How can we make the subject matter of philosophy of religion more diverse?
October 20, 2014 — 16:23

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Christian Theology Concept of God Religious Belief  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 40

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.

 

Comments:
  • “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?”

    Are these the only options? Could it be that many philosophers of religion, being Christians or theists of a more general stripe, have an Anselmian “faith seeking understanding” modus operandi? I.e., it’s not that they’re eschewing “non-western philosophical views” as much as exploring and trying to achieve a deeper philosophical understanding of their own beliefs qua believers. What could be more natural?

    It’s hard to imagine a sub-discipline of philosophy more diverse than philosophy of religion. Almost every topic in philosophy of religion is a philosophical watershed where metaphysics, logic, ontology, epistemology, aesthetics, philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of science, etc. meet. How could it get any more diverse?—unless what is meant by “diverse” is simply “less Christian” or “less theistic”.

    How can philosophy of religion become more diverse in this sense? It seems to me this boils down to: Why aren’t there more non-Christian and non-theist religious philosophers doing philosophy of religion?

    October 20, 2014 — 23:05
    • Hi Camcontish: I think that faith seeking understanding does play an important part in the motivation of philosophers of religion, and my qualitative survey (see link in blogpost) indicates this too. I think phil of religion has a diversity of approaches, as you suggest, and this is one reason I like to work in it. But at the same time, it should broaden its scope into more diverse topics, by which I not only mean non-Christian, but also, for instance, nontheistic forms of nonnaturalism (e.g., Nagel’s work). An easy solution would be if people of different faiths were better represented in philosophy of religion, but I think even a Christian could, for instance, write a paper on Mormonism and the problem of evil, for instance, to see whether Mormonism could offer resources to solve that problem that we don’t have in traditional Christianity. Philosophy of religion need not always be faith seeking understanding.

      October 21, 2014 — 2:21
  • overseas

    Your anonymous quotes are not anonymous to *me*. I can tell you who two of the three are. Their opinions, as far as I know, are quite isolated in the field. I’d be interested in whether I’m wrong on that. How much else of this sort of thing did you get? I’d also be interested to hear how expression of these opinions correlated with the religious views of the respondents. If it’s just non-Christians or non-theists complaining that Christians or theists don’t pay more attention to their views – as is the case with two of your three quotes, and perhaps with the Chinese one too- well, that’s understandable, in a way, but it doesn’t cut much ice as a case that things in phil of religion need changing. Idealists might make the same complaints about the ‘lack of diversity’ in metaphysics.

    October 21, 2014 — 1:20
  • overseas

    Corrigenda to my last (I should never post on 5 hours’ sleep, and would’ve deleted the post if this were possible):
    ” Their opinions, as far as I know, are quite isolated in the field. I’d be interested in whether I’m wrong on that.”
    –I’m interested in whether their opinions are in fact isolated, not in whether I”m wrong about whether for all I know their opinions are so.
    “If it’s just non-Christians or non-theists complaining that Christians or theists don’t pay more attention to their views – as is the case with two of your three quotes”
    –I meant their broad types of view, not their own particular opinions.
    ” Idealists might make the same complaints about the ‘lack of diversity’ in metaphysics.”
    –the point here is that idealism is neglected because most people working in the field do not think it is very likely to be true, and prefer to work on matters with (as they see it) more chance of being nearer the truth. The same holds in phil of religion. If you are a standard sort of Christian, as the majority of analytic philosophers of religion currently may be, you do not think Wicca is very likely to be true, nor do you see it as a serious competitor intellectually or in terms of actual adherence, whose claims therefore need to be contested. Unless Wicca’s friends can give reasons to think the standard Christian is wrong in these things, why should the standard Christian write about Wicca “for diversity’s sake”?

    October 21, 2014 — 2:47
    • Hi Overseas: thanks for your comments. The comments in my survey on diversity aren’t the only ones. There are more (also by Christians) but these were the strongest and clearest expressions of it. I am still working on processing the data (or rather, have restarted, after a gap), so I can’t tell you how many comments like this there are, but my rough estimate is about 10-15. That’s not a lot (on 150 participants/140 reasonably complete questionnaires) but it indicates that at least some philosophers of religion would like to see its scope broadened.
      I agree we should not just write for diversity’s sake, but I’ve found that claims in favor of diversity in other fields rarely just want diversity for diversity’s sake. Instead, diversity can help us explore a larger conceptual space. For instance, there has been some work on the problem of evil with non-Christian concepts of God, such as Bewaji’s paper on Olodumare http://asq.africa.ufl.edu/files/ASQ-Vol-2-Issue-1-Bewaji.pdf .
      So I would instead say, striving for a more diverse philosophy of religion is a form of intellectual humility, to be open to the possible strengths of other traditions, and if we don’t seriously engage with them, we will never know what those strengths are. The fact that some people adhere to these religious systems indicates that they are at least live options to them.

      October 21, 2014 — 3:01
  • Thanks for the response, Helen. Of course philosophy of religion need not always be faith seeking understanding. But it may in fact be the case that most philosophers of religion have that as their working MO, and so it may in fact be the answer to your questions.

