Philosophy of Religion

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The philosophical investigation of the nature and grounds of religious beliefs is one of the oldest and most persistent areas of philosophical endeavor. Religious belief and practice give rise to a variety of philosophical issues, posing epistemological questions about the justification of religious belief, metaphysical questions about the nature of God and the soul, and ethical questions about the relation of God to moral values. So many are the intersecting major philosophical concerns in the religious arena, and so immediate is the interest, that philosophy of religion is one of the most significant fields of philosophical endeavor to both Christian philosophers and those of other persuasions. The classic problems in the philosophy of religion center on the grounds for belief in God, the immortality of the soul, the nature of miracles, and the problem of evil.

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Grounds for Belief in God

Religious believers have generally found themselves obliged to defend their belief in such a supersensible reality as God by an appeal to philosophical argument. The classical arguments for God's existence are the five ways of Thomas Aquinas and the ontological argument of Anselm of Canterbury.

Aquinas's arguments are variations of two major forms, the cosmological and teleological arguments. The cosmological argument is based upon the contention that the existence and activity of the universe demand an explanation in an entity beyond itself. On one version propounded by Aquinas and by contemporary philosophers such as Richard Taylor and Frederic Copleston, the universe is seen as a merely contingent or possible being. As a contingent being its existence requires explanation in some being outside itself, a being that is capable of sustaining the universe in existence. According to this argument the universe owes its existence to a being who is "necessary," that is, incapable of nonexistence, which provides an explanation for its own existence. Thus, from the contingent, merely possible existence of the world, it is argued that God can be shown to exist.

The teleological or "design" argument advanced by Aquinas and William Paley, among others, urges us to infer from the well - orderedness of nature the existence of a supreme designer. Paley compares our experience of the intricate order and adaptation of parts to the whole in nature to finding a watch; surely the watch, by virtue of its complexity and apparent purposiveness of design, requires a watchmaker to explain it. No less than does the vastly more remarkable universe require a worldmaker. In Aquinas's more sophisticated version the constant, dynamic adaptation of various aspects of nonintelligent nature to the realization of a stable order in the world demands a granted orchestrator to account for this action.

Cosmological and teleological arguments have come under sustained criticism, notably by Scottish philosopher David Hume, noted empiricist and skeptic. Hume mounted a multipronged attack on the arguments, suggesting among other things that the phenomena in question are capable of alternative explanations, and that the arguments in general prove no single, all - powerful being, but at best a being of limited power or a group of entities far from infinitely wise or powerful, capable merely of bringing about the results in question. Since Hume's day debate has been pursued in philosophical circles with great ingenuity and care, with neither side being able to claim lasting victory. Nonetheless, such arguments on behalf of God continue to exercise a considerable appeal on the popular as well as the academic levels.

Anselm's ontological argument is the only theistic proof to proceed a priori, that is, by reflection on the concept of God alone, with no reference to such external evidence as the existence or nature of the world. Anselm observed that if God is defined as "the Being greater than whom nothing can be conceived," then to deny the existence of such a being lands one in a contradiction. One is thus implying that "something greater than God" can be conceived, that is, an existing God. This conceivable being would have, in addition to God's properties, a quality lacked by God, i.e., existence, and so would be greater than the being greater than whom nothing could be conceived. In his own day Anselm was criticized by the monk Gaunilo, who reasoned that along similar lines we would be bound to accept the existence of such fantastic entities as a "most perfect island," and later by Immanuel Kant. Briefly, Kant argued that to lack existence is not to be deficient in a property. Thus, the concept of an existing God is not "greater" than a nonexisting God, since the existing God has no properties not shared by a nonexisting God.

In addition to the use of arguments for God's existence, philosophers of religion traditionally have been interested in another avenue of possible knowledge about God, religious experience. Does a mystical experience or other putative encounter with the Divine provide good rational grounds for belief, as believers of all religious traditions have sometimes maintained? As would be expected, skeptics tend to dismiss such experiences as evidence of oversuggestibility in the experiencer, as evidenced by Bertrand Russell's pithy comment that "we can make no distinction between the man who eats little and sees heaven and the man who drinks much and sees snakes."

