Timothy J. Madigan on “Confucianism, Enlightenment, and the Comparative Study of Religion”

Timothy J. Madigan is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at St. John Fisher University in Rochester, New York and former President of the Bertrand Russell Society. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Tu Wei-ming is the foremost authority writing today on the relevance of Confucian ethics to the Western World. He has helped to revitalize an interest in this ancient worldview, and has offered it as an antidote to many of the excesses of the Enlightenment Project which has dominated Western thinking for centuries. Interestingly, the Enlightenment itself was greatly influenced in its early stages by the knowledge of Confucianism which early Western explorers in China sent back to a fascinated European audience.

Tu argues that the question of whether or not Confucianism is a religion remains a controversial topic among scholars. This problem of comparison was relevant to the earliest Western translators of Confucianist texts, the Catholic and Protestant missionaries in the 17th Century who first came into contact with this different approach. They were themselves uncertain as to how to categorize a belief system so different from their own. Yet they were also quick to make use of this newfound worldview in order to strengthen their own positions in the religious wars then raging throughout Europe.

These devout Christians sent reports back to the West about a non-Christian culture where people were civilized, lived in harmony, and were concerned with personal virtue and mutual support – all they lacked to be complete was the knowledge of the Christian God revealed in sacred scripture. The Chinese situation, they argued, was analogous to that of the virtuous pagans of Ancient Greece, such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, whose writings helped to support Christianity even though they themselves were unfamiliar with revealed truth. Yet there was one important difference with the Ancient virtuous pagans – the Chinese could be saved. In fact, some Jesuits, such as Father Louis le Comte, were censured for arguing that Confucius himself must have gone to heaven even without the knowledge of God to save him.1

Early Catholic and Protestant missionaries to China felt that the inhabitants of this land were ripe for conversion, since their beliefs – particularly those of Confucianism – were so close to Christianity to begin with. This view led to the conclusion that the Chinese were actually closer to God’s original message than were the Jews, who had fallen into corruption.

However, Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, Diderot, and D’Alembert were quick to draw a different conclusion from that of the Catholic and Protestant propagandists. One did not need to be a Christian in order to be moral. There was no point in converting a people who were already leading exemplary lives. Chinese philosophy in general, and Confucianism in particular, was often mentioned in the philosophes’ battles against orthodoxy and Christian dogma.

There was both a negative and a positive aspect to this new knowledge of Confucianism. Negatively, such knowledge at first contributed to the growth of extreme skepticism, already rampant in Europe, which held that all beliefs are merely matters of custom. Religion, then, is an arbitrary pattern of opinions without any real support. This view was produced in part by the religious warfare between Catholics and Protestants, and partly by the modernistic philosophy of Descartes, which called into question all knowledge not grounded in certainty.

Yet a positive aspect came to supersede this. Knowledge of Confucian teachings and their similarities to Christian teachings supported a view that all humans had essentially the same ethical perspectives, based upon the Golden Rule. The following passage from The Analects was often given to support this claim: “Tzu-kung asked, ‘Is there a single word which can be a guide to conduct throughout one’s life?’ The Master said, ‘It is perhaps the word shu. Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire” (Book XV-24).2

Pierre Bayle, the 17th century philosopher and skeptic, was one of the first to propose that a society of ethical atheists was possible. This, he felt, was instantiated by the Chinese. The Chinese were the best example of a people living good lives without reliance upon Gods or priests. In fact, Bayle went so far as to warn the Chinese emperor not to let Christian missionaries into his country. If their teachings did not convince, they would resort to violent means to persuade the Chinese. The consequences of this would be butchery and desolation.3

Bayle’s arguments led the way for similar such arguments from Enlightenment thinkers, who contrasted Chinese wisdom with Christian doctrinal differences. Voltaire, in his A Treatise on Toleration, has a section entitled “Account of a Controversial Dispute in China” which illustrates this Enlightenment view. A Danish missionary, a chaplain from Batavia, and a Jesuit get into a heated dispute which is overheard by a mandarin, who invites them inside in order to reconcile their differences.

“I don’t understand,” said the mandarin. “Are you not all three Christians? Have you not all three come to teach Christianity in our empire? Ought you not, therefore, to hold the same dogmas?”

“It is this way, my lord,” said the Jesuit; “these two are mortal enemies, and are both against me. Hence it is clear that they are both wrong, and I am right.”

“That is not quite clear,” said the mandarin; “strictly speaking, all three of you may be wrong.”

In the end they all spoke together and abused each other roundly. The good mandarin secured silence with great difficulty, and said: “If you want us to tolerate your thinking here, begin by being yourselves neither intolerant nor intolerable.”4

This humorous story is typical of that used by rationalists to point out the divisive nature of ethical teachings based upon scriptural interpretations. But not only deists and atheists used such arguments. Gottfried Leibniz, no skeptic himself, nonetheless wrote that the Chinese should send missionaries to civilize the Europeans. His follower Christian Wolff, a pious Christian, was deprived of his chair in philosophy in 1721 for arguing that Confucian ethics and Christian ethics were compatible.5

It is ironic, in regards to the comparative study of religion, that traditionalists like Wolff and the Jesuit fathers, and radicals like Bayle and Voltaire, for their own differing polemical reasons, all agreed upon the virtuous character of Confucianism, and the excellent morality and nonsupernatural aspects of Chinese religion overall.

The contemporary work of Tu Wei-ming is important in helping us to understand, as much as possible, how such Westernized views of Confucianism were often untrue to its historical reality. He also demonstrates how modern versions of Confucianism can be used as a critique of modern Western society. Yet he himself is still motivated by the quest for an ethics that can be the basis of harmonious relations between all humans. Tu writes:

It is intriguing that the search for cultural roots is so pervasive worldwide despite universalizing tendencies occasioned by industrialization, urbanization, bureaucratization, the development of science and technology, and the spread of mass communication. The assumption that modernity entails the passing of traditional society is no longer tenable in light of this dialectical interaction between global consciousness and local awareness.6

Such emphasis on cultural identity as a universal category, and the way in which the contemporary Confucian revival attempts to combine a search for cultural roots with a commitment to science, democracy, and economic development, is not necessarily opposed to the Enlightenment Project’s liberationist attitude. The hope for a global ethic for humanity remains a strong motivating factor, and respect for traditions does not necessarily mitigate against this. One can learn from these traditions and try to find common elements that can be stressed in order to facilitate a more harmonious exchange between peoples. A good beginning would be to re-explore in greater detail how Chinese thought has been interpreted in the West, and how this corresponded with actual teachings and practices, both past and present. How fitting it would be if Confucianism could once again influence the Enlightenment.


1. Arnold H. Rowbotham, “Jesuit Figurists and 18th Century Religion,” in Discovering China: European Interpretations in the Enlightenment, edited by Julia Ching and Willard G. Oxtoby (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1992), p. 44.

2. Confucius, The Analects, translated with an introduction by D. C. Lau (New York: Penguin Books, 1979),
p. 135.

3. Timothy J. Madigan, “The Comet Cometh: Pierre Bayle and Religious Toleration,” Philosophy Now, Issue
103, pp. 48-49.

4. Voltaire, “Account of a Controversial Dispute in China” in Voltaire Selections, edited by Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan, 1989), pp. 116-117.

5. Yuen-ting Lai, “Religious Scepticism and China” in The Sceptical Mode in Modern Philosophy, edited by Richard A. Watson and James E. Force (Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1988), p. 29.

6. Tu Wei-ming, The Search for Roots in Industrial East Asia: The Case of the Confucian Revival”, in Fundamentalisms Observed, edited by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991) p. 744.

Evan Fales on “Comparative Philosophy of Religion”

Evan Fales is Emeritus with the philosophy department at the University of Iowa, where he taught for 43 years. His work includes articles on various topics in Philosophy of Religion, and two books in the area, Divine Intervention: Metaphysical and Epistemological Problems (2015), and Reading Sacred Texts: Charity, Structure, Gospel (2021). We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

When I began the semester in my Philosophy of Religion course (I am now retired), I would read students part of the creation story of the Bushongo kingdom, an African tribal group:

“In the beginning, in the dark, there was nothing but water. And Bumba was alone.
One day Bumba was in terrible pain. He retched and vomited up the sun… The heat of the sun dried up the water until the black edges of world began to show… But there were no living things….
Still Bumba was in pain. He strained again and nine living creatures came forth: the leopard named Koy Bumba, and Pongo Bumba the crested eagle… and one little fish named Yo.”1 And so on…

To my students, this sounded pretty strange. A friend of mine, a distinguished philosopher of religion, observed that the myths of such peoples are full of all sorts of “fantastic, ridiculous stories, unlike the Bible.” Really? But the Bible has a talking snake in the Garden of Eden and a talking donkey that sees an angel with a flaming sword; a band of trumpeters, who play a Louis Armstrong number and the fortifications of a major city crumble; a god, Yahweh, who pranks Abraham with a demand that he kill his son, ambushes Moses et famille while en route to Egypt, holds an all-night wrestling match with Jacob at Peniel, and, for no apparent reason, interdicts Baalam en route on a divinely ordered mission to Balak, etc. Perhaps in our culture all this seems quite sober. (Though one expects that a sensible psychiatrist would judge Yahweh to be “not normal.”)

Religious stories are, then, often undeniably “weird.” Yet, charity and fairness surely recommend that we consider the authors of the Torah to be sane, sensible, and learned people. Should we, then, not judge the authors of Bumba Vomits the World similarly? Or are we to conclude that both works arise out of the fever-dreams of authors not well anchored in reality? Philosophers of religion are, by profession, committed to the task of evaluating the rationality of religious texts, traditions, beliefs, and practices. Doing so requires that we first be able to make sense of them. And that is not easy. Texts that hail from traditions that are culturally alien remind us of this – and my aim, of course, was to jog the complacency of my students. But our own complacencies – and I think we have some – may also be jogged.

