Raymond VanArragon on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Raymond VanArragon is Professor of Philosophy at Bethel 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 question is, “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” I propose to answer by considering, as examples of the modern university, schools like my own: Christian liberal arts universities where the vast majority of students consider religion to be of significant and even supreme importance.

Philosophy of religion can benefit these students in a variety of ways, and in so doing can help Christian universities better fulfill their missions. To see this, let’s consider how two opposing types of students attending such schools might be impacted by taking a course in philosophy of religion.

The first type of student is the dogmatist. This student has hard and fast religious views, perhaps produced through a sheltered upbringing or a recent and enthusiastic conversion, where answers to profound questions are already settled and people who disagree are seen as ignorant or evil or both.

The dogmatist enrolls at a Christian university with settled beliefs on such topics as the existence of God (obvious), why God allows evil (to make possible our exercise of free will), who gets to go to heaven (people who believe more or less as they do), and much else besides. The fundamental point of this life, our dogmatist contends, is to determine one’s place in the afterlife; and those who do not embrace the Christian faith are going to hell.

Now these issues are in fact much more complex than the dogmatist may think. And there is great benefit to recognizing the complexity! That’s where philosophy of religion comes in. Philosophy of religion can help dogmatists recognize problems with their own views and reasonable features of opposing ones. It can help them begin to see that religious questions run extraordinarily deep, and that pat answers don’t end the discussion.

Return to the sample beliefs I just mentioned. Through study of philosophy of religion a dogmatist may learn that it is not so obvious or easy to prove that God exists, and hence that failing to believe may not be irrational. Perhaps the pervasive horror of this world’s evils cannot be understood purely as God’s way of creating an environment appropriate to the exercise of free will. Perhaps the existence of multiple religions, with their rich traditions and devout representatives, should render us less certain of God’s judgment on them and more inclined to emphasize what all believers have in common, even if there remains much on which we disagree.

The second type of student, opposite the dogmatist, can be called a cynic. Cynics are dismissive of religious belief and tend to feel superior to those who aren’t. Most students do not arrive at Christian universities in this state – they’d likely not attend if they were. Instead, they move in this direction upon exposure to readings that are part of a liberal arts curriculum, some of which contain challenges to religious belief. And cynics may think that their benighted classmates are simply not getting it; they aren’t opening their minds; they don’t recognize their own ignorance.

Philosophy of religion can have a similar impact on cynics, but from another direction. It can reveal that religious beliefs have something positive to be said for them – that there are reasons to believe, reasons put forward by highly intelligent people who have been exposed to those very same challenges but have nonetheless kept the faith. Further, cynics may be prone to assuming that the essence of religious faith is captured by the beliefs and posture of the dogmatist; and philosophy of religion makes clear that faith can be much richer than that.

Now, not only can study of philosophy of religion impact the beliefs of dogmatists and cynics in the ways just suggested. Just as importantly, it can produce an informed and virtuous kind of humility in students on the extremes as well as all those in between. Let me explain.

A central feature of philosophy of religion, and of philosophy more generally, is that while many arguments in the field are strong (and of course many are weak), relatively few are utterly conclusive. That is to say, for nearly any argument (for or against God’s existence, for or against our having freewill, and so on), rejecting it does not mean that you are stupid, dishonest, or in some other way a bad person.

It’s easy to see how recognizing this can promote humility. Philosophy of religion need not lead students to give up all their religious beliefs, but it hopefully will change how they assess those beliefs and the people who reject them. The fact that, as you see it, your beliefs about religion are true does not stem from your being so much smarter or rational or morally upright than everyone who disagrees with you. There must be some other explanation. Students who maintain Christian belief – even after careful reflection on arguments for and against – might come to see their grasp of the truth as a gracious gift, and thus as grounds for humble service rather than for pride. It is no coincidence, I think, that this is what Christianity has taught all along.

I teach philosophy at Bethel University, a Christian university one of whose stated goals is to produce students who are “world-changers and reconcilers.” The statement continues: “As we humbly and honestly engage with our own biases and preconceptions, we grow closer to understanding Christ’s infinite love and selfless mission of redemption.” Many Christian universities make similar statements. They desire, in short, to cultivate religious faith of the best kind.

That goal is elusive. Religion can be the source of so many vices – I’ve only hinted at a few of them. But study of philosophy of religion can counteract those vices. It can temper both dogmatism and cynicism. It can replace aggressive disagreement and debate with humility, with respect, and with a focus on the pursuit of common goals.

