Roger Trigg on “Is There A Future For The Philosophy Of Religion?”

Roger Trigg was the Founding President of the British Society for Philosophy of Religion, and is a Past President of the European Society for Philosophy of Religion. His latest book is Monotheism and Religious Diversity (Cambridge University Press, 2020). We invited him to answer the question “Is there a future for the philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

In the recent past, long-standing discussions about critical theory and the role of social structures in the formation of consciousness have become large political issues. They have been conscripted into culture wars on both sides of the Atlantic. The basic problem is how far our understanding of the world is conditioned by who we are and our social position. Race, ethnicity and gender are seen severally, or together (as in ‘intersectionality’) as systematically influencing our beliefs and actions. Phrases such as ‘structural racism’ are used as basic explanations.

All of this is bad news for Philosophy, since philosophers have usually prided themselves on appealing to a rationality transcending historical, cultural and linguistic boundaries. An Oxford philosopher could discuss the views of Plato or Aristotle as if they were contemporaries. Basic truths are ahistorical, it was assumed, about the world we live in and the human nature through which we respond to it. Nowhere has this resonated more than in the philosophy of religion which has felt free to discuss the views of philosophers and theologians over the centuries, and, above all, to entertain the possibility of a God who transcended all history and culture, and who cared for all equally.

We all have prejudices, but it has been thought that a function of philosophy was to counteract these and reach beyond, perhaps to something transcendent. This involved a trust in the power of human rationality, which however imperfect and self-seeking, might in a partial way reflect the rationality of a God who created us so as to reflect, however obliquely, divine reason. The Cambridge Platonists who helped spawn the early years of European Enlightenment, described human reason as being ‘the candle of the Lord’. This motivated scientists such as Isaac Newton and philosophers such as John Locke.

One problem with this picture was how far ideas of human rationality could survive any repudiation of its theistic base. The rationalists of the French Revolution were confident that it could. Later, in the nineteenth century, Nietzsche remorselessly thought through the consequences of atheism and replaced ideas of rationality with an appeal to the operation of power. That has been combined in contemporary thinking with a post-Marxist view of the supreme role of social structures in forming our consciousness. Race, gender and so on replace economic classes as the major factors influencing our identity, thoughts and actions. Philosophy has become conflated with social theory, with the idea of pure reason derided.

The fundamental issue which profoundly influences the kind of societies we live in is whether rationality and the freedom to exercise it are basic human possessions. Can rational argument help us to live together even if we disagree? The eclipse of reason, by what has been called the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ encourages battles between entrenched groups each intent on getting their own way. Attempts to marginalise philosophy or to turn it into social theory, arise from this basic distrust of a rationality that can transcend boundaries. There can then be no universal claims, no human nature, no truth or objective reality confronting all human beings. We are instead all conditioned by particular social structures. The stress is not on the beliefs we have, or any knowledge we aspire to, but the kind of people we are.

This has major implications for the philosophy of religion. Any attack on the idea of philosophy as a rational enterprise involves turning attention from what is believed to those believing it. Attention moves from the possible existence of a transcendent reality, even God, to the social circumstances conditioning philosophical and other outlooks. Whether God exists, or the possible character of any divinity, should not depend on whether any given philosopher is of a particular race, gender or culture. That is to change the subject. Once beliefs are held in suspicion simply because of their Western origin, or whatever, even the universal claims of any religion themselves fall to the ground. Yet religion (or at least the cognitive impulses that lead to it), is held by science to be universal, even natural for human beings, as the new discipline of the cognitive science of religion demonstrates. Yet current attacks on human reason may themselves destroy reliance on science itself as a source of knowledge. Scientists can in turn be treated as simply prisoners of their identity, of whatever kind.

Philosophy of religion cannot let itself be side-tracked down the path of social theory, or, even worse, particular ideologies. It aspires to discuss basic issues about the nature of human beings and the independent reality they confront. Once it is sucked into investigation of particular social practices, or becomes the mouthpiece of lobbying groups, it loses its whole purpose. Distrust of the philosophy of religion because of its origins undermines it. Without notions of objective reality, and the human freedom to reason beyond the constraints of time and place, we have no common ground on which to stand with others. As Thomas Kuhn demonstrated with his stress on the multiple origins of scientific theories, we will not understand those with whom we are at variance. Without the idea of a common reality and a shared reason, everything falls apart into incommensurable parts.