It is one thing to engage in dialogue with thinkers who are rooted in other major religious worldviews with developed philosophical traditions that are academic, at least in the broad sense, and have had considerable contact with their Western counterparts. Such opportunities for engagement and exchange should by all means be sought out and pursued. It is quite another – to imagine the extreme case – to attempt to engage religious thinkers and practitioners from remote tribal societies who have little or no familiarity with Western thought and no academic institutions or cultural traditions that are recognizably analogous to our own.2 The consequence of the foreignness of their religious thought-world and social institutions has unsurprisingly led to a dismissal of the notion that they might have interesting reflections to contribute to our philosophical discourse. I think this is a mistake.

I have some general grounds for thinking this, and a couple of specific grounds. First, it is well understood that traditional tribal cultures, while they make distinctions between sacred and profane, recognize nothing much like our distinction between the religious and the secular – in particular, between “church” and “state.” This is reflected in the fact that there are complex relationships and isomorphisms between their religious ontologies and their social structures and institutions. As one example among myriad: the reincarnation in later generations of what corresponds roughly to our conception of souls of the dead tracks the generational transmission of social roles in contexts ranging from Australian Aborigine tribespeople to the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Moreover, there is considerable evidence that their social thinking, at least, can be quite sophisticated. What accounts for the isomorphisms?3

Second: Contemporary philosophy of religion concentrates a lot of attention on the existence and nature of God – e.g. Perfect Being theology – and to problems that arise from that kind of monotheism. But that, important as it is, represents a very narrow slice of the range of personae that populate religious narratives; besides one God or many, there are angelic beings, demons, demiurges, demigods, powers and spirits, all manner of mythical creatures with unusual powers, and so on. Quite aside from whether any of these exist, how are we to understand them and the roles they play in religious thinking? Why are they there? Anthropologists have long pursued such questions, but there is, in my opinion, a role here for philosophy, especially ontology and epistemology. Are these beings simply the progeny of an overheated imagination?

Third, the hermeneutic problems that beset efforts to interpret tribal religious beliefs and myths continue to raise challenges with respect to questions about how universal human thought processes are and how tightly they constrain imposition of a principle of interpretive charity upon cross-cultural comparisons of religious thinking. In short, I suggest that there may be much to be learned, not only by philosophical interaction with the religious traditions of post-industrial societies, but also, if possible, by discussions with anthropologists and native informants about the beliefs of simpler tribal cultures.

1. See Barbara C. Sproul (1979) Primal Myths: Creating the World. NY: Harper and Row, p. 44.

2. Of course, there are “hybrid” cases – and they are by now far more common than the “pure” cases of tribal cultures that have experienced little cultural impact from so-called civilized/industrial societies. It will be more realistic to look to them for interesting dialogue.

3. Emile Durkheim ((1915) The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Joseph Ward Swain, transl., Free Press) was among the first to reflect on the question. But he had little sophistication in matters of social ontology.

Raphael Lataster – “A Global (and Critical) Philosophy of Religion Reveals Theism is Untenable”

Raphael Lataster holds a PhD from the University of Sydney, and occasionally lectures there and at other institutions. His main academic research interests include misinformation, disinformation, and fake news, in Health, Media, and Religion. He enjoys discussing and considering different political and religious points of view. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.


With the developed world ever keen to ground its decisions in science and scientific reasoning, theism has come under the microscope, with sophisticated theologians using science to argue for its truth. Summarising my earlier work, I explain how the very science used to argue for theism’s truth, as well as the science left by the wayside, actually reveals theism to be extraordinarily improbable, particularly when the many alternatives to theism popular throughout the rest of the world are considered.


Most Anglophone scholarship on the divine concerns itself with God, the god of classical theism. A god that is all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing. A god that is the Creator of all else (with the Creation crucially arising out of nothing) and is apart from all else. A god that is free, perfect, necessary, and desirous of relationships with us.

The rise of science has for the most part worked against the belief in God. The more scientific and educated a society, generally the less the belief in God. Science, after all, tends to concern itself with the observable, and somehow God continues to be just out of reach, perceptible only to those who find him in the indirect: a prayer apparently answered, something going right for once, or a rustling in the leaves when a sign has been asked for. Nevertheless, sophisticated theologians have been using scientific evidence and approaches to argue for the existence of God. For example, Richard Swinburne endorses a scientific, Bayesian, approach to argue for God’s existence (Swinburne 2010), and William Lane Craig employs scientific evidence in syllogisms for public consumption (Craig 2008). Countering them are other philosophers arguing that God’s existence is very improbable, as the available evidence supports both naturalistic and even supernaturalistic alternatives (see Philipse 2012 and Lataster 2018). We will consider the atheological arguments such as the argument from evil, but first, a brief critique of the typical arguments utilised by theistic scholars to demonstrate the truth of God’s existence.

Arguments for God’s Existence

It is typical in the Analytic Philosophy of Religion, from the atheistic or naturalistic perspective, that arguments for theism are undermined, and naturalism is offered up as a superior hypothesis. I do work in this manner but also show that supernatural alternatives to theism, typically mainstream in the developing world, also are superior to theism, in regard to the evidences or arguments in question. Though it is not generally considered evidential, I shall start with the cosmological argument from contingency, for completeness. This argument begins from the assumption that the world exists and is contingent, continuing with the notion that there must be some necessary explanation for this, concluding that a necessary God provides that explanation. A typical naturalistic retort might be that it is inadequate to simply assume that the world is contingent; perhaps it is necessary, and thus requires no external explanation in the same way that God is supposedly God’s own explanation. From the perspective of an alternative supernaturalist, it is not at all obvious that the supposed necessary being behind the unnecessary world is God. It could just as easily be some other god or gods. Pantheism, for example, would appear to offer a necessary god, by definition, echoing certain theologians’ penchant for tautologies.

Moving on to evidential arguments—arguments that rely on scientific evidence—let us consider the kalām cosmological argument. This argument effectively says that since the world began to exist, its coming into existence must have been caused by something; something that itself is uncaused and beginningless in order to avoid an infinite regress; something assumed to be God. This argument assumes much that many scientists and philosophers would not be content to accept, but for brevity we shall place most focus on the premise that the world began to exist. Philosophical reasons for supposing that the universe began to exist have been offered and tend to rely on controversial and ultimately unknowable premises on infinity and/or tensed views of time. Interestingly, philosophers of time tend to favour tenseless models. More interesting to us, however, is the scientific evidence for supposing that the universe began to exist.

This is generally the evidence of the Big Bang Theory, which ostensibly provides the perfect mechanism for the universe popping into existence from nothingness, supporting not only a creationistic theism (see Genesis 1), but also the typically important creation ex nihilo. However, this ascribes far more to the currently available evidence than what is justified. The Big Bang Theory does not at all prove that the world came into existence, out of nothing. Instead, it suggests that roughly 14 billion years ago the singularity underwent a period of expansion. What the singularity is exactly, how ‘long’ it might have been ‘there’, whether the universe is part of a greater multiverse, or oscillates between expansion and contraction modes, or came from nothing or something else, is all unknown. As such, the argument simply does not work. Naturalism remains plausible. And, as will be the case with all these arguments, even if there was enough here to indeed point to a divine being, it needn’t be God, or even one god. The creator could just as easily be an evil god, for example, a god happy to fill the world with all sorts of inefficiencies and gratuitous sufferings, perhaps for its own sadistic entertainment, as will become relevant later.

Moving on, let us consider the argument from fine-tuning. It shall here be assumed that the world is indeed fine-tuned, that several universal constants are just such that it allows us to be alive. One minute change here or there and we simply could not exist. To the theistic proponent of this argument, this fine-tuning is by design, which means that there is a designer, namely, God. Unfortunately, naturalistic hypotheses are too hastily dismissed by the sophisticated theologians, such as that this is all due to chance, or that this is all necessary. The latter reminds us of the argument from contingency, where crucial premises are merely assumed. The former is undoubtedly plausible; no matter how extraordinarily implausible, anything even remotely possible is well, possible. And if we grant that there is some form of eternity, then even the most unlikely happenings should be happening, even an infinite number of times. And these hypotheses are brushed aside by proponents of this teleological argument without a smidgen of direct evidence for the design hypothesis. Furthermore, the hypothesised designer needn’t be God. It could even be a council of gods.

Less impressive than the cosmological or teleological arguments are the moral arguments, which tend to move from the assumption of objective morals, to the ultimate moral lawgiver, God. Again, these arguments make assumptions that not everybody accepts, certainly not the scientists of the world. For example, it is not universally accepted that objective morals exist. Incredibly, some attempts to demonstrate that they do exist rely on appeals to subjectivity. Furthermore, there is the assumption that the existence of objective morals would mean that there was a moral lawgiver. It is not at all obvious, as I pointed out in my monograph, that objective morals could not simply be a feature of the (possibly) necessary universe. Less relevant, but interesting for those concerned with Christianity and other theistic religions, is that the Abrahamic holy texts contain contradictory and awful (by today’s standards) moral values, teachings, and acts. For example, the Biblical book of Job has God’s loyal servant Job and his family torn apart and destroyed for the simple crime of Job being God’s loyal and faithful servant. More relevant is that, once again, the hypothesised lawgiver needn’t be God. An evil, or at least a morally indifferent, god would be a better fit for such nastiness.

Ontological arguments are a priori, but we shall discuss them briefly for completeness. They are crucially important to the case for God’s existence since the evidential arguments, insofar as they might work, do not actually demonstrate the existence of the omni-being known as God. At best they only inform us that a creator exists. A designer exists. A moral lawgiver exists. And so forth. They do not inform us that there is only one god; that all these roles are fulfilled by this one god; that this being is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent; or that this being is perfect or maximally great. The ontological arguments do just that. However, they are widely discredited as they are speculative and tautological, mere word games playing on notions of conceivability and possibility, without a shred of actual evidence that the being in question actually does exist. And again, this hypothesised maximal being needn’t be God. Indeed, in my earlier work I have argued that a pantheistic god would be a better candidate since surely the greater god is the one that is not bound by what it is not – on pantheism there is nothing that exists that is not part of the divine being.

There are also personal religious experience arguments. However, these arguments rely on positing far more than is necessary to explain occurrences that are just as easily (or better) explained by naturalistic – or even alternative supernaturalistic – causes. I have even argued earlier that the great diversity of such experiences would be more consistent with numerous gods, or one that isn’t so benevolent or powerful, than the all-powerful God of theism that wants us all to believe in him.

