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?