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“A Philosophical Framework for Interpreting the Future of Religion and Spirituality,” Wesley J. Wildman, Professor of Philosophy, Theology, and Ethics, Boston University School of Theology, October 29, 2014

in Uncategorized
October 28th, 2014

Abstract:  Intellectuals of any kind, including philosophers, can’t exercise much influence over religion. Religion, after all, is as formidably complex as it is intricately particular, and religious people tend not to care even a little about what philosophers say. But philosophy might be useful for guiding predictions about the future of religion. That’s a big claim. Rather than argue in the abstract that philosophy is useful for guiding predictions, this lecture aims actually to exhibit the usefulness of philosophy. Of course, to proceed in this way implicates me in the questionable business of predicting the future of religion and spirituality. Now that’s an icy road if ever there was one. A lot of vehicles have skidded off that road over the centuries, and this pattern hasn’t changed much in recent years. My claim is that philosophy is like traction control: it keeps the vehicle of prediction safely on the road. At least philosophy can be like this, in principle. In practice, philosophy rarely aspires to be useful in this particular way. But if it’s doable, it couldn’t hurt. From recurring mistaken predictions about the end of the world to the failure of twentieth-century secularization theory, the record of prognostication in regard to the future of religion is dismal. That record certainly couldn’t be made any worse by involving philosophy in the task. How, then, can philosophy help to guide predictions about the future of religion and spirituality? And what specific prediction will I make in this lecture to demonstrate the concrete usefulness of philosophy?

15 Comments on “A Philosophical Framework for Interpreting the Future of Religion and Spirituality,” Wesley J. Wildman, Professor of Philosophy, Theology, and Ethics, Boston University School of Theology, October 29, 2014

  • Thank you so much for the thought-provoking lecture given by Prof. Wildman today. I would like to ask two questions:

    1. Some philosophers, like Husserl, define philosophy as a discipline without any presupposition. I understand it means that any assertions or ideas are possible for refutation as long as they do not pass our rationality or critical thinking. But I think theology is a discipline that has certain presuppositions like the existence of god (in any sense), or conceive god as the ultimate reality. These are some fundamental beliefs or conviction held by believers or theologians. In this way how could these two disciplines be compatible? Also, many philosophical arguments constitute a challenge to Christianity, like the Omnipotence paradox ” “Could an omnipotent being create a stone so heavy that even he could not lift it?” By clarifying the conceptual meaning of god, these questions try to point out that the concept of god by iteself is contradictory. In this case clarity, one of the pillars mentioned by Prof Wildman, could be harmful to one’s conviction or theology. What do you think?

    2. There is a recent paper being published in a famous philosophy journal “philosophical studies”. (http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl) There is a statistic showing that the majority (72.8%) of philosophy professors and PhDs, esp those in the analytic tradition, accept or tend to accept atheism. In this case, does philosophy really contribute to the establishment or development of theology? Or could philosophical training lead one away from theology?

    Thank you so much for any response.

  • I really enjoyed the scope and ambition of this talk. I also wanted to follow up on the question I asked. I agree with Prof. Wildman that “religion” (and its subcategories like “religious beliefs”, “religious values”, “religious practices”) is not a natural kind. But I remain a little skeptical of the proffered alternative of family-resemblance concepts; too often I think they are a way of sidestepping the need for conceptual clarity, which end up in reification. “Religious beliefs” could include the attribution of intentionality to immaterial beings; they could include an apophatic mysticism like Prof. Wildman’s; they could include a belief in the importance of maintaining one’s Jewish community; they could include a belief in the dignity of humanity like Martin Luther King’s; they could include a belief that all human beings should be under a state that requires them to live according to shari’a. One wants to ask, can such a complex really count as a single variable?

    As I understand Prof. Wildman’s model, the approach taken is to say “if something fits at least a certain number of the X criteria that have often been taken to mark something as a religious belief, then it counts as a religious belief.” But I am skeptical whether such a model can then have any significant predictive or explanatory power. More fundamentally, I wonder why one would select such a model over a more precise one. Why not disaggregate these various features – so that the attribution of intentionality to immaterial beings plays a different causal role in the model from an apophatic mysticism? Why try to shoehorn them all into a single category that is not a natural kind?

