Philosophy of religion is the application of the philosophical method to the subject matter of religion. Accordingly, it is the rational study of the meaning and justification of fundamental religious claims, particularly about the nature and existence of God (or the “Transcendent”).
A composite discipline and one of the many “philosophies of – ,” the philosophy of religion is critically important in determining the respective functions of spirituality and intellect in our pursuit of the ultimate. Its very existence assumes the possibility of a relationship between faith and reason, between experience and explanation. Philosophy of religion has been challenged on that very assumption. Can we come to any rational conclusions about issues like God? Is it even admissible to discuss matters of faith as if they were normal subjects of investigation? In the end, philosophy of religion raises the question about the consistency of our universe – whether the supernatural and the human mind are fundamentally exclusive of each other, or whether there is interpenetration and a deep affinity with each other. In the words of Blaise Pascal, it raises the question whether the God of revelation and the God of the philosophers are one and the same – assuming there is one God. The philosophy of religion keeps the dispassionate stance of any academic endeavor, however its object lies at the heart of religion; it is, so to speak, religion’s own self-understanding.
By its very nature, the philosophy of religion stands midway between theology, with its inherently dogmatic and normative character, and the empirical disciplines known as religious studies: psychology of religion, sociology of religion, history of religion, among others. Unlike the former, the philosophy of religion does not have as its aim to defend or even explain a particular set of beliefs. Unlike the latter, it seeks to do more than describe and analyze religion as an external phenomenon.
The philosophy of religion as a modern discipline – ill-defined as it may be – needs to be distinguished from the philosophical reflection on religion in general. It requires the generic notion of religion, as opposed to one’s personal faith, something that has only existed in the West in recent history, particularly since the eighteenth century Enlightenment. The emergence of the western notion of religion is closely associated with the two notions of pluralism and secularization.
With the advent of the Protestant Reformation, religious pluralism became a permanent fixture in Christendom and it was inevitable that people would begin to compare their religion with others, thus taking some degree of critical distance towards it and seeing it as one religion among others, even if the preferred one. With the advent of modernism, an autonomous culture not subjected to religious institutions began to emerge and the religious dimension became one among others, like philosophy, science, and the arts, fields that had previously been closely linked to the religious sphere. From that perspective, religion came to be defined in comparison to the secular dimension. In these two ways, religion became a distinct object of inquiry, rather than something that naturally pervaded all aspects of life.
The philosophy of religion thus brings together two key domains of humankind’s inner world – religion and philosophy. At the same time, it also highlights the difficulty of their relationship. As twentieth century philosopher-theologian Paul Tillich puts it, “In religion, philosophy encounters something that resists becoming an object of philosophy.” And: “Protest against objectification is the pulse beat of religion.” On the other hand, the largely non-religious approach of contemporary philosophy tends to ignore religion and often refuses to consider religious language as meaningful. Standing at the crossroads between religious faith and philosophy’s rational mode of inquiry, the philosophy of religion has thus been challenged in its legitimacy from both sides.
For many religious people, one cannot philosophize about religion without killing what makes it real. Discussing religion is turning it into an idea, a theory, and that is not what it essentially is. The core of religion is something that directly touches the soul. It is a matter of our personal response. Some even don’t like the word “religion” itself, because it means that you look at faith from the outside, as an object among many others. Some, like Wilfred Cantwell Smith, would like to ban the use of the word "religion" altogether, because they consider it to be an artificial western construct covering vastly different cultural phenomena.
But the strongest challenge to the notion of religion comes from fundamentalism, i.e. from positions that view a particular faith to be absolutely given through revelation and not subject to discussion. For twentieth century theologian Karl Barth, religion thus came to be seen as the opposite of faith in Christ. To his Neo-Orthodoxy movement, religion is humankind’s futile attempt to reach God on its own, while faith in revelation through Christ represents God’s free gift. Fundamentalists in Christianity and other religions have very similar positions, though often expressed in very different ways and without Bart’s theological sophistication. A fundamentalist Muslim or Baptist, for example, will be little inclined to consider religion as a legitimate global phenomenon apart from his own faith.
Those who consider their religious experience as an absolute given, refusing any type of reflection from a larger perspective, will inevitably reject an undertaking such as the philosophy of religion – precisely because it represents a reflection on the religious phenomenon.
To modern and contemporary philosophy, on the other hand, religion as a subject matter often seems suspect because it involves unverifiable allegations and dogma, even under the cover of a dispassionate, objective analysis. Reductionism considers so-called God-talk (the discussion of issues relating to the transcendent) to be meaningless, because involving questions of faith that are not verifiable or falsifiable, i.e., cannot be challenged rationally.
When the philosophical discussion of religion is accepted, it is often expected to limit itself to rational considerations on the inner logic and meaning of religious notions in general (philosophy of language). In Analytic philosophy, for instance, the difference has been made between such a general considerations and philosophical theology, or the discussion of a particular dogma or faith like Christianity.
In spite of these and other challenges, the philosophy of religion has maintained itself as an active field of inquiry. Whatever the claims of faith to immediate validity, it is inevitable that statements of faith be formulated one way or another and reflected upon. Where this is not recognized (e.g., in fundamentalism), it is fairly easy to point out that a thought process takes place surreptitiously and based on unchallenged assumptions. It is therefore not difficult to make a case for mature reflection on religion, including one’s own beliefs. As Keiji Nishitani puts it, “[A religion’s philosophy] to religion is what water is to fish; an essential condition for life.”
The reflection on religious questions is as old as the history of human culture. The state of primitive religiosity, where believers were entirely immersed in their immediate faith experience, is largely a mythical construct of naïve research. By its very nature, the human mind includes an element of reflection, no matter how undeveloped.
