Philosophy of religion
is a branch of philosophy
that is concerned with the philosophical study of religion, including arguments over the nature and existence of God, religious language, miracles, prayer, the problem of evil, and the relationship between religion and other value-systems such as science and ethics, amongst others.
It is sometimes distinguished from religious philosophy, the philosophical thinking that is inspired and directed by religion, such as Christian philosophy and Islamic philosophy. Instead, philosophy of religion is the philosophical thinking about religion, which can be carried out dispassionately by a believer and non-believer alike.
Philosophy of religion as a part of metaphysics
of religion has classically been regarded as a part of metaphysics
. In Aristotle
, he described first causes
as one of the subjects of his investigation. For Aristotle, the
first cause was the unmoved mover
, which has been read as God, particularly when Aristotle's work became prevalent again in the Medieval West. This first PO cause argument later came to be called natural theology
philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In Metaphysics
, Aristotle also states that the word that comes closest to describing the meaning of the word God is 'Understanding.' Today, philosophers have adopted the term philosophy of religion
for the subject, and typically it is regarded as a separate field of specialization, though it is also still treated by some, particularly Catholic philosophers
, as a part of metaphysics.
To understand the historical relationship between metaphysics and philosophy of religion, remember that the traditional objects of religious discussion have been very special sorts of entities (such as gods, angels, supernatural forces, and the like) and events, abilities, or processes (the creation of the universe, the ability to do or know anything, interaction between humans and gods, and so forth). Metaphysicians (and ontologists in particular) are characteristically interested in understanding what it is for something to exist--what it is for something to be an entity, event, ability, process, and so forth. Because many members of religious traditions believe in things that exist in profoundly different ways from more everyday things, objects of religious belief both raise special philosophical problems and, as extreme or limiting cases, invite us to clarify central metaphysical concepts.
However, the philosophy of religion has concerned itself with more than just metaphysical questions. In fact the subject has long involved important questions in areas such as epistemology, philosophy of language, philosophical logic, and moral philosophy. See also world view.
Questions asked in philosophy of religion
One way to understand the tasks at hand for philosophers of religion is to contrast them with theologians. Theologians sometimes consider the existence of God as axiomatic, or self-evident. Most theological treatises seek to justify or support religious claims by two primary epistemic means: rationalization or intuitive metaphors. A philosopher of religion examines and critiques the epistemological, logical, aesthetic and ethical foundations inherent in the claims of a religion. Whereas a theologian could elaborate metaphysically on the nature of God either rationally or experientially, a philosopher of religion is more interested in asking what may be knowable and opinable with regards to religions' claims.
A philosopher of religion does not ask "What is God?", for such is a complex question in that it assumes the existence of God and that God has a knowable nature. Instead, a philosopher of religion asks whether there are sound reasons to think that God does or does not exist.
Still, there are other questions studied in the philosophy of religion. For example: What, if anything, would give us good reason to believe that a miracle has occurred? What is the relationship between faith and reason? What is the relationship between morality and religion? What is the status of religious language? Does petitionary prayer (sometimes still called impetratory prayer) make sense? Are (lobotomies performed to keep believer from sinning) moral actions?
What is God?
The question "What is God?" is sometimes also phrased as "What is the meaning of the word God
?" Most philosophers expect some sort of definition as an answer to this question, but they are not content simply to describe the way the word is used: they want to know the essence of what it means to be God
. Western philosophers typically concern themselves with the God of monotheistic religions
(see the nature of God in Western theology
), but discussions also concern themselves with other conceptions of the divine.
Indeed, before attempting a definition of a term it is essential to know what sense of the term is to be defined. In this case, this is particularly important because there are a number of widely different senses of the word 'God.' So before we try to answer the question "What is God?" by giving a definition, first we must get clear on which conception of God we are trying to define. Since this article is on "philosophy of religion" it is important to keep to the canon of this area of philosophy. For whatever reasons, the Western, monotheistic conception of God (discussed below) has been the primary source of investigation in philosophy of religion. (One likely reason as to why the Western conception of God is dominant in the canon of philosophy of religion is that philosophy of religion is primarily an area of analytic philosophy, which is primarily Western.) Among those people who believe in supernatural beings, some believe there is just one God (monotheism; see also monotheistic religion), while others, such as Hindus, believe in many different deities (polytheism; see also polytheistic religion) while maintaining that all are manifestations of one God. Hindus also have a widely followed monistic philosophy that can be said to be neither monotheistic nor polytheistic (see Advaita Vedanta). Since Buddhism tends to deal less with metaphysics and more with ontological (see Ontology) questions, Buddhists generally do not believe in the existence of a creator God similar to that of the Abrahamic religions, but direct attention to a state called Nirvana (See also Mu).
