Duncan Pritchard on “Is There A Future For The Philosophy of Religion?”

UCI professor of philosophy Duncan Pritchard
photo: Steve Zylius/UCI

Duncan Pritchard is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at University of California, Irvine. 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.

I think the short answer to the question I’ve been posed is simply ‘yes, of course there is a future for philosophy of religion’. Given how fundamental religious questions are to the human condition, and given how philosophy is deeply concerned with the nature of the human condition, then it is hard to see how philosophy could have a future without philosophy of religion being a part of it. On the assumption that I’m right about this, and that philosophy of religion does have a future, the natural next question is what this philosophy of religion of the future will be like. Futurology has a notoriously poor success rate, but I think I can with some confidence offer one general trend that will occur, which is a greater interest within philosophy of religion beyond the Christian traditions that have tended to preoccupy philosophers hitherto (especially philosophers of the broadly analytical tradition). My confidence in this is grounded in the fact that philosophy more generally has become more open to a wider set of cultural reference points (rightly so, in my view), and it is hard to see how this could fail to have an effect on mainstream philosophy of religion. I suspect that this particular trend will also go hand-in-hand with a more geographically diverse reading of the history of religious ideas too, particularly since I think philosophers of religion tend to be more historically-minded than most philosophers anyway.

Beyond this rather bare prediction, I’m not altogether sure what the future holds for philosophy of religion. But rather than leaving the matter at that (which would be a very short blog post), let me at least make one observation about how philosophy of religion might develop in the coming years that I think would be welcome (while nonetheless setting to one side whether this is likely to happen). In recent years, philosophy has taken an applied turn, as it has engaged with practical issues, particularly with regard to broadly political questions. In my own field of epistemology, for example, there has been a massive upsurge of interest in how epistemology can bear on the social issues of the day, such as fake news, injustice, propaganda, and so on. One side-effect of such a turn is that philosophy has tended to become that bit more personal and autobiographical than it had been hitherto, as philosophers turn to their lived experiences and the epistemic resources that they offer in order to engage with live social questions. So female philosophers might relate their own experiences of patriarchy to questions about, say, credibility (as wonderfully exemplified by Miranda Fricker’s work on epistemic injustice, for example). In the process, philosophy is opening itself up to a broader diversity of perspectives, which is surely a good thing.

Since trends within philosophy in general are bound to ripple out to particular areas of philosophy, so we might well expect some of this more personalized and autobiographical elements to inform philosophy of religion too. I think that would be generally welcome. But I also think there is one aspect of philosophy of religion where it would benefit from being less personal and autobiographical. What I have in mind here is the tendency within philosophy of religion to be populated by philosophers who have strong personal beliefs that bear on this topic and who explicitly motivate their positions by appealing to these beliefs. (Usually, of course, this is because the philosophers are believers themselves, but sometimes it’s because they have a deeply-rooted opposition to religion). This feature of the literature has always puzzled me (though perhaps it shouldn’t), since it seems to me that the questions that philosophers of religion ask should be of interest to anyone, regardless of their personal convictions in this regard. They are simply very interesting philosophical questions. Accordingly, I think it would be a shame if students are put off from engaging with these questions because they think that this is intellectual terrain that would only be relevant to them if they already had something personally invested in the topic.

In short, what I’m urging is that philosophers of religion should consider trying to have a bit more personal distance from the topics they explore. In particular, I think we should be encouraging the idea that these questions are important for everyone, regardless of where one is coming from, and that means putting far less emphasis on one’s own personal perspective, and thus one’s own religious commitments (or the lack of them). Of course, this won’t work for everyone—I don’t doubt that some philosophers are only interested in the philosophy of religion because of their personal beliefs (and I take it as given here that I’m not recommending that one should be dishonest about one’s motivations). But my guess is that a lot of philosophers of religion are not like this, in which case there would be no harm at all in being more careful to present matters at more of a distance from one’s personal convictions. If that is possible, then I think it would have a positive result, in that it would draw people into these debates who might otherwise be put off by them. Moreover, it might have a further welcome consequence in helping to keep down the temperature in these debates, as we get stuck into the ideas and not the people (and the traditions they belong to) who propose them.

Charles Taliaferro on “Is There A Future For The Philosophy of Religion?”

