A while ago I was contacted by an academic publisher asking me to review a new introductory textbook on philosophy of religion. I didn’t do so, even though the publisher offered me a stipend. The main reason was just that I didn’t have the time for it. But the more interesting reason was my objections to the work’s entire project.
The book’s proposed table of contents spoke of a work devoted entirely to God: the concept of God, and arguments for and against his existence. That is not an idiosyncratic approach; there are many existing textbooks in “philosophy of religion” that take the same approach. So there was nothing especially or unusually outrageous about this textbook and its other. And that is exactly the problem.
It was an alienating experience for me as a Buddhist and a philosopher to read that table of contents. This supposed “philosophy of religion” has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the philosophical concerns of my “religion”. Granted, I have written ad nauseam about how “religion” is an unfortunate and misleading concept, so I don’t have much invested in a “correct” definition of it. That said, most common-sensical understandings of “religion” do include Buddhism among the traditions. One of the most viable ways to defend a book like this would be to make the bold definition that religion is about God, and that since (at least Theravāda) Buddhism is not about God, it is ipso facto not a religion. One would likely have to make the same claim about Confucianism and Daoism. But that is a controversial claim, and a philosophical claim in its own right – one that, at the very least, deserves its own space in the table of contents.
One might argue that “Hinduism” is more about God, but that is also a tough claim to make. Some “Hindu” philosophical traditions, most notably the Viśiṣṭādvaita school of Rāmānuja, are all about God. But many are not. Later scholars in the Nyāya school, such as Uddyotakara and Udayana, attempt to prove the existence of a god that underlies the universe, but earlier thinkers did not see this as necessary even though they were in regular debate with Buddhists. Their far greater concern, like the Buddhists’, was with the self.
In short, “philosophy of religion”, as it is defined in that textbook, really means the philosophy of the Abrahamic traditions. Even within those the emphasis is Christian, for Christianity is considerably more concerned than Islam and especially Judaism with belief in God. Many Jews disclaim belief in God entirely and yet still consider themselves devout, because orthopraxy matters considerably more than orthodoxy – it’s about what you do, or don’t do, more than what you believe. So if the “religion” in “philosophy of religion” meant Judaism, it would likely concern itself considerably more with ethics and right conduct (as indeed the works of Maimonides, arguably the greatest Jewish theologian, did.)
But again, the problem is not just this one textbook (which shall remain mercifully nameless). The textbook is merely reflecting “philosophy of religion” as it is normally understood, and that very normality is the problem. To a large swath of philosophers, “philosophy of religion” simply means a dialogue between Christianity and atheism (which thereby includes various middle positions such as agnosticism and deism). And this definition has perpetuated itself, because, not surprisingly, the people attracted to that field have usually been on the spectrum between Christianity and atheism themselves.
Now so far this story has been one-sided, because there is a way in which the academic field of “philosophy of religion” is actually two academic fields, at least in North America. I noted once before, following the lead of an excellent edited volume by William Wainwright, that “philosophy of religion” is (perhaps not surprisingly) conducted within both philosophy and religious studies – and it means something almost entirely different within those two fields. The discussion in this post so far has been about what we might call “APA philosophy of religion” – philosophy of religion as it is practised in the analytically dominated American Philosophical Association. There is also AAR philosophy of religion, as practised in the American Academy of Religion.
AAR philosophy of religion generally does a better job of representing traditions outside of Judaism and Christianity. The problem with it is that with religious studies more generally: religionists often tend to shy away from actually doing philosophy, and merely talk about other people’s. So we’ll hear a presentation on Muslim or Hindu takes on metaphysical questions, but not about whether the presenter thinks those takes are accurate. In this problem, though, AAR philosophy of religion essentially exaggerates the more general problem with analytic philosophy’s Other, “continental” philosophy: an approach that appreciates the depth of existing philosophies, but often at the expense of doing philosophy oneself. (One of the exciting things about Speculative Realists like Meillassoux is they break this mold: they’re continental philosophers who actually do philosophy.)
So I don’t think the answer to the APA’s narrowness of vision is just to turn to the AAR. Fortunately, the narrowness of philosophy as an academic field has been called into question more lately. For all my reservations about Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden’s NYT article, I appreciate that they made the point, and that it appears to have struck a nerve. It is my hope that academic philosophy departments are slowly opening up – and I hope this will include the field of philosophy of religion. It’s exciting to imagine the new possibilities that their opening up would allow for constructive cross-cultural philosophical work. And as they do, I hope they learn from the less constructive but still insightful work of their religionist colleagues.