What’s New in…. Philosophy of Religion
Daniel Hill describes how the work of Alvin Plantinga has revolutionised Philosophy of Religion.
The way we see the philosophy of religion will depend on the way we see its mother discipline, philosophy itself. Suppose that we think of philosophy as the analysis of abstract and, in some sense, ultimate concepts. One way to define philosophy of religion then would be to say that it is the analysis of the concepts which we encounter in religion(s), just as philosophy of science is the analysis of the concepts which we encounter in science. On the other hand, looking at many of the philosopher of religion’s traditional concerns, one could easily see it as really being a branch of metaphysics. Many of the concepts of religion (the concept of God, for instance) are important for the metaphysician to grapple with. After all, if there is a God, then God is a pretty important part of the nature of reality as a whole (see ‘Philosophy in a Nutshell’). If there is no God, then God isn’t very important at all, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not important to say why one believes there isn’t a God.
It might be thought that one good candidate for philosophical analysis would be the concept of religion itself. However, only a few philosophers of religion have devoted time to this. John Hick and D.Z.Phillips have thought about it, but most philosophers of religion turn straight to the Big Concept – the concept of God.
Where Do They Do It?
Nobody doubts that the world’s leading centre for this subject is the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, USA, where almost everybody seems to be doing philosophy of religion. Yale University is fairly important, too. In Britain the two main centres are Oxford and King’s College London, both of which always have a Professor of Philosophy of Religion (a ‘named chair’).
Continentals versus Analyticals
Philosophers of religion, like other philosophers, fall into two camps; those influenced by ‘continental philosophy’ who tend to dominate theology departments, and ‘analytical philosophers’, who dominate the philosophy departments, at least at the main centres for philosophy of religion. So the analytical philosophers have tended to approach philosophy of religion with the tools for which they are famed: logic, precision, clarity, and careful argumentation. The continentals generally go for the Big Questions of love, life, and death in the less formal and more literary style of their influences. It is important to remember that most philosophers of religion also work in other areas of philosophy.
Catholics & Calvinists
Most philosophers of religion also fall into one of two camps from the religious point of view too: the majority are either Roman Catholics or Reformed Calvinists. (There are a few important exceptions, such as William Alston and Peter van Inwagen, who are both Episcopalians, and Richard Swinburne of Oxford, a member of the Orthodox Church.) Notre Dame itself seems to have cornered the market in philosophy of religion by recruiting both Roman Catholics and Reformed Calvinists.
Notre Dame’s brightest star is Alvin Plantinga, whom everyone agrees to be the current world-leader in the field. He is a product of the analytical school of philosophy and of the Dutch Reformed Church. Hence the Dutch surname; Plantinga himself once quipped that “there is a law-like generalisation that if an American philosopher’s name ends in ‘-a’ … then that philosopher is a graduate of Calvin College”. (Calvin College was, when Plantinga wrote, the leading training ground for Reformed Calvinists, but now, like everyone else, they all seem to be going to Notre Dame.) One of Plantinga’s most important early works was The Nature of Necessity (1974) which was essentially (if you’ll excuse the pun) a treatise on modal logic, but which had some important applications to the philosophy of religion. Plantinga had already begun to explore these applications in his book God and Other Minds (1967) and in its slightly more popular version God, Freedom, and Evil (1974). In these books Plantinga attempts to rebut arguments against belief in God (theism), and to show how belief in God can be justified. Since then Plantinga has broadened his concerns into general epistemology, in other words the study of how we can know things. He has been writing a three volume trilogy on warrant (warrant is ‘that which turns true belief into knowledge’). The first two volumes, which appeared in 1993, are Warrant: The Current Debate and Warrant and Proper Function. The third volume, Warrant and Christian Belief, is expected out very soon (in fact, it is overdue), and the academic rumour mill is working overtime with conversations with people who claim to have seen it in manuscript form. The topics on which Plantinga has written have been the most important ones in the philosophy of religion over the past thirty years, important because he has written on them. As a result of his work, the burning question in philosophy of religion today is “What sort of justification, if any, is needed for religious belief?” Let us look at this next.
