James McLachlan on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

James McLachlan is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Western Carolina University. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Ethical Transcendence and Critical Historical Immanence

The norms and values that I think define excellent philosophy of religion are openness to otherness as the effort to see how different religious logics might work in relation to different basic assumptions about the world. And a critical/historical consciousness that sees all human activities as situated in historical and cultural development.

I start with both hyperbole and a way too overly negative statement of the state of the discipline. I will greatly oversimplify things by dividing philosophy of religion between what I take to be the two major approaches from the two disciplines that use the term: philosophy and religious studies. Philosophy of Religion as it practiced in philosophy departments must realize that it has to focus on much more than theism or the types of theisms that has been the standard of philosophy of religion as a primarily Western and even more narrowly Christian discipline. Though this has certainly been changing over the last couple of decades any random survey of introductory philosophy of religion texts indicates the narrowness of the questions considered in the field. The usual arguments for the existence of God, the tension between faith and reason, miracles, the problem of evil (related to an omnipotent and omniscient deity), and the relation of religion and ethics, or rather, theism and ethics. But the narrowness of the traditional approaches to the discipline go beyond its narrowly Western focus.1 It also seems to ignore the history of Western Theism. It behaves as if the last two hundred years of historical/critical studies of Christian doctrines like theism itself had not occurred. The philosophers of religion sometimes appear to better fit Donald Wiebe’s characterization of religionists as crypto-theologians than do the phenomenologists of religion. They seem only really concerned with Christian theology or at the most theism, despite the fact that Christianity only accounts for about a third of what we could call religious people on the planet and theism only about half. They seem to have taken the part of Mr. Thwackum, the Divine, at least in part against Mr. Square, the Philosopher, in that wonderful dispute in Henry Fielding’s The Adventures of Tom Jones: “When I mention religion, I mean the Christian religion and not only the Christian religion, but the Protestant religion, and not only the Protestant religion, but the Church of England” (Fielding 1917).

It is only correct that philosophers of religion from religious studies should be critical of such an approach. However, many religionists may also be crypto-theological in seeking to find something irreducibly religious in all religions and excluding any other approaches as reductionist. These are countered by a gang of theorists in the study of religion that includes, among others, Wiebe and Russell McCutcheon. They argue for methodological atheism in the study of religious phenomena and will not allow any philosophical approach that would evaluate what might be the truth or value of religious groups’ claims or practices. Such approaches reveal much about the phenomena that is to be explored but in their insistence on method as revealer of truth about the phenomenon they are not open to the phenomena themselves. As Merleau-Ponty famously quipped at the beginning of “Eye and Mind” “Science manipulates things and gives up living in them.”

This does not mean that there is something irreducibly religious about religious phenomena, as suggested by the phenomenologists of religions. What is needed instead is a phenomenological approach championed by Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Levinas that would see religion as part of the life world.

The title to H. G. Gadamer’s Truth and Method is deliberately ironic. Truth evades the methodological approach. Understanding is not the act of a subject over against an object but the way of being. Truth is not reached methodically but dialectically, through question and answer, the constant passing from whole to part and part to whole. The dialectical approach to truth is the antithesis of method, indeed it is a pre-structure of the individual’s way of seeing. It recognizes the historicality of both religion, the investigator searching to understand it, and his method. Method only renders explicit what was implicit in the method. In the dialectical situation, the matter encountered is that to which we respond. The interpretive encounter is no longer that of a questioner and an object, with the questioner having to construct methods to bring the object into his grasp. On the contrary, the questioner suddenly finds himself the being who is interrogated by the subject matter. Here one is situated in history and sees her own position as produced historically. Religion would be approached much as art, as a human creation that is at least an effort at transcendence.

Religion claims a transcendent but the idea that I ought to be open to the other, either as an individual or to her tradition is ethical. This is basically Levinas’s distinction between the “Holy” and the “Sacred.” He claims the ways that these terms are usually defined is the essence of idolatry. Levinas uses the word sacred as a notion of a single ground that unites everything. This would be the irreducibly religious of the old phenomenology of religion movement. Otto calls it the “Mysterium Tremendom et Fascinans” that fills us with awe and terror. This can be quite wonderful but could also provoke the kind of enthusiasm that was provoked in Nazi rallies. It can be a source of violence. Levinas defines the Holy as the respectful relation to another person who “transcends” me and all my ideas.