The philosophical elaboration of religious themes has existed in ancient times, notably in the cultures of India (the Upanishads, around 800 B.C.E.) and Greece. In both cultures, polytheism came to be interpreted in terms of the multiple expression of one single transcendent being. In Hindu mystic thought, Brahman, the world, soul has been identified with Atman, the individual human soul. These are clear examples of philosophical reflection on religion. However, they do not constitute philosophy of religion in the strict sense, as they do not involve a clearly elaborated concept of religion. In ancient China as well, philosophical and religious reflection went hand in hand and were essentially inseparable.
Ancient Greece represents the best example of the nascent autonomy of philosophical reflection as opposed to religious belief. From the times of the pre-Socratics, Greek philosophers have searched for the ultimate origin of things in ways clearly distinct from polytheistic religion. Xenophanes (570-480 B.C.E.) stated that people make gods in their own image. He is also said to have remarked that if oxen had gods, they would make them in the image of an ox. Such a philosophical position that stands in contrast to accepted religious claims has become one of the main foundations of western thought.
In the middle ages, the reflection on religion in the west was based on monotheism, mainly Christianity, but also Judaism and Islam. In all three cases, this inquiry was conducted with the tools of rediscovered ancient Greek philosophy applied to revelation. This led to the notion of natural theology found in the works of Augustine, Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas and others. Natural theology refers to theological knowledge that is accessible to the human mind, as opposed to knowledge that can only be received through revelation. Different thinkers have had different opinions on the extent to which the human mind is capable of understanding matters related to the divine by its own power.
Natural theology can thus be considered the ancestor of today’s philosophy of religion. But there is a difference. For natural theology, the question was not about the nature of religious consciousness or the object of religion in general. That object was considered as given. Natural theology had the rather modest task of supporting revelation by showing ways in which human reason could grasp its truth, at least partially. Thus, philosophy was in many ways the servant of theology. Over time, however, this reflection developed into the great metaphysical systems, including those of Descartes and Leibniz. Over time, also, the initial certainty of revealed faith came to be challenged and the philosophical reflection became increasingly autonomous.
It is quite logical that the very notion of religion was first developed by those who did not have a strong attachment to their particular faith and therefore looked at it from a distance, comparing it with other beliefs and functions of the mind. The age of Enlightenment provided just such a setting.
British Empiricism in general and David Hume’s skepticism in particular opened the way to a strikingly different approach. Dogma that was not supported by scientific evidence based on sense perception was rejected. Even though most of the Empiricists, John Locke in particular, were devout men, they came to exclude any knowledge based on evidence transcending the physical senses. Their philosophy of religion was thus essentially negative in that it relegated religious beliefs to the level of opinion. It was, on the other hand, the foundation for future developments in religious studies – the empirical observation of religious phenomena.
If British Empiricism combined skepticism towards religious dogma with a largely friendly attitude towards faith, the atmosphere dramatically changed once the movement crossed the channel and developed in 18th century France. Deism was first introduced in England by Lord Herbert of Cherbury and was meant to define the rational features of religion in order to overcome factionalism. French deists like Voltaire, on the other hand, developed views that relegated religion to an intellectual exercise with an added social function (there had to be a logical First Cause to the world, and such a belief was also needed to maintain social stability). Later thinkers like Denis Diderot and Helvetius made the step to full-fledged atheism, rejecting even the rationale supported by the deists. Natural theology had become a way of rejecting theology based on revelation, rather than supporting it. Eventually, it too was abandoned.
What had begun as a divorce between religious experience and philosophical systems gave birth to a powerful movement that would reduce reality to scientifically measurable events, thus largely excluding religion from the cultural debate. This movement would culminate with the works of Ludwig Feuerbach, for whom religion was a projection of human feelings, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and many others. Early pioneers of religious studies were often influenced by that frame of mind.
Though he rather used the terms of philosophical theology or philosophical doctrine of religion, Immanuel Kant can be credited with really introducing the modern notion of philosophy of religion towards the end of the 18th century. In his critical philosophy, he had rejected any possibility of theoretical knowledge about God (the thing in itself), thus siding with the empiricists, but also established clear criteria for certain knowledge, thus rejecting skepticism. Kant considered knowledge about the transcendent to be practical in nature, rather than theoretical. Based on this, he developed views that largely identified religion with ethics.
Nevertheless, in his Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793) Kant identifies most tenets of traditional Christian belief and sees in them an anticipation of what he considered rational belief or natural religion. Thus, this work not only represents a sort of systematic theology of rationalism, it also represents an overview of all major themes of the future philosophy of religion: the view of God, the problem of evil, and religious practice among others. In spite of his narrowly rationalistic premises and his lack of historical knowledge, Kant thus had made a significant step. Starting with him, the philosophical reflection on religion would largely cease to be a metaphysical discussion of given beliefs to become an analysis of the way human consciousness attempts to reach the ultimate.
Kant’s immediate successor, Jakob Friedrich Fries (1773-1843), would add an important element derived from Romanticism: that of feeling or, as he called it Ahndung (anticipation). By acknowledging the key importance of intuitive perception of the transcendent in addition to rational understanding, Fries thus began to recreate the link between faith and understanding that had been lost with modernism and the Enlightenment, though in a much more tentative and subdued way.
G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) really gave prominence to the new discipline through his “Lectures on Philosophy of Religion.” He is credited with being the founder of the modern form of that discipline, though his perspective remained vastly different from what we understand by it today. In fact, Hegel seemed to make a step backward by claiming absolute, speculative knowledge like the earlier dogmatic systems. For him, as Kessler notes, the object of religion (God) is “the region in which all the riddles of the world, all contradictions of thought, are resolved, and all griefs are healed, the region of eternal truth and eternal peace, of absolute satisfaction, of truth itself.”
Nevertheless, Hegel does not revert to the traditional standpoint. For him, the Absolute (God) is self-manifested in human history and finds its culmination in two functions of the human mind: religion and philosophy. Religion speaks in the form of analogy, while philosophy speaks in rational language. Religion is thus taken seriously as an essential function of the human mind, but ultimately it is the object of philosophical evaluation. As is the case in other fields of inquiry, Hegel’s most impressive (though questionable) contribution is an overview of religion’s historical development.
