John Teehan on “Is There A Future For The Philosophy Of Religion?”

John Teehan is Professor of Religion at Hofstra 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.

The questions presented by Troy DuJardin as invitations for reflection on the future of the philosophy of religion are insightful and important. Before responding to this invitation, I should situate myself in relation to the subject: I would not identify myself as a philosopher of religion (certainly not primarily). I am a philosopher, with a background in psychology and a research agenda in cognitive science, who teaches courses in these areas, while being housed in a Religious Studies department. I do have a deep and abiding interest in religion, and, despite the interdisciplinary nature of my studies (or perhaps, because of it), I see my work as, ultimately, philosophy. In regard to religion, I seek to bring a philosophical critique to the various fields I incorporate into my study of religion (evolutionary anthropology, cognitive science, historical criticism), and I bring the insights from these fields to questions within philosophy, particularly the philosophy of religion (specifically, the justification of belief, and the problem of evil).

So, while I do not feel qualified to provide an assessment of the state of the philosophy of religion, nor to make any sweeping claims about its future, I believe I can speak about a possible trajectory within this field of study. In doing so, I am not setting up my own approach as a model for the future of the field, of course. Rather, I would like to discuss certain theoretical insights from cognitive and bio-cultural studies of religion that may offer one way forward for the philosophy of religion—one which has implications for some of the questions in DuJardin’s blog.

From a cognitive/bio-cultural perspective, “religious” beliefs, practices, ethical systems, communities, etc. arise from the same cognitive and cultural factors that give rise to “non-religious” beliefs, practices, ethical systems, communities, etc. This is consonant with a basic position within religious studies that the demarcation of “religious” and “secular” is historically situated, and biased toward modern, Western conceptions of religion. I do not believe this entails that no meaningful distinction can be drawn, and, indeed, there is a rich literature on this very question—a question that itself is primed for philosophical analysis. However, I don’t want to get into that discussion here. Rather, I would like to consider some implications of a cognitive approach for doing philosophy of religion:

The cognitive science of religion is grounded in an evolutionary understanding of the mind/brain. Cognitive systems were not shaped to discover some objective picture of reality—to find “the truth”—but rather to enable organisms, such as humans, to successfully navigate their way through uncertain and dynamic environments. The beliefs we come to accept are those that have successfully guided us through life’s challenges. A particularly crucial challenge, especially for our earliest ancestors, was avoiding or managing encounters with potentially dangerous and powerful beings. In some cases, we came to form beliefs about “natural” beings, such as tigers; in other cases, we formed beliefs about “supernatural” beings, such as gods.

The fact (if in fact this evolved-cognitive account is accurate) that belief in tigers and belief in gods are derived from the same cognitive strategies does not imply that these beliefs have the same epistemic value (they do not), but the truth-conditions of these beliefs is a separate question. It is a legitimate question, and one that will continue to be an entirely appropriate question for the philosophy of religion (more on this later), but it is not the only question to ask about religious beliefs, nor the most significant question.

As DuJardin points out, the philosophy of religion has been criticized for its “exaggerated focus on beliefs, to the exclusion of rigorous treatments of religious practices and communities, [which] has impoverished the philosophical conception of religion in general.” I believe this is a fair critique. The privileging of belief and the philosophical “bias” toward rationality has led, at least at times, to a superficial treatment of religion—by both its philosophical critics and apologists. An important lesson coming from cognitive science is that beliefs are held more because of what they do for a person or community than for the logical or empirical justification of those beliefs; and this is true of beliefs in general, not something unique to religious beliefs, or religious believers. Philosophers, as humans, are just as prone to all the cognitive biases that shape the belief systems of ostensibly irrational religious believers. Of course, it may be countered that one of the functions of philosophical training is to learn how to avoid cognitive biases, and this is true…up to a point. Such training bolsters a person’s defenses toward certain classes of unjustified belief and particular manifestations of certain cognitive biases, but it does not immunize the philosopher from the influence of all cognitive biases, nor protect them from error on all occasions of believing. It is in this sense that we can understand the charge that the privileging of rationality is a bias—it is. Rationality is just one mode of assessing beliefs. It is centrally, even essentially, important to philosophers, but it does not follow from this that it is somehow the only legitimate way to assess belief.

I would argue that taking this lesson to heart will be crucial to the future of the philosophy of religion. If it is going to be a field that matters to people (other than professional philosophers and theologians), if it is going to contribute to addressing real world problems, then it needs to move away from “the problems of philosophers” to the problems of people (to borrow from Dewey). It will need to work from a broader understanding of beliefs and the way they function in both religious and non-religious systems.