Nietzsche showed how the removal of reason hands everything over to those with the most power. Nihilism beckons. The current stress on diversity takes diverse belief as an ultimate fact, but even that notion dissolves, once it is recognised that those believing in diversity themselves merely reflect whatever social structures they inhabit. The repudiation of basic ideas of rationality involve us in the slide first into relativism, and eventually nihilism. If our beliefs merely reflect who we are, only the powerful will win, and it is equally possible to conclude that there is no point in believing anything. No view can then be better than any other. The philosophy of religion, and indeed philosophy as such, will be an illusory path to an impossible destination.

For A (Im)Possible Future of Philosophy of Religion – Louis Komjathy 康思奇, Ph.D., The Underground University

I hope there’s an animal somewhere that nobody has ever seen. And I hope nobody ever sees it.” –Wendell Berry’s daughter

In recent years, the question of the “viability” and “possible future” of the Philosophy of Religion (POR) has become increasingly raised and occasionally answered, at least within this subfield. Here I try to do the same, although from a different vantage point.

I will not address institutional viability given the corporatization of so-called “higher education” and the increasing adjunctification of the professoriate. (It appears that the [in]viability of the field, at least from a careerist perspective, has already been answered by institutional priorities and departmental hiring practices.) Nor will I address the ethics of the ever-greater production of Ph.D.s without the prospect of gainful employment and livable salaries as a tenure-track or (even less likely) tenured professor, even if this rests on turning other individuals (“students”) into debt-slaves and wage-slaves. That is, I assume professors of ethics might eventually consider the ethics of the profession. Perhaps the more radical ones will even address the ethical dimensions of Ethics itself, especially (as avoided) within the contours of mainstream academia and institutional locatedness. Are a given institution’s administrators, board-members, and faculty ethical?

I also will assume that others will make stronger arguments for a global-critical and decolonial approach, one in which there is greater attention to equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI, or whichever order you prefer). This includes exploration of the “advantages and disadvantages of ‘philosophy’ for life”; meta-reflection on the political function of “philosophization” (cf. “scientization”) (“Please recognize us as real human beings because we are rational”); as well as the potential contributions of indigenous and “non-Western” religious adherents and communities. From my perspective, this would probably be the end of departments of Philosophy and possibly even (Western) Philosophy itself.

Strictly speaking, I am not a formal member and participant in the subfield of the Philosophy of Religion. My primary disciplinary locations are Daoist Studies and Religious Studies, including theory and method derived from and applicable to the comparative and cross-cultural study of “religion” in general and Daoism (Taoism) in particular. One subtext of these inquiries is the Orientalist construction of classical Daoism as so-called “philosophy” and organized Daoism as so-called “religion,” either without requisite critical reflection on either category or through simplistic social constructivist dismissals. It also involves deep skepticism and in fact criticism of the appropriative agendas and domesticating tendencies (and capitalist motivations), including internalized colonialism, of “Asian philosophy” and “Chinese philosophy,” and now even so-called “Daoist philosophy.” Simply stated, Daoism was a religious community from the beginning (ca. 300 BCE), emphasizing specific forms of contemplative practice (e.g., apophatic/quietistic meditation) aimed at mystical union with the Dào 道 (Tao/Way), the sacred and ultimate concern of Daoists. That is, what is referred to in Western discourse as “philosophy” involved a specific soteriology (ultimate purpose) and theology (sacred). Perhaps most challenging for conventional constructions of “philosophy,” there was a specific form of praxis, centering on what members of the inner cultivation lineages of classical Daoism referred to as “techniques of the Dao” (dàoshù 道術), which also is translated as “Arts of the Way.” (Interested readers may consult Harold Roth’s Original Tao [1999] and my own The Daoist Tradition [2013].)

