All ToC and No Action: Feminism in Philosophy of Religion Textbooks

Feminist theory is all but absent from contemporary research in philosophy of religion. Open a textbook from the field and peruse the table of contents (ToC), and you might see “feminism” listed as a chapter or sub-heading. The contents of that chapter will very likely include references to works published squarely within the 1990s by self-identified “feminist philosophers of religion.” * After reading that section of the textbook, readers will ask: “If even one feminist critique is even partly correct, then why does the book read as though the field’s fundamental problems haven’t changed since the 1960s?” The answer may be that current textbook publications in the field are all ToC and no action.

Where are the feminist philosophers of religion?

“There are no historical antecedents.” Such a reply requires a selective canon of Western thought that side-steps the history of feminism in that geo-cultural location. Feminist critiques may be included among list of “less-commonly taught philosophies” related to the NYT op-ed written by Brian Van Norden and Jay Garfield about the general lack of diversity among philosophers. There was a surge of feminist texts written in the 1990s. The journal Hypatia dedicated a special issue to the topic in 1994. Sarah Coakley notes that the result of that scholarship, “has generally gone no further than a belated concession to the use of gender-inclusive language” (Coakley 2007, 494). That result may indicate there is some kind of mainstream resistance to feminism or soft parochialism within the field. Pamela Sue Anderson notes that to do more than rewrite arguments with inclusive language, “it is necessary to see behind or beyond the empiricism of Anglo-American philosophers of religion” (Anderson 2001, 196). What’s going on?

Anyone familiar with the field might look behind the scenes to identify a general resistance to “theory” as a plausible reasons for such token considerations of feminist criticism. For example, the conceptualization of “religion” in the field is rarely theoretically complex. Religions are regularly assumed to be systems that are clearly separate from cultures. Both religion and culture are often conceived as self-contained, organic wholes. The majority of Anglo-American philosophical texts presume that worlds, too, are singular, and self-contained (see Dotson 2012, 11-13). In no other subject area of the humanities is there such a lack of theoretical complexity in the past 30 years. Perhaps there’s much more than just feminist theory missing from the toolkit used to do scholarship in the philosophy of religion?

One source for what Morny Joy calls “soft-parochialism” (See Joy’s introduction to After Appropriation, 2011) may be that many philosophers of religion do their work from an unexamined subject-position that operates with consumptive privilege (Alcoff 1998, 20). That is, there’s a casually naïve attitude towards creating arguments with plausibly objectionable anecdotes, examples and illustrations. Arguments about the evidential problem of evil may be exemplary in this regard. Another source may be the Christian orientation of existing discourses. As Merold Westphal stated in his address to the Society of Christian Philosophers, “I think no careful observer would deny that we live in a renaissance of unabashed Christian philosophizing” (Westphal 1999, 173). It may be that philosophers of religion have never made it past Mary Daly’s critiques in Beyond God the Father. The text from Westphal thanks feminist critiques as instrumental in the collapse of (Cartesian) foundationalism and the (secular) Enlightenment project, but then notes the “implacable difference” between (Christian) philosophy and feminism (175). Thus, while a feminist outcome does make its way post-foundationalist scholarship, there’s no acknowledgement in their ToC.

A third reason for resistance and parochialism is described in Nancy Frankenberry’s introduction to the 1994 Hypatia special issue. Frankenberry proposes that the adoption of feminism by philosophers of religion will require the following: “elaborate new models of interpretation, a broader theory of evidence, a cross-cultural conception of human rationality, and a more complex appraisal of the norms applicable to cases of divergent, rival religious claims” (Frankenberry 1994, 13). For some philosophers of religion, that is likely a difficult call to action.

So what would it look like if the adoption of feminism in the philosophy of religion were not only ToC, but action?

Pamela Sue Anderson (2001, 191) suggests that it would involve the greater perspicuity called for by Frankenberry. Theoretical attention to the operations of social power would be necessary. That is one upshot of the introduction to Beyond Man by An Yountae and Eleanor Craig (2021). “What does it mean to do philosophy and philosophy of religion when, as Wynter and Dussel demonstrate, the act of thinking about the cogito and the world is already conditioned by such power relations?” (Yountae and Craig 2021, 5) The field would need to ask an entirely different set of questions from those that have been repeated since at least 1956 (see Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre’s edited volume).

What would the scholarship do? Perhaps there would be a form of scholarship with a revised understanding of reasoning (see Kristi Dotson’s essay “How is this Paper Philosophy?” Reasoning would be seen as:

  • as a practice
  • of problem discovery
  • amid lived concerns, that
  • determines possible solutions
  • with consideration of action
  • in a specific location.

The result would be multiple canons, methods, and modes of validation. The justification is that this approach to reasoning requires attention to relations of social power.

What sorts of questions would be asked by this kind of scholarship? Ann Garry offers some excellent suggestions in her work, “A Minimally Decent Philosophical Method? Analytic Philosophy and Feminism.” (1995), that might be adapted with reference to Dotson:

How does the formulation of any given argument about a problem discussed by a philosopher of religion lend itself to social change? What are the relations of arguments about that problem to social change?

From what point of view does the philosopher of religion formulate arguments about the problem?

  • How does the argument include a variety of points of view?
  • How are intersubjective grounds for agreement established?
  • How is social power conceptualized by the argument?
    • Who are recognized as authorities by the argument? By what procedures or events are those authorities recognized?
    • Are central concepts or assumptions related to the argument identified as gender-biased? How? What is done with these findings?
    • How are persons and groups marginalized from society/academia recognized by the argument? By what procedures or events?

These kinds of actions would have more chances of success at achieving the outcomes described by Frankenberry than leaving the current state of the field to its own devices. In time, were these actions taken, students would read introductions to the field whose ToCs and talk would include a novel series of problems with cross-cultural relevance to the 21st-century world. I will admit, that is my research interest.

* Many thanks to those feminist philosophers of religion who have taken action to address the field. Their names include Grace Jantzen, Morny Joy, Pamela Sue Anderson, and Sarah Coakley.