Friedrich Schleiermacher is the last of the great precursors of the philosophy of religion. For the liberal theologian-philosopher, religion has its own identity – it is not reducible to ethics or rational thought, as he explains in his Discourses on Religion (1799). The essential element of religion is intuition, or “feeling of the universe.” Later, he would define it as a “feeling of absolute dependence” (schlechthinnige Abhängigkeit). Thus, with him we have an early attempt at presenting a phenomenology of religious experience. Experience, for Schleiermacher, is much more important than dogma. His own systematic theology became more of a normative statement on religion than a traditional dogmatic.
With Schleiermacher we also have an early attempt to give religion its proper place in the modern world – a place it had lost with the advent of Rationalism and Empiricism. This led to a reflection on the intrinsic nature of the religious element that would remain an important part of the philosophy of religion to this day.
Philosophers of religion can be roughly divided into two camps: those advocating a more strictly philosophical and existential approach and those applying a more pragmatic approach, leaning more or less heavily on empirical religious studies. The first approach, represented among others by Ernst Troeltsch, Rudolf Otto and Paul Tillich, means searching for a typically religious function in the human mind. What forms the religious consciousness?
In Das Heilige (The Idea of the Holy, 1917) and other works, Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) has attempted to define the religious element or the Sacred as an original category, not reducible to anything else. For him, it is a composite category made up of a non-rational element (the immediate, ineffable perception of the sacred, the “numinous”) and a rational and ethical element, giving universal validity to that experience. Using the method of the phenomenology of religion, he offers an in-depth description of the ways in which the experience of the sacred manifests itself in the world’s religions in the form of the “tremendum” (the awe-inspiring aspect of the divine) and the “fascinans” (the fascinating aspect), in ways that transcend any rational formulation (“mysterium”). He then shows how, in the higher religions, in his view culminating with Christianity, that mysterious element is combined with the rational element of universal ethical norms and values, thus leading to the mature concept of the Sacred.
Two decades earlier, Troeltsch (1865-1923), had begun to search for the “essence” of religion, rejecting the limitations of both positivism and pragmatism. Positivism, a term associated with French philosopher and social scientist Auguste Comte, refers to a movement originating in the 19th century that tended to reduce all phenomena to scientifically measurable events and thus attempted to reduce religion to mental processes based on material causes. In that sense, it is a form of reductionism. Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer and, to some extent, Emile Durkheim represent this line of thought. Pragmatism, on the other hand, is a mostly Anglo-Saxon current of thought eminently represented by William James and his The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). Troeltsch criticized the first position for uncritically dismissing what is most essentially typical of the religious approach. He also criticized the second for remaining on the surface by limiting itself to a purely descriptive approach. He did, however, express great admiration for William James and recognized the need to include the contribution of the various fields of religious studies in any appreciation of religion. It was not possible, he believed, to derive the notion of religion purely a priori. The a posteriori element of actual experience and observation of phenomena had also to be taken into account. In this way, Troeltsch represents a link between the philosophical and the pragmatic approach.
Drawing his inspiration from the two above thinkers, German-American theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) developed, in the early part of his career, a philosophy of religion that would serve as a preliminary to his subsequent theological work. In a fundamental sense, Tillich refused to consider religion as a separate category of culture. Instead, he defined it as the orientation of our mind towards the “unconditioned,” a term inherited from Immanuel Kant referring to the ultimate reality hidden behind the visible, limited, and conditioned phenomena of the world. Tillich explained the unconditioned as the unexplained presence of “being,” which our thought cannot possibly reduce to itself. Later, he would replace this expression by that of “ultimate concern,” the element in the human mind that cannot help reaching out to the unconditioned ground of being. The important consequence of Tillich’s approach is its implication that the human mind is by nature religious. Even atheism posits the non-existence of God as an absolute, an unconditioned, and in this sense it is itself religious according to Tillich’s definition.
Rather than being a separate sphere next to all the others, or even above them, religion thus becomes the core of human consciousness and the traditional religious expressions are but one of its forms. This conclusion played an important role in response to the disappearance of religion’s traditional role in modern society. It also created a rationale for today’s widely accepted blurring of the distinction between the sacred and the secular or profane form of cultural expression.
Tillich’s existential approach was enormously influential. However, today, few would deny the importance of combining the analysis of religious consciousness with the insights gained from religious studies and the empirical approach. It is hard to take seriously the idea that it is possible to deduce the meaning of religion through purely a priori reflection divorced from observation. Thus, contemporary forms of philosophy of religion almost invariably include a strongly developed empirical element. Among others, this has brought to the fore previously unsuspected dimensions of religious life, notably through the discovery of other religious cultures and their oftentimes very different starting points. The inclusion of feminist views is another example. A priori notions of what religion is or should be thus come to be seen as fundamentally prejudiced.
One of the 20th century’s most eminent religious philosophers and scientists, Ninian Smart (1927-2001) well represents the current trend in this field. His approach is typical of Anglo-Saxon pragmatism and its refusal to rely on abstract rational definitions. Beyond that, it is typical of the contemporary inclusiveness and open-mindedness to various forms of religious expression. Smart defines his approach as interreligious, interdisciplinary and plurimethodic. In his eyes, religious philosophy and doctrines, as well as religious experience, represent only some of the dimensions of religion. To these two, he adds the ritual dimension, the mythical or narrative dimension, the legal or ethical dimension, the institutional or social dimension, the architectural dimension, and the political dimension. There is no hierarchy of importance among them – they all contribute to form what humankind has come to call religion. This can also represent a weakness of that approach: there is no real attempt to show how the organic interaction between the various elements takes place. Smart’s approach thus represents an application of the phenomenological method in a very general sense.
