Fritz Detwiler – “Native American Philosophy and Unified Knowledge”

Fritz Detwiler is a retired professor who taught philosophy and religion for the last 39 years at Adrian College in Michigan. His specialty is Native American philosophy with a subspecialty in Tlingit, Navajo, and Lakota lifeways and worldviews. You can contact him at We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Unified Knowledge

Vine Deloria, Jr., one of the most highly respected Native philosophers and critics of Western metaphysics, spent his life’s work pursuing commonality between Native and Western philosophy. His goal was “understanding the unifying reality underlying all existence”.1 His critique of the West was their belief in the superiority of Western thought and their unwillingness to take alternative perspectives seriously.

Following Deloria’s lead, the purpose of this essay is not to critique Western philosophy but to open Western philosophers to alternative worldviews to enrich their own perspectives. Following Western ways of thinking, the article divides Indigenous thought into categories familiar to Western thought. The goal, however, is to show how all these pieces fit together in a unified whole.

In the following essay, I use “Indigenous” as a blanket term for Native Americans and the First Nations people of Canada. While much of what follows extends to Indigenous peoples beyond North America, I will let others with more expertise in those areas draw their conclusions. The unified knowledge to which the title refers does not mean that all Indigenous peoples have the same conceptions of the universe. The opposite is more accurate. Indigenous peoples honor multiple viewpoints even within their communities. The argument here is that they share many of the conceptualizations developed below. Unified knowledge here refers to how all aspects of their worldviews flow into each other in contrast to many Western approaches that segment knowledge into various domains.2

Indigenous Worldviews

Metaphysics: The most distinguishing aspect of Indigenous metaphysics is “life force.”3 Life force is a power that wills the well-being of all types of persons and aims for harmony among beings. Like a woven tapestry, life force animates everything and flows through and connects everything. While present in all beings, life force is unique to every type of being and every member of different classes. Bears have bear life force, corn has corn force, and individual bears or corn plants have their unique life force. Some bears are stronger than others, for example. The uniqueness of bears or corn plants arises from their particular interactions with other life forces; just as two people may share a dog, a dog’s life force flows to and through us differently. Separate nations call life force by various names: manitou (Ojibwa), orenda (Haudenosaunee), takuskanskan (Lakota), niłch’i (Navajo), among others.

Cosmology: Indigenous cosmologies are relational and moral.4 Every being through whom life force flows connects to everything else with a dynamic and fluid intersubjective cosmos.5 The intersubjective cosmos is based on “the responsible actions of creative living beings acting collectively.”6 The moral force of the cosmos is discussed below. Relationality acts in two ways to connect beings with each other. First, all beings derive from a single source, and second, as mentioned above, life force flows through everything and interpenetrates the other beings by directly interacting with them. The cosmos is in a constant process of relationality where beings continuously exchange life force, and relationships are continually changing and reconstituting.

Ontology: The cosmological scope of the above claim becomes more evident through Indigenous ontologies. To this point, I have used the term “beings.” The better ontological term is “persons.” The category extends to all phenomena who are animate or potentially animate. All persons are sentient, active, volitional, have interests, and act intentionally.7 In a relational world, potentiality becomes actuality through encountering other persons. As a Lakota elder once remarked when asked, “Are all stone alive?” He answered, “No, but some are.”8 Those who are alive become animate to him when he enters into a direct relationship with them. In an interrelated world, everything is animate in relation to something else. Depending on the Indigenous culture, persons include animals, plants, lunar and solar phenomena, water, mountains, and in some cases, prayers, songs, glaciers, looms, and moccasins. In most traditions, persons share their power with others. Persons have inherent moral worth and are deserving of moral respect. The wording here is intentional. Moral worth is not an attribute of persons that can be separated from persons, and it is inherent in all beings.

Epistemology: Indigenous epistemologies are experiential, individual, empirical, practical, and flexible. Knowledge arises through interactions with other persons. It is personal, and relations with others create a shared knowledge community. Because knowledge is individual, Native peoples tend to be humble and avoid universal claims. Solutions for life’s problems drive knowledge acquisition and reflect the group’s interests, but their physical and theoretical environment limits the range of solutions available.9 The particular strategies employed or discarded depend on what works. If some acquired knowledge no longer has practical value, it can be discarded. Indigenous unified knowledge brings together theory and practice.

Ethics: For Indigenous people, the relational cosmos is moral, driven by life force. The main ethical principle is reciprocal responsibility.10 Persons have an obligation to respect the interests of others and find ways of interacting that promote mutual growth. Thus, the fundamental ethical problem relates to the need to survive, and survival requires food: “Who gets to eat whom, and under what circumstances?” If life force promotes growth, then the interests of the hunter and the hunted conflict. Neither’s interests outweigh the other’s. What matters is the survival of the group, not necessarily any individual. Often, moral covenants establish the proper etiquette and protocols required for maintaining appropriate relationships of respect.
Philosophy as a Moral Enterprise

From Indigenous perspectives, philosophy is a moral endeavor in three ways. First, it constructs a cognitive conception of the world. Second, as a unified approach to knowledge, it integrates all aspects of philosophy toward practical solutions. It places a moral responsibility on the philosopher to take Indigenous worldviews and lifeways seriously in a spirit of mutual respect and to broaden their own understandings of the world. To view their philosophies as curiosities and not take them seriously, the philosopher contributes to the difficulties Native peoples experience in their struggle to protect their sovereignty and land.

Final Comment

The essay attempts to open new avenues of thought among Western philosophers unfamiliar with Indigenous worldviews. The approach is to give a general overview. Space limits the detailed information necessary to provide specific applications of the theoretical notions described herein. But “one size does not fit all.” Navajo conceptions of reality are strikingly different from those of Tlingit, Lakota, or Iroquois. All, however, share aspects of the theoretical points developed above. All emphasize praxis. And all reflect a drive toward a unified theory of knowledge which integrates all aspects of philosophy. In sum, life force creates a relational cosmos through which persons come to know their world and act in ways that promote mutual care for others’ interests and well-being.


1. Jefferey D. Anderson, “Space, Time and Unified Knowledge: Following the Path of Vine Deloria, Jr,” in Indigenous Philosophies and Critical Education, ed. George Dei (New York: Peter Lang, 2011), 95.

2. Anderson, “Space, Time and Unified Knowledge,” 101.

3. Gregory Cajete, Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence, foreword by Leroy Little Bear (Santa Fe, N.M.: Clear Light Publishers, 2000), 216.

4. For a detailed discussion of the moral nature of the cosmos, see Fritz Detwiler, “Moral Foundations of Tlingit Cosmology,” in The Handbook of Contemporary Animism, ed. Graham Harvey (Durham: Acumen Pub., 2013), 167–80.

5. Kenneth M. Morrison, “Animism and a Proposal for a Post-Carteian Anthropology,” in The Handbook of Contemporary Animism [Electronic Resource], in The Handbook of Contemporary Animism, ed. Graham Harvey (Durham, UK: Acumen, 2013), 49.

6. John Fulbright, “Hopi and Zuni Prayer-Sticks: Magic, Symbolic Texts, Barter, or Self-Sacrifice,” Religion 22, no. July 1992 (1992): 223.

7. Fritz Detwiler, “All My Relatives: Persons in Oglala Religion,” Religion 22, no. 3 (1992): 239.

8. Thomas M. Norton-Smith, The Dance of Person and Place: One Interpretation of American Indian Philosophy, SUNY Series in Living Indigenous Philosophies (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010), 88.

9. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, The Relative Native: Essays on Indigenous Conceptual Worlds, Special Collections in Ethnographic Theory (Chicago: Hau Books, 2015), 16–18.