Scott Smith on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Scott Smith is Professor of Ethics and Christian Apologetics at Biola University. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

One of the most fundamental, operating assumptions in academic religious studies is that religion basically is a construct, whether by individuals or social groups. While philosophers from different conceptual paradigms differ about this assumption, nonetheless it still seems that the majority of philosophers, being naturalists, embrace what is known as the fact-value split. On that view, religion does not give us knowledge; rather, it gives us personal opinions, values, preferences, and our constructs.

Yet, a virtue of good philosophy is a willingness to subject our assumptions to rigorous debate. I suggest this same mindset should be applied to this widely held assumption about religious knowledge.

Now, in this short essay, it is not feasible to make a full evaluation of the fact-value split. (I have addressed it more thoroughly, however, in two books, Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality: Testing Religious Truth-claims (Routledge, 2012), and In Search of Moral Knowledge: Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy (IVP, 2014).) Nevertheless, here I want to suggest that science, if based on naturalism, cannot give us knowledge at all. That undermines the “fact” side of the split.

But, clearly, we do have knowledge of many things, including in science. I will suggest that happens, however, due to the existence of nonnatural entities, which naturalism cannot countenance. What, then, is needed to exist in order for us to have knowledge? Here, I suggest that the best explanation for these nonnatural, universal qualities is that they are grounded in God. If so, I suggest that this would provide knowledge in the area of religion. (I also think we can have moral knowledge, too, though that is an argument to be made in another place).

Consider the ontological resources naturalism has to give us knowledge. In his book, The Intentional Stance, Daniel Dennett has developed this tactic which he advocates to interpret the behavior of “intentional systems” (humans, frogs, computers, etc.). Dennett treats mental content functionally; thoughts, beliefs, desires, purposes, and other mental states, along with their intentionality, are just attributions from the intentional stance to predict behavior. There are only brain states, physical patterns, and behavior that we take, or interpret, to be about something.

Furthermore, for Dennett, there are no “deeper facts” beyond behavior as to what someone “really had in mind” when behaving in some way, precisely because there are no essences. Yet, he admits that if there were essences, there could be deeper facts as to what someone meant. There also could be a fact of the matter, beyond interpretation, what that person’s (alleged) mental state really was of or about.

This makes sense on naturalism, and not merely Dennett’s particular views. For on naturalism, there are no intrinsically mental entities. Nor is there anything intrinsically intentional. Still, we may conceive of, or treat, something as intentional, much like Dennett does.

But, we should notice that Dennett’s own views seem to presuppose the reality of intentionality. For when he and others engage in observations of behaviors of some system, it seems those observations need intentionality themselves, and not merely an attribution thereof. Moreover, his attributions, which are interpretations of behavior, also seem to require real intentionality; otherwise, how could these be about the behavior?

Even more importantly, without any essences (or “deeper facts”) to thoughts, beliefs, or even Dennett’s interpretations, it always will be an open question what some behavior “means.” Without any intrinsic qualities, there will not be any intrinsic qualities to a behavior, or an intrinsic meaning of a text. Moreover, thoughts are brain-writings, and thus they are just as subject to interpretation as any other text.

So, as Dennett hints, but apparently does not fully realize, his views are subject to the same indefiniteness of interpretation as the views of Jacques Derrida. It seems that for Dennett, like Derrida, that everything is interpretation. Yet, if that is the case, we face the prospects of an infinite regress of interpretations, making us unable even to get started.

To stress, Dennett admits why this happens – if there were essences, such as the intrinsic intentionality of some thought, interpretation, or observation, there would be a deeper fact of what it really is about. But, on naturalism, there are no essences.

However, if we pay attention to what is before us in conscious awareness, I think we can become aware that (for example) our thoughts really do have intentionality, and they have it intrinsically. For it seems we cannot have a thought that is not about something, whether or not that thing obtains in reality. I can think of Pegasus, even though Pegasus does not obtain. Also, consider a thought of a Starbuck’s Mocha Frappuccino®. It does not seem that thought could be about something else (say, a soccer match) and still be the same thought. Instead, the thought of the soccer match would be a different thought. Thoughts seem to have their intentional contents intrinsically.

The same seems to apply to interpretations and beliefs. But, without real intentionality, and real essences, it seems there will not be any real interpretations or beliefs. Moreover, propositional knowledge also seems to require intentionality, but without it, there will not be such knowledge.

