Making Philosophy of Religion Less Parochial

Every Spring I teach a course on Philosophy of Religion, a subject that, though not my area of expertise, I enjoy teaching because it attracts a passionate and diverse group of students.

Still, it gets to me every time that the religion in Philosophy of Religion is limited to Western monotheistic traditions. It’s not just that the text I use, Pojman’s Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, excludes representatives from other traditions (OK, there is one essay on pluralism by the Dalai Lama), but that it focuses on problems that are peculiar to Western monotheism: the existence and nature of God, the problem of evil, the tension between faith and reason, and the like. It’s not that I don’t find these problems interesting, but that I am irritated by the lack of interest in other religions (one not shared by the students in the course), as well as by the false advertising. Why doesn’t philosophy of religion change its name to “Philosophy of Christianity” or “Philosophy of Western Monotheism”?

I was thus sympathetic when I read this part of a recent interview with Jay Garfield in the New York Times’ Stone column:

What gets called “philosophy of religion” in most philosophy departments and journals is really the philosophy of Abrahamic religion: basically, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Most of the questions addressed in those discussions are simply irrelevant to most of the world’s other religious traditions. Philosophers look at other religious traditions with the presumption that they are more or less the same, at least in outline, as the Abrahamic religions, and even fight about whether other traditions count as religions at all based upon their sharing certain features of the Abrahamic religions. That is a serious ethnocentrism that can really blind us to important phenomena.

For instance, I recently moderated a discussion in Singapore with the philosopher A.C. Grayling, who claimed that Buddhism is not a religion because Buddhists don’t believe in a supreme being. This simply ignores the fact that many religions are not theistic in this sense. Chess is a game, despite the fact that it is not played with a ball, after all.

Yet making philosophy of religion more inclusive requires more than just expanding our definition of religion. Additionally, we will have to carve out areas of other traditions that fall under a category like “faith seeking understanding.” Garfield goes on to mention that since Buddhism is an atheistic religion, questions about God’s existence or nature do not arise; instead, Buddhists argue about what it takes to achieve awakening, or the nature of ultimate reality and of persons. But while these areas of interest can be seen as philosophical or religious or both, do they require a distinctive philosophy of religion? From my limited readings in Buddhist scholarship, including Garfield, it seems like these topics are already well-covered under other headings.

 At the end of every semester, I try to include a week or two on non-Western philosophy of religion, but inevitably I find that I end up discussing differences in philosophy or religion, but not philosophy of religion. So I am genuinely curious about what to include. Are there other topics in Buddhism that would fall under this distinctive area? What about in other non-Western philosophical/religious traditions? What sorts of issues would a less parochial course on the subject cover?

Hannah Pang detail

12 replies on “Making Philosophy of Religion Less Parochial”

  1. Tim, have you thought about Daoist eschatology and soteriolgy in the context of Zhuangzi (maybe even Liezi) and Ge Hong?

  2. There’s also some great work in religious studies that is doing philosophy of “religion” more broadly, and problematizing the category and concept of religion… for example, Tomoko Masuzawa’s book The Invention of World Religions: Or How European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism; Jason Ananda Josephson’s The Invention of Religion in Japan.

  3. While creating the categories for posts at the Indian Philosophy Blog, we had a long discussion about a “philosophy of religion” category and what that would entail. We eventually settled on four subcategories: deities, life after death, mystical experience, and relations among traditions. Interestingly, after several months of blogging, only the first two have received any posts.

  4. In terms of a textbook that covers all of the world’s religions, you might want to consider the Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Religion (Chad Meister and Paul Copan, eds.)

  5. I have taught Philosophy of Religion for quite a few years now and have had good luck with Gary Kessler’s Philosophy of Religion: Toward a Global Perspective.

    What’s good about Kessler’s book is that his inclusion is not just a token non-Western idea here and there shoe-horned into monotheistic themes. Rather, the book is resolutely comparative, as can be seen in his chapter titles, such as: What is Religion? Diverse Views of Ultimate Reality, Can We Prove that Some Kind of Ultimate Reality Exists? Religious Experience: What Is It and What Does It Prove? Why Do Suffering and Evil Occur? Every chapter is well-balanced with non-Western content instead of being centered on the basic questions of monotheism.