10. Eva Marie Garroutte, Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 118.

Gregory W. Dawes “Immanentist Religiosity: Broadening the Scope of Comparative Studies”

Gregory Dawes gained his first graduate degree at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome (1988) before completing PhDs in Biblical Studies (1995) and Philosophy (2007). His earlier work examined the challenges to belief that arose from the historical study of Christian origins. This led him to the study of the relations between science and religion and, more generally, of the various ‘modes of thought’ found across cultures. His recent books include Galileo and the Conflict between Religion and Science (Routledge, 2016), Religion, Philosophy and Knowledge (Palgrave Pivot, 2016), and Deprovincializing Science and Religion (Cambridge Elements, 2021). We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

When hearing the phrase ‘comparative philosophy of religion’, you may think of a comparison of major religious traditions, in particular the ‘big five’: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Such comparisons are surely valuable. But in the context of the longue durée of human history, religions of this kind are in the minority. They resemble each other insofar as each has been reshaped (in varying degrees) by the ‘axial age’ revolutions in human thought. These revolutions led to a distinction between divinity and what came to be known as the ‘natural world,’ coupled with a strong focus on individual ethical behavior with a view to an otherworldly salvation or liberation. For most of their history, human beings have lived in communities whose religious practices had a very different character. We can understand this difference by way of a distinction that has recently become influential in the study of religion. It is that between transcendentalist and immanentist forms of religiosity.

This distinction has been popularized by the work of Alan Strathern and Marshall Sahlins. But its earliest use appears to have been in the work of Iwao Munakata, a scholar of Japanese ‘folk religion.’ For Munakata, the indigenous religious practices of Japan were characterized by a conviction that ‘although the gods reside in the world of souls, they have ready access to this world’, engaging in ‘continual intercourse with village life.’ Divinity is represented by such practices as immanent in the world.

Strathern’s development of this idea generalizes it, setting out ten characteristics of immanentist religion. These include a ‘promiscuous attribution of personhood,’ a pragmatic orientation towards collective flourishing in the here and now, gods (or ‘metapersons’) whose activities are characterized by power rather than ethics, and little interest in questions of ‘belief.’ In all these respects, immanentist religions can be contrasted with ‘transcendentalist’ ones (like the ‘big five’). Transcendalist religions restrict the range of entities to whom personhood is attributed, are oriented towards ‘otherworldly’ and individual rather than collective goals, have a strong ethical component, and develop of bodies of doctrine.

Strathern’s important insight is that even transcendentalist religions retain significant elements of immanentist practice. In medieval Europe, for example ‘people continued to populate their environment with a multitude of sprites, ghosts, goblins, witches, demons, [and] tree spirits,’ while Roman Catholic practices became merged with ideas that their opponents regarded as magical. Foremost among those opponents were the Protestant Reformers, whose movement can be regarded as an effort to purge Christianity of its immanentism, an effort that seems doomed to failure. Pentecostal Christianity, for instance, has returned to forms of religious practice that bear some of the marks of immanentism.

My suggestion is that a comparative philosophy of religion should broaden its scope to include the more purely immanentist forms of religiosity. There are already a few examples of this, such as the recent volume on Animism and Philosophy of Religion, edited by Tiddy Smith. But as Smith himself notes, this is an outlier in the field. So we need more works of this kind. Including immanentist forms of religiosity in the scope of our work would enrich the philosophy of religion in a number of ways.

A first is that such ‘religions’ – the term is not helpful here, since these forms of religiosity are neither institutionalized nor set apart from everyday life – have little interest in matters of belief, and even less in systems of theology. To ask of practitioners what they ‘believe’ is unlikely to yield a consistent picture. So a study of immanentist religiosity will involve abandoning the conception of religion that thinks of its defining feature as belief. Immanentist religiosity is primarily a matter of practice, with ‘beliefs’ (in the sense of ways in which practices are understood) being varying and context-dependent. To understand such ‘religions’ philosophically, we will need to reflect on their practices. What do such practices do? What effect do they seek to have? What is their value?

A second important feature of such religions is that they are (in Strathern’s words) ‘empirical, pragmatic, and experimental.’ Philosophers are fond of saying that religious beliefs have a low degree of empirical content, being largely unfalsifiable. But because the focus of immanentist religious practices is well-being in the ‘here and now,’ practitioners can assess the efficacy of those practices. If they are apparently failing – if children die, crops do not grow, or animals do not flourish – the practice (and the ‘beliefs’ that go with it) may be abandoned. The anthropologist Joel Robbins cites a story from Papua New Guinea in which the arrival of Christianity resulted in elders putting the new religion to the test. They planted two gardens, treating one with Christian prayer and the other with traditional incantations. Some Polynesian peoples even had rituals for getting rid of gods that were judged to be no longer useful.

Finally, a focus on immanentist ‘religions’ can remind us of the separability of religion and ethics. The gods of immanentist societies are not particularly ethical, even by the standards of the society that interacts with them. Plato, for example, proposed censoring Homer and Hesiod because of the ways in which they depicted the behaviour of the gods. Gods of this kind are characterized primarily in terms of their power to bring about certain effects. Nor are immanentist notions of the afterlife associated with morality. While practically all peoples assume that humans continue to exist (for a period, at least) after their death, immanentist societies do not link this assumption with the idea of post-mortem reward or punishment.

It was not uncommon for Christian missionaries, when encountering immanentist religious practice, to deny that these peoples had a religion at all, so different was it from the religions with which they were familiar. My fellow philosophers may not be pleased by the suggestion, but their focus on the ‘big five’ religions (or, more commonly, just one of these) suggests they may share this missionary prejudice.

Graham Oppy – “Some Thoughts about Comparative Philosophy of Religion”

Graham Oppy is Professor of Philosophy at Monash University, and editor of the Australasian Philosophical Review. His recent books include: Is There a God? A Debate (Routledge, 2022, with Kenny Pearce); Atheism: The Basics (Routledge, 2019); Naturalism and Religion (Routledge, 2018); Atheism and Agnosticism (CUP, 2018); Describing Gods (CUP, 2014); Reinventing Philosophy of Religion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014); and The Best Argument against God (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

In general, philosophy of X takes, as its primary subject matter, philosophical questions thrown up by X. So, for example, the primary subject matter of philosophy of science is philosophical questions thrown up by science. Of course, there is contestation about exactly what science is. But it is not contestable that there are many sciences: physics, chemistry, neurophysiology, etc. Moreover, it is not contestable that there are important and interesting questions in philosophy of science that require consideration of a range of sciences. We cannot say, for example, whether natural sciences and social sciences employ the same methods if we do not pay serious attention to both natural sciences and human sciences.

What goes for philosophy of science goes, too, for philosophy of religion. Philosophy of religion takes, as its primary subject matter, philosophical questions thrown up by religion. Sure, there is contestation about exactly what religion is. But it is not contestable that there are many religions: Islam, Buddhism, Daoism, Dayawism, Hyel, Midewiwin, Aluk, and so on. And it is not contestable that there are important and interesting questions in philosophy of religion that require consideration of a range of religions. We cannot say, for example, what role mastery of existential anxiety plays in religion if we do not pay serious attention to a wide range of religions.

Nothing that I have just said counts against the claim that some philosophers of religion legitimately specialise in philosophical questions that concern a particular religion and that can be pursued without paying attention to other religions (or even other branches of the given religion). The claim, that it is necessary that excellent philosophy of religion is comparative, goes too far. The most that anyone should want to assert here is that there are important and fruitful questions in philosophy of religion that require a comparative approach that considers a range of different religions.
Moreover—though this is a slightly different issue—we might well want to add that, if philosophy of religion is genuinely flourishing, then there will be people in the field working on philosophical questions that are particular to a wide range of different religions.

There are significant challenges to comparative work in philosophy of religion. In particular, there is a practical problem about competence: many people who work in philosophy of religion have an insider perspective on, and know a great deal about, their own religion, but have an outsider perspective on, and know very little about, any religions other than their own. Of course, it is impossible to have an insider perspective on more than a handful of religions. For this reason, it may be that doing serious comparative philosophy of religion really will require some innovation in both questions and methods. (It is worth bearing in mind that there are in the order of 7000 languages and 4000 religions in the world. No single person can be fluent in all of these languages and genuinely knowledgeable about all of these religions.)

