Philosophy of Religion

Martin Stone. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 4. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.

A well-established discipline in early-twenty-first-century Western philosophy, the subject known as “the philosophy of religion” has not always been easily demarcated with respect to its nature and scope. The reason for this is historical. The long engagement of philosophy with the claims of religion has manifested itself from antiquity to the early twenty-first century in a wide variety of intellectual enquiries. Thus, early-twenty-first-century philosophers of religion address topics and analyze arguments that were earlier conceived as belonging to very different areas of philosophical thought. These topics and arguments once fell under the heads of what ancient Greek philosophers simply called philosophy (philosophia), of what patristic and medieval thinkers referred to as revealed teaching or theology (sacra doctrina andtheologia), and of what philosophers in the modern period characterized as natural theology or “natural religion.” Many of the questions of early-twenty-first-century philosophy of religion also fall within the traditional purview of subjects such as metaphysics and ethics. In themselves, these titles indicate very different views about how to address the questions that arise from the engagement of philosophy with religion and theology. For this reason it is difficult to sustain the idea that the “philosophy of religion” has always been a recognizable discipline with an unvarying subject matter that has spanned the course of Western philosophical history.

Changing Conceptions

The actual term “philosophy of religion” is itself a modern addition to the philosophical lexicon, being used sparingly in early modern times. One of the first occurrences in the English language can be found in the work of the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688), while toward the end of the eighteenth century the term Religions philosophie became part of an accepted terminology used by German-speaking philosophers. At this time, many thinkers sought to replace the previous idea of a “natural religion” with a “philosophy of religion,” since the latter notion was deemed to bequeath a much more rigorous method of discovering truths about the nature and origin of religion. This conception of the subject received lucid exposition in Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793). Building on his earlier demolition of the traditional proofs for the existence of God in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781, revised in 1787), Kant argues in this work that religion is not a matter of theoretical cognition but of moral disposition. Hence religion is to be understood as a moral outlook to observe all duties as divine commands.

By the early decades of the nineteenth century, however, the term had already changed its meaning. In Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s (1770-1831) famous Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion (1821-1831) the subject is defined as the study of the manner and ways in which God is represented in religious consciousness. What is interesting about the respective projects of Kant and Hegel is the gulf that separated their respective accounts of philosophical theology from more orthodox religious doctrines. Indeed such was the extent of these differences that, despite their very best intentions, many of their theories eventually lent themselves to forms of antitheistic skepticism. Given this, it is unsurprising that Kant and Hegel are followed by resolutely atheistic thinkers of whom Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), Karl Marx (1818-1883), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), and Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) are the most prominent. Although the general drift toward atheism in Continental thought might be said to have been countered by the writings of thinkers such as Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the inheritance of nontheistic philosophers who followed in the wake of Kant and Hegel was subsequently refined and extended in the twentieth century by figures such as Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), whose own work yet further entrenched philosophical atheism in many areas of French-and German-speaking thought. In many ways, early-twenty-first-century philosophers of religion who look to these various traditions of so-called Continental philosophy can be said to explore and clarify questions about the nature and meaning of religion that go back to the very different legacies of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Freud.

Early-twenty-first-century English-speaking philosophers of religion, however, be they of theistic, agnostic, or atheistic orientation, can be said to adopt a quite different outlook on their subject. In opposition to Continental thought, they tend to characterize philosophy of religion as the critical analysis of certain concepts and issues deemed central to the study of monotheistic Western religions. An important stimulus to their work can be found in the trenchant critique of religion advanced by David Hume (1711-1776), specifically in his Natural History of Religion (1757) and Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779, but first written in the 1750s). For Hume the arguments of what he terms “natural religion” do not establish the existence of any deity that could be the proper object of religious belief. If revelation cannot be authenticated in any way conducive to reason, then religious beliefs can be deemed to have natural causes. Central to Hume’s argument in the Natural History of Religion is the contention that the very origin of religious belief is to be found in numerous human pathologies that derive from a fear of the unknown. Hume’s views have been typically regarded as providing a dialectical framework for modern English-speaking philosophy of religion. Accordingly, those who adhere to the claims of natural theology and traditional religion are supposed to address his intricate critique of their position, while those enamored of atheism invariably look to Hume’s works as providing a paradigm for how to demonstrate that the claims of the theistic tradition are but a set of philosophical fictions.

