Philosophy of Religion in the Classical American Tradition

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J. Caleb Clanton
  • Knoxville, TN: 
    University of Tennessee Press
    , January
     295 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


J. Caleb Clanton has written an unusual book. Ostensibly, Philosophy of Religion in the Classical American Tradition examines the resources classical American philosophers bring to debates over religious questions such as the existence of God, the problem of evil, and the efficacy of petitionary prayer. Clanton provides two reasons for engaging this tradition. The first is that contemporary analytic philosophers typically ignore it because of suspicions that, frankly, engagement would be a waste of time. Clanton gently chides his analytical colleagues for ignoring these philosophers without close examination of their arguments. The second reason dovetails with the first. If analytic philosophers of religion were to actually read the writings of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey, et al., they would discover that these philosophers are “good to think with” (2)—they are a bracing apéritif. Making the effort to engage the classical American tradition “can pay dividends” (2) given that the classical American tradition is bursting with resources that can benefit contemporary philosophers of religion. So, when I sat down to read Philosophy of Religion in the Classical American Tradition, I expected to see the diverse resources of this tradition on display. That, however, is not the bang for the buck this book provides.

Chapter 1 introduces the book. Chapter 2 provides a close reading of Peirce’s 1908 essay “A Neglected Argument for the Existence of God.” As a demonstration of the claim that God is real, Peirce’s argument fails miserably. Clanton, however, flirts briefly with an alternate reading of Peirce’s argument—that belief in God’s reality is warranted for some persons—but leaves it to the reader to decide whether this alternate reading has any value. Peirce’s work can nevertheless be appropriated by philosophers of religion, Clanton contends, pointing to the way in which Peirce’s development of abductive reasoning bolsters William Rowe’s account of the cosmological argument.

Chapter 3 examines James’s claim in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) that “mystics are justified in believing in supernaturalism on the basis of their own mystical experience” (61). Clanton begins with a consideration of what counts as a religious mystical experience, and whittles a list of seven claims down to a single decisive one: “mystical experiences involve something antinaturalistic and otherworldly” (68). James’s argument regarding the authority of mystical experience thus becomes, in Clanton’s hands, an argument for warranted belief in supernaturalism. He closely interrogates three popular interpretations of James’s argument for the authority of religious experience qua supernaturalism, and finds all three guilty of faulty reasoning. Leaning heavily on Richard Gale’s analysis of James’s will-to-believe doctrine, Clanton argues that this doctrine salvages James’s argument for warranted belief in supernaturalism based on one’s own experience, though he adds that the authority of this justification is not epistemological but pragmatic.

The remaining four chapters describe a series of unsuccessful efforts by various American philosophers to address perennial religious questions. Unlike in the case of Peirce, however, these failures bring no compensatory benefits. Chapter 4 addresses the problem of evil by way of Josiah Royce’s 1897 essay “The Problem of Job.” Royce develops an idealist theodicy as a means of solving the problem of evil in which God is identified with Absolute Being, but in doing so he discards God’s transcendence. Consequently, humankind and God are one, and the suffering of humankind is at once the suffering of God. Undeserved suffering, being partly constitutive of the Absolute, is thus “necessary to God’s own perfection” (109; emphasis in original). Clanton rejects Royce’s solution for several reasons, including the claim that Royce’s dismissal of God’s transcendence relies on an unorthodox conception of God. In place of Royce’s now discredited idealist theodicy, Clanton argues that skeptical theism provides a better solution to the problem of evil, with one prime advantage being that it preserves the classical theistic conception of God as transcendent.

In Chapter 5, Clanton takes up the problem of petitionary prayer with George Santayana as his interlocutor. He makes two arguments against Santayana’s rejection of the material efficaciousness of prayer. The first advances the skeptical thesis that we lack the epistemic standing to evaluate meaningfully God’s response to petitionary prayer. The second twits Santayana for recasting the classical theistic understanding of prayer—Santayana evades the philosophical problems posed by petitionary prayer rather than engaging them in a straightforward manner. At the end of the chapter Clanton dismisses Santayana’s notion of naturalized “rational prayer”—that prayer, while not materially efficacious, nevertheless has certain subjective psychological benefits. He does so on the grounds that naturalized prayer is insufficiently motivated—that is, lacks the traditional theistic understanding of God—which calls into question the viability of its putative subjective benefits.

Chapter 6 focuses on Edward Scribner Ames’s religious naturalism and the influence of Ames’s naturalistic concept of God and the role of God in religious life. Ames, Clanton argues, is an overlooked influence on Dewey’s naturalistic understanding of religion. He goes on to criticize the naturalized notion of God on three counts. First, naturalized concepts such as “God” and “religion” open naturalists to the charge of equivocation insofar as these terms have been hollowed out and “highjack[ed]” from the supernaturalistic traditions they originally belonged (172). Second, naturalized concepts might render the pragmatic effects of religious life impotent. Third, naturalized concepts, presumably in the wrong hands, can be used unethically for manipulation of supernaturalist religious believers. Clanton’s position, essentially, is that naturalized religion is no kind of religion at all because real religion is supernaturalistic.

Finally, in Chapter 7 Clanton examines the thorny issue of religion in the public square by comparing the positions of Richard Rorty and Cornel West on this issue. Rorty argues for separation between religious convictions and political action—he provides a “strong” and a “weak” version of this argument. West, in contrast, argues for the integration of religious convictions and political action. American democracy requires what he calls “prophetic pragmatists,” those who speak truth to power on behalf of the vulnerable and the powerless. Because prophetic pragmatists want results, the primary value of religion is found not in its theological doctrines but in its “ability to motivate and guide social and political life” (203). West, it turns out, is engaged no less in a process of religious redefinition than that of Ames and Dewey. Like Deweyan and Amesian naturalists, prophetic pragmatists could be charged with equivocation and could use their prophetic discourse for unethical ends. In the end, contemporary pragmatists are unable to come up with any practical alternatives to the mainstream liberalism of someone such as John Rawls.

Clanton writes clearly, orders his arguments impeccably, and is charitable to those positions that he disagrees with. These are all strengths of this book. Nevertheless, Philosophy of Religion in the Classical American Tradition is an unusual book in that the touted philosophical returns on the classical American tradition turn out to be no kind of windfall at all. Time and again Clanton demonstrates that the classical American philosophers largely fail to make convincing arguments on religious questions. What’s more, with the exception of James—and to a partial degree Peirce—the classical American tradition fails to provide any resources beyond an object lesson in flawed (or in some cases sophistical) arguments. Many readers of this book might well conclude that the choice to ignore the classical American tradition is, when all is said and done, the right one.

While he never comes out and says so explicitly, it is clear that the principal failing of classical American philosophers, as far as Clanton is concerned, rests on their embrace of naturalistic interpretations of religion and rejection of the supernatural. In certain respects, Philosophy of Religion in the Classical American Tradition is a work of apologetics for which the primary audience is analytic philosophers of religion with an antipathy to naturalistic treatments of religion. If that’s what rings your bell, then this is the book for you.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephen Dawson is assistant professor of religious studies at Lynchburg College.

Date of Review: 
May 29, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

J. Caleb Clanton is professor of philosophy and University Research Professor at Lipscomb University in Nashville. He is the author or editor of several books, including The Classical American Pragmatists and Religion and The Philosophy of Religion of Alexander Campbell, winner of the Lester McAllister Prize.

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