Robert C. Neville on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”


Robert C. Neville

Robert C. Neville is Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Theology at Boston University. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Philosophy of religion is best described paradigmatically as philosophy that has something interesting and important to say about religion insofar as it addresses religion. The modern Western instances of Hume, Kant, Hegel, and Whitehead, among others, are paradigmatic. In each case, the philosopher developed a somewhat comprehensive if not systematic philosophy addressing many topics and arising from many motives and out of that philosophy made important contributions to understanding religion. To this list of greats we can add Marx and Nietzsche, who had comprehensive philosophies with negative but influential things to say by way of understanding religion. A number of intellectual projects relative to or derivative from this paradigmatic sense of philosophy of religion also deserve the title and important places in the public conversation that constitutes living philosophy of religion today.

For instance, religion includes a number of first-order questions, such as the nature of the ultimate, the soul or self, and the meaning of life. Many, if not most, indeed if not all, great philosophers in the West, as well as in East Asia, South Asia, and Islamic traditions, have important things to say about these topics even if they do not say much about religion as such. Plato’s idea of the Good and Aristotle’s idea of Thought Thinking Itself have been extremely influential in religious thought in the West, with many analogies in other traditions. Philosophical reflection that examines these philosophers’ relevant ideas in the context of religion is an important part of philosophy of religion.

Another related philosophical project that can go by the name of philosophy of religion is the critical intellectual history of philosophy of religion in the previous two senses. Allied with this is the emphasis on criticism that treats religion and religious ideas in respect to what is illusory and what is authentic, although this criticism itself needs to be self-conscious of the larger comprehensive philosophy that would articulate and justify its norms and modes of analysis. Some postmodern philosophers would indulge in criticism of religion in this sense with explicit rejection of the need for grounding in a more comprehensive philosophy; the arbitrariness of this (in the name of local legitimacy) sets this approach at great distance from the paradigmatic philosophies of religion and so deserves the name in a much diminished sense, I would say. Something similar is to be said for the attempt of some analytical philosophers to use what they take to be the fairly neutral capacities of reason to analyze religious topics; they presuppose more comprehensive philosophical and religious commitments without a means to get there by the traditions of analytical thought themselves. This too I would say is philosophy of religion in a derivative sense distant from the paradigmatic cases.

What I’ve said so far about philosophy of religion must sound astonishingly naïve in light of the common critique of modern Western philosophy of religion as being religiously biased and in fact a form of apologetics for Christianity, or at least for theism. From an historical standpoint, that critique is generally right, although both Hegel and Whitehead gave serious consideration to Buddhism and other non-theistic religions. So let me re-approach the question of what philosophy of religion is by asking about some of its most important contemporary topics.

First, instead of being able to assume the sufficiency of a European cultural context, philosophy of religion today needs to be built upon a paideia of world cultures, stressful as that might be for our educational institutions. This means serious cross-cultural studies, including comparative philosophy, theology, and religion. One aspect of this is the philosophical consideration of the nature of cross-cultural comparison itself, an important philosophical topic. But my point here is that, in order to counter the charge of unconsciously biased Eurocentrism, philosophy of religion needs to build a sophisticated appreciation of world cultures into its reflections. At the present time, in the American Academy of Religion, “Comparative Theology” is a very hot topic that involves the acculturation from many perspectives of thinkers who can operate in an intellectual public of many religious cultures.

Second, contemporary philosophy of religion needs to access and internalize all the disciplines that have something interesting to say about religion, not just other philosophies of religion (although of course that history is important). What these disciplines are is itself an interesting question. But at least they include (1) the social sciences that have become associated with “religious studies,” (2) the theologies that come out of and often are intended to justify particular religious communities (and not just the theistic ones), (3) the arts that articulate and exhibit religions in their complexities, and (4) the “scientific study of religion” that nowadays includes cognitive science, evolutionary biology and related approaches. To be ignorant of any of these (and possibly many other approaches) is to be a sucker for reductionism.

Third, contemporary philosophy of religion needs to be able to define and reflect on the nature of religion based on what it learns from all the approaches mentioned. Each of those approaches has its own target definition of religion based on what it can study with its methods and imaginative habits and genres. But each therefore suffers from the “drunk and the lamppost” problem. When asked why he was crawling around on the ground under the lamppost, the drunk said he was looking for his keys; he didn’t drop them near here, he said, but this is where the light is. Each of those approaches has its own “light” and therefore sees only those elements of religion that fall under it, usually defining religion as whatever is in that light. The religious world depicted in The Brothers Karamazov or Moby Dick is a million miles away from that of cognitive scientists who think religion consists of belief in supernatural beings. One of the chief tasks for contemporary philosophy of religion is to understand not only what each of those approaches contributes to the understanding of religion but how each is also reductive. In order to articulate the various reductions, philosophy of religion needs a comprehensive, non-reductive, vulnerable-to-correction hypothesis about the nature of religion and its various cultural manifestations.

Fourth, therefore philosophy of religion in our time needs to address the systematizing work required to synthesize the various fruitful approaches to studying religion. This means, I am convinced, a return to the ideal of philosophy of religion as a comprehensive philosophy that has something interesting to say about religion. There is no way to develop an integrated understanding of all those approaches without a systematic epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics characteristic of the great paradigmatic philosophers of religion. Such systematic philosophy is unpopular these days, which perhaps explains part of why philosophy of religion is unpopular.

But there is no reason philosophy of religion cannot do for our time what Hume, Kant, Hegel, and Whitehead (and others) did for theirs, based now on being at home in many religious cultures, acquainted (as were those greats for their time) with all the major disciplinary approaches that now contribute to understanding religion, defining religion in terms of what we now take to be our best hypotheses, and integrating these elements so as to produce new and important philosophical perspectives on religion, including its first-order question. So I return to my no-longer-naïve first answer to the question of what philosophy of religion is: philosophy in a comprehensive sense has something important and interesting to say about religion, situating that philosophy in global religious cultures, learning from all the ways to understand religion, defining religion so as to embrace all those ways without reductionism, and making this systematic approach vulnerable to correction.

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