Related to these arguments are those revolving around miraculous claims, such as that Jesus was resurrected. As with the personal religious experience arguments, arguments from miracles also tend to revolve around phenomena that are just as easily (or better) explained by alternative – naturalistic and supernaturalistic – hypotheses. Regarding Jesus’ resurrection, mainstream scholarship already accepts that much of what is found in the Gospels is fictional. Some have even made serious academic attempts to show that it’s essentially all fictional, that Jesus may not even have existed as a historical person (see Lataster 2019). Miraculous claims are especially problematic in the sense that they are supposed to appear very improbable, and so demonstrating them as probable is pretty much impossible, by design. For example, consider the miraculous event involving Elijah and the priests of Baal. Elijah goes to such extreme lengths to rule out naturalistic hypotheses, such as having his offering drenched with water (1 Kings 18). Likewise, there is nothing impressive about Jesus walking on the ground. Walking on water, however, that’s a miracle (Mark 6:45-53). Why is the latter a miracle but the former is not? Because people don’t walk on water. It’s highly improbable, if not impossible. That’s the sort of thing that would have people thinking that a miracle has occurred, and have them ready to embrace whatever divine being was responsible.

Arguments against God’s Existence, and alternatives

Having briefly gone over the lack of scientific support for God’s existence, it is time to consider if the available evidence actually works against God’s existence. I believe so and shall start with a consideration of the argument from hiddenness. This argument, like all good evidential atheological arguments, relies on some evidence, some observation, some morsel of information that doesn’t quite make sense if God exists, but makes perfect (or simply more) sense if God doesn’t. And that includes naturalistic and supernaturalistic alternatives. The evidence in this case is the existence of non-believers, such as myself. It’s a curious thing, given that the god of theism allegedly revealed/reveals himself to humanity, and wants a relationship with all of us, and in most theistic religions, wants to save us, usually from ourselves and/or the devil. If God is all-knowing, he knows that non-believers exist. If God is all-good, he’d realise that it’s better for us all to know he exists and would do everything in his power to make it so. But God is all-powerful, meaning that God could easily ensure the ultimate outcome, and yet it is not so. And that’s weird. Not impossible. Not entirely inexcusable. But weird, odd, strange. In the language of science and mathematics, it is improbable. Excuses involving appeals to free will and the like do not help, as it is still strange, hence the very need for excuses. It is not strange on naturalism, however.

If naturalism were true, the lack of belief in God is not at all strange. It would be 100% expected. Nor would it be strange that there is some belief in God. After all, different people have different genes, different experiences, different opinions, and come up with different solutions to the problems they face. So, if naturalism were true, we would expect to see some belief and some non-belief. And that is exactly what we see. This means that this scientific evidence amounts to a probabilistic point against theism. It isn’t necessarily a probabilistic point for naturalism, however (except in the relative sense). For if deism were true, the divine hypothesis involving a God-like god that isn’t keen on revelations, we would also expect to see the observed bricolage of non-belief and belief of many stripes. On theism, it is strange, it is less probable that we would observe unbelief (and incredibly diverse belief) in the world. On naturalism and other alternatives like deism it is perfectly expected, it is thus more probable that we would observe unbelief (and diverse belief) in the world.

(To clarify, we have here focused on ‘positive evidence’, namely the unbelief found in the world. But we could just as easily refer to ‘negative evidence’, the lack of direct evidence for God’s existence. It is often assumed that a lack of evidence is not evidence of a lack, but in regard to epistemic probabilistic reasoning, it certainly can be. For example, on the hypothesis that a nuclear explosion occurred in my office 5 minutes ago, we would expect to see debris and gore everywhere, as well as altered radiation levels. Instead, we see that my office is as ordered as ever, if a little messy. No unexplained gore or radiation to be found here, apart from a colleague’s accusation that I absolutely murdered my lamb vindaloo, for which I am now paying the price – as are my colleagues. Hence, I am in possession of good evidence that a nuclear explosion did not occur in my office 5 minutes ago.)

Similar things can be said about the apparent lack of efficiency—dare I say ‘poor design’—we observe in the universe. For example, whales have finger bones. Giraffes have excessively long laryngeal nerves. Humans suffer from all manner of back and teeth problems, with males having nipples, presumably for all the breastfeeding they don’t do. Additionally, the universe is extraordinarily vast and old, quite unnecessary if the ultimate purpose of its existence is for humans to make a choice between God and not-God. The latter is so obvious, famed theistic philosopher William Lane Craig has admitted, “just as the smallness of the universe supports theism, so also the vastness of the universe supports atheism… the vastness of the universe increases the probability of atheism… the vastness of the cosmos does count against theism” (Craig 2015). On naturalism, inefficiency and seemingly bad design would not at all be surprising. Similarly, supernaturalistic hypotheses entailing the existence of less than perfect gods would better explain such phenomena than classical theism with its perfect God. We could go on, but we shall finally shift the focus to the problem of evil.

The basic idea behind the problem of evil is that it appears problematic that God exists while evil also exists. Or to be precise, not necessarily ‘evil’, whatever that actually is (and far be it for me, a disbeliever in objective morality, to do so), but apparently gratuitous suffering exists. For example, toddlers who are injured and die young, animals being ripped apart by other animals unbeknownst to us, entire species becoming extinct, and so forth. We shall overlook the logical argument from evil, as it is always possible that God does have some good but unknown reason for allowing such. We instead focus on the evidential argument from evil, which is far more powerful, and is also more appropriate given the themes of this special issue. This evidence of gratuitous suffering is at least a little surprising if God exists. After all, God would have the knowledge that it exists, wouldn’t want it to exist, and would have the power to end it at once. Yet here we are, surrounded by evils, by gratuitous sufferings.

This is a probabilistic problem for theism because it is at least a little bit surprising. However, this is not at all a problem for naturalism. Naturalism lacks an all-knowing, all-good, and all-powerful god, so seeing some mixture of good, non-gratuitous evil, and gratuitous evil is perfectly expected. That means that this is a probabilistic point against theism, and for naturalism, in a relative sense. But it is not only naturalism that has theism beat on this front. Alternative supernaturalisms, entailing that the divine being (or beings) is a little good, or a little evil, or morally indifferent, or all-good but not as savvy or powerful, and so forth, better fit the evidence of gratuitous suffering. It is surprising that gratuitous suffering exists not because there is apparently a god that exists, but because that god is supposed to be omnibenevolent, as well as omniscient and omnipotent. So, there are both naturalisms and supernaturalisms that better fit the available scientific evidence than classical theism does. The problem of evil, in its evidential form, is a serious problem for theism, though not so much for certain alternatives.


The typical and historical arguments for God’s existence are not good arguments. The scientific evidence employed in these arguments does not support the arguments’ conclusions that God’s existence is probable. In fact, this evidence, along with other evidences, fits just as well or better on both naturalistic and supernaturalistic alternatives to classical theism. The evidences behind arguments against God’s existence, however, were found to successfully lower the probability of God’s existence. For example, the evidences of non-belief and inefficient design are at least somewhat surprising (if not nearly impossible) on theism, but perfectly expected on alternatives like naturalism, deism, etc. Likewise, the problem of evil. The presence of gratuitous suffering in the world is at least a little surprising on classical theism. It is perfectly expected, however, on various naturalisms and alternative supernaturalisms, particularly those involving a sub-maximal god or gods.

The currently available scientific evidence clearly supports naturalistic, and even supernaturalistic, alternatives to classical theism, at least in the relative sense.


Craig, WL. 2008. Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
Craig, WL. 2015. Does the Vastness of the Universe Support Naturalism? http://www.reasonablefaith.org/does-the-vastness-of-the-universe-support-naturalism. Accessed 17/01/2023.
Lataster, R. 2018. The Case Against Theism. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.
Lataster, R. 2019. Questioning the Historicity of Jesus. Leiden: Brill.
Philipse, H. 2012. God in the Age of Science? Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Swinburne, R. 2010. Is There a God?, Revised ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Young S. Lee “On Human Freedom: A Comparative Study Between Spinoza and Zhuang-zi”

Young S. Lee studied philosophy at Temple University and taught at Eastern Illinois University. We invited her to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

For both Spinoza and Zhuang-zi, the goal of life is attaining freedom, namely, human freedom. What do they mean by “human freedom”? What are the necessary conditions for humans to attain freedom?

Seeking for answers to these questions, I’ve noted that Spinoza and Zhuang-zi suggest remarkably similar answers to these questions. I will discuss them and show how in this paper.

1.1. Spinoza is a determinist. As determinist, Spinoza believes that “All things are determined from the necessity of the divine nature to exist and act in a certain manner (E1P29).”1 God also follows the necessity of his own nature.2

Accordingly, when we discuss Spinoza’s conception of freedom, the first thing we have to keep in mind is that his conception of freedom is within the bound of determinism.

Spinoza defines freedom as follows: “That thing is said to be free which exists solely from the necessity of its own nature, and is determined to action by itself alone. A thing is said to be necessary or rather, constrained, if it is determined by another thing to exist and to act in a definite and determinate way (E1D7).” In other words, one is, according to Spinoza, free if and only if his existence is self-caused and his actions are self-determined. But it is God alone who satisfies both conditions: namely, God alone exists from the necessity alone of his own nature, and acts from the necessity alone of his own nature (E1P17Cor2). No finite being in nature is free in this sense. Humans are not free in this sense: humans are not self-caused but caused to exist by other humans. That is to say, humans do not meet the first condition of Spinoza’s definition of freedom.

Spinoza certainly believes, however, that humans can attain freedom as is clear from his Ethics. It is the freedom which satisfies the second condition, i.e., self-determination, only.

As stated above, Spinoza believes that nothing happens in nature that does not follow from the necessity of the divine nature. We humans’ actions and strivings must also follow from the necessity of the divine nature. And, according to Spinoza, there are two ways in which our actions or strivings follow from the necessity of the divine nature: “All our striving, or desire, follow from the necessity of our nature in such a way that they can be understood either through it alone, as through their proximate cause, or insofar as we are a part of nature, which cannot be conceived adequately through itself without other individuals” (E2App1). The former is the case of self-determination. In other words, one is free when he is the adequate cause of his action. One is not free when he is an inadequate or only partial cause of his action.3

In brief, we humans are free, according to Spinoza, when our actions are completely self-determined.

