Philosophy of Religion: From East to West and Back Again

By Jeffery D. Long

Dr. Jeffery D. Long is Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Elizabethtown College, in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. Dr. Long is the author of A Vision for Hinduism: Beyond Hindu Nationalism, which was the 2007 recipient of the Dharma Association of North America’s (DANAM) award for Excellence in Constructive Indic Theology/Philosophy. DANAM is associated with the American Academy of Religions.

This article originally appeared in the August, 2007 issue of Prabuddha Bharata.

Introduction: From India to Greece and Back Again to India

Is there a God?  Is there life after death?  Do our lives have any meaning or purpose other than what we ourselves decide?  Do we even have a free will?  Is it possible to know the answers to any of these questions?  How ought we to go about answering them, if at all?  These are just a few of the questions explored by the philosophy of religion.

One might, of course, object that these questions are not limited to the philosophy of religion, but are fundamental to all forms of philosophy.  One need not be religious in order to wonder if this universe has a cause other than itself, if our consciousness carries on after the death of the body, if it was somewhere before this body came to be, and so on.  Nor does one need to turn to religion in order to seek the answers to these questions, though of course many do.  The questions I have been raising relate to basic metaphysical issues.  In other words, they are ontological questions.  They inquire into the nature of existence as such.

Metaphysics, or ontology, as it is also known, is one of the oldest and most basic of philosophical inquiries.  In the West, it is traced back to the Greeks, to pre-Socratic philosophers such as Pythagoras, Heraclitus, and Parmenides.  Philosophy as such begins, at least on a Western understanding, with these thinkers, who were inquiring into the very nature of existence.  As inquirers into the nature of existence, their pursuit of knowledge was not altogether different from that of modern scientists, and indeed, the first Greek philosophers were also the first scientists.  The contemporary divisions between the fields of knowledge, with the “objective,” physical world being studied by the sciences and the more ethereal realms of meaning and value being the exclusive preserve of philosophers and religious thinkers, did not arise for many centuries.

What was true of the ancient Greeks was also true for the ancient Indians.  If one looks at the Upanishads, for example, one finds the same kinds of inquiry, and the same kinds of answers, as one finds in the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers.  What is reality, at its most basic?  What is that entity, knowing which, all other entities can be known?  In both the extant writings of the ancient Greeks and in the Upanishads, one finds a variety of speculative answers to this question.  Perhaps fire is the most fundamental of elements.  Or perhaps it is earth, wind, or water.  Or perhaps it is some mysterious reality that is not any of these.  Parmenides speaks of Being Itself (ontos) as a unitary reality underlying all of the apparent change and variety of the phenomenal world, just as the anonymous sages of the Upanishads speak of Brahman.

In fact, one could make a case that the speculations of the ancient Greeks draw on those of the ancient Indians.  The most ancient Vedantic texts, like the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and the Chandogya Upanishad, predate the earliest pre-Socratic philosophers by several centuries.  There are legends that the most renowned pre-Socratic, Pythagoras, visited India.  Whether or not one gives credence to such tales, the clear imprint of Indic thought is visible upon his system.  Pythagoras taught his followers vegetarianism, a type of meditation based on a system of sacred mathematics expressed both in sound and in a variety of geometric forms, and the doctrine of metempsychosis, or reincarnation.  He is even said to have remembered his previous lives.  His vegetarianism and belief in what in India is called punarjanma, or rebirth, and his teaching of a form of meditation (dhyana) involving sound (mantra) and geometric form (yantra) are all strikingly Indic in nature.

Socrates himself, widely regarded as the father of Western philosophy, as well as his student, Plato, through whose works we know of Socrates and his teachings, displays a similar indebtedness to Indic thought, possibly through the medium of Pythagoras and the influence of his school on subsequent Greek intellectual developments.  In the final chapter of Plato’s Republic, Socrates offers a detailed account of the rebirth process, with many affinities to Indic thought.

Probably most striking of all, in the Phaedrus, Socrates presents an analogy of the soul as dwelling in the body like the rider in a chariot almost identical in its details to the analogy given by Yama, the Lord of Death, to Nachiketa in the Katha Upanishad.

The great twentieth century philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, once famously wrote that, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”  Given the centrality of Plato and his master, Socrates, to the Western philosophical tradition, combined with the indebtedness of these thinkers to India that we can discern in their teachings, it is safe to say that metaphysics, in the traditional Western sense, really begins in India.