If Gary Kessler defines the philosophy of religion as “the rational attempt to formulate, understand, and answer fundamental questions about religious matters,” Smart rather tries to understand and formulate the meaning of all aspects of religion, not just its fundamental philosophical questions. His dimension of religion largely define the main themes of the philosophy of religion, as discussed below.
In addition, Smart discusses the important connection between the philosophy of religion and theology. Conducted in his spirit, the philosophy of religion cannot yield hard evidence for one theological worldview rather than another. He thus speaks of “soft non-relativism,” meaning by this that tentative conclusions can only lead to the adoption of tentative belief systems that are preferred to others because of their relative merit only. Smart calls his position neo-transcendentalism.
In the age of post-modernism, it has become a common underlying assumption that absolute criteria of truth simply do not exist. Foundationalism, or the belief that it is possible to reach an unshakable ultimate foundation to our knowledge, has been all but eliminated. As a discipline, the philosophy of religion thus has moved away from the sweeping statements and grandiose design of Hegel’s religious philosophy. Though hard-line, dogmatic positions of one kind or another still exist, the effort to understand the inner consistency of various positions by looking at them with empathy has become the general tendency in philosophy of religion. Based on that approach, a tentative position is then taken.
The key concerns in philosophy of religion largely result from what has been discussed above. The very first among these concerns is rightfully the question of religion’s identity. That question underlies all others, including the question of God.
A look at Ninian Smart’s dimensions of religion shows that they essentially correspond to the dimensions of cultural life in general. The question is then, what makes the religious manifestation of these dimensions (theory, practices, emotions, artistic expression) different from others? Authors like Otto and Tillich have insisted that, though the institutional aspect of religion is necessary, it is the break-through of the unique content, the “numinous” or the “unconditioned” that gives them new life again and again, by challenging them and reviving them at the same time (the notion of Reformation). Accordingly, besides the rational attempt to show what religion is, as exemplified by Hegel, there has always been an approach focusing on the meaning for the individual, as exemplified by Kierkegaard and his existentialist followers.
The real challenge, then, becomes to isolate an element or characteristic common to all religions. Following Wittgenstein, authors like Rem Edwards and Ninian Smart have concluded that such an undertaking is next to impossible. There is no single element that can be found in every religion. Therefore, you cannot say “religion is that which includes such and such.” For instance, the apparently obvious “religion is about God” will not do. Buddhism is generally recognized as a religion, but it has no notion of a God, or even gods. One is therefore left with the notion of “family resemblance”: There is something vaguely similar in all religions, but it is not possible to exactly pinpoint what it is.
Something can nevertheless be attempted. First, there is the notion of the transcendent. By adding that it is not necessarily a transcendent being (God), but that it can also be a transcendent state (e.g., Nirvana), Smart allows for an inclusion of Buddhism. By adding the commitment to a transcendent moral or cosmic rule, the “Way of Heaven,” one also includes traditions like Confucianism and Daoism. Though defining transcendence is itself a challenge, it broadly refers to anything that goes beyond (transcends) our regular, natural dimension of life – or is perceived to do so. It is something that cannot be found in our world, but is nevertheless perceived to be necessary to give it its ultimate meaning or foundation. It is also something that is utterly beyond human control. That perception seems to be fairly universal in religious consciousness. Even animism and other traditions that seem to know none of the above definitions of transcendence do have what Mircea Eliade call the "distinction between the Sacred and the Profane" – the Sacred somehow representing an in-depth dimension of reality. And if traditions like Daoism emphasize the need to become one with reality as it is, rather than looking for another, superior reality, they nevertheless make a strict distinction between that state of (hard to achieve) harmonious oneness and the common state of human affairs.
From this, a second conclusion ensues. There is a sense, common to probably all religious traditions, that an adjustment is necessary in human life if we are to realign ourselves with that transcendent. Being religious not only involves an awareness of the transcendent; it also involves some form of self-denial, some need to overcome one’s natural tendencies, be it through one’s own effort or through the workings of grace. In Christianity, this is expressed in the notions of sin and redemption. Nirvana, Islam’s Five Pillar of Faith, the mastery of Yoga – all these are based on vastly different understandings of religion. They all involve the assumption that leading our lives “as is” is not acceptable. No religious tradition will encourage its followers to indulge life in a self-centered way. The ways may be different, as are the frameworks in which all this is understood, but the commonality is still evident.
The difference between the religious and secular outlook on things may seem obvious, but the study of philosophy of religion shows that the matter is more difficult than it seems at first. Some have made the distinction between religion and quasi-religion (e.g., Marxism and Nazism). The issue is then to justify the distinction made between the absolute aims and claims of both approaches based on the nature of their goal.
One distinct element of the religious is the presence of the supernatural, referring to the assumed fact that the Transcendent does not (or not always) follow natural laws in its manifestation. This includes the notion of miracles. This discussion includes an empirical element (ascertaining the reality of supposed non-natural events) and a theoretical one (explaining such events if they are accepted in their existence).
Like the well-known "death of God" proclaimed by Friedrich Nietzsche, or the demotion of God to the status of a “minor accident” (Emile Durkheim), the end of religion has often been announced, meaning either that religion as such will disappear (Marxism) or that the notion of religion should be done away with (Wilfred Cantwell Smith). In a deeper sense, the notion of an end of religion is embedded in the very notion of religion – if religion is seen as the recovery of a lost state or the achievement of an ideal state. When that state is achieved (Nirvana, Kingdom of God), the means is no longer needed.
If religion is the human concern with the transcendent, if it is humanity’s effort to connect or re-connect with that transcendent, or if it is our response to that transcendent, the question arises about the nature of that transcendent. This has traditionally been the question about God, though it is clear that it must be rephrased in the context of world religions. The Ultimate, the Transcendent, and the Mystery have been suggested as more inclusive expressions.
