Has Philosophy of Religion a Future?

Redpath Museum at McGill University in Montreal Canada

Redpath Museum at McGill University in Montreal

I am heading to McGill University in Montreal for a symposium on the future of philosophy of religion. The April 25, 2013 event is organized by Jim Kanaris, a McGill philosopher of religion particularly interested in how the field is responding to and interacting with religious studies.

There have been quite a few conference events on the future of philosophy of religion in recent years. I suspect that this is a sign of a discipline having trouble finding its way. There are three reasons for the identity confusion that provokes pondering the future.

First, at least in research universities, the dominance of obviously biased Christian philosophers within the field of philosophy of religion has come to seem bothersome to a lot of people. This type of covert Christian apologetics is painfully out of touch with religious studies, and thus has no legitimate claim to the name “philosophy of religion.” People who actually know and care about religion in all its complexity and diversity have been fighting back. When philosophy or religion departments entertain the possibility of hiring a philosopher of religion, they ask themselves not “Can we find a philosopher of religion who knows about religion?” but “Do we really want a covert Christian apologist masquerading as a philosopher of religion?” This causes those departments to push the open faculty line in a different direction often enough that there is serious shrinkage in philosophy of religion positions.

Second, religious studies has expanded so quickly that there is tremendous pressure on each new appointment. “We need someone in South Asia!” “We need someone in Chinese Religion!” “We need someone in African Religions!” And so on. When there is the slightest hint of religious bias in a field, as there certainly is in much of philosophy of religion, the path of least resistance is to fill a philosophy of religion faculty slot with an area studies specialist or someone whose disciplinary work doesn’t threaten the attempt of religious studies departments to consolidate their position within the secular academy. Here, too, we have another reason for shrinkage in philosophy of religion positions.

Third, and more interestingly, there are internal tensions within philosophy of religion, broadly considered, that reflect ongoing debates within religious studies and philosophy. Is philosophy of religion centrally an analytical exercise? Is it a locus for asking first-order questions about religion, such as whether ultimate reality is a personal being, or whether there is continuation of human consciousness after death? How should philosophy of religion interact with post-colonial theory and other movements that have deeply affected religious studies?

If the first two concerns cause contraction of the field of philosophy of religion, the third causes internal confusion, making it more difficult than it otherwise would be to generate a characteristic set of focal issues that might forge a publicly intelligible field identity. The way forward here is far from certain—that much seems clear. In my view, the first step is what Confucians used to call “the rectification of names”—take back the name “philosophy of religion” from those intellectuals who are actually practicing a philosophical form of Christian theology. Philosophical theology that operates within the sphere of Christianity or theism is a legitimate intellectual activity, but only when it identifies itself accurately so as to avoid the charge of monstrous religious bias that pervades such writings. The Society of Christian Philosophers has the right idea: call a spade a spade. Liberate the phrase “philosophy of religion” so that it can stand for what it says it is: philosophical reflection on religion—not just Christianity (or any other particular tradition), not just theism, but religion in all of its forms.

After that, who knows? But we can’t reverse the contraction in philosophy of religion positions until philosophy of religion is changed to be about, well, religion.


For those interested, here is Jim’s description of this particular conference:

The symposium aims to address the emerging new faces of philosophy of religion that expand on the wider cultural issues of theorizing religion today. Topics to be addressed range from how ideology critique has come to change the face of studying religion academically and whether theology and religious studies can or should, in the context of post‐phenomenological debates, co‐exist in the university, to whether traditional philosophy of religion, as distinct from philosophical theology and phenomenology of religion, is more properly philosophy of religious studies.

The subject matter is a pressing one. Philosophy of religion is changing so rapidly that many wonder, more now than ever, in what it consists. This often raises the urgent question whether philosophy of religion should persist. The symposiasts offer ways in which to mitigate the issues, underlining the importance of reflexivity in the context of religion and not philosophy alone.

The papers and speakers at the McGill colloquium are as follows.

“The Future of Philosophy of Religion” by Morny Joy (University of Calgary, AB)

“Towards a New Paradigm for Philosophy of Religion” by Maurice Boutin, Professor Emeritus (McGill University, QC)

“After the End: Retractions and Reaffirmations of The End of Philosophy of Religion” by N.N. Trakakis (Australian Catholic University, Melbourne)

“From PostColonial Paralysis to PostCorrectional Progress: The Future of Philosophy of Religion as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry” by Wesley J. Wildman, (Boston University, MA)

“What Can NonPhilosophy do for Continental Philosophy of Religion?” by Clayton Crockett (University of Central Arkansas, AR)

“The Enecstatic Jig: Personalizing Philosophy of Religion” by Jim Kanaris (McGill University, QC)

“Philosophy, Religion, and the Question of Genre” by Jin Y. Park (American University, Washington, DC)

“Signs Outdistancing the Times: How Globalization and PostColonial Theory Is Redefining Contemporary Philosophy of Religion” by Carl Raschke (University of Denver, CO)

“Reverence and Criticism in Philosophy of Religion” by Tyler Roberts (Grinnell College, IA)

“Where Can Radical Theology Find a Home?” by John D. Caputo, Professor Emeritus (Syracuse University, NY and Villanova University, PA)

“Revisioning ‘life’ in Philosophy of Religion” by Pamela Sue Anderson (University of Oxford, UK)