Michael Barnes Norton on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Michael Barnes Norton Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of Arkansas, Little Rock. 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.

Philosophy of religion occupies a complicated position at the crossroads of philosophy, theology, and religious studies, so clearly identifying the discipline’s central norms and values is a difficult task. Several previous respondents have addressed standards that apply to philosophical discourse generally; adding to their admirable accounts would be redundant on my part. So let me start by turning to the discipline’s object of inquiry. The name “philosophy of religion” would suggest that “religion” is this object, such that the discipline’s constitutive question would be “What is ‘religion’?” Yet this question has historically not been taken up frequently by philosophers of religion, who more often take the concept of religion for granted and have instead directed their attention to particular topics, such as the existence and nature of God, the possibility of miracles, or the problem of evil. Of course, inquiry into such questions belongs squarely within the bounds of philosophy of religion if for no other reason than that such inquiry has played a prominent role for much of the history of the discipline. But as the world becomes increasingly globalized and interconnected, as many local communities become more diverse, and especially as academic philosophy in the “West” becomes more conscious of its culturally-situated assumptions, philosophy of religion has a unique responsibility to broaden its scope and reconsider its values and goals.

Richard King has criticized philosophy of religion’s role as “border control” for philosophy’s intellectual territory.1.According to his argument, it’s often the implicit task of philosophy of religion to sort the “philosophical” from the “non-philosophical” content of traditions lying outside the heritage of Western philosophy. Philosophy of religion may present the former as properly philosophical ideas that happen to arise within the context of religious traditions, while examples of the latter can be scrutinized as examples of mere belief—objects for philosophy without quite being objects of philosophy. One problem arising from this is that ideas and questions that get sorted into the second group when they arise in non-Western traditions sometimes show up in the first group by virtue of their place in the Western philosophical canon. Would Descartes’s Meditations, for instance, make it past the border control area of philosophy of religion into mainstream Western epistemological discourse if it were a product of South Asian thought that Anglo-American philosophers only began to engage with relatively recently?

What this criticism highlights, I think, is philosophy of religion’s need to deal responsibly and respectfully with a diverse set of subjects and audiences, each of whose particular perspectives ought to bear on its disciplinary standards of excellence. I would identify three groups to be primary stakeholders in the practice of philosophy of religion in this sense: the religious communities about whose practices and beliefs it speaks, those seeking to understand religious commitments from a disinterested perspective, and the academic philosophical community more narrowly.

First and foremost, excellent philosophy of religion takes religion (however it understands it) seriously and, as much as possible, on its own terms. Without eschewing the critical perspective characteristic of philosophy, the discipline should not hastily dismiss the significance of religious practice and belief in the lives of individuals, communities, and societies. This does not mean that the coherence or value of these practices and beliefs should be granted prima facie, but it does mean that reductionist accounts of religion that do not at least deem the commitments and motivations of religious adherents as worthy of careful attention should be avoided. The insights of contemporary religious studies scholarship can be especially helpful on this front, and indeed some of the best philosophy of religion engages constructively with this scholarship.

Second, philosophy of religion’s obligation to engage attentively with religious communities carries over to an obligation to represent the beliefs and practices of those communities honestly and accurately to those outside them. Alongside its critical role, philosophy of religion serves a descriptive one, providing both academic and general audiences with fair-minded accounts of religions and their relationships to other objects of philosophical study. This function can be particularly beneficial in conversation with non-religious interlocutors who are inclined to be suspicious or dismissive of religion as a matter of principle. Following the model of Schleiermacher’s speeches to religion’s “cultured despisers”—which despite its generally Christian-apologetic perspective contains some surprisingly pluralist claims—contemporary philosophy of religion is well positioned to provide accounts of religious beliefs and practices to audiences skeptical of their continued value, not with a view to persuade such audiences of religion’s value but at least to better inform discourse about it.

Third, as the bulk of the arguments offered by contemporary philosophers of religion are oriented primarily toward other philosophers, the aim of these arguments should be to provide not only accurate accounts but also critical evaluations of the actualities of and possibilities for religious beliefs and practices, as well as the objects of those beliefs and practices. The challenge for the discipline as a branch of academic philosophy—one that should be explicitly and continually taken up as a goal not yet met—is to construct these arguments such that they are integrable into other areas of philosophical discourse without doing so in the “border control” mode that King criticizes. That is, philosophy of religion ought, among other things, to provide paths for religions to enter philosophical inquiry as subjects, not merely as objects of investigation.

Ultimately, we ought to understand the responsibilities of philosophy of religion as shaped by attention to all the complexities of religious life in the real world; this will include attention to urgent social concerns such as poverty, war, and of course climate change. Certainly not every work in philosophy of religion can or should engage directly with these issues, but neither should any work be wholly disconnected from them. Excellent philosophy of religion, whatever its specific focus, should have a place within a network of discourse and responsibility that at least aspires to comprehensiveness, and this will necessarily include reflection on the ways it conceives of its object.

  1. King, Richard. “Philosophy of Religion as Border Control.” Postcolonial Philosophy of Religion, edited by P. Bilimora and A. B. Irvine, Springer, 2009, pp. 35-53.

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