Dwayne Tunstall on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”


Dwayne A. Tunstall

Dwayne A. Tunstall is Associate Professor of Philosophy and African/African American Studies at Grand Valley State University. His most recent book is Doing Philosophy Personally: Thinking about Metaphysics, Theism, and Antiblack Racism (Fordham University Press, 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.

In my more cynical moments, I am tempted to regard philosophy of religion as an ongoing quixotic quest to study an analytically inadequate concept—namely, religion. My cynical self would contend that philosophers of “religion” no longer need to use any substantive concept of religion to study phenomena once classified as religious in nature. Philosophers of “religion” can just study the beliefs held by members of communities traditionally considered to be religious communities. Then, they can construct accounts of those beliefs, alongside accounts of the practices and rituals performed by members of those communities, using knowledge acquired from the most adequate ethnographic studies and historical accounts of those communities. This approach would be a cynical appropriation of G. Scott Davis’s advice to students of comparative religions and ethics in Believing and Acting (Oxford University Press, 2012): “[U]nderstanding religion requires nothing more than the sensitive and imaginative reading of human phenomena informed by the best available ethnography set in the best available historical narrative” (3). Thankfully, I haven’t let those cynical moments determine how I define the field.

Most of the time, I define philosophy of religion as an interdisciplinary field in which philosophers of religion investigate the contested concept of religion and related concepts (e.g., religious experience, religious beliefs, the divine). Philosophers of religion can use resources from a variety of fields—e.g., anthropology of religion, cognitive science of religion, critical race theory, economics of religion, ethnic studies, liberation theology, literature, philosophical theology, political science, psychology of religion, queer studies, religious ethics, religious studies, and sociology of religion—to formulate plausible philosophical accounts of religions. They also have an array of methods and approaches that they can use to inquire into the nature of religions. These methods and approaches include actor network theory, critical theory, deconstruction, Deweyan pragmatism, error theory, feminist theology, Foucauldian genealogy, hermeneutical phenomenology, Jamesian radical empiricism, naturalistic approaches to the study of religion, natural theology, political theology, rational choice theory, and Reformed epistemology.

Since religions are complex and dynamic social phenomena, and since methodological pluralism would provide philosophers of religion with the theoretical flexibility to study religions in a nuanced manner, perhaps methodological pluralism ought to be the guiding ethos of the field. By methodological pluralism I mean the view that no single method or approach should be considered the best one with which to study religions; instead, there are numerous methods and approaches available to philosophers of religion. I should note that adopting methodological pluralism wouldn’t require all philosophers of religion to investigate religions using several methods and approaches. It just means that philosophers of religion who are comfortable using a single method or approach in their work should at least tolerate colleagues who use multiple methods and approaches to study religions.

I presume that my commitment to methodological pluralism is largely due to my status in the field. My work in the field has involved historically-informed reconstructions and evaluations of Josiah Royce’s ethico-religious insight; Gabriel Marcel’s religious existentialism; the ethical personalisms of Edgar S. Brightman and Martin Luther King, Jr.; the religious ethics of Rufus Burrow, Jr., a later-day Boston personalist; and William R. Jones’s philosophy of religion. I also have explored a few of the theological implications of Lewis Gordon’s existential phenomenological account of antiblack racism for contemporary humanistic theism. In terms of contemporary English-speaking philosophy of religion as practiced in many philosophy departments, my work would likely be considered untimely and marginal.

If I want to have my work be more timely and fit within mainstream philosophy of religion, I could write articles, essays, and books that contribute directly to the explanation and justification of doctrines and beliefs associated with philosophical theism. I also could condemn all religious explanations and justifications, especially theistic ones, as being at best non-rational. Or I could construct naturalistic accounts of religions and religious experience using insights from evolutionary psychology and cognitive science of religion. But none of these options sounds promising to me, at least not as ways that I could study religions philosophically.

One could say that my precarious position in the field has primed me to embrace the following view: English-speaking philosophers of religion housed in philosophy departments should adopt methodological pluralism en masse. That act would collectively liberate us from the expectation that our work remain within the confines of a narrow range of topics (e.g., rational arguments for God’s existence, rational justification of religious beliefs, and the problem of evil). We wouldn’t be restricted to the topics covered in, say, Philip L. Quinn’s and Charles Taliaferro’s edited volume, A Companion to Philosophy of Religion (Wiley-Blackwell, 1999). We could adopt a much wider and more inclusive concept of religion, a concept that can accommodate the breadth of topics covered in, say, the Encyclopedia of Religion (first edition, 1987; second edition, 2005). We then can be free to study as wide of a range of topics as philosophers of religion housed in religion departments, religious studies departments, some divinity schools, and some schools of theology are.

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