Philosophy: Philosophy of Religion

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The idea of a philosophy of religion is a recent one, and it assumes a differentiation between philosophy and religion that has emerged chiefly in the modern West. Much that is included under that rubric, however, dates back to ancient philosophical analysis and speculation. Philosophy of religion is the philosophical scrutiny of religion, but the meaning of those terms and the proper method and content of the field are subject to considerable dispute. Current work in the field can be divided into two types: (1) assessment of the rationality of religious beliefs, with attention to their coherence and to the cogency of arguments for their justification; and (2) descriptive analysis and elucidation of religious language, belief, and practice with particular attention to the rules by which they are governed and to their context in the religious life. The boundary between these two types is not always clear, but they can be illumined by considering their origins and some paradigmatic arguments from each.

Justification of Religious Beliefs

The first type of philosophy of religion has been concerned chiefly with theism, but analogues can be found in nontheistic traditions. Rational arguments are proposed and assessed in order to justify or to criticize religious beliefs. Because the philosophy of religion has its provenance in the West, theistic issues have dominated the discussion, but neither type should be restricted to the consideration of theism.

Most of the classical topics in the philosophy of religion are topics in philosophical theism or natural theology. Foremost among these are the existence and nature of God. Analyses of the concept of God, discussion of the divine nature and its attributes, and arguments that purport to demonstrate the existence of God constitute the principal subject matter of philosophical theism. Such attributes as unity, simplicity, omniscience, perfection, eternity, and immutability require analysis in order to clarify their meanings, to assess their compatibility, and to consider the implications of applying them outside of the contexts in which individuals normally ascribe knowledge, power, and goodness to persons. Many of the classical issues and arguments derive from medieval philosophy and theology.

Immanuel Kant (17241804) classified the arguments for the existence of God as the ontological argument, the cosmological argument, and the teleological argument, or argument from design. This classification has become canonical, though not everyone would agree with Kant's claim that these three kinds of argument exhaust the logical possi-bilities.

The original formulation of the ontological argument, and the one that has continued to command the attention of philosophers, was given by Anselm of Canterbury (10331109) in his Proslogion (10771078). Anselm argues that the existence of God can be demonstrated by a proper analysis of the concept of God. He begins by claiming that what is meant by the word God is "something than which nothing greater can be thought." Even one who would doubt or deny the existence of God, says Anselm, understands this concept, and thus something than which nothing greater can be thought exists in his mind. But that than which no greater can be thought cannot exist in the mind alone. Were it to exist only in the mind, it would be possible to think of it as existing outside the mind as well, and that would be even greater. Then that which existed in the mind alone would not be something than which no greater could be thought. Therefore, that than which no greater can be thought must exist both in the mind and in reality.

The monk Gaunilo, a contemporary of Anselm, criticized the argument by claiming that it could be used to demonstrate the existence of a perfect island, or of any other thing in which the requirement of existence was embedded in the idea of perfection or greatness. Anselm replied that the concept of an island is already the concept of something limited, and thus cannot contain unlimited greatness. In what has been viewed as the standard refutation, Kant argued that existence is not a property that can be added or subtracted in order to make comparisons of worth. To say that a table exists is not to add anything to the concept of table, but is to say that the concept is instantiated.

The ontological argument differs from the cosmological and teleological arguments in that it appears to depend entirely on conceptual analysis. But the argument is embedded in a prayer in which Anselm asks God for faith in order that he might understand. This context has prompted some commentators to suggest that Anselm was not offering an argument at all, but was reflecting on a faith that was derived solely from divine revelation. The Proslogion opens, however, with Anselm's expression of joy at having discovered a single argument that would suffice to prove that both God exists and all that is believed about the divine nature. Philosophical treatments often consider the argument in isolation from its religious context and from Anselm's claim that divine omnipotence, mercy, impassibility, simplicity, eternity, and other attributes could be derived from the same concept.

Recently there has been renewed interest in the ontological argument. In an influential article (1960), Norman Malcolm claims that Kant had refuted the argument set forth in the second chapter of the Proslogion, but that the following chapter and the reply to Gaunilo contain another argument that has been overlooked and that is successful. This is an argument not for God's existence but for his necessary existence. Malcolm contends that Anselm has demonstrated that the concept of God is such that God cannot fail to exist. Were he not to exist, or were his existence contingent rather than necessary, he would not satisfy the human concept of God. Malcolm claims that Anselm was engaged in an elucidation of the concept that is implicit in the religious life of those in theistic traditions. He was analyzing the grammar by which that concept is governed. Alvin Plantinga (1974) has employed the very different techniques of modal logic to reformulate Anselm's argument to demonstrate the rationality of belief in the existence of God, though he holds that it cannot justify that belief.

