Philosophy of Religion

views updated May 08 2018


Analytical "philosophy of religion," still in its infancy in the 1960s, has developed markedly since then. Other approaches have certainly continued to play a part in philosophy of religion written in English, even more so in other languages. Process philosophy, for example, inspired by the thought of Alfred North Whitehead and exemplified in the ongoing work of Charles Hartshorne and others, has retained influence in philosophy of religion and in theology, probably more than in other areas of philosophy. Phenomenology, postmodernism, and other approaches characteristic of the European continent inspire important contributions to the subject. Indeed, there is often not a sharp line between different approaches. Continental writers such as Søren Kierkegaard figure extensively in undoubtedly analytical writing about religion, and analytical philosophy of religion makes such extensive use of medieval material as to be more or less continuous with neoscholastic treatments of the subject.

Although there had been a few earlier analytical essays about various religious issues, the main development of analytical philosophy of religion may be said to have begun in the 1950s with discussion of the "logical positivist" challenge to the cognitive significance of religious language. Most analytical philosophers then held, or were strongly tempted to hold, as an empiricist principle, that every (logically contingent) assertion, in order to have any cognitive meaning, must be verifiable or, more broadly, testable, in principle, by experience. It was charged, by Alfred Jules Ayer, Antony Flew, and others, that the affirmations of religious belief typically do not satisfy this criterion of meaning (A. Flew, R. M. Hare, and B. Mitchell in Brody 1974).

How, then, were the apparent truth claims of religions to be understood? Some were prepared, with Ayer, to treat major religious assertions as mere expressions of emotion, without any cognitive significance. Others sought ways of understanding such assertions as empirically verifiable in principle. John Hick (in Brody 1974) argued, for instance, that "eschatological verifiability," in a life after death, provides at least a partial solution to the problem. Still others, while granting that empirical testability is decisive for the meaning of typical factual assertions, sought to establish a different, and not merely emotive, type of meaning that could be ascribed to religious assertions. The most influential attempts of this type were inspired by the later writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein, particularly by his account of "language games" and their relation to forms of life.

The Wittgensteinian approach, as developed, for example, by Norman Malcolm (in Brody 1992) and D. Z. Phillips (1970), has generated very interesting studies of the relation of religious language to religious life. It is widely criticized, by some as giving inadequate weight to the apparent straightforwardly realistic intent of typical religious assertions, and by some as improperly shielding religious claims from rational criticism by relativizing them to religious language games. It remains, nevertheless, an important strand in contemporary discussion. Of all that has been done in analytical philosophy of religion, it is probably the discussion of religious language in general, and Wittgensteinian themes in particular, that have most interested professional theologians, perhaps because these themes have seemed more relevant than more metaphysical discussions to the work of interpretation and reinterpretation of traditions in which theologians are so much engaged.

Within analytical philosophy during the 1950s the verifiability criterion of meaning was already undergoing severe criticism and has since been virtually abandoned in anything like its original form. Many analytical philosophers continue to consider themselves empiricists and seek alternative ways of excluding claims that they regard as objectionably metaphysical. Many others, however, see the permanent contribution of analytical philosophy, not in a form of empiricism, or in any set of doctrines, but in a method, style, or discipline that can be applied to virtually all the historic issues of metaphysics and ethics and can be used in developing and espousing almost any of the classic philosophical doctrines.

The majority of work done in analytical philosophy of religion since the 1960s has been inspired by the later conception of analytical philosophy and has not focused on issues about religious language. It is characterized by metaphysical realism, taking the religious claims under discussion to be straightforwardly true or false. (For defense of this stance, see, e.g., Swinburne 1977, chaps. 26.) Some have suggested calling it philosophical theology rather than philosophy of religion, because the principal subject of most of it is God rather than human religious phenomena, though atheists as well as theists have certainly been important participants in the discussion. On this basis, mainly since 1960, a very substantial body of literature, dealing with most of the traditional issues of philosophical theology and some new ones too, has been created.

Among the traditional topics the attributes of God received rather early analytical attention. (For general treatments see Swinburne 1977, chaps. 715; Kenny 1979; Wierenga 1989.) Analysis of the concept of God was easily seen as an appropriate subject for analytical philosophy, and issues about the attributes had been connected, since the Middle Ages, with problems about predication, an appealing point of entry into philosophical theology for those interested in the philosophy of language. According to some of the most influential medieval theologians, God is so different from creatures that positive attributes of creatures cannot in general be predicated of God univocally, that is, in the same sense in which they are predicated of creatures. How then can we predicate anything of God? Various Scholastic theologians developed various solutions, the best known being the theory of analogical predication of Thomas Aquinas. Analytical philosophers of religion have taken up the problem and some of the medieval views, along with more contemporary concernsfor instance, about the ascription of psychological predicates to a being who is supposed not to have a body. (Cf. Maimonides, Thomas Aquinas, and Alston in Brody 1992).