One problem with the notion of God as the Ultimate Being is that it is hard to grasp and even harder to describe. God may be the ultimate reality but, being invisible, he seems to lack just about every quality that common entities possess. It is not by chance that there are atheists.
Significantly, there are two parts to the question about God. What is the nature of that Ultimate, and how can we prove that such an Ultimate exists? Both questions highlight the dilemma faced by the philosophy of religion: that of addressing an issue with tools that appear to be inadequate, i.e., that of discussing a reality that cannot be perceived by our senses, or simply remain silent. Both solutions have been attempted.
The question of God has classically been regarded as the core part of metaphysics. In his Metaphysics, Aristotle describes God as the first cause: the unmoved mover. This later came to be called natural theology by scholasticism and by rationalist philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
It should be clear why considerations of the divine have been regarded as metaphysical. God is usually conceived to be in a distinct category of being; a being different from those of the rest of the universe. For example, God is generally conceived as not having a body. Metaphysics, and in particular ontology, is concerned with the most basic categories of existence, those things that cannot be explained with reference to any other type of existence. Thus one might argue that the very notion of God (or gods, or the divine) cannot be reduced to human concepts of mind or body; God is a sui generis entity.
Following twentieth century German philosopher Martin Heidegger, many have criticized such a metaphysical discussion of God. Using a word coined earlier by Kant, Heidegger uses “onto-theology” to describe the attempt to grasp God as if he were a being among others. This attempt, he says, does justice nether to the essence of religion (which is not to grasp the ultimate as a thing), nor to the philosophical method. Even earlier, Tillich has spoken out against the “objectification” of God. Even those who do not follow this analysis today usually admit the paradox there is in trying to discuss God in the traditional metaphysical way. Still, particularly among Catholic philosophers, the metaphysical approach has not been entirely abandoned.
Even in our Western culture, God is not always seen as the central element of religion. Emile Durkheim, a pioneer of the sociology of religion, is famous for stating that “the idea of God which seemed to be the sum total of religion a short while ago, is now no more than a minor accident” when considered from the perspective of religion’s social role.
The question "What is God?" is sometimes also phrased as "What is the meaning of the word 'God'?" Indeed, before attempting a definition of a term it is essential to know what sense of the term is to be defined. Since both metaphysics and philosophy of religion as we know them have primarily existed in the west, the usual reference has been the God of monotheism, the belief in one supreme, personal Being. Other traditions, such as Hindus, believe in many different deities (polytheism, while also maintaining that all are manifestations of one God. Buddhists generally do not believe in a creator God similar to that of the Abrahamic religions, but direct attention to a state called Nirvana.
Within these two broad categories (monotheism and polytheism) there is a wide variety of possible beliefs, although there are relatively few popular ways of believing. For example, among the monotheists there have been those who believe that the one God is like a watchmaker who wound up the universe and now does not intervene in the universe at all; this view is deism. By contrast, the view that God continues to be active in the universe is called theism. (Note that 'theism' is here used as a narrow and rather technical term, not as a broader term as it is below.
In Western (Christian) thought, God is traditionally described as a being that possesses at least three necessary properties: omniscience (being all-knowing), omnipotence (all-powerful), and omnibenevolence (supremely good). In other words, God knows everything, has the power to do anything, and is perfectly good. Many other properties (e.g., omnipresence) have been alleged to be necessary properties of a god; however, these are the three most uncontroversial and dominant in Christian tradition. By contrast, Monism is the view that all is of one essential essence, substance or energy. Monistic theism, a variant of both monism and monotheism, views God as both immanent and transcendent. Both are dominant themes in Hinduism.
Even once the word "God" is defined in a monotheistic sense, there are still many difficult questions to be asked about what this means. For example, what does it mean for something to be created? How can something be "all-powerful"?
The distinguishing characteristic of polytheism is its belief in more than one god(dess). There can be as few as two, such as a classical Western understanding of Zoroastrian dualism). In such cases, one God is usually perceived to represent goodness, while the other represents evil (Manichaeism). More often, there is an innumerably large amount of divinities, as in Hinduism (as the Western world perceives it). There are many varieties of polytheism; they all accept that many gods exist, but differ in their responses to that belief. Henotheists for example, worship only one of the many gods, either because it is held to be more powerful or worthy of worship than the others. But in Kali Yukam all gets unified into Ayya Vaikundar for destroying the Kaliyan. (some Christian sects take this view of the Trinity, holding that only God the Father should be worshipped, Jesus and the Holy Spirit being distinct and lesser gods), or because it is associated with their own group, culture, state, etc., (ancient Judaism is sometimes interpreted in this way). The distinction isn't a clear one, of course, as most people consider their own culture superior to others, and this will also apply to their culture's God. Kathenotheists have similar beliefs, but worship a different god at different times or places.
Pantheists assert that God and the natural universe are one and the same, perhaps seen from a different perspective. The most famous Western pantheist is Baruch Spinoza, though the precise characterization of his views is complex.
Panentheism is the view that an immanent God permeates the entire natural universe, but is not reduced to it.
Many thinkers in Christianity and other traditions have chosen to use the so-called via negativa, the “negative way.” Instead of saying “God is this or that” they would say all the things God is not: he is not finite, not limited by time, not relative in any way, not… This may help us avoid misconceptions, but it still leaves a big question mark for anyone trying to make rational sense of the notion of God.
The “negative way” has usually been the approach of mystics and thinkers with a mystical bent, such as Meister Eckhart in middle age Europe. Here, the conceptual meets the experiential. Not only is it wrong to try to conceptualize God as something specific, hence limited. It is also wrong, in this view, to aim for ultimate fulfillment by discovering, acquiring, or realizing something positively given, hence limited and illusory.