1.2. In the first chapter of Zhuang-zi, Zhuang-zi suggests through a story of a huge bird P’eng that there is a life which goes far beyond the ordinary people’s imagination. It is a life soaring far above the restricted viewpoint of the worldly. Zhuang-zi starts with the life of Sung Jung as an example. Sung Jung was free from all ordinary ambitions. He escaped the fixed routes to worldly success and fame, and was free from praise and blame, honor and disgrace. According to Zhuang-zi, however, Sung Jung was still too concerned about the world to be free because he could not forget the hope of bringing blessings to the world. What about the life of Lieh-zi, then? We are told that Lieh-zi could journey with the winds for his chariot and did not come back for fifteen days. According to Zhuang-zi, however, Lieh-zi’s life is not a life of absolute freedom either. Even if he did save himself the trouble of going on foot, Lieh-zi still depended on the winds to carry his weight. Zhuang-zi suggests here that the life of absolute freedom must not depend on any things. That is to say, human freedom is defined, according to Zhuang-zi, as the state in which one is completely free from depending on any things.

As for the man who rides a true course between heaven and earth, with the changes of the Six Energies for his chariot, to travel into the infinite, is there anything that he depends on?4

How is it possible that humans are completely free from depending on things? In the above quote, Zhuang-zi suggests that one does not need to depend on any things if he rides a true course between heaven and earth. By “a true course between heaven and earth,” Zhuang-zi certainly alludes to the Dao. Zhuang-zi makes a distinction between the Dao and things. The life of human freedom is the life of following the Dao alone without depending on any things. Zhuang-zi explained the Dao‘s relationship to things as “that which makes things become things (物物者)”.5 In other words, the Dao, as the source of all things, is not bound by any things but goes beyond all things. Therefore, if and only if he is united with the Dao and rides the Dao, one can become free from depending on things and achieve human freedom.

1.3. In short, both Spinoza and Zhuang-zi understand human freedom as a form of complete independence from externals. In Spinoza’s case, it is self-determination, and in Zhuang-zi’s case, it is independence from things and union with the Dao.

2. What are the necessary conditions for humans to attain freedom, then? Namely, what are the necessary conditions for Spinoza’s self-determination and Zhuang-zi’s union with the Dao? I will consider them now.

2.1. According to Spinoza, one’s desires and actions can be understood through his nature alone (namely, self-determination) when they are related to the mind insofar as it is conceived to consist of adequate ideas:

The Desires which follow from our nature in such a way that they can be understood through it alone are those that are related to the Mind insofar as it is conceived to consist of adequate ideas. The remaining Desires are not related to the Mind except insofar as it conceives things inadequately, and their force and growth must be defined not by human power, but by the power of things that are outside us. The former is rightly called actions, while the latter are rightly called Passions (E4App2).

That is to say, Spinoza understands self-determination and, accordingly, human freedom in terms of the state of the mind: whether the mind consists of adequate ideas or not.

But, why? Why can humans not be free unless our mind consists of adequate ideas? In order to understand this, we must examine Spinoza’s theory of adequate ideas in more detail.

When is it the case that our mind consists of adequate ideas, according to Spinoza? Or, alternatively, when do we cognize things adequately? Spinoza explains adequate cognition genetically in terms of its causes: namely, we can cognize things adequately if and only if we cognize them through their adequate cause. God is, according to Spinoza, ultimately the adequate cause of all things, because God is the only substance and all things are just modes of God. To cognize things adequately is, therefore, to cognize them through God.

Since God’s cognition is always true (E2P32), it follows that in so far as our mind cognizes things through God, that cognition must also be necessarily true. In other words, it is when our mind is united with God’s intellect that our mind consists of adequate ideas.

Now, according to Spinoza, our mind is constituted by two dimensions:
temporal and eternal (E5P29Sch). Our mind participates in the eternal dimension only when the mind sees things through God, because eternity is the very essence of God.6 That is to say, to have adequate ideas of things is to cognize them through their adequate cause, i.e., God; and to cognize things through God is to conceive things under a form of eternity. We can say therefore that we humans are free when our mind takes part in the eternal dimension and conceive things under a form of eternity.

2.2. I will consider how one can be united with the Dao now. Let me start with the question why one fails to do so. One fails to be united with the Dao because he is so muddled in the heart/mind which is, according to the ancient Chinese, the organ of thought and cognition. Zhuang-zi uses the word, the “completed heart/mind (ch’eng hsin),” in order to describe it. Namely, the completed heart/mind is the heart/mind which is too crammed with preconceptions and prejudices to have any room left for the Dao. With this state of the heart/mind, one distinguishes alternatives, divides likes and dislikes, debates on right and wrong. Naturally the continuous disputes never cease.

Zhuang-zi emphasizes therefore that if one seriously wants to seek for freedom, he should not take the completed heart/mind as his authority.7 The completed heart/mind clouds the illuminating light of the Dao and makes him entangled with things, far from freedom: “The lighting up of ‘That’s it, that’s not’ is the reason why the Dao is flawed.”8 Freedom is attainable only when one can see the reality as it is with the illuminating light of the Dao and from the viewpoint of the Dao.

Zhuang-zi suggests on this ground the fasting of the heart/mind as an essential training if one seeks to be united with the origin of things, the Dao.9 Only when one has completely emptied it through fasting, the heart/mind reflects the reality as it is, like a mirror – this is the heart/mind of the sage or free person.

2.3. To sum up, human freedom is attainable for both Spinoza and Zhuang-zi when one sees things truly or adequately: namely, when one sees things under a form of eternity, in Spinoza’s words, and when one gets united with the Dao and sees things from the viewpoint of the Dao, in Zhuang-zi’s words.


1. Reference to Spinoza is from Baruch Spinoza, The Ethics and Selected Letters, Samuel Shirley (trans.) (Hackett Publishing Company, 1982) and is given directly in the text, using the following abbreviations: App for Appendix; Cor for Corollary; D for Definition; P for Proposition; Pf for Proof; Sch for Scholium. For example, (E1D7) refers to Ethics, Chapter 1, Definition 7

2. By God Spinoza means an absolutely infinite being: “By God I mean an absolutely infinite being; that is, substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence” (E1D6).

3. By adequate cause and inadequate or partial cause, Spinoza means the following: “I call that an adequate cause whose effect can be clearly and distinctly perceived through the said cause. I call that an inadequate or partial cause whose effect cannot be understood through the said cause alone” (E3D1).

4. A.C. Graham (trans.), Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters (Hackett Publishing Company, 2001), p. 44.

5. See chapters 20 and 22 of Graham, Chuang Tzu.

6. “Eternity is the very essence of God in so far as this essence involves necessary existence. Therefore, to conceive things under a form of eternity is to conceive things in so far as they are conceived through God’s essence as real entities; that is, in so far as they involve existence through God’s essence.” (E5P30Pf).

7. Graham, Chuang Tzu, p. 51.

8. Graham, Chuang Tzu, p. 54.

9. See chapter 4 of Graham, Chuang Tzu.

Charles Taliaferro on “The Use and Abuse of Comparative Philosophy of Religion for Life”

Charles Taliaferro is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Emeritus Overby Distinguished Professor at St. Olaf College. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The title of my essay is inspired by Nietzsche’s provocative 1874 essay “The Use and Abuse of History for Life.” However, I confess at the outset, this is a case of flagrant appropriation of a title, putting to one side how to interpret Nietzsche’s own concepts of the use and abuse of inquiry, his concept of what is life-affirming, his critique of history, religion, philosophy, truth, and so on. To compensate fans of Nietzsche for my appropriating his (to me, fetching) title, I offer a guide to engaging Nietzsche’s work.1 So, bracketing whatever Nietzsche’s Übermensch might find life-affirming (if anything) about comparative philosophy of religion, I offer two cases of comparative philosophy of religion that I find life-affirming (useful “for life”) insofar as they can increase the appreciation of different religious identities and reduce religious conflict.

The two cases of comparative philosophy of religion commended in this essay involve Christianity and Islam and Christianity and Judaism. I am a Christian philosopher who has engaged in dialogue with Muslim and Jewish philosophers, so I write as a practitioner in, rather than a spectator of, comparative philosophy of religion.2

Christianity and Islam: As most readers know, the parameters of religious traditions can be quite porous. For example, there are self-described Christians who are not theists (and some seem indistinguishable from secular atheists). As a comparatively conservative Christian (being a theist and accepting the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds), I find the most promising route to some (at least partial) accord with Muslim philosophers lies in dialogue about our shared monotheism. This is well documented in multiple conferences and publications in which philosophers representing the Abrahamic faiths engage in reflection on divine attributes (including divine goodness, omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, eternity, aseity or necessity) and creation. To recommend only one exemplary case of comparative philosophy of religion, consider God and Creation, based on An Ecumenical Symposium in Comparative Religious Thought that took place in 1987.3 There have been abundant such conferences focusing on our monotheism since. These exchanges have included fruitful work on the virtues and vices of philosophical methodology, the need to avoid caricaturing the positions of others, the importance of impartiality, the need to cultivate an appreciation of religious traditions from the point of view of practitioners.4