The classical statement of the cosmological argument is found in the Summa theologiae (12681273) of Thomas Aquinas. Thomas offers five proofs of the existence of God, the first three of which are versions of the cosmological argument. Each begins with some characteristic of things in the world (e.g., change, causation, contingency) and argues that a proper explanation of this phenomenon requires that one posit a first cause or something whose existence is not dependent upon anything other than itself. Thomas begins the first way with the observation that some things in the world are changing. He then asserts that anything that is in the process of change is being changed by something else, a controversial premise that he defends and glosses by appeal to conceptions of actuality and potentiality derived from the Aristotelian tradition. But this other thing, he says, if in the process of change, is itself being changed by something else, and so on. Unless this potentially infinite series is halted, there will be no first cause of the change, thus no subsequent cause, and therefore no change. So there must be some first cause of change not itself being changed by anything, and this is what everyone understands by God.

The second of Thomas's ways begins from the relation between cause and effect, and proceeds in a manner parallel to the first. The third way takes its departure from the observation that some things in the world are contingent, and thus might not have existed. Thomas argues that it is impossible for everything to be contingent, because anything that need not be was once nonexistent. If everything were contingent, then there must have been a time at which there was nothing. If that were the case there would be nothing now, for something that does not exist can be brought into being only by something that already exists. But there is something now. So there must be something the existence of which is not contingent but necessary.

Thomas's five ways are fraught with difficulties, most deriving from their dependence upon Aristotelian physics and metaphysics. The observation that some things are changing is not a controversial one unless change is understood in Aristotelian terms. If it is understood in those terms, much metaphysical baggage is packed into what appears to be an ordinary observation, and the rest of the proof turns on unpacking that baggage. If it is not understood in those terms, the argument does not succeed. The same dilemma holds for the observation that some things are contingent. Current theorists are aware, as Thomas was not, of the controversial science and metaphysics that are assumed by the proofs.

The five ways, like Anselm's argument, are embedded in a theological context. Thomas says that Christian theology is a science that takes its principles on faith in God's revelation. Some have argued that he intended only to elucidate a faith based on revelation, but Thomas asserts that some truths about God can be known by natural reasoning and are presupposed by faith. Like Anselm, he continues, after presenting his arguments for the existence of God, to derive the manner of God's existing and certain characteristics of the divine nature.

Versions of the cosmological argument have been offered by Jewish, Christian, and Islamic philosophers, and the belief that the world cannot be accounted for without reference to the existence and activity of God seems to be a part of the religious life of any theist. Doctrines of God as creator and preserver, which are central to each of these traditions, are closely connected with the cosmological argument.

Recently, renewed attention has been given to an eighteenth-century version of the cosmological argument offered by Samuel Clarke (16751729). Clarke argued that Thomas incorrectly assumed that there must be a first cause to account for change, causation, or contingent being. There could be an infinite series of causes. But Clarke held that such a series would still require an explanation. In order to account for the existence of this series rather than another or none at all, one must posit a cause for the series as a whole. Clarke's argument has stimulated interest because it seems to depend neither on Thomas's assumption that there can be no infinite series of causes nor on his employment of Aristotelian science and metaphysics.

The most influential statement of the argument from design comes from a critic rather than a proponent. In Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1779) by David Hume (17111776), the interlocutor Cleanthes sets forth a version of the argument, and much of the work is an analysis of its weaknesses and of the resulting implications for religious belief. Cleanthes argues that the order that is found in the universe, and "the curious adaptation of means to ends," can only be explained by positing some kind of mind that is analogous to human minds. The universe is one great machine. No such intricate pattern and order could be accounted for by chance. A designer must be posited, and some of his attributes can be inferred from the order one observes. Like the cosmological argument, this is a formalization of an aspect of ordinary theistic belief. God is the creator, and the world shows evidence of his handiwork.

Hume raises a number of problems for Cleanthes's argument, chief among them the weakness of the analogy between the order individuals discover in the universe and the order or design in a machine, other explanations that are as or more plausible on the basis of evidence, and the religious inadequacy of the God that Cleanthes's argument permits him to infer. Hume is particularly persuasive in showing that naturalistic hypotheses are as well supported by the evidence as is the theistic hypothesis.

