Is Philosophy Religion for Atheists?

In a lecture regarding philosophy’s interaction with belief and atheism, David Jensen challenged the claim that philosophy is the age-old rival of God.    

PROVO, Utah (March 12, 2015)—Recalling a conversation he had one day with a student who had just gotten off the phone with his mom, David Jensen from the philosophy department related the student/mother exchange:

She asked what he had going on that day. “I said that I took a religion test in the morning and a philosophy test in the afternoon,” the student said, to which his mom responded: “So the philosophy test just negated everything from the religion test?”

Perplexed by this somewhat typical response to the study of academic philosophy, Jensen asked why philosophy and religion are so often perceived “as if they’re acid and base.” Even more disconcerting to Jensen is the popular cultural association between the study of academic philosophy and individuals who choose to leave the Church.

As a professor of philosophy at BYU, Jensen laughed about frequently meeting the reaction “They should not be teaching that stuff at BYU!” when he introduces himself in new wards.

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“What do we say to these responses?” Jensen asked.

To make sense of it, he went back to the meaning and purpose of religion, arguing that religion is often what presents us with a worldview. For many people, “religion tells you the purpose of life, how to live life and what it all means. If you abandon religion, you’ve lost that comprehensive worldview on the meaning of life and the purpose of life,” Jensen said.

The common sentiment, according to Jensen, is often that people come to philosophy thinking “I don’t’ believe in God, but I want to understand life, and I want meaning. Isn’t philosophy the place that will explain this?”

However, Jensen asserted that the history of philosophy simply does not accord with the view that philosophy is somehow a godless discipline or comes from the point of view that God doesn’t exist. In fact, Jensen said: “If you study philosophy, even mildly, you find that the history of philosophy is replete with philosophers who have incorporated God into their theories, appealed to God, talked about God, given proofs for the existence of God. So, it’s simply factually false that if you think you want be an atheist you should go to philosophy to show you thereal way. You’re going to run into trouble because there’s a lot of God being talked about in philosophy.”

Jensen asserted that if atheistic individuals are really looking for a godless worldview to show them the ropes, they ought to “go with pop culture – you can find plenty of people there trying to tell you what you should be doing.” In fact, Jensen said there are plenty of places – literature, politics, etc. – in which people are willing to tell you what you should do with life and what life’s about.

“And frankly, they’ll be a lot easier to understand than philosophy,” Jensen said. “I mean, philosophy’s kind of difficult to read. So, if you’re looking for a new worldview and think ‘let’s read some Kant,’ your response later might be: ‘Um, well … I don’t know. … Is there actually an easier worldview?’”

As a parent, Jensen said that when he thinks of the list of things that he worries about influencing his kids, he ranks academic philosophy pretty low.

This stems from a general misunderstanding about what philosophy is, Jensen said: “I know this because I have my [Philosophy] 110 students go out and ask people, ‘what do you think philosophy is?’ And a lot will say something like philosophy is about the purpose of life and a sort of ethics.”

That is a part of philosophy, Jensen said. “If you thought that this was the whole of philosophy, I could kind of see how you might think that philosophy is competing with religion.”

However, the actual study of philosophy is comprised of studying in fields like logic and the philosophy of language and the philosophy of science. “If you study philosophy of science, you’re studying the assumptions of science and deep concepts of science like the nature of space and time,” Jensen said.

You might say, “But that doesn’t have anything to do with replacing God?” and that’s Jensen’s point.

“To be honest, most of philosophy isn’t concerned in any direct sense with God or God’s existence,” Jensen said. “It is one part of philosophy that we study, but we’re not obsessed with it. In no way is it the purpose of philosophy to attack religion.”

When philosophy does interact with religion, often it is trying to better understand concepts like faith and how we understand God.

“If you talk about right and wrong, good and bad, morality, and free will, and faith, and hope for things which are not seen which are true and all these things, you are making use of philosophical concepts whether you like it or not,” Jensen said.

Regarding the Church’s relationship to philosophy, Jensen asked how we can make sense of the command to not preach the philosophies of men mingled with scripture.

“The problem isn’t the philosophies of men,” Jensen said. “The problem is that when you’re teaching the Gospel, you should stick with teaching the Gospel and not bring in the philosophies of men or your own ideas or new doctrines or speculations. Or, if you do bring those things in, you should not mingle them; you should be very distinct about what is Gospel idea and what is your own idea.”

So, is the warning really toward academic philosophy? “I think the warning is something more like pop culture, which is a cesspool of horrible ideas,” Jensen said. “I think that’s the real warning. I don’t think it’s Descartes; I don’t think it’s Kant. I don’t even think it’s Hume, and I’m a Kantian.” Kant and Hume are typically considered to oppose one another’s philosophies.

Jensen quoted President James E. Faust, who said in 2006: “Indeed, as the First Presidency stated in 1978, we believe that ‘the great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals.’”

That said, how can the study of philosophy benefit the religious believer?

“Ethics is the study of how to live life, the study of good and bad, of right and wrong, the study of the things that make life meaningful,” said Jensen. “So, inasmuch as you believe that life has purpose and meaning and that morality is important, the study of ethics can help you better understand that. In my Kant class right now, we’re talking all about motives and altruism – which is really charity – and reading about this distinction between practical love and pathological love. All sorts of concepts in philosophy help you better understand the Gospel.”

In the end, according to Jensen, philosophy is what helps us grapple with questions that every religious thinker must confront: what is faith and what is it to know?

—Danielle Chelom Leavitt (B.A. Russian ’15)