Proving God Exists
Traditionally, philosophers of religion have answered “deductively or inductively sound arguments” to the above question, and a large part of the philosophy of religion has consisted of the advancement of arguments designed to support the conclusion that there is a God. There are three very important ones:
(i) The ontological argument. This had been written off (like so much else in the philosophy of religion) until Plantinga revived it in The Nature of Necessity in a new, modal, version. The argument was originally put forward in 1078AD by Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his work Proslogion, though it is hotly disputed whether it actually is an argument or rather an investigation into God’s mode of existence. Plantinga’s modal version, however, claims that God is a logically necessary being and then moves from the alleged possibility of God’s necessary existence to God’s actual necessary existence. This move is legitimated by a system of modal logic known as (S5). There is still much debate about Plantinga’s argument and how to understand Anselm’s version. Graham Oppy has even written a whole book recently, just on the ontological argument: Ontological Arguments and Belief in God.
(ii) The cosmological argument. This also has many forms, one being that if there exists a contingent being, there must exist a necessary being to, as it were, explain its existence. This has also received some consideration in the literature, with one of the sharpest recent philosophers of religion, Peter van Inwagen, propounding a surprising a priori version of the argument in his book Metaphysics .
(iii) The argument from design. Historically, this argument was proposed by many philosophers, and given classic formulation with a famous ‘watch on the heath’ example by William Paley in his Natural Theology (1802). However, the argument was severely attacked by David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), and received another severe blow in the form of the theory of evolution. More recently Richard Swinburne, Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at Oxford, has given a new version of the argument from design using probability theory in his book The Existence of God. There has been some debate over how appropriate and how successful it is to use the tools of the philosophy of science to show that God’s existence is more probable than not.
As for arguments against the existence of God, many of the arguments of the logical positivists, such as the one that talk about God is meaningless because it is unverifiable, have vanished without trace, along with the logical positivists themselves. One argument which has shown no sign of diminishing in popularity, still less vanishing, is the problem of evil. This may be expressed very roughly as follows. The set of propositions (1)-(4) is inconsistent, so at least one of them must be wrong:
(1) God is good, and therefore wants to remove evil
(2) God is omniscient, and therefore knows that there is evil
(3) God is omnipotent, and therefore can remove evil
(4) Evil exists.
It is very rare these days to see the problem of evil held up as a knock-down argument for atheism. This is due to the pioneering work of Alvin Plantinga (you guessed it), who has shown that it is impossibly difficult to establish any sound proof of God’s non-existence using this argument. Instead, it is usually now presented as showing just that God’s existence is improbable. Debate continues to rage fiercely about whether it succeeds in this. If God did exist, would we necessarily know God’s reasons for allowing suffering? People even disagree on whether the burden of proof here lies with the atheists or the believers. This brings up a distinction drawn by Plantinga between a theodicy and a defence. Plantinga only claims to offer a defence, that is a demonstration of why the atheist’s arguments do not succeed. He says that he is not able to offer a theodicy, that is, an explanation of why God allows suffering.
It seems that most people agree with Plantinga that the prospects for a successful solution to the problem of evil are not good. However, some brave souls are trying to explain the existence of suffering: Richard Swinburne’s book Providence is due out in the Autumn. If you wish to know more, there is no shortage of literature – over 3600 articles and books have been written on the problem of evil since 1960 alone. I trust that the reader will therefore forgive the brevity of this survey.
Is Belief Rational?
Having said all the above, the major question and discussion in the philosophy of religion at the moment is what sort of justification one needs for religious belief. This question was first raised by Plantinga in a book he edited with a fellow Reformed Calvinist, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale, Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God , when he suggested that religious belief might be a properly basic belief, in other words one which may rationally be held without being logically inferred from other beliefs. If Plantinga is right then all the discussion of arguments for religious belief suddenly seems less important, since the arguments aren’t necessary for rationality (though they may be necessary for the purpose of convincing unbelievers). Since then Plantinga has been arguing in his Warrant trilogy that a belief is justified if it is produced by a cognitive mechanism functioning in accordance with its design plan. It seems pretty likely that if God designed us then it is part of God’s design plan that we believe in God, so belief in God is rational. This, of course, will do little to convince the atheist, but this does not worry Plantinga unduly. He views his main tasks as being the exposition of the truth about the epistemic status of theism and the defence thereof against attacks, rather than attempts to convert sceptics to his position. In particular, if Plantinga is right, it shifts the burden of proof onto the atheist: if she wants to show that the theist is irrational then she will have to show that the theist has not been designed by God to believe in God. But this seems a very difficult thing to prove.
