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Philosophy of religion

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The philosophy of religion is the branch of philosophy concerned with religion and religions. It differs from philosophical theology in that the philosophy of religion applies philosophy to religion, while theology applies philosophical methods to questions and problems within a religion. There is considerable overlap, however, between the topics and methods of the two disciplines.

The philosophy of religion typically investigates metaphysical questions such as the nature of religion, the existence and nature of a god or gods, and the possibility of miracles, epistemological questions such as the status and nature of faith and of religious experience, questions of the possibility and nature or religious language, and ethical questions concerning the relationship between morality and a god or gods.

The arguments used in philosophy of religion are also called natural theology, as distinct from revealed theology. Not all theologians accept natural theology - their rejections are concerned with the privileged status given to reason. Many theologians and religious believers have little time for philosophy of religion, as it is often more concerned with the "God of the philosophers" rather than the God that they believe to be revealed in their scriptures and faith traditions.

(In what follows, the term "god" will be used to stand for "a god or gods".)

The nature of religion

For more information, see: Religion.

What exactly is to count as a religion and what not is an extremely difficult question, and no universally accepted answer has been given. Philosophers such as Brian Davies explicitly decline to offer a view on the matter,[1] others merely offer a set of paradigmatic examples,[2] and some try to offer a more conventional definition.[3]

Definitions of religion

This list of quotations gives an indication of the great variety of views in the philosophical and theological literature.[4]

  • "Ethics heightened, enkindled, lit up by feeling." (Matthew Arnold)
  • "Religion is rather the attempt to express the complete reality of goodness through every aspect of our being." (F.H. Bradley)
  • "It is unnecessary to attempt a definition of religion; the content of the term is found in the history of the human race and is incapable of compression into a few words. Religious belief arises from a sense of the inadequacy of reason as a means of relating the individual to his fellow men and to his universe [... I]t may justly be regarded as a response of the individual to an inward mentor, call it conscience or God, that is for many persons at the present time the equivalent of what has always been thought a religious impulse." (Augustus Hand)
  • "The feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine." (William James)
  • "Authentic religion has to do with passion, with having passion." (Søren Kierkegaard)[5]
  • "Religion is the belief in an ever living God, that is, in a Divine Mind and Will ruling the Universe and holding moral relations with mankind." (James Marineau)
  • "A set of beliefs, practices, and institutions which men have evolved in various societies." (Terence Parsons)
  • "A body of scruples which impede the free exercise of our faculties." (Salomon Reinach)
  • "Religion is the recognition that all things are manifestations of a power which transcends our knowledge." (Herbert Spencer)
  • "I propose to understand by a religion a system which offers what I shall term salvation [...] I shall understand that a religion offers it if and only if it offers much of the following: a deep understanding of the nature of the world and man’s place in it; guidance on the most worthwhile way to live, and an opportunity so to live; forgiveness from God and reconciliation to him for having done what we believed morally wrong; and a continuation and deepening of this well-being in a happy afterlife." (Richard Swinburne)
  • "Religion is, in truth, that pure and reverential disposition or frame of mind which we call piety." (C.P. Tiele)

The variety of religions

A useful schema is provided by Joseph Runzo, who distinguishes six approaches to the question of the plurality of religions:[6]

Naturalism All religions are wrong.
Exclusivism Only a particular religion is right.
Inclusivism Only one religion is right, but other religions contain some of the truth.
Relativism The truth of all religions is relative to the world view of their believers (thus at least one, probably more, is right).
Subjectivism All religions are right (or useful) for their believers.
Pluralism All religions are equally right in so far as they are in some sense paths to the same goal (this can come to the same thing as saying that all religions are equally wrong).


The existence of god

Arguments for the existence of god

For a long time, philosophy of religion has been concerned with providing reasons for believing in God.

There are a variety of different arguments that are given for belief in God, although whether they still have a role to play in convincing people to believe in God (as opposed to providing justification or defence from accusations of irrationality for someone who already accepts the premise) is something that philosophers dispute.

