On “philosophy of religion”

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.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

12 Replies to “On “philosophy of religion””

  1. Very stimulating post! I wonder if the presuming of a clear distinction between philosophy and religion is at the heart of many of your concerns. The presumption of such a distinction is, of course, so prevalent in Western cultures but not so noticeable in “Eastern” thought. It seems to me like this is another significant influence from the Enlightenment Period.

    • I’d never presume such a clear distinction; the earlier writings I linked to show why I take “religion” to be a generally unhelpful category. I wouldn’t say that even rejecting that distinction is at the heart of my concerns, though. Usually I want to deal with the concept of “religion” just enough to get over it and onto the more substantial concerns. I have to do that a lot, though – as I do in this post – just because the concept is employed so often in the context of those concerns.

  2. The late Ninian Smart experimented in published works that presented, by my lights, compelling alternatives to “religion” and “religious studies” (insofar as they were pioneering, one could quibble with this or that, but they provide an attractive and viable starting point and sense of direction) as well as old-school philosophy of religion in the West (theism v. atheism, arguments for God’s existence, the nature of evil, etc.), hence his books on worldviews and world philosophies, for example, as well has his groundbreaking book on the Philosophy of Religion (OUP, 1979 ed.), which addressed some topics raised in Eastern religions like Buddhism. And today there are several books that exemplify, more or less, “global philosophy of religion” and “comparative philosophy,” so it is startling and disappointing, to put it mildly, that a publisher would produce a title along these lines.

    I still wish, or hope, the term “worldviews” would replace religion, at the very least in the phrase “philosophy of religion,” but with regard to spirituality as well, at least insofar as we are able to use this concept, like John Cottingham, Sudhir Kakar, and Grant Gillett (respectively, philosopher, psychoanalyst, and philosopher), to speak of a “secular” or non-religious spirituality or spiritual sensibility (much as we have come to appreciate the fact that ethics or morality need not depend on religion, so too, should be the case with spirituality; this is not to say that religious ethics is redundant or without intrinsic value of one kind or another, only that those who are not religious are perfectly capable of being ethical or moral).

    Religious and non-religious worldviews and philosophies need to be discussed (or presented), examined and compared (not in toto, but on the level of this or that value, principle, practice, what have you) in the first instance on equal footing, much in the spirit if not letter of normative Liberal democratic pluralism (as with the later Rawls, for instance). I do not consider Liberalism as a political philosophy for democratic polities to be a comprehensive theory, so to speak, of the Good, in other worlds, a full-fledged worldview, but more a legally sound approach that contingently emerged from such worldviews, one with heuristic and presumptive democratic values and virtues necessary if not sufficient to ensure minimal cooperation in pursuit of the public or common good. At times, other societies, even if only episodically or aspirationally, and not always with a specific or explicit commitment to democratic principles, values, and procedures have tolerated or even encouraged similar if not identical approaches to pluralism of worldviews, so perhaps it is possible societies that likewise wish to be democratic but are not historically linked to Liberalism can fashion a political theory or philosophy of justice along similar lines, I do not know.

  3. Thank you, Amod (and Patrick for his comments)! I agree that the category of “religion” can be very misleading and I agree (no surprise!) that books only focusing on Christianity but titled “Philosophy of Religion” are at the very least mistitled.
    However, I think that a category for “Philosophy of Religion” is useful to deal with topics related with reflections about God or Their absence and with soteriology (which mārga? whose salvation? open to whom?…).

  4. It’s not just this one textbook aimed at college students (at least, I’m assuming that’s the target audience). Sometime you shuold take a look at books published for the high school, middle school, and elementary school markets. I’m a religious educator working in a post-Christian (Unitarian Universalist) congregation, working with preschool through high school, and the curricular materials available to me are, for the most part, unusable. For example, a parent asked me to look at the “Usborne Encyclopedia of World Religions” aimed at 8 to 12 year olds. I found the book to be completely unusable; not only did it implicitly define religion in terms of Christianity, it also focused on white-dominated religions to the point where African religions got (if I’m remembering correctly) two pages out of a book of well over a hundred pages. Not surprisingly, the treatments of religions with roots in the Indian subcontinent were pretty bad.

