Graham Oppy – “Some Thoughts about Comparative Philosophy of Religion”

Graham Oppy is Professor of Philosophy at Monash University, and editor of the Australasian Philosophical Review. His recent books include: Is There a God? A Debate (Routledge, 2022, with Kenny Pearce); Atheism: The Basics (Routledge, 2019); Naturalism and Religion (Routledge, 2018); Atheism and Agnosticism (CUP, 2018); Describing Gods (CUP, 2014); Reinventing Philosophy of Religion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014); and The Best Argument against God (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

In general, philosophy of X takes, as its primary subject matter, philosophical questions thrown up by X. So, for example, the primary subject matter of philosophy of science is philosophical questions thrown up by science. Of course, there is contestation about exactly what science is. But it is not contestable that there are many sciences: physics, chemistry, neurophysiology, etc. Moreover, it is not contestable that there are important and interesting questions in philosophy of science that require consideration of a range of sciences. We cannot say, for example, whether natural sciences and social sciences employ the same methods if we do not pay serious attention to both natural sciences and human sciences.

What goes for philosophy of science goes, too, for philosophy of religion. Philosophy of religion takes, as its primary subject matter, philosophical questions thrown up by religion. Sure, there is contestation about exactly what religion is. But it is not contestable that there are many religions: Islam, Buddhism, Daoism, Dayawism, Hyel, Midewiwin, Aluk, and so on. And it is not contestable that there are important and interesting questions in philosophy of religion that require consideration of a range of religions. We cannot say, for example, what role mastery of existential anxiety plays in religion if we do not pay serious attention to a wide range of religions.

Nothing that I have just said counts against the claim that some philosophers of religion legitimately specialise in philosophical questions that concern a particular religion and that can be pursued without paying attention to other religions (or even other branches of the given religion). The claim, that it is necessary that excellent philosophy of religion is comparative, goes too far. The most that anyone should want to assert here is that there are important and fruitful questions in philosophy of religion that require a comparative approach that considers a range of different religions.
Moreover—though this is a slightly different issue—we might well want to add that, if philosophy of religion is genuinely flourishing, then there will be people in the field working on philosophical questions that are particular to a wide range of different religions.

There are significant challenges to comparative work in philosophy of religion. In particular, there is a practical problem about competence: many people who work in philosophy of religion have an insider perspective on, and know a great deal about, their own religion, but have an outsider perspective on, and know very little about, any religions other than their own. Of course, it is impossible to have an insider perspective on more than a handful of religions. For this reason, it may be that doing serious comparative philosophy of religion really will require some innovation in both questions and methods. (It is worth bearing in mind that there are in the order of 7000 languages and 4000 religions in the world. No single person can be fluent in all of these languages and genuinely knowledgeable about all of these religions.)

Despite the real problems that arise if we are to do excellent comparative philosophy of religion, I do not think that there is a conceptual challenge that arises in the need to work with ‘appropriately vague categories’ that have the flexibility to be applied to a wide range of different religions. At the very worst, what might actually be needed is the development of new, precise vocabulary that is suited to the framing and answering of philosophical questions about religions in general. But, in fact, I suspect that we need very little by way of linguistic innovation in order to be able to carry out comparative philosophy of religion—though we shall certainly need to be open to using terms from a wide range of different languages and religious traditions.

One set of questions that clearly arises for comparative philosophy of religion concerns the choice of particular religions as yardsticks for comparison. Theorists might begin with the assumption that what needs investigating—in a comparative context—is how other religions measure up against their own religion. However, while that starting assumption might be suitable for apologetic purposes, it is not obvious that it is suitable for those who genuinely seek to understand religions other than their own. Where religions are associated with philosophical traditions—including traditions of pursuing philosophy of religion—part of what is up for comparison is the philosophies— epistemologies, metaphysics, philosophies of language, philosophies of science, philosophies of religion, and so forth—that are associated with those religions. (For a now quite old article that takes up some of the issues being gestured at in this paragraph, see: P. Bilimoria (2003) “What is the ‘Subaltern’ of the Comparative Philosophy of Religion?” Philosophy East and West 53: 340. For a more recent article that also takes up some of these issues, see: J. Frazier (2020) “’The View from Above’: A Theory of Comparative Philosophy” Religious Studies 56: 32-48. Perhaps it is worth noting here that discussion about the prospects for comparative philosophy of religion has a significant history. SUNY established a series Toward a Comparative Philosophy of Religion in the 1990s, and Rowman and Littlefield established a series of Studies in Comparative Philosophy and Religion in the 2000s. Much more recently, Springer established a series on Comparative Philosophy of Religion.)