The Dialogues also contain a clear presentation of a classical argument against theistic belief, the argument from evil. Hume offers two forms of this argument, emphasizing logical and empirical problems. The logical form consists in the claim that theists are committed to the inconsistent conjunction of three propositions: (1) God is omnipotent; (2) God is wholly good; and (3) evil exists. As Hume puts it: "Epicurus's old questions are yet unanswered. Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?" The claim is that theism is incoherent. Consistency can be restored by giving up any one of the three beliefs, and examples can be found for each of these alternatives. The traditional solutions, however, have been either to deny that there really is evil when viewed from a proper perspective, or to offer what has become known as the free will defense. The first is a denial of (3) on the grounds that what seems from one's parochial perspective to be evil can be seen from the divine viewpoint as contributing to the greater good. The free will defense is a clarification of the meaning and limits of (1). Free will defenders argue that it was better for God to have created a world in which some creatures have free will than one in which their actions are totally determined, that evil results from human free will, and that if God creates such a world there are certain outcomes that he cannot control, but that this fact does not compromise his omnipotence.

The second form of the argument from evil is not a matter of logical compatibility. Unlike the first form, it arises from the inference articulated in the design argument. Hume says that even though one might be able to demonstrate the consistency of theism, the evil and suffering one finds in the world blocks any inference to an all-powerful and benevolent designer. While the logical form of the problem of evil has dominated the discussion, those whose theism is grounded upon an inference from the world to a benevolent creator must consider how the evil and suffering in the world affects that inference.

Some contributors to this first type of philosophy of religion have employed the techniques of modal logic (Plantinga, 1974) and confirmation theory (Swinburne, 1977, 1979, 1981) to address classical questions of the coherence and rationality of theistic belief and the arguments for and against that belief.

Description and Analysis of Religious Language, Practice, and Belief

Those who constructed arguments for or against the existence of God did not suppose that religious faith is adopted or discarded for these reasons. Anselm wrote of his task as faith seeking understanding. These were attempts to employ reason to understand and to justify or criticize beliefs that had been received from tradition. While work on the coherence of theism and arguments for the existence of God continue, new interpretations of the classical texts have been offered that challenge the assumption that the authors of those texts were seeking to justify religious belief. Malcolm takes Anselm to be elucidating the faith of a believer rather than proposing an argument that is meant to convince the nonbeliever. Victor Preller (1967) and David Burrell (1979) argue that when restored to their theological context the five ways of Thomas Aquinas will be seen as relatively unimportant and as displaying occasions for the application of religious grammar rather than offering proofs for the existence of God. Alvin Plantinga (1974) reconstructs the ontological argument and the free will defense in order to refute challenges by critics who argue that theism is inconsistent or irrational. Despite important differences, in each of these cases the proper task of the philosophy of religion is viewed as the elucidation of religious belief rather than as the justification or refutation of that belief.

The second type of philosophy of religion consists of reflection on the distinctive character of the religious life and the placing of religious practice and belief with respect to other sets of beliefs and practices, especially those of science and of morals. This conception of the task of philosophy of religion stems from the conviction that religious doctrine and beliefs should not be subject to criteria of rationality and justification that derive from such other pursuits as science, metaphysics, or morals. Religious practices and beliefs require no justification from outside the religious life. The task of the philosopher is to understand them rather than to subject them to heteronomous criteria.

Though there are precursors, philosophical reflection on religion began in earnest in the eighteenth century. Hume distinguished two kinds of inquiry about religion, the first concerning its foundation in reason, and the second its origin in human nature. The first of these questions was addressed in the Dialogues, and the second in The Natural History of Religion (1777), in which he sketched a naturalistic account of the origin of religious belief and practice. Speculation about the origin of religion and its relation to other aspects of culture flourished in the eighteenth century.

The agenda for much subsequent philosophy of religion was set by Kant and by responses to his work. Kant held that traditional arguments purporting to demonstrate or to refute the existence of God were flawed. More important, however, he held that such arguments were bound to fail. They were illegitimate extensions beyond experience of categories and forms of judgment that are valid only within the bounds of experience. Philosophical debate about such issues is futile, leads to antinomies, and can never be resolved. The traditional topics of philosophical theism are ill-formed, and any semblance of progress is an illusion.

Kant argued that the task of the philosopher is not to contribute to the substance of science, morals, art, or religion, but to reflect critically on the kinds of judgments that are employed in each of these areas, to map the limits of their proper application, to describe the problems that result from exceeding those limits, and to offer an account of how such judgments are possible. The moral philosopher, for instance, cannot add to or detract from the sense of moral obligation that is accessible to all rational beings, but he can describe that obligation and the structure of moral judgments. The philosopher of religion ought not to argue for or against religious beliefs, but ought to restrict himself to mapping the structure of religious concepts, beliefs, and practices, and to offering an account of their origin in practical reason.

In Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793), Kant situated religious concepts, beliefs, and practices within the moral life. He argued that people schematize or represent in imaginative terms the experience of moral obligation. The obligation to obey the moral law is viewed as if it were a duty imposed by a divine lawgiver. This kind of schematism cannot be avoided, and thus morality leads ineluctably to religion. Religious experience and practice derive from the moral life. Religious doctrines are not to be assessed for their truth or falsity. That would be to misconstrue them. They are expressions of aspects of moral experience. Kant offered an account of the concept of God and of major Christian doctrines as schemata of the moral law and of issues that arise from attempts to act in accord with it. Religious beliefs can never conflict with scientific beliefs because they serve very different functions. Religious beliefs cannot yield knowledge, but they are a necessary outgrowth of the moral life.

Friedrich Schleiermacher (17681834) accepted Kant's critique of metaphysics and of traditional natural theology, and he agreed that religious doctrine ought not to be viewed as making scientific or metaphysical claims, but he rejected the assimilation of religion to morality. He argued that religious doctrine and practice express an autonomous and irreducible moment in human experience that cannot be reduced to belief or action. Piety is neither science nor morals, but an affective moment in experience with its own integrity. Philosophy of religion is reflection on this moment as it is shaped by different traditions and cultures, and as it is expressed in various doctrines and practices. Schleiermacher described the religious moment as a sense of finitude or dependence. While it can be understood only by acquaintance, it is a universal moment in human experience that is accessible to all. Because religious doctrine is not a matter of belief but an expression of this affective moment as it is shaped by particular traditions, religious doctrines can never conflict with the findings of science. Religious beliefs require no justification because they are independently grounded in an autonomous moment of experience.

Following Kant and Schleiermacher, representatives of the second type have embedded the philosophy of religion within a broader philosophy of culture. The focus has shifted from the justification of religious beliefs to the identification of the distinctive character of religious experience, religious language, or religious practice. The task of the philosopher of religion is to describe that experience, language, and practice, to elucidate them, and to place them with respect to other cultural phenomena. G. W. F. Hegel (17701831) showed that religious concepts and beliefs are embedded in particular traditions of thought and practice and can be understood only in the light of those traditions. Søren Kierkegaard (18131855) continued Kant's emphasis on the will as central to the religious life but differentiated that life from a life characterized by aesthetic immediacy and one defined by Kantian morality. He explored the role of religious language both in expressing that life and in providing the occasion for an individual to confront the absolute paradox that he took to be the heart of the Christian gospel. Ludwig Feuerbach (18041872) and Karl Marx (18181883) offered accounts of religious belief and practice as idealized projections of hopes, fears, and desires that originally had more palpable objects in the material and social worlds.

Hume had located his discussion of theism within a sketch of the natural history of religion, and Hegel had traced the development of the religious consciousness through different cultural traditions. By the beginning of the twentieth century, research in the history of religions was sufficiently advanced that many philosophers of religion realized that their descriptions and analyses of religious experience, practice, and belief must, in principle at least, take account of traditions beyond Christianity and even beyond theism. Philosophy of religion could no longer be merely prolegomena to Christian theology. Most contemporary philosophers of religion would agree, but the reorientation of the discipline implied by that recognition has yet to be achieved in practice.

During the nineteenth century, work in the history of religions had been informed by Schleiermacher's claim that religion is an experiential matter that is expressed in doctrines and practices reflecting different cultures, but that is universal at the core. In the early years of the twentieth century, William James (18421910) and Rudolf Otto (18691937) both attempted to describe the distinctive characteristics of religious experience and to examine the implications for religious belief. Both drew on illustrative material from other religious traditions and viewed the object of their inquiry as religious experience considered generally, but both were chiefly influenced by Christianity.

James held that religion is principally a matter of feeling and not of belief, but that there is no distinctively religious affection. Religious fear, love, awe, and joy are ordinary fear, love, awe, and joy associated with religious objects. In The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), James provided both a taxonomy of kinds of religious experience and astute philosophical analysis of such problems for the philosophy of religion as the relation between the scientific study of religion and the assessment of its meaning, significance, or value. He explored the implications of the identification of religion with a feeling or sense, and, especially in his chapter on mysticism, considered the authority of such experiences for the persons who have them and for those who do not. He argued that widespread testimony provides some evidence in support of what he took to be the common element in religious experience, a belief or sense that there is something more beyond this mundane world and that it can have a benevolent effect on the lives of individuals.