Despite the real problems that arise if we are to do excellent comparative philosophy of religion, I do not think that there is a conceptual challenge that arises in the need to work with ‘appropriately vague categories’ that have the flexibility to be applied to a wide range of different religions. At the very worst, what might actually be needed is the development of new, precise vocabulary that is suited to the framing and answering of philosophical questions about religions in general. But, in fact, I suspect that we need very little by way of linguistic innovation in order to be able to carry out comparative philosophy of religion—though we shall certainly need to be open to using terms from a wide range of different languages and religious traditions.

One set of questions that clearly arises for comparative philosophy of religion concerns the choice of particular religions as yardsticks for comparison. Theorists might begin with the assumption that what needs investigating—in a comparative context—is how other religions measure up against their own religion. However, while that starting assumption might be suitable for apologetic purposes, it is not obvious that it is suitable for those who genuinely seek to understand religions other than their own. Where religions are associated with philosophical traditions—including traditions of pursuing philosophy of religion—part of what is up for comparison is the philosophies— epistemologies, metaphysics, philosophies of language, philosophies of science, philosophies of religion, and so forth—that are associated with those religions. (For a now quite old article that takes up some of the issues being gestured at in this paragraph, see: P. Bilimoria (2003) “What is the ‘Subaltern’ of the Comparative Philosophy of Religion?” Philosophy East and West 53: 340. For a more recent article that also takes up some of these issues, see: J. Frazier (2020) “’The View from Above’: A Theory of Comparative Philosophy” Religious Studies 56: 32-48. Perhaps it is worth noting here that discussion about the prospects for comparative philosophy of religion has a significant history. SUNY established a series Toward a Comparative Philosophy of Religion in the 1990s, and Rowman and Littlefield established a series of Studies in Comparative Philosophy and Religion in the 2000s. Much more recently, Springer established a series on Comparative Philosophy of Religion.)

One domain that a developing concentration on comparative philosophy of religion might open up is what could be called comparative philosophy of heterodoxy. There is not much comparative material in contemporary philosophy of religion on zindiqs, nastikas (e.g. charvakas), minim, heretics, apostates, and so on. Nor is there much comparative material in contemporary philosophy of religion on kafirs, chuhras, shiksas, giaours, heathens, ‘outsiders’, and so forth. And there is much that remains to be written, from a comparative perspective in philosophy of religion, on naturalism, materialism, irreligion, non-religious morality, non-religious virtue, non-religious aesthetics, and the like. On the other hand, though, a developing concentration on comparative philosophy of religion might simply extend the period in which philosophy of religion has tended to ignore the various ‘others’ to religion.

Mikel Burley – “Different Senses and Purposes of Comparative Philosophy of Religion”

Mikel Burley is Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Leeds, UK. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

There are various ways of understanding the term “comparative philosophy of religion.” An initial distinction can be made between, on the one hand, a philosophical comparison of different religions and, on the other hand, a comparison of different philosophical views of religion. The first of these understandings is exemplified by Franklin Gamwell when he defines comparative philosophy of religion as critical reflection upon the question, “What are the most general similarities and differences among religions?” (Gamwell 1994, p. 22). The second understanding is exemplified by John Clayton, who borrows from Wilhelm Halbfass the term “dialogic comparison” to specify the comparative analysis of ideas from distinct philosophical traditions that bear upon religiously relevant matters. As a case in point, Clayton compares certain views of the eleventh-to-twelfth-century South Indian philosopher Rāmānuja with those of the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume, with particular attention to their respective critiques of the claims of natural theology (Clayton 2006, chap. 5).

The above distinction between two broad understandings of what comparative philosophy of religion amounts to is, however, not a sharp one. One reason for this is that the distinction between a first-order religious claim and a second-order philosophical claim about religion is itself often blurry. When, for example, Rāmānuja argues, against his philosophical arch-rival Śaṅkara, that spiritual liberation cannot consist in a state of pure egoless consciousness because no intelligent person would ever strive to attain a state in which personal existence has been extinguished, is Rāmānuja making a religious point, a philosophical point, a point about human psychological motivation—or all three of these at once (see Rāmānuja 1904, p. 70)? And when Hume, in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) gives expression to divergent viewpoints through the respective dramatis personae of Demea, Philo, and Cleanthes, ought we to regard those viewpoints as religious or as philosophical? Again, the distinction remains fuzzy.

Notwithstanding the permeability of the boundary between religious and philosophical positions, one of the most important benefits of a comparative approach to philosophy of religion is the extent to which it facilitates, precisely, the bringing into relief of diverse perspectives. As the pioneering scholar of religion Max Müller famously observed, when it comes to the study of religions, “He who knows one, knows none” (1882, p. 13, original emphasis), a dictum that he borrows from Goethe, who applied it to languages. Müller is not denying that one can have a deep practical knowledge of a religion to which one is personally committed without knowing about other religions; rather, his point is that one cannot know “what religion really is” if one has knowledge of only one (ibid.). In other words, without comparison, one will not be in a position to take a genuinely scholarly view—one might say, a genuinely philosophical view—of the concept and subject matter of religion.

Talk of “what religion really is” might be heard as implying some essentialist metaphysical thesis, as though the question “What is religion?” could be answered only by specifying a concise set of individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions. But it need not be heard in this way. It could just as readily turn out that “what religion really is” is many things—a plurality, with numerous overlapping features but no universal essence. Yet regardless of whether one’s inquiry takes one in an essentializing direction or a pluralizing direction, the inquiry cannot get off the ground unless one ventures beyond a single religion and begins to think about the category of religion more broadly.

A further distinction to be made in relation to comparative philosophy of religion concerns the purpose of the inquiry. Gamwell’s question, “What are the most general similarities and differences among religions?”, does not, in itself, imply that the inquiry should involve any judgment about which of the religions examined is the truest or the most ethically impressive or the best in some other respect. One possible purpose for the comparative philosophy of religion is to gain a deeper understanding of the particularities of different religious—and also nonreligious—positions without seeking to reach a normative verdict about which is best. Indeed, there is a danger that the urge to reach such a verdict could distort one’s perception of the phenomena, tempting one to accentuate some aspects and downplay others to suit one’s personal preferences. Avoiding such distortions requires concentrated effort and an ethical commitment to do what D. Z. Phillips calls “conceptual justice” to the variety of perspectives that exist. Phillips draws an analogy between this style of philosophizing and the work of a dramatist who authors a play featuring characters with diverse points of view. Although some dramatists may wish to resolve tensions or to present one set of values as superior to all the others, this is not the only option. An alternative approach is simply to lay bare the tensions and conflicts, enabling the audience to understand them more clearly (Phillips 2007, p. 207).

Other philosophers, by contrast, will feel that “merely” deepening one’s understanding of the particularities of divergent perspectives falls short of the crucial task, leaving us “with a sense that the problems themselves have been bypassed” (Cheetham 2008, p. 112). Even those who share this sense, however, should not be too hasty to overlook the potentially transformative consequences of approaches that are not overtly fixated on solving “problems.” For something that comparison can do in a remarkably powerful way is to disclose to us the contingency of many of our assumptions and attitudes. By making a sustained effort to encounter and get to grips with other points of view, whether religious, nonreligious, or ambivalent between religion and its rejection, we open ourselves up to alternative ways of being human. The significance—and indeed the unsettling potentiality—of such encounters ought not to be underestimated.

Works Cited

Cheetham, David. 2008. “Comparative Philosophy of Religion.” In Contemporary Practice and Method in the Philosophy of Religion: New Essays, edited by David Cheetham and Rolfe King, 101–116. London: Continuum.

Clayton, John. 2006. Religions, Reasons and Gods: Essays in Cross-Cultural Philosophy of Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gamwell, Franklin I. 1994. “A Foreword to Comparative Philosophy of Religion.” In Religion and Practical Reason: New Essays in the Comparative Philosophy of Religions, edited by Frank E. Reynolds and David Tracy, 21–58. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Hume, David. 1779. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 2nd edition. London: n.p.

