Stephen Clark is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Liverpool University. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
Anything that human beings do is likely to interest philosophers, especially if what they do seems odd, unnecessary or irrational for a simply cost-benefit understanding: pure science, sex, or sport, for obvious example. The guddle of ritual practices, sacred sites and texts and people, that are popularly summed up as ‘religion’ is no exception. Why do people devote their energies to building churches, dressing up in wholly impractical garments, reading and re-reading ancient and often incomprehensible texts? Why do they need to imagine ‘other worlds’ or plan for their imagined afterlife (even if only to plan their funerals or their memorial tablets)? Why do they feel (or pretend to feel) particular respect for ancestors, or the aged, or infants, or the insane? Why do they alternately revere and sacrifice particular animals? Why mark the changing seasons with stories and celebrations, or with fasts and floggings? Many similar questions can be asked about our common concern with ‘Art’ or ‘Sport’ or ‘Science’ or ‘Celebrity’. Why don’t we behave like sensible, ‘rational’ animals, seeking merely ‘natural’ goals by whatever convenient means?
There are at least two ways of practising ‘philosophy’. We may seek to analyse the ways that people actually behave: what is it to win a game, in any particular sport; what are the qualities that sportsmen value, or what their sins and failings? When is ‘cheating’ simply an acknowledged, proper, tactic (even if it is penalized when noticed), and when a sign of something deeply wrong, ‘unsporting’? These conversations may feed into the development of ‘sport’ in general, or particular sporting enterprises. The other way of ‘philosophising’ is to challenge the whole practice, requiring – for example – that sportsmen and their followers justify their strange devotion. Maybe they will succeed, and ‘sport’ at last seem ‘rational’ in whatever terms that audience prefers. Or maybe that audience will itself be challenged, and so come to see what strange assumptions – perhaps about the importance of ‘being serious’ or acting only for some non-sportive gain – they have been making, and should now abandon. Maybe all human life will come to seem ‘a game’, and skilled sportsmen only doing, more consciously and carefully, what everyone should do: preferring the effort of taking part, the beauty of the means, to any literal success.
The same split effort may be seen in dealing with ‘Religion’. One sort of philosopher will prefer to analyse what is said and done by particular ‘believers’, and discover (for example) whether the stories and the rituals have a coherent sense. Who and what is ‘saintly’? What does ‘piety’ require? What connections are there between ritual and moral rules (if any)? What is taken to be a sacred text, in any particular community, and what are the implications of its being thus ‘sacred’? What does omnipotence entail, or what does it mean to say that there is No Self? Another sort – or the same philosophers in other moods – may instead enquire into what external justification there is for this or another set of rules, rituals and stories. They may even wonder whether there is any such thing as ‘religion’: maybe that is only a term invented to associate many various activities that are all, perhaps, indulged ‘religiously’ (as we might say, ‘enthusiastically’ or ‘habitually’: with or without our genuine attention). Maybe ‘sacred’ is only a term employed by anthropologists or archaeologists to describe practices or objects whose ‘real’ use they have not yet discovered. In what sense, if any, is the Christian Bible, Jewish Torah, Muslim Koran a ‘sacred text’? Are the Vedas? Are the Homeric epics? Star Wars? Are the arguments of particular ‘religions’ (hypostatized as discrete entities, rather than simply as occasions when people are talking or acting ‘religiously’) of real significance, or are they meditation exercises, or quaint diversions from – and partial contributions to – the life of everyday? Can we conceive a world entirely without ‘religion’? – or is that very effort yet another example, exactly, of ‘religion’: the imagining of ‘another world’ than this, with other global priorities, to be achieved by carefully disinfecting our usual thoughts and feelings, in obedience to new texts and prophets?
Sport may turn out to be a metaphor for the ordinary lives even of those who did not think of themselves as ‘sporty’. Religion may also have a wider force than ‘irreligious’ philosophers imagine. Philosophers of Sport (whether descriptive or revisionist) need not themselves, in any ordinary sense, be sportsmen, but it may be presumed that they have some sympathy with sport, and some acquaintance with the actual practices and feelings of sportsmen and spectators. The same should be true for philosophers of ‘religion’. In practice it often seems that such philosophers have so little sympathy with ‘religion’ that they perennially miss the point: they come to the study, perhaps, from the more arcane regions of logic or epistemology – and are satisfied to pose logical puzzles, for example, about ‘omnipotence’ (as an attribute of the divine) or epistemological, about the source of ‘faith’, without asking what is important to ‘believers’. They may also be blind to their own convictions, habits and attractions, and so not realize how often their own devotion to a purely ‘rational’ account of things, their own intellectual ascesis, even their veiled contempt for those with another conviction is, exactly, of the form of (evangelical) religion! What effort is involved in keeping faith with Dawkins?
So what may ‘philosophers of religion’ chiefly contribute to the University? Any human enterprise, and especially those with major and sometimes catastrophic effects on everyone’s experience, deserves to be understood. But perhaps the chief contribution should be to hold a mirror up before the most cost-benefit, would-be ‘utilitarian’ and ‘realistic’ administrators, to remind them that their own assumptions, habits, goals, ways of life and thinking, are as much at the mercy of old stories and ancestral pieties as the most brash of familiar ‘fundamentalists’.