    Given the kind of crap that is pushed out to students before they reach college, it’s not surprising that they have been thoroughly indoctrinated into believing that “religion” = white evangelical Christianity. This helps explain the approach of the textbook you received: it’s simply building on what they’ve already learned.

    This also helps explain why students hold both religious studies and philosophy in such contempt. Why study something that is so obviously wrong? I have to spend a lot of my time as a K-12 educator showing students why the study of religion and philosophy is actually worthy of their attention. I wish educators like me had more help from academics; at least the AAR has published some pretty good guidelines for teaching religion to K-12, but the APA is (from my point of view) mostly a waste of time.

    Anyway, if you want to be really appalled, look at K-12 textbooks on religion.

  5. Open question to anyone interested in answering: is it true that Eastern theodicies were more concerned with the function of karma rather than a true theodicy like one finds in, say, Leibniz, WLC, Job, etc.? Also, are there any good classical Eastern texts that set out to prove reincarnation? I have heard Dinnaga and Dharmakirti did this but I cannot seem to find the right texts.

    • Hi Bill! I disagree with the label “Eastern theologies” (because it superimposes a non-existing unity), but thanks for the question! Yes, karman has played a role parallel to that of theodicy in some European philosophers, insofar as some authors have argued that the Lord is not responsible for one’s present misery —one’s previous actions are (this is a very simplified version of a complex theory!). However, atheist authors like Kumārila have replied that if this is the case, then the Lord is either identical with karman or redundant. Some theistic authors like Rāmānuja have taken up the challenge and developed a theodicy based on free will. If you are interested, write me an email (elisa dot freschi at utoronto dot ca) and I can share an article about it.

  6. Are there any Sikh philosophers of religion (that is, practicing Sikhs who use Sikh concepts to do phl religion)? I went through a few English websites (I do not speak Punjabi) and was unable to find anything other than some apologetics that were borrowed from Christian apologists. Would it be fair to say that Sikhism as a whole is less philosophical than the other Dharmic traditions or would that be a mischaracterization? The Sikh Studies departments I was able to find in America seem solely occupied with politics (hardly surprising given what’s been happening in the world).

    • Yes, there are, but as often the case, religious studies departments tend to be not about philosophy of religion, and theology departments in EU and NA tend to focus (for historical reasons) on Christianity, and to a lesser extent Hebraism and Islam. They are opening up only very slowly. If you are not into too much theology, you might want to check the forthcoming book “More of This Please: Sikh Wisdom for the Soul” by Simran Jeet Singh.

      • Thanks for the response but it looks like Simran has some rather fringe views (even by leftist standards) on American politics, but more to the point, the book (judging by the title) appears to be aimed at a popular audience and so looks less like a systematic treatise…..I am fine with theology. Do you know of any articles defending Sikh theology/philosophy of religion systematically?

        • I don’t, unfortunately, know of anything on this topic that I’d call “a systematic treatise”, but you might find it useful to take at least a look at the following two articles. The first is a somewhat influential discussion of the notion of “Sikh theology”: the second is an attempt at a defense of the idea of “Sikh philosophy” (albeit one I personally don’t find very persuasive).

          (1) W.H McLeod (1990) “A Sikh Theology for Modern Times” in W.H. McLeod et al. (eds) Sikh History and Religion in the Twentieth Century. New Delhi: Manohar Publications.

          (2) Arvind-Pal S. Mandair (2014) “Sikh Philosophy” in Pashaura Singh & Louis E. Fenech (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies. Oxford: OUP. [The material in this chapter is also effectively replicates Ch.6 of the author’s book Sikhism: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Bloomsbury. 2013.]

          • Thanks! Yeah, I always noticed that Sikhs are more distinct from their Hindu brethren in part because while I frequently saw Hindus and Jains worshipping at the same temple (along with visiting each other’s separate temples) I rarely saw Sikhs inside a Hindu mandir except for the annual festival of India. I know of a Sikh apologist group in California but they seem to have become less active after their founder passed away.

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