Meanwhile, philosophers of religion the world over continue to hold their collective breath as they wait for the authoritative statement of Plantinga’s views to hit the bookshops.
A different attempt at justification has come from William Alston (who taught Plantinga when Plantinga was a graduate student). Alston has worked on the nature of religious experience, producing a book called Perceiving God. In it he claims that “putative direct awareness of God can provide justification for certain kinds of beliefs about God.” Since its publication a very lively debate has raged over whether this is true, and over questions such as whether perception always involves conceptualisation, and whether religious experiences of different religious traditions are comparable or not.
Finally on this topic, Edinburgh University Press has now launched a series on religious epistemology called ‘Reason and Religion’. This series is edited by Paul Helm, Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion at King’s College London, and President of the British Society for the Philosophy of Religion. Each volume in the series is an exploration of one of the ways of seeking justification for religious beliefs.
What Is God Like?
Apart from the attempt to justify the claims of religion, the philosophy of religion has traditionally sought to understand and explain those claims. The central claim of western religions is that there is a God, and so western analytical philosophers of religion have spent a lot of their time trying to analyse that claim. This enterprise is usually called philosophical theology, though it belongs as much to metaphysics as it does to theology. In particular, debate has focussed on four of God’s attributes: omnipotence, omniscience, eternity, and goodness. For each of these, discussion tends to involve puzzles, such as “Can God create a stone too heavy for God to lift?” or “Can God create a person who knows a secret that even God does not know?”. Debate about omniscience has revolved around the question of whether God can know now what I shall freely do tomorrow. After Alvin Plantinga published an article on this called ‘On Ockham’s Way Out’ (Faith and Philosophy 1986) restating the solution of the mediaeval philosopher William of Ockham, the debate exploded, with articles appearing in every issue of the specialist journals debating whether God’s beliefs were hard facts, soft facts, hard-type soft facts, or “hard facts with soft underbellies”! Things often became convoluted; William Alston once remarked that “At the March 1984 Pacific Regional meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers, Pike presented a discussion of Fischer’s paper, which was responded to by Marilyn Adams and Fischer, so that the conferees were treated to hearing Adams on Pike on Fischer on Adams on Pike, and Fischer on Pike on Fischer on Adams on Pike. ‘Enough!’ you may well cry. And yet the beat goes on.”
Eternity is also still a ‘hot’ issue, the question here being whether to understand God’s eternity as timelessness, as Paul Helm suggests in his Eternal God, or as being everlasting in time as suggested by Nicholas Wolterstorff in his article ‘God Everlasting’. As for divine goodness, apart from the issues raised by evil, the questions being widely discussed include whether God can really be praised for doing good if it is impossible for God to do evil.
Other traditional issues within the philosophy of religion such as the nature of religious language have been rather quiet lately (perhaps because Alvin Plantinga hasn’t written anything on them). The questions here concern whether language about God should be understood as literal or as in some way analogical or metaphorical. William Alston has written some helpful essays on this, collected in his Divine Nature and Human Language. The topic was very important when the logical positivists ruled philosophy because theists were busy trying to find a way of construing religious language which A.J. Ayer would declare meaningful. Now that this threat has been lifted, philosophers of religion feel free to say that they mean what they say (and that they say what they mean).
Two growth areas for philosophy of religion at the moment are its expansion into other areas of philosophy, through what is sometimes called ‘Christian Philosophy’, and its expansion into other areas of theology. This is all due, of course, to Alvin Plantinga, who in his inaugural lecture at Notre Dame, ‘Advice to Christian Philosophers’, suggested that the people of his title shouldn’t feel obliged to follow the current trends and interests in contemporary secular philosophy, but should instead fulfill their obligation to the Christian church by philosophizing about issues of importance to the church. Plantinga also urged Christian philosophers not to forget their religious commitments when working in other branches of philosophy. Quite a few, particularly at Notre Dame, have taken up his challenge and one of the results is the book Christian Theism and the Problems of Philosophy, (1990). In it Christian philosophers bring their faith to bear on several unlikely topics, such as the analysis of counterfactuals. As for the first part of Plantinga’s request, perhaps the most systematic treatment of issues arising from the Christian creeds is Richard Swinburne’s tetralogy. The first volume of this is Responsibility and Atonement, which is about humankind’s sinfulness, guilt, and God’s salvation of humans by the atonement. The second volume, Revelation, discusses what it would be for a sacred book, such as the Bible, to be a revelation from God. The third, The Christian God, deals with the doctrines of the incarnation and the Trinity. The fourth volume is eagerly awaited. (Perhaps this year is rather a waiting time in the philosophy of religion, as both Swinburne and Plantinga are expected to publish important work in the next few months.) Out of all these issues, the doctrine of the Trinity has perhaps seized the philosophical imagination most, and provoked the liveliest debate. It should be emphasized that Professor Swinburne’s works and most of the philosophical discussion arising differ from the standard theological treatments of these issues by using the tools of analytical philosophy. It is not uncommon to find in the journals detailed use of formal logic to discuss the Trinity, for example.
