Philosophy of religion

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Philosophy of religion according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is, "the philosophical examination of the central themes and concepts involved in religious traditions."[1] It is an ancient discipline, being found in the earliest known manuscripts concerning philosophy, and relates to many other branches of philosophy and general thought, including metaphysics, logic, and history.[2]

The philosophy of religion differs from religious philosophy in that it seeks to discuss questions regarding the nature of religion as a whole, rather than examining the problems brought forth by a particular belief system. It is designed such that it can be carried out dispassionately by those who identify as believers or non-believers.[3]

As a part of metaphysics

File:Aristotle.jpg Philosophy of religion has classically been regarded as a part of metaphysics. In Aristotle's Metaphysics, the necessarily prior cause of eternal motion was an unmoved mover, who, like the object of desire, or of thought, inspires motion without itself being moved.[4] This, according to Aristotle, is God, the subject of study in theology. Today, however, philosophers have adopted the term "philosophy of religion" for the subject, and typically it is regarded as a separate field of specialization, although it is also still treated by some, particularly Catholic philosophers, as a part of metaphysics.


Although the term did not come into general use until the nineteenth century,[5] perhaps the earliest strictly philosophical writings about religion can be found in the Hindu Upanishads. Around the same time, the works of Daoism and Confucianism also dealt, in part, with reasoning about religious concepts. The Buddhist writing in the Pali canon "contains acute philosophical thinking", and "we have in Buddhism a very shrewd grasp of the nature of religion as philosophy illuminates it."[6]

Field of study


Philosophy of religion covers alternative beliefs about God, the varieties of religious experience, the interplay between science and religion, the nature and scope of good and evil, and religious treatments of birth, history, and death.[7] The field also includes the ethical implications of religious commitments, the relation between faith, reason, experience and tradition, concepts of the miraculous, the sacred revelation, mysticism, power, and salvation.[8]

The philosophy of religion has been distinguished from theology by pointing out that, for theology, "its critical reflections are based on religious convictions".[9] Also, "theology is responsible to an authority that initiates its thinking, speaking, and witnessing ... [while] philosophy bases its arguments on the ground of timeless evidence."[10]

Basic themes and problems

Three considerations that are basic to the philosophy of religion concerning deities are: the existence of God, the nature of God, and the knowledge of God.[11]

Existence of God

Main article: Existence of God

There are several main positions with regard to the existence of God that one might take:

  1. Theism - the belief in the existence of one or more divinities or deities.
    1. Pantheism - the belief that God exists as all things of the cosmos, that God is one and all is God; God is immanent.
    2. Panentheism - the belief that God encompasses all things of the cosmos but that God is greater than the cosmos; God is both immanent and transcendent.
    3. Deism - the belief that God does exist but does not interfere with human life and the laws of the universe; God is transcendent.
    4. Monotheism - the belief that a single deity exists which rules the universe as a separate and individual entity.
    5. Polytheism - the belief that multiple deities exist which rule the universe as separate and individual entities.
    6. Henotheism - the belief that multiple deities may or may not exist, though there is a single supreme deity.
    7. Henology - believing that multiple avatars of a deity exist, which represent unique aspects of the ultimate deity.
  2. Agnosticism - (literally, not knowing or without knowledge) the belief that the existence or non-existence of deities or God is currently unknown or unknowable and cannot be proven. A weaker form of this might be defined as simply a lack of certainty about gods' existence or nonexistence.[citation needed]
  3. Atheism - the rejection of belief in the existence of deities.[12][13]
    1. Weak atheism is simply the absence of belief that any deities exist.[14][15][16]
    2. Strong atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities.[17][14]
    3. Antitheism is the decided opposition to the concept of deities or even religion as a whole, and regards religion as detrimental to society.[18]
  4. Apatheism - a complete disinterest in, or lack of caring for, whether or not any deity or deities exists.
  5. Possibilianism

These are not mutually exclusive positions. For example, agnostic theists choose to believe God exists while asserting that knowledge of God's existence is inherently unknowable. Similarly, agnostic atheists reject belief in the existence of all deities, while asserting that whether any such entities exist or not is inherently unknowable.

Natural theology

The attempt to provide proofs or arguments for the existence of God is one aspect of what is known as natural theology or the natural theistic project. This strand of natural theology attempts to justify belief in God by independent grounds. There is plenty of philosophical literature on faith (especially fideism) and other subjects generally considered to be outside the realm of natural theology. Perhaps most of philosophy of religion is predicated on natural theology's assumption that the existence of God can be justified or warranted on rational grounds. There has been considerable philosophical and theological debate about the kinds of proofs, justifications and arguments that are appropriate for this discourse.[19]

The philosopher Alvin Plantinga has shifted his focus to justifying belief in God (that is, those who believe in God, for whatever reasons, are rational in doing so) through Reformed epistemology, in the context of a theory of warrant and proper cognitive function.

