Adam Barkman is Chair of Philosophy at Redeemer College, Canada. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
The philosophy of religion is the project of thinking hard about key themes in “religion,” such as divine revelation, the soul and God. Fine; but who says this project can’t also do more? —The philosophy of religion textbook, written by profs like you and me? When I teach or talk on this subject, I’m always crossing the boundary into what some would like to restrict to theology and even science.
Hell is a theme that comes up a lot; not just is there a hell, but what are some views of it (different Christian views, different Islamic views, and so on). Heaven, too. What might it be like if it exists? I sometimes use imaginative philosophers, such as Plato, Dante, Milton or C. S. Lewis to get at this. Moreover, whereas in world religions (which I also teach) one might talk about different views of things without raising the question of truth between religious claims, in philosophy, truth is key. This makes the philosophy of religion a much more wild ride than any theology class, I can tell you!
Or again, in the philosophy of science (which I also teach) we talk about major themes ripe for philosophical inquiry—themes such as the cause of the universe, interpretative approaches to science, etc. But many of these themes are also tied up with religious issues. So, philosophy of religion can also deal with origins debates—not just what’s the best explanation for the cause of the universe, but, if a Deity is possible or likely, what He is like given the universe.
Finally, most philosophy of religion courses and textbooks are Theo-centric, restricting religious discussions to theism verses atheism (or agnosticism). I, too, usually give theism most of my time in these matters, but I do spend some classes discussing Buddhist, Hindu and even Shamanistic ways of looking at problems such as the soul. The point is—and philosophers should know this—we can and should think out of the box when we teach some of these courses. We can also adapt them to what students might be most interested—hence, I spend a class talking about angels/gods (what they might be like and what evidence we have for them), and I’ve even been known to discuss the evidence for and against Trinity.