By Eric Steinhart
Many philosophers have observed that philosophy of religion, especially analytic theism, has become extremely narrow-minded. It focuses obsessively on the Christian God, especially the God of classical theism. But classical theism isn’t the only concept of God in Christianity; and of course Christianity isn’t the only religion.
After recognizing this narrowness, some philosophers have encouraged philosophy of religion to go global. Philosophy of religion should include all the major world religions, both Eastern as well as Western. One reason to go global is that our students live in a global world – they might do business in China, and so might want to know something about Confucianism, or traditional Chinese folk religions. But that’s a contingency. Our students are in our classrooms now, living their current lives. And, at least in many areas of the United States, Christianity is no longer the only option. Does this mean they have abandoned their familial Christianity for some other “Axial Age” religion like Buddhism or Hinduism or Islam? It does not. Does it mean they have converted to atheism? It does not. The situation on the ground is far stranger.
The Pew Research Forum has documented the decline of Christianity in the US over many recent decades. And it has documented the emergence of novel syncretic religions: many Americans mix many religions. According to an important survey from ARIS, current American college students fall into three big buckets: the traditional theists, the secularists, and the spiritualists. Each bucket gets about a third of current college students. So how should philosophy of religion be taught? I’d say you should aim it at your students: what are their religious backgrounds and interests? A course in philosophy of religion at a Christian college might reasonably focus on Christianity; outside of that context, we need to figure out what our students find religiously interesting. We need to go local and go contemporary.
I’ve been teaching philosophy of religion for over twenty years at a mid-sized public university in the northeastern United States (specifically, at William Paterson University of New Jersey). We have a sizeable Christian cohort, as well as many Muslim students. We are a Hispanic Serving Institution, so over a quarter of our students come from Latinx or Hispanic backgrounds. Many of our students doesn’t seem to care much about religion at all. They’re soft secularists. Many of them are at least second-generation secularists – they weren’t raised in any religion. It’s alien to them. They’re just plain post-theistic.
I regularly ask my students (in all my courses) what they’d like to see in my philosophy of religion course. What are their interests? Very few seem to have any interest in the God of classical Christian theism. Of course, I do spend a considerable amount of time in my philosophy of religion course on Christian theism, on the standard arguments for God, and related topics. It’s essential background, and Christianity is the main religion in the United States. But my students don’t seem to be very interested. God is a big turn-off for many of them. I’m sure I have plenty of students who are interested in traditional Christian theism, but they don’t express that interest, and they don’t express a desire to study philosophy of religion. They seem satisfied without it. My students do express interests in learning more about religious traditions in which they have participated, or in which their friends participate. And these are often new religious movements, or new ways of being religious or spiritual. Before getting into some of these new religions, it’s essential to point out that they often have deep roots in ancient Western paganisms. I teach sections on ancient Neoplatonism and Stoicism. And I don’t teach them as poor approximations to or precursors of Christianity. There were powerful ancient pagan theologies. So we read Plotinus; we read parts of Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods and Sallustius’s On the Gods and the World.
Many of my Hispanic students come from the Caribbean, and they are interested in the Yoruba-Christian hybrids like Santeria. They’ve either practiced in those hybrids themselves or have family members who do. They have friends or family members who practice Santeria or who are Santerian priests or priestesses. They’ve been to rituals; they’re familiar with the Orixa. Some of them know about Santa Muerte, which they mention only quietly. But they all want to know more about the Yoruba-based religions, which are practiced throughout all the Americas. And, since the Yoruba empire was at about the same longitude as Paris, I take that Yoruba religion is Western.
So we do a section on Yoruba religion and its syncretic mixtures with Christianity. Philosophically, there is a deep Neoplatonic background here. For example, the metaphysics developed by Proclus in his Elements of Theology is especially friendly to Yoruba religion. The Proclusian theory of the divine henads works well with the Orixa. It builds a bridge between European religion and African religion. And there are other bridges here: Gloria Anzaldua has developed a rich system of religious concepts, situated in a Hispanic-American context. Philosophers of religion should study her. I look forward to using her essay “Now Let us Shift” in my course.
