David Schrader on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

David SchraderDavid Schrader taught philosophy of religion for thirty-one years at Loras College (Dubuque, IA), Austin College (Sherman, TX), and Washington and Jefferson College (Washington, PA). He also served as Executive Director of the American Philosophical Association from 2006-2012. 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.

What philosophy of religion has to offer the modern university almost certainly differs somewhat depending on the specific mission of the university.  My own answer to this question will be both personal and confessional.

I was drawn to philosophy as an undergraduate fifty years ago because philosophy seemed to be the one discipline in which I could jointly satisfy my love of mathematics and my passionate interests in religion and politics. I was immediately drawn into philosophy of religion. That interest led me to pursue graduate study in the history of religion prior to pursuing my graduate study in philosophy. Prior to my last six years of employment, as Executive Director of the American Philosophical Association, I taught for thirty one years in three small liberal arts colleges. The first of those was a Catholic diocesan college, where my course in philosophy of religion was looked upon with some suspicion my some of my senior colleges who saw it running at cross-purposes with the late 1970s traditional “Philosophy of God” course that a senior priest taught. The two institutions at which I spent most of my career teaching philosophy of religion were small liberal arts college with modest or no religious affiliation.

In the settings in which I taught, philosophy of religion offered something parallel to other “philosophy-of” subdisciplines. Much as students interested in the sciences benefit from studying philosophy of science, students interested in religion benefit from studying philosophy of religion. The difference is that a lot more students are interested in religion than are interested in science. This gives philosophy of religion a particularly important contribution to make to the university. In addition to the interest that many students have in religion, it is clear that religion plays a significant role in contemporary American culture. If a central purpose of the university is to graduate students who are capable of thinking and reflecting clearly, critically, and accurately about the world in which they live, the ability to think and reflect clearly, critically, and accurately about religion should be part of university education.

The kind of philosophy of religion that I think has much to offer universities regardless of their particular sectarian orientations is not to be confused with philosophical theology. Philosophical theology is a subdiscipline of theology, while philosophy of religion is a subdiscipline of philosophy. From a confessional standpoint, my own deeply Lutheran theological orientation leads me to see philosophy to have little to offer as a foundation for theology. By contrast, philosophy has a great deal to offer as a vehicle for critical examination of religion and for clearer understanding of religion. Philosophical theology undoubtedly has a contribution to make in universities affiliated with religious denominations that see philosophy as providing a grounding for religion, but not in universities without such affiliation (unless housed in a Religious Studies Department).

I will conclude my contribution by identifying what appear to me some, but not all, of the major issues over which university students puzzle that may benefit from engagement with philosophy of religion.

Reason and Religion: There are clearly those who claim that reason can either count decisively for or against religious belief. This is a question that philosophy has engaged for over two thousand years. It is important to examine both contemporary and historical arguments for and against religious belief in appropriate context. The natural theological arguments of Saint Thomas, for example, are raised against a backdrop of Aristotelian physics. Sound philosophical practice requires that the background beliefs about nature that underlie the arguments be recognized and explained. Similarly, Hume’s famous argument about the unreliability of miracle reports arose in the context of a broader early 17th Century debate about miracles. That context also needs to be acknowledged. More generally, it is important for students to engage the larger question of how tightly evidence constrains belief and how reason may help refine beliefs that are rationally neither required nor forbidden.

Language: Should the language we use in religious discourse be taken as accurately descriptive of God? What is the relationship between language and reality? Does God differ from natural reality in ways that affect the adequacy of language to describe accurately? Additionally, how do names function? We see in public and religious discourse debates over whether Christians and Muslims worship “the same God.” Any responsible answer to that question requires that we understand reasonably the putative reference of the term ‘God’ as used by Christians and ‘Allah’ as used by Muslims. To the extent that both refer to “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” we should be driven to a conclusion.

Religious Diversity: This is certainly related to both of the above issues. This issue goes well beyond religious differences between Christians and Muslims, Jews and Buddhists, etc. Not all Christians are in full theological agreement. Even Christians within the same denominational tradition have theological disagreements among themselves. Are these simple issues of one being right and the other wrong? Or are there ways of engaging religious disagreement that allow for more sympathetic forms of conversation.

Coherence of Religious Traditions: This is not a widely addressed issue within philosophy of religion, but it is an important issue for many students. In the current American environment religion frequently becomes hijacked by politics. There is a significant political alliance between some socially conservative Catholics and some socially conservative Evangelical Protestants. The pivotal issue that has cemented the political alliance has been abortion. That political alliance, however, carries over into other issues. I have seen socially conservative Catholic students who think that they should oppose biological evolution because of their Catholicism. Some theologically conservative Evangelical Protestants see their religious views as opposing biological evolution. Yet there is nothing in the Catholic intellectual tradition that would drive traditional Catholics to oppose biological evolution. Students need to learn to avoid simply following political movements, conservative or liberal, as an alternative to thinking carefully about their own commitments.

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