The two divine attributes that have received the most extensive analytical discussion are omniscience and eternity. The central issue about eternity is whether to understand it (as medieval and early modern theology generally did) as involving existence outside of time or rather as involving existence without beginning or end in time, as many contemporary thinkers have proposed. Critics of divine timelessness, such as Nelson Pike (1970) and Nicholas Wolterstorff (in Brody 1992), have questioned the compatibility of timelessness with God's consciousness or action or interaction with creatures. Eleanor Stump and Norman Kretzmann, however, have presented an influential defense of the traditional timeless conception (in Brody 1992), and the issue remains vigorously debated.

Omniscience and eternity are related topics, for one of the most discussed issues about God's knowledge concerns God's relation to time: Does God have complete knowledge of the future? In particular, does God know, infallibly and in every detail, how free creatures will use their freedom? Traditional theologies generally gave an emphatically affirmative answer to this question; but some modern philosophers and theologians have disagreed, arguing that the doctrine of total, infallible foreknowledge compromises the freedom of the creatures. The extensive analytical literature on this issue (e.g., in Fischer 1989) is continuous with older discussions, and opinion remains divided.

A related old debate, recently revived, concerns what has been called "middle knowledge": Does God know, completely and infallibly, what every actual and even merely possible free creature would freely do (or would have freely done) in every possible situation in which that creature could act freely? In the late sixteenth century, Luis de Molina, a Jesuit, proposed an ingenious theory of divine providence according to which God uses such subjunctive (and largely counterfactual) conditional knowledge to control the course of history without having to interfere metaphysically with the freedom of creatures. This theory of middle knowledge was widely embraced by Jesuits, but opposed by Dominicans, who argued that there cannot be such determinate conditional facts about everything that would be freely done by particular creatures in all possible circumstances. This historic controversy was introduced into current analytical discussion by Anthony Kenny (1979) and Robert Adams (1987), who have both defended the Dominican objection to middle knowledge; but the opposite position has been argued by a vigorous school of contemporary Molinists, including Alvin Plantinga (1974) and Alfred Freddoso (1988).

Regarding the relation of God to ethics, it was almost universally held in the 1960s that fundamental ethical principles must be independent of theology and that an acceptable theological account of the nature of ethical facts is impossible. Since then, however, it has come to be widely held by theists, and granted by many nontheists, that facts about God, if God exists, could play a central role in explaining the nature of ethics and that theistic philosophers should be expected to avail themselves of this possibility. The most discussed type of theological theory in this area is the divine-command theory of the nature of ethical obligation, or of right and wrong (Helm 1981). Several thinkers, such as Philip Quinn (1978), have tried to reformulate and explain the theory in such a way as to defend it against the traditional objections to it. Adams (1987) has proposed a form of the theory that rests on semantical assumptions very similar to those of some of the most influential contemporary exponents of metaethical naturalism but employs different (theistic) metaphysical assumptions.

The grounds proposed for belief or disbelief in the existence of God have naturally claimed at least as much analytical attention as the attributes of God. This is a subject so intensively discussed for centuries that one might have expected little novelty in the treatment of it. But in fact investigations have been rather innovative, and the state of debate has changed significantly since 1960. One striking change is that the traditional arguments for the existence of God, then widely dismissed, even by theologians, as hopelessly discredited, have many defenders at the turn of the twenty-first century.

This is connected with a more general phenomenon, which is that analytical philosophers, especially those inclined to construct and defend constructive metaphysical theories, demand less of arguments than has commonly been demanded in the past. Virtually no one thinks any one "theistic proof" conclusive; but if arguments must be either conclusive or worthless, there would be little useful reasoning about any of the most important philosophical issues. Theistic apologists are accordingly less apt to seek a single "knockdown" proof than to try to show that several traditional (and perhaps also novel) arguments have something of value to contribute to a "cumulative case" for theism, an approach exemplified by Richard Swinburne (1979). Extensive work has been done interpreting, developing, and criticizing all the main types of theistic arguments. Those that have probably received the most attention and development are the "ontological" and the "teleological" (to give them their Kantian names).

The fallaciousness of any ontological argument and the contingency of all real existence had become such commonplaces, especially among empiricists, that it had a certain "shock value" when Norman Malcolm in 1960 published a defense of an ontological argument (reprinted in Brody 1992). Malcolm claimed to find in Anselm's Proslogion, besides the famous argument of its second chapter, a second ontological argument in which it is not existence but necessary existence that figures as a perfection. Malcolm also held that necessary existence cannot be excluded from theology on general philosophical grounds. Whether a statement expresses a necessary truth, he argued, depends on the language game in which it figures; and a religious language game can treat the existence of God as a necessary truth. These two features of Malcolm's article foreshadow the main tendencies in the development of ontological arguments since then: (1) attention to more modal versions of the argument and (2) the attempt to rehabilitate the idea of necessary existence.