In addition to a shared focus on monotheism, I highlight Christian-Muslim dialogue about points of difference involving claims about Jesus Christ. The significance of Jesus in Islam is substantial; he is referred to 97 times in the Qur’an (Mary is referred to 70 times). The book, The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature is a rich resource of the myriad portraits of Jesus in Islamic sacred texts and traditions.5 On exchanges about Jesus Christ, I find that there is a greater opportunity for accord (but not, of course, full agreement) when Christianity is represented in the context of a high Christology. In that vein, Jesus Christ is identified as at one with the second member of the trinity. The incarnation involves the pre-existence of Jesus, prior to (or independent of) the birth of Jesus of Nazarus. On this view, Jesus is fully human and wholly God (Totus Deus) but not the whole of God (Totum Dei). This can enable one to interpret some of the historically divisive scriptural teachings that are closer (or less attenuated) from an Islamic perspective. Consider these tenets: the proclamation that Christ is the Messiah; Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the light, and that no one comes to the Father except through Christ; and the affirmation of the trinity. Muslims see Jesus as only a prophet, not the Messiah, Jesus is not divine, and there are explicit denials of the trinity in the Qur’an. Even so, the notion that Jesus is the Messiah is compatible with (or can be interpreted as) the notion that God (Allah) worked through Jesus Christ to show the path of redemption. Muslims can (and do) believe that Allah is the way, the truth, and the life and no one comes to Allah except by Allah. This does not (explicitly) rule out that Allah might act through Jesus, the prophet, to show us the way to Allah. While Muslims must deny what is called the social model of the trinity (the Godhead consists of three persons, Father, Son, Holy Spirit), they can (in principle) be more hospitable to modal accounts of the trinity (as found in Barth and Rahner). On the later, God is revealed in three modes, quite independent of God’s internal constitution.6 There are, of course, vexing contrasts. The Qur’an seems to hold that Jesus was not killed; Keith Ward proposes that the Qur’anic verse may be rendered as the claim that Jesus appeared to be killed (in the sense that he appeared to his enemies to be annihilated), but he instead ascended into the presence of Allah.7 I readily affirm that there are genuine conflicts between traditional Christian and Muslim claims. I only sketch here some paths toward some compatibility. In my experience, such accord has been sufficient to join in a shared prayer on several occasions with Muslim philosophers. For those philosophers of religion who identify religions as forms of life, such shared practices provide some evidence of concord.

Christianity and Judaism. The tension between Judaism and Christianity, going back to the first century is well documented. And at times, “tension” is obviously too weak a term. There is indisputable evidence that historically significant anti-Semitism in Christian tradition has prompted violent, systematic persecution culminating in the murder of six million Jews in the mid-twentieth century.8 How might comparative philosophy of religion address such horror and tragedy? One role by Christian philosophical theologians has been to reject a stagnant understanding of the meaning of revealed, sacred texts and earlier dogmatic claims that regard the divine covenant with the Jews as surpassed and rendered void. Some late 20th century Christian philosophers, including Pope John Paul II (who was trained in phenomenology), repudiate the sinful legacy of anti-Semitism, affirm the Jewish roots of Christianity, and reject supersessionism (Christianity supersedes Judaism) in favor of recognizing the continuous integrity of Judaism as a divine covenantal community. This is an on-going process. The Anglican Bishop and Biblical scholar, N.T. Wright laments interpreting the New Testament “through the misted-up spectacles of post-Holocaust western thinkers.” But this seems to treat the meaning of the New Testament as something fixed in time and not subject to what some Christian philosophers and theologians contend are new insights about God’s nature and goodness.

To some secular philosophers, the above cases may seem mired in superstition and discredited views of revelation. To those readers I propose a thought experiment. Imagine (if only for the sake of pursuing a sense of interreligious dialogue from the standpoint of a practitioner) you believe that the Abrahamic faiths each do offer some elements of an authentic view of God as good and just. If so, isn’t there some reason to think that promoting such constructive moves are a good use of comparative philosophy of religion, whereas undermining them may not be abuse, but less than helpful.

1. Nietzsche’s essay is available online: https://la.utexas.edu/users/hcleaver/330T/350kPEENietzscheAbuseTableAll.pdf
For secondary work, I recommend “Nietzsche’s Theory of Value and the Good Life” in Value and the Good Life by Thomas Carson (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000, chapter 4, 97-123 and “Friedrich Nietzsche and the Genealogy of Evil” by David Booth in The History of Evil in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries edited by D. Hedley, C. Meister, C. Taliaferro (London: Routledge, 2018, chapter 16, 236-247.

2. The notion of being a Christian philosopher is not clearly delineated in the philosophy of religion literature. See, for example, Christian Philosophy: Conceptions, Continuations, and Challenges edited by J. Aaron Simmons. In this context, suffice to say I have been in dialogue about the relationship of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in which I represent Christianity and other philosophers represent Islam and Judaism. See my own and others contributions to Interreligious Dialogue edited by G. Oppy and N.N. Takakis (London: Routledge, 2020). On the relationship of Christianity and Islam, I am indebted to Keith Ward’s Religion in the Modern World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019) and on Christianity and Judaism, see “The Cruelty of Supersessianism: The Case of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” by John Phelan, Religions 13:59, 2022, 1-13.

3. God and Creation edited by David Burrell and Bernard McGinn (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017).

4. In a philosophical meeting in Tehran with Muslim philosophers in 2013, I presented “Is there a place for Strategic Thinking in Philosophical Refection?” later published with co-author Thomas Churchill in Philosophia Christi 17:1, 2015, 213-221. We contend that there is no place for strategic thinking or arguments where “strategy” involves manipulation, the aim of winning disputes as opposed to seeking the truth.

5. Collected, edited, and translated by Tarif Khalidi, Harvard University Press, 2001.

6. If the social model of the trinity is accepted, then the main, more modest tenet of the modal account follows but not vice versa. After all, if the Godhead consists in three persons, then there are three modes in which God is revealed. See the Stanford Encyclopedia entry “Philosophy and Christian Theology”: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/christiantheology-philosophy/

7. Religion in the Modern World, 151.

8. See the US Holocaust Museum’s summary of the history here: https://www.ushmm.org/research/about-the-mandel-center/initiatives/ethics-religion-holocaust/articles-and-resources/christian-persecution-of-jews-over-the-centuries/christian-persecution-of-jews-over-the-centuries

Nathan Eric Dickman – “Beyond Comparing to Sharing Questions for the Sake of Understanding”

Nathan Eric Dickman (PhD, The University of Iowa) is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of the Ozarks. He researches in hermeneutic phenomenology, philosophy of language, and comparative questions in philosophies of religions, with particular concerns about global social justice issues in ethics and religions. He has taught a breadth of courses, from Critical Thinking to Zen, and Existentialism to Greek & Arabic philosophy. His book titled Using Questions to Think (Bloomsbury, 2021) examines the roles questions play in critical thinking and reasoning, his book titled Philosophical Hermeneutics and the Priority of Questions in Religions (Bloomsbury, 2022) examines the roles questions play in religious discourse, and his book titled Interpretation: A Critical Primer (Equinox, 2023) examines the role of questions in the interpretation of texts. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

It’s probably worthwhile to ask “Which ‘philosophy of religion’?” As it has taken shape in Anglo-American departments of philosophy? As it is undertaken in confessional seminaries? Or, as it is coming to be in secular religious studies programs?

Disciples run rampant in philosophy departments, but discipleship is discouraged in religious studies programs. It’s rare to meet a religious studies scholar who willingly self-identifies as a (Jonathan Z.) Smithian, or a (Russell T.) McCutcheonian, or even a (Rudolf) Ottoian. Yet philosophers espouse loyalty to masters before they get into a topic, saying that they are a Kantian, or Platonist, or Plantingian, or Deleuzian. These tendencies can help keep the fields distinct from one another. What “comparison” can mean for philosophy of religions depends on which field’s assumptions and norms are guiding the discussion. (Bureaucratically speaking with regard to academic programs and departments, religious studies is an interdisciplinary field unified by the subject matter, whereas philosophy is a single discipline. I will leave confessional seminaries to the side.)

Many religious studies works confront limitations of and develop methods for comparison in the academic study of religions (see Hughes 2017; Freiberger 2019; Poole 1986; and Alexander 1976). However, comparison has been a staple subject of philosophical examination for millennia. Zhuangzi, the ancient Chinese master of paradox, critiques bases of comparison as anthropocentric or even self-centered (Zhuangzi 2009, 30-32). Aristotle specifies comparison as both a mode of rhetoric and a function of substance categories (Aristotle 1995, 1089a15-30). With regard to religions, however, categorization took on a seeming urgency with the nineteenth century rationalization of colonialism. It is at this moment that—as Masuzawa explains—“the protean notion [category!] of ‘religion’… came to acquire the kind of overwhelming sense of objective reality, concrete facticity, and utter self-evidence that now holds us in its sway” (Masuzawa 2005, 2). In this context, many philosophers of religions—or perhaps we should really call them liberal natural theologians—developed perennial pluralist theosophies (see Hick 2004, Nasr 1984, and Thich 2007). Masuzawa raises the question of whether these are still complicit with Eurocentric colonialism, further naturalizing European subjectivity’s rage for order and categorization.

Religious traditions do not really exist. Taxonomic terms such as “Islam” or “Buddhism” or “Atheism” are reifications of complex and highly differentiated cultural phenomena. If someone were to ask, “What do Muslims believe?” the only proper initial response is, “Which Muslims?” If someone were to ask, “What do atheists believe?” again the only proper initial response is, “Which atheists?” These questions serve as an antidote to our tendencies toward reification, bringing our orientations back down to earth, back to actual people doing things. Since this is so, what does it even mean fruitfully to compare “different religious traditions”? Are there different religious traditions? Whose interests are served in claiming yes or no? Whose interests are served by demarcating this as exclusively tradition X and that as exclusively tradition Y?

Of course, many self-identifying Christians or Buddhists believe that there is such a thing as “Christianity” or “Buddhism.” That is, it is perfectly ordinary for members of a religious group to believe that there really is such a thing as a “religion” and that they belong to or participate in such a thing. It is based on their conception of their religion that they distinguish between orthodoxy and heresy. For example, some self-identifying Christians claim not only that their denomination correctly embodies “Christianity,” but they also deny some other groups even are Christian—such as the mainstream Protestant prejudice against the Church of Latter Day Saints or even Catholicism. Many Theravadin Buddhists see some Japanese Buddhists as distorting “true Buddhism,” such as raising concerns about monastic celibacy when some Japanese monks and abbots marry. That is, they see their version of Buddhism not as a mere version of it but as its only instance. Moreover, we know that throughout history and in many contemporary cultures, people have participated in what often now are called different religious traditions without experiencing any existential contradictions. For example, temples in Taiwan include elements of Confucianism, popular Chinese spirits, Daoism, Buddhism, and more. In a traditional Japanese home, there are both Shinto and Buddhist shrines. As recent surveys show, many contemporary Christians believe in reincarnation, which is typically associated with Indian religious traditions such as Hinduism even though reincarnation proliferated throughout the Hellenistic world in which Jesus-movements emerged.