    You write that “it [philosophy of religion] should broaden its scope into more diverse topics, by which I not only mean non-Christian, but also, for instance, nontheistic forms of nonnaturalism (e.g., Nagel’s work).” But philosophy of religion, as a discipline, is not a philosopher. “It” cannot be blamed for not being diverse in the way you imagine. But neither can the actual philosophers who work in philosophy of religion if all they’re doing is working on what interests them as philosophers.

    No one is denying that the topics you mention are interesting and worth philosophizing about. But who should we expect to be philosophizing about them? Philosophers of those particular persuasions. My guess is that those topics aren’t being “represented” (I should say I’m not convinced of that, but am granting the point for the sake of argument) simply because there aren’t many philosophers of those persuasions . So why not? Maybe we should ask them?

    It’s worth making more explicit the point I was making above, which suggests at least a partial answer: the Christian tradition, and theistic tradition more generally, has encouraged the kind of critical, exploratory, self-reflective character natural to philosophy. In short, it doesn’t seem to me that “why aren’t more Christians and theists in philosophy working on more diverse things” (granting for the moment they aren’t, which I don’t think is true) is the right question to ask. A better question, IMHO, is rather “why aren’t there more non-Christian and non-theist religious philosophers doing philosophy of religion?” Is there something about, say, non-Western religious thought that doesn’t lend itself as naturally to analytic PoR? Is there something about, say, Mormonism that doesn’t encourage its adherents to philosophize about their religion? I don’t know. But those seem to me to be better questions.

    October 21, 2014 — 10:44
    • Hi Camcintosh, I take it to be desirable if philosophy of religion were more diverse (covering more conceptual space, as I mentioned above), but I don’t know how we should bring about that change. An easy and effective way to bring about this change is, as you suggest, to have more non-Christians and more non-scientific naturalists work in philosophy of religion. Perhaps they are put off by the dominant discourse. One of the respondents to my qualitative survey said that s/he had an unorthodox viewpoint and found it hard to publish on it, yet his/her views were not more unusual than, say, those of Spinoza. So perhaps within publishing culture there is a narrowing of scope that dissuades people who fall outside the scope to specialize and/or publish in philosophy of religion.

      October 21, 2014 — 13:29
  • I am not immensely interested in the phenomenon of religion. I am immensely interested in what reality is fundamentally like, including questions like: Is there anything supernatural? If so, what is the supernatural like? (Studying the phenomenon of religion may of course help get answers to such questions. And there is some interest in the phenomenon in and of itself. But I’m primarily a metaphysician. 🙂 )

    When one asks a question like that, one then has to consider which possible answers to study carefully. One reasonable selection criterion is based on one’s best informed judgment of which answers are most likely to be true. Our best informed judgments on this differ. My best informed judgment points to the two options of classical theism or naturalism. So those are the options I concentrate on in my academic work.

    (Why these two options? Well, I put a *lot* of weight on theoretical simplicity. There either (a) is nothing supernatural or (b) there is a single simple explanatorily-fundamental supernatural being or (c) there is a single complex explanatorily-fundamental supernatural being or (d) there are multiple explanatorily-fundamental supernatural beings or (e) there are supernatural beings but none are explanatorily fundamental. Theoretical virtues, I think, rule in favor of (a) and (b) over (c)-(e). Moreover, by far the simplest theory of a simple explanatorily-fundamental supernatural being is that it has all perfections. And that’s theism. So, the options are naturalism or theism. Of course, others put less weight on theoretical simplicity, or make judgments of theoretical simplicity differently.)

    Of course, there is another reason to focus one’s attention on some theory, and that is while the theory is not so likely to be true, it is nonetheless culturally important or important to people who are important to one, and one would like to have discussions with them. But, given the culture I am in, I find that most of the people I have discussions with subscribe to naturalism or some version of theism.

    October 21, 2014 — 11:46
    • Hi Alexander: Thanks for your input – indeed, many theists and naturalists provide a justification similar to yours for why they’d want to just look at those two options: they provide us with simple ontologies. This strikes me as a perfectly good reason to just consider those options. Nevertheless, there are aspects of other religious traditions that could deal with some problems in philosophy of religion more effectively than Christian theism. For instance, I am thinking of religious traditions like eastern Africa or Melanesia where there is belief in a supreme God who is responsible for everything. I remember an ethnographic account of the god Ugatame, of the Kapauku in Papua New Guinea, who is responsible for good and evil – since Ugatame is not intrinsically good, the problem of evil is just not a problem that arises in that theology. In Draper’s terms, Ugatame seems more to confirm to our (Earthly, as far as we know) experience than the omnibenevolent God of Christianity. So I am still thinking that even if simplicity is a concern, non-Christian religions might be able to address that concern effectively.

      October 21, 2014 — 13:37
      • Helen:

        Well, apparently like Hume and Aquinas, I think some version of the “guise of the good” theory of motivation is correct. That means that any agent must be at least somewhat good–the agent pursues some seeming goods. If the agent is perfectly good, that’s nice and simple. Anyway, even apart from the “guise of the good” theory, it is implausible that none of such a supreme God’s motivations would be good.