Ontological argument studies have been greatly influenced by the dramatic development of modal logic, which was gathering momentum in the 1960s and burst into the center of American philosophical consciousness in the 1970s. In 1962 Hartshorne published a modal proof of the existence of God relying only on the premises that God's existence must be necessary if it is actual and that God's existence is at least possible. Subsequent discussion has established that this proof, and related proofs from slightly slenderer assumptions, are valid in the system of modal logic (S5) most widely thought to be appropriate for the context. David Lewis (in Brody 1974) and Plantinga (1974) have given the argument a form that takes account of developments in modal predicate logic as well as modal propositional logic (or in de re as well as de dicto modality). The argument is still of limited value for proving the existence of God, because those who would otherwise doubt the conclusion are likely to doubt the possibility premise, given the rest of the argument. But the modal development of the argument is helpful in structuring discussion of questions about necessary existence.

In the 1950s it was the opinion of almost all analytical philosophers that the existence of a real being, such as God (as distinct from merely abstract objects, such as numbers), cannot be necessary in the strongest, "logical" sense. This opinion has come to be widely doubted, however, and the traditional view that God should be conceived as an absolutely necessary being has regained a following. (For contrasting views see Adams 1987, chaps. 1314, and Swinburne 1977, chaps. 1314.) Several factors have contributed to this change. The identification of necessity with analyticity, on which the rejection of necessary existence was commonly based, is under attack. W. V. O. Quine's influential doubts about the adequacy of the notion of analyticity led Quine himself to skepticism about necessity. But others, influenced in some cases by an interest in necessity de re, have been inspired to seek a more robustly metaphysical conception of necessity. Since a conception of the latter sort was generally held by the great philosophers of the Middle Ages and the seventeenth century, a growing and more sympathetic understanding of those periods of the history of philosophy has also tended to undermine the most dismissive attitudes toward the idea of necessary existence.

The most popular argument for the existence of God in the eighteenth century was the teleological or design argument, usually in a pre-Darwinian form drawing its evidence largely from biological adaptations. This type of argument was discredited both by the devastating critique it received in David Hume's Dialogues concerning Natural Religion and by the development of an alternative explanation of the biological phenomena in terms of natural selection. A major rehabilitation of the design argument has been undertaken by Swinburne (1979). Instead of the biological evidence, he takes as his principal evidence the most pervasive, highest-level regularities in the universe. Since they constitute the most fundamental laws of nature, to which all scientific explanations appeal, he argues, there cannot be any scientific explanation of them. There may therefore be no viable alternative to a theological explanation for them, if they are to be explained at all. Deploying the apparatus of Bayesian probability theory, and responding to Hume's objections, Swinburne tries to establish that a theological explanation is indeed more plausible than no explanation at all. Swinburne's argument depends at some points on controversial metaphysical theses and has inspired an extended atheistic response by J. L. Mackie (1982); but the teleological argument has at least been shown to have much more philosophical life in it than had been thought.

The leading argument for atheism, aside from the various critiques of theistic arguments, has long been the argument from evil. The evils that occur in the world are incompatible, it is argued, with the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good God. In the earlier years of analytical philosophy of religion this was usually a charge of demonstrable, logical incompatibility; and attempts to provide theists with a "solution" to the "problem of evil" concentrated accordingly on trying to show the possibility of a perfect deity having permitted the evils. Borrowing a Leibnizian idea, for instance, Pike argued that for all we know, this might be the best of all possible worlds (in Adams and Adams 1990). Plantinga (1974) developed a much-discussed version of the traditional "free will defense," arguing that even if there are possible worlds containing less evil, and as much moral good, as the actual world, an omnipotent God may have been unable to create them because it may be that creatures (whether humans or angels) would not have freely done what they would have to do freely in order for one of those worlds to be actual. The adequacy of such theistic responses to the "logical" form of the argument from evil has been keenly debated, but it has probably become the predominant view that the argument does not afford much hope of a tight, demonstrative proof of atheism.

There has therefore been increasing interest in probabilistic arguments from evil, as presented, for example, by William Rowe (in Adams and Adams 1990), whose thesis is that evils show theism to be implausible, or at least constitute evidence against theism, which might contribute to a cumulative case for atheism. Theistic responses to this type of argument must address issues of plausibility and not merely of possibility. Some have been methodological, attempting to show that the relevant probabilities cannot be determined, or that the explanatory structure of the situation keeps the evils from being even relevant evidence (e.g., Stephen Wykstra in Adams and Adams 1990). Others have tried to give plausible accounts of why evils might have been necessary for greater goods. One widely debated hypothesis, developed in different ways by Hick (in Adams and Adams 1990) and Swinburne (1979), for instance, is that evils, and possibilities of evil, play an essential part in making the world a context for the moral and spiritual development of free creatures.

All such explanations of why God would permit great evils have seemed to some morally or religiously objectionable. Among theists who take this view, Marilyn Adams has argued that we should accept that we simply do not know why God has permitted horrendous evils but that within a religion that affirms, as Christianity does, God's love for individuals who suffer them, it is important to have a coherent account of how God may be seen as redeeming them (Adams and Adams 1990). She points to traditional religious ideas of suffering shared with God or with Christ as suggesting how horrendous evils might be "defeated" by forming an organic whole with incommensurably great religious goods.

