Eric Steinhart is Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson 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.
One of my last fully in-person classes, in the fall of 2019, was philosophy of religion. My class had a large percentage of atheists, not surprising for the northeast United States. What was surprising was that the atheists, who were all deeply anti-Christian, spent much of their time discussing how they charged their crystals (full moon or in the sun?), their favorite tarot decks (Waite-Rider or the Wild Unknown?), and the pros and cons of astrology apps (Co-Star or the Pattern?). But they didn’t care much about New Age spirituality, or identify as “spiritual but not religious”. They didn’t care much about atheism either. They just did their things. Since then many mass media articles have detailed the rise of these practices among younger Americans.
I’d like to try to understand my young students (obviously, they’re the future). But there aren’t any philosophy articles (much less books) about their practices or how they integrate them into their ways of thinking about reality. Nothing. Crickets. In this context, it would be absurd to say astrology or crystals involve consorting with demons. The Gallup organization recently reported that for the first time in their eighty-year history, less than half of adult Americans attend a church. By all demographic accounts, Christianity is declining rapidly in America. For the last decade, there have been many calls to expand philosophy of religion beyond Christian theism. Yet philosophy of religion, at least in the English-speaking world, remains intensely christo-normative. As far as I can tell, the academic journals and presses have not changed one bit.
Yet there are many hopeful signs, and the field is very slowly expanding, though I suspect it will take a generational shift. But there are worrying signs too. Philosophy departments and religious studies departments in secular universities are under grave threats. They are shrinking. It may be that the few remaining philosophers of religion will be found only in religious (that is, Christian) universities. So the academic christo-normativity will grow even stronger. Meanwhile, non-Christian philosophy of religion will grow outside of the academy: it will grow in non-academic cultural channels like blogs, Facebook groups, YouTube channels, and other social media. It may have to come to this: the current academic structure of philosophy of religion will just die out as faculty are laid off, or as they retire and are not replaced. For a while, philosophy of religion just won’t exist outside of Christian institutions. Those institutions (already under stress) will become more secular. Slowly, maybe in fifty years, something new will grow up in the academy that will deal with whatever comes after Christianity.
I don’t see any hope here in globalizing philosophy of religion. I’m suspicious that globalization just means colonization. It just means treating every religion as if it were a version of Christianity. God has many names! Different paths up the same mountain! Of course, the mountain has one peak. And I fear that courses or books on the “world religions” just treat them as if they were institutional structures analogous to Christianity. (Worse, I suspect that the entire category of “world religions” is the construction of missionary and imperialistic Christianity. See, for instance, the claims that Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, as “world religions”, were constructed by British missionaries.) Or I fear that global philosophy of religion makes tourist guides to the world religions. Religions are curiosities, like foreign dress or cuisine. Moreover, by focusing on the world religions, global philosophy of religion focuses on the past. I’m looking for a philosophy of religion that focuses on the present and the future. I’m looking for a farm-to-table philosophy of religion, focused on fresh locally-sourced practices.
I suggest that the future of philosophy of religion begins by abandoning the concept of religion. I suspect this category is also a Christian category. Perhaps this future begins when philosophy of religion shifts to philosophy of contraliteral symbolic practices. I mean those symbolic practices that are not obviously correlated with the actual world in ways that secure literal truth or utility. They do not gain truth by literal correspondence with the actual world; they do not gain utility by literal success in the actual world. Prayer and worship are symbolically contraliteral. Here are some other practices that are symbolically contraliteral: astrology, Tarot cards, witchcraft. And here are some practices that produce symbolically contraliteral results: Buddhist meditation, transcendental meditation, yoga, taking psychedelic drugs. If all these practices just amount to magic, then philosophy of religion might turn into philosophy of magic.
My historical and geographical situation compels me to interact with people who practice astrology and witchcraft, who believe in conspiracy theories, who deny basic science, who take psychedelic drugs, who participate in all sorts of contraliteral practices. Since I have to interact with these people right here right now, and not with people on the other side of the earth or buried in the dead sands of time, I want to understand what they are doing. I need to know what to say, as a philosopher, to the young atheist in my class who extolls the virtues of astrology, to my friend’s daughter who is deeply involved in witchcraft, and to my friends who do psychedelics. The fact that the claims associated with these practices are false or delusional when taken literally means that they do not in fact have literal truth-conditions. It does not mean that they are objectively meaningless or that they are merely psychological or sociological.
As a philosopher, I want to make sense of these contraliteral symbolic practices. It’s not good enough to have psychological or sociological accounts of these practices. If I learn that witchcraft is about producing the illusion of control, I have learned nothing about its meaning. I want to know the truth-conditions of spells and horoscopes and tarot card readings. Obviously, those truth-conditions are non-literal. Maybe they involve modal logics or paraconsistent logics. But I want to know what they mean. If I learn that psychedelics induce hallucinations by acting on serotonin receptors, I have learned nothing about the semantic content of those hallucinations. I want to understand the semantic content of psychedelic trips, the cannabis high, the meditative trance.
Since most of the people (at least in America) who do these practices have long since abandoned Christian theism, it makes little sense to try to understand these practices using theistic categories. The people who do these practices are mostly atheists. Or they are apatheists who just don’t care about theism. I am an atheist. This means that I am not a theist. It does not mean that I am a naturalist or a materialist or that I believe science has the answers to all questions. It means I reject theism. I’m happy to include all sorts of non-theistic things in my ontology. And so, for me at least, the future of philosophy of religion is atheistic. The future that I want to see for philosophy of religion will be highly local, focused on practices, and atheistic. But it’s not just me. Anybody can look at the surveys. This is the future that is coming into being.