Müller, F. Max. 1882. Introduction to the Science of Religion, new edition. Oxford: Longmans, Green, and Co.

Phillips, D. Z. 2007. “Philosophy’s Radical Pluralism in the House of Intellect – A Reply to Henk Vroom.” In D. Z. Phillips’ Contemplative Philosophy of Religion: Questions and Responses, edited by Andy F. Sanders, 197–211. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Rāmānuja. 11th century CE. 1904. Śrībhāṣya. In The Vedânta-Sûtras with the Commentary by Râmânuga [sic], translated by George Thibaut. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Laura Weed “It is Time to End the Science vs. Religion Conflict in Philosophy of Religion”

Laura Weed retired this year from the College of Saint Rose, where she spent most of her career as a Professor of Philosophy. She is the editor of Mysticism, Ineffabilty and Silence in Philosophy of Religion Springer Press 2023, author of The Structure of Thinking 2003 Imprint Academic UK. We invited her to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

One of the classical topics in Philosophy of Religion has been the debate between atheism, understood as a scientific approach to understanding religion, and theism, held as a stand-in for all religions, which are cast in this debate as unscientific, at least, and often as irrational, because unscientific. But during the last few centuries, while this debate has been raging within and without philosophy of religion, both science and the understanding of religion have become more complex, diverse, and comparative. The simple Newtonian atomism of Hume1 and the enlightenment has grown up to become quantum field theory, consciousness studies, neuroscience, and the endocrinology of emotions; and the study of religion has branched out past dualistic theism into Daoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Indigenous religion, cross-cultural studies of ritual and mythology, and studies of intersections of mysticism and neuroscience. I will argue that in the contemporary intellectual environment, the grossly oversimplified ‘atheism vs. theism’ or ‘science vs. religion’ dichotomy represents a mistaken understanding of both science and religion.

First, the traditional debate oversimplifies physics. Isaac Newton understood all of science as interactions of computable force and mass, and philosophers such as David Hume2 and Thomas Hobbes3 thought that all of reality, including humans, could be reduced to a Newtonian set of calculations of interaction between force and mass. The New Atheists, such as Daniel Dennett4 and E.O. Wilson5 are still defending this Newtonian and Hobbesian view of reality, including the reduction of humans and all of our hopes and dreams to mechanical attractions and aversions. Meanwhile, science has moved on. Quantum physicists such as Henry Stapp,6 Paul Davies,7 and Roger Penrose8 are arguing for a view of reality as based on information, rather than the enlightenment’s blind, inert matter. Information is more cognitive than Locke’s ‘matter,’9 is based in mathematics and knowledge, rather than physical substances, and involves such quantum (and Aristotelian)10 notions as directionality and choice. Metaphysically, this more refined physics supports a view of reality that leans in the direction of a panpsychism,11 in which information is the ultimate stuff of reality, which produces both matter and mind, when quantum waves collapse.

Second, the traditional debate oversimplifies the biological sciences, psychology, and the study of emotions. The contemporary study of human consciousness has shown us to be far more than rocks banging into each other or rolling down hills. Holmes Ralston III12 and Terence Deacon13 have shown that DNA is intentional and directional, having needs and values inherent in its existence, and Consciousness Studies is showing the importance of what we think and feel, our qualia and self-organization, and how different that is from the Newtonian dynamics of billiard balls hitting each other. Also, Antonio Damasio14 has shown that even our cognitive ability is deeply emotional, and Lewis, Amini, and Lannon15 have shown how central to our basic capacity to function it is to be well loved and cared for, counter enlightenment individualism.

Third, the atheism vs. theism debate overly limits religion. By focusing exclusively on a few theological debates within the Abrahamic religions, this debate limits discussion to a few topics, i.e. the existence of a transcendent, non-physical deity, the capacity of miracles to cure illnesses, etc. I often found after I taught the Ontological argument,16 there would be a student who would ask “Does this have anything to do with my religion?” To which, of course, the answer is that Anselm is discussing the God of the Philosophers, which may not have anything to do with why anyone practices a religion. Mikel Burley offers an antidote to the ethnocentrism and over-conceptualization of most Western-based—i.e., colonial—approaches to the study of religion by suggesting a Wittgensteinian and anthropological approach to the cross-cultural study of religions.17 He proposes deep description of religious practices, which seeks cross cultural ‘family resemblances’ but does not impose categories of comparison on religions. He also recommends studying stories as well as arguments from compared religious traditions, to allow the religions to express themselves in their own terms.18 Michelle Panchuk and Oludamini Ogunnaike would extend Burley’s comparative approach even further, requiring the inclusion of oppressed voices—often women, for Panchuck—within any given religious tradition and requiring an ethical evaluation of one’s own descriptions to ensure equality and justice, for Ogunnaike. Both Panchuk and Ogunnaike argue that Wittgensteinian neutrality among categories and description is very difficult or impossible to achieve, and is sometimes merely preserving or endorsing an unjust and oppressive status quo.19 Broadening the topics of conversation and description, and rules for discussion in some of these ways would make Philosophy of Religion more fair to the actual practice of religion by actual people. The change in approach might produce a discussion of what religious people think about divinity, and what they think they are doing when they practice religion.

Fourth, the science vs. religion debate misunderstands what people claim to know when they claim religious knowledge. Typically, the debate is framed in rationalist or empiricist terms, requiring either deductive proof—of a proposition, of an Anselmian type20—or empirical evidence, such as Aquinas offers in the Cosmological arguments.21 But religious claims to enlightenment often are less direct, and more personal or interpersonal. Personal and interpersonal approaches to knowledge, the first and second-person approaches, have long been dismissed by western science, and in the science vs. religion debate they are often ruled out of court at the outset.22 However, as William James pointed out, religious experience is often both ineffable and noetic,23 and as many religions argue, requires trust and love, completely alien ideas to either rationalist or empiricist approaches to knowledge. Values, too, are deeply personal or interpersonal forms of knowledge, not apparent to scientific ‘facts’.24 For these reasons, the science vs. religion debate has discounted these approaches to knowledge as ‘irrational.’ A religious philosopher could concede the word ‘rational’ to empiricism, rationalism, and propositional knowledge and still argue that humans have non-rational, but not irrational ways to gain knowledge, and that some of these ways of gaining knowledge are ultimately more important than the scientifically authorized routes. For example, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan considers philosophy a Darshana, an intuitive practice, aimed at self-knowledge, through dissolving the walls between the objective and subjective worlds.25 Contemporary theories of perception frequently stress embodied knowledge and kinesthetic self-awareness, such as Andy Clark’s “What reaching teaches”26 and J.J. Gibson’s account of affordances as forms of knowledge.27 Meditation has been shown, through neuroscience, to change the brains of meditators, even to the point at which they value AUB (Newberg and D’Aquili’s Absolute Unitary Being) as more real than ordinary empirical or cognitive experience.28 Francisco Varela has pointed out that consciousness contains several layers of processes that operate at varying speeds, only one of which is the waking processes of cognition and perception. Meditation and sleep access other potentially conscious processes.29 Even studies of rituals and psychedelics are showing potential for possible resources for healing. Buddhists and environmentalists have long spoken of presencing30 to explain the need for humans for touch and social contact with others, including animals and nature.31 Many researchers have begun to explore these ‘means of knowledge’ that have long been acknowledged in religions, although western science has discounted them.

I conclude that it is time to end the science vs. religion debate, and replace those discussions with broader notions of science, of religion, of knowledge, and of philosophy of religion. These debates have been counter-productive, shutting scientifically-minded persons off from spiritual fulfillment and leading religions to defend hopeless positions such as anti-evolutionary and anti-vaccine positions. We still have much to learn, and the traditional way of structuring the debate is preventing the incorporation of many new ways of understanding both science and religion.


1. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature. 2nd ed. L.A Selby-Bigg. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 1978. See especially, Book 1, Sec. 1.

2. Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, especially Part 3.

3. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Edwin Curley. Hackett Publishing Co. Indianapolis, IN, 1994, pp. 6-27.

4. See for example, Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained. Little Brown Publishing, Boston, MA, 1991.

5. See for example, E.O. Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition. President and Fellows of Harvard College, Boston, MA, 1975, 2000.

6. Henry P. Stapp, Mind, Matter and Quantum Mechanics. 2nd ed. Springer Press, Berlin, Germany, 2003, especially Chap.12.

7. Paul Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint. Templeton Foundation Press, Radnor, PA, 2004, especially Chaps. 12 & 13.

8. Roger Penrose, The Emperor’s New Mind. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. 1989, especially Chaps. 6, 7 &10.

9. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter H. Nidditch. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 1975, pp. 308-311, 313, 498, 542, 623.

10. Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon. Random House, NY, 1941, p. 935.

11. See, for example, Panpsychism: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Godehard Brϋntrup & Ludwig Jaskolla. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 2017.

12. Holmes Ralston III, A New Environmental Ethics, 2nd ed. Routledge Press, New York, NY, 2020, especially Chaps 4 & 6.

13. Terrence W. Deacon, Incomplete Nature, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY, 2012.

14. Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens, Harvest Book, Harcourt, Orlando, FL. 1999.

15. Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, A General Theory of Love. Vintage Books, Random House, New York, NY, 2000.

16. Anselm of Canterbury, Prosologion, Chaps. 2-4, reprinted in Medieval Philosophy, 2nd ed. eds. Forrest E. Baird and Walter Kaufmann. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 1997, pp. 157-165.

17. Mikel Burley, A Radical Pluralist Philosophy of Religion: Cross-Cultural, Multireligious and Interdisciplinary. Bloomsbury, London, 2020.

18. Burley, 2020.

19. Roundtable discussion of Mikel Burley, A Radical Pluralist Philosophy of Religion: Cross-Cultural, Multireligious and Interdisciplinary. Bloomsbury, London, 2020, in JAAR vol.89 issue 2, June 2021, pp. 721-738.

20. Anselm, Prosologion.

21. St. Thomas Aquinas, “The Five Ways to Prove the Existence of God” in Summa Theologica Part I, Question 2, Article 3. Christian Classics, Allen Texas, 1981.

22. See for example, Richard Dawkins, “Science discredits Religion”, in Quarterly Review of Biology, vol.72, 1997, pp. 397-399.

23. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Mentor Books, NY, 1958, pp. 318-320.

24. For a claim that facts are value-free, see David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, pp. 457-463.

25. Sarvepali Radhakrishnan, Intellect and Intuition in Shankara’s Philosophy, posted at, downloaded Jan, 2014

26. Andy Clark, “What Reaching Teaches.” in Supersizing the Mind. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 2008, pp. 180-187.

27. James Jerome Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Taylor and Francis, New York, NY, 1986, pp. 127-143

28. Eugene d’Aquili and Andrew Newberg, The Mystical Mind. Fortress Press, Minneaplois, MN, 1999, pp. 177-193.

29. Francisco Varela and Jonathan Shear, eds. The View from Within, First-person approaches to
the study of consciousness
. Imprint Academic, Thorverton, UK, 1999, especially “Present Time Consciousness” pp. 111-140.

30. Joyce V. Zerwekh, “The Practice of Presencing” Seminars in Oncology Nursing Vol.13 Issue 4, November 1997, pp. 260-262. Elsevier, Science Direct

31. Mark Larrimore, “Learning to do Philosophy of Religion in the Anthropocene.” in The Future of the Philosophy of Religion, eds, M. David Eckel, C. Allen Speight, and Troy DuJardin. Springer Nature, Switzerland, 2021, especially pp. 147-149.

Nathan R. B. Loewen on “Feminist theory and method: A long-overlooked resource for comparative philosophy of religion”

Dr. Nathan Loewen is an Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. His research develops publications and collaborations to advance the Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion project, such as Diversifying Philosophy of Religion: Critiques, Methods, and Case Studies (Bloomsbury, 2023) and Beyond the Problem of Evil: Derrida and the Anglophone Philosophy of Religion (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018). As part of the REL digital lab, Loewen’s ongoing research also integrates conventional close readings in philosophy of religion with digital tools to develop resources that widen the scope of topics and analytical methods in his field. That work provides Loewen the background to teach seminars on “Public Humanities” for the department’s MA program. As Faculty Technology Liaison for the College of Arts and Sciences, Loewen helps develop online courses, edits the Teaching Hub, supports UA’s Quality Enhancement Plan and AI Teaching Enhancement Initiative, and participates in campus technology committees. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Perusing the entries in this series of brief, online essays seems to demonstrate the possibility of a turn towards theory and method in studies of philosophy of religion. I suggest that to reflect on theory and method is to think about how form informs content. The important contribution of this series is to mark a shift away from the field’s conventional focus on the content of ‘religion.’ Until recently, the topical foci of the field’s discourses have rarely included interrogations of decisions made to arrive at their contents. There are few discourses from within the field that interrogate what interests made those decisions, rather than others, operational for the philosophers of religion. The focus of this series on the evaluation of categories marks an important turn in 21st-century philosophy of religion.

To me, the very recent timing of this turn may explain why philosophy of a religion, as a field, largely failed to engage feminist thought in the 20th century. Doing so would have required more than adding categories, such as “women,” to discourses on proofs of God, problems of evil, and the truth content of mystical or near-death experiences, etc. To focus only on the content of ‘religion’ effectively deflects feminist critiques that might transform the field. To focus on the theoretical and methodological decisions of the field would show how conceptual frameworks are deployed in ways that reproduce and reinforce social conditions. Feminist thought always asks how decisions about form shape the content of scholarship. I suggest that the question asked by feminist theory can form the backbone for robust comparative inquiry. Nancy Frankenberry’s introduction to a 1994 special issue of Hypatia asks twice on the first page: where are the feminist philosophers of religion?1 Frankenberry’s introduction calls for PoRs to, “elaborate new models of interpretation, a broader theory of evidence, a cross-cultural conception of human rationality, and a more complex appraisal of the norms applicable to cases of divergent, rival religious claims.”2 In other words, before the 21st century, certain scholars already realized the need to rethink categories for the philosophy of religion. In 1998, Pamela Sue Anderson asked that PoRs, “take on board the difficulties raised by the multiple differences of agents according to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and material and social conditions.”3 These categories likely require reappraising the topics available for study. Substantive engagements with feminist theory may lead PoRs towards robust comparative scholarship.

A very quick example explains one way feminist theory in general may usefully clear the way for comparative scholarship. Many publications in the field conceptualize “PoR” as studies of systems. The term ‘tradition’ does little to shift presuppositions away from a systems-orientation in philosophy of religion. Sometimes the systems are received ready-made for study, or the scholar does the work of system-building prior to studying the system (e.g., internal/external validity, cross-system comparison). Doing PoR in this manner—by system-building and system-analysis—depends on a prior, favorable disposition towards systems. Such approaches lack the reflexivity that would consider how the imposition of systems onto data plays a role in the production of political economies that may marginalize or occlude differences of gender and sexuality. To approach religions as traditions or systems reintroduces and reinforces the conceptual frameworks with which feminist scholarship takes issue from the outset. Feminist theories analyze the tools by which the proverbial masters build their houses. In contrast, content-oriented approaches that conceptualize ‘religions’ as systems are likely limited to continue producing comparisons of various masters’ tools and houses.4

Paying attention to feminist theory and method, I suggest, is a way for PoRs to investigate the tension between the intellectual commitments of their studies in relation to the scope of their data and the identities of their interlocutors. PoRs might better understand the importance of interrogating their theoretical and methodological interests if they realize that the interests and commitments of their field are not accidental. Frankenberry’s 1994 question about the existence of feminist PoRs sets into relief how histories of scholarly acts could have been otherwise. Other scholarly worlds are indeed possible in the 21st century. (There is some catching up to do.) When PoRs focus on the fallible conditions of their scholarly acts, they can then interrogate, rather than justify, the composition and scope of their categories. If PoRs recognize their scholarly acts produce interlocking contingencies that are just as ontologically unstable as their objects of study (if not more!), then there is good reason to believe that feminist theory may contribute to comparative scholarship in the field. By doing so, comparative work in the philosophy of religion may constructively respond to Beverly Clack’s proposal for PoRs, “to think differently about the world; to problematize that which seems self-evident or which is taken to be ‘commonsense.’”5

1. Nancy Frankenberry, “Introduction: Prolegomenon to Future Feminist Philosophies of Religions,” Hypatia 9, no. 4 (1994): 1.

