Michael Barnes Norton on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Michael Barnes Norton Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of Arkansas, Little Rock. 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.

Philosophy of religion occupies a complicated position at the crossroads of philosophy, theology, and religious studies, so clearly identifying the discipline’s central norms and values is a difficult task. Several previous respondents have addressed standards that apply to philosophical discourse generally; adding to their admirable accounts would be redundant on my part. So let me start by turning to the discipline’s object of inquiry. The name “philosophy of religion” would suggest that “religion” is this object, such that the discipline’s constitutive question would be “What is ‘religion’?” Yet this question has historically not been taken up frequently by philosophers of religion, who more often take the concept of religion for granted and have instead directed their attention to particular topics, such as the existence and nature of God, the possibility of miracles, or the problem of evil. Of course, inquiry into such questions belongs squarely within the bounds of philosophy of religion if for no other reason than that such inquiry has played a prominent role for much of the history of the discipline. But as the world becomes increasingly globalized and interconnected, as many local communities become more diverse, and especially as academic philosophy in the “West” becomes more conscious of its culturally-situated assumptions, philosophy of religion has a unique responsibility to broaden its scope and reconsider its values and goals.

Richard King has criticized philosophy of religion’s role as “border control” for philosophy’s intellectual territory.1.According to his argument, it’s often the implicit task of philosophy of religion to sort the “philosophical” from the “non-philosophical” content of traditions lying outside the heritage of Western philosophy. Philosophy of religion may present the former as properly philosophical ideas that happen to arise within the context of religious traditions, while examples of the latter can be scrutinized as examples of mere belief—objects for philosophy without quite being objects of philosophy. One problem arising from this is that ideas and questions that get sorted into the second group when they arise in non-Western traditions sometimes show up in the first group by virtue of their place in the Western philosophical canon. Would Descartes’s Meditations, for instance, make it past the border control area of philosophy of religion into mainstream Western epistemological discourse if it were a product of South Asian thought that Anglo-American philosophers only began to engage with relatively recently?

What this criticism highlights, I think, is philosophy of religion’s need to deal responsibly and respectfully with a diverse set of subjects and audiences, each of whose particular perspectives ought to bear on its disciplinary standards of excellence. I would identify three groups to be primary stakeholders in the practice of philosophy of religion in this sense: the religious communities about whose practices and beliefs it speaks, those seeking to understand religious commitments from a disinterested perspective, and the academic philosophical community more narrowly.

First and foremost, excellent philosophy of religion takes religion (however it understands it) seriously and, as much as possible, on its own terms. Without eschewing the critical perspective characteristic of philosophy, the discipline should not hastily dismiss the significance of religious practice and belief in the lives of individuals, communities, and societies. This does not mean that the coherence or value of these practices and beliefs should be granted prima facie, but it does mean that reductionist accounts of religion that do not at least deem the commitments and motivations of religious adherents as worthy of careful attention should be avoided. The insights of contemporary religious studies scholarship can be especially helpful on this front, and indeed some of the best philosophy of religion engages constructively with this scholarship.

Second, philosophy of religion’s obligation to engage attentively with religious communities carries over to an obligation to represent the beliefs and practices of those communities honestly and accurately to those outside them. Alongside its critical role, philosophy of religion serves a descriptive one, providing both academic and general audiences with fair-minded accounts of religions and their relationships to other objects of philosophical study. This function can be particularly beneficial in conversation with non-religious interlocutors who are inclined to be suspicious or dismissive of religion as a matter of principle. Following the model of Schleiermacher’s speeches to religion’s “cultured despisers”—which despite its generally Christian-apologetic perspective contains some surprisingly pluralist claims—contemporary philosophy of religion is well positioned to provide accounts of religious beliefs and practices to audiences skeptical of their continued value, not with a view to persuade such audiences of religion’s value but at least to better inform discourse about it.

Third, as the bulk of the arguments offered by contemporary philosophers of religion are oriented primarily toward other philosophers, the aim of these arguments should be to provide not only accurate accounts but also critical evaluations of the actualities of and possibilities for religious beliefs and practices, as well as the objects of those beliefs and practices. The challenge for the discipline as a branch of academic philosophy—one that should be explicitly and continually taken up as a goal not yet met—is to construct these arguments such that they are integrable into other areas of philosophical discourse without doing so in the “border control” mode that King criticizes. That is, philosophy of religion ought, among other things, to provide paths for religions to enter philosophical inquiry as subjects, not merely as objects of investigation.

