James Wetzel on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

james-wetzelJames Wetzel is Professor of Philosophy and holds the Augustinian Endowed Chair at Villanova 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.

There are many different constituencies, often rival, that get housed in the modern university. Difference, these days, is widely thought of as a desirable and necessary thing; if fostered in the right way, difference conveys openness of spirit and so liberation from the silos of estranged subjectivities. We become, for one another, exit doors from fear and ignorance—and exits into the wonder. Sounds lovely. But there is of course the other part. The cultivation, protection, and even enforcement of difference—different disciplines, different histories, different sensibilities, different looks, different loves—can become estrangement by other means; we burrow into constituencies that are anxiously intent, like tribes post Babel, on policing their borders. The university has traditionally aspired to unity of some kind, a unity that gets draped in the language of higher values, where words like truth, love, light, God, and justice have pride of place. The university, in its modern history, has had to weather considerable skepticism about grandiose calls to higher unity (whose?), and yet it still wishes for a diversity that comes to more than a cacophony of separately funded interests.

Can philosophy of religion be of help here? It is a strange and forlorn question if we have already boxed up philosophy of religion as a sub-discipline within a discipline that prides itself on the mastery of reason. Rigorous arguments for or against the coherence of theism and the likelihood of God’s existence are not likely to advance the modern university’s educational interests in diversity, and not simply because the God of all the omni proprieties—omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence—turns out to be as much of a cultural artifact as any other human conception of divinity. Add other conceptions to your heart’s content; venture into different cultures and histories; embrace religious pluralism; respect secularism. If your conception of reasoning is still so formal that you can imagine mastering it apart from the untidy business of sharing your life with others, then your higher values will remain unpopulated.

I make no criticism here that I do not make of myself.  I have been fiddling with the packaging of philosophy of religion for decades, and still I barely have a grip on the difference that, for me, lies at the beating heart of the philosophy of religion: knowledge in contrast to wisdom. (Perhaps part of my problem here is that I am too fixated on the metaphor of grasping.) Rather than define the difference between knowledge and wisdom for you (more grasping), I offer a scene from Plato’s Phaedo, the dialogue that details the death of the philosopher, and a few words of interpretation.

In the scene I have in mind, the great teacher, Socrates, has been helping his students think toward the life that has been freed from the specter of fear of death. His students wish from him, especially the foreign ones, Simmias and Cebes, a rigorous proof of the soul’s immortality; they want a guarantee, in other words, that they go on, even when their bodies do not. The issue is very topical for Socrates, who faces having to drink hemlock at sunset and die for the suspect religion he calls philosophy. The arguments for the soul’s immortality go well at first, until, all of a sudden, they do not. (It proves difficult, if not impossible, to think of soul other than in bodily terms, and bodies disintegrate.) Socrates cautions his students not to become “misologists”—a Platonic coinage that means “haters of logos.” The sense of logos here is usually taken to be “argument” or “reason.” Most people, Socrates says reassuringly, are still reasoners in training; they should not be dismayed when their best arguments are later revealed to be deficient. He advises both Simmias and Cebes, who have put the most stake in the revelatory power of a good argument, to value the truth more than they do Socrates and continue the hunt for a better logos.

I see two quite different ways to read this scene. In one, Socrates is advising his students to perfect their reasoning beyond all possibility of further revision. That may take lifetimes, if indeed there are lifetimes to be had, and along the way they will continue to fear what has yet to be wholly rationalized. No matter; they are to value truth over anyone, even Socrates, their beloved teacher. (They did at first want to to console him with consoling arguments.) In the other reading of this scene, the one I favor, Socrates unburdens his students of the need to reassure him: yes, care more for truth than for the man you presume to pity. The integrity of a Socrates in the face of death is in no way dependent on a form of argumentation that circumvents the need of one human being to keep company, in the midst of ineliminable uncertainties, with another. Here there is no ambition to perfect reason (a Cartesian and broadly modern fantasy); there is only the question of whether we will use words to commend one another to the imminent good of a shared life or whether we will use them to dress up ignorance and fear as some kind of mental toughness.

