Allen Stairs on “Comparative Philosophy Of Religion: It’s Not Just Academic”

Allen Stairs is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maryland, College Park. Though most of his research has been in philosophy of physics, he is the author, with Christopher Bernard of A Thinker’s Guide to the Philosophy of Religion. His current project explores issues that arise in connection with the idea of non-doxastic religious faith. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Like the Father’s house, philosophy has many rooms, including rooms within rooms. A philosopher of religion could honorably devote her career to exploring the Christian concept of incarnation entirely from within. But it would be astonishing if considering a range of religious traditions had nothing to contribute to the philosophy of religion. What follows isn’t written from the perspective of someone with deep knowledge of comparative religion. Rather, I want to highlight what I see as an urgent problem that could benefit from the insights that comparative philosophy of religion might bring.

Begin with a handful of features of religious traditions. The first is close to constitutive: religions are not just private. Someone might be committed to ideas and practices that they find compelling in the kind of way that a Christian or a Jew or a Sikh might see their own commitments. They might provide moral touchstones, ritual-like practices, not-merely-empirical views about the nature of reality, ways of seeing life as meaningful… But insofar as this bundle of ideas and attitudes is merely or nearly private, it would be odd to call it a religion.

Second, to adhere to a religion is typically to grant it a measure of authority. That one’s religion claims or denies or approves of or frowns on something tends to provide adherents with a reason to agree. If you see yourself as part of a religious tradition and you discover a difference between your own views and the views of the tradition, that will typically matter to you. The difference will go with giving a weight to your tradition that you wouldn’t give to another tradition — even if you can’t articulate an independent reason for treating your own tradition as authoritative. Religion isn’t unique in this respect. The customs of your country are more likely to matter to you than the customs of some other country. But in the religious case, the authority may be thought to flow from something more than worldly and beyond the reach of ordinary evidence and argument.

All of this is familiar but it also raises familiar problems. People have died because they run afoul of these kinds of commitments (apostates, heretics, “heathens”) or have accepted them at their peril (by refusing medical treatment, for example.) In other cases, people have been shunned, excluded, purged from their land, driven to despair.

Here it might be pointed out that what’s been described may take a particular form with religion, but the larger issue isn’t unique to religion. Political movements can embody the same sorts of dangers and the mechanisms are similar. Political movements may be underwritten by mythical understandings of the nation and exalted views of leaders. Religion is a source of identity, but so is political affiliation. Religious fervor can be stirred up and spread by charismatic leaders, but the same goes for political conviction. These similarities are real and important. It’s also clear that the two forces can combine in a powerful and often problematic symbiosis. But what does this have to do with comparative philosophy of religion? And why the emphasis on pathologies?

Start with the second question. For me, this issue is not just academic. I live in a country where religious and political pathology have formed a bond that ties my stomach in knots every single day. US culture wars might once have been background noise to politics as usual. These days, religious dogmatism is a key part of a political movement that continues to do real harm to real people. I do not hold the field of philosophy of religion responsible for any of this. Nonetheless, some of what philosophy of religion has produced in recent decades seems to me to push in the wrong direction, attempting to underwrite certainty where doubt is what seems apt. Yes: it’s possible to tell a kind of externalist story about knowledge on which firm believers know. And yes: by adding some astonishing epicycles, one can spin that story to account for the apparent benightedness of most of the rest of the religious world. Whether this is an accomplishment or an “accomplishment,” however, is another matter.

This brings into sharp relief one source of the value of comparative philosophy of religion. It’s possible to do serious comparative work in philosophy of religion and remain convinced that one’s own tradition is uniquely valuable and uniquely correct, but it’s not easy. That it’s not easy is a good thing all by itself. It is not a reason for abandoning one’s tradition, but it is a counter to the kinds of tendencies noted above. More to the point of why comparative philosophy of religion might matter, various traditions grapple with these issues in their own ways. This is among the things that comparative philosophy of religion can shed light on. Some traditions such as Sikhism and Baha’i are inherently more open to religious diversity. Within broad traditions such as Christianity there is more divergence. This is a reminder that comparative philosophy of religion would do well to include intra-religious as well as inter-religious comparison. The differences within parts of a tradition can be at least as striking as large-scale differences between traditions.

No one would think that philosophers can solve the practical problems described here, but comparative philosophy of religion can help provide useful intellectual tools and insights. Perhaps at least as important, if comparative philosophy of religion becomes a more central part of the discipline, it will make a difference to what students are exposed to and think about. This is a crucial way for philosophy to make a difference beyond the academy. The practical issues raised here are only one part of case for comparative philosophy of religion, but in these times, they may be at least as important as any others.

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