Philosophy and Religion: Often a Marriage of Inconvenience

Photo by David Evers, Flickr, Creative Commons

Like academic philosophy itself, the idea that philosophy and religion are in conflict is recent, only gaining widespread appeal in modernity.

By Samuel Loncar / 03.02.2018
PhD Candidate in Religious Studies
Yale University

We think of philosophy today as an austere, secular, and narrowly academic enterprise. Because of its secularity and associations with atheism, many religious believers regard it with suspicion. But this tension between philosophy and religion tells us more about our cultural moment that it does about philosophy or religion throughout history.  Like academic philosophy itself, the idea that philosophy and religion are in conflict is recent, only gaining widespread appeal in modernity. Plato, for example, taught that the purpose of philosophy was to become as divine as a human could become. But that is not the Plato you will meet in most departments of philosophy. You also would not learn much about the Middle Ages and how Islam profoundly shaped the identity of “Western” philosophy and culture. It’s possible these gaps in academic philosophy today are linked to the fact that it has been widely criticized, internally and externally, for being historically and culturally provincial and homogenous in its demography. Calls for a more inclusive approach to philosophy have become increasingly common, and last year Marginalia featured a review of one of the leading public voices, Costica Bradatan, challenging the narrowness of contemporary philosophy. In the spirit of extending the conversation about how we create inclusive and publically relevant scholarship, I recently had the privilege of speaking to Peter Adamson and Carlos Fraenkel, two of the most engaging and respected academic philosophers who are challenging its provincialism. Peter Adamson is a philosopher at the Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich, and he hosts the popular Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast, which Oxford is publishing as a new history of philosophy by that title. His most recent volume is Philosophy in the Islamic World. Carlos Fraenkel is a professor of philosophy and Jewish studies at McGill University, and he recently published a more popular book, Teaching Plato in Palestine, and a major reassessment of the philosophy’s relationship to religion, Philosophical Religions from Plato to Spinoza: Reason, Religion, and Autonomy. We spoke about decolonializing academic philosophy, how Islam shaped the “West,” what would philosophy look like if it were a historical and inclusive enterprise, and how such an approach might challenge our perceptions of religion and secularity.

Samuel: The contemporary perception of philosophy is that it is a thoroughly secular enterprise, and that a commitment to reason involves a commitment to secularity. Yet in both of your works – particularly, Peter, your history of philosophy, and Carlos’s Philosophical Religions – it becomes quite clear that a commitment to reason has been a kind of religious commitment for much of the history of philosophy, particularly through the linkage of rationality and divinity. The Middle Ages, generally ignored in academic departments of philosophy, is a site of enormous creativity and tension because of attempts to relate inherited bodies of scripture and tradition to Greek philosophy and its idea of reason, itself a kind of rival yet attractive religious tradition. Could you both speak to why philosophy has its current secular self-conception, and how you think this should or could be changed?

Peter: Yes, I agree with the premise of the question: the more you look at the history of philosophy the stranger it seems to suppose that religion and rationality or philosophy are antithetical. There are so many examples of thinkers who use reason to understand their own religion, or support the use of reason precisely on the basis of religious premises. And for that matter the whole distinction is rather Eurocentric, in the sense that it isn’t clear what the distinction would mean in an ancient Indian context for example. Of course there are also historical examples of opposition to philosophy from a religious point of view, but even the famous examples are usually more complicated than you might think. Just to give two examples, Tertullian and al-Ghazali are well known critics of Hellenizing philosophy, but both make extensive positive use of philosophical argumentation and concepts as well.

As for why philosophy is so secular, I suppose that story is a long one but must trace back to the Enlightenment. It also seems that most current-day philosophers, at least in the Anglophone world, are not religious. In that sense I have no problem with the current situation; I don’t believe that modern-day analytic philosophy is the worse off for being mostly practiced by atheists (for one thing, I am not religious myself). So my goal would not be to get modern-day philosophers to integrate religion into their work. It would be to convince modern-day philosophers that they can take historical texts seriously even if those texts were written in a religious context. It seems to me the only way to do that is to present these texts, their ideas and their arguments, in a way that brings out what is interesting in them. That could mean showing that they address issues contemporary philosophers are interested in, but it could also mean showing that they address quite other issues that today’s philosophers will see are interesting once they are explained. And in my experience, professional philosophers and philosophy students are very good at finding things interesting!

