Ronald Kuipers on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”


Ronald A. Kuipers

Ronald A. Kuipers is Associate Professor of the Philosophy of Religion, and Director of the Centre for Philosophy, Religion, and Social Ethics at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, Canada. Most recently, he is the author of Critical Faith: Toward a Renewed Understanding of Religious Life and its Public Accountability (Rodopi, 2002), and most recently Richard Rorty (Bloomsbury Contemporary American Thinkers, 2013). We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

For a philosopher with an interdisciplinary bent, there has perhaps never been a more exciting time to make a contribution to the Philosophy of Religion. Workers in this field are becoming increasingly open to a greater range of disciplinary avenues in pursuing their scholarly task. That task, as I understand it, involves reflecting philosophically on religious phenomena in their entirety, taking into consideration more than just the cognitive dimensions of religious belief. While this dimension remains important and undiminished, there is a growing sense among many philosophers of religion that any philosophical reflection on religious phenomena that restricts itself to this arena will remain truncated and incomplete. An adequate philosophical understanding of religion must also attend to its social and public dimensions, and these latter should not simply be left to historians and sociologists of religion alone. It is imperative, therefore, that philosophers of religion stay abreast of contemporary developments in social and political thought, as well as related discussions in the philosophy of language, especially those that highlight the social/discursive dimension of human language use.

Philosophical reflection on religion should thus make use of the contributions to contemporary social philosophy made by such thinkers as Nancy Fraser, Charles Taylor, Jürgen Habermas, Iris Marion Young, Paul Ricoeur, Jeffrey Stout, Nancy Frankenberry, and Seyla Benhabib, to name only a few key figures. As Dutch philosopher of religion Arie L. Molendijk suggests, attending to the work of such thinkers will encourage the development of “an integral philosophy of religion, which takes the place of religion in society as a serious topic for philosophical reflection.”[1]

Several significant developments in contemporary philosophy in general help one understand how and why workers in this field have found themselves able to open it up in such a fruitful interdisciplinary fashion. To start, one notices a growing rapprochement between philosophical traditions that were once foreign, if not hostile, to one another. One thinks here especially of an emerging dialogue and cross-fertilization between the ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ traditions in Western philosophy (represented in the work of such figures as Rorty, Habermas, and Ricoeur), but also of the successful struggle of once-marginalized traditions like Feminist Philosophy and Pragmatism to garner a voice in various philosophical discussions.[2]

Notwithstanding this emerging rapprochement, one significant area of ongoing controversy remains between analytic philosophers of religion and those whose work is influenced more predominantly by these other camps. This dispute has to do with the understanding and status of the variety of language uses one finds in religious culture. Analytic philosophers of religion like Kai Nielsen and Alvin Plantinga display a continuing tendency to privilege the philosophical ‘proposition’ as the locus of meaning and truth in religious language, consciously excluding metaphor, narrative, and other uses from this status.[3] This position has been significantly challenged by the work of Ricoeur, of course, not to mention Wittgenstein, as well as by theologians like Janet Soskice. While I think philosophical analysis of religious language can serve a valuable concept-clarifying function, which in turn can become useful when engaging in the task of redeeming validity claims, I take issue with those philosophical perspectives that understand the isolated philosophical proposition as foundational to the meaning of all other religious language uses. Instead, I think it is important to see the results of such analyses as theoretical abstractions from ordinary or natural uses of religious language, uses whose integrity resists such abstraction. There is a very real sense in which the intellectual practice of philosophical analysis denatures ordinary language use, and it is the latter that philosophers of religion are attempting to understand. To develop the integral understanding of religious phenomena called for above, then, it is imperative that philosophers of religion heed the Wittgensteinian call to go “back to the rough ground” of the variety of religious language uses one finds intertwined in different religious practices and traditions today.

This Wittgensteinian call further highlights the need for philosophers of religion to reflect on the social and public dimensions of religion (which also include this variety of language uses). In meeting this need, philosophers of religion must also attend to more than just social philosophy/theory, but also to empirical social scientific research and comparative religious studies. In the arena of empirical social scientific research, there is much ferment surrounding the data collected in the recent World Values Surveys, and the story it tells about such global religious trends as secularization and the growth of new religious movements. In the arena of comparative religious studies, there is an enormous literature dealing with the potential for (and fruits of) interreligious dialogue.[4] By understanding these social religious trends, as well as the sorts of dialogue between different traditions that have already been undertaken, the philosopher of religion gets into a better position to contribute to our understanding of the ways in which we might achieve social harmony and human flourishing in a context of plurality and difference.


1 Arie L Molendijk, “A Challenge to Philosophy of Religion,” Ars Disputandi 1 (2001), section 1.

2 On the development of and prospects for increasing rapprochement between analytic and continental approaches to the Philosophy of Religion in particular, see William J. Wainwright, ed., God, Philosophy, and Academic Culture: A Discussion between Scholars in the AAR and the APA (Atlanta: Scholar’s Press, 1996). In the actively emerging field of feminist Philosophy of Religion, see Pamela Sue Anderson and Beverly Clack, eds., Feminist Philosophy of Religion: Critical Readings (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2003), and Grace M. Jantzen, Becoming Divine: Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999). For the contribution of pragmatism to philosophical reflection on religion, see Stuart Rosenbaum, ed., Pragmatism and Religion (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003).

3 See Plantinga’s exchange with Merold Westphal in Faith and Philosophy 16/2 (April 1999).

4 See Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) for a good example of this sort of current social scientific research. For a good example of interreligious dialogue, see Jerald D. Gort, et. al., eds., Religions View Religions: Explorations in Pursuit of Understanding (Amsterdam and New York: Editions Rodopi, 2006).

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