        So we’ve got a supreme being that has some good motivations but isn’t perfectly good. But now comes the question: Just how good is this being? And once one has questions like that, one no longer has the elegant simplicity of a classical theism where God has perfect goodness.

        Basically: The two simplest theories about the level of goodness of a person are that (a) the person has perfect goodness and (b) the person has no goodness. And (b), I say, is incoherent and anyway implausible in a creator.

        Of course, there is a lot more to be said here.

        By the way, Helen, there are two ways the diversity complaint can be read. One way is to read it as expressing unhappiness about the (or maybe better: dthe) current practitioners of analytic philosophy of religion.

        But there is another way to read it, namely as expressing unhappiness that the practitioners of non-monotheistic religions are not subjecting their faith to this particular form of rigorous intellectual analysis. I think we can all agree that there is something unfortunate about this. This need not be a complaint about these practitioners. Maybe (surely there is something to this) we the current analytic philosophers of religion act in ways that impede the participation of practitioners of non-montheistic religions. Maybe (surely there is something to this, too) various sociological facts make such practitioners less likely to go into philosophy in prominent Anglo-American programs. But also it may be that some (certainly not all: the tradition of Indian philosophy is an obvious and major exception) of those religious traditions have less of an interest in analytic styles of philosophizing. After all, arguably, analytic philosophy as a whole, and not just analytic philosophy of religion, was created by Muslims and Christians in the Middle Ages. 🙂

        October 22, 2014 — 9:59
        • Thanks for your response, Alexander. There are indeed 2 ways to look at the problem. One way, which I’ve focused on is that analytic PoR practitioners could look at some non-Christian traditions for new ways to solve philosophical problems (this happens to some extent, viz the Kalam cosmological argument), but it could happen more. The second, which I think is even more promising, is to have more diverse voices in our profession, including, e.g., more Muslims and Mormons. As you point out, Islamic philosophical theology has had a prominent role in shaping our cultural heritage, and it’s a pity this does not continue today. And it would be enriching for the discipline if not just other monotheists, but also people of other traditions joined in. The problem here, I think, is just the general one for philosophy at Eugene Park talked about: non-western philosophers are in the minority in academic philosophy (such as the main journals in analytic philosophy of religion I mentioned in the blogpost). It would be good if this could be addressed, but it’s a difficult problem, involving demographic factors (e.g., it so happens that most philosophers working in the analytic tradition come from a Christian background), and perhaps even biases at the review stage. I read recently about the acceptance rates of non-European, non-American philosophical papers in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. Not a philosophy of religion journal, but I think the problem is similar in PoR journals: it turns out that non-European/non-American submissions are quite high, but the acceptance rate is abysmally low, only about 3% versus over 10% for American submitters. It could be that non-western philosophy is of lower quality, but it seems more parsimonious to assume that there are language barriers (a subpar command of English, for instance) and culture barriers that impede more visibility in the journals. It’s a complex problem that is difficult to address, so this is why I chose to focus on the relatively easy path, viz. encourage more work on non-western or non-Christian PoR topics by people who are active as analytic philosophers of religion now.

          October 22, 2014 — 15:04
  • Michael Almeida

    I find what is supposed to be at issue really hard to understand. There is a certain set of issues that arise in certain sorts of classical monotheistic religions which is due almost entirely to their metaphysics. These metaphysical issues interest lots of people, they interest me. How is the interest in these metaphysical issues displaying a lack of diversity? Am I being told that if I really cared about diversity I would have interests in other metaphysical issues? I find the issues arising from polytheistic metaphysics much less interesting. Is that a fault in some way? I also find geology uninteresting. I can’t bring myself to see it as a fault. I find the issues arising from non-theistic religions even less interesting.

    I get the impression that the criticism is generated by some mistaken conflation of philosophy of religion with philosophical theology. The latter, on my use, does use the resources available in specific religious doctrines in approaching philosophical issues. Maybe in such a case we could ask about the diversity of resources used.

    October 21, 2014 — 12:18
    • Hi Michael: Just for the record, I love philosophy of religion – I think it’s one of the most exciting fields of philosophy today, and I enjoy the different strands of epistemology, metaphysics, ethics that one can use when engaging in PoR. I don’t think that individual philosophers of religion are at fault if they do not engage in, say, the issues arising from polytheism. Still, I think that overall the discipline would be better off if there were more diversity, and if at least some people were working on polytheism (I am aware there is some work on this now, especially on whether there would be a determinate number of gods, but so much more could be done). So I would think that it would be a good thing if philosophy of religion were a bit more welcoming to such approaches. For instance, by including some non-Christian philosophy of religion routinely in syllabi (with the work in Judaism and Islam, that should not be hard, but my impression is most syllabi are still Christian philosophy dominated). It’s hard where to draw the line between philosophy of religion and philosophical theology – I don’t think a firm line can be drawn. Often, philosophers of religion will use the resources from their specific religious tradition (e.g., eternal life in heaven as a resource to counter the problem of evil), which makes it all the more pressing to make sure we have some diversity in the religious views that are represented.

      October 21, 2014 — 13:43
  • Heath White

    I too am finding it difficult to get distressed about the lack of diversity in philosophy of religion.

