Steven M. Cahn – Teaching Philosophy of Religion

Steven M. Cahn is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the City University of New York Graduate Center. Among his many books, he is the author of Religion Within Reason (Columbia University Press) and the editor of Exploring Philosophy of Religion, Second Edition (Oxford University Press). We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Many students first study philosophy of religion as a topic in an introductory problems of philosophy course. The routine is to present and assess the three traditional arguments for the existence of God. Then the focus shifts to the problem of evil, after which the unit on philosophy of religion ends.

I want to suggest that such discussion usually takes place within a set of misleading assumptions shared by students and faculty. One of these assumptions is that if monotheism were disproved, then religious commitment would have been shown to be unreasonable. Even a brief look at comparative philosophy of religion, however, would alert all to the possibility of naturalistic religions. These include Jainism, Theravada Buddhism, Mimamsa and Samkhya Hinduism, as well as Reconstructionist Judaism and “Death of God” Christianity.

Here, for example, is the naturalism expressed by Xunzi, or Master Xun, a Confucian scholar of the third century B.C.E.:

You pray for rain and it rains. Why? For no particular reason, I say. It is just as though you had not prayed for rain and it rained anyway. The sun and moon undergo an eclipse and you try to save them; a drought occurs and you pray for rain; you consult the arts of divination before making a decision on some important matter. But it is not as though you could hope to accomplish anything by such ceremonies. They are done merely for ornament. Hence the gentleman regards them as ornaments, but the common people regard them as supernatural. He who considers them ornaments is fortunate; he who considers them supernatural is unfortunate.1

And here are a few passages from Mahāpurāna, a lengthy poem in Sanskrit, composed by the ninth century Jain teacher Jinasena:

Some foolish men declare that Creator made the world.
The doctrine that the world was created is ill-advised, and should be rejected.

If God created the world, where was he before creation?
If you say he was transcendent then, and needed no support, where is he now?

No single being had the skill to make this world—
For how can an immaterial god create that which is material?2

And here is how Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881-1983), an opponent of supernaturalism, responds to a skeptic who asks why, if the Bible is not taken literally, Jews should nevertheless observe the Sabbath:

We observe the seventh day Sabbath not so much because of the account of its origin in Genesis, as because of the role it has come to play in the spiritual life of our People and of mankind….The Sabbath day sanctifies our life by what it contributes to making us truly human and helping us to transcend those instincts and passions that are part of our heritage from the sub-human.3

Such naturalistic options are philosophically respectable. Whether to choose any is for each person to decide, but without study of comparative philosophy of religion they are not apt to be considered.

Teachers and students should also recognize that accepting monotheism does not imply religious commitment. Even if someone believes that a proof for monotheism is sound, the question remains whether to join a religion and, if so, which one. Comparative philosophy of religion emphasizes how wide a choice is available.

Yet another misleading assumption is implicit in the usual definitions of key terms: a theist believes in God, an atheist disbelieves in God, and an agnostic neither believes nor disbelieves in God. Notice that the only hypothesis being considered is monotheism; no other supernatural alternatives are taken seriously. But why not? Comparative philosophy of religion highlights that question.

Suppose, for example, that the world is the scene of a struggle between God and the Demon. Both are powerful, but neither is omnipotent. When events go well, God is in the ascendant; when events go badly the Demon’s malevolence is ascendant. Such is the dualist theology of Zoroastrianism and Manicheism, traditions discussed in comparative philosophy of religion, where Greek and Roman polytheism are also given consideration. Note that such alternatives have the advantage of avoiding the problem of evil that besets monotheism.

In sum, I would suggest that faculty members and students studying philosophy of religion should remember the following four essential points: (1) Belief in monotheism is not necessary for religious commitment; (2) Belief in monotheism is not sufficient for religious commitment; (3) Monotheism is not the only supernatural hypothesis worth serious discussion; (4) A successful defense of monotheism requires not only that it be more plausible than atheism or agnosticism but that it be more plausible than all other supernatural alternatives.

Interestingly, each of these essential claims is more likely to be overlooked if philosophy of religion is studied without any input from comparative philosophy of religion. Thus, whenever an introductory philosophy course turns to issues in philosophy of religion, comparative philosophy of religion should be given attention.

1. Xunzi: Basic Writings, trans. Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 89-90.
2. Sources of Indian Tradition, Vol. I, general editor, Wm. Theodore de Bary and compilers A. I. Basham, R. N. Dandekar, Peter Hardy, V. Raghavan, and Royal Weiler (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), 76.
3. Mordecai M. Kaplan, Judaism Without Supernaturalism (New York: Reconstructionist Press, 1958), 115-116.

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