Roger Trigg was the Founding President of the British Society for Philosophy of Religion, and is a Past President of the European Society for Philosophy of Religion. His latest book is Monotheism and Religious Diversity (Cambridge University Press, 2020). We invited him to answer the question “Is there a future for the philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
In the recent past, long-standing discussions about critical theory and the role of social structures in the formation of consciousness have become large political issues. They have been conscripted into culture wars on both sides of the Atlantic. The basic problem is how far our understanding of the world is conditioned by who we are and our social position. Race, ethnicity and gender are seen severally, or together (as in ‘intersectionality’) as systematically influencing our beliefs and actions. Phrases such as ‘structural racism’ are used as basic explanations.
All of this is bad news for Philosophy, since philosophers have usually prided themselves on appealing to a rationality transcending historical, cultural and linguistic boundaries. An Oxford philosopher could discuss the views of Plato or Aristotle as if they were contemporaries. Basic truths are ahistorical, it was assumed, about the world we live in and the human nature through which we respond to it. Nowhere has this resonated more than in the philosophy of religion which has felt free to discuss the views of philosophers and theologians over the centuries, and, above all, to entertain the possibility of a God who transcended all history and culture, and who cared for all equally.
We all have prejudices, but it has been thought that a function of philosophy was to counteract these and reach beyond, perhaps to something transcendent. This involved a trust in the power of human rationality, which however imperfect and self-seeking, might in a partial way reflect the rationality of a God who created us so as to reflect, however obliquely, divine reason. The Cambridge Platonists who helped spawn the early years of European Enlightenment, described human reason as being ‘the candle of the Lord’. This motivated scientists such as Isaac Newton and philosophers such as John Locke.
One problem with this picture was how far ideas of human rationality could survive any repudiation of its theistic base. The rationalists of the French Revolution were confident that it could. Later, in the nineteenth century, Nietzsche remorselessly thought through the consequences of atheism and replaced ideas of rationality with an appeal to the operation of power. That has been combined in contemporary thinking with a post-Marxist view of the supreme role of social structures in forming our consciousness. Race, gender and so on replace economic classes as the major factors influencing our identity, thoughts and actions. Philosophy has become conflated with social theory, with the idea of pure reason derided.
The fundamental issue which profoundly influences the kind of societies we live in is whether rationality and the freedom to exercise it are basic human possessions. Can rational argument help us to live together even if we disagree? The eclipse of reason, by what has been called the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ encourages battles between entrenched groups each intent on getting their own way. Attempts to marginalise philosophy or to turn it into social theory, arise from this basic distrust of a rationality that can transcend boundaries. There can then be no universal claims, no human nature, no truth or objective reality confronting all human beings. We are instead all conditioned by particular social structures. The stress is not on the beliefs we have, or any knowledge we aspire to, but the kind of people we are.
This has major implications for the philosophy of religion. Any attack on the idea of philosophy as a rational enterprise involves turning attention from what is believed to those believing it. Attention moves from the possible existence of a transcendent reality, even God, to the social circumstances conditioning philosophical and other outlooks. Whether God exists, or the possible character of any divinity, should not depend on whether any given philosopher is of a particular race, gender or culture. That is to change the subject. Once beliefs are held in suspicion simply because of their Western origin, or whatever, even the universal claims of any religion themselves fall to the ground. Yet religion (or at least the cognitive impulses that lead to it), is held by science to be universal, even natural for human beings, as the new discipline of the cognitive science of religion demonstrates. Yet current attacks on human reason may themselves destroy reliance on science itself as a source of knowledge. Scientists can in turn be treated as simply prisoners of their identity, of whatever kind.
Philosophy of religion cannot let itself be side-tracked down the path of social theory, or, even worse, particular ideologies. It aspires to discuss basic issues about the nature of human beings and the independent reality they confront. Once it is sucked into investigation of particular social practices, or becomes the mouthpiece of lobbying groups, it loses its whole purpose. Distrust of the philosophy of religion because of its origins undermines it. Without notions of objective reality, and the human freedom to reason beyond the constraints of time and place, we have no common ground on which to stand with others. As Thomas Kuhn demonstrated with his stress on the multiple origins of scientific theories, we will not understand those with whom we are at variance. Without the idea of a common reality and a shared reason, everything falls apart into incommensurable parts.
Nietzsche showed how the removal of reason hands everything over to those with the most power. Nihilism beckons. The current stress on diversity takes diverse belief as an ultimate fact, but even that notion dissolves, once it is recognised that those believing in diversity themselves merely reflect whatever social structures they inhabit. The repudiation of basic ideas of rationality involve us in the slide first into relativism, and eventually nihilism. If our beliefs merely reflect who we are, only the powerful will win, and it is equally possible to conclude that there is no point in believing anything. No view can then be better than any other. The philosophy of religion, and indeed philosophy as such, will be an illusory path to an impossible destination.