One domain that a developing concentration on comparative philosophy of religion might open up is what could be called comparative philosophy of heterodoxy. There is not much comparative material in contemporary philosophy of religion on zindiqs, nastikas (e.g. charvakas), minim, heretics, apostates, and so on. Nor is there much comparative material in contemporary philosophy of religion on kafirs, chuhras, shiksas, giaours, heathens, ‘outsiders’, and so forth. And there is much that remains to be written, from a comparative perspective in philosophy of religion, on naturalism, materialism, irreligion, non-religious morality, non-religious virtue, non-religious aesthetics, and the like. On the other hand, though, a developing concentration on comparative philosophy of religion might simply extend the period in which philosophy of religion has tended to ignore the various ‘others’ to religion.

Mikel Burley – “Different Senses and Purposes of Comparative Philosophy of Religion”

Mikel Burley is Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Leeds, UK. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

There are various ways of understanding the term “comparative philosophy of religion.” An initial distinction can be made between, on the one hand, a philosophical comparison of different religions and, on the other hand, a comparison of different philosophical views of religion. The first of these understandings is exemplified by Franklin Gamwell when he defines comparative philosophy of religion as critical reflection upon the question, “What are the most general similarities and differences among religions?” (Gamwell 1994, p. 22). The second understanding is exemplified by John Clayton, who borrows from Wilhelm Halbfass the term “dialogic comparison” to specify the comparative analysis of ideas from distinct philosophical traditions that bear upon religiously relevant matters. As a case in point, Clayton compares certain views of the eleventh-to-twelfth-century South Indian philosopher Rāmānuja with those of the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume, with particular attention to their respective critiques of the claims of natural theology (Clayton 2006, chap. 5).

The above distinction between two broad understandings of what comparative philosophy of religion amounts to is, however, not a sharp one. One reason for this is that the distinction between a first-order religious claim and a second-order philosophical claim about religion is itself often blurry. When, for example, Rāmānuja argues, against his philosophical arch-rival Śaṅkara, that spiritual liberation cannot consist in a state of pure egoless consciousness because no intelligent person would ever strive to attain a state in which personal existence has been extinguished, is Rāmānuja making a religious point, a philosophical point, a point about human psychological motivation—or all three of these at once (see Rāmānuja 1904, p. 70)? And when Hume, in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) gives expression to divergent viewpoints through the respective dramatis personae of Demea, Philo, and Cleanthes, ought we to regard those viewpoints as religious or as philosophical? Again, the distinction remains fuzzy.

Notwithstanding the permeability of the boundary between religious and philosophical positions, one of the most important benefits of a comparative approach to philosophy of religion is the extent to which it facilitates, precisely, the bringing into relief of diverse perspectives. As the pioneering scholar of religion Max Müller famously observed, when it comes to the study of religions, “He who knows one, knows none” (1882, p. 13, original emphasis), a dictum that he borrows from Goethe, who applied it to languages. Müller is not denying that one can have a deep practical knowledge of a religion to which one is personally committed without knowing about other religions; rather, his point is that one cannot know “what religion really is” if one has knowledge of only one (ibid.). In other words, without comparison, one will not be in a position to take a genuinely scholarly view—one might say, a genuinely philosophical view—of the concept and subject matter of religion.

