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Philosophy and Religion in Western Thought


Before Socrates, speculative thinkers addressed in several ways what would be identified as religious matters in the twenty-first century. Some of them criticized what they deemed to be implausible features of conventional religion: thus Xenophanes of Colophon (c. 560c. 478 b.c.e.) attacked both the immorality and the anthropomorphism of the poets' depiction of the gods, while Democritus of Abdera (fifth century b.c.e.) provided explanations of the causes of events that were opposed to ideas of divine intention or arguments from design. Several early philosophers further advanced an understanding of the concept of divinity in terms that were opposed to ordinary religious experience. Their efforts were often caricatured by the public imagination as instances of impiety. It is revealing that Aristophanes (c. 450c. 388 b.c.e.) in his play The Clouds depicted philosophers as promoters of irreligion, and Socrates (c. 470399 b.c.e.) at his trial was accused of being "completely godless" (to parapan atheos ).

With the work of Plato (c. 428348 or 347 b.c.e.) and Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.), these strategies for addressing the claims of religion were consolidated in ways that did much to determine future discussion. Plato's Socrates defends traditional mythology and participates in civic rituals. He recounts to Phaedrus the myth about Boreas and Orithyia and admonishes those who seek to explain its point naturalistically, and his famous last words to Crito request that a ritual sacrifice be made on his behalf. More formally, however, Plato's dialogues repeatedly turn on a rejection of doubts about the divine (see Laws, book 10), and he provides several arguments against those who deny the existence, nature, or providence of the gods. His most enduring representation of divine action is the account in the Timaeus of the Demiurge who creates the universe out of a benevolent motive.

In the works of Aristotle, criticisms of popular misconceptions of divinity and genuine moments of piety are combined. More important for later thinking about theology, however, are Aristotle's arguments for the existence of a divine prime mover of the universe and his account of that entity. At the end of Physics (book 8) and in Metaphysics (book 12), he argues that the impossibility of an infinite regress in motion requires that there be a fully actualized entity who causes all other motions by being the universal object of desire. In the Metaphysics, Aristotle describes the life of this being as one of "thinking of thinking" (noesis noeseos ). Beyond this highly suggestive passage and a few allusions elsewhere, the Aristotelian corpus affords researchers no explicit description of a divine agent.

After the deaths of Plato and Aristotle, their followers widely disseminated their theologies throughout the ancient world and engaged in dialogue with some of the teachings of Stoicism. The Stoic analysis of pain and misadventure was facilitated by a doctrine of divine providence. The Stoics were also very capable natural scientists, and this led to their promulgation of many theories about the origin of the universe. Such physical processes, however, were held to be orchestrated by a divine mind, a mind that could find expression in the civic gods of traditional religion. These three schoolsthe Platonic, the Aristotelian, and the Stoicall disputed at great length with the Epicureans, for whom the gods' interventions in human affairs were nothing but a series of malicious fictions. What "gods" the Epicureans did permit were always characterized in terms that made them fully physical and natural, subject to the same laws of generation and corruption, pleasure and tranquility, that conditioned human life. An illustration of the dialectic between these competing views, as well as a resistance to Epicurean doctrines, can be found in Cicero's (10643 b.c.e.) On the Nature of the Gods (book 1).

The Early Christian and Medieval Periods

The course of ancient speculation about divine matters was dramatically altered as early as the first century of the common era by the pagan world's contact with Judaism and subsequently Christianity. The intellectual directions of these faiths were also shaped as a result of coming into contact with ancient philosophy. In pagan thought, the contact produced a renewed interest in the representation of the divine nature. In Judaism and Christianity, it produced an energetic effort to present the claims of revelation in philosophically coherent ways. The renewed interest among the pagans is most evident in Neoplatonism, a school that included Plotinus (205270), Porphyry (c. 234c. 305), Iamblichus (c. 250c. 330), and Proclus (410?485). The new effort of speculation about divine matters can be seen, albeit in a different guise, in Jewish thinkers such as Philo Judaeus of Alexandria (first century c.e.) and among Christian thinkers such as Clement of Alexandria (150between 211 and 215) and Origen (185?254?). It led not only to philosophical explorations of Scripture but also to the development of a view within Christian circles that the "best" philosophy was to be found in Scripture.