Our current distinction between “philosophy” as a secular academic discipline and “religion” as a matter of faith, of belief in the existence of unseen and unproven entities, clearly did not exist for the ancients, either in India or the West.  For Socrates and for the sages of the Upanishads the search for knowledge was inseparable–and indeed, it was carried out in the service of–the search for the good life, for transcendence and spiritual liberation.  Philosophy, for the ancients, was a form of spiritual practice.

The bifurcation of this originally holistic vision into the distinct and separate–and occasionally antagonistic–pursuits of “religion,” “science,” and “philosophy” occurred in the West for a variety of reasons peculiar to the history of European thought.  A similar distinction today obtains in India, due largely to Western influence, though a distinction between religion and philosophy–dharma and darshana–is not unknown in Indic thought.

My aim in this essay is to provide a brief overview of the philosophy of religion as it eventually emerged in the West, as a sub-field of philosophy, as well as to explore how this discipline might be reconfigured were it to be carried out from a Vedantic point of view.  If philosophy really did begin in–or at least take its initial impetus from–India, I could be said to be traveling in this essay from India to the West and back again.  If one can see Western philosophy as a child of a Vedanta, taking its early inspiration from the Upanishads (albeit indirectly), I shall experiment here with bringing that child back home.

Historical Background of the Philosophy of Religion

How did philosophy, originally a holistic enterprise, a spiritual path encompassing what we now know as both religious practice and the scholarly pursuit of knowledge, come to be identified exclusively with the second of these two activities?  For the answer we must turn to a third geographic location, having already looked at India and Greece: Jerusalem.

The rise of Christianity in the West was the first of two major cultural shifts that served as historical catalysts for the emergence of a distinct discipline of the philosophy of religion, the second being the rise of modernity in Europe in the centuries following the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation.

If, for the ancient philosophers, the observation of and reflection upon the natural world, the realm of our experience, was a source of spiritually liberating knowledge, for the early Christians, such observation and reflection was decisively subordinate to divine revelation, in the form of the Bible and the traditions of the church.  A major question with which the early fathers of the church wrestled quite sincerely was the relationship of secular knowledge to sacred church teaching.  Was it appropriate to study or to otherwise utilize the teachings of pre-Christian, “pagan” authors such as Plato and Aristotle?  Did these writers and their methods of attaining and evaluating knowledge have anything to offer to the believing Christian?  Should their works be appropriated in the service of the church?  Or, as “pagan” authors, should their works be viewed with suspicion, or rejected as the work of the devil?

A range of views on this issue were entertained among the early church fathers, with the consensus of the tradition eventually coming down on the side of the view that God has given human beings the ability to reason, and that we should use this gift, albeit in a way that is ultimately subordinate to divine truth, as revealed in church teaching.  As eventually formulated in the Middle Ages by the great Catholic philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas, the view was that reason–philosophy–can tell us a great deal, but that faith in the teaching of the church is needed to answer the deepest questions of existence.

Consequently, secular philosophy, inquiry such as that carried out by Plato and Aristotle, became an acceptable and even praiseworthy pursuit.  The ancients could even be an aid to faith, as when Aquinas utilized Aristotle’s argument for the existence of God, an argument that eventually became standardized as the Cosmological Argument (that all things require a cause, that an infinite regression of causes is not acceptable, and that, therefore, there must be a first, uncaused cause, which is God).  But where the writings of the ancients came into conflict with church dogma–such as in Plato’s writings on rebirth–then it was church dogma that should be followed, not the philosophy of the ancients.

The medieval period, then, one could say, marked the emergence of the discipline of the philosophy of religion in a form also known as philosophical theology.  Theology, a discipline closely related to philosophy in its method, begins in the Christian tradition as the attempt to reflect upon and determine the implications of religious faith.  It is, to use the classic definition of another great medieval Christian thinker, St. Anselm, fides quaerens intellectum, or “faith seeking understanding.”  Like philosophy, it is a rational enterprise.  But it generally operates within the parameters of a pre-given view of reality provided by the claims of a religious tradition, which it can both critique and defend.

Philosophical theology, one could say, is the attempt to discern which religious claims can be verified on the basis of reason alone.  Aquinas claimed, for example, that one could prove the existence of God–a first, uncaused cause of all other causes–using Aristotle’s argument, without recourse to any prior religious faith or text.  But to know the precise nature of God in more detail–that God is a Trinity, for example, or that the second member of this Trinity, God the Son, became incarnate as Jesus Christ and died for the sins of the world–requires the supernatural revelation provided by the church; for such claims are not deducible through reason alone.

So the philosophy of religion, in its incarnation as philosophical theology, begins as the attempt to discover what we can know about the ultimate object of religion–God–purely through natural reason, without recourse to supernatural revelation.