Talk of “what religion really is” might be heard as implying some essentialist metaphysical thesis, as though the question “What is religion?” could be answered only by specifying a concise set of individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions. But it need not be heard in this way. It could just as readily turn out that “what religion really is” is many things—a plurality, with numerous overlapping features but no universal essence. Yet regardless of whether one’s inquiry takes one in an essentializing direction or a pluralizing direction, the inquiry cannot get off the ground unless one ventures beyond a single religion and begins to think about the category of religion more broadly.

A further distinction to be made in relation to comparative philosophy of religion concerns the purpose of the inquiry. Gamwell’s question, “What are the most general similarities and differences among religions?”, does not, in itself, imply that the inquiry should involve any judgment about which of the religions examined is the truest or the most ethically impressive or the best in some other respect. One possible purpose for the comparative philosophy of religion is to gain a deeper understanding of the particularities of different religious—and also nonreligious—positions without seeking to reach a normative verdict about which is best. Indeed, there is a danger that the urge to reach such a verdict could distort one’s perception of the phenomena, tempting one to accentuate some aspects and downplay others to suit one’s personal preferences. Avoiding such distortions requires concentrated effort and an ethical commitment to do what D. Z. Phillips calls “conceptual justice” to the variety of perspectives that exist. Phillips draws an analogy between this style of philosophizing and the work of a dramatist who authors a play featuring characters with diverse points of view. Although some dramatists may wish to resolve tensions or to present one set of values as superior to all the others, this is not the only option. An alternative approach is simply to lay bare the tensions and conflicts, enabling the audience to understand them more clearly (Phillips 2007, p. 207).

Other philosophers, by contrast, will feel that “merely” deepening one’s understanding of the particularities of divergent perspectives falls short of the crucial task, leaving us “with a sense that the problems themselves have been bypassed” (Cheetham 2008, p. 112). Even those who share this sense, however, should not be too hasty to overlook the potentially transformative consequences of approaches that are not overtly fixated on solving “problems.” For something that comparison can do in a remarkably powerful way is to disclose to us the contingency of many of our assumptions and attitudes. By making a sustained effort to encounter and get to grips with other points of view, whether religious, nonreligious, or ambivalent between religion and its rejection, we open ourselves up to alternative ways of being human. The significance—and indeed the unsettling potentiality—of such encounters ought not to be underestimated.

Works Cited

Cheetham, David. 2008. “Comparative Philosophy of Religion.” In Contemporary Practice and Method in the Philosophy of Religion: New Essays, edited by David Cheetham and Rolfe King, 101–116. London: Continuum.

Clayton, John. 2006. Religions, Reasons and Gods: Essays in Cross-Cultural Philosophy of Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gamwell, Franklin I. 1994. “A Foreword to Comparative Philosophy of Religion.” In Religion and Practical Reason: New Essays in the Comparative Philosophy of Religions, edited by Frank E. Reynolds and David Tracy, 21–58. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Hume, David. 1779. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 2nd edition. London: n.p.

Müller, F. Max. 1882. Introduction to the Science of Religion, new edition. Oxford: Longmans, Green, and Co.

Phillips, D. Z. 2007. “Philosophy’s Radical Pluralism in the House of Intellect – A Reply to Henk Vroom.” In D. Z. Phillips’ Contemplative Philosophy of Religion: Questions and Responses, edited by Andy F. Sanders, 197–211. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Rāmānuja. 11th century CE. 1904. Śrībhāṣya. In The Vedânta-Sûtras with the Commentary by Râmânuga [sic], translated by George Thibaut. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Laura Weed “It is Time to End the Science vs. Religion Conflict in Philosophy of Religion”

Laura Weed retired this year from the College of Saint Rose, where she spent most of her career as a Professor of Philosophy. She is the editor of Mysticism, Ineffabilty and Silence in Philosophy of Religion Springer Press 2023, author of The Structure of Thinking 2003 Imprint Academic UK. We invited her to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

One of the classical topics in Philosophy of Religion has been the debate between atheism, understood as a scientific approach to understanding religion, and theism, held as a stand-in for all religions, which are cast in this debate as unscientific, at least, and often as irrational, because unscientific. But during the last few centuries, while this debate has been raging within and without philosophy of religion, both science and the understanding of religion have become more complex, diverse, and comparative. The simple Newtonian atomism of Hume1 and the enlightenment has grown up to become quantum field theory, consciousness studies, neuroscience, and the endocrinology of emotions; and the study of religion has branched out past dualistic theism into Daoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Indigenous religion, cross-cultural studies of ritual and mythology, and studies of intersections of mysticism and neuroscience. I will argue that in the contemporary intellectual environment, the grossly oversimplified ‘atheism vs. theism’ or ‘science vs. religion’ dichotomy represents a mistaken understanding of both science and religion.

