Hunter Brown on “Is There A Future For The Philosophy Of Religion?”

Hunter Brown is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Religious Studies at King’s University College, Western University, London Canada. 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.

The compartmentalization of philosophy of religion into areas of distinctive subject matter such as theistic arguments, the problem of evil, and so forth, also involves the compartmentalization of distinctive experiences related to those subjects such as causal inquisitiveness and moral repugnance toward evil. One does not often find such boundaries being crossed in a major way. Aesthetic experience, for example, does not normally play a significant part in engagements of cosmological arguments. Most philosophers of religion are comfortable with this structure of the discipline. It allows for analytically focused debate which has been responsible for much progress over the years.

On the other hand, however, it can impede attention to important ways in which such subjects and experiences are intertwined in lived life. In this respect, philosophy of religion risks participating in what William James called the great blunder of modern thought. That blunder is the failure to recognize how profoundly the retrospective form in which experience makes itself available for philosophical reflection and analysis fails to represent the fullness of experience in its original, immediate occurrence. As he showed repeatedly in the Principles of Psychology and elsewhere, the component elements of experience in its immediacy are bound together in complex webs of mutually influential relationships which have a significant impact upon the identities of those elements. The relationships themselves, however, escape the retrospective stabilization required for sustained philosophical examination and analysis. As a result, experience presents itself to philosophical reflection as an atomistic collection of distinctive parts which can be segregated from one another without major consequence.

It is not surprising, under such conditions, to find a compartmentalized approach being taken to many questions in philosophy of religion as well as philosophy as a whole. Debates about faith and reason, for example, usually follow a pattern of isolating and debating about particular candidates which may provide justification for religious belief. Such patterns often become so influential that they control the interpretation even of philosophical positions which do not fit well within them. James’s work on the justification of religious belief, for example, has been widely interpreted and criticized for having singled out volitional and emotional influences as candidates for providing such justification. In fact, it was doing no such thing. Rather, James started with the religious response to the world in its full complexity, as it actually occurs in immediate experience. In that form, it is found to be a spontaneous, irrepressible, and near-universal phenomenon emerging from the confluence, within immediate experience, of many influences – intellectual, moral, aesthetic, volitional, emotional, sensory, and others. Such a starting point guides philosophical reflection straightaway to a particular question: what is the most appropriate response to such a phenomenon? Should it be willingly embraced or should it be resisted skeptically pending a demonstration of its trustworthiness by other means?

Modern philosophy, for the most part, has adopted a skeptical posture, leaving to philosophers of religion the task of trying to overturn such skepticism if they can. This is a tall order, for modernity has also bestowed upon such skepticism the mantle of especially close association with authentic truth seeking. But if one begins with immediate experience, the association of such skepticism with truth seeking is more difficult to sustain, for it is faced with the possibility – which cannot be precluded – that the organism’s religious response to the world is uniquely geared to engaging a certain feature of that world. Since this possibility cannot be assessed on the basis of other forms of response lacking such a capacity, the trustworthiness of the religious response must be assessed by entering into and evaluating a relationship with the world made possible by it. Many real-life examples of such relationships and their consequences are reported in James’s Varieties of Religious Experience.

None of this has anything to do with volitionally or emotionally-based leaps of faith. It has to do with a benefit of the doubt which is as indispensable in the pursuit of truth in the religious case as it is in the case of scientific hypotheses. The skeptical prohibition of extending benefit of the doubt to the actual religious response in the name of authentic truth seeking is absurd, James responded to Clifford, if truth seeking itself depends upon such benefit of the doubt. That prohibition is not an instrument of authentic truth seeking. It is the distorting effect of emotion: fear of error.

Starting points matter. James’s radical empiricism privileges immediate experience in its full complexity while much mainline philosophy privileges the retrospective reconstruction of such experience which is unable to capture its full complexity. The willingness to let immediate experience be eclipsed by the retrospective reconstruction of it has come at a high price, however. Most people can tell the difference between what they have actually experienced and depictions of it after the fact which do not match the fullness of the original. This is why they so often end up turning to music, film, literature, even stand-up comedy, for a more authentic identification of and response to the real thing than they find in philosophy.