    The sort of diversity in question is intellectual diversity, and like others I do not think this is worth pursuing for its own sake. The selection of topics one works on ought to be driven by what one thinks is likely to be true. There are not many people “working on” polytheism, I imagine, because practically nobody with a college degree, in or out of philosophy, thinks polytheism is likely to be true.

    As others have pointed out, there are principled philosophical reasons for thinking that some kind of monotheism, or some kind of naturalism, are the only games in town.

    I also think it is a bit of a canard to infer from “lots of philosophy of religion is Christian in inspiration,” which is true, to “philosophy of religion is not very diverse,” which I would say is false. The reason is that Christianity has existed a very long time in a large number of cultures, many of which have contributed ideas to the Christian tradition. So in dealing with the problem of evil, for example, there are free will theodicies, soul-making theodicies, no-best-world theodicies, evil-is-a-privation theodicies, greater-good-of-the-whole theodicies, God-doesn’t-owe-you theodicies, and so on. Christianity is probably the most diverse intellectual tradition in the history of the world.

    I suspect most of those wishing for more diversity in the field are those for whom common assumptions in the field do not seem likely to be true. That’s okay … everybody can pursue whatever they think is most promising, which is how it goes in the rest of philosophy and, indeed, scholarship.

    October 21, 2014 — 15:39
    • Hi Heath: I have epistemological reasons for thinking diversity does have benefits, for instance, I think that rational disagreement is possible in the face of shared evidence, and that people should look at the other people’s opinions and arguments to evaluate their own beliefs, and thus come to more justified beliefs (so I don’t think this always means downgrading one’s confidence in beliefs one held). Moreover, I think permissivism is true, that is to say, there is more than one rational position to take in the face of evidence. Our perspective is colored by things like upbringing, so in the face of evidence (e.g., evil, cosmological fine-tuning), we hold a belief that is informed by such factors. The reason that nobody with a college degree thinks polytheism is true is very likely a result of such cultural factors, not of the inherent unlikeliness of polytheism. So while we can find, after the fact, some reasons for thinking why monotheism and scientific naturalism are the only games in town, I suspect our belief that these are the only games in town is colored by the culture we live in, where theism and scientific naturalism are the live options for educated westerners. All this gives me reason not to dismiss other perspectives, like e.g., polytheism, out of hand.

      Personally, I think that polytheism is false, but I have not made a careful philosophical analysis of the pros and cons, and thus I think it would be valuable if someone could do this (I know there are some papers on the number of gods, on whether there would be more than one maximally great being, etc, but these papers are far and few between compared to papers on monotheism).

      This all is not to deny that Christianity is indeed incredibly intellectually diverse. I just think PoR as a field can be more diverse, even if it draws from a diverse tradition. Christianity only explores a small part of the total conceptual space of supernatural beliefs.

      October 22, 2014 — 15:13
    • You say: “There are not many people “working on” polytheism, I imagine, because practically nobody with a college degree, in or out of philosophy, thinks polytheism is likely to be true.”

      What an astonishing thing to say.

      October 27, 2014 — 17:53
      • Alexander R. Pruss

        Parenthetically, it is interesting that one of the most read Western philosophers, a guy who is a hero to many of us Christian metaphysicians and ethicists, was explicitly a polytheist, and even gave arguments for polytheism (in Metaphysics L, of course). It is interesting that nobody really seems to think much about these arguments, either.

        October 28, 2014 — 14:35
        • Indeed! (Not to mention all the Hindus, Chinese, animists, Afro-Carribean religions, Neopagans, perhaps even Mormons. And many of them even have college degrees!)

          October 28, 2014 — 20:04
  • Daniel Johnson

    Alex and Heath have, I think, hit the nail on the head for the most part in their comments. I find myself differing from them in one respect, though: I do not find naturalism to be the most plausible alternative to theism. I find some form of pantheism or panentheism to be more plausible, which we find especially in India but also all through the Western tradition, and which was dominant in Anglo-American philosophy as recently as a century ago or a little more. I’m really far more interested in that sort of view than I am in what seems to me to be the boring and impoverished view of scientistic naturalism.

    So I wish we talked more about pantheism or panentheism. And I wish we talked more about the historical figures who advocated such views (Samkara, arguably Nagurjuna, Parmenides, Bradley, etc.) But I don’t get to talk as much about that as I’d like. The reason isn’t any “lack of diversity” in my own work. It isn’t any lack of openness to diversity by the discipline as a whole, either — the people in the discipline will talk to anybody who comes up with an interesting argument, in my experience. The reason is something Alex mentioned: philosophy is a conversation. It is hard (though not impossible, perhaps) to have a conversation with myself. And I haven’t run across too many pantheist philosophers recently. Most people who disagree with my own Christian views on things are naturalists. So I have to develop, think through, and present to them arguments that would persuade them. I’d love to give them all my arguments against pantheism, but they are already persuaded that pantheism is false. More to the point, I’d love to give them all my arguments for theism that proceed from premises that many pantheists would accept. But many of those arguments beg the question against the naturalist, because they would reject those same premises.