Charles Taliaferro is Professor of Philosophy and Overby Distinguished Chair at St. Olaf College. He is the author or co-author of over 30 books, including the two editions of the Blackwell Companion to Philosophy of Religion. He is the author of the Philosophy of Religion entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Editor-in-Chief of Open Theology. 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 my 40 years in higher education and in giving invited lectures in philosophy of religion at major universities in the USA and UK (Harvard, Yale, U of Chicago, Oxford, Cambridge…) and elsewhere (Russia, China, Brazil) I have found eager audiences hungry for philosophy of religion. Given the overwhelmingly large population of religiously identified persons on this planet (PEW estimates 84%) for philosophers to ignore the importance of religious belief and practice would be negligent. While some popular news media report a decline in religion in parts of the world, sociologists of religion like Randy Stark (in his book The Triumph of Faith; Why The World is More Religious Than Ever) contend that low numbers are often generated if ‘religion’ is defined in terms of membership in churches, temples, and so on; but if ‘religion’ is measured in terms of frequency of praying, believing there is a God or Higher Power, visiting shrines, and so on, numbers are extraordinarily high. I have also seen a study where it was assumed that if persons are self-described atheists then they are classified as non-religious (see chapter one of Stark’s book). But Buddhism is widely considered a religion and it is atheistic. The most well recognized and perhaps best loved religious leader today, the Dalia Lama, is an atheist (or, if you prefer a more modest term ‘a non-theist’; either way, he is quite explicit in denying the reality of a Creator-God).

I suggest that of all the sub-fields of philosophy, philosophy of religion is hard to surpass in terms of addressing what people actually care about. Perhaps the sub-fields of ethics and political philosophy have a stronger claim in terms of maximum relevance to all peoples, but keep in mind that both ethics and political philosophy raise concerns that are religiously significant and are treated in the philosophy of religion literature (e.g. the Euthyphro dilemma, the status of religious claims in a pluralistic, liberal democracy).

Two recent developments in philosophy of religion that are exciting involve its interdisciplinary nature and its transcending a divide between analytical and continental modes of inquiry.

On the interdisciplinary side, one has only to look at the massive attention given to the relationship between science and religion. We have come a long way from the distorted conflict model of Draper and White. To be sure there are philosophers like Daniel Dennett who charge that contemporary science undermines a host of religious claims. But there are just as many, if not more, philosophers who deny the significance of this, such as Michael Ruse, himself a secular atheist, who distinguishes science casting doubt on Biblical narratives of Eden and the Flood from addressing cosmic questions about the meaning of life. The ways in which philosophy of religion can interact with other disciplines investigating religion is evident in the 2021 The Wiley Blackwell Companion to the Study of Religion, second edition, edited by Robert Segal and Nickolas Roubekas.

On overcoming the analytic versus continental divide, a more inclusive (less partisan) method of practicing philosophy of religion is apparent among philosophers who draw on aesthetics and the philosophy of art: Mark Wynn, Victoria Harrison, Gwen Griffith-Dickson, Douglas Hedley, David Brown, Anthony O’Hear, and others. In my own work, I have sought to be neither narrowly analytic nor narrowly continental but to draw on sources in both, as in the book I recently co-authored with the American painter, Jil Evans, Is God Invisible? An Essay on Religion and Aesthetics (CUP 2021).

A further sign of the exciting vibrancy of the field will be published this summer: the four volume Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Philosophy of Religion with over 470 entries by over 350 scholars (mostly philosophers, and some historians of ideas and culture) from around the world; I am the senior co-editor with Stewart Goetz with five associate editors and fifteen assistant editors. Contributors include philosophers who practice the religious traditions they address as well as multiple secular philosophers. Readers of this blog may know that Stewart and I are philosophers who are practicing Christians, but the different editors and contributors include huge numbers (the vast majority) of non-Christians and some who are quite critical of Christian philosophy (e.g. John Schellenberg). One of the main associate editors, the outstanding philosopher of religion, Graham Oppy, is not hostile to theism or Christianity in particular, but, as a well-known advocate of non-theistic positions (atheism / agnosticism), he has insured that non-theistic arguments are in no short-supply in the Encyclopedia.

What of the complaint that philosophy of religion today is too Christian in its orientation or too stagnant and not showing signs of progress (or development) such as we see in the sciences?