With this in mind, I want to reimagine received Philosophy of Religion as having at least one branch focusing on what might be referred to as the “philosophy of praxis,” and perhaps an accompanying critical “praxis of philosophy.” Here we might begin by recalling that, classically speaking, philosophy involves philosophia (“love of wisdom”), and “wisdom” might in turn be investigated as a key comparative and cross-cultural category and concern. Like any comparative exercise, this of course requires investigating indigenous correlates (e.g., shèng 聖, zhì 智) and associated defining characteristics. Such an approach reveals different ways of perceiving, knowing, and being, ones that often challenge the assumptions, questions, and methods of conventional Philosophy of Religion. Simply consider the classical Daoist emphasis on (not)attaining the state/trait of “non-knowing” (wúzhī 無知). In the words of chapter twenty-six, not coincidentally titled “Wàiwù” 外物 (External Things [or Externalizing Things]), of the anonymous, fourth-second century BCE Zhuāngzi 莊子 (Book of Master Zhuāng), “Where can I find someone who has forgotten words (wàngyán 忘言) so that I can have a word with him?” This, in turn, parallels the emphasis on Daoism as the “teaching without/beyond words” (bùyán zhī jiào 不言之教) in the anonymous, fourth-second century BCE Dàodé jīng 道德經 (Scripture on the Dao and Inner Power).

Drawing upon Pierre Hadot (1922-2010) and the later Michel Foucault (1926-1984), with the latter indebted to the former, we might begin to develop a Philosophy of Religion that frames the field in terms of the investigation of “praxis,” specifically “spiritual exercises” (via Hadot) and “techniques of self” (via Foucault). Here philosophy is understood as a “way of life” (again via Hadot), as embodied, lived, and enacted. In place of excessive emphasis on disembodied thought and ideas, with the resultant insular rumination, this is philosophy on the ground and in the world. As expressed in Hadot’s revisionist reading of ancient Hellenistic philosophy, one researches the specific methods employed to transform character. This might include the concurrent practice of such reconstructions or parallel, living methods in our own socio-historical moment. Following Foucault, we may recognize and explore the ways in which personhood becomes embodied and transformed through particular cognitive modes. This is a more conscious way of being. As developed in my own work (see, e.g., Introducing Contemplative Studies [2018]), we may, in turn, engage “praxis” as a technical term encompassing specific views, methods, experiences, and goals, with each informing and expressing the others. Philosophy itself (or any discipline or undertaking for that matter) may be understood along these lines, and meta-reflection is required for determining if this is the form of praxis which interests us, to which we are committed, and which we aspire to enact.

Taking a specific example, we may consider classical Daoism, which is referred to as so-called “philosophical Daoism” in outdated and inaccurate Orientalist constructions of the tradition. This earliest Daoist religious community (ca. 350-ca. 150 BCE) consisted of a series of loosely-related inner cultivation lineages. Engaging in a radical (re)reading of the associated texts, in concert with applying Hadot and Foucault, we discover the central importance of apophatic and quietistic meditation, variously referred to as bàoyī 抱一 (“embracing the One”), shǒujìng 守靜 (“guarding stillness”), shǒuyī 守一 (“guarding the One”), shǒuzhōng 守中 (“guarding the Center”), xīnzhāi 心齋 (“fasting of the heart-mind”), and zuòwàng 坐忘 (“sitting-in-forgetfulness”). This type of meditation practice, which is primarily contentless, non-conceptual, and non-dualistic, is the root of the associated views. It informs and is informed by such well-known Daoist approaches, principles, values, qualities, and states/traits as wúwéi 無為 (“non-action”). In fact, it is possible, and perhaps necessary, to understand the latter as a form of contemplative deconditioning. Such an alternative and revisionist reading challenges and rectifies various conventional (and confused/confusing) “philosophical” readings that emphasize “relativism,” “skepticism,” and the like. In fact, the texts rather document and express contemplative and mystical views and modes. Here we find at least one glimpse into the future possibility of Philosophy of Religion, the (im)possibility of philosophy as a way of being and living in the world. This is, perhaps, a Lazarus taxon of the unseen animal that Wendell Berry’s daughter imagined.

Troy DuJardin – Is There A Future For The Philosophy Of Religion?

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When M. David Eckel, Allen C. Speight, and I asked a group of philosophers to consider the future of the philosophy of religion—in a pair of symposia, a lecture series, a graduate seminar, and finally in the essays collected in our recent book, The Future of the Philosophy of Religion (Springer 2021)—the question already felt urgent. One of the world’s most ancient subjects, the philosophy of religion in the modern era has come to feel not so much venerable, as antiquated, tired, passé. Obsolete. Many problems lodged deep in the roots of our field have been exposed in recent decades, and it has become increasingly clear that rethinking some of its once central aspects is now necessary. The business of evaluating religious truth claims and beliefs, once our meat and potatoes, is now thought to be fraught with bias and ideology, and normativity in the study of religion is a topic of serious concern. An exaggerated focus on beliefs, to the exclusion of rigorous treatments of religious practices and communities, has impoverished the philosophical conception of religion in general. Traditional Christian philosophical concerns—the rationality of theism, the problem of evil, the relationship between faith and reason—have crowded out other issues for centuries, and religions that don’t achieve the vaunted status of “World Religion” barely receive any attention at all, relegated to a sort of underclass on the discipline’s periphery. The philosophy of religion has, for a very long time, been insular, narrow, and myopic.

