John Schellenberg on “Two Aims of the Philosophy of Religion”

John Schellenberg is Professor of Philosophy at Mount Saint Vincent University. 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.

Philosophy of religion is going through a period of turmoil in which it is deciding what it wants to be when it grows up. I suggest that we may ease a number of current tensions and find a way forward by noting how a philosopher of religion’s direction of thought might be characterized by either of two importantly different aims. The first is the aim of understanding and rationally evaluating religious practice, bringing such philosophical disciplines as ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology to bear in the examination of religion. Perhaps, for example, one employs theories of metaphysics to illuminate the doctrine of God. Here one’s thinking moves from philosophy to religion. The second aim is the aim of investigating the philosophical potential of religious ideas, considering, as it were reciprocally, whether there is anything that religion might contribute to ethics, metaphysics, or epistemology. For example, one may use arguments for the existence of God to seek to establish a conclusion that, if established, would clearly advance metaphysical discussion. Here, rather differently, one’s thinking goes from religion to philosophy.

Let’s call the first aim the philosophy-to-religion (P-R) aim and the second the religion-to-philosophy (R-P) aim. Notice that there are no obvious entailments between their endorsements. But it is easy for us to conflate things inappropriately here. An important example is the way many philosophers moving P-R and evaluating religious attitudes focused on propositions that happen to have a wider philosophical potential – e.g. the proposition that there is a divine Ultimate – have mistakenly assumed that those propositions must have such potential for religious attitudes focused on them to receive a positive evaluation in that connection, which means looking for specifically epistemic justification. By clarifying, distinguishing, and explicitly endorsing the two aims we avoid this, making room for religious attitudes expressed in religious contexts to have any number of philosophically-endorsed justifications while also leaving plenty of room for – indeed, clearly rationalizing – the familiar focus on belief and epistemic justification. We will see it now as appropriate to the second aim: R-P.

Becoming more specific: consider the seeming tension between an emphasis on making natural theology successful and the suggestion of Reformed epistemology that such success is dispensable. When this disagreement is discussed with awareness of the present distinction, we will come to think of Reformed epistemologists as having a P-R concern: nothing in philosophy requires that the religious practice of intellectually responsible adult theists be infused with the relevant arguments, they are saying. (Perhaps they should be saying it without using the word ‘epistemology,’ which suggests an R-P interest.) Of course you may be religious, a philosopher, and wondering whether religious claims deserve respect in metaphysics. If you don’t see that this concern is R-P, you’ll think you disagree with the Reformed thinkers. For such respect naturally may be contingent on the availability of powerful arguments of the sort that natural theology seeks to provide. But by recognizing the distinction I’m pressing, you may come to see that your basis for disagreement is removed. After all, whether token states of belief found in a religious community are in good order is one question; what may speak for religious propositions in a manner that makes them theoretically usable is quite another. And we should not assume that the answers to these questions must coincide.

Or consider the apparent tension between those who think of religious practice propositionally and doxastically and those willing to explore nondoxastic or even nonpropositional forms of religion. It’s tempting for the latter to criticize the former as unduly narrow in their conception of religion. And for one of the two aims we’re discussing – the P-R aim – their concern is too narrow, for reasons already suggested. But only for one. If instead you are responding to the R-P aim, your focus on propositions and what might, at least eventually, be made believable is only proper: theoretical investigation in philosophy invites it. Notice, however, how someone with the R-P aim who is not alert to the importance of the present distinction will wonder why non-doxastic faith should win any interest from philosophers at all and perhaps disparage a concern with it – thus completely missing how non-doxastic faith can rightly be hugely interesting if your aim is P-R.

From the perspective of the P-R/R-P distinction, the contributions of philosophers of religion so far, though certainly worthwhile, can be seen to be quite limited in scope.

The P-R aim, fairly obviously, must be applied not just to Christianity but also to various non-Christian religions and in several ways to religion in general. Even in relation to the former there is more to be done. Just for example: we are only starting to see discussion of the merits of a Christian fictionalism that draws on what we have learned about fictionalisms in other areas of philosophy. Social justice concerns become relevant here too. How have human religions including Christianity so often failed to entrench moral and political truths, studied by moral and political philosophers, that have become as obvious to most of us as the established claims of science? And how might they do better?

As for the R-P aim: much more attention will be needed to determine what many other particular religions might contribute to philosophical understanding and also what investigation within the context of religion in general might show that is philosophically enlightening. For an example, take some broad new form of realist but non-doxastic religious faith imagined in the latter context. Might this potentially have practical consequences sufficiently interesting to re-ignite an interest in religion among moral or social or political philosophers concerned with the improvement of human life in the future?

Clearly there is much to be done. I propose that reflection on the two aims I have introduced* and incorporation of the distinction between them into our future work will help us see more clearly how we can make progress in our attempts to do it.

* In my Prolegomena to a Philosophy of Religion (Cornell 2005) I outlined a larger set of aims implicitly including these two. But I have come to think that reflection specifically aimed at these two and the important differences between them may be particularly helpful.

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