    In other words, I too lament some of the lack of diversity. I think I could learn all sorts of interesting things if there were still a lot of pantheists working in philosophy, as there were a century ago. But I’m a real person, I live in a particular time and place, and I have to talk to the other real people who live in that time and place with me. Conversations with imaginary people, or dead people, are usually (though not always) less interesting. For one thing, it is either impossible or too easy to persuade them to change their minds. 🙂

    Here’s another way to put it: even if it would be good for all of us to have able philosophers representing views that are not currently represented in the mainstream discussion (and it probably would be), we can’t just manufacture that kind of diversity. We need people who hold those views to spend their lives developing and defending them, and then we need to meet them and talk to them. That can’t happen artificially. It has to happen organically, as cultures meet, mingle, and clash.

    October 22, 2014 — 15:47
  • Daniel Johnson

    Let me be more direct. The reason that Christian theism is one of the two major options in the contemporary discussion is that there are a lot of Christians in this country who think about philosophy. The reason that naturalism is the other of the two major options is that there are a lot of naturalists who think about philosophy. The reason that Mormonism is not one of the options is that there just aren’t very many Mormons and so not very many Mormons who do philosophy. The reason that pantheism is not one of the options is that there aren’t very many pantheists who study philosophy and speak English. None of that is the fault of any professional philosopher or the discipline of philosophy as a whole, as far as I can see. You have to talk to the people you meet, not the people you wish you would meet.

    October 22, 2014 — 15:53
  • Caleb C

    Hi Helen,

    I agree that there would be significant value in having more representation of a broader range of religious traditions in PoR, but I’m skeptical of the claim that such diversity can be achieved by philosophers “applying the toolbox” of analytic philosophy to various religious traditions. This is because I think a serious grounding in and sympathy with (though not necessarily adherence to) a given tradition is necessary to effectively exposit and defend it. Serious time and effort is needed before one reaches the necessary level of familiarity and proceeding without the expertise can be counterproductive. In my experience working with figures in the history of philosophy, interpretations that pick a few key quotes from well known works and try to intuit a position or find a precursor to contemporary views aren’t that helpful, either for understanding these philosophers or figuring out the most plausible views.

    October 23, 2014 — 12:21
    • This is indeed a big concern. Even a small field like Mormon philosophy of religion, for instance has a specialist journal (well, on Mormon theology), books and a dozen or so papers in mainstream journals. So it would take considerable effort to do this on a serious level. I don’t know immediately how we could address this (and it would not be advisable to pressure people to do work in this, although I think the chance is remote this will happen). But perhaps one way to do it is to include some non-Christian PoR in undergraduate teaching, so that our students get some familiarity with it. We don’t need to be experts to do this, and we can even remain quite mainstream by drawing on the classic medieval Muslim philosophers, for instance (I have looked through some PoR syllabi and most don’t, although my sample may have been unrepresentative). Second, in refereeing for journals, one could take diversity into account when evaluating. For instance, a promising, albeit unpolished paper in, say, Hindu theology, could be given an R&R instead of an R.

      October 23, 2014 — 14:23
      • Caleb C

        Yes, there are definitely small but concrete steps that we should take, like the ones you mention. I agree that representation in undergraduate syllabi is important – teachers should be sure to include some non-Christian sources and, as you suggest, some of the classical Islamic presentations of arguments for the existence of God are at least as easy to teach as Aquinas’s five ways. I also agree that papers exploring underdeveloped views should be given extra consideration, not penalized. I’m still somewhat pessimistic about the short term chances of increasing diversity in current PoR research. PoR’s lack of status (or, at the least, perceived lack of status) within the wider discipline of philosophy creates disincentives (of opportunity cost if nothing else), meaning that those who work in it are mostly doing so because of their personal engagement with the issues. I think this is a good thing in many ways, but it makes those who work in PoR less likely to be aiming at exploring all possible options. This might contrast with higher-status areas like, say, contemporary analytic metaphysics, where philosophers are encouraged and rewarded for laying out all the possible views.

        October 23, 2014 — 22:16
  • Caleb C

    When very few graduate programs have medieval Latin specialists, much less Islamic or Indian specialists, it’s going to be hard for most scholars in PoR to be in a good position to effectively draw on these traditions. One other option is to better integrate non-Western institutions into the contemporary PoR conversation, something that several current initiatives are aimed at.

    October 23, 2014 — 12:22
  • Caleb C

    I also think that there is an interesting question here about whether those who do analytic philosophy of religion tend to be committed to a sort of rational view of the divine that rules out certain views. You mentioned Ugatame, but the idea of the gods being responsible for both good and evil is a commonplace in much ancient Greek non-philosophical thought, famously showing up in the culmination of the Iliad where Achilles says to Priam “So the immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men live on to bear such torments – the gods live free of sorrows. There are two great jars that stand on the floor of Zeus’s halls and hold his gifts, our miseries one, the other blessings. When Zeus who loves the lightning mixes gifts for a man, now he meets with misfortune, now good times in turn.” (trans. Fagles) But this passage is singled out for criticism in Republic II precisely because it sees the divine as the source of bad things as well as good. Most philosophers in the Western tradition since then have agreed with Plato that the costs of attributing evils to the divine outweigh any possible benefits. If it’s true that many people actually think about the relationship of the divine to good and evil in this way, I agree that this is a prima facie reason for someone to articulate the view (if one can do so in a sympathetic way – I don’t think it’s important that this view be explored just as part of conceptual space).