Within these two broad categories (monotheism and polytheism) there is a wide variety of possible beliefs, although there are relatively few popular ways of believing. For example, among the monotheists there have been those who believe that the one God is like a watchmaker who wound up the universe and now does not intervene in the universe at all; this view is deism. By contrast, the view that God continues to be active in the universe is called theism. (Note that 'theism' is here used as a narrow and rather technical term, not as a broader term as it is below. For full discussion of these distinct meanings, refer to the article Theism.)
is the view that only one God exists (as opposed to multiple gods). In Western (Christian
) thought, God is traditionally described as a being that possesses at least three necessary properties: omniscience
(all-powerful), and omnibenevolence
(supremely good). In other words, God knows everything, has the power to do anything, and is perfectly good. Many other properties (e.g., omnipresence) have been alleged to be necessary properties of a god; however, these are the three most uncontroversial and dominant in Christian tradition. By contrast, Monism
is the view that all is of one essential essence
. Monistic theism, a variant of both monism and monotheism, views God as both immanent
. Both are dominant themes in Hinduism
Even once the word "God" is defined in a monotheistic sense, there are still many difficult questions to be asked about what this means. For example, what does it mean for something to be created? How can something be "all-powerful"?
The distinguishing characteristic of polytheism
is its belief in more than one god(dess). There can be as few as two (such as a classical Western understanding of Zoroastrian dualism
) or an innumerably large amount, as in Hinduism
(as the Western world perceives it). There are many varieties of polytheism; they all accept that many gods exist, but differ in their responses to that belief. Henotheists
for example, worship only one of the many gods, either because it is held to be more powerful or worthy of worship than the others (some pseudo-Christian sects take this view of the Trinity
, holding that only God the Father should be worshipped, Jesus and the Holy Spirit being distinct and lesser gods), or because it is associated with their own group, culture, state, etc. (ancient Judaism
is sometimes interpreted in this way). The distinction isn't a clear one, of course, as most people consider their own culture superior to others, and this will also apply to their culture's God. Kathenotheists
have similar beliefs, but worship a different god at different times or places. In Kali Yukam
all gets unified into Ayya Vaikundar
for destroying the Kaliyan
assert that God is itself the natural universe. The most famous Western pantheist is Baruch Spinoza
, though the precise characterization of his particular set of views is complex and is often cited as one of the most internally consistent philosophical systems.
Panentheism holds that the physical universe is part of God, but that God is more than this. While pantheism can be summed up by "God is the world and the world is God", panentheism can be summed up as "The world is in God and God is in the world, but God is more than the world and is not synonymous with the world". However, this might be a result of a misinterpretation of what is meant by world in pantheism, as many pantheists use "universe" rather than "world" and point out the utter vastness of the universe and how much of it (temporal causality, alternate dimensions, superstring theory) remains unknown to humanity. By expressing pantheism in this way and including such elements, rather than limiting it to this particular planet, and specifically limiting it to human experience, the theory is somewhat nearer to the view of panentheists while still maintaining the distinct characteristics of pantheism.
Rationality of belief
The second question, "Do we have any good reason to think that God does (or does not) exist?", is equally important in the philosophy of religion. There are five 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 is both immanent and transcendent; God is one and all is God.
- Deism - the belief that God does exist, but does not interfere with human life and the laws of the universe.
- Agnosticism - the belief that the existence or non-existence of deities is currently unknown or unknowable, or that the existence of a God or of gods cannot be proven.
- Atheism - the rejection of belief, or absence of belief, in deities.
It is important to note that some of these positions are not mutually exclusive. For example, agnostic theists choose to believe God exists while asserting that knowledge of God's existence is inherently unknowable. Similarly, agnostic atheists lack belief in God or choose to believe God does not exist while also asserting that knowledge of God's existence 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. However, throughout much of philosophy of religion is the assumption of natural theology (i.e., that the existence of God can be justified or otherwise proven on rational grounds from observations about the universe). 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 function.
Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have all developed religious world views based on, or incorporating, philosophical investigation. There are separate entries on Hindu philosophy, Jewish philosophy, Christian philosophy, and Islamic philosophy.
Major philosophers of religion
- 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)