Other reactions to natural theology are those of Wittgensteinian philosophers of religion, most notably D. Z. Phillips. Phillips rejects "natural theology" and its evidentialist approach as confused, in favor of a grammatical approach which investigates the meaning of belief in God. For Phillips, belief in God is not a proposition with a particular truth value, but a form of life. Consequently, the question of whether God exists confuses the logical categories which govern theistic language with those that govern other forms of discourse (most notably, scientific discourse). According to Phillips, the question of whether or not God exists cannot be "objectively" answered by philosophy because the categories of truth and falsity, which are necessary for asking the question, have no application in the religious contexts wherein religious belief has its sense and meaning. In other words, the question cannot be answered because it cannot be asked without entering into confusion. As Phillips sees things, the job of the philosopher is not to investigate the "rationality" of belief in God but to elucidate its meaning.

Problem of evil

Main articles: Problem of evil and Theodicy

The problem of evil is the question of how to reconcile the existence of evil with that of a deity who is, in either absolute or relative terms, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.[20][21] An argument from evil attempts to show that the co-existence of evil and such a deity is unlikely or impossible if placed in absolute terms. Attempts to show the contrary have traditionally been discussed under the heading of theodicy.

The nature of God

Knowledge of God

Analytic philosophy of religion

In Analytic Philosophy of Religion, James Franklin Harris noted that

analytic philosophy has been a very heterogeneous 'movement'.... some forms of analytic philosophy have proven very sympathetic to the philosophy of religion and have actually provided a philosophical mechanism for responding to other more radical and hostile forms of analytic philosophy.[22]:3

As with the study of ethics, early analytic philosophy tended to avoid the study of philosophy of religion, largely dismissing (as per the logical positivists view) the subject as part of metaphysics and therefore meaningless.[23] The collapse of logical positivism renewed interest in philosophy of religion, prompting philosophers like William Alston, John Mackie, Alvin Plantinga, Robert Merrihew Adams, Richard Swinburne, and Antony Flew not only to introduce new problems, but to re-open classical topics such as the nature of miracles, theistic arguments, the problem of evil, (see existence of God) the rationality of belief in God, concepts of the nature of God, and many more.[24]

Plantinga, Mackie and Flew debated the logical validity of the free will defense as a way to solve the problem of evil.[25] Alston, grappling with the consequences of analytic philosophy of language, worked on the nature of religious language. Adams worked on the relationship of faith and morality.[26] Analytic epistemology and metaphysics has formed the basis for a number of philosophically-sophisticated theistic arguments, like those of the reformed epistemologists like Plantinga.

Analytic philosophy of religion has also been preoccupied with Ludwig Wittgenstein, as well as his interpretation of Søren Kierkegaard's philosophy of religion.[27] Using first-hand remarks (which would later be published in Philosophical Investigations, Culture and Value, and other works), philosophers such as Peter Winch and Norman Malcolm developed what has come to be known as contemplative philosophy, a Wittgensteinian school of thought rooted in the "Swansea tradition" and which includes Wittgensteinians such as Rush Rhees, Peter Winch and D. Z. Phillips, among others. The name "contemplative philosophy" was first coined by D. Z. Phillips in Philosophy's Cool Place, which rests on an interpretation of a passage from Wittgenstein's "Culture and Value."[28] This interpretation was first labeled, "Wittgensteinian Fideism," by Kai Nielsen but those who consider themselves Wittgensteinians in the Swansea tradition have relentlessly and repeatedly rejected this construal as a caricature of Wittgenstein's considered position; this is especially true of D. Z. Phillips.[29] Responding to this interpretation, Kai Nielsen and D.Z. Phillips became two of the most prominent philosophers on Wittgenstein's philosophy of religion.[30]