One of the more dramatic developments of the period under review is the development of a defense of the rationality of theism that professes not to be based on arguments or evidence. Plantinga maintains that belief in the existence of God can be "properly basic," a basic belief being one that is not inferentially based on any other belief (Plantinga and Wolterstorff 1983). It has been held by many that some beliefs (formed, perhaps, in sensation or memory) do not need inferential support from other beliefs for their justification. Plantinga argues that more beliefs than some have supposed are reasonably held without being based on the evidence of other beliefs and that there is no compelling reason to deny that some religious beliefs have this basic status. He suggests that religious beliefs not based on "evidence" constituted by other beliefs may nonetheless be based on other sorts of "grounds," which might be found, for example, in religious experience. Plantinga's view (which he has dubbed "Reformed epistemology") has been keenly debated. One of the most discussed issues is whether it allows an adequate basis for distinguishing between rational and irrational religious beliefs. (For a moderately critical view see R. Audi in Audi and Wainwright 1986).

A related but importantly different view has been developed by William Alston (1991). Religious experience has been a major subject of discussion in philosophy of religion (e.g., W. James, W. T. Stace, and C. B. Martin in Brody 1974; Wainwright, 1981), as it has been in modern theology. Not all of the discussion has been epistemological or focused on the justification of belief. Pike (1992), for instance, has written about the phenomenology of mysticism, arguing, against the older theory of Stace, that there are mystical experiences of theistic as well as nontheistic content. Alston's approach is thoroughly epistemological, however, and he focuses on the experience of more ordinary religious believers rather than of those adepts typically singled out as "mystics."

Relying on carefully discussed analogies with sense perception, Alston argues that in some circumstances experiences as of God addressing, or being present to, a person can reasonably be regarded as perceptions of God. His argument is placed in the context of a "doxastic practice" conception of the justification of beliefs. He argues that we are able to form and justify beliefs only in socially established practices in which we have learned to be responsive to such factors as experiential cues and communal traditions as well as to beliefs that we hold. In Alston's view we have no choice but to rely on socially established doxastic practices, and it is presumptively rational to do so, even though we typically have little or no independent evidence of the reliability of the practice. He argues that this presumption of rationality applies also to religious doxastic practices that are socially established, and in particular to practices in which participants have learned to form beliefs of having perceived God in various ways. Alston offers vigorous rebuttals of several major objections to basing religious beliefs on religious experience. In his opinion the most serious problem for his view, which he treats at some length, is that posed by the existence of diverse religious traditions whose well-established doxastic practices lead them to form apparently conflicting beliefs on the basis of their religious experience.

For philosophy of religion as for contemporary theology, the problem of conflicting truth claims of different religions is, if not a new issue, one that is coming into increasing prominence. Hick (1989) has done much to draw attention to it. He argues that it is not plausible to suppose that one traditional form of religious experience is veridical while others are not, and he tries to articulate a way in which many apparently conflicting forms could all be at bottom veridical, proposing to regard them as apprehending different "phenomenal" manifestations of a single "noumenal" transcendent "reality." Not that Hick thinks all religious beliefs equally acceptable; the main criterion he proposes for the value of religious traditions and belief systems is their fruitfulness in producing morally and spiritually recognizable saints, people notably advanced in a transformation from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness. Among the issues in the vigorous debate about Hick's view are the adequacy of the conceptual apparatus he borrows from Immanuel Kant and whether it is compatible (as he means it to be) with a fundamentally realist and cognitivist conception of religious belief.

See also Atheism; Ayer, Alfred Jules; Bayes, Bayes' Theorem, Bayesian Approach to Philosophy of Science; Empiricism; Epistemology, Religious; Evil, The Problem of; God, Concepts of; Hare, Richard M.; Hume, David; James, William; Kant, Immanuel; Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye; Mackie, John Leslie; Malcolm, Norman; Modal Logic; Mysticism, Nature and Assessment of; Ontological Argument for the Existence of God; Phenomenology; Postmodernism; Quine, Willard Van Orman; Religious Experience; Religious Experience, Argument for the Existence of God; Religious Pluralism; Stace, Walter Terence; Teleological Argument for the Existence of God; Theism, Arguments For and Against; Thomas Aquinas, St.; Whitehead, Alfred North; Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann.


Adams, M. M., and R. M. Adams, eds. The Problem of Evil. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Adams, R. M. The Virtue of Faith and Other Essays in Philosophical Theology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Alston, W. P. Perceiving God. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Audi, R., and W. J. Wainwright, eds. Rationality, Religious Belief, and Moral Commitment: New Essays in the Philosophy of Religion. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986.

