Joseph Trabbic on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”


Joseph Trabbic

Joseph G. Trabbic is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University. His research and publications are in medieval philosophy, continental philosophy, philosophy of religion, and metaphysics. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

A lot (and perhaps most) of what goes by the name “philosophy of religion” today standardly concerns itself with questions about the nature, existence, and cognitive accessibility of God and related matters. This holds true for both analytic and continental philosophy of religion. And it also happens to be the way that I think of the subject. But is this approach to philosophy of religion defensible? I believe it is.

Consider that philosophy is understood, traditionally at least, as the love of wisdom. Pythagoras is credited with the invention of the term. Whatever Pythagoras might have meant by “love of wisdom,” wisdom in the highest sense is reasonably thought to consist in a knowledge of the most basic, universal principles of things, of the whole of what there is. Philosophy in its most exemplary form, then, would consist in an inquiry into these principles and other pursuits would be philosophical to the extent that they approximate this sort of inquiry.

Obviously you can and people do understand philosophy in other ways than this. But in my judgment you could only do so reasonably if what you are calling “philosophy” could be plausibly understood as a love or pursuit of wisdom or approximated this pursuit in its most exemplary form. If what you are calling “philosophy” cannot plausibly be so understood, it may be time to call the thing that you have in mind by another name.

Turning to religion, I think that the majority of people who would call themselves “religious” would see this as amounting to believing in God or gods and living their lives in a way that corresponds to this belief. So, more formally, we could say that “religion” typically denotes a set of beliefs and practices adopted by people in response to their belief in a divinity or divinities. Religious people often make the divinity or divinities that they believe in the center of their lives, they worship them and sometimes offer them sacrifices of some sort.

There are those who would say that everyone has something that they treat as divine whether or not they call it “God.” In other words, it is suggested, everyone has something that they organize their lives around, “worship” and “sacrifice” for. Perhaps this is their career or some cause they feel strongly about. In this extended sense everyone is religious. There seems to be some truth to this thesis, but so as not to complicate things too much in these brief remarks, I will just reserve the term “religion” for ways of life that explicitly declare belief in a divinity or divinities. We could call this the restricted sense of “religion.” I would also say that something like Buddhism should probably be considered as religious in the extended rather than the restricted sense.

If my accounts of philosophy and religion are acceptable, then the approach to philosophy of religion that I presented at the beginning also makes sense (although I doubt that everyone who takes this approach to philosophy of religion would defend it in the way I have). It would approximate philosophy in its exemplary form since it would be an inquiry into basic and universal principles, not, formally speaking, of the whole of what there is, but those of religion. The divine is a pretty basic and universal principle of religion because belief in the divine would be what essentially distinguishes religion (in the restricted sense) from other ways of life.

What objections could be raised to the notion of philosophy of religion that I am endorsing? Three immediately come to mind. First, you might argue that what I propose as the business of philosophy in general and of philosophy of religion in particular assumes that “metanarratives” are possible, but people like Lyotard, Foucault, and Derrida have shown that this is not so. I cannot give an adequate response to this objection here and it is probably ill-formulated. In any case, let it suffice for the moment for me to say that I do not think that anyone has shown that metanarratives are impossible and the very attempt to do so bears this out since it is itself a kind of negative metanarrative.

Second, you might object that not all religions believe in divinities while I suppose that they do. This is an understandable objection but in reply I would suggest either that “religion” is not a sensible label for the way of life under discussion or that it should be understood as religious only in the extended sense I mentioned above.

Third, if you follow the understanding of philosophy of religion that Gordon Graham expresses in his remarks on this blog, you might object that philosophy of religion “properly so called” is not about “theistic metaphysics” but a “philosophical understanding of religion as a human phenomenon.” Graham’s view seems to be, in short, that philosophy of religion should be about the subject of belief – human beings – rather than the object – God/gods. My approach apparently emphasizes the object. But I say merely that reflection on God would be an essential part, not the sole concern, of philosophy of religion. I think that what Graham wants to focus on also fits with my conception of philosophy of religion and would question only the seemingly exclusive identification of philosophy of religion with an inquiry into the subject of belief.

Before concluding, I would like to comment on a topic that several other contributors (e.g., Bruce Langtry, with whom I largely agree, and Paul Draper, with whom I disagree) have addressed, namely, the relationship between faith and philosophy of religion. If I believe in God and belong to a religion, can I really be doing philosophy of religion if in practice that means that I use philosophy to defend my faith? Some people might say that this is religious apologetics but not philosophy.

This is quite a complex issue. But it seems to me that defending your religious faith – whether or not we call it apologetics – is not necessarily unphilosophical. A belief, whether religious or philosophical or scientific, is a judgment. Logically, beliefs or judgments are expressed as propositions. Is it really the case that if you defend a proposition that you hold to be true, you cannot be doing philosophy? But defending propositions we hold to be true is what is going on any time we make arguments. If being a philosopher entails avoiding the defense of propositions that we hold to be true, then it would seem that philosophers, to live up to their calling, must dispense with argumentation. But that is clearly absurd even if it is true that doing philosophy is about more than making arguments.

You might reply that it is not the defense of propositions that is unphilosophical but the defense of propositions for which we have not previously sought justification. Well, suppose we have done that (and I do not see why we would assume that people who defend their religious beliefs have not). In that event is it still not possible for our defense of our religious beliefs to be philosophical? If you say that the justification must be such that no reasonable doubts can be raised about it, I would answer that this requirement would force us to dismiss as unphilosophical most of what usually passes for philosophical argumentation.

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  1. Pingback: Joseph Trabbic on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” | Philosophy of Religion

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