I would like to think that philosophers of religion—or those of us who have yet to exile love from the citadel of reason—offer the modern university a measure of respite from the obsessiveness of knowing. The uncertainty that is home to wisdom is to be inhabited, not resolved. It is space for the goodness that no one possesses or consumes.

Raoul Mortley on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

raoul-mortleyRaoul Mortley is Executive Dean and Pro Vice Chancellor of the Faculty of Society and Design at Bond University, 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.

The value of the philosophy of religion in a curriculum and in a general education lies in the ability to explore a great many different things, not ordinarily covered in a philosophy curriculum. In the first place there is the standard menu involving the deployment of logic, the acknowledgement and understanding of traditional arguments for the existence of God, the analysis of their weaknesses, and the intellectual texture to which they belong. Thus ordinary argumentation is learned, including the ability to mount arguments in support of the case, and the ability to make arguments against a case. But equally the context of belief is important: what people have believed and why they have believed it.

The argument from design fits into a general approach which is teleological, and this fits into an approach which goes back to Aristotle, Plato and earlier, and gave way in the face of scientific revolution. This all needs to be understood so that we can look with a critical eye on the orthodoxies of our own time, and to try to glimpse their limitations. This of course is always easier in retrospect, but it is an important part of self-understanding to learn that orthodoxies eventually come to their term.

Many other and similar points could be made about the traditional arguments for the existence of God and where they fit into the history of world thought.

There is a second issue to do with the exploration of the full capacity of the human being. This is what Plato does in the Phaedrus, which begins with a kind of symptomatology of the ordinary experience of erotic behaviour, but then turns to the blessings of madness, or of mania, and the capacity for mystical and transcendent apprehension of things. What might now be closed off as a discussion of bipolar disorder, is fully developed by Socrates into a eulogy of the ecstatic, extra-logical apprehension of higher things: this also arises out of an observation of human behaviour in ancient Athens, that of the mystery religions and of the maenads of the Dionysiac rites. Here is human nature in its fullest expression, pursuing a form of knowledge which may be wordless, beyond logic and beyond knowledge itself, under certain definitions.

The idea of the unspeakability of the divine, and the tradition of the via negativa, broaden the scope of the philosophy of religion considerably and bring to bear a certain scepticism over the value of language, and the confidence we might have in our form of knowledge. This opens up a broad sweep of ideas running from Plato’s allegory of the cave through to the mediaeval Platonists.

If one moves into the theological realm and discusses for example the nature of Christian love, and its contrast with the eros of the Greeks, its apparent passionlessness, its approximation to duty – all these kinds of issues give a deeper appreciation of human nature and of the possibilities of philosophy than one might encounter in other courses. This is not to say that one abandons one’s critical faculties, or the ability to point out contradictions and limitations, nor is it to diminish other disciplines, such as political philosophy, or the philosophy of mind. Rather, it is to say that the philosophy of religion provides not only training in reasoning and argumentation, but also a rich insight into human nature and human capacity. The more involvement with theology there is, the richer is the consideration of human life, its opportunities and its dead ends. This kind of richness is greatly appreciated by students.

Sobia Tahir on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

sobia-tahirSobia Tahir is Chairperson of the Department of Philosophy and Interdisciplinary Studies at Government College University Lahore in Pakistan. We invited her 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 makes an important subject, not only of philosophy, but also of the humanities in general. It is the need of the hour that philosophy of religion must be sustained as part of the syllabus at all the major universities and colleges globally. It is not an exaggeration to say that it should be introduced as a compulsory subject at undergraduate level.

The author of this paper and the holder of this opinion has strong arguments and justifications to support her point of view. Our syllabi, specifically in the natural sciences, have turned out to be an utter failure in imbibing and incorporating a “scientific outlook” in our students. Unfortunately, when it comes to religion and religious beliefs, we find the scientist on par with the ignorant masses in terms of bias and drawing false causal connections/ interpretations.

To sustain this claim, let me give two examples. There is no shortage of able and competent gynecologists among Hindus and Christians. Both of them know well about human conception, the growth of the embryo in the womb, and so on. In their role as gynecologists working in their clinics, labour rooms, and laboratories; they are perfectly sane and sensible. Now come to religion; lo and behold, here the Hindu gynecologist will start believing vehemently that Cow—yes the same animal with four legs—is his (and of all Hindus’) mother, knowing well that a cow may never bear a human child!!

