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date: 19 October 2020


Abstract and Keywords

This article traces the development of the philosophy of religion as a distinct field. The philosophy of religion was comparatively neglected by academic philosophers in the first half of the twentieth century. There were several reasons for this. One was the widespread conviction that the traditional “proofs” were bankrupt. Believers and nonbelievers alike were persuaded that Hume and Kant had clearly exposed their fatal weaknesses. Another was the demise of nineteenth-century idealism. The twentieth-century heirs of the German and Anglo-American idealists had many interesting things to say about God, immortality, and humanity's religious life. But their views increasingly fell on deaf ears as analytic philosophy replaced idealism as the dominant approach among English-speaking academics. After a half century of comparative neglect, analytic philosophers began to take an interest in religion in the 1950s.

Keywords: philosophy of religion, academic philosophers, idealism, immortality, Kant, believers

The expression “philosophy of religion” did not come into general use until the nineteenth century, when it was employed to refer to the articulation and criticism of humanity's religious consciousness and its cultural expressions in thought, language, feeling, and practice. Historically, philosophical reflection on religious themes had two foci: first, God or Brahman or Nirvana or whatever else the object of religious thought, attitudes, feelings, and practice was believed to be, and, second, the human religious subject, that is, the thoughts, attitudes, feelings, and practices themselves. The first sort of philosophical reflection has had a long history. In the West, for example, discussions of the nature of God (whether he is unchanging, say, or knows the future, whether his existence can be rationally demonstrated, and the like) are incorporated in theological treatises such as Anselm's Proslogion and Monologion, Thomas Aquinas's Summas, Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed, and al-Ghazali's Incoherence of the Philosophers. They also form part of influential metaphysical systems like Plato's, Plotinus's, Descartes', and Leibniz's. Hindu Vedanta and classical Buddhism included sophisticated discussions of the nature of the Brahman and of the Buddha, respectively. Many contemporary philosophers of religion continue to be engaged with these topics (see, for example, chapters 1 through 5 and 8).

The most salient feature of this sort of philosophy of religion is its attempts to establish truths about God or the Absolute on the basis of unaided reason. Aquinas is instructive. Some truths about God can be known only with the help of revelation. Examples are his triune nature and incarnation. Other truths about him, such as his existence, simplicity, wisdom, and power, are included in his (p. 4) revelation to us but can also be known through reason. And Aquinas proceeds to show how reason can establish them. What we would today call philosophy of religion (or natural theology) is thus an integral part of his systematic theology. Early modern philosophers like Descartes, Leibniz, and Locke are only incidentally concerned with purely theological issues, but they too insist that some important truths about God can be established by purely philosophical reflection.

The notion that we should accept only those religious beliefs that can be established by reason was not commonly expressed until the later part of the seventeenth century, however, and not widely embraced until adopted by the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. The consequences of the new commitment to reason alone depended on whether important religious truths could be established by natural reason. Deists believed that they could. Human reason can prove the existence of God and immortality and discover basic moral principles. Because these religious beliefs are the only ones that can be established by unaided human reason, they alone are required of everyone. They are also the only beliefs needed for religious worship and practice. Beliefs wholly or partly based on some alleged revelation, on the other hand, are needless at best and pernicious at worst. Others, such as Hume, adopted a more skeptical attitude toward reason's possibilities. In their view, reason is unable to show that “God exists” or that any other important religious claim is significantly more probable than not. The only proper attitude for a reasonable person to take, therefore, is disbelief (atheism) or unbelief (agnosticism). The result of this insistence on reason alone was thus that religion either became desiccated, reduced to a few simple beliefs distilled from the rich traditional systems that had given life to them, or ceased to be a live option.

Reaction was inevitable, and took two forms. One was a shift from theoretical to practical (moral) reason. Kant, for example, was convinced that “theoretical” or “speculative” reason could neither prove nor disprove God's existence or the immortality of the soul. Practical reason, on the other hand, provided a firm basis for a religion lying within the “boundaries of reason alone.” The existence of God and an afterlife can't be established by theoretical reason. A belief in them, however, is a necessary presupposition of morality. Others, such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, shifted their attention from intellectual belief and moral conduct to religious feelings and experience. In their view, the latter, and not the former, are the root of humanity's religious life. Both approaches were widely influential in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The first fell into neglect with the waning of philosophical idealism in the first half of the twentieth century, although interest in it has recently resurfaced (see chapter 14). The second has continued to be attractive to many important philosophers of religion (see chapters 6 and 10).