In contrast to James, and in explicit indebtedness to Schleiermacher, Otto argued that there is a distinctive moment in religious experience. That moment is not properly characterized as feeling, but it is unmistakably specific and peculiar. Otto described it as the nonrational and ineffable moment in religious experience. He coined a special term, the numinous, to refer to "the holy" minus its moral and rational factors. He claimed that there is a unique numinous category of value and a numinous state of mind that is sui generis and irreducible. The numinous moment in experience cannot be communicated but can only be known by acquaintance. Otto portrays that moment as one of creaturely feeling and a sense of finitude, of awe and fascination in response to something "wholly other." Otto later went on to study non-Western religious traditions, and particularly some strands of the religions of India, but his characterization of the numinous moment in religious experience is clearly derivative from the monotheism of the Hebrew scriptures and of Lutheran Christianity.

Philosophers of religion have drawn on material from the history of religions to investigate what appear to be common beliefs or practices. Mysticism, ritual, sacrifice, prayer, and a sense of the holy or of the sacred have been subjects of such inquiry. James held that religious thoughts and beliefs vary from culture to culture, but that feelings and conduct are invariant. Many have shared this assumption and have looked to the study of mysticism, prayer, or a sense of the sacred as a way to approach the heart of the religious life. It has become clear, however, that one cannot identify an emotion or a practice without reference to the concepts and beliefs that can be ascribed to the person who has that emotion or engages in that practice. Attempts by Schleiermacher, James, and Otto to characterize a core religious experience that is independent of those concepts, beliefs, and practices are bound to fail. James's assumption that beliefs vary while feelings and actions are invariant reflects his inability to appreciate the fact that any emotion or action must be identified under a description, and that that description must be one that can be properly attributed to the subject of the emotion or action.

In Anglo-American philosophy in the mid-twentieth century, the focus shifted from religious experience to religious language. A. J. Ayer (1936), developing his version of logical positivism, contended that religious statements, along with moral statements, were incapable of verification or falsification and therefore were not cognitively meaningful. They were to be understood as expressive utterances without cognitive content. The verifiability criterion of cognitive meaningfulness was soon abandoned because of problems that were independent of its application to religious statements, but the inquiry into the proper status of religious language continued. Some philosophers, drawing on the later philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein (18891951), argued that religious language ought not to be subject to criteria derived from such other forms of discourse as scientific or moral discourse. Rather, the task of the philosopher of religion ought to be to map the peculiar grammar governing religious uses of language. Problems arise, however, when one attempts to discriminate between distinctively religious uses and other uses of particular words and sentences.

Attempts to identify a distinctive grammar of religious language in such a way as to make that language autonomous and independent of other concepts and beliefs resemble Schleiermacher's claim that there is a distinctive and autonomous moment in religious experience. In both forms, the claim is motivated by apologetic considerations as well as by the aim for descriptive adequacy. If Schleiermacher is correct in his portrayal of religious language as expressive of a moment that is independent of concepts and beliefs, then a religious statement can never conflict with a scientific statement or a moral claim. The same words function entirely differently in a religious context from their use in a scientific or metaphysical context. "God created the world" as a doctrinal statement can never conflict with any scientific or metaphysical statement about the origin of the world. The words have different meanings in the different settings. This sharp distinction constitutes a protective strategy that precludes any conflict between religious beliefs and scientific or ordinary beliefs about the world. That strategy is continued by those who claim that religious uses of language are governed by their own peculiar grammar and are not subject to criteria from outside the sphere of religious discourse. Such strategies show that the second type of philosophy of religion, while allegedly concerned with description and elucidation in contrast to justification, may be used for apologetic purposes as well. It may serve to justify religious belief and practice by ascribing to those beliefs and practices a status that precludes any conflict with scientific knowledge or claims in other areas of culture.

Both types of philosophy of religion are represented in the contemporary literature. After a desultory period, there is renewed interest in philosophical theism. Chief among the tasks facing contemporary philosophers of religion is the need for the discipline to be sufficiently comprehensive to be accountable to other religious traditions, but to avoid the distortion that results from wrenching statements and phenomena out of their historical and cultural contexts in order to serve some comparative or apologetic purpose. This task is further complicated by the fact that the concept of religion prevalent in philosophy of religion has its provenance in the modern West. Theistic assumptions are embedded in the criteria by which individuals identify an experience or a phenomenon as religious. These assumptions may be masked by claims that the philosophy of religion ought to concern itself with description and analysis while remaining neutral with respect to the justification of religious beliefs and practices.


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Revised Bibliography

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