Philosophy of religion is implicated in this. Consider, for example, the wonderment about the world which often has religious associations, and which frequently motivates an initial attraction to philosophy. Such wonderment is usually treated implicitly in the theistic arguments, for example, as the routine desire for causal intelligibility. But this is not how it is actually experienced by a great many people, protest James, Smart, Taylor, Wittgenstein, and Parfit, for instance. Wittgenstein describes the world’s existence, as it is sometimes grasped in immediate experience, as a miracle, and James depicts it as pure gift. Derek Parfitt says it can take one’s breath away.

Breathlessness is not exactly a hallmark of philosophy nowadays, nor is a central role for metaphors such as miracle and gift. This is a point of pride among many philosophers who hold modernity’s commitment to detachment in high esteem. But the depth and scope of such detachment, James would respond, is a child of the great blunder. In too many cases it creates a wide gap between actual immediate experience and the subject matter of philosophy, which damages the discipline’s long-standing but faltering reputation for taking life seriously.

To be sure, a more central role for immediate experience in philosophy would make major demands upon the discipline, as has been pointed out over the years by Henri Bergson, Thomas Reid, and Iris Murdoch, for example, as well as James. On James’s reckoning, it would require philosophy to accept and accommodate that the fullness of experience in its immediacy is only accessible by direct acquaintance, that what is known in this way can only be spoken about indirectly through figurative language, and that communication about what is encountered in this form requires an open willingness among interlocutors to reflect upon their own direct acquaintance in the light of such language. Lest all this seem too much, it should be remembered that a great deal of James’s work falls under the heading of empirical psychology, and the extensive analytic activities involved in that area. The installation of immediate experience at the heart of philosophy does not require abandoning such analytic activity. It requires contextualizing it within a framework which has been broadened sufficiently to make possible a point of departure in — and an ongoing role for — real, immediate experience, including religious experience.

In sum, there may be value for philosophy of religion in pondering what James characterized as modernity’s great blunder, as well as his effort to resituate immediate experience, including religious experience, within philosophy. Such a shift could potentially go a long way toward overturning the current dominance of modernity’s religious skepticism, and the profound impact that such skepticism has had upon philosophy of religion.
The positions expressed here have been developed more extensively in the following:

Hunter Brown, William James on Radical Empiricism and Religion (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000).

Hunter Brown, Grace and Philosophy: Understanding a Gratuitous World (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019)

Jonathan Weidenbaum on “Is There A Future For The Philosophy Of Religion?”

Jonathan Weidenbaum teaches World Religions, Ethics, and Philosophy in the Division of General Education at Berkeley College, NYC (email: 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.

One cannot stand before classrooms in a vibrantly diverse and international setting and fail to see the importance of the themes proposed by Troy DuJardin’s blog invitation (full disclosure: I have been teaching in New York City for the better part of two decades). To disregard a global perspective, the burning relevance of social issues, an attentiveness to how different faiths are actually lived and practiced, and the potential contributions of other intellectual disciplines, is to vindicate the suspicion that the philosophy of religion requires some very serious updating.

This is not to trivialize or dismiss the classic topics of our beloved subdiscipline, or to claim that such perennial questions—from the formal arguments for God’s existence to the relationship between faith and reason—can no longer be demonstrated as pertinent and compelling to students of all backgrounds. On the contrary: I believe that the themes listed by DuJardin and others may enrich the old questions rather than replace them.

An appeal of South Asian culture for philosophers of religion are its great metaphysical and theological systems; those of Sankara, Ramanuja…etc. And yet, it is some well-known imagery from the later Heidegger which came most readily to mind during my volunteer work in Northern India. It is not the landscape that affords the meaning of a Greek Temple, we are told in “The Origin of the Work of Art,” but the temple which sets the meanings of the landscape (Harper & Row, 1971). All genuine art, for Heidegger, discloses a broad context of significance, just as it is both shaped out of, and points to, what resists our full understanding. A temple sits at the core of almost every colorful village hanging off the foothills of the Himalaya, a region known as “the land of the gods” for its countless shrines and major places of pilgrimage. It is through conducting puja or worship at such places wherein the pious reinforce an entire value system and view of the cosmos in addition to communing with a deity. Continue reading

James K. A. Smith on “Prospects for a Continental Philosophy of Religion”

James K. A. Smith is Professor of Philosophy at Calvin 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.