After 400, philosophy became fully subsumed within the three monotheistic religionsJudaism, Christianity, and then Islam. Throughout the thousand years from the fifth to the fifteenth century, the largest part of speculative talent in the West was devoted to considering questions about the God of the Scriptures or revelation. Very few philosophers neglected the issues raised by the confrontation of ancient philosophy with the monotheistic religions, as can be observed in the writings of Arab thinkers such as al-Kindi (fl. ninth century), Avicenna (Ibn Sina; 9801037), and Averroës (Ibn Rushd; 11261198).

In many Latin works the conversion or ascent of philosophy to faith is the central theme, as can be witnessed in the Confessions of St. Augustine of Hippo (354430). For other late antique and early medieval thinkers, philosophy served as a prolegomenon to faith grasped and expressed as sacred doctrine (sacra doctrina ). In Boethius's (c. 480524) Consolation of Philosophy, the figure of philosophy reminds Boethius of verities without which his faith cannot be restored. One of the more enduring models of reflection on divine matters was presented by Anselm of Canterbury (1033 or 10341109) in his Proslogion. Building on the intellectual heritage of Augustine, he uses the phrase fides quaerens intellectum faith seeking understanding. This strategy can clearly be seen at work in Anselm's so-called "ontological argument" in the Proslogion 2 and 54. It can be argued that one does much better justice to Anselm's intentions if one views the argument not as a demonstration of the existence of God but as a systematic investigation into God's mode of existence. As a person seeking understanding (fidelis quaerens intellectum), Anselm begins from a faith that provides the conceptual parameters of his philosophical reflection and then attempts to win his way through to a better understanding of the divine nature.

In terms loosely contiguous with Anselm's project, other medieval authors clarified the relation between philosophy and theology by insisting that philosophy must be studied thoroughly before proceeding to theology. Different examples of this tendency can be found in thinkers as diverse as the Christian Bonaventure (c. 12171274), in his Itinerarium, and the Jewish polymath Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides; 11351204). In a similar spirit, the Oxford philosopher and natural scientist Roger Bacon (c. 12201292) argued that nothing could be known about God without a prior study of languages, mathematics, optics, experiential science, and moral philosophy.

When arriving at the zenith of Scholastic speculation on God in the last quarter of the thirteenth and the first half of the fourteenth century, one finds a profound illustration of the range and diversity of the engagement of Christian theologians with the Aristotelian inheritance in the works of Thomas Aquinas (c. 12241274), John Duns Scotus (c. 12661308), and William of Ockham (c. 1285?1349). For Aquinas, theology (theologia ) employs, improves, and then perfects the best of ancient philosophy. He extended great deference to pagan philosophers, especially Aristotle, but whenever he spoke in his own voice he systematically transformed most of the Aristotelian doctrines he discussed, often in directions quite opposed to Aristotle's original intentions. Duns Scotus, on the other hand, began by candidly refusing to accommodate Aristotle, but what is called his "Augustinianism" is nothing but a mélange of the theological legacy from Augustine, the philosophical deposit of Neoplatonism, Scotus's reaction to the work of his contemporaries (in particular Henry of Ghent [c. 12171293]), and a model of Aristotelianism derived from reading Aristotle refracted through the glass of Latin Averroism. William of Ockham saw fit to repudiate some of the central features of the Aristotelianism espoused by his forebears, but he repeatedly sought to use Aristotle's work to support his own philosophical views and aspired to be perceived as a faithful Aristotelian.

