What does it take to do philosophy of religion well?

Recently, I have been thinking quite a bit about what it takes to do philosophy of religion well. More specifically, I have been thinking a lot about teaching philosophy of religion, and about the conceptual tools that students need in order to be able to engage with the field at a high level.

I have just finished another term teaching the undergraduate philosophy of religion paper.1 Students are sometimes surprised by how difficult it is. To be able to engage with the best work in philosophy of religion at a suitably high level requires  a solid grounding in contemporary philosophy in general as well as some pretty serious technical chops.

In short, I couldn’t agree more with the post, Why Do Philosophy of Religion? on the excellent (and excellently-named) Appeared-to-blogly.

Nearly every conceivable area of philosophy intersects in a substantive way with questions in PoR. To get a sense of how rich just one topic in PoR can be, peruse the essays in T. V. Morris’ Anselmian Explorations (Notre Dame, 1987). Similarly, most responsible treatments of the cosmological argument will require detailed discussions of the nature of explanation (metaphysical, personal, and scientific), necessity and contingency, causation, the principle of sufficient reason, the nature of space (relationalist vs. substantivalist), time (tensed vs. tenseless), set theory, and infinity (regresses, actual vs. potential, Zeno’s paradoxes, supertasks, etc.), to say nothing of interdisciplinary competence in the physical sciences.

It’s safe to say that common arguments in PoR—indeed, the field as a whole—are victim to the most egregious and routine violations of the principle of charity. As proof of this one need only glance at standard introductions to arguments for theism, where one is sure to encounter, for example, the immortal straw man objection to “the” cosmological argument. Doing PoR well requires a fair amount of philosophical humility and charity.

Amen, brother.  All of which got me to thinking: What are the tools that young philosophers need in order to start doing analytic philosophy of religion well? What specific areas of metaphysics, language, epistemology, ethics, etc. are especially crucial for contemporary philosophy of religion? I’m mainly concerned about advanced undergraduates and postgrads, not specialists hoping to make original contributions, though I’m interested in suggestions about any skill level.

Off the top of my head, to get us started, I would say that students need at least:

  • a basic grasp of contemporary understandings of modality—the distinctions between necessity, aprioricity, and analyticity, along with the different forms of necessity and possibility (metaphysical, conceptual, epistemic, physical or  nomological, etc.)
  • related to that, a basic grasp of possible world semantics, or at least what philosophers are doing when they appeal to possible worlds
  • basic skills in Bayesian reasoning, and some grasp of the distinctions between frequentist and epistemic probability
  • a grasp of the internalism/externalism debates in epistemology, and related issues

What else, internet? Probably something in philosophy of language to do with contemporary understandings of meaning and the full consequences of the demise of verificationism, but I’m not sure how exactly to formulate what’s needed.

I’m sure there are many more things, some more basic and general, some more advanced and technical. Most of the blog’s regular posters have done the philosophy of religion paper, so you are well-positioned to chime in, but as always, I’m interested in hearing from anyone.

1Since I’m hoping that some non-Oxford people will read and comment on this post, I should say that in Oxford-speak a “paper” is like a course, or a module—a subject on which students will take a three-hour written exam at the end of their degree program.


5 thoughts on “What does it take to do philosophy of religion well?

  1. As much reading as possible on questions of belief and ‘mental-content’? It’s a good intersection of philosophy of language and metaphysics, probably essential to approaching religious belief, and so important for even the most secular attitudes towards philosophy of religion? Adds an extra dimension to the areas of logic you mention above; e.g., how logical concepts of necessity function in the expressions of theological beliefs outside of the (perhaps?) more rigidly normative context of a strictly stated argument?

    On a much more general level, maybe a sense of the distinction between philosophy of religion and philosophical theology? Or at least a recognition that philosophical terminology might not map precisely onto their apparent theological counterparts, such that it’s worth reading some post-scholastic systematic theology when doing philosophy of religion?

    Oh, and Wittgenstein. Obviously.(?)


  2. Good post Bill, and a somewhat humbling one for me to read, as I’m now realising how long it is since I’ve done any real analytic philosophy. I for one would definitely put the internalism/externalism stuff at the top of my list. I personally found competence in formal logic (especially natural deduction) a very useful tool for clarifying PoR arguments, and I think its something everyone should be willing and able to deploy when engaging at a graduate level. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on usng formal logic in a specifically pedagogical context though – I suspet for many students it would complicate rather than clarify the issues?


  3. Thanks, Bill. Do you have a reading list that would cover this? Or, even better, how about a lecture series on ‘Philosophy for Philosophers of Religion’? Or a guided reading seminar?


  4. I feel pretty strongly that part of what’s needed is some familiarity with multiple religious traditions, and pretty deep familiarity with at least one of those. It’s analogous to philosophy of science: it seems difficult to do good philosophy of science without having pretty deep training in one of the sciences as well as some familiarity with others (in part just so you can know to what extent the one in which you are trained is representative).


  5. Surprised to see that nothing about ethical theory or value theory appears here. I might be mistaken about this, but I’d think that some understanding would be required for doing good work on the problem of evil.


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