What I've Learned About Religious Belief from My Time Thus Far in Academic Philosophy

Like many committed believers, I got into philosophy via apologetics, and I got into apologetics via the almost constantly felt need to justify my religious beliefs (in the more ordinary sense of that term). Both to myself and to those who questioned me about them.  

By the time I reached college, then, I was reading Aquinas, Augustine, and the others. I was even reading Aristotle and Plato as if they were -- as many Christian thinkers sometimes pretty boldly assert -- pre-Christian philosophers, or philosophers whose ratio was just missing an essential bit of fidei.

This trajectory, then, set me up for a kind of eventual disappointment when it came to contemporary philosophy of religion and religious belief. Having been raised in a post-enlightenment, modern western culture, I've come to associate "latest" or "most recent" with "best," "authoritative," and "comprehensive." I sort of assumed that contemporary philosophical thinking about religion would be to the classics what the iPhone 7 is to the SE, an all encompassing update that's only missing the unnecessary bits.   

I don't think that anymore. 

Not because I don't think contemporary philosophy of religion is very good (I think some truly great religious thinking has been produced -- in academic philosophy and elsewhere -- in the past 50 or 100 years). But because my whole view of religious belief, and the role of intellectual traditions of such belief, has sort of shifted. 

The most important thing I've learned, of course, is always to keep a skull on your desk. 

The most important thing I've learned, of course, is always to keep a skull on your desk. 

I no longer model my view of philosophy on the naive view of science (or some of the more technical sciences) that I still have. I think the analogy is bad for a number of reasons I won't get into here, but suffice it to say that I take the aims and content of philosophical theorizing to be vastly different (though not, of course, incompatible with) science. 

I also don't particularly value contemporary intellectual consenses of any sort, or -- at least -- I don't defer to such consenses as much as j once did. This, I suppose, is a more general point, but the flux of history, the influence of irrelevant factors only recognizable in retrospect, and the vast layers of culture and ideology manifest in the most bizarre certitudes sometimes, and I feel that this recognition (one that came mostly through exposure to different contemporary and historical traditions, and to developments and disagreements within those traditions) has provided some reflective distance that, if nothing else, provides a certain amount of comfortable skepticism of the moment in history in which I find myself. 

I've also just been exposed to many exemplars of religious belief. People I respect as much as I've respected a home intellectually, who carefully and honestly have come to hold traditional religious views. 

With that prelude, then, here are a couple of views I've come to regarding religious belief, based on my experiences as an academic philosopher.

(1) There are bad reasons to believe in God, and these often bleed into mistaken conceptions of God, his nature, and the true nature of religious commitment in the world.

This is an instance of a much broader principle I've come to accept. Something like: practical commitments to the truth of various claims easily distort one's perception of important truths.  It's also the result of having come to recognize, in myself, the tendency to unconsciously assume that the reasons I have for a claim are either decisive, or that claim is false. Sometimes, just in coming into contact with other, better arguments for religious propositions I held, I came to appreciate the intellectual freedom we have from the standpoint of faith (though this freedom is not, of course, unique to the standpoint of religious faith). This training allowed me to separate my conclusions from my arguments, and my identity from both of those. It made me more comfortable with abstract thinking, especially when I learned how to better utilize it's tools so as not to feel vulnerable to the attacks of those whose aim is simply to separate believers from deeply held views. (I also came to realize there are far fewer such people than I had feared as a younger, less mature believer -- or at least fewer people with this as an explicit aim.)

Experiencing this freedom allowed me to really think hard about my motivations for belief in certain of my religious commitments, and convinced me that my motives were often less pure than I had assumed. 

(2) Academic philosophy has convinced me that theism isn't obviously irrational, and that there aren't any easy answers regarding God and religion

I assumed, before I entered my PhD program, that advanced study in philosophy would reveal the truth about religion in a straightforward, and strongly clarifying way. As in: I thought that by the time I graduated, it'd be obvious whether there are good arguments for God's existence, what from the tradition is worthwhile and what is outdated, how one ought to go about deciding what religion to follow, etc.  

None of these things are even remotely obvious to me. As I said above, there are some reasons for beliefs (and some views) that I used to hold that now seem silly, but beyond this very narrow set of discardable hypotheses there's a massive amount of viable theoretical ground. 

 (3) I've also come to appreciate the appropriate role of rational autonomy in these questions -- not as a tether to certitude, but as a way of aiming, in a more holistic way, at the truth

Perhaps it's partly a result of the aforementioned training (and the intellectual flexibility that I've developed as a result of this training), but I think there are also good theoretical reasons to reject the view of the thinker as her own intellectual authority. Coming up against my own intellectual and epistemic limitations on a weekly (or even daily) basis probably helped drive home this point as well, but we are all creatures that are both fallible and essentially relational. We function better in society along almost any given practical, physical, and emotional measure. It stands to reason, then, that we will flourish intellectually when we acknowledge similarly social features of our intellectual lives.

This means, in my experience, that autonomy (or total intellectual independence) isn't some sort of rational ideal, but is, instead, the possession of a perspective from which we ought to strategize in order to reach the truth. This is the bit that has freed me up the most, I think. Instead of bearing the constant burden of rationalizing or abandoning each and every religious commitment I have on my own, I now see my faith -- even the intellectual aspect of it -- as the sort of thing I can live out in community. I now see my intellectual "stance" as it were, as one of faith seeking understanding.