers alike.

As a discipline that has emerged out of the Enlightenment, philosophy of religion has mostly been about interpreting religion from an external point of view—one that does not require a pre-given commitment to any specific beliefs, confession, or doctrine. This approach has to some extent, of course, been informed by existing religion, but the philosophy of religion has mostly been exactly that: a philosophical, not an empirical, approach to religion. This has led to a lot of fruitful interpretations, but also to a certain isolation from other ways to deal with the subject. At present, I think we can see that this is changing. There is an increasing tendency in the contemporary scene for philosophies of religions (the plural is deliberate) to be more extensively informed by all that empirical studies can tell us about religion.  For this reason—and also because philosophy of religion is better informed about problems related to oversimplification and reductionism—philosophy of religion is an obvious candidate for dealing with the different approaches to religion that presently exist within the sphere of the university. Thus, its contribution to religious studies departments in universities should be beyond dispute.

There are obvious reasons for demanding a stronger empirical basis within the discipline. One is the contemporary focus on the possible relationship between religion and violence or terrorism, which calls for a critical scrutiny of empirical as well as theoretical over-simplifications. It is hard to see how this task can be done without a strong basis in empirical studies, be it on the side of sociology or psychology. Another reason is the growing discussion about the natural, or evolutionary, conditions of religion, which is in a similar need for clarification of concepts, but also of basic features related to the understanding of religion. An obvious example in the latter discussion concerns assumptions about “supernatural beings”, and the lack of substantial knowledge about religions among those who seek to explain it merely on the basis of evolutionary theory. On the other hand, religious people need to take into account that their beliefs also are rooted in natural conditions. To develop a comprehensive understanding of religion (and not only of belief, or faith) is an obvious task for empirically informed philosophies of religions.

Among the important contributions of the philosophy of religion to the contemporary discourse about religion is our ability to point out that religions are not, and cannot be, a competitor to science. This absurd claim, which is upheld among believers and non-believers (and mutually reinforced by their mutual antagonisms) and regrettably also repeated in university circles, ignores that all religion builds on, relates to and presupposes everyday knowledge that sometimes also gives rise to scientific reasoning, but without itself producing what we call science.  Religions are basically about practices of orientation in human life and transformation of the human condition, and people need other things than science to articulate and achieve the goals related to these practices. To see religion as a competitor to science is, therefore, a gross under-determination of both. Practices of orientation and transformation are rooted in the deep evolutionary history of humanity, and among the important tasks for the philosophy of religion today is to develop further the understanding of how and why the need for religion (as practices of orientation and transformation) is so persistent in humanity.

All this means that philosophy of religion cannot simply be about analyzing peoples’ beliefs and the opinions they hold about this or that.  Religions are about a human response to reality, and about employing specific resources for response and engagement with reality in order to go beyond the mere immediate and obvious. Rather than seeing religion as something invented in peoples’ minds, we should see religions as emerging out of the basic conditions for what has made humans in the first place. This approach need not require that one has to assume some belief in the supernatural or in the divine – but it could, nevertheless, also help us understand better why people still find it worthwhile to engage with such ideas.

A final note: the “empirical” dimension that I here suggest should be a more visible part of our discipline is also pedagogically motivated. There is sometimes a detectable and growing distance between public opinions about religion (in believers and non-believers) and the ways academics deal with these subjects. To remain anchored in the empirical even when we do philosophy might help people to better see why we do what we do, and think what we think, when we philosophize about religions. Thereby we might contribute to deepening and expanding public understanding of religion as it appears in everyday life.