Modern Conceptions

The modern subject of “philosophy of religion” continues to debate the legacy of Hume’s broadside against theology. English-speaking philosophers of different persuasions still address a posteriori proofs for the existence of God such as cosmological arguments and arguments from design, while interest in the ontological argument—a specific object of Kant’s wrath—shows no signs of fading. For much of the twentieth century many forces conspired to thwart the progress of those enamored of the project of responding to Kant’s and Hume’s critique. Predominant among these was the influence and legacy of logical positivism in both Great Britain and North America. The strict empiricism that was the hallmark of positivism launched a wide-ranging critique of traditional metaphysics by insisting that the subject matter of philosophy ought to be addressed by scientifically conditioned methods of inquiry. The collective penchant for empiricism in both Britain and America prompted philosophers like Rudolph Carnap (1891-1970) and Sir Alfred Jules Ayer (1910-1989) to argue that all religious claims are meaningless. In keeping with these tendencies, many philosophers of religion either sought to apply the methods of logical empiricism to their own discipline with the consequence that the subject became almost solely preoccupied with the topic of meaning in religious language, or else to fight a rearguard action to expose the inadequacies of the positivist position. Both of these strategies met with paltry success, as they failed to bring the philosophy of religion back within the mainstream of English-speaking philosophy.

With the move away from verificationism and the development of a greater pluralism in Anglophone philosophy, however, philosophers like Alvin Plantinga in the United States and Richard Swinburne in Britain set about the task of applying the rigorous standards of analytic philosophy to the discussion of traditional theological subjects. The effect of their work, particularly when combined with the historical studies of Anthony Kenny and Norman Kretzmann, was to increase the institutional profile of the subject in professional philosophy. However, the tremendous growth of the philosophy of religion in the English-speaking world is a phenomenon of the late twentieth century and is due in part to the establishment of new journals and confessionally minded societies dedicated to the study of the discipline.

Much of the best late-twentieth-and early-twenty-first-century work in philosophy of religion has taken place in the subdivision of the subject then specified as “philosophical theology” and “religious epistemology.” The first, which claims a distinguished ancestry in ancient and medieval philosophy, can be said to concern itself with issues focusing on the nature and coherence of our concept of God, and especially the manner in which God’s attributes (omnipotence, omniscience, simplicity, eternity, and the like), can be defined so as to escape confusion and paradox. The second is concerned with the nature and justification of religious belief. Topics here have to do with whether or not it is ever reasonable to conclude that religious belief must always be justified by external evidence, or whether it is best to argue that religious belief is sui generis and quite different in form and structure from our more prosaic beliefs about the world. In this sphere many philosophers, following the lead of Plantinga, have argued that religious belief need not be beholden to canons of external evidence and have thereby debunked Hume’s putative challenge to any rational justification of theistic belief. The effect of their writings has been to shift the focus of philosophy of religion away from natural theology, such as a strict attention to the a posteriori proofs for the existence of God, to a more general epistemological concern with the justification of religious belief. An important by-product of this change in emphasis has been the rehabilitation of the subject of religious experience as an area of pressing philosophical concern. The American philosopher William Alston, whose own approach to philosophy of religion can be said to steer a middle course between the work of Swinburne and Plantinga, can be credited with bringing this subject to the foreground of recent debate.

Alongside these important developments there has been a growing interest in religious pluralism and a greater philosophical attention to the claims of nonwestern religious traditions. As part of this general revival of the philosophy of religion, a number of philosophers whose main work lies in other areas have been attracted to the discipline. Thus, complex arguments about substance, space and time, free will, and determinism, which might be thought more properly at home in metaphysics, epistemology, philosophical logic, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of science, have all been explored with reference to the idea of God. At the turn of the twenty-first century, there are efforts to explore cross-cultural philosophies of religion, to articulate feminist challenges to traditional religions, and to consider many political, moral, and social problems from the standpoint of a religiously motivated ethics or political theory. Further to this, specific issues that are internal to religious traditions, such as monotheistic faiths like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, are also receiving some coverage with increased philosophical effort being given to speculation on heaven, hell, atonement, the sacraments, and the meaning of prophesy and Scripture.

Philosophy of religion, then, might be said to have its place in English-speaking and Continental philosophy not only in the domain of the history of philosophy but also in areas of genuine and earnest philosophical debate. It is for this reason that the subject presents to the individual already acquainted with the traditional core of Western philosophy, namely logic, metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, an opportunity to apply their philosophical learning to a set of important questions. Since “philosophy of religion,” as its history testifies, is nothing more than a rich deposit of questions that have always belonged to the central core of subjects that have characterized the concerns of philosophers from antiquity onward, it could be said that to engage with it is to acquaint oneself with the basic questions of Western philosophy itself. In contrast with its dire fortunes at the outset of the twentieth century, philosophy of religion reveals itself, one hundred years later, to be a confident and sophisticated area of philosophy at ease with itself and its place within the philosophical curriculum.