Ultimately, we ought to understand the responsibilities of philosophy of religion as shaped by attention to all the complexities of religious life in the real world; this will include attention to urgent social concerns such as poverty, war, and of course climate change. Certainly not every work in philosophy of religion can or should engage directly with these issues, but neither should any work be wholly disconnected from them. Excellent philosophy of religion, whatever its specific focus, should have a place within a network of discourse and responsibility that at least aspires to comprehensiveness, and this will necessarily include reflection on the ways it conceives of its object.

Mor Segev on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Mor Segev is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Florida. 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.

Presuming neither to capture all that excellence in the philosophy of religion requires or consists of, nor to identify a novel criterion for such excellence, I should like to zero in on one feature that I find important and personally instructive.

It seems to me that excellent philosophy of religion generally exhibits sensitivity to the mutual impact between the subdiscipline and other areas in philosophy. The prominent role that other parts of philosophy play in constructing philosophical arguments and views on matters of religion is often obvious. We may recognize it, for example, in a debate on the problem of evil appealing to the nature of goodness as understood by different ethical theories, or in discussions of the cosmological argument for God’s existence drawing on work in the metaphysics of causation. Such appeals seem appropriate, and one would indeed expect them to occur, either explicitly or implicitly, in excellent inquiries into these issues.

The influence, however, goes in the opposite direction as well. Core issues in the philosophy of religion, and the discussion of these issues in the history of ideas, can have important and direct, if sometimes inconspicuous, effects on the treatment of other philosophical issues. One potentially excellent application of the philosophy of religion, then, consists of illuminating philosophical questions concerning matters other than religion.

Take the case of political philosophy. In considering what political organization ought to look like, we should not disregard the historically ubiquitous presence in human society of religious organized practices and institutions. We must address, more specifically, the benefit of these social features for general welfare, and doing so would seem to depend, in large part, on our understanding of the religious concepts and beliefs associated with them.

It is at points such as this that philosophy of religion, properly implemented, becomes useful. Can religious institutions and practices convey beneficial ideas or encourage positive behavior? Can religion impart or lead to truths otherwise unavailable to members of the political community? Does religious faith potentially endow our lives with meaning? Are certain religious beliefs needed for human flourishing, or are they irrelevant or even harmful to it? The stance taken by political theorists on issues such as these could help to orient them toward the goals potentially worthy of being pursued by, and for, political communities and their members.

Our stance on issues in the philosophy of religion, then, informs our views of, e.g., political affairs. By the same token, clarifying the stance taken on such issues by prominent figures in the history of philosophy contributes to our understanding of their overall thinking (in a recent book, I examined Aristotle’s views on divinity and the content of traditional religion, and argued that those views help to clarify both the place of traditional religion in his political theory and his political and ethical theories more generally).

In these ways and others, the philosophy of religion proves useful for political theory as well as for our understanding of the history of ethical and political philosophy. Of course, philosophical views on matters of religion can also be relevant, and have been applied, to discussions in other subfields. Contributions to epistemology include, for instance, philosophical analyses of types of distinctly religious experience. In aesthetics, considering the beauty engendered by imitating divine creation has been viewed as informing our view of the nature, value and purpose of art.

Properly applying resources developed through work in the philosophy of religion, to be sure, requires caution. Lurking dangers include, in the case of applications to discussions in the history of philosophy, anachronism and cultural insensitivity. Heeding such qualifications, however, there is much that the philosophy of religion has to offer.

Given the great variety of possible interconnections along the lines described so far, awareness of significant points of contact between the philosophy of religion and other philosophical subfields seems an important mark of excellence in the philosophy of religion (and of excellence in those other subfields). Such an awareness need not manifest itself in every case in direct engagement with work in other domains. Quite plausibly, one could conclude correctly, in a given case, that drawing connections between the topic at hand and discussions in other areas is either unwarranted or unhelpful. The decision, however, would ideally be informed by a careful consideration of the ways in which the philosophical study of religion might effectively use, and be helpfully used by, other philosophical subdisciplines.

Duncan Pritchard on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Duncan Pritchard is Chancellor’s Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Irvine, and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. 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.

Wittgenstein taught us that the resolution to philosophical difficulties often lies in questioning the presuppositions that generate the puzzle in the first place. It can seem that our everyday practices are generating contradictions, but in fact these conundra are the result of the illicit import of dubious philosophical claims. Once these philosophical claims are eliminated, the puzzle disappears.

Now one might think that philosophers of religion are not well-placed to exploit such a methodology, given that religious conviction is no longer orthodoxy (at least in the western world anyway), and hence isn’t obviously ‘everyday’ anymore. But the methodology is nonetheless applicable, at least in certain cases. I want to canvass support for one such case, which is the debate regarding the rationality of religious belief.