This has also been the general perception of the religious traditions originating on the Indian subcontinent, in particular Buddhism, where the nothing of “Emptiness” is essential. But there is a difference between the via negativa as perceived or experienced by Christian mystics, and the equivalent in Buddhism: in the Christian version, the negative way is paradoxically the best method to become one with the fullness of the personal God. In Buddhism, there is no such notion.
There are (at least) two more serious questions if one considers the Ultimate as an ultimate Being, over and against the limited beings of this world. First, that invisible divine Being is considered spiritual in nature, as opposed to the world, which is material. How, then, can a spiritual God have created the material world? Is there any point of contact between the two? The three monotheistic traditions of the West emphasize the notion of creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing. Since God is almighty, he created the universe out of nothing at all, and he created it material, though he himself is spiritual. Thinkers have struggled trying to offer a consistent explanation of this view.
Why is God “he” and not “she”? That is another huge issue that has been all but ignored in the past and has now become an important component of the feminine discourse. Rosemary Reuther, a renowned and moderate feminist theologian, dismisses the notion that God is male. So is the idea that God is only female. The idea that God has both masculine and feminine characteristics is appealing (after all, both characteristics appear in the universe created by God), but this solution is ultimately dismissed as well and Rosemary Reuther settles for the notion that God is beyond masculine and feminine – essentially, another application of the “via negativa.” You be the judge.
The question, "Do we have any good reason to think that God does (or does not) exist?," is equally important in the philosophy of religion. There are four main positions with regard to the existence of God that one might take:
Each of these positions has been defended in numerous ways throughout the history of thought, in particular through what is known as the proofs of God’s existence and their refutation.
Paradoxically, evil is central to religion. If there was no evil, we would be naturally one with God, we would be one with our true selves, and one with the whole, or at least the way towards these goals would be smooth and wide open. One way or another, the notion of evil is connected with suffering, with a defect, with something that shouldn't be the way it is, or something that should be overcome (natural evil, moral evil, or Buddhism’s self-delusion caused by the veil of the Maya). Religions and the various paths to wisdom are about this course of overcoming evil and regaining an original state, the Kingdom of God or Nirvana. Why would we need salvation if there was no sin and death? Why would we need enlightenment if we lived in light? Why liberation if we were spontaneously free?
The challenges posed by the obvious presence of evil in the world depend directly on our view of ultimate reality: a loving and almighty creator, gods playing a game with us, an eternal world that is just there, a world of illusion that blocks us from reaching our true self, and so on.
Another key question is how evil is perceived or explained. Every definition of evil has its implications and its open questions. Is evil a real force (e.g., Satan) – if so, why did God allow it to exist? Is it a simple illusion (what we think is evil is actually goodness in disguise), but do facts across the board really justify such an optimistic interpretation? Is Evil simply an absence of good? But this is hard to accept for anyone who has experienced the frontal attack of evil. Is all evil, including natural evil, due to our moral corruption – this may be obvious in some cases (if I destroy my health through bad habits, this will affect my children; if greedy corporation ignore natural dangers to make more profit, this will causes natural disasters), but what about earthquakes? Evil is a lack of balance in our mind and in nature – then, why do we have this lack of balance to begin with? Or why are we allowing a veil of deceit to dominate us? John Hick has written extensively on this topic.
In monotheistic religions, theodicy (“vindicating the justice of God”) is the defense of God's goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil, i.e., explaining why God allows evil. A theodicy needs to reconcile three apparently irreconcilable propositions: 1. God is good 2. God is omnipotent (all-powerful) 3. There is evil If any two of these propositions are true, the third one would have to be false (e.g., if God is good and yet there is evil, he cannot be almighty). Yet all three are essential from a theistic point of view. The possible solution, it seems, must nevertheless involve a qualification of at least one of the three statements. Throughout the ages, this question has been one of the main arguments for atheism.
But rationalizing the issue has in itself often been perceived as inappropriate. In his Candide, Voltaire famously ridicules the equally famous theodicy of German philosopher Leibniz. But he does so more on emotional than on logical grounds. The presence of evil is so overwhelming that no amount of reasoning can explain it away. It remains a scandal. Similarly, in the Christian tradition, dating back to Paul and continuing with Luther, there is what can be called an element of irrationalism. Sin and forgiveness, damnation and salvation, are absolute facts that remain irreducibly paradoxical to our human understanding.
In the absence of a supreme, personal God in one’s worldview, e.g., in Buddhism, Hinduism or Confucianism, the question is altogether different. The focus of attention, in dealing with evil, accordingly shifts to the question of universal justice. The law of karma, for instance, attempts to answer the question, why me? The notion of karma thus puts strong emphasis on the interrelatedness of all beings. Even natural evils such as drought and floods can be explained by our lack or moral merit (this is not supposed to replace a scientific explanation of the "how" but to explain the "why").
It is also well known that the notion of karma is generally linked with that of reincarnation. It thus reaches beyond the individual and explains evil that befalls an innocent child today by the evil deeds of an earlier individual. This notion of reincarnation replaces, so to speak, the monotheistic notion of the afterlife, where our deeds will be rewarded in heaven or in hell. The notion of karma itself can be seen as replacing the notion of sin or, more precisely, that of original sin. As noted by Nishitani, both the notion of original sin and that of karma imply a notion of evil that is more profound than our individual existence and actions.
Similarly, the notion of fortune is common in East Asia. Anyone who has spent some time in the East is familiar with the notion of fortune. Even a casual visit to a Chinese take-away will end with a fortune cookie. Even a highly developed and westernized society like that of Japan is very familiar with practices like the reading of hand-lines. A certain fortune or destiny is attached to individuals, clans, and nations. That fortune may be changed but it cannot be ignored. Another far eastern notion that has made its way into our culture is that of a proper balance and harmony between complementary elements (yang and yin) and the negative consequences when that balance is broken or not respected.
