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Philosophy of Religion

This branch of philosophy has historically concerned the relationship between faith and reason. The main questions debated have included the following:

  • Is it possible to prove the existence of God, and if so, how?
  • Is the God whose existence is proven by a philosopher similar to the God in which religions be lieve?
  • How does one reconcile the existence of evil with that of an all-powerful, all-knowing God (=Theodicy)?
  • How are miracles possible – and what are they?
  • How is prophecy possible – and what is it?
  • Can one say anything meaningful about God (his ability to know the future; whether ‘He’ is really a ‘He’; does a ‘trinity’ mean anything; how can the Bible say “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne high and lifted up” (Isaiah 6.1, also Koran 7,54)?

While the early Greek philosophers analysed their mythology from a philosophical standpoint, and examined the relationship between God and goodness and also between God and the world, the first known religious writer on the subject was a Jew – Philo of Alexandria. Other influential philosophers in this area include Plato and Aristotle, who considered the relationship of God to the world and to ethics, and another Greek, Epicurus, who argued that no gods exist. Mediaeval thinkers such as the Persian Avicenna, the Jew Maimonides and the Saints Anselm and Aquinas wrote about proofs for the existence of God, while Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, Maimonides and the Muslims Al-Ghazali and Averroes argued about how one can meaningfully talk about God. Later Spinoza equated God with Nature, and used this new conception of God (known as pantheism) as the basis of his metaphysics. (Catholic priests were trained in the refutation of Spinozistic heresies up until Vatican II in 1968!). Immanuel Kant attacked traditional proofs of God’s existence as fundamentally irrelevant (in his Critique of Pure Thought) and wrote another work on the philosophically ideal religion. Hegel wrote about the historical development of religion and its increasing philosophical sophistication. Kierkegaard attacked Hegel’s view, arguing for an existential perspective rooted in pure faith. Lastly, Nietzsche argued that God was dead and that both religion and ethics were frauds.

A lot of modern debate in this area has been provoked by the challenge of logical positivists like the late A.J.Ayer1. The thrust of their argument has been that statements are only meaningful if there is some way of showing them to be true or false. Debate has centred around three groups of thinkers: atheists such as Antony Flew and A.J.Ayer1, ‘realists’ such as Basil Mitchell, Richard Swinburne and Roger Trigg2, and ‘anti-realists’ such as Don Cupitt and D.Z.Phillips. The first and second groups argue over the possibility of proving (or disproving) the claims of religion. The anti-realists, on the other hand, consider that debate irrelevant and argue (as Wittgenstein did in his later writings) that religion is a ‘language game’ incomprehensible and unjustifiable to those who do not participate, while those who do participate do not require justification.

Another recent debate derives from the acceptance of other religions. John Hick has written copiously here.

Other lesser debates concern the impact of various late 20th Century trends such as liberation theology, feminism, sociobiology etc.

Philosophy of religion is still the subject of much active debate, especially in the U.S.A.

Mark Daniels

1. A.J. Ayer Language, Truth and Logic
2. Roger Trigg Reason and Commitment

Other items on philosophy of religion in this issue of Philosophy Now :

p.23 ‘God and Evil’ by Kola Abimbola
p.26 ‘Santa is Irrelevant!’ (A reply to Les Reid’s article in issue 7).
p.38 Book review: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion by Brian Davies

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