Here is a common way of setting up the issue. Religious belief, unlike other kinds of belief that are epistemically paradigmatic (like everyday perceptual belief, for example), presupposes basic religious commitments (such as in God’s existence). Those basic religious commitments, however, lack any independent rational basis. Hence, there is a fundamental problem with the rationality of religious belief.

Standard responses to the problem of rationality of religious belief effectively concede this set-up. This is clearest with evidentialist responses to this problem, for example, since they respond by arguing that there is an evidential basis for the basic religious convictions in play (e.g., that there are logical proofs for God’s existence). But other standard responses to this issue also concede the set-up, at least implicitly. Reformed epistemology, for example, agrees that basic religious belief is in need of an adequate epistemic grounding, but supplies this grounding via appeal to an externalist epistemology. Fideism, in contrast, agrees that basic religious belief lacks an adequate epistemic grounding, unlike belief in general, but argues nonetheless that this is not a bar against religious belief (since, unlike belief more generally, it does not stand in need of an epistemic grounding).

But suppose we question the framework behind this puzzle? Wittgenstein provides us with the resources to do just this. In his final notebooks, published as On Certainty, Wittgenstein argues for a radical conception of the nature of rational evaluation. A staple part of radical scepticism, at least since Descartes’ Meditations, has been to rationally evaluate all of our beliefs at once and find them wanting. In contrast, anti-scepticism has been characterised by the project of evaluating all our beliefs at once and thereby determining their positive epistemic status. Both projects seem entirely coherent. Wittgenstein argues, however, that they are chimeric.

Working through a series of examples, Wittgenstein shows that the very idea of a universal rational evaluation is simply incoherent, and not at all rooted in our ordinary epistemic practices (where all rational evaluation is essentially local). Rational evaluations instead always take place against a backdrop of basic ‘hinge’ commitments that are needed in order for rational evaluation for occur, and which as a consequence cannot be themselves rationally evaluated. Moreover, Wittgenstein shows that this is not an incidental feature of our epistemic practices, as if we could engage in fully general rational evaluations if only we were more consistent, imaginative, intelligent, and so on. Rather it is in the very nature of a rational evaluation that it takes place relative to these arational hinge commitments. It follows that both radical scepticism, and for that matter traditional forms of anti-scepticism, both trade on a faulty philosophical picture. In particular, they both presuppose the idea that fully general rational evaluations are coherent, something which Wittgenstein has shown to be in fact a dubious philosophical claim that is entirely disconnected from our everyday epistemic practices.

Notice how the Wittgensteinian claim alters our understanding of the supposed problem of the rationality of religious belief. That puzzle posed a challenge to show how basic religious belief could satisfy the epistemic standards that other, epistemically paradigmatic, forms of belief enjoy. So evidentialism is concerned with showing that basic religious belief enjoys an independent rational basis. Reformed epistemology contends that although basic religious belief lacks an independent rational basis, this doesn’t matter because (like other forms of belief) it enjoys an externalist epistemic basis that isn’t specifically rational. Fideism concedes that religious belief lacks an adequate epistemic basis, unlike epistemically paradigmatic forms of belief, but argues nonetheless that religious belief is not irrational. If Wittgenstein is right, then all of these responses to this puzzle about the rationality of religious belief are misguided.

In particular, all of these standard responses to the puzzle rest on the same mistake, which is to suppose that it is in the nature of epistemically paradigmatic everyday belief that it doesn’t presuppose ariatonal hinge commitments. Once we recognise that our everyday beliefs presuppose hinge commitments in this way, then that changes how we view the putative arationality of religious belief. It cannot now be a complaint against religious belief that it presupposes arational religious hinge commitments if it is true of all belief that it incorporates arational hinge commitments. Reformed epistemologists famously offer a parity argument in favour of religious belief, to the effect that belief of this kind is on an epistemic par with everyday belief, where the latter is to be reconceived along broadly epistemic externalist lines. What Wittgenstein is offering—which is a line of argument that I think he gets from earlier work by John Henry Newman, most notably his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent—is a very different kind of parity argument. Religious belief, like belief more generally, can be fully rational even though, like everyday belief, it presupposes arational hinge commitments. The point is that there’s no need to bring in epistemic externalism, or indeed any kind of epistemic revisionism, in order to account for the rationality of religious belief. Rather, the very problem that was thought to afflict this kind of belief trades on an implausible account of our everyday epistemic practices. Once this faulty picture is rejected, then the puzzle dissolves.