    Obviously, he has begun with traditional problems in philosophy of religion but has expanded their scope to include issues that other religions bring to these questions and hence re-orient the quesitons. The first chapter, seeking a definition of religion, is a true gem, including articles by Ninian Smart, Clifford Geertz, and Keiji Nishitani. Although I tend to rush through the book, you could easily spend a couple of weeks just hashing through issues that this basic question raises. You could see these issue in Gutting’s interview of Garfield. Gutting seemed to think that religion is only about belief in god–no god, no religion. Smart shows the flaws in such a view. Why hasn’t Gutting read Smart?

    The second chapter, Diverse Views of Ultimate Reality, starts with Laozi, moves on to Shankara, then Avicenna, then John Cobb’s (flawed) take on Buddhist emptiness, and I stop with the next article, Rosemary Reuther’s, “The Female Nature of God.” Again, there is so much to work with in these chapters other than the typical male, monotheistic view. The challenge, of course, is to be able to teach these diverse views. This is a fundamental problem relating to Tim’s post.

    The third chapter, Can We Prove that Some Kind of Ultimate Reality Exists? starts with Udayana’s seven proofs of the existence of God, then moves on to Aquinas’ five proofs. I just love that Kessler does this–Udayana, a Nyaya philosopher, predates Aquinas by some 300 years. From there, Kessler brings in the traditional cosmological, teleological, and ontological arguments for the existence of God, but each with a twist. William Rowe articulates the cosmological argument by claiming that it is fundamentally based on the principle of sufficient reason, then calls that into question. Following that, Gunapala Dharmasiri gives a Buddhist critique of arguments for the existence of God. Kessler then gives Hume’s take on the teleological argument. After that, Sri Aurobindo offers evidence for divine consciousness. I stop at the next article, Anselm’s ontological argument and Gaunilo’s critique of it.

    And so on. Chapter 4, on religious experience, includes Black Elk and D.T. Suzuki. Chapter 5, on evil/suffering, includes Mencius, Xunzi, Kwame Gyekye (African), Rowe (on atheism), and Reichenbach on karma (problematic). Chapter 6, on religion and morality, includes Confucius, Cornel West, and Nussbaum (on women’s rights in Islam). Chapter 8, on language and religion, includes Kasulis on several Japanese takes on religious language and Lame Deer. Etc.

    The book is not perfect. There are some pieces that I don’t think work all that well, but overall, it is the best I’ve found for a genuinely global view of the philosophy of religion. I am considering, in the future, of putting together my own coursepack.

    Back to the issue of teaching these diverse views. This is, I think,a fundamental problem in the academy right now. How many people teaching the philosophy of religion could competently teach Kessler’s text, introducing ideas from Nyaya logic to Xunzi’s Confucianism, from Advaita Vedanta to West-Aftrican Akan theology? Until we have more people in Philosophy Ph.D. programs who are able to supervise dissertations in diverse traditions, we will not have enough professors competent to teach diverse traditions, no matter how many textbooks there are that are globally oriented. I found out from the publisher of Kessler’s book, which has recently gone up dramatically in price, that it is essentially out of print–print on demand only. There seems to be a lack of demand.

    Here is the irony. I just started the summer term and am teaching this course, and this book, online. I asked each student to say something they’d like to get out of the class (which is called simply “Philosophy of Religion”), and almost all who have responded so far (about half the class), say that they want to know more about non-Western religions. If this were a traditional philosophy of religion course, they would all be disappointed in that respect. There is great demand for learning about diverse traditions of philosophy. There just aren’t many Ph.D. programs producing people capable of meeting this demand.

    It is nice to see Gutting’s interview of Garfield in the New York Times. Did anyone besides me get the sense that Gutting was dismissing Buddhism because he found the idea of reincarnation implausible?

    Anyway, I think many courses, e.g., epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics, should be taught from a comparative perspective, and that not doing so is doing a disservice to our students. This last semester I taught an aesthetics course (my specialty coming out of graduate school) and devoted the last third of it to Chinese and Japanese aesthetic theory. It was lots of fun.

    Apologies for the long-winded comment.

    • Thanks to Tim for raising an important issue, and to everyone but especially Brian, for this really informative comment!

  6. This is a very interesting post and discussion. Some fundamental questions are raised here: Is ‘religion’ a cultural universal? Is ‘religion’ a relatively recent Western construct? What are the ways in which ‘religion’ is defined, and what are the reasons for the boundaries being drawn here rather than there? What are the topics or problems of philosophy of religion (i.e. are there topics or problems essential to all religions, or are topics and problems tradition-specific and/or contextually situated)?