On Christianity: I have, of course, indicated that the forthcoming Encyclopedia offers widespread resources for philosophers to engage in non-Christian traditions. This is most thorough in terms of religions in India, China, Nepal, Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia, but attention is also given to South America and African traditional religion (an area addressed in Is God Invisible?). A contemporary philosopher of religion, Thaddeus Metz (University of Pretoria), is engaged in excellent philosophical treatments of traditional African religions and ethics. Chad Meister and I edit a series with Routledge on contemporary philosophical investigations into religion. So far, the published volumes are on Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Judaism, Islam, and even on religious naturalism (the later by Graham Oppy). Christianity is next on the list, but we ensured first that non-Christian religions were engaged. Having taken note of the welcome expansion of philosophy of religion, it should also be noted that Christianity and Islam are the two largest religions today in terms of numbers (e.g. in terms of Africa, it is estimated that 40% of Africa is Christian and 40% Islamic); it is not odd that philosophers who want to engage large numbers of persons on this planet would prioritize their attention on Abrahamic traditions. Moreover, there is a growing appreciation of philosophical debates in Ancient and Classical Indian philosophy over monotheism and natural theology (arguments from the structure of the cosmos to Brahman, anti-theistic arguments from evil) that are of course relevant to the Abrahamic faiths but developed independent of those faiths. See, for example, God and the World’s Arrangement: Readings from Vedanta and Nyay (Hackett).

As for whether contemporary philosophy of religion seems stagnant to some critics, I suggest that some of these complaints come from philosophers whose arguments on various topics (e.g., contending that classical theism is incoherent or ridiculously improbable) have not been universally accepted by other philosophers of religion. Some of these critics go so far as to accuse their unpersuaded colleagues of not being truly philosophers, but apologists. I will not charge them with arrogance (for all I know, these critics are humble and believe they are open-minded), but I do suggest that they overestimate the power of their own arguments / positions, and fail to appreciate some lessons from history. From time to time, philosophers have proclaimed that this or that position is the only game in town. Not long ago, the later Wittgenstein’s work was deemed unassailable, Marxism once achieved virtual consensus, logical positivism did the same, and today there are some philosophy and religious studies departments that seem to rule out anything other than naturalism. I suggest that the current orthodoxy stands as much promise of being an enduring monolithic stance as former orthodoxies. I have been in graduate seminars at Harvard in the 1970s when anything other than nominalism was considered a joke, while only a little later and less that 100 miles away at Brown University, Platonism was all the rage. At Oxford and Cambridge up through the 1980s Wittgenstein’s private language argument was considered to be invincible, only to become a minority position in the 1990s. Bertrand Russell concluded his famous history of philosophy declaring the ontological theistic argument dead. Those keeping up with the literature know this has turned out to be false. There is a saying that old soldiers never die, they simply fade away; it has also been remarked that philosophical debates (such as theism versus naturalism) are different from old soldiers—not only do they not die, they never fade away. I believe there can be (and has been) progress in philosophy. The most recent version of the ontological argument in print is better than Anselm’s. But reaching consensus on the titanic views in metaphysics, epistemology, and value theory inside and outside philosophy of religion is as elusive as ever.

To sum up: My experience in the classroom and in multiple contexts culturally from Brazil to New York City, China, and so on, indicates to me the vibrancy of philosophy of religion. The field has been a vital site for me to bring the resources of philosophy to bear in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement. I have given pro-BLM lectures in the UK, the USA, and in my college, as well as addressing systemic racism in four books. Philosophy of religion is the highest over-enrolled course in my college with waiting lists of 50 or more students. I suggest that a philosophical education (undergraduate or graduate) without philosophy of religion, would be Hamlet without Gertrude, Hamlet, Ophelia, and the rest of the crew.

Robert Cummings Neville on “Is There A Future For The Philosophy of Religion?”

Robert Cummings Neville is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Theology, and Religion at Boston University. 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.

To recall my previous blogs here, I believe that the primary meaning of philosophy of religion is when someone with a really big philosophy says something interesting about religion. A secondary meaning is when someone lacks the big philosophy but deals with some aspect of religion. The former is what we usually teach, the latter is what we publish, those of us who lack big philosophies.

What is the future of all this? Let’s project a 15 year future and a 50 year future, beginning with the 15 year one.

In 15 years, I suspect that the concern for critical theory will die out or fall into the background. Philosophers have always been interested in the normative topics of critical theory, e.g. Plato, and I would agree with this. But as Plato showed, and Confucius and the Bhagavad Gita, the normative aspects are always there. The narrow-minded normative concerns of critical theory would be missing. Also, I suspect that the differences between Continental philosophy and analytic philosophy will be much less pronounced. Because philosophers are now being educated in Continental or analytic departments, those differences will still be present; but people in those departments now feel guilty about the differences and will pass that on. I doubt that things will be much changed in 15 years regarding the global and multidisciplinary aspects of philosophy.