We now take for granted something that was virtually unthinkable just seventy-five years ago: that serious philosophical engagement with religion, even work that could be described as philosophical theology, is undertaken within the mainstream of the philosophical academy in North America. While religion was a persistent theme of philosophical reflection from Plato up through Hegel and even Nietzsche in the nineteenth century, the brief hijacking of Anglo-American philosophy by logical positivism had the effect of withering this subdiscipline in philosophy. But in the mid-twentieth century, after the implosion of logical positivism (whose shaky foundations couldn’t sustain critique), there was a movement of analytic philosophers that, in the course of challenging the epistemological assumptions of positivism, also cleared space for serious philosophical attention to God and religious phenomena. In different ways and in different streams, Elizabeth Anscombe, Alvin Plantinga, William Alston, Marilyn McCord Adams, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and many others began to unapologetically turn their philosophical tools to religious questions, while also letting their religious commitments inform their work on broader, mainstream philosophical issues in epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics. The result was not only a renaissance in philosophy of religion but also a burgeoning movement of Christian philosophy. It is telling, and encouraging, that several of these figures would be appointed (and honored) as presidents of the American Philosophical Association and would, in 1978, found the Society of Christian Philosophers. (This story has been well told elsewhere by Nicholas Wolterstorff.)

As most will concede, this is largely an “analytic” story; that is, this is a story about the demise and reemergence of religion in analytic philosophy, which is the dominant mode or style of philosophy in the Anglo-American academy, and also the stream that was most derailed by logical positivism. It explains why the so-called “renaissance” in philosophy of religion and Christian philosophy has been centered in analytic philosophy.

But the reason some philosophy is tagged as “analytic” is to distinguish it from another stream that we often call “continental” philosophy. I do not have any great stake in the distinction between “analytic” and “continental” philosophy except as a helpful description for different styles or streams of philosophical reflection. I appreciate Wolterstorff’s suggestion that “the identity of the analytic tradition is a narrative, rather than a purely systematic, identity. What makes a philosopher an analytic philosopher is that he places himself within a certain story line of philosophy in the twentieth century” (in Inquiring About God, p. 17). I would happily describe “continental” philosophy in the same way: there is no “essential” identity; only a historical, contingent, narrative identity insofar as the continental philosopher locates herself in a story of philosophical questions and debates that tracks onward from Edmund Husserl rather than, say, Gottlob Frege. And none of this precludes philosophers becoming conversant in both conversations.

With respect to religion, it is important to note that the continental stream was never hoodwinked by logical positivism and thus doesn’t have the same “Ichabod” episode in the twentieth century that it needed to overcome. To take just one example, questions about God, faith, and theology leave their mark across Heidegger’s corpus, from his early 1927 lecture on “Phenomenology and Theology” to his later critique of “onto-theo-logy” in Identity and Difference. And French philosophers working in Heidegger’s wake—what Alain Badiou calls “the ‘German move’” that is a feature of twentieth century French philosophy—continued to grapple with questions of God and religion, particularly in the work of Emmanuel Levinas, Paul Ricoeur, and Jean-Luc Marion, but also in more surprising thinkers such as Jacques Derrida. So when phenomenologist Dominque Janicaud pointed out (and criticized) what he described as a theological “turn” in phenomenology, the justifiable retort from philosophers like Jean-François Courtine, Paul Ricoeur, Jean-Louis Chrétien, Jean-Luc Marion, and Michel Henry was that theology had been woven into phenomenology almost since the beginning.

In that sense, questions about faith, religion, and God were never Verboten in continental philosophy the same way they were functionally outlawed by logical positivism’s hegemony in early twentieth-century analytic philosophy. However, insofar as the field of philosophy of religion (and Christian philosophy) congealed in response to analytic debates, the newly energized field of philosophy of religion tended to be synonymous with analytic philosophy of religion. Both the parameters of debate and methods for tackling the questions simply assumed the analytic story. But if Wolterstorff is correct (and I think he is) that what defines analytic philosophy is contingent—a particular history, even a particular bibliography, one might say—then philosophy of religion certainly shouldn’t be the exclusive province of analytic philosophy.