Philosophy of religion was comparatively neglected by academic philosophers in the first half of the twentieth century. There were several reasons for this. One was the widespread conviction that the traditional “proofs” were bankrupt. Be‐ (p. 5) lievers and nonbelievers alike were persuaded that Hume and Kant had clearly exposed their fatal weaknesses. Another was the demise of nineteenth-century idealism. The twentieth-century heirs of the German and Anglo-American idealists (Hastings Rashdall, W. R. Sorley, A. C. Ewing, and A. E. Taylor, among others) had many interesting things to say about God, immortality, and humanity's religious life. But their views increasingly fell on deaf ears as analytic philosophy replaced idealism as the dominant approach among English-speaking academics. (The “process philosophy” of A. N. Whitehead and his followers emerged as an alternative to idealism and analytic philosophy that could accommodate religious interests. It was never more than a minority viewpoint, however, and finds itself today in much the same position that philosophical idealism was in in the early part of the twentieth century; its demise too seems immanent.) This is not to say that nothing of interest to philosophers of religion was transpiring during this period.

Five developments were especially important. The first was the impact of theologians like Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Paul Tillich on philosophers interested in religion. The second was the influence of religious existentialism, including both the rediscovery of Søren Kierkegaard and the work of contemporaries like Gabriel Marcel and Martin Buber. A third was the renewal of Thomism by Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, and others. A fourth was the rise of religious phenomenology; Rudolf Otto and others tried to accurately describe human religious experience as it appears to those who have it. Finally, philosophers who were sympathetic to religious impulses and feelings yet deeply skeptical of religious metaphysics attempted to reconstruct religion in a way that would preserve what was thought to be valuable in it while discarding the chaff. Thus, John Dewey suggested that the proper object of faith isn't supernatural beings but “the unity of all ideal ends arousing us to desire and actions,” or the “active relation” between these ideals and the “forces in nature and society that generate and support” them. In Dewey's view, “any activity pursued in behalf of an ideal end against obstacles and in spite of threats of personal loss because of a conviction of its general and enduring value is religious in quality”1(see chapter 9).

After a half century of comparative neglect, analytic philosophers began to take an interest in religion in the 1950s. Their attention was initially focused on questions of religious language. Were sentences like “God forgives my sins” used to express factual claims, or did they instead express the speaker's attitudes or commitments? If those who uttered them did express factual claims, what kind of claims were they? Could they be empirically verified or falsified, for example, and, if they could not, were they really cognitively meaningful? (For more on this debate, see chapters 9, 10, 18, and 19.)

What was unanticipated was that the young analytic philosophers of religion who were being trained during this period were to become responsible for a resurgence of philosophical theology that began in the mid-1960s and continues (p. 6) to dominate the field in English-speaking countries today. The revival was fueled by a comparative loss of interest in the question of religious language's cognitive meaningfulness (it being generally thought that attempts to show that religious sentences do not express true or false factual claims had been unsuccessful), and a conviction that Hume's and Kant's allegedly devastating criticisms of philosophical theology did not withstand careful scrutiny. On the positive side, developments in modal logic, probability theory, and so on offered tools for introducing a new clarity and rigor to traditional disputes.

Three features of the revival are especially noteworthy. The first was a renewed interest in the scholastics and in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophical theology. There were at least two reasons for this. One was the discovery that issues central to the debates of the 1960s and 1970s had already been examined with a sophistication and depth lacking in most nineteenth- and early twentieth-century discussions of the same problems. The other was the fact that a significant number of analytic philosophers of religion were practicing Christian or Jewish theists. Figures such as Aquinas, Scotus, Maimonides, Samuel Clark, and Jonathan Edwards were attractive models for these philosophers for two reasons. There is a broad similarity between the philosophical approaches of these medieval and early modern thinkers and contemporary analytic philosophers: precise definitions, careful distinctions, and rigorous argumentation are features of both. In addition, these predecessors were self-consciously Jewish or Christian; a conviction of the truth or splendor of Judaism or Christianity pervades their work. They were thus appealing models for contemporary philosophers of religion with similar commitments.

A second feature of contemporary analytic philosophy of religion is the wide array of topics it addresses. The first fifteen years or so of the period in question were dominated by discussions of issues traditionally central to the philosophy of religion: Is the concept of God coherent? Are there good reasons for thinking that God exists? Is the existence of evil a decisive reason for denying God's existence? However, beginning in the 1980s, a number of Christian analytic philosophers turned their attention to such specifically Christian doctrines as the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Atonement. Most of the articles and books on these topics were attempts to show that the doctrines in question were coherent or rational. But some were more interested in the bearing of theological doctrines on problems internal to the traditions that include them. Marilyn Adams, for example, has argued that Christian martyrdom and Christ's passion have important implications for Christian responses to the problem of evil, and Robert Oakes has made similar claims for the Jewish mystical doctrine of God's withdrawal (tzimzum). Still other analytic philosophers of religion have tried to show that theism can cast light on problems in other areas of philosophy—that it can give a better account of the logical features of natural laws, for example, or of the nature of (p. 7) numbers, sets, and other mathematical objects, or of the apparent objectivity of moral claims.2 (On the last, see chapter 14.)