In 50 years, however, scholars who are trained in all the non-Western ways will be listened to by Westerners and participate in philosophy of religion, whatever it is called. They will make philosophy of religion genuinely global in its approaches to religion with all the insights that will bring. This will start with making philosophy in the “big” sense pay attention to the many different religions on those religions’ own terms. In about 30 years, it will be common for all philosophers to acknowledge that the Western religions approach ultimacy with intentional metaphors, South Asian religions with consciousness metaphors, and East Asian ones with naturalistic metaphors, discarding both personal intentionality and consciousness as not relevant. In 50 years, I suspect that any education in philosophy would be genuinely global and count all the different religions as part of the global mix, not distinguishing them by geographic regions but by doctrines. Also, all philosophers with big ideas will conceive of religion as on scales moving from very specific and particular historical locations toward more transcendent and indeterminate forms. Those scales might mark off particular religious groups, or they might mark off the movement of particular individuals. Understanding religions to be scaled like this will have obvious effects on membership in one or several of them, and even on the meaning of membership. It’s one thing for Abhinavagupta to carry his deep devotion all the way to his indeterminate goal and another thing entirely for a scholar to carry a deep intellectual but rather passionless mind that far.

In 50 years, I suspect that philosophy of religion will carry the multidisciplinary aspect of it rather far as well. This will be because religion itself will be understood to be a harmony of essential and conditional components. The essential components have to do with ultimacy, and the study of ultimacy is a “big” issue that will carry a lot of weight. But the conditional components are those that religion needs or accidentally has that can be studied on their own terms and also in terms of their relations with religion. For instance, every religion has a social setting. Religious organizations can be studied in social scientific and political ways, with terms that relate those organizations to many aspects of things. But they also can be understood in terms of how they relate to people engaging ultimacy and these are the religious aspects of how religious organizations function. Or, for instance, a biologist can study an environment for ways in which its natural elements hang together, or fail to do so. But this misses how a religion finds ultimacy in various aspects of that environment; this is the religious aspect of the environment.

In 50 years, philosophy with big questions will have a wide field to cover in contributing to philosophy of religion. It will need to study all the elements of ultimacy, and how it is found and practiced in various local and world religions, globally and in particular locals. But it will also need to relate all these aspects of ultimacy to the various social embodiments of religion, to its political forces, its anthropological characters, its diverse environmental embodiments, its macroscopic and microscopic aspects, its multiple roles in history from the local to the global levels. Philosophy of religion will also include the diverse kinds of accidents of religion, the kinds of things that arise someplace but do not last. Finally, philosophy of religion will have to relate religions to philosophy itself, to its various achievements and failures, and to its ongoing adventures with the “big” ideas.

The largest issue for philosophy of religion in 50 years on my account is what happens to the “big” ideas. I am assuming here that the global conversation will gather steam and be genuine with altered modes of education in 50 years. I am assuming also that religion will be recognized, at least Neville’s version, as having essential and conditional components. Because of the essential components, religion cannot be reduced to sociology, economics, anthropology, journalism, or any other discipline that might turn out to be good for analyzing the spheres with which religion is related. Who can say what those disciplines will be? What will be the new “big” ideas that apportions them their work?

Dale M. Schlitt’s Brief Musings on “Is There A Future For The Philosophy of Religion?”

Dale M. Schlitt is Professor of Theology, Philosophy and Spirituality at the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. 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.