Historically, this carving out of a space in which rational inquiry could be pursued without any recourse to scripture or church teaching–to supernatural revelation–had one important unintended consequence.  It eventually contributed to the rise of modernity, in which autonomous reason alone, reflecting on experience, rather than religious dogma, is the standard by which all truth claims are judged.

As the church fragmented, due to the Protestant Reformation, with many differing interpretations of Christian dogma being held by warring parties, many thinkers longed for a standard of knowledge that was incontestable, a standard within the verifiable realm of empirical experience and rational thought.  The success of the scientific method further accelerated the movement toward a universal standard of rational knowledge and away from the contestable realm of religious belief, which seemed increasingly to be subjective and beyond verification–a widely held view in the West to the present day.

In the modern period, therefore, the philosophy of religion becomes increasingly bold and speculative, but also more skeptical.  No longer confined to the narrow field of philosophical theology, of determining what can be known about God by natural reason alone, but presupposing the basic truth of the Christian revelation, religious and skeptical thinkers alike could turn their attention to issues traditionally regarded as off limits.  So metaphysical thinkers freely speculated about the ultimate nature of reality, with Spinoza and Leibniz, for example, developing elaborate metaphysical systems with the ultimate goal of explaining everything, just as the ancients did.  Similarly, skeptical thinkers, such as Voltaire and David Hume, could question whether religion itself had any validity, or was merely a human construct, a by-product of our hopes and fears.  From speculations such as these arose the modern discipline of the study of religion.  Philosophy of religion in this sense becomes not “religious philosophy”–philosophy seeking to answer the same questions normally posed by religion about the nature of God and the universe.  Instead, it becomes philosophy “about religion.”  Presupposing a skeptical answer to the more traditional questions, it seeks to understand what religion is and why people believe in it.

Issues Explored by Contemporary Philosophers of Religion

Contemporary philosophers of religion in the West are of all of the types suggested above and explore an enormous range of issues.  There are philosophers of religion who are deeply religious people, committed to a particular tradition and seeing their work as being ultimately in the service of that tradition, even though, because they are philosophers and not theologians, that work itself is of a more general nature that can also be appreciated by those who do not share the philosopher’s religious convictions in their totality.  So, for example, a philosopher might devote considerable effort to proving the existence of God without revealing that she is a Christian; and, since her arguments are of a general and not a tradition-specific nature, other theistic thinkers might also accept their validity, or at least find them worthy of examination.  There are also philosophers of religion who do not have any particular religious commitment, and may even be quite skeptical about religion, but who nevertheless have a strong interest in questions of a religious nature, or questions about religion itself, that they pursue in their philosophical work.

Besides the perennial issue of the existence and nature of God, the contemporary issues taken up by philosophers of religion include epistemological questions, the relation between religious tradition and reason, issues raised by the encounter between religion and science, religious diversity, and feminism.

With regard to epistemology–the study of knowledge–the ultimate question is of course the basis of one’s truth claims.  How would one know, for example, that God does or does not exist?  This is the issue of what is called, in the Indic traditions, pramana, or the basis upon which one makes judgments about what is true.  A topic of great interest to many philosophers of religion is the question of the validity of religious experience as a basis for belief.  How reliable is such experience?  Are claims of paranormal events, such as near death experiences, a valid basis for making a judgment about religious claims?  A related issue is, of course, the nature of knowledge itself; and questions of epistemology lead easily into broader questions about the very nature of consciousness and experience.

Postmodern thinkers have raised a variety of questions with regard to the nature of reason itself.  The modern faith in reason reflecting on experience as an incontestable guide to truth, a faith bolstered in early modernity by the successes of science, has been, ironically, undermined by science’s ongoing success.  When our paradigm, our model for understanding reality, can shift as radically as scientific paradigms have since the rise of modern science, how reliable is any knowledge that we claim to have?  And is knowledge ultimately separable from questions of value?  The horrors of the two world wars and the ongoing threat of nuclear annihilation have led many to challenge the notion that reason is sufficient to save humanity from its self-created evils.  This has opened up a space in the philosophy of religion for thinkers to revisit what would have at one time been widely seen as outdated, traditionalist positions.  Perhaps faith in a scripture is not so irrational after all, if faith in reason itself cannot be rationally defended, but is also itself a form of faith.  Perhaps even reason requires a tradition, a framework of presupposed ideas and methods, in order to function.  Is not science itself a kind of tradition?