A third characteristic of recent philosophy of religion is its turn toward epistemology. Medieval and seventeenth-century philosophical theology exhibited a feature that has been insufficiently appreciated since the eighteenth century and is especially prominent in Augustine and Anselm: its devotional setting. Anselm's inquiry, for instance, is punctuated by prayers to arouse his emotions and stir his will. His inquiry is a divine-human collaboration in which he continually prays for assistance and offers praise and thanksgiving for the light he has received. His project as a whole is framed by a desire to “contemplate God” or “see God's face.” Anselm's attempt to understand what he believes by finding reasons for it is largely a means to this end.3 Several hundred years later, Blaise Pascal argued that although the evidence for the truth of the Christian religion is ambiguous, it is sufficient to convince those who seek God or “have the living faith in their hearts.” Reflection on the work of predecessors like these suggests two things. The first is that the aim of philosophical theology is not, primarily, to convince nonbelievers of the truth of religious claims but, rather, self-understanding: to enable the believer to grasp the implications of, and reasons for, his or her religious beliefs. The project, in other words, is faith in search of understanding. The second is that a person's attitudes, feelings, emotions, and aims have an important bearing on his or her ability to discern religious truths. C. Stephen Evans, for example, has suggested that faith may be a necessary condition of appreciating certain reasons for religious belief. I have argued that a properly disposed heart may be needed to grasp the force of evidence for theistic belief.4 Common to much recent religious epistemology is a rejection of any form of evidentialism that insists that religious beliefs are reasonably held only if they are supported by evidence that would convince any fair-minded, properly informed, and intelligent person regardless of the state of his or her heart (see chapters 10 and 13).

As its history indicates, the aims of philosophers of religion can be quite diverse. Arguments are sometimes employed apologetically. For example, Samuel Clarke and William Paley attempted to construct proofs that would convince any fair-minded and intelligent reader of God's existence and providential government of human affairs. These proofs had begun to lose their power to persuade educated audiences by the end of the eighteenth century, however, and so Friedrich Schleiermacher and others turned to religious feelings (a sense of absolute dependence or of the unity of all things in the infinite) to justify religion to its “cultured despisers.” But although Schleiermacher thought that the heart and not the head is religion's primary source, the aim of his argument was still apologetic.

Yet philosophy of religion can have other purposes. Theistic proofs, for example, have been used to persuade nonbelievers of the truth of theism. But, as we have seen, they can also be used devotionally, and this is sometimes their (p. 8) primary purpose. Thus, Udayana's Nyayakusumanjali (which can be roughly translated as “A bouquet of arguments offered to God”) has three purposes: to convince unbelievers, to strengthen the faithful, but also to please Siva “by presenting it as an offering at his footstool.” Regardless of the success Udayana's arguments may or may not have had in achieving his first two goals, they have value as a gift offered to God; their construction and presentation is an act of worship. 5

Philosophy of religion is sometimes part of a larger philosophical project. For example, for Hegel, religion is the self-representation of Absolute Spirit in feeling and images. As such, it is a stage in a historical process that culminates in philosophy (i.e., in Hegel's philosophy!). Descartes provides another example. His Meditations introduce ontological arguments for God's existence to help resolve skeptical doubts raised earlier in the text (see chapter 4).

Philosophy of religion can also be part of the so-called Enlightenment project. Religious beliefs, institutions, and practices are critically examined in an attempt to eliminate those that can't survive the scrutiny of impartial reason. Hume's Dialogues and The Natural History of Religion and Kant's reflections on religion and morality are examples. The “hermeneutics of suspicion” practiced by Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud is an extension of the same project. According to these thinkers, religion is an expression of “false consciousness.” Its beliefs, feelings, and practices lack rational support and rest on motives that cannot be consciously acknowledged without destroying their credibility (see chapter 19).

Finally, philosophy of religion can be an attempt to make sense of, or account for, religion, and not a reflection on its object (God, Nirvana, and the like). George Santayana's interpretation of religion as a kind of poetry, a feelingful contemplation of ideal forms, is an example; Hume's Natural History of Religion is another. As these examples indicate, attempts of this sort are seldom neutral. Santayana, for instance, takes naturalism for granted, and Hume is independently convinced that historical religions are not only irrational but morally and socially pernicious. Wittgensteinians, on the other hand, insist that their attempts to make sense of religion are an exception to this rule; their project, they claim, is to simply understand religion, not judge it (see chapter 18).