Carlos: I’d go even further than Peter and say that for much of ancient and medieval philosophy up to the Renaissance the distinction between philosophy and religion is meaningless. Aristotle describes the human end as “serving and contemplating god” at the end of the Eudemian Ethics. Spinoza describes it as “intellectual love of god.” Of course the god of the philosophers can come into conflict with the god (or gods) of more traditional forms of religion. Socrates for one is accused of impiety. Yet Plato clearly makes an effort to portray him as a pious man. In the Phaedo, for example, he expresses delight about the concept of god as nous (reason). Lots of philosophers also tried to bring their philosophical commitments in line with traditional religion by reinterpreting the latter in light of the former (think of Averroes’ famous claim in the Decisive Treatise that the “truth [of reason] cannot contradict the truth [of Islam]”).

I’d propose dubbing this kind of religion “philosophical religion.” Very roughly, I’d say the project consists in aligning human reason with divine reason. Not all philosophers buy into it—take Epicureans or Skeptics in antiquity, for example. They’re not atheists either, but they don’t conceive philosophy itself as a religious practice as Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics arguably do.

You’re right, Sam, that we’ve become used to thinking of philosophy and science as a secular project that’s opposed to, if not in conflict with, religion. And I also agree that this is a recent development—something that happened in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I don’t think the Enlightenment is a watershed moment by any means—here I disagree with Peter. Even as acerbic a critic of revealed religion as Thomas Paine remains committed to what he calls the “true theology” of reason. I’d say most Enlightenment thinkers—whether or not they rejected traditional forms of religion—still espouse one version or another of philosophical religion (with a few exceptions: for example, Julien de La Mettrie). I’d certainly include Hegel among the proponents of philosophical religion. The real break in my view occurs only in the nineteenth century—with Kierkegaard, Marx, and Nietzsche we’ve definitely left the realm of philosophical religion as I’ve described it.

Samuel: So history gives us a very different picture of philosophy’s relation to the secularity.

Carlos: Absolutely. Historically speaking philosophers and scientists usually didn’t see themselves as engaged in a secular project. And in the particular case of philosophical religion—a prominent strand in the history of philosophy up to the nineteenth century—philosophers actually saw themselves as practicing the finest kind of religion.

Samuel: To follow up on that, Carlos, what do you make of philosophical religion today?

Carlos: Like Peter I’d describe myself as secular and as an atheist. I don’t think philosophical religion remains a live option, simply because I can’t see how one can defend the metaphysical framework that underpins it—the concept of god as reason. So I’m very skeptical of people who seek to revive philosophy as a “way of life”—especially when they have the Platonic, Aristotelian, or Stoic traditions in mind. But I say this with a smile in one eye and a tear in the other.

Samuel: Why the tear?

Carlos: Because we’ve lost something important: philosophy’s ability to give metaphysical meaning to both the universe and to our lives. Just imagine how easy it would be to end wars, injustice, and ecological destruction if philosophers could convince people that (to use Spinoza’s term once more) the intellectual love of god is the most valuable thing they can devote their lives to! That’s obviously a non-scarce good that we needn’t fight over, that we can attain with modest wealth, and that doesn’t require the destruction of nature. We’d “just” have to put the right policies in place that promote the values of philosophical religion, and create the social and economic conditions that allow people to live according to these values. So although I don’t believe in the god of the philosophers, I sometimes miss him (to vary Julian Barnes).

Samuel: Let’s turn to a concrete and powerful example of these questions about philosophy and religion, specifically, the perception of Islam in philosophy and the broader culture. Part of what got this conversation started is your review, Carlos, of Peter’s most recent book (we have a link at the end of the interview), Philosophy in the Islamic World, where you argue that Peter’s book should fundamentally alter the conventional history of philosophy. Yet it seems in doing so it should alter more than just how we think about philosophy. Part of what is at stake is the common attempt to secure a notion of “Western” identity against Islam, an attempt which is historically unsustainable, yet of great contemporary relevance, as we see in U.S. and European politics. Could you elaborate more, in conversation with Peter, on how you think he is shifting our perception of the history of philosophy and what broader relevance that shift might have for cultural and political debates about Islam? But Peter, let’s start with your reaction to Carlos’s review. What did you think?

Peter: Of course I was tremendously pleased by Carlos’ review, not just because it was so positive (though that is always welcome!) but also because he really captured what I was trying to do in the book. In fact he put it better than I could have myself. One thing I was particularly pleased about is that he put the book in the context of the project as a whole, which is looking at various philosophical traditions around the world. At the moment the podcast series, which is the basis of the books, is covering Indian philosophy with the help of co-author Jonardon Ganeri, and next year it will move on to Africana philosophy with another co-author, Chike Jeffers. So the idea here is that with a lot of help, I am hoping to advance as broad a conception of “philosophy” as possible, which takes seriously the notion that philosophical reflection has emerged and reached extraordinary sophistication in cultures beyond Europe. Shifting assumptions about what philosophy in Islam has been is just part of a larger project. Carlos also points out that the project is designed around geographical or cultural units, and not along essentializing contrasts like “West” and “East”—for instance, my integration of Jewish philosophy into the book on philosophy in the Islamic world because so many Jewish thinkers were working within Islamic culture.