  • I was a little skeptical of Professor Wildman’s use of the term “post-supernatural,” which seems to me to come with many unfortunate implications that I don’t think Prof. Wildman would endorse. The term seems to imply a linear, almost teleological narrative of progress from the “traditional” to the “post-supernatural.” The “post-” prefix makes it sound like these beliefs are a natural progression, that less-enlightened “traditional” peoples will eventually “grow out” of their beliefs when they experience a certain level of education/technological development.

    Wildman’s optimistic prediction for the future of religion is one in which religious violence is mitigated by post-supernatural beliefs. However, if this new post-supernaturalism is founded on a narrative of progress, or on the idea that its beliefs are an improvement on more primitive religions, I’m not sure how peaceful this revolution would be. The historical track record is not good for cultures who see themselves as more enlightened than others. All too often, they have felt a call to drag the uninitiated kicking and screaming into the light. Obviously this is exactly the opposite of what Prof. Wildman is hoping will happen, but (and I hope I’m not merely nitpicking at vocabulary) I’m concerned that his terminology might be undermining his aim.

    • Mac, how many cultures have ever existed that didn’t see themselves as more enlightened (in some sense or respect) than others? If there were any, how long did they last?

      • That’s a very good question, and I don’t know the answer. Perhaps all cultures necessarily see themselves as superior. But if that’s the case, then what’s the point of “progressing” towards a “post-supernatural” worldview? Wouldn’t the proper move instead be a move towards a religious worldview that undermines notions of superiority (whatever that might look like)?

  • It seems that in order to predict the future of religion, Prof. Wildman wants to take a number of variables from different disciplines and synthesize their inputs in a philosophical, objective way. But is the philosophical way supposed to be objective? Excellent philosophers have strong tendencies to employ scientific, sociological or anthropological data in accordance to their moral or ethical agenda (which is very carefully thought out and justified). This is a positive thing if we believe philosophy has a revolutionary purpose and not just a descriptive one. Prof Wildman’s theory seems to have a post-Enlightenment, pluralistic and pragmatic upshot (as is common in contemporary Western and specifically American thinking). Is this to be attributed to an objective analysis of the facts, or a predetermined ethical agenda?

  • Professor Wildman seeks a transformation in how philosophy in general and the philosophy of religion specifically operates. It is a transformation that the Pragmatists over a century ago heralded, though rather few thereafter heeded their call. That transformation is the adoption of a wide-ranging empirical study of philosophical and religious topics. I, for one, welcome it. (Admittedly, I have some more than a few factors in my history, current status, religious perspective, and preferred philosophical methodologies that may be called “biases,” if uncharitable. I prefer “congruences” better.)

    Professor Wildman’s talk to me felt like a hybrid between a traditional talk in philosophy and religion and one in the sciences, wherein the methods and results sections were elided over so as to give greater attention to introducing his framework theory and elaborating his prediction. Much could be written from a variety of angles examining his framework theory as presented in the form of the “six pillars of prediction,” judging which is primacy, the proper and/or de facto order of importance and/or temporality of each pillar, the location of the greatest conceptual space that must be bridged moving between one pillar and the next, etc. In the whole, the six pillars amount to a position that ought not be remarkable, but I am sure to many it does come across so. That position… Philosophy always, although especially when it is going to be brash and offer a prediction, ought take into account everything we know about ourselves and the whole world––how we think, both biologically and conceptually; how we learn and develop knowledge and knowledge systems; how we communicate; and the rest.

