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.

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Praeger Releases Science and the World’s Religions

cover-sor1smallcover-sor2smallcover-sor3smallPraeger has just released three volumes of new essays on Science and the World’s Religions. Each of these volumes has been in preparation for a couple of years and represents one aspect of the work of the Institute for the Biocultural Study of Religion. The volumes are edited by Patrick McNamara and Wesley J. Wildman, Founders of the Institute (find out more about the Institute here).

Science and the World’s Religions consists of three volumes of new essays, written by experts recruited specifically for this project, and targeted for the generally educated reader. Each essay addresses a vital existential, moral, or metaphysical issue that many thoughtful people ponder—an issue on which satisfying progress requires integrating scientific and religious insights. Educated people in many parts of the contemporary world, whether religious or not, struggle to unite their spiritual instincts and their scientific knowledge. Most people do not have the time or the opportunity to decide how to weave all of these threads of knowledge and belief together into a tapestry that can help describe and guide their lives. These volumes are aimed directly at this audience. They can function as workbooks for such readers, full of ideas that need to be digested slowly.

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Conference on Metaphysical and Religious Naturalism

iarptlogoThe Institute for American Religious and Philosophical Thought (IARPT; formerly HIARPT) is hosting its annual conference in Colorado Springs from June 11-15, 2012. The theme of the conference, according to the Call for Papers, “encompasses exploration, defense, and criticism of the various forms of metaphysical and/or religious naturalism that have been proposed in the past, are being argued for in the present, or are thought to be inviting possibilities for the future.” This theme is close to the heart of the intellectual interests of this remarkable group of intellectuals, which takes its rise from the Chicago School’s early twentieth-century naturalism, American pragmatism along the Harvard-Columbia axis, and process thought.

The group is thriving, having built upon many successful years associated with the lovely town of Highlands North Carolina and the priceless leadership of Creighton Peden. Almost everyone in the United States involved in pragmatism, naturalism, and religion has some connection with this group. it is also a close-knit group, with lots of friendships stretching across many years. This is partly because it is one of the few places where metaphysical conversations still have an honored place in American philosophical and theological discussion.

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Spirituality & Health Bibliography Update

smhbibThe famous Spirituality, Medicine, & Health Bibliography has been updated. This amazing bibliography, far and away the most comprehensive and best organized of its kind in the world, is the product of two generations of Boston University graduate students. The original effort, from the Fall of 2009, was created by Connor Wood, Eric Dorman, and Joel Daniels. The revised and expanded version, from the Fall of 2011, was created by Jenn Lindsay, Derrick Muwina, Stephanie Riley, and Lawrence A. Whitney. The new version features twice the entries, more annotations and abstracts, and the ability to download sections or all of the database in a format suitable for importing into bibliographic management programs. This is a priceless resource for anyone conducting research in the area of spirituality and health, as well as for members of the general public who want to catch up on the latest thinking in this complex and fast-moving area.

On the front page of the bibliography, the downloadable file formats are listed: BIB, RIS, and Zotero RDF. These files will open in most bibliography managers. There is also a downloadable rich-text file for a formatted bibliography using Chicago style; that will open in Microsoft Word and most other word processors.

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The ISSR Library Project

dasThe International Society for Science and Religion (ISSR) is bringing to a close its adventurous Library Project. This amazing venture reviewed all English-language writings in the religion-and-science field to construct a library of about 250 classics. These books were then specially bound and distributed as a complete collection to 150 libraries worldwide. As a member of the editorial board that made the selections, I can attest to how much work was involved in constructing the library. It was a serious re-education in the diversity of work that exists, and it presented a wonderful opportunity to solidify friendships with other board members. But the board’s work was the thin end of the wedge.

Project Director Dr. Pranab Das (right) had to run the entire project, including negotiations with publishers and printers on one end and navigating the wilds of the import-export rules of four dozen separate countries. All this while managing both ISSR and the agency funding the project, The John Templeton Foundation. He also produced the compendium volume explaining the library and reviewing every item within it. This is an amazing feat of administrative genius and everyone interested in religion-and-science scholarship is deeply in Pranab’s debt.

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The Future of the Philosophy of Religion

amesbury

Amesbury

schilbrack

Schilbrack

knepper

Knepper

The Society for Philosophy of Religion, USA is meeting in Savannah, Georgia in February 2012. One of the sessions at that meeting will be a panel on my book, Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future for the Philosophy of Religion. Panel members are Richard Amesbury (Claremont School of Theology), Timothy Knepper (Drake University), and Kevin Schilbrack (Western Carolina University), with me responding.

The point of Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry is to describe philosophy of religion not as a discipline but as a suite of related disciplinary inquiries that work both across cultures and across academic disciplines—thus, multidisciplinary, comparative inquiry. This vision of the philosophy of religion places it squarely in the secular academy rather than as an explicit adjunct or a surreptitious affiliate of any religious institution or movement. Religious philosophy, so conceived, has a future, both conceptually and institutionally, but it is one that needs to be articulated and defended, as well as contrasted with more common but intellectually less reputable forms of philosophy of religion that effectively promote particular institutionally borne religious ideologies without due concern for their rational standing in relation to the wider words of philosophy and religious studies.

