Thomas Metcalf on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Thomas Metcalf is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Spring Hill College. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Respect in the Philosophy of Religion

Excellent philosophy of religion requires a variety of intellectual and character virtues and personal values. However, in this post, I would like to focus on a set of values or virtues that can be collected under the general type, ‘respect.’ I think there are three sorts of respect that are required for excellent philosophy of religion.

To begin with, part of what drew me to the philosophy of religion is that the subfield influences and informs most-or-all of the other subfields of philosophy. If we learned that theism is true, and especially if we learned that such a maximal theism as Christian Anselmianism is true, then that would likely resolve a host of other philosophical questions. We would arguably have learned of the falsity of materialism and naturalism, the truth of ethical realism (and perhaps of several first-order ethical principles), and the possibility of surviving the death of one’s body. Perhaps we would also have learned that laws of nature are non-Humean, that human beings have libertarian free will, and that platonism is true.

Therefore, I think that we as philosophers ought to respect how far-reaching and influential the debates in the philosophy of religion are. Of course, I haven’t even said anything about all the scientific questions that theism would resolve as well. Arguably, philosophical theism would entail that the universe had a beginning in time. It might even entail that the Many-Worlds or Bohmian interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct. To establish the truth of a religion might, at one stroke, resolve many of the most-interesting debates in philosophy and science.

A second sort of respect required by excellent philosophy of religion is respect for the individual believers and nonbelievers, in a way that is different from a general obligation of respect for one’s interlocutors. It’s easy for most philosophical-debates to remain very academic and sterile, perhaps to a fault: I might baldly say, to an error-theorist’s face, that I think the error theory is obviously false, or I might, without much deference or apology, cheerfully inform a Quinean that Quine’s only useful contribution to philosophy is the Quine-corners. According to the norms of our field, this sort of remark doesn’t have to constitute disrespect. But questions in the philosophy of religion can be extremely momentous and personal. Religious believers sometimes build their entire lives around their religion—and perhaps you can think of a few nonbelievers who seem to build their entire lives around their nonbelief, or at least for whom atheism or agnosticism is central to their worldviews. For some people, life might lose all meaning if the world turned out to be materialistic, or it might be disorienting or even devastating to learn that God exists. And nearly everyone encounters academic philosophy long after they’ve encountered deep religious-questions, such as about the existence of God and the possibility of life after death. Philosophy of religion can be very personal in a way that most other subfields aren’t, and it can be deeply involved in a person’s intellectual development, even from a young age.

In turn, I think we must offer a sort of respect to our interlocutors in the philosophy of religion that we don’t need to care as much about in other debates. To insult a philosophical position may be tactless or inadvisable, but it’s relatively innocuous, except when it might constitute insulting someone’s identity and worldview. Theist philosophers, especially, are likely to view theism as more than just an interesting philosophical thesis to be debated.

Third and finally, some religions assert the interesting thesis that one is morally obligated to believe in the religion. One might sin by having a sort of intellectual pride in rejecting theism without giving it a fair hearing. In contrast, the existence of platonic forms normally does not oblige one to believe in platonic forms. While it might be an intellectual vice to dismiss various positions in epistemology, metaphysics, or aesthetics without a fair hearing, it’s not obviously a moral vice.

Yet at least if theism is true, there may be a moral obligation of respect to give theism a fair hearing. Again, this seems to simply follow from the thesis that one is morally obligated to believe in God. Of course, atheists and some theists are likely to dispute this thesis, but it’s a live possibility in the philosophy of religion, where analogues aren’t very plausible in other subfields of philosophy. Deflationism about truth, and four-dimensionalism about time, will never notice whether I believe in them. Thus, we may morally owe theism a kind of intellectual respect that isn’t so important in other areas of philosophy.

In sum, I hold that excellent philosophy of religion requires a set of values that all qualify as forms of respect: respect for the philosophical pervasiveness and importance of the philosophy of religion; respect for individual believers and nonbelievers and their emotional and spiritual lives; and respect for the possibility that God might exist and one might therefore be morally required to offer theism intellectual respect as well.

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