First, the traditional debate oversimplifies physics. Isaac Newton understood all of science as interactions of computable force and mass, and philosophers such as David Hume2 and Thomas Hobbes3 thought that all of reality, including humans, could be reduced to a Newtonian set of calculations of interaction between force and mass. The New Atheists, such as Daniel Dennett4 and E.O. Wilson5 are still defending this Newtonian and Hobbesian view of reality, including the reduction of humans and all of our hopes and dreams to mechanical attractions and aversions. Meanwhile, science has moved on. Quantum physicists such as Henry Stapp,6 Paul Davies,7 and Roger Penrose8 are arguing for a view of reality as based on information, rather than the enlightenment’s blind, inert matter. Information is more cognitive than Locke’s ‘matter,’9 is based in mathematics and knowledge, rather than physical substances, and involves such quantum (and Aristotelian)10 notions as directionality and choice. Metaphysically, this more refined physics supports a view of reality that leans in the direction of a panpsychism,11 in which information is the ultimate stuff of reality, which produces both matter and mind, when quantum waves collapse.

Second, the traditional debate oversimplifies the biological sciences, psychology, and the study of emotions. The contemporary study of human consciousness has shown us to be far more than rocks banging into each other or rolling down hills. Holmes Ralston III12 and Terence Deacon13 have shown that DNA is intentional and directional, having needs and values inherent in its existence, and Consciousness Studies is showing the importance of what we think and feel, our qualia and self-organization, and how different that is from the Newtonian dynamics of billiard balls hitting each other. Also, Antonio Damasio14 has shown that even our cognitive ability is deeply emotional, and Lewis, Amini, and Lannon15 have shown how central to our basic capacity to function it is to be well loved and cared for, counter enlightenment individualism.

Third, the atheism vs. theism debate overly limits religion. By focusing exclusively on a few theological debates within the Abrahamic religions, this debate limits discussion to a few topics, i.e. the existence of a transcendent, non-physical deity, the capacity of miracles to cure illnesses, etc. I often found after I taught the Ontological argument,16 there would be a student who would ask “Does this have anything to do with my religion?” To which, of course, the answer is that Anselm is discussing the God of the Philosophers, which may not have anything to do with why anyone practices a religion. Mikel Burley offers an antidote to the ethnocentrism and over-conceptualization of most Western-based—i.e., colonial—approaches to the study of religion by suggesting a Wittgensteinian and anthropological approach to the cross-cultural study of religions.17 He proposes deep description of religious practices, which seeks cross cultural ‘family resemblances’ but does not impose categories of comparison on religions. He also recommends studying stories as well as arguments from compared religious traditions, to allow the religions to express themselves in their own terms.18 Michelle Panchuk and Oludamini Ogunnaike would extend Burley’s comparative approach even further, requiring the inclusion of oppressed voices—often women, for Panchuck—within any given religious tradition and requiring an ethical evaluation of one’s own descriptions to ensure equality and justice, for Ogunnaike. Both Panchuk and Ogunnaike argue that Wittgensteinian neutrality among categories and description is very difficult or impossible to achieve, and is sometimes merely preserving or endorsing an unjust and oppressive status quo.19 Broadening the topics of conversation and description, and rules for discussion in some of these ways would make Philosophy of Religion more fair to the actual practice of religion by actual people. The change in approach might produce a discussion of what religious people think about divinity, and what they think they are doing when they practice religion.