Many of my students either practice some sort of Neopaganism, or have friends or family members who do. The dominant Neopagan tradition is some version of Wicca. I’ve had students raised in Wiccan households. (And Wicca is recognized by the State of New Jersey, so that students may take off Wiccan holidays.) Wicca is surprisingly popular in the US military and I’ve had many student veterans who were exposed to it there. My students are very interested in Wicca as a religion (but tend to dismiss its association with witchcraft). Of course, it should go without saying that Wiccans aren’t Satanists; Satan belongs to Christianity, and most Wiccans reject Christianity entirely.
Wicca presents an especially powerful philosophical challenge to Christianity. The Thomistic Five Ways are usually taught as running to the Christian God. But why? The cosmological and ontological arguments could produce the Wiccan ultimate deity as their outputs instead. And the design arguments might be used to justify the Wiccan god and goddess. Wicca hasn’t seen any professional philosophical interest (as far as I know). And that’s unfortunate, since there’s so much there to explore. I do a week on Wicca. I’m not a Wiccan, but I find Wicca especially fascinating.
Many of my students are aware of the feminist critiques of Abrahamic monotheism. And they are interested in the divine feminine. Of course, there are female Orixa. But the idea of a goddess equal to god has deep roots in America. Wiccans aren’t the only ones to talk about a god-goddess couple. Mormons also posit a god-goddess pair, the Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother. I don’t think I’ve ever had a Mormon student, but as Americans my students have all heard of Mormonism. They’re fascinated by it, and we cover it in class. I’ll probably talk about it more in the future. But the idea of a god-goddess pair goes back in American religion before Mormonism. It was found in the early Quakers, and especially developed by the Shakers. The Shakers were a very powerful movement in nineteenth century America. We talk about Shakers.
Many of my students fall clearly within the ARIS spirituality bucket. They participate in a wide variety of spiritual practices. They are especially interested in Westernized Buddhisms. They do mindfulness meditation. Since the New Stoic movement is popular in New York City (though meetups), many of them know about the New Stoicism and mix it up with their Buddhism. They often do Westernized yoga. We talk about all these practices in class. Some of my students go to raves and find them to be spiritually meaningful. Some have gone to Burning Man, or have friends who have. So we study Burning Man as a new religion. My students and myself are deeply fascinated by Burning Man, which seems in so many ways to express a uniquely American religious outlook. What would a new religion look like? Burning Man has spread across the globe with its “regional burns” and its temple ceremonies. And it has affinities with other groups in the Family of Fire, such as the Spark Collective.
It will come as no surprise that many college students are interested in the religious use of drugs. They are interested in entheogens like psilocybin, mescaline, ayahuasca, LSD, and others. And it will also come as no surprise that some of my students have either tried these drugs themselves or know people who have. Some have even travelled to take part in ayahuasca ceremonies. This has given them a kind of tragic wisdom: while they are interested in entheogens, they are often extremely skeptical of drug use. They’ve seen friends (often from high school) whose lives were damaged by unethical and illegal drug use. But religious drug use is deeply embedded in American culture. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act legalized the religious use of peyote by Native Americans and legalized the use of ayahuasca by certain religious groups. Cannabis is legal in many states and there are marijuana churches. Psilocybin is increasingly studied in medical contexts to ease end-of-life anxiety. Can entheogens provide religious truth? Will they replace traditional religions? We discuss this.
A surprisingly large number of my students do New Age practices. They read The Secret. They’re skeptical, but they’re also highly experimental. The New Age has a long history in American religion. It goes back to New Thought and the New England transcendentalists. New Thought is probably the most important American religious movement that most philosophers have never heard of. It inspired an enormous amount of current Christianity in the US, as well as the New Age and Neopagan movements. I have students from the Unity Churches. So we talk about New Thought, and we read Cady. Many of my students know about the New Atheists. They’ve read Dawkins. But they don’t have much interest – they’re post-theists. They do find the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster interesting. We talk about that. We talk about the religious aspects of transhumanism, and groups like LessWrong.
It’s a real shame that analytic philosophy of religion is so narrow, especially in the United States. The US, despite the dominance of right-wing Christian groups, is in the midst of an explosion of new religious ideas and practices. Outside of explicitly Christian colleges and universities, these ideas and practices are daily gaining more ground. I think we should focus in our teaching on the issues of interest and value to our students. And I think we should focus in our research on current and future developments. Philosophy of religion, especially in the Americas, needs to change. We need new textbooks and new syllabi. Religion is often one of the ways people get interested in philosophy. And religion in the Americas is far more interesting than it may seem.