2. Ibid., 13.

3. Pamela Sue Anderson, A Feminist Philosophy of Religion: The Rationality and Myths of Religious Belief (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1998), 87.

4. Drawing upon the oft-quoted phrase from Audre Lorde; in Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in Feminist Postcolonial Theory, eds. Reina Lewis and Sara Mills, 25–28 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2022).

5. Beverley Clack, “Philosophy of Religion in an Age of Austerity: Towards a Socially Engaged Philosophy for the Well-Lived Life,” Political Theology: The Journal of Christian Socialism 13, no. 2 (2012); 171.

Parviz Morewedge on “Muslim Philosophies of Religion in Light of Previous Zoroastrian and Monotheistic Traditions”

Parviz Morewedge (UCLA: B.A., Ph.D.) is the author/editor of 14 books and 70 essays/reviews. He taught for over 57 years at US Universities, including Cornell, Columbia, and UCLA and held seminars in 24 countries. He also served as a UN diplomat for 15 years and was employed for six years in logical design (PC and Automata). He is the CEO of Global Scholarly Publications, which has published 500 books and 10 journals. His hobbies are the early classics of Chinese, Japanese, and Russian cultures and visiting museums in NYC, his present residence. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

This essay depicts differences in the logic, method, and contents of major Islamic philosophies of religion and monotheistic religions. Greek and/or Western philosophers will be compared with their Islamic counterparts in a few disciplines. Regarding cosmogony, ibn Sina (970-1037) [widely acknowledged as the greatest Muslim philosopher] and N. Tusi (1201-1271), the chief Shi`a theologian, defend emanation from The Necessary Existent as a cosmogenic model (analogous to ‘the One’ of Plotinus) against Aristotle’s co-eternity and monotheistic creation model of the world out of “nothing,” which was considered meaningless by the Greeks and rejected by almost all of the Muslim philosophers.

I. Cosmology (especially in relation to time)

Ibn Sina’s ultimate being (the Necessary Existent), unlike Aristotle’s unmoved mover, is not a substance. Muslim philosophers often rely on the active intellect as the major link between the heavenly and the terrestrial realms. Christians and Muslims following orthodox theology accept the exceptional case of the immaculate conception of Christ by the Holy Ghost (4, V.1, pp. 277-281). Plotinus’ emanation has complex features: for example, the souls are sisters of the world soul—without there being a hierarchy, (The Enneads IV 3 (27), 1-8). The intellect (nous), is depicted as the father generating/perfecting souls for adulthood (V 9 (5), 4.9; also V 1 (10), 3.14). Our souls can be deceived by the attractions of entities embodied in the world, as a young girl may be deceived by a lover and taken from her father (VI 9 (9), 9.34; also V 5 (32) 12.36, vol. 8, pp. 57-87). Unlike Manichaean philosophers and some versions of the monotheistic traditions, ibn Sina and Plotinus consider “evil” as not an actuality but as a privation of the Good, analogous to “darkness” as a privation (adam) of light. According to ibn Sina, the ultimate achievable happiness is a union-blending (paiwand) with the Necessary Existent (6, p. 71)—which is comparable to Plato’s hint that the highest happiness of the individual soul is “likeness to God as far as is possible” (I.2.1; cf. Plato, Theaetetus 176b). Another topic is the notion of “temporality.” A. R. Biruni (973-1048) reconstructs the non-Greek, Indic version of time (4, V.1, pp. 102-106). Mulla Sadra (1572-1641) proffers a non-static, Hegelian version of substantial motion. Mir Damad (1561-1631) presents a tripartite model of “meta-temporality-eternity-and temporality” (3 ,V.4, pp. 25-26). N. Tusi, proves the incompatibility of classical atomism using Euclidean Geometry, advocating a Leibnizian type of “force-energy” found in an intentional phase of hermeneutic self-realization. Plato’s celebrated quote that “time is the moving image of eternity” (Timaeus 37d;) his Allegory of the Cave in The Republic, and the idea of Love as a ladder in the search for atemporality/immortality discussed in The Symposium, along with Plotinus’ ascent of the soul towards the One serve as sources of inspiration for subsequent mystical traditions. In sum, the relation between Islamic and other cosmological doctrines cannot be viewed as a simple derivation.

II. Free will

Free will is essential to the monotheistic models that uphold the thesis of “reward and punishment”. N. Tusi’s free will, analogous to D. Hume`s account of our psychology of “causation,” is intentional: (i) We feel free when we act according to necessity; (ii) we attribute free will to others when we are ignorant of the causes of their actions. Tusi follows ibn Sina in accord with the views of many Western philosophers, such as G. Leibniz, D. Hume, and B. Spinoza. The monotheistic presupposition of free will implies many dilemmas, for the ordinary use of “will” points to its being a dispositional rather than an occurrent property (e.g., the salt is white). Consequently, there can never be any perception that involves an impression of a “will.” I. Kant`s ethics is a conditional rather than a categorical reference or a “proof” for “free will”; at best it could be used as a pragmatic recommendation, along with J. Dewey’s type of approach, asking, for instance “free from what? What are laws of nature?” By identifying themselves with the total unity of the world, secular nature/sufi mystics interpret the notion of free will as an illusion of alienation.

III. Methodology in cosmology and the sciences

The syntactical approach of ibn Sina—like that of 20th Century logicians (culminating in R. Carnap’s philosophy)—offers a reconstruction of a meta-language model for problems in other domains, expressed however in ordinary languages and specific scientific inquiries. Here is an example taken from ibn Sina: wujud (being-qua-being) signifies the most determinable concept with three modalities: b-1 wajib (being a necessity), b-2, mumkin (being not an impossibility), and mumtani (being impossible). The syntactical concatenation of “necessity” with “being” implies “a necessary being,” from which one can deduce “the Necessary Existent,” that is neither a substance nor an accident, as it cannot have a definition.

In a similar tenor, N. Tusi applies a syntactical necessity to the notion of “The Maker, (not the creator)” as follows: The notion of being a mother implies begetting a child. Consequently, if the finite human being cannot relate directly to an infinite deity, then there must be an Imam (a messenger) who is revealed to humanity. Incidentally, the root of this tradition is found in Aristotle, William of Ockham, and G. Leibniz. By contrast, monotheism uses ordinary language, allegories, and analogies to present a view of the deity in its appeals to revelation. Sufis, like mystics of other traditions, employ allegorical theology that is embedded in intentionality but is absent from standard logical models.

A number of Muslim religious thinkers claim that due to the transcendent feature of the Divine, humans can access the results of God’s acts only as they construe these in terms of a world order (nizam-i khaiyr a- kuli); consequently, as stated by Nasir Khosrow (1004-1088), religion via Shahada (being a witness to the beauty of the world) and Science (attempting to formulate laws to explain the world) pursue the same object, namely the actual world (4,V.1, pp. 415-420). Mysticism, according to Plato and Plotinus (the great rationalists), is an allegorical account that is compatible with science similar to A. N. Whitehead’s (1867-1947) model of Process and Reality, viewed as a “meta-science.” Our interpretation rejects the views of a few contemporary writers, such as that of D. Gutas, who has an anti-rational view of mysticism; the claims of those who see Islamic philosophy as derived from Judaism, such as H. D. Wolfson, A. Ivry, and Len Goodman; and the early L. Wittgenstein (1889-1951), who states one should be silent on topics such as mysticism. This notwithstanding, there are thousands of accounts on mysticism written in almost every language for more than three thousand years!