While the history of continental philosophy across the twentieth century testified to this, we can also admit that in the 1990s there emerged a more concerted effort to constitute continental philosophy of religion (and philosophical theology) as a field and subdiscipline within the North American academy. This included the launch of the Theology and Continental Philosophy Group within the American Academy of Religion and the founding of the Society for Continental Philosophy and Theology, leading, eventually, to the establishment of the Journal for Continental Philosophy of Religion.

In this sense, the very question, “Is there a future for philosophy of religion?,” perhaps reflects a sort of Cartesian anxiety whose pathology is uniquely analytic. In the phenomenological tradition, philosophy of religion has remained vital. Perhaps its distinct contribution to the future of philosophy of religion is to model, in particular, a philosophy of religion that is attuned to the practice of religion—attending to religion as a “form of life,” à la Wittgenstein, as a community of practice that carries a habitus, in Bourdieu’s sense of the term. For just this reason, phenomenology of religion also models a more constructive openness to the specificity of theology and liturgy, and is interested in religion as something that we do, not simply something that we believe.

Excerpted from the Introduction to James K.A. Smith, The Nicene Option: An Incarnational Phenomenology to be published by Baylor University Press (which will be released on August 16, 2021). Reprinted with permission.

John Teehan on “Is There A Future For The Philosophy Of Religion?”

John Teehan is Professor of Religion at Hofstra 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.

The questions presented by Troy DuJardin as invitations for reflection on the future of the philosophy of religion are insightful and important. Before responding to this invitation, I should situate myself in relation to the subject: I would not identify myself as a philosopher of religion (certainly not primarily). I am a philosopher, with a background in psychology and a research agenda in cognitive science, who teaches courses in these areas, while being housed in a Religious Studies department. I do have a deep and abiding interest in religion, and, despite the interdisciplinary nature of my studies (or perhaps, because of it), I see my work as, ultimately, philosophy. In regard to religion, I seek to bring a philosophical critique to the various fields I incorporate into my study of religion (evolutionary anthropology, cognitive science, historical criticism), and I bring the insights from these fields to questions within philosophy, particularly the philosophy of religion (specifically, the justification of belief, and the problem of evil).

So, while I do not feel qualified to provide an assessment of the state of the philosophy of religion, nor to make any sweeping claims about its future, I believe I can speak about a possible trajectory within this field of study. In doing so, I am not setting up my own approach as a model for the future of the field, of course. Rather, I would like to discuss certain theoretical insights from cognitive and bio-cultural studies of religion that may offer one way forward for the philosophy of religion—one which has implications for some of the questions in DuJardin’s blog. Continue reading

Gereon Kopf on “How to Make Philosophy of Religion Relevant to the Future”

Gereon Kopf is Professor of East Asian religions and philosophy of religion at Luther College, an adjunct professor of the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Iceland, and research fellow at the International Institute for Philosophy at Tōyō 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.

In this essay, I would like to shift the focus and not ponder whether or not philosophy of religion has a future as academic discipline but instead to focus on the question of whether or not philosophy of religion can maintain or regain its relevance as an academic discipline and for the public discourse beyond academia. The data collected by Wesley Wildman and his team indicate that the future of this discipline could become an existential question for us “experts” in the field, even though Gary Colwell argued convincingly in this series that “there will always be a future for philosophy of religion” in one shape or another. I agree with Wildman that to remain/be relevant philosophy of religion needs to be multidisciplinary in its method and inclusive in its scope. In this essay I will propose an approach to facilitate this inclusivity that I have developed over the past 4 years (Kopf 2019, 2022a, 2022b).

In the interests of full disclosure, before I begin, I would like to describe my background and explain the standpoint from which I come. I am not trained in philosophy of religion per se, but rather in the religious philosophies developed in the context of Japanese Buddhism. Together with Timothy Knepper and Nathan Loewen, I serve as co-director of the Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion project that started as a 5-year seminar at the A.A.R. and now continues its work funded by generous grants from the Wabash Center and the N.E.H. We are currently working on three book projects: a textbook (authored by Knepper), a teaching manual (edited by Purushottama Bilimoria and myself), and a companion volume that is edited by Loewen and Agnieszka Rostalska. These volumes propose different visions of global-critical philosophy. Today, I will focus on what I call a “fourth-person approach” (Kopf 2022a, 2022b). Continue reading