This blog is mostly concerned with philosophy of religion. So, I guess I should take a moment to give a bird’s eye-view view of what the heck philosophy of religion is. But first, what is philosophy?
What is philosophy?
Philosophy is the practice of trying to answer the Big Questions, the ones that can’t be answered by science. Questions like:
- What is knowledge? How do we know things? Do we know anything at all? (this is epistemology)
- What kinds of things actually exist? What is “existence”? (metaphysics)
- What is science? How does it work? What is “good” science? (philosophy of science)
- What should we do? What is the good life? (ethics)
- How should we structure a society? (political philosophy)
- What is beauty? What is art? What makes something good or bad art? (aesthetics)
- What is the mind? What is consciousness? How do they work? (philosophy of mind)
- How can we think clearly and correctly about these questions? (logic)
- We think and ask questions with words. What are words, and how do they work? (philosophy of language)
Philosophy used to ask other questions, too, before we invented the tools needed to answer them even better with science. For example, the first philosophers speculated about what things are made of. But now we have the tools to do modern chemistry and physics, and we know that everything is made of atoms and subatomic particles and such. So those questions aren’t part of philosophy any more. They’ve been handed over to science.
Philosophy of mind is currently being handed over to neuroscience. But some branches of philosophy will always remain beyond the reach of science.
Religion and philosophy
In the past, it was religion that usually gave the answers to these questions. But we usually think of religion and philosophy as different things. What’s the difference?
Philosophy, in the narrower sense, is a particular method for answering the Big Questions. Whereas religion typically answers the Big Questions by reference to an authority – a “holy” book or a “holy” man – philosophy is very concerned with giving reasons and arguments in favor of certain answers to the Big Questions. This is especially true of analytic philosophy, which demands that answers to the Big Questions be supported by valid logical arguments and, where relevant, critically examined evidence.
But wait a minute. If religion and philosophy are opposing methods for answering the Big Questions, what the heck is philosophy of religion?
Philosophy of religion
Philosophy of religion, then, applies the methods of philosophy to the subject matter of religion. Philosophy of religion asks questions like:
- Does God exist?
- If so, what is the nature of God?
…but it answers these questions not by appealing to holy books or holy men, but by giving valid logical arguments and critically examined evidence. It answers religious questions with the methods of philosophy.
Philosophy of Christianity
So you might think there is an academic war going on between philosophers who think there are hundreds of tiny gods in everything, philosophers who think there is a small pantheon of very powerful gods, philosophers who think there is one supreme and good God, philosophers who think there is one supreme and evil God, philosophers who think there is on supreme and morally indifferent God, etc.
Well, not today. As it turns out, only one religion has seriously taken up the modern challenge to justify its God with argument and evidence, and that religion is Christianity. Other religions – especially Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism – made important contributions to philosophy in the past, but it is hard to find a respected analytic philosopher in those camps today. As a result, living philosophers of religion mostly debate the existence and nature of some kind of Christian-esque God. (Non-Christian theists in analytic philosophy generally believe in some kind of vague, super-powerful creator god, though they don’t call him Yahweh and they don’t think Jesus had magical powers.)
We might divide philosophers of religion into three categories:
- Those who think God exists, and he is the Christian God: eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, transcendent, non-contingent, personal, intervening, and revealed in the resurrection of Jesus.
- Those who think God exists, and he is like the Christian God except he doesn’t act much in our world, is not revealed in Jesus, and perhaps is not personal.
- Those who think God probably doesn’t exist.
How philosophy of religion is done
Science is done by collecting data, doing experiments, and then publishing your findings in academic journals for other scientists to criticize. Philosophy is done in the same way, except that most philosophy “experiments”1 happen in the laboratory of the mind. For this reason, philosophy is a lot cheaper than science, for philosophy is done almost entirely by publishing books and papers.
Let me give an example in philosophy of religion.
In 1979, Christian philosopher William Lane Craig wrote The Kalam Cosmological Argument, a book defending his own version of the “first cause” argument for God’s existence published earlier in different forms by Aristotle (a pagan), Maimonides (a Jew), Averroes (a Muslim), and Thomas Aquinas (a Christian). Since then, many philosophers have published papers or book chapters assessing the merit of certain premises in the argument. For example:
- Three Contemporary Defenses of the Cosmological Argument (1989) by Michael Martin
- Must the Past Have a Beginning? (1999) by Wes Morriston
- A Critique of the Kalam Cosmological Argument (2002) by Wes Morriston
- The Question of the Metaphysical Possibility of an Infinite Set of Real Entities (2002) by Arnold T. Guminski
Other philosophers published work that did not directly address Craig’s Kalam cosmological argument, but argued for or against certain assumptions of the Kalam cosmological argument, for example Creation in a Closed Universe (1991) by Robin Le Poidevin.
Craig and others, of course, have defended the argument in the wake of these considerations:
- A Swift and Simple Refutation of the Kalam Cosmological Argument? (1999) by William Lane Craig
- A Response to a Platonistic and to a Set-Theoristic Objection to the Kalam Cosmological Argument (2003) by J.P. Moreland
- J. Howard Sobel on the Kalam Cosmological Argument (2006) by William Lane Craig
And so the debate continues.
Philosophy of religion in the public square
But debates in philosophy of religion are not chained in the towers of academia. They couldn’t be, given how important these religious questions are to the common people. Inevitably, philosophers (like Craig and Onfray) bring their arguments to the public. Others who are not professional philosophers but have a passion for bringing the philosophical debate to the public square (like Timothy Keller or myself), try to present philosophers’ arguments about God in plain talk.
Do you want to get involved?
Perhaps you’d like to get involved in the philosophy of religion debates. Perhaps you’d like to try to figure out for yourself what is and isn’t true, and engage with others who are trying to figure out the same things. How can you participate?
First, I’d start by getting familiar with philosophy, critical thinking, and logic. Try these:
- The Philosophy Gym by Stephen Law
- Critical Thinking Web
- A Rulebook for Arguments by Anthony Weston
- My in-progress post series, Intro to Logic
Second, get familiar with the biggest issues and arguments in philosophy of religion:
- Philosophy of Religion course from The Teaching Company
- Philosophy of Religion: An Introduction by William Rowe
Then, you might wants to start reading arguments from opposite ends of the spectrum:
- Christian theism: Reasonable Faith (easy), Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (intermediate), The Rationality of Theism (difficult), etc.
- Atheism: 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God (easy), Why I Became an Atheist (intermediate), Arguing About Gods (difficult) etc.
Finally, to participate – short of getting a Ph.D. at a fine philosophy of religion school – start commenting on various philosophy of religion blogs, using what you know. You might start with:
- Theistic philosophy of religion blogs: Dangerous Idea, Edward Feser, Operation 513, etc.
- Atheistic philosophy of religion blogs: Greta Christina, Daylight Atheism, Atheism: Proving the Negative, etc.
Or, start your own blog!
Welcome to the conversation.
- Of course, philosophy papers often reference scientific research when relevant, and there is also a small branch of philosophy known as experimental philosophy. [↩]
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