Mikael Stenmark on “Is There A Future For The Philosophy of Religion?”

Mikael Stenmark is Professor of Philosophy of Religion at Uppsala University in Sweden. 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.

How should we think about the future of the philosophy of religion? What challenges and, we should not forget, opportunities does the philosophy of religion face today and in the foreseeable future? The first thing we must consider is that, looking worldwide, the philosophy of religion is often located within three different academic settings: as a part of a department of philosophy, or religious studies, or theology. Let us call this the philosophy of religion’s “disciplinary setting,” and the challenges and opportunities will differ significantly depending on this type of academic situation. For instance, one risk the philosophy of religion faces in a theological context is being reduced either to systematic theology or theological ethics, but that is, of course, not a challenge it faces within a department of religious studies.

However, the nature of these challenges and opportunities also depends on the “cultural setting,” on the social and political environment that characterizes the different countries in and even continents where the universities, colleges, or schools in which philosophers of religion work are located. So, for instance, what is a challenge or opportunity in North America may not be that in Europe or vice versa.

Let me start with a minority report on how things look from a Swedish perspective, and then try to say what these things could mean within a broader context, including at least Europe and North America. I am a professor in the philosophy of religion at a department of theology and religious studies at a major research university. However, in this short piece, I will not focus on my disciplinary setting but three highly important aspects of my cultural setting.

The first is that there is public religious education in schools in Sweden and some other European countries that are supposed to be confessionally neutral. This means that we at the university educate teachers on religion. The second is that Sweden is among the most secularized countries globally so that the majority of its population do not any longer self-identify as religious, and this is even more widespread among the younger generation. The default assumption is that it is a bit odd if you turn out to be religious, unless, which highlights the third of the cultural settings I would like to mention, you are a Muslim immigrant. The number of Muslim immigrants has increased dramatically over the last 30-40 years in Sweden and many other European countries.

What is the relevance of these social changes for the future of the philosophy of religion in Sweden and perhaps also in other parts of the world, particularly in Western societies?

The policy documents that regulate religious education in Swedish schools highlight features of particular interest for philosophers of religion. They say that in the schools (whether public or private), the teachers in religion must not merely educate the pupils to understand the beliefs and practices of the major religions of the world. They should also discuss how science and religion are related, raise questions about faith and reason, and include a section on secular outlooks on the world, such as secular humanism, naturalism, and Marxism.

How many professors in Religious Studies are capable of teaching about the relationship between science and religion, and faith and reason? Not many because neither a purely descriptive nor a critical theory approach is asked for. The students are supposed to learn to think critically and argue in a civil and respectful way about these relations, often tacitly understood against a secular background: “Why think that science and religion are compatible?” Can one actually accept evolution and still believe in the creation of the world?” “Is faith the opposite of reason?” Here is an opportunity for philosophers because critical thinking is part of our trademark. (I must add that this is one reason for hiring a professor in the philosophy of religion that my departmental colleagues actually acknowledge.)

Of course, the challenge is that we as philosophers need to know something about religions, not just about our own – if we have one. So in Sweden and Europe, we need to develop a philosophy of religion that focuses on Islam and not merely (as we used to do) on Christianity. Moreover, we are supposed to give these students conceptual and argumentative tools and teach them to see things from the perspective of “the religious others” and not immediately get involved in apologetics for or against a particular religious or secular worldview. Here, then, is a second opportunity for the philosophy of religion: to turn the philosophy of religion into a philosophy of worldviews in which both religious and secular worldviews are explicated and examined. As I have recently argued in my article “Worldview Studies” (Worldview studies | Religious Studies | Cambridge Core), we should not merely see “non-religious” as a negation (as a “nonreligion” or an “atheism”) but as an attempt to develop positive alternative secular outlooks on the world and our place in it.

The last remark takes us from Sweden to a broader international scene. Suppose secularization processes continue and more people in the Western world become secular and reject the religions we usually study. In that case, philosophers of religion will have an excellent opportunity to be among the first to study these secular outlooks on life. We could and should develop the philosophy of religion into a more comprehensive philosophy of worldviews that includes secular as well as religious worldviews.

In Europe, in particular, we need to develop a philosophy of religion that studies Islam. In this way, we will do something vital for both the academy and the surrounding society. We should not leave Islam to our colleagues in Religious Studies. They need us, and society needs us. Religionists need us because we must within the academic study of religion develop skills to evaluate in critical and constructive ways the beliefs, values, or commitments of Islam, just as philosophers of religion have done this with respect to Christianity. Questions of truth and justification cannot be reduced to or replaced by questions of power and rhetoric. Society needs us to address urgent questions about how to argue about religion in the public square or civil society and how to convince people of the value of, for instance, democracy and tolerance in a society composed of people with radically different worldviews. Can this be done in a way that does not increase alienation, polarization, and hostility? We, as philosophers, can provide a partial answer to these urgent questions by developing models of critical as well as constructive criticism of Islam, other religions, and secular worldviews.

Finally, in Europe, religious education in public schools is not uncommon. If the secularization processes continue, the public schools which still offer confessional (Christian or Muslim) religious education will be put under severe pressure, and the same pattern we have seen in Sweden may recur. So we should focus on science and religion, on faith and reason, on worldview criticism, but do it by bringing in more religious traditions than Christianity. We should also make people aware that secular worldviews are not the same as accepting science, so there is an interesting parallel to religious faith that is worth studying critically, namely, secular faith. This is something the surrounding society “asks for” already today and probably will do so even more in the future, and who is better at doing these things than philosophers of religion?

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