Renewing Philosophy of Religion

Exploratory Essays

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Paul Draper, J. L. Schellenberg
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Here is a remarkable fact about the discipline of philosophy of religion: Since World War II, as religious movements were resurfacing in politics all around the world and the secularization hypothesis was losing its plausibility, most of the disciplines in the academic study of religion grappled with the explosion of translations, ethnographies, and other new data that appeared when scholars took an inclusive or global or postcolonial perspective on religions. In the same time period, however, the discipline of philosophy of religion pulled back from engagement with religion as a global phenomenon and focused instead on issues primarily of interest to Christian theology. Typically, this narrower focus was on the nature of and belief in God, a topic one could claim had appeal to all theists, but increasingly it also took up purely Christian issues like atonement and resurrection. As Robert McKim puts it, “Philosophy of religion often carries on almost as if there were only one religion” (112). John Schellenberg, one of this book’s editors, argues more harshly that much of what one finds in philosophy of religion today “is not really philosophy at all … but rather theology or theological apologetics, on behalf of the Christian community as they understand it, using the tools of philosophy” (24). The thirteen chapters collected in this book all recommend paths to overcome this narrowness.

The editors divide the chapters into two sections. The first concerns “Focus,” the problems with the narrow what of philosophy of religion, and the second concerns “Standpoint,” the problems with the narrow how. In the Focus section, Sonia Sikka argues not only that both analytic and continental philosophy of religion primarily focus on Christian apologetics, but also that the Christian-influenced assumption that the category of religion refers to “faith” or “unquestioned belief” distorts the field—especially our understanding of non-Western religions and new religious movements. She therefore calls for the development of a category of religion not defined in terms of “faith.” Yujin Nagasawa considers and critiques the proposals of Ninian Smart and John Hick, two of the best global philosophers of religion, and he recommends a shift away from interreligious apologetics to interreligious cooperation. On this view, philosophy of religion identifies problems (like that of evil/suffering) that can be addressed by thinkers in different traditions and, although sorting the differences between traditions would not completely end, the discipline would shift from its present defensiveness to collaboration. Stephen Maitzen argues that one problem in philosophy of religion is that the discipline has focused on beliefs in an ultimate reality, but the very notion of an ontological, axiological, or teleological ultimate is flawed and should be dropped. Dropping the idea of ultimacy, he recognizes, would have an impact on both the practice of philosophy and that of religion itself. Eric Steinhart points out that as contemporary cultures increasingly come to assume naturalism, interest wanes in the debates about miracles or theodicy or the existence of God—that is, about the central themes of philosophy of religion in the narrow sense. Philosophers of religion should therefore recognize the emergence and the philosophical interest of religions that are not based on the supernatural, such as religions of energy, consciousness, vision, dance, and beauty, and he provides examples of each. Mark Wynn critiques both an intellectualist “belief-plus-practice model” (according to which religion is centrally about belief and that practices simply follow) and an anti-intellectualist “practice-plus-belief model” (according to which religion is centrally about practices and beliefs simply support what practitioners do). In their place, he recommends a balanced “belief-with-practice model” which he illustrates by applying it to Thomas Aquinas, and suggests that this approach would shift the focus of philosophy of religion to religious ways of life with all their affective and cognitive complexity. John Bishop recommends that philosophers of religion consider not just the question of the justifiability of particular religions but also the justifiability of religion as such—that is, of any religion—as a feature of human life. What is the effect of religion, either individually or collectively, on human flourishing? Finally, Robert McKim offers a vision of the discipline as a whole that includes the pursuit of the truth whether in one’s own tradition or in that of others, service to scholars of religion who are not philosophers (what one might call “philosophy of religious studies”), and contributions to progress in religions themselves. His is a rich three-part case for the discipline.