    I agree with the idea that philosophy of religion, as it is frequently practiced, is parochial (e.g. using the seemingly general term ‘religion’ to cover more specifically theistic, frequently Christian, philosophical topics and problems). A lot of work has been emerging lately considering what philosophy of religion is and what it should become. Timothy Knepper, Kevin Schilbrack, and Wesley Wildman each have recent book length works on philosophy of religion that are in their own ways broadly comparative or cross-cultural in approach. I’d like to echo Sarah Mattice’s recommendation of Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions.

    Incidentally, I am teaching philosophy of religion this semester in Shanghai. Considering approaches to teaching this course in a way that is relevant to this context has been really challenging but also immensely intellectually stimulating.

  7. Daoism lends itself to some useful comparative topics not mentioned yet:

    1) the epistemology of ultimate reality

    2) sacred/mundane and body/spirit dualism vs. more integrated approaches, including different takes on these questions within Christianity

    3) direction revelation or mystical experience vs. mediation through religious traditions, e.g. the Protestant critique of the Roman Catholic Church.

    Lenny Bruce has a nice line to the effect that “I think people should forget about religion and go back to Jesus.”

  8. I’ve tried to articulate a polytheistic philosophy of religion throughout my work, but especially in “Polycentric Polytheism and the Philosophy of Religion,” The Pomegranate 10.2 (2008), 207-229.

  9. The Philosophy of Religion also does a disservice to the distinctive elements of the Abrahamic faiths. In particular, any question about Christian theodicy ought to have reference to the Incarnation and its importance in God’s self-justification. But the only philosopher of religion I can think of who does this is Marilyn McCord Adams. So it goes.

    Academic “philosophy” as a whole is a chimeric category created from the residue left behind after various parts of the Love of Wisdom have been cut off by other disciplines. In this particular case, “theology” has cut the Trinity and the Incarnation out of the philosophy of religion.

    The broader question isn’t how to have a less parochial “philosophy of X,” it’s how do we have a less parochial academy?

  10. I want to express my deep gratitude to Brian for mentioning Ninian Smart, my late friend and teacher. Ninian was a remarkable trailblazer in non-Western philosophy of religion and his works are worth re-visiting for topics and approaches to a more global approach to this sub-discipline. Indeed, his 1979 book, Philosophy of Religion (Oxford University Press) tactfully critiques the focus on Judeo-Christian topics in the field, as Smart notes his intention to consider not only the traditional topics, “but also questions arising out of Eastern and other religions beyond the contemporary West” (intriguingly, Smart also endeavors to show the relevance of the social scientific study of religions to this philosophical enterprise). Two early books by Ninian, Reasons and Faiths (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958!) Doctrine and Argument in Indian Philosophy (Allen & Unwin, 1964!) are chock full of suggestive ideas and possibilities for the global philosophy of religions.

    While I’ve never been afforded the opportunity to teach philosophy of religion, I’m convinced I could come up with an abundance of topics fairly unique to non-Western philosophy of religion (several were mentioned above). Now while it may be true that some subject matter could simply fall under conventional categories in philosophy (boundaries here are mere conventions, and soft and porous in any case), e.g., personal identity or epistemology, traditions like Jainism and Buddhism approach such questions in a manner unique to philosophy proper and necessarily implicate religious issues more broadly, and thus without apology could fall under “philosophy of religion.”

    One last issue. Perhaps a sociological and professional explanation to account for this state of affairs should be mentioned: the increasing specialization of subject domains in philosophy (and within then natural and social sciences generally; Nicholas Rescher has some interesting things to say about this), despite all the rhetoric about and gestures toward trans-disciplinary and interdisciplinary work, and thus training in philosophy tends to work against a genuine philosophical pluralism (I know, people no longer like to use that term, but I can’t think of one to replace it), as very few folks (however otherwise smart and brilliant they may be) are truly well-versed in more than one or two traditions (there remains an appalling degree of ignorance on this score), and thus the conspicuous absence of either the ability or confidence to teach global philosophy of religion.

  11. I’d like to belatedly thank everyone who replied to this thread. I’m grateful not only for the suggestions of books and topics but also for the reflections on why philosophy of religion tends to be this way and how we might remedy the situation. I definitely have a lot to read and think about before I teach the course again next Spring!

    Please feel free to add further ideas or suggestions to this thread as you think of them. One more article to add to the reading list that I found recently is Xiaomei Yang’s “Some Issues in Chinese Philosophy of Religion,” which is currently a free read at Philosophy Compass ( Thanks again to everyone who responded to the post!

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