Now, this might seem like a concession to the critical theorists and post-modern critics of philosophy, one that abandons the core, even defining, commitment of philosophy to rationality. I disagree. In recognizing the limits of rationality, accepting that non-rational interests and desires play a role in our theoretical commitments, and admitting that even our most concerted efforts at developing logically rigorous systems of thought are not beyond the reach of cognitive biases, philosophy is not abandoning its commitment to rationality. It is instead being true to that commitment by following where the evidence and best arguments lead. Here, I have presented this understanding of belief as it is being developed by contemporary cognitive science, but philosophers are sure to recognize that this approach has its roots in philosophy, particularly in the philosophical schools of pragmatism and phenomenology. It is significant and, I think, really interesting, to note that the most cutting-edge developments in cognitive science, e.g. 4E cognition (that cognition is embodied, embedded, enactive, and extended) are developments of ideas originated by thinkers in these two traditions, most particularly John Dewey and Maurice Merleau-Ponty—and this is being increasingly recognized in the literature.

This development in cognitive science is relevant to the question of overcoming the analytic-continental divide in philosophy. What we can see happening in the philosophy of mind/philosophy of cognitive science is a synthesizing of American pragmatism and continental phenomenology, and this synthesis may fruitfully be extended to the philosophy of religion. However, if this is to contribute to the future of philosophy of religion, where does that leave analytic philosophy, with its “bias” for rationality and its focus on the problems of philosophers and theologians? I believe it leaves analytic philosophy with an important role to continue playing. The focus on beliefs and the assessment of truth claims and rational justifiability—the “meat and potatoes” of the analytic philosophical approach—remains a crucial contribution that philosophy is uniquely qualified to make. However, in the future I am envisioning for the field, this will not be the sole or even defining role of philosophy. And furthermore, while it may be true for many believers that the rational justification of religious beliefs and the truth conditions of those beliefs are not of primary concern, it is an important concern for many others, and not just professional philosophers of religion and theologians. Moreover, religious beliefs are often publically presented as deserving of privileging and protecting because they are held as true. If truth claims are being made about religion in the public square, then there needs to be a critical assessment of those claims available in the public square—and this is a service that philosophers of religion are well suited to provide.

In these fractious times, we desperately need to be able to have a nuanced, critical, public discussion of religion, but for philosophers of religion to contribute to this socially vital need (and they have much to offer), they will need to bring a more nuanced understanding of religion to their analyses. This means moving past a singular focus on beliefs and truth conditions (but not neglecting this focus). Let me conclude by briefly introducing a possible model for philosophers of religion, coming from religious studies.

Rather than treat religion as a distinct category of belief systems, it has long been suggested that we view religion as a subset of the larger category of Worldviews. Religion scholar Ninian Smart1 made an influential case that this is the appropriate model for the academic study of religion, as distinct from theological studies. Recently, religion scholars Ann Taves and Egil Asprem2 have gone further and proposed the study of religion be subsumed within Scientific Worldview Studies. Their arguments for this (which I endorse) are grounded in cognitive scientific studies of beliefs and their role in the human project of making sense of their world. We cannot go into the details of their argument here, but it is worth looking at just what is meant by “worldview.” They write:

We define worldviews in terms of big questions, such as (1) ontology (what exists, what is real), (2) epistemology (how do we know what is true), (3) axiology (what is the good that we should strive for), (4) praxeology (what actions should we take), (5) cosmology (where do we come from and where are we going). (2019, 301).

Worldviews comprise answers to these questions, or at least set out a context for addressing them. Research indicates that worldviews function as buffers against existential anxiety, provide a sense of identity, and a framework for how to live a life that matters. As such, the answers to these questions are not simply intellectual positions, but emotionally and morally significant beliefs.

I believe this proposal for the future of religious studies can also serve as a proposal for the future of the philosophy of religion. These “big questions” are, obviously, main branches of philosophy, and a philosophical analysis of these issues will certainly contribute to a Scientific Worldview Studies project. Specific to the philosophy of religion, there is a message here: while these “big questions” may be treated by distinct branches of philosophy, they are not distinct concerns for individuals. What comes to be accepted as an answer to one of these questions will not depend simply on logical and/or empirical evidence, but more so on how that answer fits within the larger set of answers that constitutes an individual’s worldview. This suggests that the philosophy of religion needs to be not only interdisciplinary (incorporating, e.g., the findings of cognitive science) but also a discipline that synthesizes multiple branches of philosophy in its attempt to make sense of religion and religious beliefs. There are already efforts along such lines (see Wildman, 20103; De Cruz and Nichols, 20164) —so this is not a proposal for reinventing the field, but rather for developing and expanding this trend.

1. Smart, N. 1983. Worldview: Crosscultural Explorations of Human Beliefs. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2000.

2. Taves, A., Asprem. E. 2019. Scientific Worldview Studies: A programmatic proposal. Evolution, Cognition, and the History of Religion: A New Synthesis, ed. Petersen, A.K., Gilhus, I.S., Martin, L.H., Jensen, J.S., Sorensen, J. Brill, 297-308.

3. Wildman, W. 2010. Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future for the Philosophy of Religion. SUNY Press.

4. De Cruz, H., Nichols, R. 2016. Advances in Religion, Cognitive Science, and Experimental Philosophy. Bloomsbury.

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