According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, philosophy of religion is, "the philosophical examination of the central themes and concepts involved in religious traditions." It is an ancient discipline, being found in the earliest known manuscripts concerning philosophy, and relates to many other branches of philosophy, including metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.
- As a part of metaphysics
- Field of study
- Basic themes and problems
- Existence of God
- Natural theology
- Problem of evil
- The nature of God
- Analytic philosophy of religion
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.
As a part of metaphysics
Some aspects of 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. 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, 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."
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. 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.
The philosophy of religion has been distinguished from theology by pointing out that, for theology, "its critical reflections are based on religious convictions". 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."
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.
Existence of God
There are several main positions with regard to the existence of God that one might take:
- Theism - the belief in the existence of one or more divinities or deities.
- Pantheism - the belief that God exists as all things of the cosmos, that God is one and all is God; God is immanent.
- 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.
- Deism - the belief that God does exist but does not interfere with human life and the laws of the universe; God is transcendent.
- Monotheism - Usually defined as the belief that a single deity exists which is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent created everything.
- Polytheism - the belief that multiple deities exist which rule the universe as separate and individual entities.
- Henotheism - the belief that multiple deities may or may not exist, though there is a single supreme deity.
- Henology - believing that multiple avatars of a deity exist, which represent unique aspects of the ultimate deity.
- 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.
- Atheism - the rejection of belief in the existence of deities.
- Apatheism - a complete disinterest in, or lack of caring for, whether or not any deity or deities exists.
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.
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.
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
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. 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
There exists many understandings of the term "God". It typically differs not only from religion to religion, but also from person to person who share the same religious beliefs. It is therefore hard to define "God" or list a complete array of characteristics (nature) of God that is applicable to all religions.
For the sake of simplicity, the concept of "God" is often described by philosophers of religion to be an " 1. Omniscient, 2. Omnipotent, 3. Omnibenevolent 4. Being". Any "God" that is referred to in most contexts of philosophy of religion must have the above four characteristics, including being a "Being". Note that this list is not exhaustive. There exists other characteristics of certain "God"s that are not included, for example, "omnipresent".
Above all, a simple "if" relationship exists between "God" and those four characteristics. That is to say. if X is a "God", X must possess all four characteristics. Yet, according to the above statement, the existence of those four characteristics together on Y might not be sufficient to lead to the conclusion that Y is a "God". However, the non-existence of one or more of the four characteristics on an object Z is sufficient to lead to the argument that Z is not a "God" that we have defined above.
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.
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. 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.
Plantinga, Mackie and Flew debated the logical validity of the free will defense as a way to solve the problem of evil. 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. 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. 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." 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. Responding to this interpretation, Kai Nielsen and D.Z. Phillips became two of the most prominent philosophers on Wittgenstein's philosophy of religion.