I suggest that naturalism lacks the ontology needed for us to have knowledge of reality. But, since the “fact” side of the split seems to trade upon a naturalistic ontology, this finding should undermine the split. However, I have suggested that knowledge requires the reality of essences. What might be their best explanation? While they might be brute facts, I suggest that would be rather odd, given how they seem to enable us to know reality. Essences, however, would fit within the ontological and design implications of theism.

Now, clearly, I have been able to make only suggestions. Much more work needs to be done in this area. But, I think that a criterion for good philosophy of religion should be a willingness to question some of our deepest assumptions, and I have sought to motivate that study regarding the deeply entrenched fact-value split.

David Basinger on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

David Basinger is Professor of Philosophy and Ethics at Northeastern Seminary. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
As I see it, one of the most important values that should be instilled/reinforced by excellent philosophy of religion is epistemic humility, defined as the acknowledgement that equally knowledgeable, sincere individuals differ on almost all significant religious issues.

We initially acquire our beliefs, including any religious beliefs, in at least two ways. Some are subconsciously soft-wired into us. Specifically, most of us subconsciously acquire soft-wired beliefs about what our world is like in general and the nature and status of those different from us in particular. Other beliefs are acquired early in life from parents, religious leaders, school teachers, and friends. Such beliefs increase our understanding about the nature of reality, including the status of those different than ourselves, and how we ought to behave in the world as we see it.

The good news is that if we acknowledge these shaping influences and consciously reflect on our beliefs and the beliefs of our epistemic competitors – that is, purposefully engage in comparative assessment of why we and those who hold differing perspectives on those bestowed beliefs that seem to us both normal and correct – it is possible to refine, modify, or give up these initial bestowed beliefs. The bad news is that our normal, natural epistemic state is not to engage in objective, comparative belief assessment of bestowed beliefs – to rationally view the relevant evidence and lines of reasoning and reaffirm, modify, or relinquish our bestowed beliefs. Rather, our normal default response to challenges to our bestowed beliefs is to defend these beliefs. They become the control beliefs by which we interpret, assess, and ultimately explain away seeming counter-evidence.

In addition, I believe there to be what some see as an important limitation on what serious comparative belief assessment can accomplish. As argued in other contexts, I deny that there exists a set of objective, non-question-begging criteria in relation to which we can demonstrate that many of our bestowed beliefs on important social, political, economic, moral, and religious issues are in fact superior to all other competing perspectives on these issues. Rather, I hold that in most cases, serious comparative belief assessment will force us into the epistemically humble position of acknowledging that equally sincere, knowledgeable individuals can justifiably affirm differing self-consistent, comprehensive perspectives on such issues.

To be epistemically humble in this sense does not mean that we cannot hold our beliefs firmly and act upon them. However, it will significantly alter how we in engage in discussions with our epistemic competitors. If we believe there to be objective, demonstrable evidence that our perspective on a given issue is alone the correct one, then our goal in discussions with those holding differing perspective is rightly to help them see the truth – i.e., to help them see that they are missing crucial information or not processing that information correctly – or to challenge their sincerity – i.e., to speculate on why they are unwilling to acknowledge what they really know to be true. If, however, we believe that some of our epistemic competitors have as much information as do we, are processing it in the same fashion, and are as dedicated as we are to finding the truth of the matter – i.e., truly are our epistemic peers – we are then much more likely to engage in respectful, civil discussion of the issue in question, with the primary purpose to encourage our competitors to reconsider their perspectives rather than to belittle their intellectual capacity or accuse them of having a morally deficient hidden agenda. And, from my perspective, there’s never been a more important time for all to engage in epistemically humble discussions that will not only preserve respect and dignity but also afford us the best chance of being able to arrive at productive responses to differences that must be resolved.

I believe that philosophy of religion, when functioning as the study of diverse religious beliefs, is well-suited to encourage epistemic humility.

Individuals don’t become epistemically humble because they are told they have no compelling reason to deny that their epistemic peers are equally knowledgeable or sincere. Rather, it’s been my experience that individuals are most likely to become epistemically humble when they become aware of meaningful epistemic tensions in their own belief system. It’s clear that religious beliefs are meaningful in that they often significantly impact how individuals explain their life experiences and justify their behavior toward themselves and others.