The Early Modern Period

The medieval requirement of fides quaerens intellectum carried forward into the early modern period. Yet its legacy was complicated in three distinct ways. First, the Christian reform movements of the Reformation were often sharply critical of the use of philosophy in any discussion of God and his creation. This criticism varied in intensity from one reforming group to another and often coexisted with humanist learning and philosophical erudition. For example, both Martin Luther (14831546) and John Calvin (15091564) frequently mocked Aristotle, and by implication much of the Scholastic tradition of philosophical theology. But more commonly, their criticisms of philosophy arose from claims about the opposition of philosophy to the Gospels, or from a vivid conviction of the impotence of "sinful" human reason, or from a confidence that God would teach what was needed in human affairs by "inspiration" and would do so not only for the prince, philosopher, and prelate but also for the common ploughboy. That said, it is telling that in the years immediately after the schism with Rome, the speculative theology of Lutheran and Reformed traditions is characterized by a return to the resources of the Aristotelian metaphysics and Scholastic argument in order to make sense of their distinctive theological claims. This can be observed in the writings of Philipp Melanchthon (14971560) and Théodore de Bèze (15191605).

The second complication in the relations of philosophy to theological issues arose from fierce disputes over the conclusions of the nova scientia, or "new science." The condemnation of Galileo Galilei (15641642) is one well-known example. Opposition to the metaphysical implications of the new science in certain religious quarters made many philosophers cautious in expressing their views. It thus becomes tricky to construe the exact nature of their theological allegiances. On the surface, the work of René Descartes (15961650), for example, appears to display a scrupulous Catholic orthodoxy accompanied by frequent protestations of obedience to the magisterium (or "teaching authority") of the Roman Church. But Descartes was also extremely reticent and somewhat guarded about many of his cosmological views, and he continually did his very best to ensure that his publications would not provoke theological controversy. Likewise, Baruch Spinoza (16321677) littered his Tractatus theologico-politicus (anonymously published in 1670) with misdirections in order to increase the likelihood that the reader would miss his heterodox interpretation of Scripture.

The final complication arose from a more pronounced ambivalence concerning the status or even utility of advancing rational arguments for the existence of God. Thinkers such as Blaise Pascal (16231662) argued that the universe is characterized by a fundamental ambiguity and that arguments for the existence of God were inconclusive. On this basis, he argued that individuals ought instead to ground their religious practices in a volitional choice by which they would make themselves firmly assent to the teaching and doctrines of the church. Without such a decision, he argued, one's faith would be without foundation. This tendency, however, was opposed by a strong support for a posteriori arguments in support of "natural religion," the claim being that it is only by means of impartial human reason that the truths of revelation can be authenticated and defended. The consequence of this move was to usher in the view that religious belief was irrational unless buttressed by a prior philosophical justification. Of course, this left open the distinct possibility that reason might in the end disprove belief in God.

By themselves, these complications could not undo the ancient engagement of philosophy with speculation about divine matters, nor could they sever the ancient dependence of religious thought upon established modes of philosophical discourse. The overwhelming majority of early modern philosophers affirmed the existence and activity of a God, and most aligned themselves with one Christian denomination or another. John Locke (16321704) and George Berkeley (16851753) were both Anglicans. Nicolas Malebranche (16381715), Antoine Arnauld (16121694), and Pascal all published works that reflected their own distinctive brands of Roman Catholicism. Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (16461716), while a Lutheran, distinguished himself in a period woefully characterized by religious conflict by advancing for ecumenicalism. Jonathan Edwards (17031758) forcefully expounded the Puritan notion of the utter dependence of all things on God. Of all the philosophers of the period, only Thomas Hobbes (15881679) appears a heterodox theist.

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

If many of the central figures of the European Enlightenment were trenchant critics of established religion, they often enough professed views about a divine origin or general governance of the created order. This is true of Denis Diderot (17131784), Voltaire (16941778), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778). The most important works of this time regarding religion are David Hume's (17111776) Natural History of Religion (1757) and Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1779, but first written in the 1750s). The former deals with the causes of religion, as it originates in human nature and society, while the latter examines the reasons or putative grounds for believing in a God or gods. The force of Hume's work resided in his claim that the culminative arguments of natural religion do not establish the existence of any deity that could be the proper object of religious belief. If revelation cannot be authenticated by reason, it might seem that the only answer that can be given to the question "Why does anyone believe in God or gods?" is that such practices have a natural origin. An investigation of these causes is the subject of the Natural History of Religion. Central to Hume's argument there is the provocative contention that the source of a belief in deities is to be found in numerous human pathologies that derive from a fear of the unknown.

