In a forthcoming paper, John Schellenberg forwards the following argument: anatomically humans have been around 200,000 years. That’s a very short span of time for any species, and only in the past few thousand years ago have we been reflecting on the world around us. If we our species survives even as long as Homo erectus did, we’ve only completed a very small part of a potentially long future of thinking about religion, metaphysics and other matters.
At present, philosophy of religion in the analytic tradition is quite narrowly focused:
“in the west – and I expect I am writing mainly for western readers – philosophy of religion has been largely preoccupied with one religious idea, that of theism, and it looks to be moving into a narrower and deeper version of this preoccupation, one focused on specifically Christian ideas, rather than broadening out and coming to grips with its full task.”(p. 3).
Theism, in a generic, omni-property sort of way, is one position that philosophers of religion commonly defend. The other is scientific naturalism. These seem to be the only games in town:
“most naturalists too assume that theistic God-centered religion must succeed if any does. Naturalism or theism. These seem to be the only options that many see. The harshest critics of religion, including philosophers such as Daniel Dennett, seem to think their job is done when they have, to their own satisfaction, criticized personalistic, agential conceptions of a divine reality.” (pp. 3-4).
At the end of 2013, I conducted a qualitative survey (summary here, but I am writing up the paper presently) among philosophers of religion. Next to a series of open questions, there was a question for open feedback. I was quite surprised to see so many philosophers of religion openly lament the lack of subject diversity in their discipline. Just a few choice examples written by anonymous respondents:
the ‘rigour’ and analytical ‘skills’ in this branch of philosophy has kept its (Christian) philosophers isolated and distant from the social, ethical and political changes taking place in other branches of analytic philosophy. Insularity has allowed the field to protect and to encourage narrow-mindedness and overconfidence in the thinking of the best known (and best funded) philosophers of religion in the world – female full professor, UK.
The mainstream of philosophy of religion betrays a bias towards the analysis and assessment of religious beliefs (as opposed to other religious phenomena), and this may well be due to the high profile of Christianity, and Protestant Christianity at that, in locations where the philosophical subfield has developed… the field may be hindered in this effort so long as it employs models of religiosity that have been derived from philosophical debates within Western Christianity – non-tenure track male professor, China, private liberal arts college.
Philosophy of religion is increasingly out of touch with the actual practice of religion in Europe and the Americas. It needs to be revitalized by making contact with the rich religious pluralism now evolving in Europe and the Americas. We need to see articles by analytic philosophers on Mormonism, Santeria, Umbanda, Wicca, goddess religion, religious naturalism, new pantheistic movements, and on and on” – male full professor, US, state university.
Recently, the public announcement of Eugene Park to leave philosophy has stirred new debate about the lack of diversity in western philosophy, not just a lack of diversity in the demographics (few women, ethnic minorities, people with disability, openly gay or other gender orientation), but a lack of diversity in subject matter. Do western philosophers eschew non-western philosophical views because they think they are inferior, lacking in rigor? Or is it mainly a matter of ignorance?
Is philosophy of religion worse than other areas of philosophy? Or are the criticisms laid at its doorstep too harsh? After all, the lack of diversity is also a problem in many other fields of philosophy, epistemology, metaphysics etc. To give but one example, the philosophy of testimony has only recently branched out to more diverse topics; early epistemology of testimony tended to center around discussions about whether testimony is a source of knowledge like perception or memory, or whether questions about justification of testimony are reducible to other domains of knowledge acquisition (see here for a beautiful summary). While several epistemologists are aware of the rich Indian tradition on work on testimony, it remains at present poorly integrated in analytic epistemology.
Even if the narrowness of scope is not unique to philosophy of religion, it seems to me that philosophers of religion have better resources to address the diversity problem than philosophers in other disciplines. They have a rich subject matter to draw from, after all, religious traditions across cultures that present their adherents with a (to some extent) coherent systems of knowledge. To rule out alternatives to thin theism without seriously considering them, and to only take thin theism as a philosophically respectable position without engaging in serious philosophical study of these alternatives strikes me as a form of hubris.
To give just one example, Mormonism has a rich theology and some academic work has appeared in Mormon theology, but at present Mormonism is more the study of sociologists than of theologians, the question being: How did Mormonism become so successful in America?. That is of course an interesting question, but also of interest is: What resources does the Mormon view on God, the afterlife etc. offer for philosophers? Mormonism is hardly the subject matter of serious philosophical discussion in philosophy of religion journals like Faith and Philosophy, International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion, and Religious Studies. With its ideas of an embodied Heavenly Father and people all working towards becoming gods, it has unique resources and challenges. What can Mormons respond to the problem of evil? To what extent does the problem of divine hiddenness apply to Mormonism?
The problem of divine hiddenness, a topic of special interest to Schellenberg, gets a whole new twist in Mormonism. For Mormons don’t only have a Father but also a Mother in heaven, a heavenly couple from which we spirit children are assumed to emerge. Here is an excerpt of a poem by Lisa Bolin Hawkins on the hiddenness of “heavenly mother”
Why are you silent, Mother? How can I
Become a goddess when the patterns here
Are those of gods? I struggle, and I try
To mold my womanself to something near
Their goodness. I need you, who gave me birth
In your own image, to reveal your ways
Philosophers of religion could start to engage with these topics more seriously right now, using their toolbox of analytic philosophy.