At this point, he would forget his entire scientific knowledge and experimentation and would insist on this incorrect and empirically falsifiable belief. Let us move now to the Christians. Are they not the most qualified and capable gynecologists in the world, who have made revolutionary progress in the field? They know well through observation and experience that no woman may conceive without having intercourse with a man. However, when it comes to the birth of Christ, they immediately start believing in the Immaculate Conception and consider Mary a virgin mother.

The case of psychiatrists is not very different; hallucinations and delusions are the hallmark symptoms of schizophrenia, the sufferers of which hear voices, see images, and have false and distorted beliefs. Nevertheless, when Abraham listens to the same voices from his Lord and takes his son to slaughter in order to fulfill the murderous command of his God; no psychiatrist questions his mental condition. No one actually bothers to question whether the voice he heard was of God or of Satan. Hence the scientists and technologists have given us a huge quantity of science and innumerable technological products, but have failed to inculcate critical thinking, not only in other people, but in themselves too. That is why the world we are inhabiting is full of science and technology but is totally devoid of civility, law, morality, rationality, tolerance, peace, and harmony.

Now, I would like to coordinate and harmonize what I want to say and what is my actual thesis. Till now, I have made two major claims:

  • Science itself does not produce a scientific outlook;
  • Excessive technology has led us towards more bloodshed and violence instead of sanity, sobriety, and sensibility.

Now, I shall move towards my final and conclusive claim or judgment. The question is: “What is the root-cause of this rampant violence, excessive terror, wars, and conflicts”? Definitely it is neither science, nor technology; these are only means not causes or reasons. The real bone of contention and the primary source of discord is religion itself. This has remained the oldest, tested and most effective tool of hatred, dispute and friction in the world since the beginning of human history and civilization.

  • Thus to create a civilized, urbane, and humane world based on the dictum of “live and let live,” we will have to promote, back, and support philosophy of religion and not religion.

And what is philosophy of religion? It is a rational, logical, impartial, neutral, dispassionate, and independent inquiry of the fundamentals of faith, beliefs, and dogmas. It analyzes the structure of religion and explores the deep seated prejudices and age-old vested interests which shape the framework of religion in order to exploit the masses; to keep them backward, poor, and illiterate; and to incite them to fight, kill, murder, and create disorder in the world.

Until philosophy of religion is introduced as a compulsory subject to all undergraduate students; we will not produce suave, moral, sophisticated, and courteous people having respect for all creeds. Instead we will continue to produce the parrots, pygmies, robots, and senseless human machines controlled by their biases, aggressive emotions, and baser sentiments.

It is to be noted at the end that philosophy of religion must not be misconstrued as a hostile and destructive campaign against religion; it does not undermine, insult, or humiliate any religion; nor does it hurt the followers of any specific belief. It only philosophically elucidates and explicates the assumptions, hypotheses, and postulates of the religion.

Philosophy of religion is an enlightening and illuminating discourse and I have the honour of not only doing my doctorate in the same, but also, I have been teaching it in the Department of Philosophy and Interdisciplinary Studies, GCU Lahore for the past eight years. It has the capacity of answering many burning questions which arise in the mind of the students, who otherwise have no way to expound them. It leads them to a more moderate, sober, and balanced way to see teligion, both its pros and cons and its origin and foundations.

Since it is a general study and no particular religion as such is its focus; it does not cause any inter-faith tension or conflict amongst the students, even if they belong to different faiths. The study of the philosophy of religion guides readers towards objectivity and the use of intellect in the most serious spheres of life. It purges epistemology of fake sources of knowledge too.

Thomas Tracy on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

thomas-tracyThomas Tracy is Phillips Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Bates College in Lewiston, 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.

I expect that most of us who write and teach in the field of philosophy of religion have been asked various (perhaps more polemical) versions of this question throughout our working lives. Often the questioner goes straight to the bottom line: “What do students do with their degree when they graduate?”; “What is that course of study good for?” In the context of increasingly cost-conscious and utility focused appraisals of higher education, these questions are asked about the humanistic disciplines generally, though philosophy tends to be an especially popular target. Marco Rubio offered a simple expression of this view during one of the Republican presidential nomination debates (Nov. 10, 2015): “We need more welders and less philosophers” (though perhaps more grammarians would be helpful).