The first cause argument and cosmological arguments argue that the Universe had a beginning and therefore need a cause - that cause being God. The Kalam cosmological argument is one that was developed by Islamic scholars that has been revived by the American Christian philosopher William Lane Craig.

Gottfried Leibniz put forward a different type of cosmological argument called the 'dependency' argument, which argues from the existence of change in the universe to the need for a chain of causes, and from this to a First Cause, which can be equated with God.

Another a posteriori approach is the teleological argument which argues from the appearance of design in the world to the need for a designer. The most famous proponent of this argument is William Paley. This argument has been abandoned by many since the discovery of evolution and natural selection by Charles Darwin, as this provides a powerful mechanism for nature to almost design itself. That said, in recent years, there has been something of a resurgence of popularity for this argument in the form of intelligent design.

The ontological argument is an a priori argument, originally given by St Anselm of Canterbury. It starts by defining God as "that which no greater can be conceived", then argues that if one accepts this definition and thinks that God does not exist, then one can conceive of something greater - since existing is better than not existing, God does exist. Other versions have been produced by philosophers since, including René Descartes. Other philosophers have rejected this: David Hume and Immanuel Kant both reject the claim that things can 'necessarily exist' - with Kant arguing "existence is not a predicate". Bertrand Russell claims that the ontological argument had a lasting effect on philosophy, being taken up by Hegel and his followers.

Other approaches to arguing for God's existence include arguments from an absolute moral order, and from miracles, near-death experiences and religious experiences. The argument from an absolute moral order finds it's origin in St Thomas Aquinas' argument from degree - in that human beings vary in goodness, and God provides a measuring point for this variation.

The question of miracles is one that exercised David Hume, who argued that it is extremely difficult to accept the testimony of eyewitnesses to miracles, as one should ask whether or not it is more likely that an eyewitness to a miracle is wrong or deceived or the natural laws of the universe have been suspended. This argument was responded to forcefully by C. S. Lewis, but claims of miracles are still regarded with extreme skepticism by non-believers - often because there have been so many purported miracles which have been explained (the claims of faith healers and miracle workers like Peter Popoff, for instance, have been exposed by skeptics like James Randi).

Different philosophers over the centuries have put their own take on these arguments - look, for instance, at how Gottfried Leibniz took the ontological argument and changed it so it fit with his logical principles (namely the Principle of Sufficient Reason).

Blaise Pascal provided arguments which have come to be known as Pascal's wager which do not argue so much for the existence of God as for belief in God. He argues that if you believe in God and are right, you end up with eternal life after death, while if you are an atheist and are wrong, you end up with eternal torment in hell. A rational actor, then, should attempt to believe in God, since if he is wrong, he is in no worse a situation than the atheist, but if he is right, he is infinitely better off.

The main types of argument for the existence of god are:

Less common arguments include:

Many arguments for the existence of god have been put forward over the centuries. In most cases, the conclusion involves a specific sort of being, or a being with a specific rocirc;le, and this being is identified with the god of a particular religious tradition. Thus, for example, the conclusion of versions of the design argument typically involve the existence of one or more beings responsible either for the complexity and pattern of the world or for the ability of the world to support life such as (especially) human beings.

All but one of the arguments starts from a fact or set of facts about the world – that it is contingent, that it is non-chaotic, that it contains moral values, etc. – and argues that these are either only explicable, or are best explained, in terms of a god. The exception is the ontological argument, which attempts to show that the existence of god follows from its essence.

Arguments against the existence of god

The problem of evil

The main argument raised against the existence of a god takes the form of variations on the problem of evil. This is not strictly speaking an argument against the existence of god, as it merely makes the claim that there is an inconsistency between a set of divine attributes (usually including omnipotence, omniscience, and benevolence) and the presence of imperfections (usually evil) in the world. As the concept of god is usually treated as being essentially complete and unified, hoever, for many believers to deny one of the divine attributes is to deny them all; in denying god's omnipotence, for example, one would be denying the existence of god (for nothing could be god and not omnipotent). In the same way, any argument that involved a challenge to one or more of the divine attributes could be seen as an argument against the existence of god; tradtionally, however, only the problem of evil is commonly treated in this way.