    October 23, 2014 — 12:25
  • In recent years, a lot of analytical philosophers have been interpreting, evaluating and using ideas taken from Eastern philosophy – Graham Priest, Jonardon Ganeri, and Jay L. Garfield, for example. It is analytical philosophy, and it is concerned with religious thinkers and, on occasion at least, religious questions. Sure, there could be more work like this, but it is a rapidly expanding field.

    If you consider that analytical philosophy of religion is not sufficiently diverse, perhaps this is because work mentioned above is not generally included in undergraduate courses, not sufficiently mentioned in philosophy of religion journals and so on. Well, in my opinion, it should be, and I hope, in time, it will be.

    My own conscience is clear (he wrote, smugly), because in 2006 I gave a conference presentation on the topic of possession, which included a discussion of Santeria.

    October 23, 2014 — 16:35
  • Michael W

    Hello, I’m a lurker here but I thought I would share an opinion. As a non-religious theist, I would find the inclusion of non-Christian PoR interesting, but I also think that it would be something detrimental if done by a non specialist. Take Buddhism for example; Most western philosophers writing on Buddhism I find are doing it as a side project and are doing it in a fashion that I find rather Imperialistic (I’m thinking primarily of the “Naturalizing” phenomenon). So should there be recruiting drives for Philosophy at Sanghas or Madrasas or Yeshivas?

    Of course there is also a large elephant in the room that, outside of PoR, Analytic Philosophy has accepted Scientific Naturalism so most other cultures encounters with Analytic Philosophy will be with, most likely, a Naturalist.

    October 23, 2014 — 17:08
  • I certainly think that Jay Garfield, for example, has a serious commitment to understanding Buddhism. He is, after all, director of an exchange program with Tibetan universities in exile. I’d be interested to know whether you think his work is ‘Imperialist’. (That is a genuine question: do you think he fails to present Buddhist claims accurately?)

    What someone like me can then do is read, consider and respond to the claims of Garfield’s Nagarjuna, just as I might respond to say Kripke’s Wittgenstein or Strawson’s Kant, even if I don’t consider myself an expert on the exegesis of Wittgenstein or Kant (or, indeed, I’m putting the question of exegesis on one side while I respond to the arguments).

    October 24, 2014 — 12:39
  • Fascinating replies here. Many of them simply assume the truth of Christianity (or some other form of Christian supremacy). And a few of them are downright insulting (“nobody with a college degree believes in X”). Part of the issue is that there are more and more people who don’t simply assume the truth of Christianity. It’s (obviously) not the only religion. And the religions of the future may not look anything like the religions of the past.

    But it really is amazing to not be distressed about the lack of diversity in PoR. (Of course, others have pointed to very good philosophical reasons to be distressed, concerning bias, the difference between theology and philosophy, and so on.) The field is very out of touch with the religious life of much of the West. Given the vast conceptual space of possible religions, it’s astonishing that PoR refuses to explore that space. (Contrast this with other fields in philosophy.) And it’s not hard to find philosophers who are not Christians who would like to write about religion, but feel hopelessly excluded. That’s bad for the field.

    October 27, 2014 — 17:51
    • Daniel Johnson

      Honest question, Eric: in what ways are those philosophers who are not Christians excluded from writing philosophically about religion? Certainly, naturalists are not so excluded; naturalists still dominate the field of philosophy as a whole. Are others? I had thought (and my posts suggest) that whatever lack of diversity we find in the field is not the result of exclusion of people who want to be there but the result of other sociological and demographic factors. I’m curious if you can give me examples of actual exclusion and argue that such exclusion is widespread.

      October 31, 2014 — 12:00
      • Daniel, you’re right to point to the larger system of factors which make PoR so narrow. My own claims about specific inclusion are anecdotal (and it would not be fair to name names), but Helen’s survey data suggests similar points. Still, I doubt there’s much to be gained from making such fine distinctions. Lack of diversity is still lack of diversity. (And naturalism vs. theism is not adding diversity. It’s the same one-dimensional approach.)

        What’s most philosophically disappointing here is the way that lack is allegedly justified. Why would you have to *be* a Mormon to write about Mormonism philosophically? Or why would you have to *be* a pantheist to write about pantheism philosophically? That you have to *be* an X to write about X philosophically is just a sign of very bad method philosophically (it leads to bias), as well as a very poor understanding of religiosity. Confessional literature is not philosophy (nor is devotional or evangelical literature).

        – Eric

        November 3, 2014 — 8:30
        • Daniel Johnson

          I don’t think I disagree with anything you just said, Eric. I myself write regularly about Indian and Chinese philosophers with whom I disagree.

          The best and most interesting philosophical writings, though, are developed, defended, and thought through over a lifetime. And as a matter of human nature and empirical fact, it is going to be really hard to thoroughly and excellently develop an idea you yourself do not believe in. From your perspective, in fact, it might not be the right thing to do, if you care about discovering and expressing truth. For instance, I would love to engage with and read a 21st-century attempt to develop and defend a Samkara- or Bradley- style absolute idealist metaphysics. But to develop a really good version of that would require a lifetime of energy and devotion. And since I believe that it is likely to be false, I’m not going to devote my own very limited energy to developing such a view. I’m going to spend my creativity and energy on developing and exploring views I think are likely to be true. And, frankly, I’m much more likely to do a good job on developing a view I think is likely to be true.