Perhaps a little musing about religion in relation to lived experience and then about the relationship between it and philosophy of religion would prove helpful. Focusing on religion as arising out of lived experience might help situate anew philosophy’s essential roles in relation to religion. Though religion, like philosophy, pretty well concerns all forms of experience, that to which it relates most basically is the past and present lived experience of an ultimate or, more generally stated, of some way “beyond.” Whether that be a divinity, an ideal way of living, a specific way of relating to reality as a whole or in one or more of its particulars. Such experience may be characterized more by a self-other structure as, for example, in theistic religions and quasi-religious attitudes toward reality or one or more aspects of it. But such experience may also be witnessed to as a pure experiencing, for example, that affirmed in Advaitic a-dualism. Mutatis mutandis, whether structured or not, such experience could be communal, shared, personal, individual, or several of these forms taken together. It could also be them considered cumulatively. It may also be something witnessed to in the past as, for example, by the architecture and sculpture at the immense Angkor Wat temple complex in northern Cambodia, which provides access to, and a certain understanding of, Hindu and then Buddhist experience centuries ago. It may be originary, giving rise, in each case in its own way, to subsequent religious or quasi-religious communities. Such has occurred in Buddhism with Siddhārtha Gautama and his experience, to put it too simply, as extinction of desire, and in Christianity with Jesus of Nazareth and his experience of God as Father and Spirit. Experience of an ultimate or a “beyond” may be affirmed as occurring in the present, which is the case with the seven-hundred-year-old tradition of entrancing Dervish whirling or with Pentecostal/Charismatic experiences of the Spirit renewing the first Pentecost experience. And such experience may continue to be witnessed to as well as further encouraged in the singing of Charles Wesley’s thousands of often lilting hymns. It may live on as expressed in indigenous attitudes toward sacred reality, for example, the case of aboriginal respect for and honoring of the perhaps 500-million-year-old sacred monolith Uluru in north central Australia.

Might we not, then, consider specific religions to be codified, to use the word in a very wide sense, and at least quasi-institutionalized remembering and celebrating of various past and present experiences of some ultimate or “beyond”? In so remembering and celebrating them, they would generally encourage their continuance within specific communities and, as is often the intention, their occurrence in wider segments of humankind. Religion as such would, then, be the remembering, celebration, and further encouragement of experiences of some ultimate or a “beyond” like these and so many other such experiences throughout the world.

Given this possible understanding of religions and of religion in general, the philosophy of religion would take on a series of roles, at least three in fact, specifically its own. Though in each of these roles, it would call, as helpful, on fields of study as varied as physics, history, psychology, and those treating of mediums such as architecture, painting, various forms of writing, music, sculpture, and so forth used to express experience of an ultimate or a “beyond.”

First of all, an appreciative role. It would approach a specific religion with an initial respect accorded to such experiences and to witnesses of them. These experiences and testimonials would deserve respect due to their serious nature, frequent long-term duration, and offer of meaning to those who adhere to a specific religious or quasi-religious tradition.

A second role for philosophy of religion would— in line with its overall character as reasoned study and analysis of the reality to which it attends—be to review, in both negative and positive critical fashion, a religion and its continuing expression of past and present experiences of some ultimate or a “beyond.” This review would proceed in at least three steps. First, it would involve paying careful attention to experiences insofar as they are made available through various means employed in the religion concerned. These would include, for example, writing, architecture, art, voice, music, as well as religious, social, and ethics-related practices encouraged in the religion. Such attention would raise questions concerning internal coherence of experiences in themselves and in relation to one another. Second, it would bring to bear scientific study, for example, of human psychology and physiology on the possibility, character, and quality of such experiences (while reminding itself that various experiences may, at the same time, call into question the relevance of, even the viability of, aspects of such study and resultant information). Third, it would embark on an admittedly very difficult and complex task of suggesting whether and to what extent experiences lived in the religious tradition enrich the lives of those who participate in them and contribute to the overall flourishing not only of the religious community in question but, in principle at least, of humankind as a whole. Criteria for such critical evaluation would take into consideration the goals of the religious tradition. And the philosopher or philosophers of religion making such an evaluation would make explicit, in all self-reflexive honesty, specific points of view and values they bring to the evaluation.

A third role for philosophy of religion would consist in further reasoned reflection, this time in a more constructive mode, developing insights brought forward in the previous appreciative and critical reflections. For example, this development might well consist in greater clarification of such insights, in suggesting interconnections among them, in proposing ways in which they might be expanded to describe reality or aspects of it in a more philosophically expressed vein, and in bringing forward the potential truth-value of the religion concerned in its remembrance, celebration, and encouragement of past and present lived experiences of an ultimate or a “beyond.” Bringing together constructive reflections on a series of religions might lead to an appreciation of religion-as-such’s constituting a form of truth for humankind.

Musings concerning the relationship between religion and philosophy of religion invite further musings, thus reflecting the often playful and, one hopes, ultimately fruitful character of imaginative reflexive thought.

A background reference: my forthcoming Testimonials to Experience of the Trinity, Peeters Publishing.