The relationship between religion and science is also an ongoing source of new inspiration for philosophers of religion.  On at least one prominent interpretation, science has gradually eroded religious faith as it has slowly done away with the necessity of God in order to explain an ever-widening array of phenomena.  Now that consciousness itself has become an object of study to neuroscientists, is there any place for that most basic of religious concepts, the soul?  Can religion be re-articulated in such a way as to retain its relevance in an age of science while retaining its power to inspire and reassure?  Or is it doomed to vanish, or to transform beyond recognition?  Or has science really challenged religion at all?  Perhaps science and religion are talking past one another, one occupied with the realm of fact, the other with the realm of meaning.  Philosophers of religion have given a variety of differing answers to each of these questions.

Religious diversity is an area that philosophers of religion have also been seeking to address, and it is to this area that my own work as a philosopher has been devoted.

The main concern raised by religious diversity is the question of the truth of any particular religious worldview.  A challenge to all religions–to religion as such–is the fact that there is not the uniformity among religious truth-claims that there is in other areas of knowledge, such as science.  It does not matter whether a physicist or a biologist is Indian or African or American or European, Hindu or Christian or Muslim or Buddhist: the laws of physics or the principles of biology are consistent globally.  There is not a European physics or an African physics or an Indian physics.  There is only physics.

But the same is not true of religion.  The claims of the world’s religions about the nature of ultimate reality vary greatly.  On at least an initial, superficial understanding, all their views cannot be true.  Some must be mistaken.  Is not the disagreement among them a clue that they might all be mistaken?  That religiosity itself is an error?

The question also arises internally to various religious traditions whenever they encounter the religious other.  Are many religions true or is mine the only true one?  Does not the claim of there being one, uniquely true religion undermine harmony amongst the religious communities?  But at the same time, if I believe my religion is true, does that not commit me to the view that the others, at least to the degree that they disagree with mine, are false?  What about salvation?  Christianity, for example, says that God loves all people.  But if one needs to be Christian to be saved, then are not most people damned for all eternity?  What does this then say about God’s love, or God’s omnipotence, if there is no way God can save people except for them to accept the Christian message?

Finally, feminism, as a variety of postmodern thought, has raised questions that challenge the philosophy of religion at a fundamental level.  Is the notion of truth with which philosophers of religion have traditionally worked embedded in an inescapably patriarchal and chauvinistic way of viewing the world, which devalues what have often been characterized as more feminine modes of perception, such as intuition?  Is the idea of male rationality elevated at the expense of its feminine counterpart?  Is the dominant Western image of God as male inherently oppressive?

Towards a Vedantic Philosophy of Religion

For a Hindu reader, it must already be apparent from reading this essay that the structure of the Western philosophy of religion–the questions it approaches, the way it phrases and understands these questions, and the assumptions that it makes–have all been shaped by the Western historical context from which this discipline has emerged.  When a Western philosopher of religion speaks of “God,” for example, even if she is only speaking of God in the abstract, and not of any particular traditional understanding of God, it is apparent that Christian assumptions underlie the entire discussion.  This is true even if the aim of the philosopher is to disprove God’s existence.  In the West, “God,” even for an atheist, is the God of Christianity, or more minimally, the personal deity of the three Abrahamic traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (though Islam is ill-understood in the West).

The conflict between religion and science, for example, is clearly not a conflict between all religions and science, but between a particular type of supernaturalist theism predominant in the West and science.  If, in a given tradition, such as Hinduism, God is conceived of very differently, then the conflicts between religion and science in the West may conceivably not exist for that tradition.  Or a different set of such conflicts will arise.

God, in Hinduism, did not create the universe at some particular point in time.  Creation, rather, is an ongoing activity, with no beginning and no end.  Even the classical Aristotelian Cosmological Argument, which is foundational to a great deal of Western philosophy of religion–on which philosophers in training cut their teeth–includes a claim that would be contested by many Indic traditions: the claim that an infinite regression of causes is not acceptable.  If some version of the cosmological argument is to apply to Hinduism, then the primacy of God as the first cause would have to be a logical rather than a temporal primacy; for in terms of time, there has always been some universe or other (albeit there are numerous cosmic cycles, or kalpas).  Hinduism also has no trouble with the idea of evolution, or an earth that is billions of years old, all issues which are still quite contentious in at least some Christian circles in the West.

So what would the philosophy of religion look like if it were undertaken from a Vedantic perspective?  What if philosophy returned home, so to speak, to India?

A very exciting possible answer to this is provided by a movement among some Western philosophers, based in the thought of Alfred North Whitehead, known as process philosophy, or process metaphysics.