The traditional arguments for the existence of God (ontological, cosmological, and mystical) have been subject to serious criticism; it is our opinion, that in spite of its phenomenological merit, a pragmatic account for the notion of God, like that given by American pragmatists, can be formulated as a language game that does not include “logical validity” for non-abstract terms. Here we recall that pragmatists in general, like F. Nietzsche (1844-1900), do not assume any primacy of “truth” over “value.” In the Iranian Zoroastrian tradition, the notion of “Asha” implies success, according to nature (like arete in Greek); in contrast, duruq is related to “drug”, something externally inserted on a patient and not derived from the natural constituents of an agent (3, V.2, pp. 431-436). Like Islam, Zoroastrianism opposes any form of ascetism, such as the celibacy of the clergy.

IV. Universals

Implied in Its being-knowledge, the notion of God in monotheism is not essentially connected with any specific time, space, event, or process; consequently, many themes in monotheism—e.g., God’s will being independent of a particular time—rely on Platonic language. Against the Platonic version of Universals, ibn Sina interprets a nominalist view of Universals as follows. The statement, “Here are four figures,” does not imply the existence of an actual entity ‘4’ in addition to fingers (4, V.2, 295-398; 6, pp. 32-36). In their account of the classification of the sciences, ibn Sina and Tusi, adopt an Aristotelian version, but add a hermeneutic practical science of the self (khud). Evidently, Muslim philosophers did not blindly follow their Greek predecessors.

IV. God-world relations

In Judaism, especially in the I-Thou contracts of Noah and Abraham, God is presented as distinct from the rest of the world. In the Islamic concept of Total Unity (Tawhid), and the mystic notion of Wahdat-al-wujud—analogous to B. Spinoza’s (1632-1677) ocean-wave (substance-mode) analogy—we experience only modes of a single reality; rejected is the bifurcation of nature. The reference to such an ultimate being is usually allegorical; in this vein Mahmūd Shabestarī’s (1288–1340) The Flowering of (the archetypal) Secret (Gulshan-i Rāz), asserts that “I” (the heart) and “God” (referred to as the phenomenon of reception of “the black beauty mark of a pretty face” are isomorphic icons of the same reality. Jalal ad-Din Rumi’s (1207-1273) master, Shams Tabrizi, responds to Rumi’s query, “who are you?” by asserting, “I am you”; this is analogous to St. Augustine`s reference to Christ as the “inner teacher” (3, V.4, pp. 536-539). In Africana philosophy, the self is identified as an aspect of home-nature, with love of home-nature (Ecco philia) being a salient mark of humanity, which is an extreme contrast to John Locke’s individualism.

V. Concluding remarks

For more than two hundred cases as well as further clarifications, refer to the author`s essays in Encyclopedias which invite non-specialists in Islamic philosophy to explore and discover new philosophical provenances.


1. Martin, R. C. (Ed.). (2004). Encyclopedia of Islam. McMillan.

2. Borchert, D. M. (Ed.). (2006). Encyclopedia of philosophy (2nd ed., 10 vols). Thomson Gale.

3. Esposito, J. L. (Ed.). (2009). The Oxford encyclopedia of modern Islamic world. Oxford University Press.

4. Kalin, I. (Ed.). (2014). The Oxford encyclopedia of philosophy, science, and technology in Islam (2 vols.). Oxford University Press.

5. Craig, E. (Ed.). (1998). Routledge encyclopedia of philosophy (10 vols.). Routledge.

6. Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā). (1973). Dānish Nāma-i ʿalāʾi” (The book of scientific knowledge) (P. Morewedge, Trans.). Routledge and Kegan Paul.

7. Morewedge, P. (1992). Neoplatonism and Islamic thought (vol. 5). SUNY Press.

8. Helleman-Elgersma, W. (1980). Soul-Sisters: A Commentary on Enneads IV 3 (27), 1-8 of Plotinus. Brill.

Stanley Tweyman on “Comparative Philosophy of Religion: Descartes and Hume”

Stanley Tweyman is University Professor at York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He has published extensively on the Philosophies of René Descartes, David Hume, William Wollaston, and George Berkeley. His most recent book is, Method, Intuition, and Meditation in Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, Cambridge Scholars Press, UK, 2023. Professor Tweyman sits on various scholarly editorial boards, his most recent editorial appointments include: Appointed member of the Editorial Board of Humanities Bulletin, January 2021; Appointed to the International Editorial Board of the Journals in Social Sciences, Revistia Press, in collaboration with De Gruyter Press, Poland, August 2022; Appointed Editor-in-Chief of EJIS, “European Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies”, August 2022. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

For my study of the comparative philosophy of religion, I have chosen to compare the approach to knowing God developed by René Descartes (1595-1650) with the approach to knowing God developed by David Hume (1711-1776).1 In this study, I propose to accomplish two things. First, in the space permitted, I will show how each philosopher approaches the topic of God. And, once I have completed that, I will show why there is no possibility of obtaining any commonality, which would allow for an agreement between them on the topic of God.

I begin with Descartes’ approach to knowing God. Toward the end of the third meditation, Descartes realizes that his knowledge of God will not be obtained through arguments, but through ‘reflection’ or ‘meditation’ on the innate idea he has of himself as a thinking thing. In the penultimate paragraph in the third meditation, he writes:

And one certainly ought not to find it strange that God, in creating me, placed this idea within me to be like the mark of the workman imprinted on his work; and it is likewise not essential that the mark shall be something different from the work itself. For from the sole fact that God created me it is most probable that in some way he has placed his image and similitude upon me, and that I perceive this similitude (in which the idea of God is contained) by means of the same faculty by which I perceive myself … (M 71).

In the final paragraph of the third meditation, Descartes expands on the reflective/ contemplative/ meditative manner by which he will attempt to know God through the idea of God, which is contained within the idea he has of himself as a thinking thing:

…[I]t seems to me right to pause for a while in order to contemplate God Himself, to ponder at leisure His marvelous attributes, to consider, and admire, and adore, the beauty of this light so resplendent, at least as far as the strength of my mind, which is in some measure dazzled by the sight, will allow me to do so. For just as faith teaches us that the supreme felicity of the other life consists only in this contemplation of the Divine Majesty, so we continue to learn by experience that a similar meditation, though incomparably less perfect, causes us to enjoy the greatest satisfaction of which we are capable in this life (M 72).

In the Replies to the Fifth Set of Objections (M 21-22), Descartes explains that the idea of God stands to the idea of the self in a manner analogous to the relation between a painter’s technique and works of art which result from this technique. Therefore, just as observing a painting aids in apprehending the technique through which the painting has come to be, so by meditating on himself, through the innate idea he has of himself as a thinking thing, he can come to understand his creator.

I turn now to Hume’s approach to God. It is clear right at the outset of his Treatise of Human Nature (and other writings), that Hume rejects the theory of innate ideas, i.e. ideas which are in the mind from birth, and, therefore, which have no empirical content. He goes to great lengths early in the Treatise to argue that “ideas are preceded by other more lively perceptions [impressions], from which they are derived, and which they represent” (T 7). In this spirit, Philo, in the Dialogues, argues the following:

Our ideas reach no farther than our experience: We have no experience of divine attributes and operations: I need not conclude my syllogism: You can draw the inference yourself. And it is a pleasure to me … that just reasoning and sound piety here concur in the same conclusion, and both of them establish the adorably mysterious and incomprehensible nature of the Supreme Being (D 108).