          I think you are suggesting that the people who work in the philosophy of religion should spend more time than they do developing views they think are false (perhaps you think they should spend just as much time on views they think are false?) rather than waiting for someone else to develop such views and then engaging them. That reminds me of folks in graduate school who kept telling me I needed to read X or Y philosopher (often Heidegger, for whatever reason), and if I didn’t read Heidegger or whoever, then I was excluding Heidegger in some objectionable way from the philosophical conversation. My response was always that I wasn’t excluding Heidegger; I’d be happy to listen to anybody who wanted to talk to be about Heidegger’s ideas who was willing to explain them to me. I just have to make difficult decisions about how to allocate my very limited time and resources. I don’t even have enough time to read 5% of the new philosophy in my own fields, much less the very many important historical figures that I’d love to read.

          I want to say something similar to you. Sure, I’d love, as a thought experiment, to think through distinctively Mormon solutions to common problems in the philosophy of religion, or think through philosophical problems that arise specifically in a Mormon context. I’d also love to go get a math Ph.D. If I had 40 lifetimes I’d do it all. But I teach 4 classes a term, basically have no time at all for any reading, and barely have time to do a quarter of the writing I’d like to do. I have a bunch of notes for paper ideas that I haven’t had time to develop. I have a reading list a mile long and haven’t read hardly anything from it in three years. That reading list includes great philosophers in a tradition (orthodox Christianity) with which I identify and think are likely to teach me something true, which are more likely (from my perspective) to teach me an important truth than I am likely to discover by investigating the philosophical issues surrounding Mormon theology. Do you seriously think I do wrong by reading and writing about Jonathan Edwards and Thomas Aquinas instead of reading and writing about Mormonism, given that I don’t have time to do both and that, from my perspective, I am more likely to learn something important from Edwards and Aquinas? Every time I do something, I have to leave something else undone. I have made the decision to prioritize reading and writing in areas that I think are most likely to yield valuable knowledge and understanding, knowledge and understanding that are valuable to me.

          Every philosopher can and probably will say something similar — their resources are limited and they have to do work that from their perspective is most likely to yield valuable knowledge and understanding of the world. Why isn’t that a sufficient justification?

          Every philosopher is a real person with severe limits on time and energy. Each of us has to decide what best to study and work on; we probably ought to work on things that, from our perspective, are most likely to result in valuable knowledge and understanding.

          November 3, 2014 — 14:18
          • But Daniel, this is exactly the problem: our a priori assessments of what is “likely to be true” have been culturally formed, and, in current analytic PoR, are very badly biased in favor of a very narrow type of theism (or its opposite). I agree that I don’t want to waste valuable time on what’s likely to be false. But the problem is that we’ve got no good way to assess what’s likely to be false or true in PoR. Specifically, “I was raised Christian, therefore Christianity is likely to be true” just isn’t valid. And that’s the best most people in PoR seem to be offering.

            November 3, 2014 — 16:50
        • Eric – I´d like to respond to this comment:

          Why would you have to *be* a Mormon to write about Mormonism philosophically? Or why would you have to *be* a pantheist to write about pantheism philosophically?

          You don´t have to be a Mormon to write about Mormonism philosophically, but there are obstacles, real, but not insuperable. It is difficult trying to write well about a religion philosophically unless you first have a thorough understanding of that religion – an understanding of the whole history and the sensibility. That requires a lot of study and, for many religions, some expertise in non-philosophical areas. When I was a graduate student, I attended a visiting lecture by John Hick, he suggested that anyone who is wants to contribute to philosophy of religion should acquire a good knowledge of all the major world religions, and should choose one second religion to study in depth, where studying in depth requires a knowledge of the original languages. That is in addition to knowledge of the religion within which you were raised. I set about following his advice, and managed to include a section in my thesis that discussed some philosophical lessons that could be derived from the origins of Islam.

          However, in my case, I´m afraid that learning an additional language has been the big stumbling block. Since moving to Latin America, I´ve had to learn Spanish, and learning one new language has been enough. This means that, when I study Buddhist philosophy, I´m dependent on others who are capable of studying texts in the original language and who have some understanding of the Buddhist sensibility. There´s no point reading Nagarjuna if you don´t already have some familiarity with Buddhist scriptures, even in translation. Fortunately, as I mentioned above, there have been a lot of studies done by writers who are familiar with those texts in the original language, and who have a knowledge of analytical philosophy. There are writings to respond to. Philosophy of religion can become more diverse, and it should, but to do so requires there to be some philosophers who act as intermediaries, providing accurate interpretations of unfamiliar religions aimed at their fellow philosophers. For myself, I feel deeply indebted to those intermediaries for their work.

          November 4, 2014 — 8:10
          • Ben, your reasoning depends on a methodological assumption, namely, that the purpose of PoR is to try to solve deep internal problems in traditional religions. Why should that be what PoR does? That’s theology, or apologetics, not philosophy. Philosophers of mathematics don’t usually try to solve, say, deep problems in advanced topology or set theory.