The tensions that lead to epistemic humility are of two types. First, individuals often find themselves becoming more epistemically humble when they discover that some of their significant bestowed beliefs are inconsistent with each other. Since important religious beliefs about God’s attributes and behavior or about the negative impact of religion are often acquired from different authority figures at different times, it’s not surprising that such beliefs are often inconsistent. When individuals come to see that this is so, they often experience an internal tension that compels them to assess the relevant beliefs in an attempt to resolve the tension. For example, religious believers often experience tension when their general view of God’s control over all things is not compatible with the role they believe human freedom plays in what occurs. Second, individuals, including religious individuals, often find themselves becoming more epistemically humble when they come to see that those who possess the same information and the same criteria for interpreting this information differ on significant issues. For example, when believers come to realize that other believers who hold the same forms of authoritative divine revelation differ significantly on an important issue, they often naturally find themselves engaging in belief assessment to discover why this is so.

Developing epistemic humility is clearly not the only role for philosophy of religion. But the current state of dialog around issues of significance leads me to believe that none is more important.

Paul Draper on Dean Zimmerman on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Paul Draper is Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Religious Studies at Purdue University. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series. He answered by responding to Dean Zimmerman’s answer to the same question.

In response to the question of what norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion, Dean Zimmerman says that philosophy of religion must appeal to the same theoretical virtues to which other areas of philosophy appeal — the same ones that make for good science and good thinking in general. I could not agree more. Zimmerman then shifts his attention to the question of whether, in addition to these universal norms, there are “special norms” that apply specifically to philosophy of religion and that cannot be derived from universal norms. Zimmerman’s answer to this question is “no.” Once again, I agree. For example, it is a mistake to think, as some philosophers do, that only members of a particular religion or only people who are at least religious in some broad sense can have the attitudes, the dispositions, or the (insider) knowledge needed to excel in philosophical inquiry about religion. Similarly, being a religious outsider is not required for doing excellent work in philosophy of religion.

Such insider/outsider norms, however, are not the norms that draw Zimmerman’s scrutiny. Instead, his targets are what he calls the “no apologetics norm” and the “no theology norm.” I will ignore what he says about the no theology norm. Though I think there are some important differences between theological inquiry and philosophical inquiry about religion, I agree with Zimmerman that philosophy of religion and theology overlap and for that reason a strict “no theology norm” makes no sense. I do, however, want to respond to what Zimmerman says about the “no apologetics norm.” I will defend this norm by criticizing both his definition of “apologetics” and his understanding of what is supposed to justify the no apologetics norm. In addition, I will argue that this norm is not really “special” (in the relevant sense) because it can be derived from universal norms.

What, then, does the term “apologetics” mean? According to Zimmerman, “some are determined to use ‘apologetics’ as a term of abuse, so that it means, ‘arguments for religious doctrines that are put forth by someone who doesn’t care how good they are, but only intends to persuade’.” I certainly agree that this is a bad definition of “apologetics.” It is far too narrow. For example, there is plenty of really bad apologetics that is nevertheless quite sincere. Zimmerman’s definition, however, has the opposite problem. He thinks that any argument for a religious doctrine counts as apologetics, regardless of the motives of the arguer. He concludes that, since arguments (and the motives of arguers) can be good or bad, apologetics can be good or bad. Further, when the relevant arguments are philosophical, apologetics and philosophy of religion overlap.

If Zimmerman were right that apologetics is just the construction of arguments for the conclusion that a religious doctrine is true, then his thesis that apologetics is a proper part of philosophy would be trivial. Since that thesis is not trivial, it follows that something must be wrong with his definition. If this isn’t obvious, consider the fact that, in a philosophy of religion course I taught last fall, I spent a good part of the semester constructing and revising an argument from numinous experience for God’s existence. My students, including the Christian students in the class (both undergraduate and graduate) spent much time criticizing and considerably less time defending this argument. My purpose in constructing increasingly more convincing versions of this argument was not to persuade. For me, constructing arguments both for and against a position is, at least initially, a method of philosophical inquiry — a philosophical way of testing hypotheses (like the hypothesis that there is no God) — not an attempt to show that some position is true. Zimmerman’s definition of “apologetics,” however, implies falsely that I was doing apologetics, so clearly that definition is too broad.

I should mention that I’m not claiming that my specific approach to doing philosophy of religion (e.g. using argument construction to test hypotheses) is the only way a philosopher of religion can avoid doing apologetics. I’m just claiming that it is clearly one way of avoiding apologetics, which shows that Zimmerman’s definition of “apologetics” is incorrect. Another way to avoid apologetics is to do the sort of perspectival work that Alvin Plantinga recommends: assume that certain religious beliefs are true, examine their philosophical implications, and try to work out a coherent account of how they fit with the rest of what one believes. (Unfortunately, Plantinga is also an advocate of apologetics, but that is easily forgiven given how much he has contributed to philosophy of religion.)