To conclude, the prospects for philosophy of religion look brighter than they have done for many moons. The general standard of discussion in the analytical philosophy of religion is high – in my judgment, as high as in any other branch of philosophy. It is also provoking much interest both amongst professional philosophers in other fields (David Lewis and Martin Davies, for instance, have both written articles on the philosophy of religion) and amongst students taking philosophy at university (at Oxford, philosophy of religion is the second most popular optional subject, after philosophy of mind). In addition, it is a lively, interesting and accessible area, whose questions are surely relevant to all (don’t atheists need to consider the arguments for God, and perhaps provide some reasons for their rejection of theism?). If you would like to study it, there are many easy ways into the academic subject, and I feel sure that it will amply repay your time and attention.
© Daniel Hill 1998
I would like to thank Paul Helm, Martin Stone and Richard Swinburne for all their help in preparing this article. Any remaining errors are my own.
William Alston Perceiving God (Cornell Univ. Press, Ithaca, 1991); Divine Nature and Human Language (Cornell Univ. Press, Ithaca, 1989) Paul Helm Eternal God (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1988) Graham Oppy Ontological Arguments & Belief in God (CUP, New York 1995).
Alvin Plantinga:The Nature of Necessity (OUP 1974); God and Other Minds (Cornell Univ. Press, 1967); God, Freedom, and Evil (Eerdmans, Grand
Rapids, 1974); Warrant: The Current Debate (OUP 1993); Warrant and Proper Function (OUP 1993). Ed. with Nicholas Wolterstorff, Faith and
Rationality: Reason and Belief in God (Notre Dame Press, Indiana, 1983), Richard Swinburne The Existence of God (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1979)
Peter van Inwagen Metaphysics (OUP, Oxford, 1993).
Nicholas Wolterstorff ‘God Everlasting’ in God and the Good eds.
Orlebeke & Smedes, Grand Rapids, 1975.
Christian Theism and the Problems of Philosophy, ed. by Michael Beaty (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, Indiana, 1990).
Traditional Proofs of the Existence of God
By investigating the nature of God it is deduced that God exists. St Anselm argued that God is ‘something than which nothing greater can be imagined’. But something existing in reality is greater than something existing only in the mind. Therefore God must exist in reality, and not just in our minds, or else He would not be ‘something than which nothing greater can be imagined’.
A whole family of related arguments, of which the following is an example. All thing need an explanation. But we cannot have an infinite chain of explanation, each thing explained by another, since then there would be no explanation for the chain taken as a whole. So there is something which explains itself. This is God. (See Aquinas, Summa Theologica)
Argument from Design (Teleological Argument)
The universe is not just disordered chaos; everywhere we look we see examples of order and intricate design – as intricate as any pocket watch, for instance. If the world has been designed, there must be a designer, namely God.
Finding out more
Brian Davies An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (OUP, 1993)
Michael Peterson et al. Reason and Religious Belief (OUP, 1991)
Charles Taliaferro Contemporary Philosophy of Religion (Blackwells, 1997)
Philip Quinn & Charles Taliaferro, eds. A Companion to Philosophy of Religion (Blackwells, 1996)
Journals (mainly not-so-introductory)
International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion
Faith and Philosophy
Society of Christian Philosophers (Contact: Dr Kelly Clark, Department of Philosophy, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA)
British Society for Philosophy of Religion (Contact: Professor Paul Helm, Department of Theology & Religious Studies, King’s College, London, WC2R 2LS)