Ancient Greek polytheism, with its belief in many gods embodying all imaginable moral defects naturally went hand in hand with fatalism and the notion of fate. Yet, even there, the gods' justice and eventually even their existence was questioned.
Is good or evil more fundamental? There is a strong tendency in Christian tradition to assume that humans are essentially evil because they are tainted by sin. That strain is particularly strong in Calvinism. On the other hand, there is the perception that originally, humans were created good by God and that some of that goodness remains. This has given rise to a long theological debate.
Of particular philosophical interest is the similarity between the various positions found in Chinese Confucianism and those found in the western civilization, in spite of considerable differences in general outlook. The notion of sin is typical of Christianity and is not found in the thought of either China or India. Nevertheless, there is an astounding parallel. The belief in man’s inborn goodness defended by Jean Jacques Rousseau is also found in the thought of Mencius. Hsün-Tzu, on the other hand, sides with those who see an insuperable tendency towards evil rooted in human nature.
The philosophical question raised by the notion of immortality is similar to that of God: it deals with what transcends our senses. Likewise, it is most strongly and most clearly present in monotheistic traditions. It is also there that it has been challenged most strongly. But unlike the notion of God that involves the logical question of ultimate causation, the notion of immortality is more exclusively linked to faith and the existential approach. There seems to be no logical ground for believing that there is life after our disappearance, yet the very nature of our human consciousness seems to contradict the possibility of its annihilation at the death of our physical body – at least, this is the way nearly all cultural traditions have perceived it. The task of a philosophical approach is to ascertain whether the universality of the belief in the afterlife is a remnant of primitive worldviews and the expression of wishful thinking, or whether it is the expression of the intuitive awareness of a higher reality.
The deceptively simple notion of immortality covers a variety of possible understandings. Best known is the belief in a personal survival of the soul. But there is also the obvious and indefinite survival of the material constituents of our body. There is the survival of our life’s accomplishments in the memory of others and in future history. Mostly, however, there is the belief that whatever made up our individual consciousness transcends our individual existence and maintains itself beyond it. Our death would then mean our mind’s return to the cosmic soul.
The belief in reincarnation or the transmigration of souls combines the belief in the eternity of the soul and some type of physical continuity.
Christianity and other religions that believe in a personal God also believe in the absolute value of the human person as a partner – no matter how finite and inadequate – to that personal God. This naturally implies the belief in human immortality, whether for all humans or only for those who choose the right path of life. The notion of immortality is therefore intimately connected to the notion of purpose.
Nevertheless, there has never been a successful philosophical elaboration of that theme in western philosophy. The question of the afterlife has essentially remained an issue for dogmatic theology and personal experience. The problem can be traced back to the very core of western philosophy’s notion of substance.
For Plato, the essence of reality lies in the bodiless human soul (see the allegory of the cave). When the body dies, the soul lives on eternally in the world of ideas (once it has purified itself through successive reincarnations, finally reaching the level of philosophy). This vision of the eternal soul implies that it has no body or shape of any kind and is limited to a point of consciousness. The philosophical problem this creates has never been satisfactorily answered. For Aristotle, mind and body are two sides of the same entity. He therefore believed that the soul dies with the body. The Christian Aristotelian Thomas Aquinas sought to reconcile this view with the Christian doctrine of immortality and stated that our soul temporarily survived death before being reunited with the physical body at the resurrection. Philosophically, this solution has been considered rather artificial and involving a deus ex machina. A third solution has been repeatedly attempted throughout history. It implies the survival of the soul in an immaterial body, which solves the problems left by Plato and Aristotle. Spiritualistic and mystics have testified to the accuracy of that hypothesis, but they have met the strong resistance of church dogma and the scientific mind. The main problem of that hypothesis is the difficulty, if not the impossibility of universal empirical verification. Eighteenth century Swedish scientist and spiritualist Emmanuel Swedenborg has offered one of the most complete explanations from that perspective, but was sharply refuted by Kant’s critical standpoint.
Religion and ethics (or morality) have been so intimately linked that one has sometimes lost its identity on behalf of the other. The commonality of the Golden Rule of ethics (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) in the world’s religions is one of the strongest arguments for interreligious dialogue. Yet the dependence of ethics on religion has often been challenged, and so has the reduction of religion to ethics.
The core question here is the justification of religion’s claim to set ethical standards above, or even against, those that seem to be warranted by the rules of interpersonal relationships. Kant’s well-known epitaph, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within” well summarizes his philosophy. In spite of Kant’s religious agnosticism of sorts, it also summarizes the essence of religious morals. Varied as they may be in their content, religious demands in ethics tend to come as absolute commandments that are their own justification.
But the expression “divine law” is ambiguous. It can mean that there is a universal moral law that has been arbitrarily established by God (the divine command theory). It can also mean that the law itself is in a way divine, because absolute. In the first case it may seem that God is a dictator, since he arbitrarily decides what is good and what it wrong. In the second case, it seems that God himself is subjected to that moral law. Both are hard to accept for a believer, hence we speak of a dilemma – the Euthyphro dilemma, named after a Socratic dialogue.
The first solution to the alternative implies not only that God’s goodness is not to be questioned; it also implies that there is no ultimate rational ground for ethics and that ethical behavior according to human laws is ultimately worthless. It is common to many forms of monotheism. A response to the challenge it represents can consist in saying that God’s commandments have deeper reasons than those that are accessible to us, or that they are altogether beyond any rational explanation.
The second solution, whereby the moral law receives nearly divine status, is central to the religious philosophies of East Asia, particularly Confucianism, in which there is no clear notion of a transcendent divinity.
Both forms of ethics have been challenged for being arbitrary. Friedrich Nietzsche represents an example of that challenge in the Christian west, and Chinese Marxism represents its main manifestation in the Confucianist context.
The great belief systems of this world are not the product of academic research: Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha by experiencing enlightenment; Moses met God, and so did Jesus and Mohammad. As Ninian Smart notes, these seminal encounters with the transcendent are echoed to some degree in the spiritual lives of individual believers.
