What Should Atheistic Philosophy of Religion Do?

In this post I am going to start with one philosophical conclusion already assumed as given: neither gods nor any other supernatural agencies explain anything about the world. So, I am writing for atheists and those willing to adopt an atheistic point of view for the sake of argument.

In this context, is there a place for such a thing as Philosophy of Religion? If so, what could it study that would be a fruitful field of inquiry distinguishable from other areas of philosophy, social science, and natural science? And can we still say things such as “religions are a source of philosophical discoveries”?

Let me spell out a few definitions and distinctions I think are clarifying.

Religion is not itself a philosophy. There are many religions and between them all they just might run the gamut with respect to philosophies they incorporate. And some have little by way of explicit, theoretical philosophical ambitions. And for many religions, even those with some outright philosophical dimensions, the most fundamental defining features of what they’re about are not actually philosophical but something else. Rites might be more important. Attempts to manipulate gods might be more important. Traditional identity might be more important. In countries where Christianity is the dominant religion, this is often hard to remember, given how much emphasis Christians since at least the Council of Nicea have placed on orthodoxy (or “right beliefs”) as opposed to, say, merely having orthopraxy (“right practices”).

So, the way I look at it, religions, like any other aspects of human life, implicitly employ philosophies and sometimes develop explicitly theoretical articulations, analyses, and arguments about what they’re doing or should be doing. But they are not themselves philosophies.

The next distinction to make is that within religions there are two basic modes of theorizing. I think it’s crucially valuable that we have (and should starkly as possible maintain) a distinction between theology and philosophy. The way I draw this line is relatively neat. I’ll defend its neatness where others want it more blurried as this post goes on. I draw the line as similar to what Christian theologians and philosophers have distinguished as “special revelation” and “natural revelation”.

These terms take all knowledge as revealed by God. Natural revelation is what is revealed to humans through nature; i.e., that which we can learn with our ordinary common sense and with empirical science and with logical and philosophical investigations. All the truths of natural revelation could in principle be discoverable without any knowledge of the Christian tradition. Just using the senses and reasoning capacities God gave us, we can discover what He has revealed about how the world works. We can even, according to evidentialist theologians and philosophers, discover the existence of God and much about the actual nature of God through investigation of what is naturally knowable. No Bible or other engagement with the Christian tradition is necessary, on this view, to be aware of many metaphysical, scientific, common sense, or even moral truths. They can be known by heathens the world over and precisely based on such knowledge the basics about God’s existence and nature are discoverable in principle even to the heathens.

The contrast is then traditionally made with the alleged “truths of special revelation”. These are the things no one could actually discover or justify belief in without God specifically cluing us in about them. God had to write books or inspire prophets or incarnate Himself as Jesus and explain them or by some other means plant ideas in people’s heads that our natural rational categories, logic, and even our best developed empirical tools simply could never discover on their own. Truths about God being a Trinity or about how blood sacrifice is supposed to atone for sins, etc., could never be figured out with the best science or philosophy or moral understanding operating without the special intervention of God to give us these facts. The best human reason can do is try to take this data about how things are and figure out philosophically the most rational ways to integrate these truths with what is knowable by investigation of nature. On the assumption of the “unity of truth” (which not all Christians, but at least some, advocate) there is a way to reconcile all our natural understanding and all the truths God gives that we cannot derive for ourselves. We might be able to make coherent sense of them, at least in principle, even though we cannot discover them naturalistically. And even if we can’t, at least a being with greater rational powers or greater scope of information like God can.

All the theorizing that goes on within the context of assumptions of special revelation, I call “theology”. When one is not starting from the natural world and the basic categories of rational thought commonly accessible to humanity but instead privileging special information from special sources taken on faith to be specially authoritative, then one is being theological rather than philosophical. This would go even for less belief centric and less abstractly philosophical traditions. Anywhere that thought and practice is being driven by deferences to a religions’ traditional beliefs or practices taken as authoritative for their own sake, I class the endeavor as primarily faith based and theological in character.