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Theology After the Birth of God

leronshultsThe sciences of cognition and culture are profoundly transforming our understanding of the origins and functions of religion. Both experimental work and evolutionary modeling have shown convincingly that evolutionarily stabilized patterns of human cognition and social life lead naturally both to beliefs in supernatural beings (gods, bodhisattvas, ancestors, and the like) and to the formation of supernaturally reinforced and authorized coalitions (churches, temples, religious traditions, and the like). The precise mechanisms of the birth of Gods and the formation of religious rituals and groups are still very much under debate (for example, it is not clear the extent to which the underlying cognitive mechanisms are selected for this religious function or whether the function is a side effect of cognitive characteristics that emerged for reasons unrelated to religion). but the direction of travel is quite clear.

At this point, theologians (that is, religious intellectuals in any religious tradition or pursuing secular academic forms of inquiry into religious topics) are scarcely aware of these research results in the scientific study of religion and haven’t really begun to reflect on their implications for theological projects. But the question should be faced squarely: How should theologians respond to this new evidence about how human beings create gods and supernatural coalitions? What is theology after the birth of god?

Prof. LeRon Shults from the University of Agder in Kristiansand, Norway, is addressing this theme in a lecture on Wednesday November 9, 2011, beginning at 4:00pm in room B19 in 745 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, 02215 (that’s the big lecture room in the basement of the School of Theology).

University of Agder Events

agderProf. LeRon Shults has invited me to travel to the University of Agder in Kristiansand, Norway, for several events in September. There will be a discussion seminar on my paper “Religion and Secularism” and an open class discussion on theology of religion focusing on chapter 7 of Religion Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry. In between, there is scheduled a public lecture entitled “What would Luther do? Religious extremism and violence in the Reformation and today.” Sadly, this is a timely topic for a country Lutheran in its roots now grappling with the horrific extremist Christian violence that unfolded there only a few short weeks ago.

The University of Agder resulted from the 1994 merger of six public regional colleges, becoming a fully accredited university in 2007. The university’s activities are gradually focusing onto two locations: the campus at Kristiansand and the new campus in Grimstad. Prof. Shults is located primarily in the Department of Religion, Philosophy and History, which is part of the Faculty of Humanities and Education on the Kristiansand campus.

Norway is geographically stunning, not least because of the vast fjords on its west and north coasts–the “crinkly edges” as the award-winning planet designer Slartibartfast described them in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Trusting Slartibartfast in all things geographical, I intend to see one or two of the fjords, both from the water on a boat and from above as a hiker.

Gordon Kaufman Memorial

My colleague and friend Thomas Thangaraj write the memorial below on the occasion of the passing of his mentor and friend, Gordon D. Kaufman. Because Gordon was a friend of mine as well, I asked Thomas if he would be willing to share his thoughts more broadly and he agreed, so I am posting it on this site.

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Homage to My Guru, Dr. Gordon D. Kaufman (1925-2011)

By Dr. Thomas Thangaraj
Professor Emeritus of World Christianity
Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, USA

kaufmanOn hearing the news of the demise of Dr. Gordon D. Kaufman – my guru and my mentor – I could not but reminisce about how Gordon had influenced and shaped my career as a theologian, as a teacher, and as a person. I wrote about his contribution to theological thinking as such in 1996. (See: “Gordon D. Kaufman,” in A New Hand-Book of Christian Theologians, Donald W. Musser & Joseph L. Price, Eds., Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1996, pp. 253 -260. Two of his major works were published after 1996, viz., In the Beginning…Creativity (2004), and Jesus and Creativity (2006). In these two later works one can detect a more naturalistic and less anthropomorphic imaging of God than before). This homage to Kaufman, however, is on a personal level.

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Spectrums Project Update

splogoIBCSR’s Spectrums Project is an ambitious attempt to apply what is known about ideological spectrums in politics and morality to the field of religious beliefs and practices. The Project’s goal is twofold: firstly, to deepen understanding of why human beings adopt a spectrum of religious and theological viewpoints; and secondly, to discover strategies for mitigating the problems associated with religious extremism and polarized religious discourse.

IBCSR’s main partners in this project are Dr. Catherine Caldwell Harris in Boston University’s Psychology Department. The project’s post-doctoral fellow is Dr. Aimee Radom, who recently completed a dissertation on a related topic through Boston University’s Graduate School. Two doctoral students are working on the project as well: Connor Wood and Nicholas DiDonato. Both are earning their PhDs in the Religion and Science Program within Boston University’s Graduate School. This project is funded by Boston University’s School of Theology, the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, and the Institute for the Biocultural Study of Religion.

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