Mariana Alessandri on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

alessandriMariana Alessandri is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. We invited her 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.

A letter to my 14-year old niece, Hannah, who still knows that stories can be true—

Dear Hannah,

In my last letter I suggested that humans would be nothing without stories, and that philosophy’s job is to rummage through the different parts of a story to see if and how they fit together with other stories. The philosophy of religion seems paradoxical to people who think that religion means believing and philosophy means not believing, but philosophers and religious people alike believe in certain things and not in others. We all believe in something, but the philosophy of religion helps us to become cognizant of the fact that there exists a world of mixed-up stuff to rifle through and reflect upon before we go on believing in it.

Ludwig Feuerbach wrote that religion belongs to the realm of emotion rather than reason. If he is right, then we must use our reason to judge the emotions, to make sure that they are sympathetic toward the right things—the things that bring us closer to honesty, goodness, truth, virtue, thinking—rather than the wrong things—the things that take us away from the right things or that want us to worship money, possessions, reputation, etc. This is where the modern University comes in.

In four years you will go to college. In a way, I am sorry for you, because when I went to college I felt completely free to study what I found interesting. I was not concerned with how I would make a living. I fell in love with philosophy and the philosophy of religion and thought about them for four solid years. Later, I went back to school because I wanted to think some more. And again to do more thinking. But today, it seems that the modern university (perhaps what makes it modern) believes that every course you take should be in some way contributing to your future job. I am sure it was also like this in the past for some people, and in some institutions. In any case, it is important to choose a school that still values thinking in the context of the humanities and the liberal arts. One way to know if a school values thinking is to look at its Philosophy and Religious Studies departments. Are students encouraged to major or minor in humanities or the creative arts as well as business, engineering, biology, etc.? If so, it means that the college or university values thinking for its own sake and isn’t just pushing you into getting job-training. If not, be careful. Read more about the university. How does it try to “sell” itself to students? What words does it use to characterize itself? Does it sound like its mission is to get everyone a job as quickly as possible? Always be critical of anyone trying to sell you a degree rather than an education.

I believe that college should be a time of self-reflection, critical analysis, questioning your beliefs, and strengthening those that need strengthening. This is what the philosophy of religion does for the modern university. It allows us to step into the world of our most profound beliefs and doubts. It gives us the time and space we need to think about thinking and believing, and to make sure we are thinking about the things that are most important. Socrates said that he was sent by god to tell people that they were living wrongly—that they were too concerned with how they looked and what they wore and who thought what of them. He admonished them for being focused on their bodies and not their souls. In the philosophy of religion you will get to analyze not only the religious beliefs of the world but also your own soul. And the truth is that many of your other classes will feel like a race to the end, full of lots of projects and busy-work about subjects that you might not care about. I would love it if every class made you think about yourself and your beliefs in relation to the rest of the world, but that is just not the way it works. Talk to other students about which teachers make you inspect yourself and which are just there to collect your work. Gravitate toward the schools with the best reputation for teaching, for small classrooms, that have healthy humanities and creative arts departments, like Religious Studies, Philosophy, English, History, Music, Art, and Dance. These are topics you will enjoy because thinking and creating are enjoyable!

But of course thinking is also challenging. Especially thinking about your religious beliefs. If you don’t, though, they will never grow; if you never have to inspect them then you never get to choose them, to own them, to stand up to them and say yes (or no) to them. This is what the philosophy of religion offers to the modern university: it gives us a chance to study the wider world of religious beliefs in order to decide what we are going to believe in and what we are not going to believe in, as opposed to just going through life without examining our beliefs. It also gives us a chance for different faiths to talk to one another. In my first letter I said that a great philosopher of religion approaches religious stories generously, with reverence, and now I will add, sympathetically. We need philosophy of religion inside and outside of the University in order to act as mediator between faiths that otherwise don’t know how to communicate with one another. Kierkegaard said that having faith means running the risk of not being intelligible to anyone except God, and philosophers of religion go out of their way to try to understand the actions of religious people that are often dismissed by people who are not sensitive to this fact. The Philosophy of Religion should be a subject offered in every university, because it gives young people like you time and space to decide what you believe, as well as the ability to communicate with people who believe different things from you.

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