- Philosophy of Religion in the Classical American Tradition by Caleb Clanton
J. Caleb Clanton’s excellent new book is a must read for scholars studying the “classical” American philosophical tradition and for philosophers of religion more generally. In each of the six main chapters, Clanton reconstructs and assesses an argument in the philosophy of religion made by one (or sometimes two) philosophers that belong to the classic American tradition. Clanton’s approach is analytical and precise but not overly technical. His careful reconstructions of each argument constitute an invaluable scholarly contribution, and his insightful criticisms of each argument warrant the close attention of his philosophical peers. Clearly, Clanton’s book is the fruit of long hours spent “thinking with” the classic American philosophers (2). His book stands as a testament to both the richness of that tradition and the continuing vitality and interest of the questions explored by philosophers of religion.
In what follows, I provide a cursory overview of each chapter’s contents, and then I highlight one theme in Clanton’s book that will be of special interest to AJTP’s readers, namely, Clanton’s criticism of religious naturalism.
Clanton’s introduction previews the book’s contents and provides an interesting discussion of how to identify the “classical” American philosophical tradition amidst the diversity of positions held by the philosophers grouped together under [End Page 84] this label (2–7). Chapter 2 focuses on Peirce’s “Neglected Argument.” Clanton concludes that all three of Peirce’s nested arguments are highly problematic, and that Peirce’s essay supports only the extremely modest conclusion that, “if someone, after musing, is caused to believe that God is real, then that particular person is warranted in believing that God is real” (48). Chapter 3 focuses on William James’s account of the epistemic warrant of mystical experiences. Clanton provides multiple reconstructions of James’s argument, demonstrating that each fails to secure his conclusion. He then suggests that James’s mystical experience argument can be supplemented by his “will to believe” argument, such that “when certain conditions are met, the mystic is [pragmatically] justified in willing herself to believe that her own religious mystical experiences are veridical” (91). Chapter 4 analyzes Josiah Royce’s absolute idealist argument concerning the problem of evil, concluding that Royce’s argument fails because (a) not all goods require vanquishing evil; (b) Royce’s argument undermines morality by making evil a positive good; and (c) God’s suffering cannot be identical with human suffering because we sometimes experience our suffering as unjustified, whereas God understands the reasons that justify suffering and evil. Chapter 5 discusses George Santayana’s naturalistic account of petitionary prayer. Santayana argued that traditional beliefs about petitionary prayer make no sense: a perfectly good God, who knows what is best and who always does what is best, will do what is best regardless of what we request. Clanton argues against this view by suggesting that God may desire several highest goods that cannot be obtained unless God waits to do what is best until people request what is best. These possible highest goods include “God wants genuine friendship with humans” (140) and “God ultimately wants humans to participate voluntarily as citizens in the society of God” (142). Chapter 6, discussed in more detail below, develops the connection between Edward Scribner Ames’s view of God and John Dewey’s defense of religious naturalism, criticizing both. Chapter 7 criticizes Richard Rorty’s and Cornel West’s views on the proper role of religious discourse in democracies. Rorty argued that religious discourse is improper in a democratic society because it is a “conversation-stopper” (181–90). Clanton provides several arguments against this view, including Nicholas Wolterstorff’s observation that “stopped conversation is an all-pervasive feature of political debate in a democracy; and voting is a procedure for arriving at a decision of the body when conversation is stopped” (186). Clanton thinks that West’s attempt to appropriate religious language to politically motivate oppressed communities is problematic because it is a form of...