Thursday, August 31, 2006

What’s New in Philosophy of Religion

(from Philosophy Now: A Magazine of Ideas)

Daniel Hill describes how the work of Alvin Plantinga has revolutionised Philosophy of Religion.

The way we see the philosophy of religion will depend on the way we see its mother discipline, philosophy itself. Suppose that we think of philosophy as the analysis of abstract and, in some sense, ultimate concepts. One way to define philosophy of religion then would be to say that it is the analysis of the concepts which we encounter in religion(s), just as philosophy of science is the analysis of the concepts which we encounter in science. On the other hand, looking at many of the philosopher of religion's traditional concerns, one could easily see it as really being a branch of metaphysics. Many of the concepts of religion (the concept of God, for instance) are important for the metaphysician to grapple with. After all, if there is a God, then God is a pretty important part of the nature of reality as a whole (see 'Philosophy in a Nutshell'). If there is no God, then God isn't very important at all, but that doesn't mean that it's not important to say why one believes there isn't a God. It might be thought that one good candidate for philosophical analysis would be the concept of religion itself. However, only a few philosophers of religion have devoted time to this. John Hick and D.Z.Phillips have thought about it, but most philosophers of religion turn straight to the Big Concept - the concept of God.

Where Do They Do It?

Nobody doubts that the world's leading centre for this subject is the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, USA, where almost everybody seems to be doing philosophy of religion. Yale University is fairly important, too. In Britain the two main centres are Oxford and King's College London, both of which always have a Professor of Philosophy of Religion (a 'named chair').

Continentals versus Analyticals

Philosophers of religion, like other philosophers, fall into two camps; those influenced by 'continental philosophy' who tend to dominate theology departments, and 'analytical philosophers', who dominate the philosophy departments, at least at the main centres for philosophy of religion. So the analytical philosophers have tended to approach philosophy of religion with the tools for which they are famed: logic, precision, clarity, and careful argumentation. The continentals generally go for the Big Questions of love, life, and death in the less formal and more literary style of their influences. It is important to remember that most philosophers of religion also work in other areas of philosophy.
Catholics and Calvinists
Most philosophers of religion also fall into one of two camps from the religious point of view too: the majority are either Roman Catholics or Reformed Calvinists. (There are a few important exceptions, such as William Alston and Peter van Inwagen, who are both Episcopalians, and Richard Swinburne of Oxford, a member of the Orthodox Church.) Notre Dame itself seems to have cornered the market in philosophy of religion by recruiting both Roman Catholics and Reformed Calvinists.

Big Alvin
Notre Dame's brightest star is Alvin Plantinga, whom everyone agrees to be the current world-leader in the field. He is a product of the analytical school of philosophy and of the Dutch Reformed Church. Hence the Dutch surname; Plantinga himself once quipped that "there is a law-like generalisation that if an American philosopher's name ends in '-a' ... then that philosopher is a graduate of Calvin College". (Calvin College was, when Plantinga wrote, the leading training ground for Reformed Calvinists, but now, like everyone else, they all seem to be going to Notre Dame.) One of Plantinga's most important early works was The Nature of Necessity (1974) which was essentially (if you'll excuse the pun) a treatise on modal logic, but which had some important applications to the philosophy of religion. Plantinga had already begun to explore these applications in his book God and Other Minds (1967) and in its slightly more popular version God, Freedom, and Evil (1974). In these books Plantinga attempts to rebut arguments against belief in God (theism), and to show how belief in God can be justified. Since then Plantinga has broadened his concerns into general epistemology, in other words the study of how we can know things. He has been writing a three volume trilogy on warrant (warrant is 'that which turns true belief into knowledge'). The first two volumes, which appeared in 1993, are Warrant: The Current Debate and Warrant and Proper Function. The third volume, Warrant and Christian Belief, is expected out very soon (in fact, it is overdue), and the academic rumour mill is working overtime with conversations with people who claim to have seen it in manuscript form. The topics on which Plantinga has written have been the most important ones in the philosophy of religion over the past thirty years, important because he has written on them. As a result of his work, the burning question in philosophy of religion today is "What sort of justification, if any, is needed for religious belief?" Let us look at this next.

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