Carlos: I’m glad Peter mentioned his forays into Indian and Africana philosophy because it allows me to add something I didn’t bring out in the review. I think Peter’s wonderful project—his history of philosophy without any gaps—shifts the traditional discourse in the history of philosophy in two related ways: there’s replacing the parochial “Western” or European perspective through a perspective that is at once global and local; that is, it zooms in on centers of philosophy around the globe wherever they may be. But then there’s also a redrawing of the map of the history of philosophy in the more conventional sense—the history of philosophy that has roots in, or is engaged critically with, or is in some other way related to ancient Greek philosophy. And I think the volume on philosophy in the Islamic world contributes to both shifts: it’s part of the global/local project because it looks at an intellectual tradition outside of Europe, but unlike, say Indian, Buddhist, or Confucian thought, this is an intellectual tradition, that, like Europe’s, is engaged on many levels with Greek philosophy.

As to your question, Sam, about politics, I do think that they are very important. The project as a whole, I think, is part of ongoing efforts at intellectual decolonization. On a rhetorical level few people (if any) in the circles we move in would posit the superiority of European culture or argue that only Europeans are capable of creative intellectual work. But Peter is, as far as I can see, the first to actually follow through and put the global approach into practice—at least for philosophy.

As for philosophy in the Islamic world, here the project has particular political importance, because after the Cold War, and especially after 9/11, people again started contrasting Islamic civilization with the “Judeo-Christian” West and describing it as fanatic, unenlightened, non-rational, and so forth. To give just one example, I’m still stunned about how Pope Benedict set Christian Europe against Islam in his incendiary Regensburg lecture in 2006: Europe’s cultural foundation, he argues, is the successful union of Hebrew faith and Greek reason embodied in the Catholic Church. This union enables Europeans to engage in a rational dialogue with others—to argue for Christianity rather than impose it by the sword. Islam, by contrast, is all faith, but no reason. What I really like about Peter’s book, though, is that it doesn’t engage in “counter polemics.” He gives a lucid and sober account of the extremely rich, diverse, and sophisticated intellectual landscape of the Islamic world from the early Middle Ages to the present.

Samuel: It’s remarkable, how, in both of your responses, we can see ways in which philosophy in the broadest sense can contribute to enriching and diversifying the conversations we have as academics and even cultures about religion and reason. I wonder, though, if this also raises a challenge. Carlos, you mentioned earlier that for much of the history of philosophy a distinction between philosophy and religion is “meaningless.” I agree completely, and showing this is also a major part of my first book, and something you do very effectively in Philosophical Religions. It is like a fact hidden on the surface of things that God is central to philosophy for almost its entire history, but taking this seriously seems like it could and should change how we think of contemporary philosophy. The very fact that most of the history of philosophy is part of the history of religion in the broadest sense raises an interesting question I’d like to address to both you and Peter. How should philosophy relate to its own history if it is today, in its professionalized form, primarily atheistic and secular? Does its history challenge its current identity, in that the resources of the past either need to be rendered somehow “safe” for what we think of as secularity, or else ignored? Since analytic philosophy in general has had a—shall we say—vexed relationship to the history of philosophy, showing that the history of philosophy it also religious might, to many, simply increase a skepticism of its contemporary relevance and value, but both of you obviously view the history of philosophy as quite important. I suppose I’m wondering both how you would articulate the philosophical importance of the history of philosophy, and how its religiosity affects that importance.

Carlos: Yes, I think the relationship of contemporary philosophy to the history of philosophy is complicated. It’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to lately, but I don’t have a clear picture yet of this relationship. Much of Continental philosophy—say from Nietzsche to Levinas—sees itself in opposition to the philosophy “from Parmenides to Hegel” (they tend to treat it—quite wrongly in my view—as a single monolithic tradition). Analytic philosophers, on the other hand, at least in part, see themselves as continuing what they take to be the core project of philosophy: the rational pursuit of the truth through argument and debate. As far as history is concerned, there is perhaps a particular fondness for ancient philosophy among analytic philosophers, but I think the general idea is to look at the history of philosophy as an ongoing debate that philosophers are engaged in across times and places: Aristotle is arguing with Plato and the Pre-Socratics; the Stoics with Epicureans and Skeptics; Averroes and Maimonides with both ancient philosophers and contemporary competitors, e.g. Muslim theologians; Spinoza with Descartes and Hobbes, but also with Calvinist theologians, medieval philosophers, etc. And contemporary philosophers pick up the various threads of the debate and make their own contributions to it (and future philosophers, on this view, will do the same, presumably to the end of times).