Brody, B. A., ed. Readings in the Philosophy of Religion: An Analytic Approach. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1974; 2nd ed., 1992. Somewhat different selections, both comprehensive and both excellent, in the two editions.

Fischer, J. M., ed. God, Foreknowledge, and Freedom. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press 1989.

Hartshorne, C. The Logic of Perfection and Other Essays in Neoclassical Metaphysics. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1962.

Helm, P., ed. Divine Commands and Morality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Hick, J. An Interpretation of Religion. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

Kenny, A. The God of the Philosophers. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979.

Mackie, J. L. The Miracle of Theism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982.

Molina, L. de. On Divine Foreknowledge (Part IV of the Concordia ). Translated and with an introduction by A. J. Freddoso. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Phillips, D. Z. Faith and Philosophical Enquiry. New York: Schocken, 1970.

Pike, N. God and Timelessness. New York: Schocken, 1970.

Pike, N. Mystic Union. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992.

Plantinga, A. The Nature of Necessity. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974.

Plantinga, A., and N. Wolterstorff, eds. Faith and Rationality. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983.

Quinn, P. L. Divine Commands and Moral Requirements. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.

Swinburne, R. The Coherence of Theism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.

Swinburne, R. The Existence of God. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979; 2nd ed., 1991.

Wainwright, W. J. Mysticism. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981.

Wierenga, E. R. The Nature of God. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Robert M. Adams (1996)

Philosophy of Religion

views updated Jun 27 2018


A well-established discipline in early-twenty-first-century Western philosophy, the subject known as "the philosophy of religion" has not always been easily demarcated with respect to its nature and scope. The reason for this is historical. The long engagement of philosophy with the claims of religion has manifested itself from antiquity to the early twenty-first century in a wide variety of intellectual enquiries. Thus, early-twenty-first-century philosophers of religion address topics and analyze arguments that were earlier conceived as belonging to very different areas of philosophical thought. These topics and arguments once fell under the heads of what ancient Greek philosophers simply called philosophy (philosophia ), of what patristic and medieval thinkers referred to as revealed teaching or theology (sacra doctrina and theologia ), and of what philosophers in the modern period characterized as natural theology or "natural religion." Many of the questions of early-twenty-first-century philosophy of religion also fall within the traditional purview of subjects such as metaphysics and ethics. In themselves, these titles indicate very different views about how to address the questions that arise from the engagement of philosophy with religion and theology. For this reason it is difficult to sustain the idea that the "philosophy of religion" has always been a recognizable discipline with an unvarying subject matter that has spanned the course of Western philosophical history.

Changing Conceptions

The actual term "philosophy of religion" is itself a modern addition to the philosophical lexicon, being used sparingly in early modern times. One of the first occurrences in the English language can be found in the work of the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth (16171688), while toward the end of the eighteenth century the term Religionsphilosophie became part of an accepted terminology used by German-speaking philosophers. At this time, many thinkers sought to replace the previous idea of a "natural religion" with a "philosophy of religion," since the latter notion was deemed to bequeath a much more rigorous method of discovering truths about the nature and origin of religion. This conception of the subject received lucid exposition in Immanuel Kant's (17241804) Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793). Building on his earlier demolition of the traditional proofs for the existence of God in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781, revised in 1787), Kant argues in this work that religion is not a matter of theoretical cognition but of moral disposition. Hence religion is to be understood as a moral outlook to observe all duties as divine commands.

By the early decades of the nineteenth century, however, the term had already changed its meaning. In Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's (17701831) famous Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion (18211831) the subject is defined as the study of the manner and ways in which God is represented in religious consciousness. What is interesting about the respective projects of Kant and Hegel is the gulf that separated their respective accounts of philosophical theology from more orthodox religious doctrines. Indeed such was the extent of these differences that, despite their very best intentions, many of their theories eventually lent themselves to forms of antitheistic skepticism. Given this, it is unsurprising that Kant and Hegel are followed by resolutely atheistic thinkers of whom Arthur Schopenhauer (17881860), Ludwig Feuerbach (18041872), Karl Marx (18181883), Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900), and Sigmund Freud (18561939) are the most prominent. Although the general drift toward atheism in Continental thought might be said to have been countered by the writings of thinkers such as Friedrich Schleiermacher (17681834) and Søren Kierkegaard (18131855), the inheritance of nontheistic philosophers who followed in the wake of Kant and Hegel was subsequently refined and extended in the twentieth century by figures such as Jean-Paul Sartre (19051980) and Martin Heidegger (18891976), whose own work yet further entrenched philosophical atheism in many areas of French-and German-speaking thought. In many ways, early-twenty-first-century philosophers of religion who look to these various traditions of so-called Continental philosophy can be said to explore and clarify questions about the nature and meaning of religion that go back to the very different legacies of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Freud.

