Peter Forrest on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

pforrestPeter Forrest is Professor of Philosophy at The University of New England, Australia. 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.

Philosophy is dangerous, philosophy of religion especially so. But it also has much to offer if done the right way.

The danger of philosophy is illustrated by the charge against Socrates, corrupting youth. I imagine he corrupted by confusing, which is better than the indoctrination that can pass for academic philosophy. The undermining of young people’s beliefs on politics, ethics, or religion is a serious matter, whether it is achieved by snide remarks, laughter at naivety or, in Socrates’s case, bullying into confusion. Students who believe in guardian angels, possible reincarnation as a non-human animal or that the universe was created by God less than 10,000 years ago are mistaken, but if these are cherished beliefs they deserve gentle treatment. I recall the story of a philosopher, whom I otherwise respect, asking a student why she believed in God and on receiving the reply that she had faith, described that response as ‘wanking’. Not the right approach. But what is the right approach? In the university where I used to teach, the topic was treated by asking students to read William Clifford’s  ‘The Ethics of Belief’, and William James’ ‘The Will to Believe’ and then discuss these papers in a tutorial. Robust opposition from fellow students does not do violence the way derision from a tutor would.

This example suggests how we should teach philosophy especially when philosophical reflection impacts immensely important beliefs. Maybe selection of possible topics would be suggested with the students and it may be made plain just how many need to be studied, and a selection of readings provided. Then the tutor should aim to moderate discussion as well as promoting intellectual rigor. I expect the tutor to make her or his own position clear, but not seek to convert or de-convert.

Even given this sort of cautious approach there is still the problem of not providing the readings that exhibit the strongest arguments. And there is the further problem that the pursuit of fairness so qualifies assertions, so explores every corner of the debate, that the students become disillusioned with philosophy, judging it a degenerate intellectual exercise. Being a fair-minded conscientious but effective teacher of philosophy of religion is the hardest job in academia.

Why, then, teach philosophy of religion in universities? Because of the dangers, the university is a good place to engage in philosophy. For it conserves a threatened tradition of high academic standards. These are required in the humanities generally and philosophy in particular because of the risk of doing things wrong. So if taught at all, philosophy of religion must be taught in universities.

The justification for philosophy, especially on the more sensitive topics such as religion, is that, for whatever reason people often do ask themselves, “Well, what is the truth about religion?’ We should not force the young to ask that question by quoting the Socratic bullshit about t­he unexamined life not being worth living. (The unexamined degree is not worth giving but that is another matter). But often the young ask these questions and often older people enroll in university courses precisely because they have come to ask these questions. And in this context the university setting is of great value for two reasons. The first is that it locates the discussion in a tradition in which we can converse not merely with our peers but within a community of thinkers both present and past. The second is that many of those thinkers are somewhat obscure and help is required to understand the relevance of what they have to say.

In summary philosophy of religion deserves a place in the University curriculum because of the role it plays once students start to question their cherished beliefs, religious or anti-religious, but it should come with warnings: adult material; some participants may find this threatening; intellectual nudity.

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