Duncan Pritchard on “Is There A Future For The Philosophy of Religion?”

UCI professor of philosophy Duncan Pritchard
photo: Steve Zylius/UCI

Duncan Pritchard is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at University of California, Irvine. 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.

I think the short answer to the question I’ve been posed is simply ‘yes, of course there is a future for philosophy of religion’. Given how fundamental religious questions are to the human condition, and given how philosophy is deeply concerned with the nature of the human condition, then it is hard to see how philosophy could have a future without philosophy of religion being a part of it. On the assumption that I’m right about this, and that philosophy of religion does have a future, the natural next question is what this philosophy of religion of the future will be like. Futurology has a notoriously poor success rate, but I think I can with some confidence offer one general trend that will occur, which is a greater interest within philosophy of religion beyond the Christian traditions that have tended to preoccupy philosophers hitherto (especially philosophers of the broadly analytical tradition). My confidence in this is grounded in the fact that philosophy more generally has become more open to a wider set of cultural reference points (rightly so, in my view), and it is hard to see how this could fail to have an effect on mainstream philosophy of religion. I suspect that this particular trend will also go hand-in-hand with a more geographically diverse reading of the history of religious ideas too, particularly since I think philosophers of religion tend to be more historically-minded than most philosophers anyway.

Beyond this rather bare prediction, I’m not altogether sure what the future holds for philosophy of religion. But rather than leaving the matter at that (which would be a very short blog post), let me at least make one observation about how philosophy of religion might develop in the coming years that I think would be welcome (while nonetheless setting to one side whether this is likely to happen). In recent years, philosophy has taken an applied turn, as it has engaged with practical issues, particularly with regard to broadly political questions. In my own field of epistemology, for example, there has been a massive upsurge of interest in how epistemology can bear on the social issues of the day, such as fake news, injustice, propaganda, and so on. One side-effect of such a turn is that philosophy has tended to become that bit more personal and autobiographical than it had been hitherto, as philosophers turn to their lived experiences and the epistemic resources that they offer in order to engage with live social questions. So female philosophers might relate their own experiences of patriarchy to questions about, say, credibility (as wonderfully exemplified by Miranda Fricker’s work on epistemic injustice, for example). In the process, philosophy is opening itself up to a broader diversity of perspectives, which is surely a good thing.

Since trends within philosophy in general are bound to ripple out to particular areas of philosophy, so we might well expect some of this more personalized and autobiographical elements to inform philosophy of religion too. I think that would be generally welcome. But I also think there is one aspect of philosophy of religion where it would benefit from being less personal and autobiographical. What I have in mind here is the tendency within philosophy of religion to be populated by philosophers who have strong personal beliefs that bear on this topic and who explicitly motivate their positions by appealing to these beliefs. (Usually, of course, this is because the philosophers are believers themselves, but sometimes it’s because they have a deeply-rooted opposition to religion). This feature of the literature has always puzzled me (though perhaps it shouldn’t), since it seems to me that the questions that philosophers of religion ask should be of interest to anyone, regardless of their personal convictions in this regard. They are simply very interesting philosophical questions. Accordingly, I think it would be a shame if students are put off from engaging with these questions because they think that this is intellectual terrain that would only be relevant to them if they already had something personally invested in the topic.

In short, what I’m urging is that philosophers of religion should consider trying to have a bit more personal distance from the topics they explore. In particular, I think we should be encouraging the idea that these questions are important for everyone, regardless of where one is coming from, and that means putting far less emphasis on one’s own personal perspective, and thus one’s own religious commitments (or the lack of them). Of course, this won’t work for everyone—I don’t doubt that some philosophers are only interested in the philosophy of religion because of their personal beliefs (and I take it as given here that I’m not recommending that one should be dishonest about one’s motivations). But my guess is that a lot of philosophers of religion are not like this, in which case there would be no harm at all in being more careful to present matters at more of a distance from one’s personal convictions. If that is possible, then I think it would have a positive result, in that it would draw people into these debates who might otherwise be put off by them. Moreover, it might have a further welcome consequence in helping to keep down the temperature in these debates, as we get stuck into the ideas and not the people (and the traditions they belong to) who propose them.

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