Early-twenty-first-century English-speaking philosophers of religion, however, be they of theistic, agnostic, or atheistic orientation, can be said to adopt a quite different outlook on their subject. In opposition to Continental thought, they tend to characterize philosophy of religion as the critical analysis of certain concepts and issues deemed central to the study of monotheistic Western religions. An important stimulus to their work can be found in the trenchant critique of religion advanced by David Hume (17111776), specifically in his Natural History of Religion (1757) and Dialogues ConcerningNatural Religion (1779, but first written in the 1750s). For Hume the arguments of what he terms "natural religion" do not establish the existence of any deity that could be the proper object of religious belief. If revelation cannot be authenticated in any way conducive to reason, then religious beliefs can be deemed to have natural causes. Central to Hume's argument in the Natural History of Religion is the contention that the very origin of religious belief is to be found in numerous human pathologies that derive from a fear of the unknown. Hume's views have been typically regarded as providing a dialectical framework for modern English-speaking philosophy of religion. Accordingly, those who adhere to the claims of natural theology and traditional religion are supposed to address his intricate critique of their position, while those enamored of atheism invariably look to Hume's works as providing a paradigm for how to demonstrate that the claims of the theistic tradition are but a set of philosophical fictions.

Modern Conceptions

The modern subject of "philosophy of religion" continues to debate the legacy of Hume's broadside against theology. English-speaking philosophers of different persuasions still address a posteriori proofs for the existence of God such as cosmological arguments and arguments from design, while interest in the ontological argumenta specific object of Kant's wrathshows no signs of fading. For much of the twentieth century many forces conspired to thwart the progress of those enamored of the project of responding to Kant's and Hume's critique. Predominant among these was the influence and legacy of logical positivism in both Great Britain and North America. The strict empiricism that was the hallmark of positivism launched a wide-ranging critique of traditional metaphysics by insisting that the subject matter of philosophy ought to be addressed by scientifically conditioned methods of inquiry. The collective penchant for empiricism in both Britain and America prompted philosophers like Rudolph Carnap (18911970) and Sir Alfred Jules Ayer (19101989) to argue that all religious claims are meaningless. In keeping with these tendencies, many philosophers of religion either sought to apply the methods of logical empiricism to their own discipline with the consequence that the subject became almost solely preoccupied with the topic of meaning in religious language, or else to fight a rearguard action to expose the inadequacies of the positivist position. Both of these strategies met with paltry success, as they failed to bring the philosophy of religion back within the mainstream of English-speaking philosophy.

With the move away from verificationism and the development of a greater pluralism in Anglophone philosophy, however, philosophers like Alvin Plantinga in the United States and Richard Swinburne in 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, particularly when combined with the historical studies of Anthony Kenny and Norman Kretzmann, was to increase the institutional profile of the subject in professional philosophy. However, the tremendous growth of the philosophy of religion in the English-speaking world is a phenomenon of the late twentieth century and is due in part to the establishment of new journals and confessionally minded societies dedicated to the study of the discipline.

Much of the best late-twentieth-and early-twenty-first-century work in philosophy of religion has taken place in the subdivision of the subject then specified as "philosophical theology" and "religious epistemology." The first, which claims a distinguished ancestry in ancient and medieval philosophy, can be said to concern itself with issues focusing on the nature and coherence of our concept of God, and especially the manner in which God's attributes (omnipotence, omniscience, simplicity, eternity, and the like), can be defined so as to escape confusion and paradox. The second is concerned with the nature and justification of religious belief. Topics here have to do with whether or not it is ever reasonable to conclude that religious belief must always be justified by external evidence, or whether it is best to argue that religious belief is sui generis and quite different in form and structure from our more prosaic beliefs about the world. In this sphere many philosophers, following the lead of Plantinga, have argued that religious belief need not be beholden to canons of external evidence and have thereby debunked Hume's putative challenge to any rational justification of theistic belief. The effect of their writings has been to shift the focus of philosophy of religion away from natural theology, such as a strict attention to the a posteriori proofs for the existence of God, to a more general epistemological concern with the justification of religious belief. An important by-product of this change in emphasis has been the rehabilitation of the subject of religious experience as an area of pressing philosophical concern. The American philosopher William Alston, whose own approach to philosophy of religion can be said to steer a middle course between the work of Swinburne and Plantinga, can be credited with bringing this subject to the foreground of recent debate.

Alongside these important developments there has been a growing interest in religious pluralism and a greater philosophical attention to the claims of nonwestern religious traditions. As part of this general revival of the philosophy of religion, a number of philosophers whose main work lies in other areas have been attracted to the discipline. Thus, complex arguments about substance, space and time, free will, and determinism, which might be thought more properly at home in metaphysics, epistemology, philosophical logic, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of science, have all been explored with reference to the idea of God. At the turn of the twenty-first century, there are efforts to explore cross-cultural philosophies of religion, to articulate feminist challenges to traditional religions, and to consider many political, moral, and social problems from the standpoint of a religiously motivated ethics or political theory. Further to this, specific issues that are internal to religious traditions, such as monotheistic faiths like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, are also receiving some coverage with increased philosophical effort being given to speculation on heaven, hell, atonement, the sacraments, and the meaning of prophesy and Scripture.