On the other hand, religious experiences have been discredited both by non-believers (who consider them to be illusions) and by some believers (who consider them to be potentially misleading). So, there is a wide consensus that the experiential or emotional dimension is essential to religious life, but: Is there an actual object to our religious experiences? Or is it just all illusion? This quintessentially philosophical question leads to another: what is reality? Is it only what we can see and touch? If not, what else is there? How can we know? Can we know? Since religion is all about the unseen, these questions are essential. Depending on one’s underlying assumptions, the answer will differ.
Any definition can only be tentative, as is the following: A religious or spiritual experience takes place when an individual has the sense of being in contact with a higher dimension (a dimension beyond our physical senses) or of being in an altered state of consciousness.
Interpreting religious experiences leads us right back to the questions and choices we were facing when considering the reality of an Ultimate Being. If there is an Ultimate Reality (whatever its kind), it makes sense that we would experience it one way or another. If there isn't, anything that appears to be a religious experience is illusion.
Next, assuming that there is an Ultimate Reality, the question is, how do we relate to it, if at all? This largely depends on how we view that reality. Some people may even believe in a God, but not believe that we can have a spiritual perception of him. A personal God and the Ultimate understood as the Great Emptiness are not only different views of the ultimate, they also lead to very different experiences of that ultimate. In most cases, believing that there is such a thing as a genuine religious experience has a key implication, namely that there is a reality beyond that which is apprehended by our five physical senses.
The phenomenology of spiritual experiences reveals a great variety of manifestations that rightly come under that name. Ninian Smart makes the distinction between Rudolf Otto’s numinous (the sense of awe before a transcendent God) and mysticism (the sense of inner unity with the divine) as presented by Aldous Huxley. Zen Buddhism knows the enlightenment of the Satori, and altogether different experience.
All these different forms of religious experience, by their very existence, offer a challenge to traditional epistemology and ontology, i.e., the challenge the scientific rational view of reality. Often, they co-exist in the same individual without any attempt at a reconciliation between the two (one is a scientist and a believer, on two different planes).
All of the main themes of philosophical reflection on religion essentially raise the same questions about the possibility of knowing and formulating knowledge in that particular realm. The religious language faces particular challenges, but it also offers particular advantages.
There are significant challenges to the idea that we can talk meaningfully about religious matters (see section on God). First, there is the position that only scientifically measurable things make any sense. Talk about God is not one of them. For Logical positivism, meaningful language is either analytical i.e., the analysis of something already known (a woman is a female human being), or synthetic, i.e., reasoning based on verifiable experience (the temperature here today is 56 degrees). Talk about God is either a meaningless repetition of the same idea in different words, or it is unfounded, because none of these statements can be verified by scientific measurement.
This is related to the notion of falsifiability: The notion that a statement must be falsifiable to be meaningful means that when you say something, it only makes sense if one can prove that it is true or false. Otherwise, it is perfectly gratuitous. E.g., saying that if humans had wings, I could fly higher than you, is not falsifiable: you cannot prove that it is untrue (neither, of course, that it is true). For some, anything said about God comes under that category.
Analytic philosophy, on the other hand, does deal with religious language, even abundantly so, but by limiting its approach to the analysis of propositions it severely curtails the range of its significance.
To these perceived limitations of religious language one should add the self-limiting approach of the via negativa of mysticism (see section on God). However, there is a positive side to that limitation.
Myths and symbols, or ideograms (as Rudolf Otto calls them), are not merely ways of expressing vaguely what could be expressed in clear, rational language, or a way to hide the inconsistency of religious language. It has been widely recognized that myths and symbols may be the only way to express certain realities that cannot be encoded in straight language. Similarly to poetic language that expresses feelings direct words can’t describe, myths and symbols stimulate our intuitive capacity and our sense of meaning. In religious studies, particularly in the sociology of religion, myth thus is devoid of any negative connotation. It is a legitimate and irreplaceable means of expression. Whereas Rudolf Bultmann has stressed the need to de-mythologize biblical language (i.e., not to take literally what shouldn’t be), many feel that myth should not be avoided, but simply recognized for what it is.
Far Eastern religions make a particularly rich use of symbolic and coded language, in ways reminiscent of Jesus’ “those who have ears to hear may hear,” thus claiming a cognitive ability transcending ordinary language, including rational philosophical language.
In Medieval China, Wang Yangming (1472–1529), a great Neo-Confucianist philosopher, emphasized the cognitive role of ethics. One cannot really acquire knowledge about ethical matters until one has acted in an ethical way. In a similar way, philosophy of religion takes into account the experiential element in the cognition of religious matters. The object of religious thought is not readily given but requires personal involvement in a way that is clearly distinct from philosophical investigation.
Ludwig Wittgenstein eventually came to reject the approach of Logical Positivism and, in his later years, he recognized religious language as a “language game” of its own, having its own set of rules, rather than merely failing to abide by the rules of so-called rational language. It has been objected to Wittgensteinian fideism that by doing so it ignores the primitive nature of religious language and uncritically adopts it as an alternative mode of expression (Kai Nielsen).
The conflict between faith and reason has been an ongoing element in the history of western thought in particular. The same is true for the interaction between science and religion. Given the minimalist claims of contemporary philosophy (both continental and analytic) and its rejection of any search for ultimate foundations to our knowledge, religious language at the very least offers an alternative mode of inquiry and thus challenges philosophy as much as philosophy challenges religion.
In Beyond de Post-Modern Mind, Huston Smith reintroduces Leibniz’s notion of perennial philosophy in his critique of contemporary philosophy’s reductionism. Fritjof Schuon and, earlier, Aldous Huxley have also stressed the need to consider the hidden continuity of religious thought in history in response to both philosophical reductionism and religious factionalism.
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