And should someone bring theologically grounded (i.e., not philosophically demonstrable but in some way “specially known” through religion) ideas into a properly philosophical question, then that person may be said to be doing “philosophical theology” but fundamentally they’re not doing philosophy. Neither are they strictly speaking doing philosophy when they borrow philosophical categories to help work out theological premises. If ultimately their theories are structurally built with purportedly “specially revealed” “theological” posits as integral to their derivation, justification, and articulation, then fundamentally the philosophical tools and categories being employed are not yielding philosophical truths but are being twisted to theological convenience. One can rationalize whatever one wants by grabbing philosophical categories and then taking beliefs not philosophically defended as true and then with those ungrounded beliefs in play have the philosophical categories look like they support your conclusion. But to do philosophy worthy of the name, the whole endeavor must involve only beliefs that are philosophically or scientifically respectable, and on philosophy or science’s own terms, as the case may be.

So, theology is not philosophy. And as soon as philosophically baseless theological posits are mixed in to one’s system of thought, any of the parts it touches can be made suspect for so long as its formulation and credibility are in part interconnected with the need for a completely specious theological claim to actually be true.

That does not mean theologians can never do philosophy worth reading. Sometimes they keep their works separate in some substantive way. They may, for example, bracket their theological beliefs while doing explicitly philosophical work they expect to be credible even to those outside their faith or outside all faiths. They think and write within the bounds of the common level of in principle universally accessible philosophical reason, just as much as any religious scientist worth calling a scientist leaves her religion at church when going into the lab. When they write strictly philosophical treatises or present strictly scientific results, they should be treated as anyone else.

Now sometimes, theologians may muddy up their in principle universally accessible philosophical reasoning with their arbitrary and idiosyncratic tradition’s theological categories and write things that are a hybrid of philosophical insights and theological nonsense. Where does that leave the philosophical insights?

In many of these cases, the theological nonsense is at least literary. It has metaphorical, symbolical, or mythic value that tracks reality in a non-literal way. Theologies also have internal logical structures and occasionally trying to solve made up problems in fictional contexts you can hit on some actually useful truths that are there to be found in general and the occasion of this fictional puzzle brings them out. Philosophy can raid theology for any of these that might be there and translate the only metaphorically true well enough into more literally true ideas and relate those to straight up philosophical truths within or outside of a theology and in that way benefit.

And theologies are interesting in that they have a dialectical, give and take, reciprocal influence relationship with lived practices of religious communities. This means that practical pressures on religious people are regularly influencing their behaviors and their attitudes and when such religious people, or at least the theologians among them, resume thinking theoretically and doing theology some of those practical, experiential insights wind up informing and influencing the theologies that result.

In this way, empirical experience of psychology and ethics and politics and other aspects of reality are actually being engaged with and sometimes they are capable of making theologies that are more responsive to these realities, even if the language used to describe them is itself literally completely false, superstitious, asinine, etc. As absurd as the express, explicit content of much religious belief is, functionally it can be true to a limited extent. Some literally false beliefs can function as well for navigating the world as some more literally true ones so long as the places where the literal falseness tangibly matters is a place where the believer knows not to rely on it. Many people are functionally fine believing “God answers prayers” when that functionally means by praying they are psychologically aided and when it functionally doesn’t mean that they skip out on going to the doctor because they just trust God to answer their prayers. It would be better that religious people always adequately distinguished the literal from the metaphorically valuable, but some degree of fictitious belief can be functional. Religious beliefs, while fantastically ludicrous and rarely helpful to progressively mapping reality, can function well enough that their adherents usually at least survive to reproductive age and can make at least some drastic corrections when reality really leaves them no choice but to adapt their practices, their theologies, or both.

So where does this leave the philosophical worth of religions?

