Stephen R. L. Clark is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at University of Liverpool. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
“Religion” names a collection of rituals, stories, idols and icons, hierarchies, texts, credal statements, and philosophies of a roughly familiar sort that are encountered almost everywhere within the human species (and perhaps in the past, in other hominin species). Dictionary definitions often identify “religion” with “a belief in supernatural entities,” but without any clear account either of “belief” or “supernatural.” The definitions owe more to modern, Western assumptions about “religion” than any detailed investigation: not all religious traditions distinguish “nature” and “supernature”; not all acknowledge or invoke – let alone worship – supposedly “supernatural” entities; very few, from a global perspective, make “belief” a central requirement of “religious” life. Anthropologists, most often, prefer to speak of “religious” practices as devices to strengthen social cohesion, especially by distinguishing one gender, caste, tribe, or nation from another. Psychologists may rather attend to divisions within a single person, marking off successive stages of life, potentially conflicting motives and ideals. A tribe’s mythology – which may or may not incorporate clear credal statements – puts that tribe’s motives, ideals, and problems on display.
So what role might suit “philosophy” in regard to such “religion”? Some religious forms allow a few people to speculate, more or less cogently and clearly, about the real nature of the world or our real duties in it. Some even make room for radical criticism of prevailing social norms, whether or not those critics actually opt out of the duties to which they were born: Socrates continued to serve as a soldier and a citizen within the city whose norms he questioned; Gautama left his family and palace behind to seek a cure for what was wrong with the world (but still took on a recognizable social role – the wandering ascetic). Must “philosophers” always speak and think from within the worlds and tribes where they were born and reared? Or may they, sometimes, opt to surrender citizenship in any existing tribe or class, and seek out a “truth” that is more than a social norm? “The philosopher,” said Wittgenstein, “is not a citizen of any community of ideas. That is what makes him into a philosopher.”1 And do the latter kind of “philosophers” reach anything like the same conclusions about life, the world, and everything? Or are they self-deceived about the manifold sources of their convictions?
What shall we seek to compare, if we hope to practice a “comparative” philosophy? On the one hand, anthropological and psychological enquiry can identify both amazing differences and amazing similarities between disparate tribes and ages. Human beings don’t all behave in exactly the same ways, or tell exactly the same stories – but we do all seem to appreciate song and dance and feasting, and all of us listen to stories, both to learn what is expected of us and to have shared plots and characters to gossip about. Maybe we invent spirits and gods and heroes precisely so that whole communities have characters and plots for gossip: soap operas, blockbusters, competitive sports, and even (nowadays) popularised scientific theories fill a similar set of needs. Philosophers may wonder whether these shared games and stories serve only to disguise a darker truth: that we are chance-bred hominins on an accidental rock, with no good reason either to know what is really happening, or to suppose we could. The thought may come especially to those who consider ancient or alien rituals, stories, and “sacred” texts or objects. If most of those stories are now considered fictions, and most of the supposed revelations mere delusions, why exactly are our own stories and easy rituals exempt? How can it be reasonable to think that we alone are happily born into a “religion,” a shared world-view (including in that category current popular Western dogmas2) which is, it happens, right? In Kipling’s words:
All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And everyone else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They!3
Or else, more optimistically, philosophers might wonder instead whether there might really be some way of identifying the truth in ancient, alien or modern ways of thinking and living.4 Is it enough to judge them by the standards that we happen to have ourselves, or should we at least consider whether there might be other standards at least as sound as ours, or whether there are shared truths, hidden beneath the outward dissimilarities? Is it so clear, for example, that a “belief in supernatural entities” is entirely alien to our own thought, even the most “modern” and “scientific”? Do we have sound reason to think that there is a “natural order” which is closed against intrusion? Do we have sound reason to know what counts as a “natural entity” at all? When we compare stories, rituals, hierarchies, and creeds, what motivates our own easy rejection of anything that disturbs our habits?
“Philosophers,” perhaps, have reason of some sort to suppose that there are ways of identifying errors, ways of securing some reliable conclusion, which transcend any particular inherited ways of thinking. Is that the power of abstract, “Cartesian,” reasoning? Or must it require a more empirical enquiry? In the words of Thomas Sprat, in his proleptic history of the Royal Society:
The poets of old to make all things look more venerable than they were devised a thousand false Chimaeras; on every Field, River, Grove and Cave they bestowed a Fantasm of their own making: With these they amazed the world. … And in the modern Ages these Fantastical Forms were reviv’d and possessed Christendom. … All which abuses if those acute Philosophers did not promote, yet they were never able to overcome; nay, not even so much as King Oberon and his invisible Army. But from the time in which the Real Philosophy has appear’d there is scarce any whisper remaining of such horrors. … The cours of things goes quietly along, in its own true channel of Natural Causes and Effects. For this we are beholden to Experiments; which though they have not yet completed the discovery of the true world, yet they have already vanquished those wild inhabitants of the false world, that us’d to astonish the minds of men.5
That “experimental philosophy” has since led in directions that Sprat would have found disturbing: standard axioms of common sense and Enlightenment metaphysics (objectivity, locality, uniformity) are themselves now contested in ways that are more astonishing than Oberon! The assumptions that lie behind the elevation of “experiment,” and the rejection of personal testimony, once noticed as the axioms of a very particular age and place, are no longer so compelling. What seems most rational is often only what is most familiar – and an honest comparison of creeds and intellectual explorations across the world still has power to unsettle those familiar themes.
“Comparative Philosophy of Religion,” in short, may sometimes be an excuse to criticise ancient and alien ideas and habits in the name of a supposedly higher and more realistic insight, a “Real Philosophy” into how things are and should be. But it may also be a humbler endeavour: an attempt to understand those ancient and alien ways, and join together in a continuing exploration of the human psyche and the world around us. Maybe our ancestors, and our present neighbours, are right after all to think that there are “supernatural powers”—though they wouldn’t call them “supernatural”—with a real influence on our thoughts and habits, as well as on the wider world we hope to imagine clearly. Maybe we are more than chance-bred hominins ourselves, and therefore do indeed have some possible way to discover the meaning of things: maybe, as most of our own philosophical ancestors suggested, there is after all some congruence between the powers of human reason and the world’s reason. We have room in our hearts and minds for a true vision of the universe because our spirit is a fragment of the divine, and there are other spirits around us. Conversely, if we have no such standing, and have only those powers that our sort of primates could have in a merely “naturalistic,” Darwinian universe, then we have little reason to suppose that any of our dreams and practices are more than currently convenient; and good reason (if any reason of ours is good) to suspect that ancient and alien ways, being ancient, are at least as good as ours.
1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel, edds., G.E.M. Anscombe & G.H. Von Wright (Oxford: Blackwell 1967).
2. Cf. Joseph Henrich, The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (London: Penguin, 2020).
3. Rudyard Kipling, Debits and Credits (Macmillan: London, 1926).
4. Cf. Marshall Sahlins, The New Science of the Enchanted Universe: An Anthropology of Most of Humanity (Princeton University Press: New Jersey), p.11: “It should be clear enough that, though I have not always succeeded, I try to explicate the cultures at issue by their own immanentist premises—what used to be known as ‘the natives’ point of view’ and sometimes now as ‘reverse anthropology’. I try to unfold the peoples’ cultural practices by means of their own onto-logics.”
5. Thomas Sprat, History of the Royal Society (New York: Elibron 2005 ), p.340.