I think Peter’s project is an example of this approach that illustrates its virtues because it combines careful attention to the arguments and debates with a sensitivity to the historical and cultural contexts in which the debates unfolded. I find this approach very fruitful.

Samuel: It sounds like there is a worry about this approach, too…

Carlos: You’re right. I have a problem with “analytic” history of philosophy when it suggests a false continuity—as if contemporary philosophers were basically wrestling with the same questions Plato and Aristotle wrestled with. On this view, philosophy is a kind of perennial quest for true answers to fundamental and unchanging philosophical questions—metaphysical, epistemological, moral, etc. I think this is false. I think the meaning of foundational concepts such as rationality, for example, have so radically changed that we can only speak of continuity from ancient to contemporary philosophy at the price of equivocation. I think glossing over these discontinuities can lead to a pretty distorted picture of the history of philosophy. One example that comes to mind is the 1982 Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy that doesn’t have a single chapter on philosophical theology, but no less than 15 on logic (and 5 on “philosophy of mind and action”). 

Consider rationality. A contemporary philosopher who is committed to what is sometimes called “Einstein’s god” will say that the universe is rationally ordered. So will Plato. But they mean completely different things by this. For the contemporary philosopher it means that the universe is intelligible, that human reason, at least in principle, is able to explain it, that nothing random occurs in it, nothing that isn’t determined by the system of causes and effects. For Plato it means that the universe is ordered in view to what is best by divine reason: the nature and place of each thing serves to maximize the universe’s goodness. For Plato (and for Aristotle and the Stoics) the concepts of rationality and teleology are inseparable. For something to be rationally ordered—a life, a society, the universe—means for it to be teleologically ordered. A universe ordered by Einstein’s god wouldn’t be rationally ordered according to Plato. And conversely, a universe ordered by Plato’s god wouldn’t be rationally ordered according to most contemporary philosophers. 

I know that, all of this may rather inchoate and vague. I’m really just starting to think about this shift, trying to understand it and its implications for what it means to do philosophy today and for the relationship of contemporary philosophy to the history of philosophy. I’ve developed some of this in a bit more detail in a recent piece for the TLS (see link at the end of the interview).

 Samuel: Peter, your work on the history of philosophy is the largest-scale contemporary project of its kind that I’m familiar with—it seems it will eventually rival Copleston’s work in terms of length, and its scope is already much broader (we’re providing a link to your site, which I recommend to anyone interested in philosophy). Histories of philosophy always encode a philosophical view about history and philosophy itself. Copleston was trying to provide a scholarly and thorough history of Western philosophy, writing forthrightly as a Thomist both in his framing and when he raises critical questions. Anthony Kenny has more recently given what one might call an analytical history of philosophy, and farther back one could look at the Neo-Kantian histories, like that of Windelbrand, which certainly express specific views about what the real problems of philosophy are, and how its history should be narrated. Could you tell readers a bit about how you came to conceive of a “history of philosophy without gaps” and why you think this is important, and perhaps situate the project vis-à-vis other histories? Your project, for example, seems more historicist, more sensitive to letting the context determine what counts as philosophy (as you’re already mentioned in terms of the broadened scope of philosophy your work reveals). 

Peter: Actually since getting into the project I’ve deliberately avoided looking through Copleston or Kenny, because I didn’t want to let their approaches influence mine too much either positively or negatively (though I did have a look at Russell to write something about his History). But as you say the main difference is not so much in terms of philosophical approachthough I share neither Copleston’s Thomism nor Kenny’s Wittgenstein-flavored analytic orientationbut the range of coverage. As far as I know my history is the first to give significant attention to non-European thought, to women philosophers, and to traditions of thought that are related to philosophy but not usually included in overviews of the history of philosophylike medicine and the other sciences, including “occult” sciences like astrology, mysticism, that sort of thing.

