More on philosophy of religion

I brought it up in comments, but it seems worth highlighting: Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, arguably the founding documents for philosophy of religion as a specific subdiscipline, represent a much more capacious kind of reflection than that found in contemporary analytic philosophy of religion. Despite its obvious flaws, it does make an effort to reflect on the nature, role, and origin of religion and does so through a systematic reflection on as many religions as possible, as opposed to the contemporary focus on monotheism and proofs of God’s existence. For all that, it also seems to be clearly different from mere “sociology of religion” (something that the relatively new commenter Jim H. brought up but that has come up multiple times before in similar discussions), whatever “sociology” might be.

Kant’s Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone is another example of philosophy of religion rather than what I’ve called “philosophy of God” or “philosophical theology.” As he must be in the wake of Critique of Pure Reason, Kant is strictly agnostic about whether God really exists and instead assesses religious ideas and institutions — including finding perhaps unexpected potential therein. He is not struggling over the existence of God, but over the place of religion in society. Indeed, he is clearly advocating for actual existing religious institutions that in some ways approximate his ideal of a “religion of pure reason” (i.e., Christian churches, which are at least in theory open to all comers and purely voluntary associations) should move further in that direction. Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem has similar goals, and Schleiermacher’s On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers is much more concerned with defining religion as a distinctive area of human experience than with arguing for God’s existence. (Coincidentally, the first half of my course is structured around these three texts.)

In fact, I would even claim that the “new atheist” books contain a significant amount of philosophy of religion, albeit of a kind that I find to be overly simplistic — even if they do spend a lot of time on proofs of the existence of God and other religious beliefs they think are false, the overall impetus of their work is convincing others that religion (the human practice) is bad and should be abolished.

What distinguishes philosophy of religion from something like “sociology of religion” is a more-than-descriptive element — a theoretical or evaluative purpose that goes beyond a “just the facts” standpoint. There will be overlap between philosophy of religion and social-scientific approaches, just as there is an overlap between (what I’m calling) philosophical theology (but is most often called philosophy of religion) and doctrinal theology, but the distinctiveness of a philosophical or theoretical approach remains. To point out a minor example that nonetheless makes a big difference, a social-scientific study of Christianity would tend toward nominalism insofar as its bias would be to define Christianity (or whatever religious tradition) as “anything claiming to be Christian,” with as little judgment as possible. A philosopher of religion would be much more willing to take a stance on what Christianity (or whatever particular religious tradition they’re investigating) is and would be willing to come up with non-extrinsic evaluative standards for various examples of that religion.

More importantly from my perspective, the philosopher of religion would be particularly attuned to the unexpected resources that religion offers to thought. Straightforward examples here would be the reinterpretation of religious texts or the analysis of religious concepts. “God” might be included among those concepts, but it would not necessarily be the most important or fruitful concept.

The question here then becomes what separates philosophy of religion in this sense from theology, which I define as critical reflection on a particular religious tradition. I’d propose the difference is one of degree rather than kind, where one’s relative status (or assumed scholarly persona) as an insider or outsider would place one further on the scale toward theology or philosophy of religion, respectively. Someone like Altizer would be toward the outer edge of theology, while Marion might be closer to the outer edge of philosophy of religion — perhaps not perfect examples, but I hope a decent starting point.

In short, I believe that the philosophical tradition already includes significant examples of work that is not strictly the assessment of the truth-value of religious claims (which philosophy of religion in practice seems to be mostly limited to today), but is also not a purely descriptive social-scientific approach to religion. Insofar as I am a philosopher of religion, I would locate myself within that strand of the tradition, rather than the strand that currently monopolizes the actual existing subdiscipline of philosophy of religion, and I believe most of my compatriots here would do the same.

19 thoughts on “More on philosophy of religion

  1. Great Post.

    Perhaps if you tweak your defininition of theology to read: critical reflection on faith claims through a particular religious tradition, you could then define philosophy of religion as critical reflection of faith claims through a paticular philosophical tradition. This definition would cover both your undertanding of philosophy of religion as well as the other.

    This also delineates both fields from sociology of religion, which is interested not so much in critical reflection of faith claims, but reflection on how these faith claims function in communities/societies.

    I don’t know if this helps or is useful, but as a long time lurker, I would be both honored and humbled if you take me to the wood shed for getting in over my head.

  2. Congratulations on de-lurking!

    That definition could be a good starting point, but I’m trying not to limit it to “faith claims.” I don’t think that framing is very helpful for the analyzed “claims,” nor do I think either philosophy or theology needs to limit itself to a religion’s “claims.”

  3. “In short, I believe that the philosophical tradition already includes significant examples of work that is not strictly the assessment of the truth-value of religious claims (which philosophy of religion in practice seems to be mostly limited to today), but is also not a purely descriptive social-scientific approach to religion.”

    A fascinating example of this is a long fragment from a lost work by Aristotle that is preserved within Cicero. It is a re-examination of Plato’s cave myth: Aristotle examines how the lived experience of Plato’s cave might be the impetus behind wonder and thus religion.