    What then can be said of Professor Wildman’s prediction, namely that, ceteris paribus, the world is a little more than halfway through a half-millennium-long transformation towards a global post-supernaturalism? It is hard to respond concretely. Professor Wildman elided over the details and theories of data collection and model construction; this forum was not the proper place for that. However, there seem to be facts about religion today that must be answered before the prediction can be given credence: How does the data and model explain and account for the rise of conservative religion and the decline of liberal religions over the last 70 years? How is the conservative constraint on change that tradition qua authority, a factor in many world religions, likely to be overcome, viz. modified? How can this transition happen, particularly in light of the scientific findings that some people’s brains seem to be “wired” for conservatism? Can any future be stable enough to keep humanity’s overactive agency detection cognitions in check, which is a necessity for post-supernaturalism? What relationship do/will the Humanist Chaplaincies and Sunday Assemblies (or more likely their successors) have with post-supernaturalist religion? In the digital age, are Weberian prophets possible to usher in the post-supernaturalism?

    The beauty of Professor Wildman’s methodology is that these are examinable questions, to greater and lesser extents. Perhaps a round-table presentation and discussion next time…

  • Professor Wildman presented a rich and provoking account about the future of religion and spirituality. I thoroughly benefitted from the unique approach he took by interweaving cognitive science, statistical analysis, and theology. By highlighting the “cognitive emotional tendencies”—for instance, confirmation bias or the propensity to cling onto beliefs one acquires in childhood—Professor Wildman brought to light an often-overlooked dimension of the less-conscious forms of religiosity. I think he achieved a great deal more by introducing the statistical analyses/sociological data into his presentation. While any such study is prone to its fair share of challenges on empirical and ideological grounds, the true benefit to be reaped from Professor Wildman’s is that it invites many more people from a multitude of disciplines to the discussion. Though it may not have been what many of us humanities folk were looking for, I suspect the long-term benefits of following in the footsteps of his empirical analysis will vastly outweigh the apparent shortcomings. Using hard data from comprehensive studies in conjunction with the longstanding descriptive traditions of philosophy and theology will yield more robust accounts than we presently have. Whether or not these accounts have the predictive power we seek to achieve will be a function of time and experience with them, and the only way to see to their ultimate success is to begin taking steps in the right direction, as Professor Wildman did. There is a lot that stands to be benefitted by bringing non-traditional players (e.g., sociologists, statisticians, anthropologists) into the philosophic-theological tradition.

  • When Dr. Wildman arrived at the “prediction” section of his lecture, he claimed that predictions of the future of religion need develop out of a philosophical viewpoint that is “sufficiently broad” in “creating a plausible causal model” of how things might go. This is “practical philosophy” which integrates and interprets an immensely complex web of multidisciplinary empirical research. In doing this kind of philosophizing, Wildman predicted that we are trending toward a “post-supernatural” (in explicitly religious terms) equilibrium which is incredibly unstable. As such, society becomes increasingly more susceptible to subversion, collapse and mass exploitation. While on the one hand, the future looks like progress; on the other hand, the human tendency to “badness” threatens to spring through the cracks of societies structured as delicate conglomerates of ideal interactions. I suppose this is where I would say that philosophy need advance the conversation. Yes, we might have the tools for a more comprehensive analysis of the question at hand (like “the future of religion”), but is not philosophy a move beyond the purely descriptive to questions of significance and meaning? Is it right to resign philosophy to the business of predictions, while suspending judgments as to the goodness or badness of such future worlds? Are philosophers merely brought into this conversation as expert logicians? I think that the most philosophical thing that Wildman said was the following little personal concern that came at the very end of the lecture: “I’m worried because those who promote this [equilibrium] seem to be grossly naive about human badness.” Isn’t it in concerns like this where philosophical insight can really put its unique set of tools to work?

  • I found Professor Wildman’s lecture to have been quite informative when one evaluates the future of Religion and Spirituality. I personally view the two to be on the same category when on the subject of God and Faith but different when discussing the faith of an individual and the unity of a group.

    Wildman states how it is natural for us, humans to “[…] have the powerful tendency to see things the way we expect” (4). If this is the case, under the fourth pillar, how is it possible for “[…] the practical philosopher of religion […]” (7) be accommodating when evaluating theories? I suspect the practical philosopher to have expectation of his or her own.

