Keith Parsons on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Keith ParsonsKeith Parsons is professor of philosophy at University of Houston, Clear Lake. 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 does the philosophy of religion offer to the modern university? The answer is “not much” or “a great deal,” depending upon what kinds of intellectual activities and inquiries are covered by the “philosophy of religion” rubric. For quite some time, academic philosophy of religion has largely comprised a program of theistic apologetic and anti-theistic critique. Theistic philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, William Lane Craig, Robin Collins, and Edward Feser have offered defenses of the truth and/or rationality of theism. Non-theist philosophers such as Paul Draper, J.L. Schellenberg, Graham Oppy, Jordan Howard Sobel, and Michael Martin have criticized those theistic arguments and proposed various atheological arguments, i.e. arguments against the truth and/or rationality of theism. These debates have been carried out at a highly sophisticated level, often employing such tools as modal logic and Bayesian confirmation theory, while being deeply informed by such fields as physical cosmology and theoretical physics.

And what has been the result of these learned discussions? I agree with John Hick’s assessment in An Interpretation of Religion. The result is stalemate. Hick argues, cogently in my view, that neither side has established its case with finality, and that the upshot appears to be that the universe admits of either a naturalistic or a religious interpretation. That is, neither side can show that the other is committed to claims that are absurd, irrational, or in any sense epistemically censurable. This does not imply a wishy-washy relativism or a feckless neutralism. On the contrary, one may still be a committed theist or atheist, convinced by the arguments for your side. However, one must admit that those arguments, however persuasive they seem to you, are neither apodictic nor irrefragable, and that the opposing view may be articulated in ways that are consistent, coherent, and compatible with the empirical evidence. In Hick’s terms, the universe is “religiously ambiguous;” it may reasonably be regarded as a causally-closed and explanatorily self-sufficient physical whole, or it may, equally reasonably, be taken as pointing to a transcendent aspect, a “Real” beyond or beneath the physical.

The upshot, as I see it, is that the ancient debate between theists and non-theists has pretty much played out, and is no longer deserving of the massive amount of intellectual effort, time, and energy that has been devoted to it for several centuries. The project of natural theology, or natural atheology, has now reached a point of exhaustion. Both sides have had a full and fair say, using arguments that are as sophisticated and articulate as we are likely to get. Enough. No doubt the question of the existence of the theistic God will continue to be hashed and re-hashed ad nauseam for the foreseeable future in one venue or another (largely online, I would think). However, it is now time for the philosophy of religion, as an academic discipline, to move on to other, perhaps more fruitful, lines of inquiry if it wishes to retain relevance and make a genuine intellectual contribution.

What, then, would a rejuvenated and progressive program in the philosophy of religion look like? First, it will have to be genuinely pluralistic. I am not here offering a sort of knee-jerk paean to multi-culturalism of the kind we often hear in academic contexts. It is simply the case that there are many deep issues in such traditions as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and other non-Judeo-Christian contexts that could lend themselves to rigorous investigations using the potent tools and techniques of analytic philosophy. Such concepts as dharma, karma, and moksha would richly repay study and attempted elucidation by Western philosophers. Issues now regarded as largely internal to religions could be made topics of broader study. For instance, how, really, should we understand the relations between sharia law and the secular, liberal, and pluralistic aspirations of democratic societies? Philosophy could offer responsible analysis beyond the vacuous polemic and censure that now dominate such discussions. Is religious pluralism of the sort that Hick advocated a viable and reasonable program? Is any form of religious exclusivism or particularism still plausible, or are these merely expressions of religious imperialism or chauvinism?

What about the concept of secularism? Under the influence of Enlightenment values, liberals have long argued for secular societies, but are they really possible? Might not secularism itself be rife with myths, contradictions, and absurdities, as philosophers such as Charles Taylor have argued? Also, issues in the relationship between science and religion continue to arise. While historians of science have long since rejected the old “warfare” view that the relation between science and religion is a zero-sum game, it is not clear that there are no points of conflict. For instance, discoveries of neuroscience appear to flatly conflict with religious interpretations of human nature, meaning, and significance. Does neuroscience imply the radically deflationary view of humanity proposed, e.g., by Alex Rosenberg, or is Owen Flanagan right that much of traditional teaching can be retained, if only in modified form?

One issue of particular interest to me is whether it is now possible to have a rational paganism and what it would look like. Recent decades have seen a remarkable resurgence of pagan traditions and practice. Some of this is rather silly, an excrescence of shallow “New Age” pseudo-spirituality. On the other hand, in Reykjavik, Iceland, there is now a temple to the Norse gods, who are being worshipped again for the first time in a thousand years. Now, while I take it for granted that few now literally believe in hammer-wielding Thor smiting the giants or in one-eyed Odin riding his six-legged horse, pagan traditions encompassed profound concepts, often in nascent form. For instance, pagan traditions are at least implicitly pantheistic, and the prospects for genuinely pantheistic religiosity should be explored.

In short, when we conceive of getting past the hackneyed theist/atheist stalemate, many possibilities for new and exciting inquiry open up. If philosophy of religion can move into these much more spacious realms, it will have much in the way of intellectually exciting discussion to enrich the modern university.


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