What is there to do in such a scenario that could count as “comparison” in philosophy of religions? J. L. Metha says we can only compare questions. He writes, “[Shankara] and Kant, it is obvious, were not asking the same questions, and therefore it is senseless to compare just their answers, as if they could be meaningful apart from the questions to which they were answers and could be taken as absolute statements. One can thus only compare questions, strictly speaking, and go on to look for similarities and differences between the procedures adopted to arrive at the answers” (Mehta 1970, 304; my emphasis). Because questions are only meaningful within horizons of intelligibility, they are often “hidden under the answers…” and so we need to bring them to the surface through interpretive effort. By unearthing the ontological presuppositions that silently frame them, we gain a deeper understanding of the questions these philosophers were asking.

While I find Metha’s point productive, I want to encourage going beyond comparing questions to sharing them. As I have explained elsewhere (see Dickman 2021a; and Dickman 2022), the hermeneutic priority of questioning entails that only by sharing questions can we come to understand what we have to say to one another. That is, to consider a question is to ask it, and understanding happens only when what someone says answers to a question we are actually asking. Like reading a page of a book, getting to the end, and wondering “What did I just read?”, when we do not ask the questions to which the sentences respond, what is said will be lost on us. To understand what others have to say, we have to ask their questions with them. Only in this way can we receive what they have to say as meanings we can understand. Consider the question: “What year is it?” It is not impossible to imagine one person asking this, and another responding with, “Yeah, what year is it, really?” Such a conversation might unfold into exploration of varying conventions of era-dating systems, metaphysics of time, and more. While we know it is only 2023 CE relative to one era-dating system—one complicit with Euro-Christian global hegemony—there are other era-dating systems found in other religious traditions, such as the Islamic and Jewish calendars. Such a shared asking of the question opens up the possibility for exploration and critique of colonialist conventions. A problem with many contemporary people who identify as religious is that they seem not to be asking the questions to which their religions respond. For example, one question asked by many first century Palestinian Jews was, “Who will be my messiah?” That is, they lived in a culture where the term “messiah” played a role in their interpretive horizons. It is not clear that the concept plays any role at all in the lives of most people in US society. Part of what grounds questioning’s hermeneutic priority is precisely this possibility for shared asking of a question that allows for a dialogue rather than a compulsive conclusion with “the” answer. It suspends answering rather than demanding the answer.

One worry about such an approach is whether sharing questions with an exploratory disposition suspends any and all “truth claims.” It seems that many scholars of philosophy of religions take evaluation of truth claims as a fundamental task of philosophy (see Schilbrack 2014; and Knepper 2013). To what degree might many analytic and continental philosophical approaches to evaluating truth claims be complicit with the Eurocentric and patriarchal status quo? I am inclined to agree with Masuzawa and others that—at least at this point in the institution of philosophy’s reckoning with its history of bias—the task of adjudicating truth claims perpetuates patriarchal Eurocentrism. I am advocating that we suspend this need for “the” answer, which will not only help to destabilize Eurocentrism, but it will also help us to share questions concerning “truth” and to put our culturally specific prejudices about truth itself at risk of critique. By sharing questions, we can shift our understanding of “comparison” as a method for discovery toward “comparison” as a critique of the very categories we use to analyze, explain, and interpret phenomena (see Nicholson 2009). By sharing questions, we reveal the predicative radiance of subject matters ripe for interpretive play and re-creation (or redescription).

A few scholars have attempted to perform this sharing of questions in philosophy of religions. Anh Tuan Nuyen (2011) brings together Kantian obligations-based ethics and Confucian role-based ethics to address concerns about expanding the moral community to include the environment. Ian Almond (2002) places Ibn ‘Arabi and Derrida into conversation on the positive functions of bewilderment, such as its opening us to see things we miss when we believe we know what we are doing. I have also tried to undertake this in discussions about the origin or creation of the universe, integrating insights from Nagarjuna, Ibn Rushd, Maimonides, Tillich, and more, on the question of queering the edges of space and time (2021b).

Works Cited

Alexander, Laurence L. 1976. “Ricoeur’s Symbolism of Evil and Cross-Cultural Comparison: The Representation of Evil in Maya Indian Culture.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 44(4): 705-714.

Almond, Ian. 2002. “The Honesty of the Perplexed: Derrida and Ibn ‘Arabi on ‘Bewilderment.’” Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 70(3): 515-537.

Aristotle. 1995. The Complete Works of Aristotle: Revised Oxford Translation, Vols I & II. Edited by Jonathan Barnes. Princeton University Press.

Dickman, Nathan Eric. 2021a. Using Questions to Think: How to Develop Skills in Critical Understanding and Reasoning. Bloomsbury.

Dickman, Nathan Eric. 2021b. “Where, not When, Did the Cosmos ‘Begin’?” Sophia 60(1): 67-81.

Dickman, Nathan Eric. 2022. Philosophical Hermeneutics and the Priority of Question in Religions: Bringing the Discourse of Gods and Buddhas Down to Earth. Bloomsbury.

Freiberger, Oliver. 2019. Considering Comparison: A Method for Religious Studies. Oxford University Press.

Hick, John. 2004. An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent (2nd edition). Yale University Press.

Hughes, Aaron W. 2017. Comparison: A Critical Primer. Equinox Publishing.

Knepper, Timothy D. 2013. The Ends of Philosophy of Religion: Terminus and Telos. Palgrave Macmillan.

Mehta, J. L. 1970. “Heidegger and the Comparison of Indian and Western Philosophy.” Philosophy East and West. 20(3): 303-317.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. 1984. The role of the traditional sciences in the encounter of religion and science: an oriental perspective. Religious Studies. 20(4), 519–541.

Nicholson, Hugh. 2009. “The Reunification of Theology and Comparison in the New Comparative Theology.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 77(3): 609-646.

Nuyen, Anh Tuan. 2011. “Confucian Role-Based Ethics and Strong Environmental Ethics.” Environmental Values. 20(4): 549-566.

Poole, Fitz John Porter. 1986. “Metaphors and Maps: Towards Comparison in the Anthropology of Religion.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 54(3): 411-457.

Schilbrack, Kevin. 2014. Philosophy and the Study of Religions: A Manifesto. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.

Thich Nhat Hanh. 2007. Living Buddha, living Christ. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

Zhuangzi. 2009. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings with Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Translated by Brook Ziporyn. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

Daniel Dombrowski – “Charles Hartshorne’s Philosophers Speak of God as Comparative Philosophy of Religion”

Photo by: Yosef Chaim Kalinko

Daniel Dombrowski is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Seattle University. He is the recipient of the prestigious 2016-17 McGoldrick Fellowship and the author of twenty-two books and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals in philosophy, theology, classics, and literature. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

An early classic in comparative philosophy of religion is a 1953 book edited by Charles Hartshorne and William Reese (hereafter: Hartshorne, who was the driving force behind the work) titled Philosophers Speak of God (University of Chicago Press, reissued in 2000 by Humanity Books). This work contains selections from thinkers from around the world and from various traditions on the topic of the concept of God. Extensive introductions to and commentaries on each anthologized author are offered by Hartshorne. These introductions and commentaries are very often worthy contributions in their own right and still deserve attention from philosophers seventy years after initial publication of the book.

One key concept worthy of comparative analysis is “classical theism,” a philosophical (not necessarily scriptural) view of God that has dominated the history of philosophy in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This view is monopolar in the sense that God is characterized by being rather than becoming, permanence rather than change, activity rather than passivity, etc. Hartshorne’s stance is that classical theism does a poor job of thinking through the “logic of perfection,” especially regarding intractable problems concerning theodicy (due to a view of God who is assumed to be omnipotent in the sense of being ultimately responsible for everything that occurs) and concerning the incompatibility of belief in human freedom and belief in divine omniscience (in the sense of God knowing with absolute assurance and in minute detail the outcome of future “contingencies”). That is, classical theism collapses in the face of the nastiest version of the problem of evil and the tendency toward determinism. Yet the list of classical theists in the Abrahamic religions is vast: e.g., Philo and Maimonides in Judaism; Saints Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, and Descartes in Catholicism, along with many other Christian thinkers like Luther, Calvin, Leibniz, Kant, et al.; and Al-Ghazzali and many others in Islam.

Hartshorne’s preferred alternative to classical theism is called neoclassical (or, more popularly, process) theism, which is dipolar in that there are perfect types of becoming as well as being, change as well as permanence, passivity as well as activity. Further, neoclassical theism includes a critique of divine omnipotence (although God is still seen as ideal power) and a defense of a view of divine omniscience wherein human freedom is preserved. The greatest conceivable being-in-becoming knows all that logically can be known, but no being, not even a divine one, can know the details of the future that are not here yet to be known. This type of theism is also well represented in the Abrahamic religions (even if it is not as pervasive as classical theism), including Jewish thinkers like Martin Buber, Abraham Heschel, and Paul Weiss; many thinkers influenced by Christianity, most notably Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, Teilhard de Chardin, Nicholas Berdyaev, and Hartshorne himself; and several Muslim thinkers like Mohammed Iqbal. The list of neoclassical theists in all of these religions has grown significantly since the initial publication of Philosophers Speak of God.

There are many other concepts of God in addition to classical theism and neoclassical theism that provide helpful comparative lenses. For example, neoclassical theism was anticipated in the ancient world by Ikhnaton in Egypt, the Judeo-Christian and Hindu scriptures, and Lao-tse, along with Plato, whose later dialogues point toward a concept of God that is difficult to see as compatible with classical theism, despite his (and Aristotle’s) obvious and ironic influence on classical theism. That is, Hartshorne’s analysis of the concept of God is conducive not only to comparative philosophy that is spatially extensive, but also temporally vast. One historical figure who receives special attention is St. Anselm, whose modal version of the ontological argument (discovered by Hartshorne) for the existence of God is defended, but whose classical theistic concept of God is criticized.