Philosophy of religion, then, might be said to have its place in English-speaking and Continental philosophy not only in the domain of the history of philosophy but also in areas of genuine and earnest philosophical debate. It is for this reason that the subject presents to the individual already acquainted with the traditional core of Western philosophy, namely logic, metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, an opportunity to apply their philosophical learning to a set of important questions. Since "philosophy of religion," as its history testifies, is nothing more than a rich deposit of questions that have always belonged to the central core of subjects that have characterized the concerns of philosophers from antiquity onward, it could be said that to engage with it is to acquaint oneself with the basic questions of Western philosophy itself. In contrast with its dire fortunes at the outset of the twentieth century, philosophy of religion reveals itself, one hundred years later, to be a confident and sophisticated area of philosophy at ease with itself and its place within the philosophical curriculum.

See also Continental Philosophy ; Epistemology ; Logic ; Metaphysics ; Philosophy and Religion in Western Thought ; Philosophy of Mind ; Religion .


Alston, William P. Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991. Seminal treatment of religious experience by a leading epistemologist.

Kenny, Anthony. The God of the Philosophers. Oxford: Clarendon, 1979. A helpful guide to the medieval origins of many debates in contemporary philosophical theology.

Kretzmann, Norman. The Metaphysics of Theism: Aquinas's Natural Theology in Summa contra gentiles I. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997. An influential statement of the power and force of natural theology based on the work of Thomas Aquinas.

. The Metaphysics of Creation: Aquinas's Natural Theology in Summa contra gentiles II. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. The second installment of a planned trilogy left incomplete at Kretzmann's death.

Plantinga, Alvin. Warranted Christian Belief. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Plantinga's definitive statement of his theory that theistic belief, specifically Christian belief, can enjoy warrant. Plantinga, Alvin, and Nicholas Wolterstorff, eds. Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983. Influential anthology that initiated a move away from natural theology to questions of religious epistemology.

Swinburne, Richard. The Coherence of Theism. Oxford: Clarendon, 1977. The first installment of Swinburne's trilogy, which takes issue with the claim that religious discourse is meaningless.

. The Existence of God. Oxford: Clarendon, 1979. The second volume, which uses the methods of Bayesian probability theory to advance a culminative case argument for the existence of God.

. Faith and Reason. Oxford: Clarendon, 1981. The final volume of the trilogy that seeks to reinvigorate the traditional teaching about the compatibility of faith and reason by means of the arguments of analytic philosophy.

Westphal, Merold. Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith. New York: Fordham University Press, 2001. An accessible guide to recent developments in "continental" philosophy of religion.

Martin Stone

Philosophy of Religion

views updated May 23 2018

Philosophy of Religion

Philosophy of religion can be broadly described as an inquiry into problems involved in religion or originated by religion from a philosophical point of view. Since, however, there are various understandings of religion and of philosophy and of the relation between them the field of philosophy of religion has become vast and varying. As a separate subject it originates from the European enlightenment, but its content can be traced back to the early stages of European philosophy, and there are rich traditions related to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Chinese religions. Islamic philosophers have also played an important role in the development of the subject. The focus of this entry lies on the Western philosophical tradition and its interplay with the Jewish and Christian religions.

The competence of reason. There is a widespread view according to which human reason lacks all ability to form any adequate idea of God. In the twentieth century the incompetence of reason in religious questions was clearly stated by the Swiss Protestant theologian Karl Barth (18861968) and his followers. The existence and actions of God can only be adequately dealt with in answer to the revealed word of God. Accordingly, religion and science belong to quite different sections of human activity, and ordinary philosophy is of minor importance compared to true religion. The bankruptcy of reason can hardly be defended by reasonable arguments, but it has an anchorage in feelings and experiences from various periods of the Christian tradition. The dominant view in Christian and Jewish traditions is that human reason is important for clarification of religious questions and that philosophy of religion provides a meeting ground for religion and science. A string of mysticism, however, often accompanies the religious thinking among those who defend the competence of human reason in the realm of religion.

Analysis of religious language. The use of symbols, metaphors, and analogies in religious language has attracted much philosophical interest, Thomas Aquinas's (c. 12251274) doctrine of analogy being an example. Analysis of language has been a main theme in modern philosophy of religion. Similarities to, and differences from, scientific language have been discussed. An analytic philosopher like Alfred J. Ayer denied the theoretical meaningfulness of religious language, but this was defended by John Hick, for example. A noncognitive view was developed by Richard B. Braithwaite, seeing God-talk as a commitment to an agapeistic form of life. Similar theories, as represented by D. Z. Phillips, have been developed on the basis of Ludwig Wittgenstein's later philosophy.