Major philosophers of religion

See also

Notes and references

  1. Taliaferro, Charles (2014-01-01). Zalta, Edward N., ed. Philosophy of Religion (Winter 2014 ed.). 
  2. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "Philosophy of Religion."
  3. Evans, C. Stephen (1985). Philosophy of Religion: Thinking about Faith. InterVarsity Press. p. 16. ISBN 0-87784-343-0. 
  4. Aristotle, Professor Barry D. Smith, Crandall University
  5. Wainwright, WJ., The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion, Oxford Handbooks Online, 2004, p. 3. "The expression “philosophy of religion” did not come into general use until the nineteenth century, when it was employed to refer to the articulation and criticism of humanity's religious consciousness and its cultural expressions in thought, language, feeling, and practice."
  6. Encyclopedia of Philosophy: History of the philosophy of religion.
  7. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Philosophy of Religion.
  8. Bunnin, N, Tsui-James, The Blackwell Companion to Philosophy, John Wiley & Sons, 2008, p. 453.
  9. Encyclopædia Britannica: Theology.
  10. Encyclopædia Britannica: Theology; Relationship of theology to the history of religions and philosophy; Relationship to philosophy.
  11. Encyclopædia Britannica: Basic themes and problems in the philosophy of religion.
  12. Nielsen, Kai (2010). "Atheism". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2011-04-09. Atheism, in general, the critique and denial of metaphysical beliefs in God or spiritual beings.... Instead of saying that an atheist is someone who believes that it is false or probably false that there is a God, a more adequate characterization of atheism consists in the more complex claim that to be an atheist is to be someone who rejects belief in God for the following reasons (which reason is stressed depends on how God is being conceived)... 
  13. Edwards, Paul (2005) [1967]. "Atheism". In Donald M. Borchert. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Vol. 1 (2nd ed.). MacMillan Reference USA (Gale). p. 359. ISBN 978-0-02-865780-6. On our definition, an 'atheist' is a person who rejects belief in God, regardless of whether or not his reason for the rejection is the claim that 'God exists' expresses a false proposition. People frequently adopt an attitude of rejection toward a position for reasons other than that it is a false proposition. It is common among contemporary philosophers, and indeed it was not uncommon in earlier centuries, to reject positions on the ground that they are meaningless. Sometimes, too, a theory is rejected on such grounds as that it is sterile or redundant or capricious, and there are many other considerations which in certain contexts are generally agreed to constitute good grounds for rejecting an assertion. (page 175 in 1967 edition)
  14. 14.0 14.1 Cline, Austin (2006). "Strong Atheism vs. Weak Atheism: What's the Difference?". Retrieved 2011-04-09. 
  15.'s short article on Definitions of the term "Atheism" suggests that there is no consensus on the definition of the term. Simon Blackburn summarizes the situation in The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy: "Atheism. Either the lack of belief in a god, or the belief that there is none". Most dictionaries (see the OneLook query for "atheism") first list one of the more narrow definitions.
  16. Runes, Dagobert D.(editor) (1942). Dictionary of Philosophy. New Jersey: Littlefield, Adams & Co. Philosophical Library. ISBN 0-06-463461-2. Retrieved 2011-04-09. (a) the belief that there is no God; (b) Some philosophers have been called "atheistic" because they have not held to a belief in a personal God. Atheism in this sense means "not theistic". The former meaning of the term is a literal rendering. The latter meaning is a less rigorous use of the term though widely current in the history of thought  – entry by Vergilius Ferm
  17. Rowe, William L. (1998). "Atheism". In Edward Craig. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-0-415-07310-3. Retrieved 2011-04-09. As commonly understood, atheism is the position that affirms the nonexistence of God. So an atheist is someone who disbelieves in God, whereas a theist is someone who believes in God. Another meaning of "atheism" is simply nonbelief in the existence of God, rather than positive belief in the nonexistence of God. atheist, in the broader sense of the term, is someone who disbelieves in every form of deity, not just the God of traditional Western theology. 
  18. Hitchens, Christopher. "Antitheist". Cristopher Hitchens. Retrieved 5 December 2015. 
  19. see e.g. Antony Flew, John Polkinghorne, Keith Ward and Richard Swinburne
  20. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "The Problem of Evil", Michael Tooley
  21. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "The Evidential Problem of Evil", Nick Trakakis
  22. Harris, James Franklin (2002). Analytic philosophy of religion. Dordrecht: Kluwer. ISBN 140200530X.  (432 pages) (volume 3 of Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy of Religion, ISSN 1568-1556)
  23. (a notable exception is the series of Michael B. Forest's 1934-36 Mind articles involving the Christian doctrine of creation and the rise of modern science).
  24. Peterson, Michael et al. (2003). Reason and Religious Belief
  25. Mackie, John L. (1982). The Miracle of Theism: Arguments For and Against the Existence of God
  26. Adams, Robert M. (1987). The Virtue of Faith And Other Essays in Philosophical Theology
  27. Creegan, Charles. (1989). Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard: Religion, Individuality and Philosophical Method
  28. Phillips, D. Z. (1999). Philosophy's Cool Place. Cornell University Press. The quote is from Wittgenstein's Culture and Value (2e): "My ideal is a certain coolness. A temple providing a setting for the passions without meddling with them.
  29. "Fideism". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 
  30. Nielsen, Kai and D.Z. Phillips. (2005). Wittgensteinian Fideism?

Further reading

  • Al-Nawawi Forty Hadiths and Commentary, by Arabic Virtual Translation Center; (2010) ISBN 978-1-4563-6735-0 (Philosophy of Religion from an Islamic Point of View)
  • The London Philosophy Study Guide offers many suggestions on what to read, depending on the student's familiarity with the subject: Philosophy of Religion
  • William L. Rowe, William J. Wainwright, Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, Third Ed. (Florida: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1998)
  • Religious Studies is an international journal for the philosophy of religion. It is available online and in print and has a fully searchable online archive dating back to Issue 1 in 1965. It currently publishes four issues per year.

External links