Several chapters in the Standpoint section critique the tendency of philosophers of religion to hold their religious or anti-religious commitments in a closed-minded way. Aaron Simmons describes his own field of continental philosophy of religion as “confessionalist,” and he calls on continental philosophers to cultivate intellectual humility and hospitality to views they do not hold. In particular, he recommends that they engage with analytic philosophers in what he calls “mash-up philosophy” that includes the personal, existential interest of the former with the evidence-based argumentation of the latter. Graham Oppy also accuses philosophers of religion of my-side bias or cognitive prejudice, tending to assume that their own positions are rational and supported by arguments and opposing views are not. Oppy argues that one cannot claim that one’s own worldview is better than others unless one has done the steps required to compare them fairly ,and that ideally this means learning the views one does not hold to the point that one can contribute to their advancement. Jason Marsh uses the label “religious Mooreanism” (after G. E. Moore) to name the tendency of some philosophers of religion to deflect challenges to their religious beliefs without providing arguments or evidence. Marsh finds different versions of Mooreanism in the work of Christian philosophers Alvin Plantinga, Michael Bergmann, and William Lane Craig, and he argues not only that they fail the Socratic injunction to follow the argument where it leads, but also that even if it were true that one need not defend one’s religious beliefs, one still would need to defend the application of Moore’s tactic to religion. Clare Carlisle frames the problems of the discipline in terms of the differences between religious insiders and outsiders. But recognizing that that there are advantages and costs of each stance, she lifts up the work of Baruch Spinoza as someone who was both an insider and an outsider, both a theist and a naturalist, and whose philosophy of religion offered a way of integrating one’s mind, body, and physical environment. Wes Morriston illustrates how Eleanor Stump, a Christian philosopher of religion, reads her own views into the book of Job. He offers an alternative, heretical reading that he says better captures the view of the Job poet, illustrating the benefits of not simply assuming orthodoxy. And Wesley Wildman and David Rohr report on the trends one can find at the website that Wildman created, Their survey of those writings shows that the discipline has a major fault line running through it: philosophers who belong to the Society of Christian Philosophers or the American Philosophical Association, or who work at institutions that require faculty to sign statements of faith, treat the discipline as close or identical to philosophical theology, while philosophers at secular schools or religious schools without statements of faith, or who belong to the American Academy of Religion, treat the discipline as concerned with religions in the plural. This fault line reveals multiple distinctions, including whom they take as exemplars of the discipline, their working definitions of “religion,” and what they think of comparison.

These thirteen recommendations are distinct and some of them conflict in small ways with each other, but all the contributors agree that philosophy of religion should expand beyond its present narrow focus and standpoint. What would it look like if philosophy of religion renewed itself in this global and open-minded way?

The truth is that the world is shrinking. Though cultures were never completely isolated, the breadth and depth of the contact between cultures today, positive and negative, is unprecedented. An absolutely inevitable part of this cultural conflict and cooperation is the need to evaluate the truth of what others claim, the morality of what they do, the justice of how they live, and the veracity of how they see the world. As a consequence, the vision of philosophy of religion that is being proposed here—cross-cultural normative arguments about what is real and what is valuable—is arguably what people today need most. Philosophy of religion understood in this way is not Christian apologetics but rather a crucial aspect of living with diversity. A philosophy of religion which lives up to its name ought to be defended as the center of the humanities, and this volume provides multiple tools with which to build such a defense.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kevin Schilbrack is Professor and Department Chair of Philosophy & Religion at Appalachian State University.

Date of Review: 
January 29, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul Draper is Professor of Philosophy at Purdue University, where he has taught since the fall of 2006. Prior to that, he taught for 19 years at Florida International University in Miami. He has also had three fellowships at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame, including the Alvin Plantinga Fellowship in 2010-2011. Most of his published work is on the problem of evil and other topics in the philosophy of religion. 

J. L. Schellenberg is Professor of Philosophy at Mount Saint Vincent University and Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Graduate Studies at Dalhousie University. He is the author of Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason and of a trilogy on the philosophy of religion: Prolegomena to a Philosophy of Religion, The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism, and The Will to Imagine: A Justification of Skeptical Religion. The ideas of the trilogy, and his earlier work on hiddenness, are made generally accessible in two recent short works from Oxford: Evolutionary Religion and The Hiddenness Argument: Philosophy's New Challenge to Belief in God.


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