Rob Byer on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Rob Byer is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Fort Hays State University. 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.

The best philosophy of religion evinces the virtues of open-mindedness, competence, humility, and earnestness. When I was first drawn into philosophy of religion it was these virtues I had observed in the person of my professors that made me desire to study the concept of God, the arguments for God’s existence, and the role of religious belief and behavior in normative judgment. I found these same virtues evident, not always in equal measure, in the classical writings of contemporary analytic philosophers of religion, such as Alvin Plantinga, Eleonore Stump, William Rowe, Marilyn McCord Adams, Norman Malcolm. I believe that the best work being done now in philosophy of religion continues to be guided by these virtues. In this post, I’m going to recommend some works and authors that I believe evince these virtues and represent some of the best recent work in philosophy of religion.

The virtue of open-mindedness includes being open about different approaches to the subject matter one studies, being open to including new perspectives, voices, or data previously ignored, and being open to transformational work that might cause the field as a whole to look differently. J. Aaron Simmons’ work at the intersection of Continental and analytic approaches to philosophy of religion is a good example of this virtue in practice. His work on “mashup philosophy of religion” displays an openness and desire to dialogue between these different philosophical traditions. In a similar vein, Andrei Buckareff and Yujin Nagasawa’s recent book Alternative Concepts of God displays a similar openness about new ways to think about the divine. The authors in this compilation range from pantheists to naturalists to traditional theists, and they approach one another in critical, but open, fashion. Several of the works I will highlight when speaking of other virtues also exhibit the virtue of open-mindedness, but I will not recount them here.

Competence in philosophy of religion requires engagement with the best relevant work in other disciplines and in other areas of philosophy. David Alexander’s book Goodness, God and Evil weaves meta-ethics, ontology, and philosophy of language into more general philosophy of religion in an effortless and still careful way. Several chapters also demonstrate the viability of certain Medieval views in meta-ethics and metaphysics, as well as philosophy of religion, and this is a significant boon to contemporary academic philosophy. Though not falling under the umbrella of philosophy of religion directly, Robert Pasnau’s Metaphysical Themes 1274 – 1671 illustrates the richness and diversity of metaphysical thought among medieval (and predominantly religious) philosophers that are still relevant and mostly unknown today. Finally, the various works of Helen de Cruz and Johan de Smedt on the intersection of cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, and religion is exceptionally careful, well-argued, and rewarding. Their A Natural History of Natural Theology: The Cognitive Science of Theology and Philosophy of Religion is an important, exciting, and above all competent interdisciplinary work.

In the case of the last two virtues, I want to mention how philosophers of religion have exhibited them in my own experience. My own teachers in the field showed these virtues at a nearly perfected level, and allowed me to see the importance of these virtues through their modeling by dialogue and scholarship. Other philosophers of religion that I have met at conferences, and through email, also exhibit these two virtues—at least, the best of them do. Philosophy of religion requires seriousness because the stakes are so serious—what could be more important than trying to figure out the nature of the Divine and arguments for and against its possibility or actuality? If, like many philosophers of religion, one is religious, then what can be more serious and sincere work than faith in search of understanding? Philosophy of religion also requires humility because of the significant, expansive gap between ourselves as finite, imperfect creatures, and the Divine. Human beings should be earnest, but not too earnest and not too sure of ourselves when contemplating the nature of the Divine. And this is okay—as the Yiddish proverb goes, “Man plans and God laughs.” William James noted over a century ago that “Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf.” This attitude should be the constant companion to both the earnestness and humility exhibited by the best philosophy and philosophers of religion.

Two other things I want to mention about the state of the field and the virtues that govern it are in celebration of specific examples of open-mindedness. It seems to me that now, more than ever, philosophers of religion are open to traditions outside of the Abrahamic faiths and their various denominations or strands. The inclusion of Confucian, Daoist, Hindu, and Buddhist perspectives in conversation and in scholarship is a welcome sight for which we should all be grateful. The other item, no doubt related to the first, is the interest of professional philosophers of religion to study and engage with work in nearby fields such as the cognitive science of religious belief and behavior, science and religion, and religious studies. All of these fields have innovative, exceptionally sharp, sophisticated scholarship continually being produced that traditional philosophy of religion has largely ignored. The state of the field is now such that more and more philosophers are reading both broadly and deeply, and that can only hold promise for the future of philosophy of religion and the study of the Divine.

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