Process metaphysics is Whitehead’s attempt to return to the original Greek (and I would add, by implication, Indic) ideal of philosophy: to explain everything, “to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which ever element of our experience can be interpreted.” Whitehead’s aim is a holistic vision of reality that incorporates the insights of religion, philosophy, and science–that updates the philosophy of Plato, so to speak, allowing for the intervening centuries of accumulated scientific and religious knowledge.  Though Whitehead was not strongly versed in Hindu traditions, he did have a good grasp of Buddhism.  As he says of his system, it “seems to approximate more to some strains of Indian, or Chinese, thought, than to western Asiatic, or European, thought.”

Indeed, more than any other traditional Indic system, process metaphysics comes the closest, in my judgment, to the Vishistadvaita Vedanta of Ramanuja, though it has a number of close affinities with Buddhism as well–particularly Yogacara thought.  Among modern Indic thinkers, his system is closest to that of Sri Aurobindo, seeking as it does to integrate, in a dynamic, evolutionary framework, the seemingly opposed notions of spirit and matter.

Process thought, with its affinities to Vedanta, gives a number of clues as to how a Vedantic philosophy of religion might look, and how it might begin to address various issues facing contemporary philosophers of religion in the West.

Regarding epistemological questions, for example, process thought, like Vedanta, does not confine “experience,” as most Western philosophers do, to sensory experience, favoring a more holistic approach.

On the basis of this expanded conception of experience, such process thinkers as David Ray Griffin have argued for a re-evaluation of paranormal phenomena, including past life memory, which are held to be delusory by thinkers wedded to a purely sensory-based epistemology.

The relation between religious tradition and reason, raised by Aquinas and raised again by postmodern philosophers of religion, is also raised in classical Vedanta.  Indeed, Shankara addresses this issue in a manner evocative of Aquinas: that reason (anumana) and revelation (Shabda) must ultimately be in harmony.  Contemporary Vedanta, however, as expressed by Swami Vivekananda, is in harmony with modern thought’s emphasis on the primacy of direct experience, reconciling tradition and reason by asserting that shruti, or sacred scripture, is itself the record of the experiences of the sages through whom it was revealed, rather than being a unique, one-time-only supernatural revelation (as has been traditionally claimed by Christians about the Bible).  This also fits in with process thought’s self-location in the modern paradigm, where the ultimate authority is reason reflecting on experience, and the notion of experience is sufficiently expansive to include yogic experience.

Process thought also seeks to reconcile the differences between Western religion and science with a radically reconceived understanding of God as organically related to the universe rather than wholly other and transcendent.  This, again, reflects a Vedantic understanding as well, such as when Swami Vivekananda refers to God as “the soul of our souls,” or when Ramanuja conceives of the universe as the body of God, and God as the soul of the universe–an image which Griffin has also used to explain process thought.

In terms of religious diversity, Vedanta–particularly modern Vedanta–is famously characterized by the teaching that all paths lead to God-realization, that no single religion can claim to exhaust the infinite truth.  Process thinkers, too–including the author of this essay–have addressed the issue of religious diversity by developing a pluralistic paradigm with striking affinities to Vedanta.

Finally, with regard to the feminist critique of patriarchal rationality, the view of experience held by both Vedanta and process thought, already mentioned, is sufficiently expansive to incorporate such traditionally “feminine” modes of knowledge as feeling and intuition.  Indeed, this more holistic, feminist understanding of experience is central to Vedanta as a spiritual path.  If our knowledge is limited to what the senses reveal and reason can determine on their basis, then sadhana becomes incomprehensible, and one ends up in the very impasse that seems to characterize the Western philosophy of religion during every phase of its history: blind faith and blind reason at loggerheads with one another as irreconcilable alternatives.


When one “brings home” the philosophy of religion, so to speak, to its Indic origins, the outline of a holistic system begins to emerge that can address many of the issues with which Western philosophers have long struggled.  This is not to say that Western thought does not also have valuable lessons for practitioners of Vedanta as well.  In the course of its long pilgrimage from India to the West and back again it has examined questions and issues in ways that are sometimes similar to and sometimes strikingly different from the ways these same questions and issues have been raised in Indic thought.  If, as I have suggested, the answers to many issues facing contemporary philosophers of religion may be found by adopting a process or Vedantic approach, it is equally true that raising these issues may draw the attention of Indian thinkers to resources in their own traditions that were heretofore dormant.  Both parties to the conversation can then find their positions enriched by the encounter with the other.

In the global era in which we now live, in which the distinctions between East and West are increasingly breaking down, and both Indians and Westerners are increasingly influenced by one another’s traditions of thought, the ideal might be, as Sri Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda have both suggested, an integration of both traditions, so they may render the greatest benefit to all: not an Eastern or a Western, but a human tradition.

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Philosophy of Religion: From East to West and Back Again