Philosophy of religion is philosophical reflection on religion. It is as old as philosophy itself and has been a standard part of Western philosophy in every period. In the last half of the twentieth century, there has been a great growth of interest in it, and the range of topics philosophers of religion have considered has also expanded considerably.
Philosophy of religion is sometimes divided into philosophy of religion proper and philosophical theology. This distinction reflects the unease of an earlier period in analytic philosophy, during which philosophers felt that reflection on religion was philosophically respectable only if it confined itself to mere theism and abstracted from all particular religions; anything else was taken to be theology, not philosophy. But most philosophers now feel free to examine philosophically any aspect of religion, including doctrines or practices peculiar to individual religions. Not only are these doctrines and practices generally philosophically interesting in their own right, but often they also raise questions that are helpful for issues in other areas of philosophy. Reflection on the Christian notion of sanctification, for example, sheds light on certain contemporary debates over the nature of freedom of the will.
Philosophy and Belief in God
As an examination of mere theism, the core of beliefs common to Western monotheisms, philosophy of religion raises and considers a number of questions. What would anything have to be like to count as God? Is it even possible for human beings to know God’s attributes? And if so, what are they? Traditionally, God has been taken to be a necessary being, who is characterized by omniscience, omnipotence, perfect goodness, immutability and eternity, who has freely created the world, and who is somehow specially related to morality.
This conception of God takes God to be unique, unlike anything else in the world. Consequently, the question arises whether our language is capable of representing God. Some thinkers, such as Moses Maimonides, have argued that it is not and that terms applied to God and creatures are equivocal. Others have argued that our language can be made to apply to God, either because some terms can be used univocally of God and creatures, or because some terms used of creatures can be applied to God in an analogical sense.
Not everyone accepts the traditional characterization of God, of course. Pantheists, for example, reject the distinction between God and creation. Certain philosophers have objected to the traditional conception on the grounds that it leaves certain philosophical problems, such as the problem of evil, insoluble. And many feminists reject it as patriarchal.
Given the traditional conception of God, can we know by reason that such a God exists? There are certain arguments that have been proposed to demonstrate the existence of God so understood. The ontological argument tries to show that a perfect being must exist. The cosmological argument argues that the existence of the world demonstrates the existence of a transcendent cause of the world. And the teleological argument argues from design in nature to the existence of a designer. Some philosophers have maintained that the widespread phenomenon of religious experience also constitutes an argument for the existence of a supernatural object of such experience. Most contemporary philosophers regard these arguments as unsuccessful.
But what exactly is the relation between reason and religious belief? Do we need arguments? Or is faith without argument rational? What is faith? Is it opposed to reason? Some philosophers have argued that any belief not based on evidence is defective or even culpable. This position is not much in favor any more. On the other hand, some contemporary philosophers have suggested that evidence of any sort is unnecessary for religious belief. This position is also controversial.
Some philosophers have supposed that these questions are obviated by the problem of evil, which constitutes an argument against God’s existence. In their view, God and evil cannot coexist, or at any rate the existence of evil in this world is evidence which disconfirms the existence of God. In response to this challenge to religious belief, some philosophers have held that religious belief can be defended only by a theodicy, an attempt to give a morally sufficient reason for God’s allowing evil to exist. Others have thought that religious belief can be defended without a theodicy, by showing the weaknesses in the versions of the argument from evil against God’s existence. Finally, some thinkers have argued that only a practical and political approach is the right response to evil in the world.
Those who use the existence of evil to argue against the existence of God assume that God, if he existed, could and should intervene in the natural order of the world. Not everyone accepts this view. But supposing it is right, how should we understand God’s intervention? Does he providentially intervene to guide the world to certain ends? Would an act of divine intervention count as a miracle? What is a miracle, and is it ever rational to believe that a miracle has occurred? Some people have supposed that a belief that miracles occur is incompatible with or undermined by a recognition of the success of science. Many people also think that certain widely accepted scientific views cast doubt on particular religious beliefs.
Philosophy and Religious Doctrines and Practices
In addition to the issues raised by the traditional conception of God, there are others raised by doctrines common to the Western monotheisms. These include the view that the existence of a human being does not end with the death of the body but continues in an afterlife. Although there is wide variation in beliefs about the nature of the afterlife, typically the afterlife is taken to include heaven and hell. For some groups of Christians, it also includes limbo and purgatory. All of these doctrines raise an array of philosophical questions.
There is equally great variation in views on what it takes for a human being to be accepted into heaven. Christians generally suppose that faith is a necessary, if not a sufficient, requirement. But they also suppose that faith is efficacious in this way because of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Christians take sin to be an obstacle to union with God and life in heaven, and they suppose that Christ’s atonement is the solution to this problem. Because of Christ’s atonement, divine forgiveness and mercy are available to human beings who are willing to accept it. Most Christians have supposed that this willingness is itself a gift of God, but some have supposed that human beings unassisted by grace are able to will or even to do what is good. How to interpret these doctrines, or whether they can even be given a consistent interpretation, has been the subject of philosophical discussion.
The religious life is characterized not only by religious belief and experience but by many other things as well. For many believers, ritual and prayer structure religious life. Christians also suppose that sacraments are important, although Protestants and Catholics differ on the nature and number of the sacraments. For Christians, the heart of the religious life, made possible by the atonement and the believer’s acceptance of grace, consists in the theological virtues – faith, hope, and charity.
Many religious believers suppose they know that these and other things are essential to the religious life because God has revealed them. This revelation includes or is incorporated in a book, the Qur’an for Muslims, the Hebrew Bible for Jews, and the Old and New Testaments for Christians. How the texts in this book are to be understood and the way in which religious texts are to be interpreted raise a host of philosophical issues.
Certain thinkers who are not themselves philosophers are none the less important for the philosophy of religion. These include, for example, John Calvin and Martin Luther, whose views on such issues as justification and atonement significantly influenced the understanding of these notions, and Jacques Maritain and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose influence on contemporary philosophical theology has been significant.
- Murray, M. and Stump, E. (eds) (1999) Philosophy of Religion: The Big Questions, Oxford: Blackwell.
- Quinn, P. and Taliaferro, C. (1997) A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, Oxford: Blackwell.