Gregory W. Dawes – “The Future of Philosophy of Religion: From Practices to Beliefs”

Gregory W. Dawes is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Otago. 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 first post to this blog, Troy has remarked that the philosophy of religion, as currently practised, is ‘insular, narrow, and myopic’. I entirely agree. The one sign of hope is that an increasing number of authors are realising this and are trying to offer an alternative vision of the discipline. I have done this myself in a couple of short works, one entitled Religion, Philosophy and Knowledge, and the other Deprovincializing Science and Religion. So I welcome the publication of The Future of the Philosophy of Religion, which continues this discussion.

What I want to pick up here is just one idea from that volume. It is the idea that scholars of religion should focus less on beliefs and more on practices. As Kevin Schilbrack writes,

the philosophy of religion has traditionally had an intellectualist bias to the extent that the discipline has focused on religious truth claims and therefore engaged only with a relatively small fraction of what religious people do and care about.

That is true. What I want to argue, however, is that we are not forced to choose. It is not a matter of focusing either on religious beliefs or on religious practices, for we should not set the two in opposition. A few reflections on some recent theories of knowledge will show why.

The most promising work in cognitive science has abandoned what John Dewey called a ‘spectator theory of knowledge’, in which we are thought of as passive spectators, whose minds ‘mirror’ reality. It has proposed that we think of ourselves as creatures who use representations in a similar manner to the way in which we use tools, to enable successful interaction with our environment. Such a view is ‘enactivist’ in that it holds that all ways of knowing emerge from and reflect ways of acting.

Of particular importance here are the forms of activity characteristic of a species, which shape sense perception. Each species has what we might call a ‘sensory habitat’: the ways it is capable of perceiving its environment and the ways it is predisposed to do so. This is determined by its characteristic form of life, which is a product of its evolutionary history. Pigeons, for instance, have an experience of colour that is more complex than ours, since they are sensitive to ultraviolet light. This is plausibly understood as an adaptation to the needs of aerial navigation.

The sensory habitat is overlaid with further levels of significance, which are also activity related. Think, for instance, of James Gibson’s theory of ‘affordances’: the idea that we (and other animals) perceive our environment in terms of opportunities for action. The registering of affordances does not require concepts. (An organism can register a feature of its environment as a source of nourishment without any concept of nourishment.) Conceptual thought requires more complex forms of interaction with the world, which involve communication between subjects. It requires the collective, norm-governed forms of activity that we call ‘social practices’.

Each practice will have ways of representing both its own characteristic activities and its target domain: those features of the world with which practitioners are interacting. (Surgeons, for instance, do not represent the body in the same way as do painters. The way an architect represents a building will differ from the way an engineer does so.) The type of representation practitioners employ will depend on the goal of their practice, its history, and the nature of its target domain.

Of particular importance is the goal of a practice. Practices can have a variety of goals. They can have utilitarian goals, as in the case of the practice of building. They can have normative goals, seeking to guide action, as in the case of some religious rituals. Finally, practices can have cognitive goals, in the sense that their aim is the advancement of knowledge. The forms of representation employed by a practice will be shaped by its history. But they will also be shaped by the desire of practitioners to achieve their particular goals.

Religious practices are, of course, a variety of social practice. They are practices that employ ritual actions in an attempt to make contact with a hidden realm of metapersons and powers. Religious practices also have goals. A primary goal is that of bringing this-worldly and/or other-worldly benefits to practitioners, while some forms of religious practice have the further goal of shaping behaviour. The rituals by which religions pursue these goals are commonly associated with myths, narratives of origin that support the practices in question. In some religions – those that Alan Strathern has recently called ‘transcendentalist’ – these rituals and myths have become partially ‘theorized’. Such religions have bodies of doctrine and regard ‘belief’ as important.

Science offers us an example of a very different social practice. It, too, has the goal of bringing benefits to practitioners. It does so, however, not by means of myth and ritual, but by way of a more detached form of ‘theoretical’ knowing. Some forms of science (in a broad sense of the term) also have an action-guiding role. The cosmology developed in ancient China had as one of its goals the shaping of human behaviour. But the scientific practice that developed in the seventeenth century eschewed this goal. Introducing a split between ‘is’ and ‘ought’, it adopted ways of representing the world that made for the successful prediction and control of non-human phenomena.

The lesson is clear. If we want to understand the ways in which practices represent reality we need to understand their history and their goals. If we want to understand how religions represent the world – religious ‘beliefs’ if you like – we need to understand religious practices. So it is not the case that we must choose between studying beliefs and studying practices. Humans form beliefs in the course of interacting with their environment and the beliefs they form will be shaped by the kinds of interaction in which they are engaged. Appreciating this fact will allow us to develop an integrated philosophy of religion: one that brings together a study of religious practices with an understanding of the beliefs to which those practices give rise.

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