            I’m challenging this methodological assumption. I’d say PoR shouldn’t have anything to do with trying to solve internal problems in traditional religions. That’s not philosophy. PoR needs to develop other methods, and a variety of other methods are available.

            One might study the structure of the logical space of possible religions, or ask what the essence of a religion is. Or one might wonder about the general ontology of religions: are gods necessary or not? Do religions require extensions of “natural” ontologies? How much religiosity can be developed without gods or spirits? What are the relations between religions and formal sciences like math or information theory or computer science? What is the point of religion? What about religious practices? (In fact, one might argue that PoR should start entirely with practice as its data.)

            And here’s my major recommendation: No more writing about religions of the past. From now on, all PoR should be about the religions of the future.

            – Eric

            November 4, 2014 — 9:17
        • Dear Eric,
          You say:
          Ben, your reasoning depends on a methodological assumption, namely, that the purpose of PoR is to try to solve deep internal problems in traditional religions.
          Frankly, I think you are making assumptions about what I consider the appropriate subject matter of philosophy of religion to be. I certainly don´t think that philosophy of religion should be restricted to considering the internal problems of traditional religions. I do admit that I don´t want to prohibit philosophical thinking about such problems either: I´m in favour of diversity in philosophy of religion, and a willingness to cross disciplinary boundaries. Furthermore, if you have no understanding of the internal problems of a tradition, then you don´t understand that tradition very well, and understanding a problem becomes easier if you spend a little time evaluating the possible solutions. But then perhaps the examples I gave left that impression that I thought this was the only role for philosophy of religion. That isn´t the case.

          I recognise the importance of many of the alternative questions you raise: for example – do religions require extensions of natural ontologies? My unpublished conference paper on Santeria argued that a naturalized account of possession is entirely compatible with what (many) adherents of Santeria believe about possession. I was considering this as a specific example of a more general question – just as we talk about naturalized epistemology, could we also talk about naturalized theology? (If naturalized theology, in my sense, is possible, then religions do not require extensions of natural ontology). Of course, it would only be possible to use data acquired from the study of a specific religion to draw general conclusions about religion in general if we have some idea about the essence of religion, another interesting question on your list. Of course, that requires understanding of the emergence of the modern concept of “religion” in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as a deep understanding of many different religions to test the applicability of any such theory. I would suggest that the best hope for a definition of the essence of religion comes from cognitive science of religion, treating “religion” as a natural kind, but while I have a great appreciation of such work, I find it is often historically uniformed – such researchers fail to take into account the diversity of religious phenomena throughout history.

          I will admit that I´m embarrassing myself with grand proposals about what I consider worthy of research, and congratulating myself on the content of an unpublished presentation, when I have no publications to back up these high aspirations. However, I persist in thinking that much of the research of the kind that you rightly think philosophers of religion should be engaging in requires the kind of intermediary figures whose work I was praising.

          November 4, 2014 — 12:39
          • Send me your Santeria paper.

            November 4, 2014 — 20:08
          • Ben Murphy

            Sure – it will be a couple of days, since it is on the hard drive in my office, and I´m off work until Thursday.

            November 4, 2014 — 21:42
  • I wonder if the alleged problem of there being a lack of diversity in PoR has less to do with reasons internal to PoR as it does the profession of philosophy at large. There is still a bias against the philosophical legitimacy of PoR in the profession at large, and the areas of PoR that have gained some credibility (and so are slightly easier to work on) concern perennial questions in natural theology and the coherence of (generic and specific) theism. Maybe if the profession at large were less biased against PoR and more encouraging of those interested in it, the field would grow to be more diverse. Maybe there’s a lack of diversity in PoR because the profession at large has been intolerant enough of PoR as it is.

    November 3, 2014 — 22:23
  • Jordan

    Eric, you write: “Specifically, “I was raised Christian, therefore Christianity is likely to be true” just isn’t valid. And that’s the best most people in PoR seem to be offering.”

    (1) No one who disagrees with you will likely care about trying to convince you otherwise. All that you’ve said, really, is “I don’t find Christianity plausible.” But, that’s not a terribly important fact for this discussion.

    (2) This was alluded to by someone above, but it seems worthwhile drawing the point out now. Your point is just as much an argument against the current state of affairs for any number of areas of philosophy and science. The vast majority of cognitive scientists and philosophers of cognitive science are inclined to a reductive sort of physicalism. Should they spend time attempting to explore and find support for dualistic or immaterialist views? After all, many non-Westerners are more inclined to dualism and immaterialism. You would likely object on the grounds that PoR is significantly more idealogical than cognitive science because of the trajectory of those participants beliefs from teen-hood to adult-hood (something to do with not holding physicalist beliefs about the mind before they went to college?). Fine. Now let’s look for all those areas of philosophy where the current state of the area is relevantly similar to PoR. We can also do this for every area of the humanities as well as every area outside the humanities. This is absurd, of course. There is no argument to be made here a part from the uncontroversially true point that one should try to be welcoming and open in a manner that is fit for their current situation.

    November 12, 2014 — 1:01
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