Fourth, the science vs. religion debate misunderstands what people claim to know when they claim religious knowledge. Typically, the debate is framed in rationalist or empiricist terms, requiring either deductive proof—of a proposition, of an Anselmian type20—or empirical evidence, such as Aquinas offers in the Cosmological arguments.21 But religious claims to enlightenment often are less direct, and more personal or interpersonal. Personal and interpersonal approaches to knowledge, the first and second-person approaches, have long been dismissed by western science, and in the science vs. religion debate they are often ruled out of court at the outset.22 However, as William James pointed out, religious experience is often both ineffable and noetic,23 and as many religions argue, requires trust and love, completely alien ideas to either rationalist or empiricist approaches to knowledge. Values, too, are deeply personal or interpersonal forms of knowledge, not apparent to scientific ‘facts’.24 For these reasons, the science vs. religion debate has discounted these approaches to knowledge as ‘irrational.’ A religious philosopher could concede the word ‘rational’ to empiricism, rationalism, and propositional knowledge and still argue that humans have non-rational, but not irrational ways to gain knowledge, and that some of these ways of gaining knowledge are ultimately more important than the scientifically authorized routes. For example, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan considers philosophy a Darshana, an intuitive practice, aimed at self-knowledge, through dissolving the walls between the objective and subjective worlds.25 Contemporary theories of perception frequently stress embodied knowledge and kinesthetic self-awareness, such as Andy Clark’s “What reaching teaches”26 and J.J. Gibson’s account of affordances as forms of knowledge.27 Meditation has been shown, through neuroscience, to change the brains of meditators, even to the point at which they value AUB (Newberg and D’Aquili’s Absolute Unitary Being) as more real than ordinary empirical or cognitive experience.28 Francisco Varela has pointed out that consciousness contains several layers of processes that operate at varying speeds, only one of which is the waking processes of cognition and perception. Meditation and sleep access other potentially conscious processes.29 Even studies of rituals and psychedelics are showing potential for possible resources for healing. Buddhists and environmentalists have long spoken of presencing30 to explain the need for humans for touch and social contact with others, including animals and nature.31 Many researchers have begun to explore these ‘means of knowledge’ that have long been acknowledged in religions, although western science has discounted them.

I conclude that it is time to end the science vs. religion debate, and replace those discussions with broader notions of science, of religion, of knowledge, and of philosophy of religion. These debates have been counter-productive, shutting scientifically-minded persons off from spiritual fulfillment and leading religions to defend hopeless positions such as anti-evolutionary and anti-vaccine positions. We still have much to learn, and the traditional way of structuring the debate is preventing the incorporation of many new ways of understanding both science and religion.


1. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature. 2nd ed. L.A Selby-Bigg. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 1978. See especially, Book 1, Sec. 1.

2. Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, especially Part 3.

3. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Edwin Curley. Hackett Publishing Co. Indianapolis, IN, 1994, pp. 6-27.

4. See for example, Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained. Little Brown Publishing, Boston, MA, 1991.

5. See for example, E.O. Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition. President and Fellows of Harvard College, Boston, MA, 1975, 2000.

6. Henry P. Stapp, Mind, Matter and Quantum Mechanics. 2nd ed. Springer Press, Berlin, Germany, 2003, especially Chap.12.

7. Paul Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint. Templeton Foundation Press, Radnor, PA, 2004, especially Chaps. 12 & 13.

8. Roger Penrose, The Emperor’s New Mind. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. 1989, especially Chaps. 6, 7 &10.

9. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter H. Nidditch. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 1975, pp. 308-311, 313, 498, 542, 623.

10. Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon. Random House, NY, 1941, p. 935.

11. See, for example, Panpsychism: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Godehard Brϋntrup & Ludwig Jaskolla. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 2017.

12. Holmes Ralston III, A New Environmental Ethics, 2nd ed. Routledge Press, New York, NY, 2020, especially Chaps 4 & 6.

13. Terrence W. Deacon, Incomplete Nature, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY, 2012.

14. Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens, Harvest Book, Harcourt, Orlando, FL. 1999.

15. Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, A General Theory of Love. Vintage Books, Random House, New York, NY, 2000.

16. Anselm of Canterbury, Prosologion, Chaps. 2-4, reprinted in Medieval Philosophy, 2nd ed. eds. Forrest E. Baird and Walter Kaufmann. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 1997, pp. 157-165.

17. Mikel Burley, A Radical Pluralist Philosophy of Religion: Cross-Cultural, Multireligious and Interdisciplinary. Bloomsbury, London, 2020.

18. Burley, 2020.

19. Roundtable discussion of Mikel Burley, A Radical Pluralist Philosophy of Religion: Cross-Cultural, Multireligious and Interdisciplinary. Bloomsbury, London, 2020, in JAAR vol.89 issue 2, June 2021, pp. 721-738.

20. Anselm, Prosologion.

21. St. Thomas Aquinas, “The Five Ways to Prove the Existence of God” in Summa Theologica Part I, Question 2, Article 3. Christian Classics, Allen Texas, 1981.

22. See for example, Richard Dawkins, “Science discredits Religion”, in Quarterly Review of Biology, vol.72, 1997, pp. 397-399.

23. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Mentor Books, NY, 1958, pp. 318-320.

24. For a claim that facts are value-free, see David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, pp. 457-463.

25. Sarvepali Radhakrishnan, Intellect and Intuition in Shankara’s Philosophy, posted at, downloaded Jan, 2014

26. Andy Clark, “What Reaching Teaches.” in Supersizing the Mind. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 2008, pp. 180-187.

27. James Jerome Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Taylor and Francis, New York, NY, 1986, pp. 127-143

28. Eugene d’Aquili and Andrew Newberg, The Mystical Mind. Fortress Press, Minneaplois, MN, 1999, pp. 177-193.

29. Francisco Varela and Jonathan Shear, eds. The View from Within, First-person approaches to
the study of consciousness
. Imprint Academic, Thorverton, UK, 1999, especially “Present Time Consciousness” pp. 111-140.

30. Joyce V. Zerwekh, “The Practice of Presencing” Seminars in Oncology Nursing Vol.13 Issue 4, November 1997, pp. 260-262. Elsevier, Science Direct

31. Mark Larrimore, “Learning to do Philosophy of Religion in the Anthropocene.” in The Future of the Philosophy of Religion, eds, M. David Eckel, C. Allen Speight, and Troy DuJardin. Springer Nature, Switzerland, 2021, especially pp. 147-149.

Nathan R. B. Loewen on “Feminist theory and method: A long-overlooked resource for comparative philosophy of religion”

Dr. Nathan Loewen is an Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. His research develops publications and collaborations to advance the Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion project, such as Diversifying Philosophy of Religion: Critiques, Methods, and Case Studies (Bloomsbury, 2023) and Beyond the Problem of Evil: Derrida and the Anglophone Philosophy of Religion (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018). As part of the REL digital lab, Loewen’s ongoing research also integrates conventional close readings in philosophy of religion with digital tools to develop resources that widen the scope of topics and analytical methods in his field. That work provides Loewen the background to teach seminars on “Public Humanities” for the department’s MA program. As Faculty Technology Liaison for the College of Arts and Sciences, Loewen helps develop online courses, edits the Teaching Hub, supports UA’s Quality Enhancement Plan and AI Teaching Enhancement Initiative, and participates in campus technology committees. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Perusing the entries in this series of brief, online essays seems to demonstrate the possibility of a turn towards theory and method in studies of philosophy of religion. I suggest that to reflect on theory and method is to think about how form informs content. The important contribution of this series is to mark a shift away from the field’s conventional focus on the content of ‘religion.’ Until recently, the topical foci of the field’s discourses have rarely included interrogations of decisions made to arrive at their contents. There are few discourses from within the field that interrogate what interests made those decisions, rather than others, operational for the philosophers of religion. The focus of this series on the evaluation of categories marks an important turn in 21st-century philosophy of religion.

