Returning to a Traditional Philosophy Approach: A Series with Dr. Ian Church 

Written by Stephanie Gordon

This is part two of the Returning to a Traditional Philosophy Approach Series with Hillsdale’s associate professor of philosophy, Dr. Ian Church.


In part one of this series, we learned that Dr. Ian Church put Hillsdale on the map when it comes to philosophy with a recent $2.5 million research grant funded by the John Templeton Foundation: the “Launching Experimental Philosophy of Religion” project. Dr. Church is the principal investigator on the project, which is due to run through 2024. 

The research grant is funding a total of six sub-grants of up to $250,000 each. The first sub-grant, Oneness: An Experimental Philosophical Approach, is being led by Dr. Helen De Cruz, who holds the Danforth Chair in the Humanities at Saint Louis University in Missouri. She is also the author of several books including Philosophy Illustrated, Religious Disagreement, and A Natural History of Natural Theology: The Cognitive Science of Theology and Philosophy of Religion (with philosopher Dr. Johan De Smedt). 

“Helen is perhaps the leading pioneer in the field of experimental philosophy of religion, so she was the very first person I contacted to see if she was interested in pursuing this project,” Dr. Church said. “She’s carrying on the banner of this project because she’s doing exactly what we’re hoping to do by bringing psychology and philosophy of religion together.”

Dr. De Cruz’s project focuses on the idea of “oneness,” found in many philosophical and theological intellectual traditions. According to the project description, the idea that everything exists is part of some fundamental entity or process that occurs in a wide range of religious, spiritual, and philosophical traditions. The one underlying entity has been called the Dao, Brahman, God, and various other metaphysical principles. In the philosophical and psychological literature, this idea is referred to as “oneness.” 

Dr. Church said this project aims to empirically investigate oneness through the methods of experimental philosophy of religion, while focusing on three questions: What is the origin of oneness beliefs? How does oneness relate to other cognitive measures of how people conceive of the universe and their place within it, notably intuitive teleology? And how do ethical demands flow from the sense of oneness?

“While the idea of oneness might seem initially foreign to many of us—perhaps especially those of us with individualistic Western psychological profiles—I think the idea of oneness can be surprisingly familiar,” said Dr. Church. “It can be a deep sense of shared humanity across common religious, moral, or political divides. It can be a deep sense of humanity across time and history. It can be a deep sense of connection with nature, with the earth (what astronomer Carl Sagan famously called our ‘pale blue dot’), or even with the universe itself.” 

According to the project description, the intended outputs of the “Oneness” project are two empirical papers, a short monograph, and a workshop on the philosophy and psychology of oneness. And, as a part of the “Launching Experimental Philosophy of Religion” initiative, the “Oneness” project will contribute to the “launching” of a new area of scholarly research: experimental philosophy of religion. News and updates regarding the initiative (including news regarding new publications) can be found on the “Launching Experimental Philosophy of Religion” website.

“We have this huge body of literature within philosophy of religion and experiential philosophy, and almost no one is doing both, so Dr. De Cruz is really the one who’s putting these two things together and making some fantastic findings,” Dr. Church concluded. “Dr. De Cruz is one of the leading lights in this area.”

Stephanie Gordon, a lifelong Hillsdale native, is the managing editor of the Student Stories Blog. She is married to chiropractor, Dr. Matt Gordon, and has three children – Eloise, Flora, and Jack. When she has a spare moment, she enjoys paleo baking, floating on Baw Beese Lake, and breaking a sweat at the gym.

Published in March 2023