Friday, 19 July 2013

Draconic Philosophy

Something that remains somewhat of a mystery to me is just what is meant by the term “Philosophy of Religion”.  It should be quite clear cut, after all you can be a student of Philosophy of Religion at such august institutions as the Oxford University but it seems that the line between being a philosopher of religion, or an apologist, or a theologian is actually quite blurred, to the extent that when I see “Philosopher of Religion” I fully expect that person to be an apologist or theologian for some particular religion.

To get some better idea of what a philosopher of religion might be about, I checked out what Wikipedia had to say.  For reasons of comparison, let us first look at Philosophy of Science:

(P)hilosophy of science is concerned with the assumptions, foundations, methods, implications of science, and with the use and merit of science.

Now, how about Philosophy of Logic:

Philosophy of logic is the arena of philosophy devoted to examining the scope and nature of logic and/or the investigation, critical analysis and intellectual reflection on issues arising in logic.

Finally, Philosophy of Religion:

Philosophy of religion is a branch of philosophy concerned with questions regarding religion, including the nature and existence of God, the examination of religious experience, analysis of religious vocabulary and texts, and the relationship of religion and science.

Now there is already some bias in there, since not all religions contain a god (such as the more pure forms of Buddhism) and given the context, it is pretty clear which god is primarily referred to.  But the biggest issue, if we were to accept this bias, is that it creates a contingent school of philosophy.  The validity of the “Philosophy of Religion” is contingent on the truth of the fundamental assumption – that being a theistic assumption.

One is left wondering why we don’t have, as an alternative field of philosophy the study of dragons, investigating the nature and existence of dragons.  I certainly agree that dragons don’t exist, and that therefore a belief in dragons is a false belief.   However, together with the majority of religiously inclined, I agree that the vast bulk of religions are false beliefs.  If we are permitted the philosophical study of false beliefs, then why stop at gods?  Why have a philosophical study of religion at all?

The answer, it would seem, is that humans apparently come equipped with a religious urge.

Cultures around the world have come up with a bewildering array of religious beliefs from the primitive confusion of cause and effect that leads to cargo cults to the complex fusion of religious urges with science fiction that we can see in Scientology.  This apparent religion seeking aspect of being human is, I would argue, a valid field of philosophy, albeit with shades of psychology, anthropology and neurophysiology.

If we were to study religion from a truly philosophical perspective then I suspect that we’d see considerably fewer religious people in the role of Philosopher of Religion.

Instead what we frequently observe are attempts to bend philosophy to the purposes of a particular religion, sometimes with the brazen claim that, without the claimant’s favourite religion, there would be no philosophy at all or at least no philosophy as it is today.

The attempt to utilise philosophy as a tool to shore up the claims of religion represents, in my opinion at least, no more than a slightly more sophisticated variant of theology.  It is the application of philosophical notions, but not philosophy per se.  For this reason, I see little practical difference, in general usage, between the terms “philosopher of religion” and “theologist”.  I note also that there would likely be confusion between a “Philosopher of Dragons” and a graduate of Dracological Studies from one of the Scality Colleges that should be attached to universities like Yale, Harvard, Oxford and so on.

(While some apologists are also theologians, in some cases even laying claim to the title “philosopher”, and some apologists occasionally raise what sounds vaguely like philosophical argument, apologetics is more about rhetoric than philosophy.  A claim made by an apologist as to being a philosopher, by virtue of being an apologist, is even weaker than that of the theologian.)

Now this is not to say that a philosopher of religion must be totally without bias – that would be an unreasonable expectation.  Someone like William Lane Craig could, for example, be a philosopher of religion (as he claims) while maintaining a belief in the truth of his particular religion – the nature of which is a bit vague.  But if he argues the truth of his religion, he should do so as a theologian or an apologist.  As a philosopher of religion, on the other hand, he should be able discuss issues associated with religion alongside people of all faiths as well as those without faith, without any need for conflict.

Similarly, even when Alvin Plantinga warps his analytical philosophical training in order to resurrect the ontological argument, or to argue for his god against the forces of materialism, he does not do so as philosopher.

Imagine for a moment, a situation in which an academic repeatedly presents arguments for the existence of dragons (despite the total lack of evidence) or for the rationality of believing in dragons in the face of no evidence.  Would that be considered as philosophical on her part?

My answer to that is a resounding no.  Similarly, I suggest, we should not consider as a “philosopher of religion” any person whose prime objective is to promote their particular strain of religion.

For these people, when engaging in such activity, we should use the perfectly serviceable terms “apologist” and “theologian” (or, in the case of our hypothetical dragon-loving academic, “dracologian”).

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