Neoclassical theism is also a sort of panentheism (all is in God), in partial contrast to both the otherworldliness of classical theism as well as the strictly immanent God of pantheism (all is God). The latter is represented, e.g., by Asvaghosa and Sankara, as well as by Western thinkers like Spinoza and Josiah Royce. In this regard, neoclassical theism can be seen as a moderate view between classical theism and pantheism. It can also be seen as a moderate stance between strict divine eternity found in classical theism or Plotinian emanationism, on the one hand, and strictly temporalistic theisms that do not include neoclassical divine everlastingness, on the other. Here Hartshorne identifies Samuel Alexander and Henry Nelson Wieman.

The book also has several religious skeptics and atheists represented. But it should not be assumed without argument and without qualification that Buddhism is necessarily a nontheistic religion in that the Buddha himself spoke of an underlying dynamic reality that is unborn, a view that may very well be compatible with certain aspects of neoclassical theism. Here Hartshorne relies on the noted Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki.

In short, in this densely argued book there is still much for scholars in comparative philosophy of religion to consider, to mull over, and with which to disagree. It is the sort of book that cannot be read straight through, hence it can understandably be seen as something of a process theistic encyclopedia of comparative religious thought about the concept of God. Further, it offers a way to look at comparative issues that is both thought-provoking and argumentative. It is, of course, a tendentious book, but it is precisely its distinctive point of view that continues to commend itself to us. Hartshorne would have us believe that, in addition to comparing religions, there is also the need to compare concepts of perfection, a logic of perfection that spans across and within religions in unexpected ways.

Stephen Clark on “Comparative Religion, or A World of Beings”

Stephen 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.

Before religions, or religion, can be compared we need to have some notion of what counts as a religion, or what religion is. Religions have sometimes been identified as systems of belief and practice which make some reference to entities or powers that are more than “natural,” or that lack ordinarily “empirical” proofs. But this may be giving more credit to “intellectuals” than they deserve: the great mass of people engaged with any “religion” may have little interest in any system of belief, and even take the regular practice of their “religion” more casually than the supposed beliefs require. How many professed Christians really – in daily practice – act as if they expected their every choice to guide them towards or away from Heaven, or as if the loss of their lives, their health, their family, their property was of no real importance? “I may say quite firmly that if those things the loss of which you complain of were really yours, you would never have lost them.”1 But even Boethius needed to be imprisoned and awaiting execution before the thought occurred to him. And how many who sacrificed to the effigy of an Emperor really “believed” that the Emperor was “a god” (whatever a god might be)? Nor are even the most organized and well-defined “religions” ever as homogeneous or as distinct as inquisitors might wish: symbols and stories and ceremonial dress are shared across their boundaries, and even creeds are often consciously, contentiously obscure. Some religions, as commonly understood, are rather aggregated from diverse practice and doctrine, for the benefit (chiefly) of intrusive missionaries who wanted a clearly defined opponent: has there ever “really” been a religion rightly described as “Hinduism” any more than those called “Hellenism” or “Modernism”?

Is there anything better to be said simply of “religion”? We need not suppose that there are many, or any, discrete and well-defined systems of belief or ceremonial practice of the sort that are called “religions,” even if the category is sometimes useful to bureaucrats. Maybe it helps, sometimes, to have some rough estimate of how many patients will, or won’t, eat pork or beef or horse-meat. Maybe it helps to know what days of the week or year employees or school children will need as holy days: “holy,” as being set aside from ordinary employment, as some might also set some building or patch of land aside from ordinary exploitation. Is that perhaps an answer? “Religion,” whatever its particular manifestation, is the practice of setting something aside from ordinarily practical uses. None of us find every possible food acceptable, and our dietary choices – which need not reflect our individual taste – reveal our “religious” loyalty, even if we don’t consciously understand that such barriers are “religious,” that there is no merely “medical” reason not to eat pigs or dogs or roaches. None of us will gladly exploit everything that might be of some use. Nor do we even willingly think of everything – children or the family dog – as an available asset. Just what those limits may be, on food or use or time, will vary across the nations and the years, but the common thread is that some things are “holy.” Some people, even some peoples, identify that “holy” precisely and explicitly: they keep Sabbath, eat only what is “kosher” or “halal,” and abide by other sexual and ceremonial laws. Other people, or peoples, practice a looser life – but even they will mostly acknowledge limits, sometimes rationalizing their obedience by speaking of moral or medical harms.

This notion – of some things being “set aside” from “natural” life – may also indicate a breach in “nature”: the very act of setting aside a building, a wood, a stream, suggests that another world than ours is intruding there. Abbot Suger, the architect of the Abbey of St Denis, reported that, when in the church he saw himself “dwelling in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of earth nor entirely in the purity of heaven, and that by the grace of God, [he could] be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner.”2 Theatres, in their first beginnings in Greece or China or India, were also places where the “other world” was manifest, complete with “gods” and “heroes” – and even “secular” audiences in the apparently modern world are similarly “entranced,” caught up in the action, even instilled with some lasting sense of human or more-than-human life. What will our descendants, long after Armageddon, think of common devotion to Sherlock Holmes or Superman? Once upon a time the Olympic Games, and other “sporting events,” were also acknowledged as the gods’ domain, occasions for the display of extraordinary talent – which was to say, of a god. So St. Augustine, in a sermon in 404 AD, gave voice to a learned defender of pagan worship: “When I worship Mercury,” we are to suppose his saying, “I worship talent. Talent cannot be seen; it is something invisible.”3 Without such gods, we are bereft: “a shadow’s dream is man, but when (a) god sheds a brightness, shining light is on earth and life is as sweet as honey.”4

Religion, then, is separate from the everyday – or rather, it is an attempt to find the marvellous even in or alongside the everyday. We cannot always be seeing things as marvellous, nor setting them aside as holy. Even the most devoted pilgrim must reckon with sore feet, and hunger, and the misunderstandings of his peers. That may apply especially in those times and places when “the divine” is conceived as “God the Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnipresent”:

Pure faith indeed—you know not what you ask!
Naked belief in God the Omnipotent,
Omniscient, Omnipresent, sears too much
The sense of conscious creatures to be borne
It were the seeing him, no flesh shall dare.5

But the same hesitation may be found even in “polytheistic” or “animistic” cults: Semele’s request to see her lover, Zeus, “in his true form” had a disastrous end – and only her son, His son, was saved from the fire.6 In Apuleius’ story Psyche (which is Soul) was given in marriage to a god (or demon) who visited her only in the dark. Her envious sisters persuaded her to light a lamp to see who her husband was, and wax from the lamp woke him: he was, it turns out, Eros, the god of love. He fled, abandoning Psyche, who was only reunited with him, after long and difficult labours imposed by Eros’ mother Aphrodite.7 Seeing God or gods is dangerous, or at least disconcerting! And the same applies even to the thought of “galaxies like grains of sand,” spread over many billion light years.

Is this to ignore the “cosmogonical” aspect of “religious” thought and feeling? Not entirely. Consider the congruence of the current cosmogonical model, “the Big Bang,” and early stories of the very first thing to emerge, somehow, from Nothing: namely the Egyptian story of Atum’s beginning. Atum appears from the primeval ocean, Nun, and produces Up and Down, the Hot and Dry, as offspring. From these in turn arise the Million Things. All things will in the end be absorbed again in Nun, and – perhaps – the cycle will begin again, very much as current cosmologists have it. It is easy enough to claim that the Egyptian story is only imaginative fiction, and the current model is confirmed by observation (of the Big Bang’s afterglow). It is also easy to say that Atum was also – though not consistently – an object of veneration, whereas the Singularity at our beginning was only a simple fact. Both Atum and that Singularity are, in their separate ways, strictly supernatural entities – not bound by the familiar laws they themselves engendered; but that must seem, to moderns, only a sort of pun! And yet it is not absurd to acknowledge the mere feeling of cosmic unity that both stories seem to support. The Big Bang is not an event far-off, but is as close to one place as to any other. It is manifest in every cell and atom of our bodies, through aeons of stellar birth and death: we are literally star-dust – and may sometimes make that thought real to ourselves through art or poetry. A sort of “pantheistic” religiosity seems almost required by physics!

One further gloss: “the Egyptians lived in a universe composed not of things, but of beings.”8 Allen goes on to say that the “we have divorced philosophy, as a discipline, from religion. In the former we appreciate reality objectively, as something capable of study; in the latter we understand it subjectively, as something that can only be experienced. This dichotomy did not govern ancient Near Eastern thought. To it, all appreciation of reality was subjective – ‘I-Thou’ rather than ‘I-It.’”9 And it is this insight that perhaps identifies “religion,” and also suggests what is most strange in the modern “secular” outlook. Our only actual experience of the world is exactly that: experience. And yet we have somehow imagined into being a strange world devoid of any merely “subjective” or “secondary” qualities, and then been puzzled how such a merely “material” world could ever engender those same phenomenal qualities, and our experience of them. The modern “materialist” has to exercise a moral discipline as harsh as any more obviously “spiritual” practice, seeking to see the world “objectively,” and with cautious awareness of a cosmos radically other than our human home. The paradoxical conclusion is that the world of our experience – both our usual and our elevated or “god-inspired” experience – is the world there is, and it is full, as Thales said, of gods.10 What those gods may be, and how we may remember them, is the enterprise of religion.

1. Boethius The Theological Tractates. Trans., Hugh Fraser Stewart & S.J.Tester (Cambridge, Mass: Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 2011), pp.181-3: Consolation of Philosophy 2.2)

2. Erwin Panofsky, ed., Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St.-Denis. Ed., Gerda Panofsky-Soergel (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1979 [1946]), pp.21, 65.

3. Augustine, Sermon 26.24, cited by Clifford Ando, The Matter of the Gods: Religion and the Roman Empire. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), p.41.