What, then, is a better definition of “apologetics”? Something like the traditional theological (and standard dictionary) definition is well suited for our discussion. Theology, as traditionally conceived, seeks (i) to clarify and systematize the doctrines of a religion and also (ii) to justify those doctrines, both by attempting to show (positively) that they are true and by attempting to show (negatively) that attempts to show that they are false fail. The first endeavor is called “dogmatics” and the second “apologetics” (both positive and negative). To the extent that “recruitment and retention” are important goals in a religious community, one might argue that apologetics is a sensible project for theologians, especially given their special obligations to such communities. Notice that I said one might argue that. I don’t think I would argue that, for reasons that will soon be clear. In any case, whether or not apologetics ought to be a part of theology, apologetics is definitely not a sensible project for philosophers of religion. Why not?

Zimmerman’s unnamed opponent claims that the problem with apologetics is that those who engage in it “fail to approach their questions with an absolutely open mind, with no preconceptions about what the answer will be, in a state that is as close to suspension of belief as possible.” In other words, to be a good philosopher of religion according to Zimmerman’s opponent, one must always be “poised on a razor’s edge between the two views” being debated and “easily persuadable by” one’s interlocutor. Zimmerman’s response is the obvious one: such demands are “unrealistic and unfair . . . the Cartesian project of suspension of all belief is a fantasy; and religion is not the one special little province where it applies.”

Surely, however, there is a better justification of why philosophers should not engage in apologetics than the one Zimmerman criticizes. To find that justification, we need only focus on the fact that the apologist by definition sets out to prove, or to find evidence that supports, the religious doctrines to which they are committed. Similarly, in our adversarial criminal justice system, a prosecutor seeks to prove that defendants are guilty. Even if the prosecutor offers only arguments that they sincerely believe are sound, still no one would want to claim that what the prosecutor does is the best way to find out the truth about whether or not a defendant is really guilty. Instead, seeking evidence, whether that evidence confirms or disconfirms, is likely to be much more effective. This is the real reason that philosophers of religion should avoid apologetics. It is antithetical to the norm of avoiding bias in one’s inquiry, to the norm of seeking any relevant evidence there is, regardless of which direction it points. And that is not a special, domain specific norm at all, but a norm that applies to all truth-directed thought.

Of course, we all know that human beings, including philosophers and scientists, regularly violate this norm. No one is perfect here. But that doesn’t justify ignoring the norm. Further, imperfection in satisfying this norm comes in a wide range of degrees, and there is good reason to believe that the potential for falling far short is especially great when committed Christians, for example, focus on certain topics in philosophy of religion. One reason for this is that there is enormous pressure on members of religions like Christianity not to stray from accepted doctrine. Such group influence, combined with the ability of philosophers to construct elaborate rationalizations for just about any position one can imagine, is bound to lead to trouble, making a no apologetics norm all the more essential. (For a detailed discussion and defense of this point, see section 5 of “Diagnosing Bias in Philosophy of Religion,” The Monist 96.3, 422-448. My co-author, Ryan Nichols, was the primary author of this section of the paper.)

This is not to say that the potential for biased inquiry is not also severe in some other areas of philosophy and also in some areas of science. It is also not to say that atheists make better philosophers of religion than religious believers. Most non-religious philosophers of religion are ex-Christians, which hardly makes objectivity easy. Analogy: while a person is likely to be biased when examining evidence that their own spouse is guilty of some crime, ex-spouses may be even more biased the other way, especially if the break-up was a messy one. I should add that, in making this analogy, I do not mean to support Zimmerman’s assumption that philosophers of religion whose work focuses on a single religion either “love or hate” (my italics) that religion. That assumption is false, and the fact that philosophers of religion make assumptions like this is symptomatic of the sort of problems discussed in the Monist article just mentioned.

I will close by pointing out that there is considerable bigotry in academia in general and in philosophy in particular against committed Christians. This makes it easy for Christian philosophers of religion to be defensive when it appears that they are being singled out for criticism. I don’t believe, however, that my concern about apologetics and biased inquiry in philosophy of religion should be interpreted in this way. The norm of avoiding apologetics, whether theistic or atheistic, is actually relatively easy to justify in terms of universal norms of good thinking. Defending such a norm is not in any way anti-religious.