Graham Oppy on “Is There A Future For The Philosophy of Religion?”

Graham Oppy is Professor of Philosophy at Monash 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.

As long as there are both philosophy and religion, there will be philosophy of religion. If there is religion, there will be questions about religion for which there is no expert consensus on either answers or methods to be used in seeking answers. If there is philosophy, there will be discussion of questions of that kind. Discussion of questions of that kind falls squarely in the domain of philosophy of religion.

Some seem to worry that there is no such thing as religion. If they are right, then philosophy of religion does not have a present, let alone a future. I think that this worry is best understood as a complaint against taking particular categories—gods, afterlives, faith, belief—to be essential or pivotal in adequate characterisations of religion. There is justice in this complaint. There are religions that have no truck with gods and afterlives; there are religions in which faith and belief are comparatively unimportant. Moreover, insisting that these particular categories are essential or pivotal in adequate characterisations of religion skews discussion in philosophy of religion. But there is nothing here that would ground error theory about religion; rather, what seems required is better understanding of what is essential or pivotal to religion.

Some think there should be no such thing as religion. It might be thought that, if they are right, then philosophy of religion should not have a future. However, even if you are sympathetic to the thought that there should be no such thing as religion, you should recognise that, as things stand, that opinion is one that falls squarely within philosophy of religion. Moreover, even if there is a future in which there is no such thing as religion, it will always be true that there was such a thing as religion. But why think that, in such a future, there will be expert consensus on methods and answers for all questions that one might ask about religion? It seems to me that there having been religion is plausibly sufficient to justify future philosophy of religion whether or not religion survives into that future.

If what I have said so far is correct, it seems reasonable to conjecture that apparent anxieties about future philosophy of religion are really anxieties about present—and perhaps also past—philosophy of religion. That there will be a future for philosophy of religion does not guarantee that philosophy of religion will be done well in the future. Even if philosophy of religion were done well now, that would be no guarantee that philosophy of religion will be done well in the future. Even if we could obtain consensus now about how philosophy of religion ought to be done, that would be no guarantee that, in the future, philosophy of religion will be done as it ought to be done.

Whether you have anxieties about the present state of philosophy of religion—and, if so, what is the content of those anxieties—depends upon the details of your worldview, including such things as your philosophical orientation, your political orientation, and your religious orientation. If there is a dominant stereotype for contemporary philosophy of religion, it is of analytic philosophers who are culturally, politically and religiously conservative Christians. Different anxieties about the present state of philosophy of religion speak to different aspects of this stereotype. Among the concerns of those who think that philosophy of religion should have a more global perspective are concerns about what is taken to be the excessive focus on Christianity in philosophy of religion. Among the concerns of those who think that philosophy of religion should have a greater engagement with critical theory are concerns about what is taken to be the over-representation of culturally and politically conservative viewpoints—stereotypically, male and white—in philosophy of religion. Among the concerns of those who think that philosophy of religion should pay more attention to the historical conditions that frame the present and to the lived realities and practices of religious adherents are concerns about what is taken to be an over-representation of analytic philosophers—stereotypically, male and white—in philosophy of religion.

Some anxieties about the present state of philosophy of religion arguably transcend differences in worldview. In particular, the thought that philosophy of religion should be integrated into broader multidisciplinary inquiry seems to me to have wide contemporary resonance. While no one can be an expert on all historical, anthropological, political, sociological, psychological, neurological, and cognitive scientific research into religion, there is good reason for anyone working in philosophy of religion to be interested in the best research being done in all of these areas. Just as it is now unthinkable that one might work on the philosophy of a particular science while not knowing anything about contemporary research in that science, it should now be unthinkable that one might work on the philosophy of religion while not knowing anything about contemporary research on religion in all of the disciplines that conduct research on religion.

Anxiety about the role that philosophy of religion might have in solving real-world problems also seems to me to have a different kind of standing. Given my conception of philosophy, I expect that very few philosophers will actually make direct contributions to solving real-world problems. In particular, then, I expect that very few philosophers of religion will actually make direct contributions to solving real-world problems. Of course, not all philosophers share my conception of philosophy. But philosophers who do take themselves to be working directly on real-world problems disagree among themselves about what counts as a real-world problem: it is no secret that socially and politically conservative Christians have distinctive views about what count as the most pressing real-world problems that we face.

If pressed to choose, I think I want to say that my biggest anxieties about the future of philosophy of religion are concerns about institutional corruption. Templeton and Ramsay dollars are reshaping philosophy of religion in universities in the US and Australia. Even if you happen to approve of the direction that this reshaping is currently taking, I think you should be worried about where this corruption of institutions may lead. It is disquieting to imagine a future in which a handful of oligarchs have the largest say in the nature and direction of our discipline, no matter what that nature and direction turn out to be.

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