4. Pindar, Pythian 8.95-7.

5. Robert Browning, Poems 1833-65 (London: Cassell & Co., 1907), p.436. “Bishop Blougram’s Apology”, lines 637-41:

6. Ovid, Metamorphoses 3.256ff.

7. Apuleius, Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass, Bk.5.

8. J.P.Allen, Genesis in Egypt: the Philosophy of Ancient Egyptian Creation Accounts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), p.8

9. Allen, ibid. p.9.

10. Aristotle, De Anima 1.411a7–9.

Peter Jonkers on “Religious Truth from a Comparative Perspective”

Peter Jonkers is an emeritus professor of philosophy at Tilburg University, the Netherlands. He has
published extensively on questions regarding religion in the public space, in particular religious truth,
pluralism and identity, religious violence and tolerance, and wisdom, as well as on classical German
philosophy. Since 2018, he is a member of the Steering Committee of the International Federation of
Philosophical Societies. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

One of the perennial questions of philosophy of religion is the idea of religious truth. It plays an all-important role, not only in Christianity, but also in other world religions like Hinduism, Buddhism (insofar as it can be qualified as a religion), Judaism, and Islam.1 All of them claim that believing in their creeds and following their moral commandments and rituals leads to a true, blissful way of life. Obviously, not only does the content of these truth claims differ substantially among these religions but their approach to religious truth also differs. From a comparative perspective, these approaches can be classified into five different clusters. First, a religious tradition can focus on its doctrina, which serves as an introduction to its most important truth claims, in principle accessible to everyone. According to the second approach to religious truth, the faithful not only know these teachings but also profess and accept them; these are the veritates of a religion. A third approach emphasizes that the faithful practice their religious profession and live the truth of the doctrina and the veritates because a person cannot truly know the nature of the divine unless she testifies to it in her everyday activities; this is called vera religio. Fourthly, religious truth can be experienced by spiritually contemplating the transcendent Truth; this is the intellectus verus, the mystical experience of divine salvation and redemption. Finally, and most importantly, God or the divine is the ultimate and absolute truth: true insight, true being, and truthful acting (veritas). Individual religions differ as to the relative importance of these approaches to religious truth: the importance attached to intellectual knowledge and the profession of the objective truth (the veritates), as phrased in the creed and the catechism and further developed by Christian theology, shows the prominent role of the doctrina in Christian faith; while Judaism, classical Hinduism, and Islam emphasize the vera religio, living faithfully in accordance with God’s commandments and ritual laws. Zen Buddhism and some archaic religions focus instead on acquiring a true insight into the transcendent truth through meditation and contemplation (the intellectus verus), that is, through means of knowledge that are inaccessible to discursive reason. Finally, all monotheistic religions worship God as the ultimate truth (the veritas).2 According to Thomas Aquinas, truth is a transcendental property of being that, in turn, is dependent on God, the ultimate intellectual cause.3

In my view, comparative philosophy of religion can help Christian faith to rebalance its traditional focus on a doctrinal approach to religious truth. Doctrinal statements and their profession in the veritates have the advantage of laying down a long-standing and dynamic tradition and of giving a clear-cut and unambiguous identity to a community of faith. Yet, putting too much emphasis on doctrinal issues risks marginalizing a more existential approach to religious truth. Typically, a doctrinal approach rests on a propositional and ontological understanding of religious truth. The former qualifies certain factual propositions and theoretical statements as true; the opposite ones are disqualified as error, lie, or heresy.4 An ontological understanding of religious truth qualifies a whole religious belief system as true; its opposite is false religion, unbelief, faithlessness, apostasy, blindness, or hardness of heart.5 This shows the basic problem of a purely doctrinal approach: it is binary, resulting in either a positive or a negative truth value. Thus, it does not allow for a plurality of truth claims to be considered equally and potentially leads to religious exclusivism. In sum, a purely doctrinal approach to religious truth is an impoverishment of the very idea of religious truth, since it reduces its transcendent, divine nature to discursive reason and mundane concepts.

Therefore, for the sake of the truth of Christian faith it is necessary to integrate its doctrinal approach into the existential approach of the vera religio, thus relating the believer as a concrete, living person to the transcendent ground of being, the veritas.6 The crucial role of the doctrina (in a Christian terminology: fides quae creditur) is to put religious life into a set of teachings, thus giving it consistency, unity, and an objective identity that can be professed by the faithful and handed down to subsequent generations. However, because the doctrina is limited to the objective and intellectual aspect of religious truth, members of a community of faith also need to commit themselves subjectively and existentially to this truth and realize it in their lives (in Christian terminology: fides qua creditur).7 In other words, an integral view of religious truth connects the objective doctrine with the particular, cultural existence of a community and the charism of individual believers, and asks at the same time that this living, existential faith is articulated in doctrinal statements, rationally reflected upon and communicated with others. It goes without saying that this is not a once-only occasion, but a permanent, dynamic, and bi-directional process, aimed at making theological assertions transparent for lived faith. In my view, Christian faith should integrate its doctrina into the vera religio to get a more complete idea of religious truth. By comparing a doctrinal approach with other approaches to religious truth, comparative philosophy of religion can help Christianity develop a richer conception of religious truth.

1. Frederick J. Streng, “Truth,” in Encyclopedia of Religion. Second Edition, ed. Lindsay Jones (Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale), 9368-9376.
2. Henk Vroom, Religions and the Truth. Philosophical Reflections and Perspectives (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 302ff. See also Streng, “Truth,” 9368-9376.
3. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 1.16.5 and Idem, Questiones disputatae de veritate 1.7.
4. Reinhold Bernhardt, “Truth and Theology of Religions. A Relational Interpretation,” in Faithful Interpretations: Islam and Truth in Catholic Theology of Religions, eds. Philip Geister SJ and Gösta Hallonsten (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2021), 59-62.
5. Idem, 59, 63-66.
6. Idem, 66.
7. Vroom, Religions and the Truth, 311-14. See also Bernhardt, “Truth and Theology of Religions,” 67-71.

Eric Steinhart on “Incomparable Religions”

Eric Charles Steinhart is Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University. He has degrees in computer science and in philosophy. He has authored Your Digital Afterlives, Believing in Dawkins, and Atheistic Platonism. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

By now I suppose pretty much everybody has heard the critical thesis that traditional comparative philosophy of religion (CPoR) has a rather dark past. It was a colonial project. Or even that the very category of religion (especially “world religions”) was invented by missionaries in the British Empire. It’s increasingly recognized that the history of CPoR has been extremely Christo-normative, and often very destructive for non-Christians. Still, if it can change its ways, I think CPoR can have a brighter future.

The old way of doing CPoR appears in slogans: religion is like an elephant; all religions are different paths up the same mountain. A bit more deeply: all religions share a common mystical core; God has many faces; God has many names. One elephant, one mountain, one mystical core, one God. More philosophically, CPoR produced John Hick’s pluralism, in which all religions are different human ways of experiencing and responding to “the Real”. One Real, not many Reals. God becomes more abstract, so that religions are about “the ultimate”, “the holy”, “the divine”, “the transcendent”. Always the definite article “the”, and never plural. Always one, never many.

Even more parochially, traditional CPoR accepts the Protestant axiom that religion is mainly a matter of propositional content. It’s not hard to find illustrations of the view that religions are all different “faiths” or about “beliefs”. On this view, a religion amounts to a kind of ultimate theory, which is more or less true of ultimate reality. And there is only one ultimate reality, that is, one possible world, so religions more or less correctly describe this one world. Religions obviously make incompatible truth-claims: God has a son; God has no son. For the pluralist, the favorite strategy has been to see these as different aspects or parts of the One Ultimate Reality (see “the elephant” or “the mountain”). For the pluralist, every religion gets some but not all of “the truth” about “the ultimate” or “the transcendent”. Always with the definite article, and never plural.

Yet the alternative seems to be an incoherent cultural relativism: all religions are equally true! Why is this incoherent? Because religions really do make truth-claims, and they really do conflict. The pagan says there are many gods; the monotheist that there is one god; the atheist that there are no gods. These conflicts cannot be reconciled by finding some occult unity. They are incompatible. One popular way out of these troubles just says that religions are linked by family-resemblance. Unfortunately, the family-resemblance view is true because it is trivial. Everything resembles everything else.

I think the most positive way forward for CPoR requires rejecting its central Protestant axiom. Religions are not efforts to find the one true theory of the one ultimate reality. Religions don’t have anything to do with ultimate reality (or realities), because the ultimates are studied by entirely secular logic, mathematics, and metaphysics. Far from being descriptive, religions are ways of actively relating to other possible worlds. Here I recommend the modal realism of David Lewis: there are many possible worlds, they do not overlap, and no thing is in more than one possible world. Each religion makes truth-claims about its own world, which is not the actual world, and it makes truth-claims about no other worlds besides its own. Religions are incommensurable. Different religions are comparable, for example, in the number of gods in their respective worlds. But this comparison reveals difference rather than unity. There are many transcendent ideals, many stars, many mountains, many orderings of sacred values.

If actively relating to another possible world is a kind of climbing, then every religion climbs its own mountain. Does this mean religions deal with ethics? It does not. Ethics, too, is the province of entirely secular logic and philosophy. Our common morality emerges logically, naturally, and rationally from objective and necessary facts about persons. Religions are neither descriptive theories of ultimate reality, nor ethical theories of how humans ought to treat each other. Nevertheless, there are many non-ethical questions about how humans ought to live. But even these belong to the entirely secular study of human flourishing. And here CPoR has many questions to address: how do different religions treat women? Do they treat women justly or unjustly? CPoR can use objective, secular norms to ethically evaluate religions (and gods). In what ways are religions good? In what ways are they evil?

What is left for religion? As ways of engaging other possible worlds, religions deal with ideals that are not primarily ethical, but which enter ethics in foundational ways. Is it ethical to for mountaineers to free-solo? This depends, in part, on your assessment of the non-ethical value of free-soloing. If you think free-soloing is a way for humans to participate in superhuman or transcendental ideals, your answer will be yes. Otherwise, no. Different religions reveal different ideals. There are transcendental values, values which exceed all utilitarian computations, but these are incommensurable, and they are fully realized only in diverse possible worlds. Because there are many worlds, these values do not conflict. This is pragmatic value-pluralism. These transcendental values resemble aesthetic values, ways in which human conduct gains superhuman beauty. Religions are genres of pragmatic-aesthetic practices. They are different aesthetic ways of life, different ways of pursuing styles of aesthetic excellence beyond the human.