  4. To push back on the “mere sociology” line: Durkheim and Mauss (and, through them, Bataille and Agamben), as pointed out in the post linked to in the previous thread, were doing sociology of religion that was not limited to the collection of mere positive facts about people who are or are not religious. (Even the analysis of religion in Durkheim’s Suicide is not about collecting facts about the religious affiliation of suicides.) I’d suggest that people interested in the version of the philosophy of religion endorsed here would find much of use and value in the “Durkheimian school” of sociology: Mauss, Levi-Strauss, Bataille, Clastres, etc. After all, the basic thesis is that religion and society are co-extensive with one another and that all categories of thought are derivatives of religious categories.

  5. I’ll chime in and say that I agree with Craig that much classic sociology is “more than sociology.” I’m totally comfortable with calling Durkheim a philosopher of religion in my terms.

  6. It was. In light of your last paragraph it was a pretty stupid way to phrase it. Next time I will figure out what I actually want to say before I say it.

  7. Re philosophy of religion of the analytical school being ‘about truth claims’ (a point made several times here), I used to wish it were– a lot of the time the stuff I used to do was not about assessing truth claims per se, but more about determining the logical properties involved in the propositions which convey the claim to truth. It’s the difference between “Is true (or false)?” and “What is the logical form of the proposition ?”

  8. Sorry, my last sentence should read:

    It’s the difference between “Is “God exists” true (or false)?” and “What is the logical form of the proposition “God exists”?”

    I tried to use some of the brackets that logicians use to enclose a proposition, and the software here did not recognize them and chucked them out….

  9. Craig, agreed — in fact, in a class I teach on “Religion & Society” we read Bataille, Mauss, and Durkheim, and the other day one student asserted that the class was akin to a Philosophy of Religion class. Apparently the student did not take Philosophy of Religion with Parsons.

  10. It was analytic philosophy of religion that turned me off of analytic philosophy as a whole. It just seemed so arbitrary and silly, to formulate rigorous logical arguments based on such questionable presumptions.

  11. Do any modern theologians still argue for the existence of God? I think even evangelicals have realized those debates are futile, which doesn’t bode well for analytic philosophy of religion.

  12. To jump in w/ Ken Surin on analytic philosophy of religion: I did my undergrad at UT-Austin with a heavy load of that kind of philosophy of religion. The conversations often ended up as discussions of warrant/justification, which inevitably fell back to “intuition,” as in, “this premise seems intuitively plausible to me” (whether it is the premise in an argument for free will or for God’s existence). I still remember going to a conference for and being shocked and disillusioned to hear the key speaker say that there wasn’t much to debate because both positions were logically sound and the difference between the two was a matter of “philosophical intuition.” The point of philosophy was to clear out the incoherent positions and leave you with a range of intellectually respectable positions from which you can choose.

  13. “Even analytic philosophers are embarrassed by analytic philosophy of religion. There was actually a good discussion of this at Leiter Reports back when the guy quitting was more recent.”

    Um, if you notice, Leiter himself actually endorses Parsons’ rather inadequate idea of philosophy of religion.

  14. Regarding Surin’s droll reminder about analytic philosophy’s preoccupation with the logicity of propositions (and not just about God, free will or other “religious” matters): It occurred to me that Norbert Wiener’s point about human culture becoming an archive of itself as being a telling (and aptly contemporaneous) diagnostic of analytic philosophy as a cultural symptom. That is, having despaired of the possibility of something new and fresh beyond the political theology of capital and its occlusive circuits, it retreated from life to the analysis of its logico-linguistic archive. The lie of this anachoresis, however, is that it provided the disenchanted (or merely complicit) not with an escape (a charge equally applicable to Plotinus’ reaction to Empire), much less mastery (as pretended by Marcus Aurelius, himself the Emperor who closed off the archive of Stoic thought), but only a simulation of the sine qua non of capital’s own currency-instrument, namely the assessment of the soundness of investments. In this sense, then, analytic philosophers may be said to live surrogate lives as financial analysts and actuaries (of modes of thought/speech – is it surprising that Austin’s “speech act” or illocutionary theory, in coming so close to talking about real life and action by making speech and action convertible, may be the crowning glory of analytic philosophy so far? – at least for those unfamiliar with Gen. 1.3). They tell you where or how you can invest your “intuition” (or even what the returns might be). Are we ever very far from Kant? – Another instance of the enclosed/enclosing archive (cf. also Whitehead’s famous quip about Plato)…

    Continental philosophers are no more immune to being enclosed by the archive; some actively seek it in the form of “pure immanence.” But even when they do so, they seek, like other Continental philosophers, to transcend the enclosure of the macro-archive (and re-configuration is their weapon). In other words, they are struggling to break free (hopefully not just individually) of the bonds of the existing superstructure, be it the political economy, possibilities of thought, or “religion.” Speaking of which, I will close my midnight babbles and yawning parentheses with this thought: Continental philosophy of religion (as a mostly North American designation) is simply philosophizing in the Continental tradition using whatever means and resources (including technologies of the “self”) happen to be related (or relatable) to discourses of “religion.” In that sense, it is not strictly a philosophy OF religion, because it does not pledge fealty to religion as chief or even only OBJECT of inquiry. For that matter, Continental philosophy today has no object per se, because it does not recognize the legitimacy of ANY (pure) object vs. subject. Instead, there are only trends and phenomena of packing in the modi philosophandi and intellectual pieties (Derridean vs. Deleuzian or Negrian, Badiouian, etc.). Tradition (however new) is after all an inescapable operation of the archive.

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