That’s what philosophy of religion offers today’s Christian liberal arts universities, an offering that is as important now as it has ever been.

Andrew Gleeson on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Andrew Gleeson is Lecturer in Philosophy at Flinders 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.

When philosophy is defended as part of a humane, liberal education – I say when, for these days often it isn’t – this is seen as a matter of providing a simplified introduction to the research pursued at graduate and faculty level. Contemporary undergraduate teaching in non-professional subjects has increasingly become a primer to graduate study. Teachers have their eye less on the progress of intelligent students in general than on picking out budding researchers. This is not a general education as opposed to a specialized one, but an initiation into specialized inquiry, an initiation which casts the net wide – across the mass of undergraduates – in the hope of trolling the able few. It is a sort of sieve for finding academic philosophical talent. This is of a piece with the gradual marginalization in our culture of the ideal of the generally educated person, and of what was once called the ‘man-of-letters’, eclipsed by the rise of the cloistered specialist or expert.

This is not a system which serves most students well. Between the enthusiasts for specialized research at one pole, and the long-suffering student-victims (increasing with each year’s new intake) unable to cope with a university education of any sort at the other, there exists a large number of thoughtful students – no less intelligent than the first group – who are missing out on something valuable. I do not suggest they get nothing of value from their education – they may certainly get things of interest. They may become passionately interested in arguments for the existence of God – Intelligent Design for example – and continue, as best they can, to follow popular discussions of these for the rest of their lives. The problem is that discussions of these arguments by philosophers – not only in the era of mass institutionalized research-education, but most intensely and pervasively there – have become dissociated from their real roots in human life, in this case in religious life. The arguments have become dry, abstracted intellectual exercises – conundrums or puzzles – that employ only a limited, impersonal dimension of human intelligence: logic, rationality, argumentative dexterity, sensitivity to relevant factual (especially scientific) information. The teaching becomes a kind of squandered opportunity. We are teaching our students to be only lop-sided thinkers and lop-sided human beings.

I do not mean the students miss out on something practical, something they can apply in their subsequent professional lives (the rationale for teaching ethics or critical thinking to students in professional courses). I would call it something ‘spiritual’, if only over-use hadn’t made that word so pretentious. Examples best show what I mean. There is the way mainstream discussion of the idea that contingent being implies necessary being treats the notions of contingency and necessity exclusively as logical or scientific ones, and gives no role to contingency as a sense of the perishability of worldly things, in contrast to the eternity of God, as these are (for instance) sung by the psalmist (‘Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God’). Or consider the failure of so much discussion of the problem of evil to hold itself accountable to real life examples of evil, a failure theorized by the field as the distinction between the genuinely intellectual problem (the proper business of philosophers) and the personal or existential problem (the business of pastors, counselors and social reformers) and valorized as an ensign of its intellectual probity. (Philosophers discussing theodicy will often begin by quoting Dostoevsky, but typically as mere prettification which is quickly passed over to get on with the serious work of theory construction.) The point is not that these mainstream treatments of the philosophy of religion employ the proper methods for discovering the truth and achieving understanding, but in the class-room they should be complemented by a humanist uplift that is edifying for the students but strictly irrelevant to the genuinely cognitive core of the discipline. That idea simply recapitulates the impoverished conception of intellectual life that extols impersonal thought at the expense of personal responsiveness, and thereby misses its own ostensible subject-matter, a subject-matter that cannot be understood by the tools of the merely impersonal outlook (indispensable as they are). Philosophers proceeding in this way get God and Evil wrong. Perhaps most fundamentally the very methodological assumption of treating them as objects of speculation already distorts the understanding by directing attention on to the wrong intentional objects, or at least ones that are badly out of focus: the God whom the theodicist defends in his arguments during the day is not the same one he prays to at night. I can merely assert these strong claims here. I have argued for them in my book A Frightening Love: Recasting the Problem of Evil.