Despite Hume’s scepticism that we can know anything about God, given that we lack an impression of God, in two books—the Natural History of Religion and the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion—he does speak of acknowledging ‘a first intelligent author of the world.’ In the Natural History of Religion, he writes:

The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion (NHR 134).

Again, in Part 12 of the Dialogues, Philo asserts:

A purpose, an intention, a design strikes every where the most careless, the most stupid thinker; and no man can be so hardened in absurd systems, as at all times to reject it … all the sciences almost lead us insensibly to acknowledge a first intelligent author … (D. 172).

When he expands on this (D 172-173), Hume emphasizes that our belief in an intelligent Designer is not based on any insight regarding the divine nature; rather, it is based solely on instinct, just as our belief in causal connections is not based on any insight regarding necessary connections between causes and effects, but is based solely on instinct. The instinctive belief in causality is essential to our survival; the instinctive belief in an intelligent Designer guides scientists to seek explanations in terms of purposiveness in design in nature.

My conclusion from this discussion is that there can be no way to reach any agreement between Descartes and Hume on the topic of knowing the nature of God, mainly because Descartes will not give up, and Hume will not accept, that we possess an innate idea of God.

1. All references to Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy are to the In Focus edition, Edited and with an Introduction by Stanley Tweyman, first published in 1993 by Routledge, London and New York. References to the Meditations are cited by M, followed by the page number. All references to Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion are to the In Focus edition, edited and with an Introduction by Stanley Tweyman, first published in 1991 by Routledge, London and New York. References to the Dialogues are cited by D, followed by the page number. References to David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature are to the Selby-Bigge, Second Edition, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1978. References to the Treatise are cited by T followed by the page number. References to the Natural History of Religion are to the J.C.A. Gaskin edition, Oxford University Press, 1993. References are cited by NHR, followed by the page number.

Stephen Chanderbhan – “A Catholic Perspective on Comparative Philosophy of Religion”

Steve Chanderbhan is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Canisius College (Buffalo, NY). His Ph.D. is from Saint Louis University (2012). His areas of specialization are in Medieval Philosophy (specifically, the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas), Ethics, and Catholic Social Thought. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

In Nostra aetate, a statement from the Second Vatican Council on the relation of the Catholic Church to other religions, Pope St. Paul VI declares, “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.”1

I believe this follows from certain elements within the Church’s philosophical tradition, which I lay out below. Given this, comparative philosophy of religion should be commended in Catholic contexts as a way that the true and holy in other religions may be discovered and studied.

First, reflections of “a ray of Truth which enlightens all men” are a reference to the notion of illumination, found most notably in the Neoplatonic thought of St. Augustine. Illumination picks up on an interpretation of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The fire inside the cave is necessary for the shadows on the cave wall to be seen, this represents that which makes things sensible in reality. Similarly, the Sun outside the cave is necessary for the things outside the cave to be seen; this represents that which makes things – namely, Forms – able to be known by the intellect. This is the light of illumination, which Augustine calls a kind of “incorporeal” light.2

For Augustine, God is the cause of this illumination. In De libero arbitrio, he writes:

[A] strong, vigorous, mental gaze, when it sees with certainty many unchangeable truths, turns [above] to the Truth itself in which all things are shown … If I showed there was something above our minds, you admitted you would confess it to be God, provided there was nothing else higher. I accepted your admission, and said it was enough that I should show this. For if there is anything more excellent, it is this which is God, but, if there is nothing more excellent, then Truth itself is God.3

God’s illumination refers to a necessary condition of any and every instance of knowledge for anyone. Little wonder that this “ray of Truth,” which is of God, shines on all. As knowledge of causes can be inferred from their effects, it follows that God, to some degree, may come to be known as the ultimate cause of that which one truly knows in any instance of knowledge.

But what is knowledge? A classic formulation is expressed in St. Thomas Aquinas’s De veritate: “The first reference of being to the intellect … consists in its agreement with the intellect. This agreement is called “the conformity of thing and intellect” (adaequatio rei et intellectus). … Knowledge of a thing is a consequence of this conformity.”4 A couple things follow that help to vindicate comparative philosophy of religion.

First, what is adequate to the intellect is being, not facts or propositions.5 Granted, propositions are a primary way in which knowledge is communicated; and right belief (i.e., orthodoxy) is necessary in framing a religion’s belief system. At the same time, no religion’s insight to Truth is exhausted just by what propositions are true in it; nor can one say that the “ray of Truth” has not touched a religion if it contains any (or even many) false propositional beliefs.

Second, given this characterization of knowledge, the essence of God is something to which no human intellect, nor any collection thereof, can ever be adequate in their natural state. The fundamental being, or essence, of any species (i.e., kind) of natural being is expressed in terms of the definition of that species. This definition has two parts: genus and difference. For example, a human is essentially an animal (genus) who is rational (difference). When humans’ metaphysical nature, or essence, is adequate to the intellect, whatever is signified by the definition “rational animal” is fully present in the intellect. So too for any case of knowledge of species.

God, however, transcends all species and genera of natural being; hence, God has no proper genus-difference definition. St. Anselm, for example, characterizes God as “that than which no greater can be conceived;” while that characterization points solely to God, “that than which” is not a proper genus.6 Since God’s essence cannot be expressed in a definition, full adequation with the intellect as it operates in this life is impossible.

Full knowledge of God’s essence is only attained when we see God as He is. God exists in eternity and, thus, transcends time and space. While we are limited by those things, we cannot see God as He is – even if our knowledge is supplemented by insights of Divine revelation held by religious faith. Full knowledge only occurs in the Beatific Vision, in the afterlife. This life, on the other hand, is a “journey of the mind into God,” quoting St. Bonaventure’s famed work.

The implication is that no religion’s totality of theology, sacred texts, etc., can capture the essence of God fully. As such, no religious tradition, even if augmented with claims of Divine revelation, could rightly consider itself a closed, self-sufficient system. That would belie God’s transcendence and the limitations of human knowledge. Hence, other religions can be treated, not as alien, but as holders of some Truth and Goodness (i.e., Holiness), touched by God’s “ray of Truth.” Accordingly, they are worth studying on this journey. This does not mean there cannot be definitive dogmatic boundaries on what ultimately is to be believed within a religion; however, those boundaries need not close one in on all sides.

I leave unanswered the questions of what Catholics may gain from studying other religions and whether comparative studies would enrich and deepen one’s faith or endanger it by introducing near occasions of confusion. All I claim is that Nostra aetate’s statement is grounded in a philosophical tradition privileged by the Church and that this ultimately commends comparative philosophy of religion.


1. Pope St. Paul VI, Nostra aetate: Declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions (Vatican City: Vatican Council II, 1965), §2.

2. St. Augustine of Hippo, De trinitate, translated by Arthur West Haddan, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 3, ed. Philip Schaff, (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887), XII.xv, website,

3. St. Augustine of Hippo, De libero arbitrio, translated by Dom Mark Pontifex, (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1955), II.xv.39, website,

4. St. Thomas Aquinas, Quaestiones disputatae de veritate (Questions 1-9), translated by Robert W. Mulligan, S.J., (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1952), q. 1, resp., website,

5. Working within a broadly Aristotelian-Thomistic framework, Alasdair MacIntyre appreciates this point as follows: “The relationship of correspondence or lack of correspondence which holds between the mind and objects is given expression in judgments, but it is not judgments themselves which correspond to objects or indeed to anything else. … What is and was not harmless, but highly misleading, was to conceive of a realm of facts independent of judgment or of any other form of linguistic expression, so that judgments or statements or sentences could be paired off with facts, truth or falsity being the alleged relationships between such paired items. … It is a large error to read [this kind of correspondence theory] into older formulations concerning truth, such as ‘adaequatio mentis ad rem’ …” (Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), p. 357-358.)

6. St. Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion, in The Devotions of St. Anselm: Archbishop of Canterbury, translated by Clement C. J. Webb, (London: Methuen & Co., 1903), Ch. 2.

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.