Of course it’s not like my history is philosophically neutral, since that would be impossible. If nothing else my own philosophical “taste” guides what I choose to cover, both in terms of which figures and movements, and which topics in a given figure. You can maybe see that in the fact that I talk less than I probably should about political philosophy, which has never figured much in my own research (I’ve tried to be better about this once I got to Latin medieval thought). But I do try to sympathize with the historical figures’ own worldviews and be as open as I can to taking certain questions and answers seriously because they did. What I am most interested in is precisely getting into the historical material enough to see these worldviews of the past from the inside, so to speak. On the other hand, I also think about where my listeners and readers are going to be starting from in terms of their own intuitionslike, I would tend to assume that not many people in the audience are monists, or believe that all things are immaterial. So, I would put more effort into explaining why the historical figures adopted monism or immaterialism than I might into explaining why they thought that bodies are real. I also anticipate certain negative attitudes and try to defuse them; for example, I have made a sustained argument in the episodes on Latin medieval thought that you can find value in this tradition even if you are an atheist and don’t care about philosophy of religion. More generally, I try to connect the texts to issues and philosophical commitments I think (most of) the audience may share. Hence I guess I see my task as being a kind of middleman, trying to show how the historical figures saw things in a way that will seem relevant to the what “we” care about – even if it is hard to define who “we” are given that the podcast is aimed at anyone who has an internet connection.

Samuel: A final question to you both. What is philosophy for, if its historical religious framework is false or no longer tenable, and can we look to it for answers to life’s big questions? Let me flesh this out a bit in relation to Carlos’ more popular book, which I highly recommend to our readers. Carlos, you said beautifully that you look at attempts to revive philosophy as a way of life with a smile and a tear. But in Teaching Plato in Palestine, you present a vision of philosophy that seems intentionally aimed at resisting the idea of philosophy as wholly or even primarily an academic discipline, and you present it as a kind of way of life, a least a means of finding the truth and being critically open to it, and its absence, rather than simply accepting whatever traditions – secular or religious – into which we happen to be born. Is this not a way of life that encodes the pursuit of truth and its means as “spiritual practices” (to use Hadot’s term) in a post-metaphysical world? Might this be a kind of ersatz, more modest attempt to find meaning in a world without God?

Carlos: Well, I’m of course attracted to what one could perhaps call a certain philosophical ethos—engaging in rational debate with the aim to figure out the truth—something for which we need a set of philosophical tools and virtues as I argue in the book you mentioned. But whether this is just a personal idiosyncrasy or a way of life that all people should adopt very much depends on how much value we attach to finding the truth. Here I’m less confident than Peter who agrees with Aristotle that this is something intrinsically worthwhile—“working to understand the nature of reality and our place in it.” What if the picture we come up with after doing this work is something like what Camus sketches in The Myth of Sisyphus—a universe devoid of metaphysical meaning in which we live a life devoid of metaphysical meaning? Couldn’t someone who lives happily on the basis of this or that religious delusion be better off than a philosopher who after long intellectual labor has come to recognize the meaninglessness of his or her existence? Again: it seems to me that being a philosopher and pursuing the truth in a Platonic or Aristotelian universe isn’t the same as being a philosopher and pursuing the truth in our post-metaphysical universe. If doing philosophy draws you closer to the divine, well, then its value is beyond dispute (and arguably all ancient philosophical schools advertised themselves as offering a path to the divine—even Skeptics promised a god-like tranquility deriving from skepticism). If philosophy can’t deliver that, then at least the metaphysical incentive for doing philosophy is gone. These are really open questions for me, questions I didn’t discuss in Teaching Plato in Palestine (though I mentioned them in a long footnote).       

Samuel: Peter, how do you see the purpose of philosophy in today’s world? Who and what is it for? Do you agree with Carlos’ vision, for example, and his diagnosis about what we have lost?

Peter: I greatly admire Carlos’ way of using philosophy to engage sociallyI found his book Teaching Plato in Palestine really inspiring in this respect, actually. And perhaps my podcast could charitably be described as an attempt to do something along these lines, given that it can reach an audience outside academia and I also get to discuss issues with the listeners when they leave comments on the website and on social media. Still, Carlos has shown much greater commitment by personally engaging in face-to-face dialogue with a wide range of students, who often have never been exposed to philosophy before.

One thing that I would say though is that I don’t necessarily think that philosophy needs a further “purpose.” The study of philosophy can do many great things for you: expose you to different cultures, broaden your intellectual horizons, sharpen your wits and make you a more sensitive writer and readermaybe even help you get a job. However these advantages are not, to me, the core reason to study philosophy. The core reason is that philosophy is intrinsically a worthwhile activity. I reckon that Aristotle was right about this: some activities are just worthwhile in themselves, and if working to understand the nature of reality and our place in it is not such an activity, it is hard to know what would be.

For the reading mentioned in the interview, please visit the link below:

Originally published by Marginalia Review of Books under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license as stated here.