The Stratonician presumption

The "Stratonician presumption" (named by English philosopher Antony Flew after Strato of Lampsacus) is a special application of Ockham's Razor. It is the claim that in one's explanation of the world, one should only invoke entities whose existence is needed for that explanation. Thus, the Stratonician atheist argues that, as the existence of a god is not needed in order to explain the existence and nature of the world, we should not believe in god.

James Rachels, in his paper "God and Human Attitudes" (Religious Studies 7, 1971, pp 325–237), offers a moral disproof of god's existence. He argues that if there were a god it would necessarily – and uniquely – be a being worthy of worship. Nothing, though, could be a being worthy of worship, because worship demands the abandonment of the worshipper's rôle as an autonomous moral agent. Therefore, there cannot be a god.

The ontological argument

In "Can God's Existence Be Disproved?" (Mind April 1948)[7] J.N. Findlay argues that an adequate concept of god would have to involve the necessary existence of such a being (for god could not exist accidentally). Nothing can exist by logical necessity, however, as necessity is a relationship between propositions. God cannot, therefore, exist.

The nature of god

Given the wide variety of concepts of what it is to be a god, the range of qualities attributed to gods is very wide. What follows, therefore, is a brief introduction to the qualities most often attributed by the major religions.

Divine attributes

Another area of study in the philosophy of religion is the compatibility of the various attributes that theists claim of God. This is usually described using the terminology of omnimax: omniscience, omnibenevolence and omnipotence, as well as immutablity, impassability and perfection.

The difficulty of combining these attributes is something which goes back to ancient Greece. David Hume translates Epicurus on the divine attributes:

If God is willing to prevent evil, but is not able to
Then He is not omnipotent.

If He is able, but not willing
Then He is malevolent.

If He is both able and willing
Then whence cometh evil?

If He is neither able nor willing
Then why call Him God?

The three main problems that are suggested regarding the combination of divine attributes are the problem of free will, the problem of evil and the question of whether or not God can do something impossible (if he can't, then surely that means he is not omnipotent). The quotation above demonstrates gives a good summary of the problem of evil. Attempts to respond to the problem of evil are known as theodicies, and there are a variety of different theodicies in use. The free will theodicy originating with St Augustine says that God permits suffering to happen, as it is a way of allowing humans to have free will - preventing suffering would significantly affect the free will of human beings. The soul-making or Irenaean theodicy of John Hick and others says that evil is permitted in the world because it allows people an opportunity to excel themselves in response to it.

The problem of free will is simply this: if God knows absolutely everything that goes on in the Universe, that includes knowledge of things which are going to happen in the future. Does this not interfere with the free will of human beings?

Space and time

The relationship between god and the world

Miracles and prayer


Faith, knowledge, and belief

A central topic in philosophy of religion is the nature of the relationship between faith and reason: what is the extent of the role of reason in a religious framework? [8]

Strong rationalism

Strong rationalists hold that a religious belief-system ought to be provable. [9] The English mathematician William K. Clifford argued that religion ought to be based on good and valid reasons and that it is "wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence"[9]

Critical rationalism

Critical rationalists hold that a religious belief-system, while not provable, ought to be rationally criticised and evaluated.[10]


Fideists argue that religious belief-systems ought not to be subjected to rational evaluation.[11]

Religious experience

Religious knowledge

Morality and religion

The Euthyphro dilemma

Also see Citizendium's article: Euthyphro dilemma

The Euthyphro dilemma is found in Plato's dialogue Euthyphro, in which Socrates asks Euthyphro: "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?"[12] In more standard modern religious terms, this is usually transformed into: "Is what is moral commanded by god (or the gods) because it is moral, or is it moral because it is willed by god (or the gods)?" The dilemma has been discussed in philosophy and theology for about 2,500 years, and continues to be a central issue in discussions of the relationship between religion and morality.

