Danger: Philosophy of Religion

By Gall, Robert S. | Philosophy Today, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Danger: Philosophy of Religion


Gall, Robert S., Philosophy Today


At first glance, philosophy of religion might seem to be an unproblematic discipline. However, closer inspection reveals that philosophers and religious people often seem uneasy when confronted with the subject. That uneasiness, one suspects, is due to the fact that philosophy of religion poses a threat to our accepted notions of philosophy and religion-a threat that lies in the ambiguity of the genitive. The philosopher suspects that philosophy of religion is religious philosophy, a disguised theology and apologetics that threatens the objectivity of philosophy. The religious person, on the other hand, suspects that philosophy of religion is philosophy about religion, an intrusion into religion by "outsiders" (i.e., "unbelievers") that threatens the sanctity of religious belief and practice. In the following, I want to explore the threat posed by philosophy of religion and argue that we should embrace the ambiguity of the genitive and the danger that it poses to philosophy and religion. Indeed, as philosophers of religion we have no choice but to embrace this ambiguity if we are to be true to philosophy, religion, and the philosophy of religion.

The danger of philosophy of religion is acknowledged in one of two ways. One way involves a kind of repression and avoidance of the threat. Thus on the opening page of his An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (2nd edition, Oxford, 1993) Brian Davies tells us that "it is difficult to say exactly what the philosophy of religion is," noting that the difficulty lies in characterizing both philosophy and religion. Rather than pursuing this insight, he goes on to tell us that he will "not attempt the perilous task of defining the philosophy of religion" (ix) and then proceeds to introduce us to the subject. Here Davies, like a few other philosophers of religion, is dealing with the problem and the threat posed by philosophy of religion by not dealing with it. However, avoidance and repression generally are not healthy ways of coping with problems; they lead to more problems. Thus William Wainwright, for instance, also foregoes any definition, though he has some very definite ideas about what philosophy of religion should be covering. He seems to assume that philosophy of religion is equivalent to "philosophical theology" (whatever that is) and consequently jumps right into an argument about "maximally perfect reality,"1 despite the fact that there are religious traditions (e.g., Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism) that cannot be said to be doing "theology" (i.e., investigating the logic of"God") or are not concerned with a "maximally perfect reality." If philosophers of religion such as Davies and Wainwright refuse to define what it is they are doing, they leave themselves open to the suspicion that they have a hidden agenda, or have made assumptions that will not survive the light of day.

Of course, more often than not philosophers of religion do undertake "the perilous task" of defining philosophy of religion. Yet they too acknowledge the threat posed by philosophy of religion (albeit indirectly) by characterizing it in such a way as to put everyone at ease. A good example can be found at the beginning of John Hick's popular introduction to Philosophy of Religion (4th edition, Prentice-Hall, 1990). On the opening page of that work, Hick confidently proclaims-with emphasis-that "we may reserve the name `philosophy of religion' for what (by analogy with philosophy of science, philosophy of art, etc.) is its proper meaning, namely, philosophical thinking about religion" (1). The definitionsenerally accepted and/or echoed in other treatments of the subject2-is bound to be comforting to both philosophers and religious persons. But the definition (and those like it) does not do justice to philosophy, religion, or philosophy of religion, either in theory or in practice.

One of the first things to note about Hick's definition is that it somehow places philosophy outside religion. …

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