It was not only Hume who fired a successful broadside at the theistic tradition of Western philosophy. Immanuel Kant (17241804) sought to refute the questionable metaphysical assumptions he believed inherent in the traditional "speculative proofs" for the existence of God, by demonstrating the incoherence of the ontological argument, the cosmological proof, and the argument from design. The effect of Kant's onslaught was to undermine not only the substance of these arguments but also trust in their philosophical efficacy. After him, philosophers such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831) chose to construct a metaphysico-religious view of "Absolute Spirit," a highly suggestive concept that draws on pantheistic ideas of the identity of the universe and God, together with theistic ideas concerning the necessary "self-consciousness" of God. The peculiarity of Hegel's view lies in his notion that the mind of God becomes actual only via the minds of his creatures.

While Kant and Hegel by no means excluded religious topics or even religious sentiments from their work, many of their subsequent readers appropriated only the negative conclusion that could be distilled from their critique of traditional theism. Thus it is unsurprising that they were followed either by fideistic thinkers such as Søren Kierkegaard (18131855) or else resolutely antitheistic thinkers, of whom Ludwig Feuerbach (18041872), Arthur Schopenhauer (17881860), Karl Marx (18181883), Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900), and Sigmund Freud (18561939) were the most influential. This atheistic legacy was prosecuted still further in the twentieth century by luminaries of the Continental tradition such as Martin Heidegger (18891976) and Jean-Paul Sartre (19051980), whose philosophical systems leave no room for God.

The Twentieth Century

Only in the twentieth century did it become commonplace for philosophers in the West to engage with the central concerns of their subject without so much as raising questions about God. A collective penchant for empiricism in both Britain and America prompted Rudolph Carnap (18911970) and A. J. Ayer (19101989) to argue that all religious claims are meaningless. Other influential philosophers such as Willard Van Orman Quine (19082000) essayed a metaphysics and epistemology that disqualified many of the assumptions on which a theistic philosophy could be based. It was only with the move away from strict verificationism and the development of a greater pluralism in so-called "analytic philosophy" that religious topics reappeared in philosophical thought. The work of Ludwig Wittgenstein (18891951), while by no means concordant with earlier traditions of metaphysics, was believed by many of his followers to have a broadly theological outlook whereby religious practices and belief could be shown to have dignity and purpose, as well as a discursive integrity that insulated them from the critiques of Hume and Kant.

In the final decades of the twentieth century, philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga in the United States and Richard Swinburne in Great Britain set about the task of applying the rigorous standards of analytic philosophy to the discussion of traditional theological subjects. The effect of their work was to increase the institutional profile of the subject known in the early 2000s as "the philosophy of religion" in professional philosophy. In many senses, this subdiscipline provides the main conceptual forum in which philosophers can debate the claims of the Western theistic tradition.

Notwithstanding the reemergence of the philosophy of religion, it is important to stress that philosophy has become a secular discipline in most Western countries. Yet the fact that it is practiced by philosophers with little or no faith or indeed historical understanding of religion does not negate the fact that throughout the ages philosophy has been closely connected to religion and speculative theology. While the impulse to philosophize and to reflect on ourselves and the world around us may or may not have its origins in a protoreligious sentiment or disposition, the very nature of philosophical reflection will always dispose itself to intrude upon matters connected with religion and concepts of divinity. Even in this godless age, it is to be expected that the uneasy and, at times, vicarious relationship between philosophy and religion will continue.

See also Aristotelianism ; Christianity: Overview ; Deism ; Enlightenment ; Epicureanism ; Monism ; Neoplatonism ; Philosophy, History of ; Philosophy: Relations to Other Intellectual Realms ; Religion and Science ; Scholasticism ; Skepticism ; Stoicism .


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M. W. F. Stone

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