51uGAKMBHkL._SX403_BO1,204,203,200_This semester I’ve had the tremendous pleasure of teaching a 2000 level course devoted to philosophy of religion.  Following the last time I taught this course four or five years ago, I had chosen not to teach this course because I simply couldn’t find an edited collection that I felt comfortable teaching.  Everything I came across was like Peterson’s Philosophy of ReligionFollow the link and read the table of contents.  The problem quickly becomes evident.  First, with the exception of a couple of readings devoted to Buddhism, the readings are almost entirely to variants of theism and monotheism in particular.  It’s not that such readings are inappropriate for a philosophy of religion course, but rather that the term “religion” is much broader than theism, questions of whether or not god exists, whether or not it is rational to believe in god, what god’s nature might be, and why it might be rational to believe in god.  I believe that this is a true scandal.  How can I responsibly stand in front of my class, populated by students who are from all over the world and who come from a variety of religious practices, and teach material that is almost exclusively devoted to the rationality of belief in god?  Second, these sorts of collections are almost entirely devoted to doctrine and, in particular, doctrine as it is articulated by the highly educated elite of a religion.  Again, it is not that teaching Kierkegaard, Lewis, Platinga, or Jean-Luc Marion is inappropriate in a philosophy of religion, but rather that 1) well articulated theologies are often quite at odds with popular belief among the lay, 2) not all religions have a strong tradition of apologetics, and 3) belief and doctrine do not exhaust religious phenomena.  In Peterson’s collection of writings, for example, there is no discussion of ritual and ceremony, yet ritual and ceremony are often at the core of religion.  How can we call something “philosophy of religion” without deeply and seriously thinking of the nature of ritual, why peoples engage in rituals, and how rituals might be a form of thinking?  Even in those religions that are doctrine heavy like Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, we can imagine students taking such a course and finding their religion completely unrecognizable given the materials that are taught.

Suppose we begin with a presupposition:  every discipline has a sort of regional ontology that pre-delineates the objects that it investigates.  Often the basic concepts of that discipline are largely unconscious and are merely assumed.  Thus, for example, prior to making any observations of society and social phenomena, sociology must nonetheless have a concept of what society is that guide its inquiry and investigations.  Likewise, literary studies must have a basic concept of what literature is that determines what texts it will investigate, what is literary about them, and what texts it ignores.  While it is not outside of the realm of possibility, we would be surprised to discover a literature course or article devoted to directions that accompany appliance.  It is likely that journalistic articles are treated as falling outside of literature.  When there are heated controversies surrounding courses in literature departments devoted to comic books or popular consumption novels, this is because those who oppose the teaching of these things are working with a particular concept of literature or the ontology of literature.  They have a concept of what the being of a literary object is.  These concepts are often unconscious.

1444330527It seems to me that this should be one of the central topics of philosophy of religion.  If philosophy of religion is truly philosophy of religion, it should first and foremost be a reflexive analysis of our concept of religion.  Rather than a focus on questions of whether or not god exists, whether it is rational to believe in god, what the divine nature might be, etc., the first and foremost question of philosophy of religion should be what is religion?  Just as we might engage in philosophical reflection as to what constitutes the literary prior to any investigation of a work of literature, we should first engage in a reflexive analysis of what we mean by religion, prior to the investigation of any religion.  What is it that falls into the basket of religion and what, if anything, is outside of that basket.  What distinguishes the religious from the non-religious?  It was in this connection that I was delighted to discover Kevin Schilbrack’s book Philosophy and the Study of Religions.  Schilbrack’s book asks all of the questions I was looking for years ago when I first taught this course and puts its finger on why I felt so frustrated with edited collections like Peterson’s.  Rather than a text almost devoted entirely to the rationality of belief in god, it explores questions on the nature of ritual and how ritual and religious practices are forms of thinking.  It has another chapter devoted to the nature of belief and different theories of belief and the role they play in our behavior and action.  There are yet other chapters devoted to the ontology of religion, the manner in which the concept of religion has a history and the way it can function to include or exclude.  This, I think, is precisely the way in which philosophy of religion should be taught.  If there is a merit in such an approach, then this is because it leads students to reflect on their own unconscious assumptions about the nature of religion– whether they are believers are not –and how these inform their actions and their evaluations of other religions.  That, in it itself, is worth its weight in gold.