To me, the very recent timing of this turn may explain why philosophy of a religion, as a field, largely failed to engage feminist thought in the 20th century. Doing so would have required more than adding categories, such as “women,” to discourses on proofs of God, problems of evil, and the truth content of mystical or near-death experiences, etc. To focus only on the content of ‘religion’ effectively deflects feminist critiques that might transform the field. To focus on the theoretical and methodological decisions of the field would show how conceptual frameworks are deployed in ways that reproduce and reinforce social conditions. Feminist thought always asks how decisions about form shape the content of scholarship. I suggest that the question asked by feminist theory can form the backbone for robust comparative inquiry. Nancy Frankenberry’s introduction to a 1994 special issue of Hypatia asks twice on the first page: where are the feminist philosophers of religion?1 Frankenberry’s introduction calls for PoRs to, “elaborate new models of interpretation, a broader theory of evidence, a cross-cultural conception of human rationality, and a more complex appraisal of the norms applicable to cases of divergent, rival religious claims.”2 In other words, before the 21st century, certain scholars already realized the need to rethink categories for the philosophy of religion. In 1998, Pamela Sue Anderson asked that PoRs, “take on board the difficulties raised by the multiple differences of agents according to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and material and social conditions.”3 These categories likely require reappraising the topics available for study. Substantive engagements with feminist theory may lead PoRs towards robust comparative scholarship.

A very quick example explains one way feminist theory in general may usefully clear the way for comparative scholarship. Many publications in the field conceptualize “PoR” as studies of systems. The term ‘tradition’ does little to shift presuppositions away from a systems-orientation in philosophy of religion. Sometimes the systems are received ready-made for study, or the scholar does the work of system-building prior to studying the system (e.g., internal/external validity, cross-system comparison). Doing PoR in this manner—by system-building and system-analysis—depends on a prior, favorable disposition towards systems. Such approaches lack the reflexivity that would consider how the imposition of systems onto data plays a role in the production of political economies that may marginalize or occlude differences of gender and sexuality. To approach religions as traditions or systems reintroduces and reinforces the conceptual frameworks with which feminist scholarship takes issue from the outset. Feminist theories analyze the tools by which the proverbial masters build their houses. In contrast, content-oriented approaches that conceptualize ‘religions’ as systems are likely limited to continue producing comparisons of various masters’ tools and houses.4

Paying attention to feminist theory and method, I suggest, is a way for PoRs to investigate the tension between the intellectual commitments of their studies in relation to the scope of their data and the identities of their interlocutors. PoRs might better understand the importance of interrogating their theoretical and methodological interests if they realize that the interests and commitments of their field are not accidental. Frankenberry’s 1994 question about the existence of feminist PoRs sets into relief how histories of scholarly acts could have been otherwise. Other scholarly worlds are indeed possible in the 21st century. (There is some catching up to do.) When PoRs focus on the fallible conditions of their scholarly acts, they can then interrogate, rather than justify, the composition and scope of their categories. If PoRs recognize their scholarly acts produce interlocking contingencies that are just as ontologically unstable as their objects of study (if not more!), then there is good reason to believe that feminist theory may contribute to comparative scholarship in the field. By doing so, comparative work in the philosophy of religion may constructively respond to Beverly Clack’s proposal for PoRs, “to think differently about the world; to problematize that which seems self-evident or which is taken to be ‘commonsense.’”5

1. Nancy Frankenberry, “Introduction: Prolegomenon to Future Feminist Philosophies of Religions,” Hypatia 9, no. 4 (1994): 1.

2. Ibid., 13.

3. Pamela Sue Anderson, A Feminist Philosophy of Religion: The Rationality and Myths of Religious Belief (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1998), 87.

4. Drawing upon the oft-quoted phrase from Audre Lorde; in Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in Feminist Postcolonial Theory, eds. Reina Lewis and Sara Mills, 25–28 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2022).

5. Beverley Clack, “Philosophy of Religion in an Age of Austerity: Towards a Socially Engaged Philosophy for the Well-Lived Life,” Political Theology: The Journal of Christian Socialism 13, no. 2 (2012); 171.