I am convinced that we can give compelling answers to questions like these; a strong case can be made for the instrumental value of the study of philosophy generally and philosophy of religion in particular. I think that it is a mistake to dismiss altogether arguments that treat preparation in these fields as a means to some further good end, and instead offer only high-minded defenses of their intrinsic value. It is reasonable, e.g., for parents to wonder how their offspring’s undergraduate degree in Philosophy (or Religious Studies or English or Music, and so on) will contribute to their ability to get on in life. But it is worth noting that utilitarian considerations generally do not motivate our work on these subjects. We pursue them because (among other things) they engage matters of vital and compelling importance to us, they allow us to follow the track of insistent curiosity, they illuminate our experience and deepen understanding. In these ways they make our lives richer, more interesting, and more profoundly connected both to contemporaries and to those long dead who become our textual conversation partners. We can offer a powerful utilitarian defense that points to the wider social benefits of this activity (more about this below). But part of the value of these instrumental arguments is that they themselves serve as a means to the end of defending the opportunity to study what we love.

Let me sketch just a few of the goods, both intrinsic and instrumental, that are advanced through the study of philosophy of religion.

First, philosophy of religion provides opportunities to grapple with perennial questions of fundamental importance. Human beings perpetually seek to understand the larger context in which our lives unfold, how we fit into that context, and therefore how we ought to live. Religious traditions typically address these questions about reality, identity, and value at the level of ultimacy; that is, they make proposals about the ultimate (most comprehensive) context of our lives, and they affirm that orienting our lives in this context is of ultimate importance in understanding who we are and in shaping a good course of life. The drive to explore these questions is part of being human, and this is a reason to resist exclusively instrumental defenses of teaching and research in philosophy of religion. We should insist that the first answer to the question, “What is this field of study good for?” is that it is good for human beings.

Second, philosophy of religion makes it clear that individuals and communities think about these matters in a great variety of different ways. Exploring the range of religious thought and practice can challenge our parochialism, expand the reach of imagination, open up new lines of reflection, and (we may hope) deepen empathetic appreciation of both similarity and difference. Especially at this social-political moment, it seems obvious that ignorance about unfamiliar religious communities has the potential to be socially destructive, and that richer and more complex understanding across religious difference is a social good. This is a compelling consequential reason to foster teaching and research in Philosophy of Religion (and in the study of religion generally, e.g., in Religious Studies).

Third, the study of philosophy of religion brings to light the internal complexity of religious traditions. One expression of widespread ignorance about religious communities, including those at least superficially familiar in our society, is a pernicious simplification of their beliefs, practices, and forms of social organization. Religions not only differ from one another, they contain tremendous diversity within themselves. Rather than conveying a single, unified, and unvarying content from generation to generation, religious traditions take shape in an ongoing discussion, an often passionate dialogue about what believers should believe and how the faithful should practice. The boundaries of the faith (of orthodoxy and orthopraxis) typically are matters of vigorous debate, and religious traditions are dynamic, developing, and multi-vocal. It is critically important to understand that a religion is richer than the narrow version presented by any set of absolutists within it or hostile simplifiers outside it.

Fourth, philosophy of religion illuminates the patterns of reasoning at work in religious thought, and it invites careful assessment of the claims that arise in the dialogue within and among religious traditions and in debates with their critics. This involves a discipline of charitable attention to contending points of view, commitment to clarity, openness to considering objections, and fair-minded assessment of arguments. These practices of collaborative truth-seeking, critical self-consciousness, and willingness to cope with complexity are transferable to a wide variety of contexts. They contribute to the range and richness of our conversations across differences. In a world that includes multiple religious cultures in ever increasing global interaction these habits of mind are urgently needed.

In short, a strong case can be made for the vital importance of philosophy of religion in contemporary higher education. We may or may not need more welders, but we certainly need more people (welders included) who are informed and thoughtful about religion.