God in philosophical systems. The idea of God provides a cornerstone in the philosophical construction of the world by Plato and Aristotle. The influence from Plato and Aristotle in Western religious traditions can hardly be underestimated. Aristotle especially has often been a common point of reference both for scientists and theologians. Muslim philosophers, such as Averroës (11261198), brought the Aristotelian heritage to Christian scholasticism. Many arguments frequently used in later philosophy and relevant to the religion-science discussion are presented in the dialogue De Natura Deorum of Cicero (10643 b.c.e.). In the further development of European philosophy, different concepts of God have played a decisive role, and the western philosophical tradition is hardly understandable without noticing the influence of Jewish and Christian theology. To the classical heritage from philosophy of religion belong Aquinas's philosophical arguments for the existence of God, the so-called Five Ways, the most influential being the cosmological and the teleological arguments.

René Descartes (15961650), who had great influence on the rise of modern science, offered many arguments for the existence of God, including the ontological one. An interesting pantheistic concept of God is important in Baruch Spinoza's (16321677) philosophy. He equates God and nature. A philosophical discussion that is especially fruitful for elucidating the relationship between religion and science followed the rise of so-called physico-theology and deism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, its peak being Bishop George Berkeley's Alciphron (1732), Bishop Butler's Analogy (1736), and David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779). An idea of God separated from the theoretical and scientific realm is found in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (17241804). God is a practical postulate, necessary for the development of morals. In twentieth-century philosophy, God as a principle involved in the development of nature can be encountered in Alfred North Whitehead's (18611947) complicated system.

Some modern philosophers of religion, including Frederick Copleston, Bernard Lonergan, and Richard Swinburne, argue that the traditional arguments for the existence of God can give a higher probability to the God hypothesis. Other modern philosophers, following Søren Kierkegaard (18131855), see the parallel between belief in God and a scientific hypothesis as completely misleading. According to Gordon Kaufman, the religious belief in God proceeds from an encounter with the holy, or, as William Alston argues, it can be founded on direct god-experiences. Inspired by the later Wittgenstein many philosophers have argued against all attempts to see doctrines of God as analogous to scientific theories.

Philosophical criticism of religion. The tradition of philosophical criticism of religion is often related to scientific development. It has been argued by Karl Marx (18181883), Sigmund Freud (18561939), and Emile Durkheim (18581917), among others, that the world can be understood without religious suppositions and the existence of religious ideas is explained by scientific arguments that contain no religious suppositions. A considerable part of the critical philosophy of religion, as represented by Hume, Kant, and Bertrand Russell (18721970), consists of criticism of the positive arguments indicated above. There are also classical debates focusing on contradictions in religious systems of doctrines; the best known is the relation between belief in a good God and the apparent evils of the world, as discussed by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (16461716) and Voltaire (16941778). Since the 1970s, the religious consequences of the new evolutionary biology have been seriously debated, with some, like biologist Richard Dawkins, stating their atheistic implications, while others, including theologian Keith Ward, argue their compatibility.

Philosophical tools in religious thinking. The development of religious doctrines from the church fathers and onward is highly dependent on philosophical concepts. The tools from different branches of analytical philosophy have been used by Basil Mitchell and Antony Flew to clarify religious reasoning in the twentieth century. The same holds true for existentialism and other branches of contemporary philosophy, including postmodernism.

Many key questions in debates about the relation between religion and science emerge from the various fields of philosophy of religion presented above. Is it reasonable, for example, to seek a coherent model of the world, or is it impossible to advance further than developing good linguistic tools for different activities in life, such as prayer or physics? Can one base a worldview solely on scientific reasoning, and does it then contain or exclude the idea of a creator? Are there points of access to the real world other than purely empirical observationreligious and moral experiences for example? What happens when coherence is used as a criterion of truth in the totality of scientific, religious, moral, and aesthetic ideas?

See also Aristotle; AverroËs; Cosmological Argument; Descartes, RenÉ; Language; Ontological Argument; Pantheism; Plato; Teleological Argument; Theodicy; Thomas Aquinas


flew, antony, and macintyre, alasdair, eds. new essays in philosophical theology. new york: macmillan, 1955.

hick, john. philosophy of religion. englewood cliffs, n.j.: prentice hall, 1973.

phillips, d. z. faith after foundationalism. new york: routledge, 1988.

smart, ninian. historical selections in the philosophy of religion. new york: harper, 1962.

swinburne, richard. is there a god? london: oxford university press, 1996.

tracy, david. the analogical imagination: christian theology and the culture of pluralism. new york: crossroad, 1981.

anders jeffner

Philosophy of religion

views updated May 23 2018

Philosophy of religion. Philosophical thought about religion. The term was first used in Germany in the late 18th cent., for the philosophical investigation of the origin, essence, and content of religion, and for the critique of its value and truth. Modern philosophy of religion is much concerned with assessing the reasons for religious belief, especially arguments for God's existence (see NATURAL THEOLOGY), investigating the nature of religious language, and considering the philosophical problems raised by religion. These problems include the coherence of the concept of God, the problem of evil, miracles, prayer, immortality, and the nature of religious truth. For philosophy in Islam, see FALSAFA.

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