In recent years, some excellent work has begun to address these concerns by imagining a new vision for the discipline, one that is more inclusive and global, focused on lived realities and practices in equal measure alongside beliefs, and sensitive to its own strengths and limitations. We have in mind books like John Schellenberg’s Prolegomena to a Philosophy of Religion (Cornell 2005), Nick Trakakis’s The End of Philosophy of Religion (Continuum 2008), Wesley Wildman’s Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry (SUNY 2010), Tyler Roberts’s Encountering Religion (Columbia 2013), Crockett, Putt, and Robbins’s The Future of Continental Philosophy of Religion (Indiana 2014), Kevin Schilbrack’s Philosophy and the Study of Religion: A Manifesto (Wiley 2014), and Thomas Lewis’s Why Philosophy Matters for the Study of Religion (Oxford 2015), to consider just a few.

These books help to dispel concerns about the irrelevance of philosophy in the twenty-first century by clearly and forcefully reminding us that philosophy and religion, however they may be defined, are enduring aspects of human life. It is also true that the practice of the philosophy of religion is a way to confront and overcome the sense of despair that sometimes looms over a discipline in flux. As we discovered in a recent series of lectures on the concept of “hope,” philosophy of religion not only can be about hope, but it can help encourage it. If it is a sense of wonder that moves human beings to philosophize, as both Plato and Aristotle would have it, then the proliferation of new and pressing questions in our age can only help propel our discipline forward. If we remain awake to that sense of wonder, in ourselves, our audiences, and our interlocutors, we can construct a worthy future and build a sturdier foundation atop the despairs of the present moment and the missteps of our past.

This is the challenge that our authors pursue, on a variety of topics that share a common feature: the desire to move the discipline forward, rather than to go back over old ground. But this is not to neglect the past. On the contrary, our authors demonstrate a keen sensitivity to the historical conditions that frame the present and supply the materials to envisage the future. The questions raised are fresh, complex, and pressing. We are very much looking forward to hearing thoughts and opinions from the community, both on the particular issues raised and the broader concerns about the future of the philosophy of religion.

Some questions that we hope might prompt blog responses from you:

1) Wesley Wildman’s essay at the start of the volume outlines four transformations important for future possibilities within the philosophy of religion—the development of a global perspective in the study of religion, the challenge of critical theory, the inclusion of multiple disciplinary perspectives, and a broad-based interest in the study of religious practices and the solution of real-world problems. From your perspective on the field, what developments in these areas (or other issues not mentioned in the survey results he discusses) do you think will be most critical for the future of the philosophy of religion in the years ahead?

2) It has become almost reflexive in philosophical circles these days to emphasize the overcoming of the opposition between analytic and continental approaches in philosophy. This volume notably draws on scholars with both analytic and continental training—as well as those whose departmental homes range across philosophy, religious studies, and theology/divinity. To what extent do you think these traditional divisions of discipline and approach will continue to matter to the future of the discipline—and what synergies do you think are likely to result if they are in fact disappearing?

3) Dan Arnold’s essay, among others, focuses on the role of normativity in our discipline. What does our discipline contribute to the ongoing discussion of normativity in both philosophy and religion? And what norms or values do you think will be most relevant for the future practice of the philosophy of religion?

4) A number of the essays (Schilbrack, Knepper, Chignell and Speight among others) focus new attention on the question of practices across a wide set of domains—religious/liturgical, social, and even artistic. What will the future of the philosophy of religion offer for reconstruing the relation between theory and practice? And how might increased attention on religious practices transform the philosophy of religion?

5) Many of our essays testify to the restrictedness of our discipline—demographically, of course, in the (still) heavily Caucasian and male representation among faculty and students, but also in its topical and thematic concerns (with Christian and theistic elements having played a predominant role). What new initiatives could help to open up both kinds of restriction, and how will a new attention to contemporary questions of race, ethnicity, and gender transform the focus of the philosophy of religion?