An alternative conception of philosophical thought about religion makes consideration of serious examples (of, say, evil, or the sense of life’s contingency, or the hidden-ness of God, or what it is to trust God) fundamental to philosophical practice. They need not come from the philosophers’ own lives, but philosophical consideration of them must be qua (thoughtful) human beings, not merely qua thinkers (philosophers) in the narrow sense of being responsive only to logic, rationality, etc. (It is admittedly a subtle question what marks thought as thought qua human being rather than qua philosopher, or qua literary critic, or qua historian, or …. My best quick stab is that it is thought presentable in any format – prose, poetry, painting, music – and without essential reference to any disciplinary canon or set of problems.) This casts philosophers in a quite different role in relation to the wider, non-specialist world than they standardly take themselves to have. The standard role assumes that philosophy can prove or disprove God, or make God more or less likely, and thus the point and rationality of religious practice in the world at large is made hostage to the results of highly specialized inquiry. I am suggesting things should be the other way round: that the philosophers should be learning from the world outside the seminar room. The students in that seminar room are usually young, and only just learning about both the academic world and the wider one. If the former condescends to the latter, and even dismisses it, we run the risk of disenfranchising them from both.

Susanna L. Goodin on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Susann L. Goodin is Associate Professor of Philosophy at The University of Wyoming. 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.

Religion in general provides guidance on what is important, how to live and, in some cases, what to think about almost every aspect of life. By being so ingrained and so long-standing, religious beliefs are very influential, but similarly, by being so ingrained and long-standing religious beliefs are largely resistant to revision. Humans have a tendency to accept the beliefs held by those around them and by those in positions of authority over them. And all of that makes religious beliefs a very useful tool of social control.

When beliefs are accepted unthinkingly, then others have a greater opportunity to exert control over what you think – and what you do. If one comes to have a nuanced understanding of their religious beliefs, they stand a much better chance of seeing whether their religion does or does not mandate a stand on a particular social issue. A true understanding of the foundation behind religious claims will limit the use by others of one’s religion to support any of a number of particular political and social views. Ideally, having a deeper understanding of what various religious claims mean (and don’t mean) will limit the ability to inject social and personal prejudices and biases into the religious teachings, thus limiting the use of the religion to cement those views into social norms and policies.

When you learn to unpack your beliefs for yourself, the power of others to control what you think and do is greatly, even if not totally, diminished.

Philosophy in general offers clarity, insight, and a way to step away from dogmatic acceptance of concepts that are often nothing more than oft-repeated phrases with no real understanding of them. To be able to show students how to achieve clarity, insight, and a way to step away from dogmatically-held beliefs regarding something as fundamental to one’s religious beliefs is to give students a self-reflective control over their beliefs, and thus over their lives. Also, humility about what one knows and what one can know, acquired through rigorous logical analysis that results in a deeper understanding about the beliefs one holds, promotes a way to step away from fundamentalism (religious or otherwise)—which is a very good thing.

To think critically is to seek out assumptions and acquire clarity over the unstated background beliefs, those foundations that are necessary for your belief to stand but are largely unrealized and thus unquestioned. Critical analysis places under review the assumptions behind our beliefs and allows for possible revision or elimination. Critical analysis also reveals the consequences of our beliefs and causes us reevaluate whether we wish to continue holding a belief at that cost. Critical analysis reveals internal contradictions among the beliefs held. Fuzzy beliefs get refined (if possible), and if not possible, then are either discarded or are held but with an awareness of the limitations inherent in such beliefs.

To learn how to engage in critical analysis of religion is to see that religious beliefs can be explored with the goal of understanding and evaluating absent a goal of winning, persuading, renouncing or denouncing. The goal is to see what is entailed in continuing to hold onto an oft-repeated belief. One might say that a philosophy of religion class makes one earn the right to hold a specific religious belief.

Philosophy of religion teaches, via repeated demonstrations regarding the analysis of divine attributes or centuries old proofs for the existence of the traditional Western classical conception of God or the implications of the claim that a miracle occurred, how to engage in rigorous critical thinking. Teaching students how to think about big important issues in one sphere will allow them to begin to think about important issues in other spheres.

Philosophy of religion courses show that it is okay to question religious beliefs and show how to do it well.

By having such courses in the curriculum, U.S. universities show support for a critical and questioning approach to religious beliefs. And by showing that one can do this with beliefs as important and fundamental as religious beliefs opens up the possibility of treating all of one’s beliefs in the same way.

For U.S. to offer such courses is to reject an endorsement for an unthinking populace that simply accepts what it is told. When religious beliefs are put in the hands of the individual and the individual is educated in how to think critically about those beliefs, the possibility of a fundamentalist hold is dramatically weakened and the possibility of religion being used to control the populace or any portion of the populace is significantly lessened.