Status of the Soul

Another classic problem is the status of the soul and its fate after death. Plato's Socrates and others have held that the soul is related to the stable realm of eternal truth and thus is itself eternal, unlike the body, which belongs to the material world of impermanence and decay. Further, since soul is immaterial and has no parts, it, unlike body, is incapable of disintegration. Later philosophers less ambitiously have generally contented themselves with attempting to demonstrate that the soul logically is capable of being conceived as distinct from the mortal human body. Much recent philosophical discussion has been concerned with whether it is intelligible to assert that one could "witness one's own funeral," that is, survive bodily death.

The Miraculous

Much philosophical effort has been expended in subjecting basic theistic, supernaturalistic doctrines to critique or in providing refinements and defense of theism. The concept of miracle has received significant attention in philosophy. Christianity asserts the reality of the miraculous and stresses the importance of biblical miracles to Christian faith and doctrine, especially the conception of Jesus Christ in a virgin's womb and the resurrection of Christ from the dead. In addition, Christ's miraculous deeds are intended to be taken as a sign of his divinity. Hume's monumental work on the miraculous in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, sect. X, depicted miracles as contradictions of our "firm and unalterable" experience in the regularity of natural laws, rendering them improbable in the extreme.

It is much more probable that the miracle account is false. Hume's critique of the miraculous has had widespread acceptance in an age dominated by naturalism. Even many Christians have been disinclined to place much importance on miracles, some even explaining them away or preferring to see them as symbolic. Still, many Christian thinkers join C S Lewis, who in Miracles: A Preliminary Study has argued that an open mind must accept the possibility of divine "interferences" in the ordinary course of nature.

The Problem of Evil

The most potent criticism of theism, both philosophically and personally, arises from the so - called problem of evil. A significant intellectual problem is posed for theism by virtue of the fact that it asserts the existence of a God with unlimited power, wisdom, and goodness in the face of the existence of a world acknowledged to be rife with both moral evil and suffering. In a weak version the problem of evil raises a persistent problem in reconciling the traditional concept of God to the existence of such evils. In a stronger version, such as propounded by J L Mackie, it is seen as a positive disproof of God's existence, amounting to what Alvin Plantinga has called "natural atheology." Briefly, the core of the problem of evil is as follows: God is held to be unlimited in power, goodness, and knowledge.

However, evil exists, in the form of undeserved suffering, perpetrated by man and nature, unchallenged victimization of weak by strong, pestilence, war, famine, and other horrors. In the face of this, either God is limited in power, goodness, or knowledge, or he does not exist at all; that is, either he is incapable or unwilling to remove evil, or he is unaware of its existence or of solutions to it. The problem of evil presupposes that God would have no reason for permitting evil that is adequate ultimately to outweigh in significance the negative effects of evil. Traditional theistic responses, or theodicies, have focused on this assumption. Augustine's "free will defense" argues that God needed to allow the possibility of evil if he was to create free beings, and a world with free beings is superior to a world of automata.

Recently John Hick, taking a cue from Irenaeus, has suggested that God has placed us in a difficult environment that would be suitable for developing moral and spiritual maturity in his creatures rather than creating a maximally comfortable world. While Gottfried Leibniz attempted to argue that every evil is thus world is necessary, more modest modern theodicies such as Hick's restrict themselves merely to removing the ground for alleged contradiction, showing that one can consistently affirm both God's existence and the reality of evil.

Contemporary Emphases

Much contemporary philosophy of religion focuses on questions surrounding the use of language in referring to God. Following Hume, contemporary philosophers such as A J Ayer and A G N Flew have raised critical questions about religious language. In particular, they have argued that talk about God is as cognitively meaningless as mere gibberish, since it is incapable of empirical verifiability or falsifiability. Also of interest on the contemporary front is the logical coherence of the doctrine of God as he is traditionally understood in Judeo - Christian thought.

D B Fletcher

Bibliography
Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Pt. 1, Q. 2; A Flew and A MacIntyre, eds., New Essays in Philosophical Theology; J Hick, ed., Classical and Contemporary Readings in the Philosophy of Religion; W James, Varieties of Religious Experience; J L Mackie, "Evil and Omnipotence," Mind (Apr 1955); B Mitchell, The Justification of Religious Belief; A Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil; R Swinburne, The Coherence of Theism; T W Tilley, Taking of God.


The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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