    • I am wondering in what way, Rachel, you think religion and spirituality are “the same…when on the subject of God and Faith but different when discussing the faith of an individual or unity of a group”. What do you mean with this statement? How does this difference arise?
      To answer your question, it is precisely the philosopher, who has been trained to let go of his prior assumptions and approach the problem at hand with the most unattached objectivity possible, who is best prepared to evaluate theories. This, I think, was Wildman’s point.

  • Professor Wildman’s lecture was refreshing in that he provided relatively clear predictions on the future of religion. A more precise prediction calls for more powerful evidence or a more rigid argument structure, and Professor Wildman provided both with his model presented at the conclusion of his lecture. The clarity of a model’s structure also lends itself to it being easy to interrogate – individual connections or weights of a simple model are easier to parse than individual components of a written argument (for most writers). On the other hand, a model with a “black box” of internal machinery is extremely difficult to evaluate.

    I found it frustrating, then, that the model Professor Wildman provided wasn’t completely transparent. This could have been a function of the lecture being directed at philosopher and theologians rather than statisticians, or perhaps simply a necessary casualty of the lectures time limit, but it makes it difficult to evaluate the significance of the results of the model.

    It seemed that the model relied on a system of differential equations. He argued for and provided the directions for the variable correlations, but he left out the weights and powers for the variables. Anyone who’s worked with differential equations could tell you that those parameters are important for determining equilibrium points. And from an empirical perspective, it’s incredibly important to know how they were generated.

    As much as I appreciated the lecture itself, I would appreciate even more a lecture or paper on the development of that model.

  • I am personally most interested in the computer simulation that Wildman is using to calculate his prediction. If the algorithm factors in his six pillars of practical philosophy of religion, how are each of them weighted? I wonder how the algorithm weighs each individual factor. Wildman noted the fragility of this future, but at least in the example presented, the computer appeared to only be able to account for disaster. How, then, can the algorithm balance a surplus of religious pluralism coupled with a minor tear on existential security? Furthermore, I would be especially interested in seeing the research supporting the universal claims across different cultures. Wildman notes the relation between different cultures arises from evolutionary process, but this strong, universal claim I think needs more attention; I recognize his brevity is due to the constraints of a lecture, but the basis behind his simulation certainly could use further clarification. Because if Wildman is so concerned with human badness, perhaps it may be prudent to factor this into his algorithm. Are his six pillars about to account for human badness within each? If so, how so?

  • In Professor Wildman’s lecture, he noted that philosophy may be able to assist in predicting the future of religion, though he added the caveat that this is a formidably complex and intricate endeavor with much potential for error. He added that many philosophers, sociologists, and historians have failed in their attempts to predict the future of religion, and this is clear from a study of Freud, James, Berger, and others. Yet, Professor Wildman displayed a fair amount of optimism that philosophy could improve the accuracy of these predictions when it is properly used in guiding predictions.
    His approach, which involves the integration of theory and the results of empirical research, employs computer simulation in the final step. In the example he provided, he demonstrated how he synthesized data from 15 disciplines to make predictions about the future of religion and spirituality. His integrative analysis of data from multiple studies appears to be very similar to meta-analytic studies carried out in the behavioral sciences and other scientific fields. During the presentation, Professor Wildman noted the difficulty in defining religion, but it seems that there is also a difficulty here in defining philosophy, or, at least, “practical philosophy.” His approach to making predictions appears to share more elements with scientific researchers who conduct meta-analytic studies than those of most philosophers. It therefore raises the question of how “practical philosophy” is defined and whether another term, such as “multidisciplinary meta-analysis,” might be more fitting for Professor Wildman’s work in this area.

  • “skidding off the road” – well religion had a recipe against that once: make philosophy religion’s hand-maiden (“ancilla”). The diametral opposite has never been suggested, i.e. making religion the servant of philosophy, as philosophers tend to see themselves at the “top of the food chain” both of religion and science at large. So religion will suspect that your endeavor is prone to fail as religion with its hermeneutics is hermetically sealed to philosophers who try to give it guidance, either predictively or prescriptively. Would be interesting to see if you can get some philosophically trained Jesuits engaged in the discourse.

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