On the one hand, they can convey some truths as literature does. That doesn’t really make literature philosophy itself, but a conduit of truths capable of philosophical reformulation. There may be many truths that are illumined through stories or literary use of language or through other artistic media. Real live philosophers may never have stumbled, as a matter of historical accident, on certain truths were it not for their vivid depiction in art, or were it not for historical circumstances making them manifest, or were it not for lay people articulating their interpretations of their experiences that provide legitimate information philosophers in arm chairs and narrow social circles and cultural climates may never have come to be aware of. And it is also possible that the peculiarities of a particular religious tradition may make some truths particularly accessible to its members, as a quirky accident of history, just like other cultural traditions, artistic resources, and accidents of economics, psychology, sociology, and history all might make some truths more capable of philosophical discovery than otherwise.

All of this is to say that philosophers don’t reason best (or at all) in vacuums. We need the provocations that scientific discoveries give, that artistic renderings reveal, that historical circumstances bring to the fore, and, even, that religious symbols and metaphors and practices are sometimes lucky enough to hit on first or to give their most worthwhile expression. 

But, despite the philosopher’s accidental historical debt to so much of the rest of culture for the fodder of certain insights, the actual formal, philosophical truth of such insights is still capable of being ever recast in specifically philosophical categories. While we are lucky to have many sources of insights. The insights either stand or fall philosophically or scientifically on their own merits or they’re not philosophical insights. Even where some literature is so good at doing philosophy that stretches of it can count as straightforward philosophical writing itself, it is by philosophical standards rather than strictly literary ones that it is justifiably called “philosophy”. A tough boundary case might be where the very experiment with form itself by an artist might count as a philosophical statement itself. Even there though, the philosophical character could be abstractly reformulated and even could have been abstractly conceived and had as much value had the actual aesthetic accomplishment never been bothered with. Just seeing it actually pulled off is more impressive, artistically valuable in its own right, and makes the point harder to ignore for obtuse philosophers.

So even where a general philosophical truth may have been helped along in its realization in a religious context, the religious context is ultimately superfluous to its actual justification and truth. It is not a “religious truth” because, strictly speaking, if it is theological and supernaturalistic in character, it is literally false when taken in literal religious terms. It may have functional religious use. But strictly speaking it’s a fiction compared to the more purified, rigorously formulated, possible philosophical or scientific articulations of it that are possible.

So where does that leave Philosophy of Religion? Some philosophers think it’s metaphysical questions that religion talks about, like the existence of God. But metaphysics is metaphysics. It needs no insights from religion to have those. In literal terms, religions and theologies in specific advocate for fictional nonsense that murky up the waters. Even if theism is defensible it would have to prove it on neutral metaphysical grounds, not as covert theology that calls itself “philosophy of religion”.

One could say, that philosophy of religion is philosophy that tries to ascertain the exact nature of religion itself. It also can look for the potential for truth and value in religion (like this blog post aims to do), by exploring the material religions provide to find kernels of philosophical insight while discarding the husks, and engage with the question of atheism or theism in specific ways that take the content and claims of religions into account while still holding them to strictly philosophical criteria for truth, while excluding all attempts to smuggle in theological truth criteria. Finally, philosophy of religion may be concerned with articulating normatively what the best ways to employ or develop religious resources could ideally be to make religion serve philosophical truths and humans’ abilities to integrate them into their lives in practical, psychological, and communal ways.

One could argue that the most ideal and justifiable religious practices and uses of symbols, etc., are those most consonant with actual truth (rather than at cross purposes with it in its metaphors as much religion is, even when understood non-literally), those which most reinforce the good, and those which do these in such a way as to meet that set of psychological and communal needs presently called “the spiritual” for a dearth of better secular words or fulfilling secular alternative replacement practices. It could be that there are simply spheres of human needs and enjoyments that need an entire new secular language to articulate without misleading theological baggage murkying up people’s philosophical or scientific grasp of what they are and their value. Perhaps it is up to atheistic philosophy of religion to think about that project constructively so that if people must exercise what we presently are inclined to classify as their broadly “religious” sides of themselves, they can do so in a way that expresses philosophical truths and creates the good as much as possible.

I developed the ideas in the last two paragraphs in much greater detail in my post called True Religion?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.