The consistency of religion and morality

Realism and anti-realism

Following Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations and in reaction to the logical positivism of A. J. Ayer and the Vienna Circle, some philosophers and theologians took on board Wittgenstein's new view of language and reinterpreted religious belief as "non-realist" or "anti-realist". That is to say that language about God is not about a metaphysical reality but rather a 'language game' within a specifically religious framework or form of life.

Non-realist approaches to religious belief would interpret a statement like "Jesus died on the cross for our sins" not to mean that a human being called Jesus was crucified, but rather that it has a communal-ethical meaning derived from the practice of the Christian way of life. God becomes a component within this way of life - existing for that community. "Jesus died on the cross for our sins" becomes true for those in the Christian community.

This approach frees the theist from a great number of metaphysical problems. It's open to a number of criticisms though. Most religious people would not see this as being representative of their beliefs - and that simply being in a community of believers using religious language is unsatisfying compared to actually holding the beliefs.

Anti-realist theologians and philosophers include Don Cupitt, Norman Malcolm, D. Z. Phillips and Gareth Moore.

Another approach taken to religious language is that of R. B. Braithwaite and Paul van Buren, who provide a revisionist account of religious language that is on the borderline between realism and anti-realism. Braithwaite wrote an essay entitled "An Empiricist's View of the Nature of Religious Belief", which argued that religious beliefs are not subject to verification in the ordinary sense but can be verified as assertions of morality and value: "the meaning of a religious assertion is given by its use in expressing the asserter's intention to follow a particular policy of behaviour"[13]. Religious stories are then expressions of a deeper moral truth, and as a reminder of those truths.

In recent years, the poststructuralist and deconstructionist approach to language exemplified by Jacques Derrida has also been applied to religious language and belief by writers like Don Cupitt and others.

Feminist philosophy of religion

A number of feminist scholars - Mary Daly, Sharon Welch, Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, Sarah Coakley, Pamela Sue Anderson, Sallie McFague, Jane Caputi and others - have suggested, following Ludwig Feuerbach, that the God of the philosophers is a masculine construction which embodies patriarchal values. Omnipotence and invincibility, they say, are masculine power fantasies, often based on images of the father. Instead, they argue, we need to reconstruct the philosophy of religion around a God of nurturing love.

Some feminist philosophers of religion also suggest that the use of reason in philosophy is similarly masculine and patriarchal. Pamela Sue Anderson writes:

To do philosophy, at least in the west, women had to deny their femaleness in order to achieve recognition as rational subjects[14]

Needless to say, this - and other components of feminist philosophy of religion - has not been an uncontroversial thesis[15].

This aligns with a similar approaches to religion and theology: feminist theology and Goddess theology, and other feminist approaches to philosophy: feminist ethics, feminist epistemology and so on.


  1. Davies [1993], p.ix
  2. "Religions include Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, and those traditions that resemble one or more of them." (italics in original), Taliaferro [1998]. p.21
  3. "religion is constituted by a set of beliefs, actions, and emotions, both personal and corporate, organized around the concept of an Ultimate Reality" (italics in original), Peterson, et al. [1991], p.24
  4. List of quotations adapted from Taliaferro [1998].
  5. Moore [1999], p.335
  6. Runzo [1988].
  7. "Can God's Existence Be Disproved?" J.N. Findlay; on-line text transcribed by Andrew Chrucky
  8. Peterson et al. [2003], pp 39-57
  9. 9.0 9.1 Peterson et al. [2003], p.41
  10. Peterson et al. [2003], p.49
  11. Peterson et al. [2003], p.45
  12. Euthyphro 10 a 2–3 (transl. Tredennick, p.31)
  13. R. B. Braithwaite, "An Empiricist's View of the Nature of Religious Belief", p.80
  14. Pamela Sue Anderson, Feminist Philosophy of Religion: The rationality and myths of religious belief, (1998) Blackwell, p. 8.
  15. Peter Byrne, "Omnipotence, feminism and God" in International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 37: 145-165 (1995)