Until quite recently, philosophy of religion has been somewhat myopic. Since the only religions with which Western philosophers have been intimately acquainted are Judaism and Christianity (and, to a lesser extent, Islam), it is not surprising that they have focused their attention on theism. (Discussions of mysticism have proved one noteworthy exception.) Increased knowledge of Asian and other traditions has made this attitude seem unduly parochial. There is no intrinsic reason, however, why the tools of analytic or continental philosophy can't be profitably applied to non-Western doctrines and arguments, and good work is currently being done in this vein by Stephen Phillips, Paul Williams, Steven Collins, Gerald Larson, and a number of others. Paul Griffiths, for example, has (p. 9) suggested that “perfect being theology” (the attempt to explore the implications of the concept of a reality greater than which none can be thought) can be deployed to explain (and criticize) the emergence of doctrines of the cosmic Buddha in the Mahayana traditions. Work of this sort is essential because a defense of one's favored religion's perspective should include reasons for preferring it to its important competitors. The Western doctrine of creation ex nihilo, for instance, should be compared with the Visistadvaitin notion that the world is best viewed as God's body.6 Again, because the Buddhist's claim that everything is impermanent is logically incompatible with the assertion that God is eternal and unchanging, both theists and Buddhists need to attend to the views of each other. (For more on these issues, see chapters 3 and 16.)

Another weakness of contemporary philosophy of religion is that the analytic and continental traditions have developed in comparative isolation from each other. This is due to several factors. For one thing, analytic philosophers of religion are usually trained and housed in departments of philosophy, and most of the best departments in English-speaking countries are dominated by analytic philosophy. Continental philosophers of religion, on the other hand, are often (although not always) trained and housed in departments of religion or theology. Their interests, too, are different. Analytic philosophers of religion have tended to focus on God or the religious object and on the rational credentials of claims about it. Continental philosophy of religion has tended to focus on religion and the human subject; it has also been more concerned with religion's ethical implications, especially its bearing on oppression and liberation.

The isolation of the two traditions is unfortunate because each needs what the other has to offer. Analytic philosophers of religion, for instance, need to take the hermeneutics of suspicion seriously, for, as Merold Westphal has said, they have been largely blind “to the cognitive implications of finitude and sin.”7 As a result, they have usually ignored the ideological uses and abuses of theistic metaphysics and the ethical issues this raises. The critiques of Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Jacques Derrida, and contemporary feminists can and should alert analytic philosophers of religion to these perils (see chapters 19 and 20).

Continental philosophers of religion, on the other hand, too often ignore questions of truth and rational adequacy. This is unfortunate for two closely related reasons. The first is ethical: we fail to respect the men and women whose beliefs and practices we examine if we don't treat their claims to truth and rational superiority with the same seriousness that they do. The second is this: if Christianity, say, or Buddhism is true, it matters infinitely. So if either is a live possibility, a deeply serious concern with its truth or falsity, its reasonableness or unreasonableness, is the only rational option. Inattention or indifference to the truth and rational credentials of the traditions one examines is a clear indication that one doesn't take them as live possibilities, and hence doesn't invest them with the same importance or seriousness that their adherents do.

(p. 10)

There are some indications that analytic and continental philosophers of religion are beginning to learn from each other. One can only hope that this trend increases in the future.

The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion is divided into two parts. Part 1 covers the most frequently discussed problems in the field. Part 2 consists of essays assessing the advantages and disadvantages of the four currently most influential ways of doing philosophy of religion; each is by a well-known practitioner of the way he or she discusses. The essays in Part 2 are a unique feature of this volume and are important for two reasons. First, one's philosophical approach affects one's selection of problems and the way one frames them, and this, in turn, affects one's results. For example, followers of Emmanuel Levinas or feminist philosophers of religion have different takes on the problem of evil than do analytic philosophers. No picture of the philosophy of religion that ignores them can be complete. Second, although the analytic approach dominates the practice of philosophy of religion in English-speaking countries and is beginning to make significant inroads on the continent, there are other historically important and potentially illuminating ways of doing philosophy of religion. It is therefore important that a general reference work of this sort acquaint the reader with the variety of approaches to the discipline.

The twenty chapters of this volume are written by prominent experts in the field. Each chapter is expository, critical, and representative of a distinctive viewpoint. In being expository, the chapters formulate and elucidate important competing positions on their topic (e.g., religious experience or the problem of evil) or the history and nature of the philosophical approach to the philosophy of religion that they are discussing (the analytic, say, or feminist). In being critical, the chapters carefully assess the views presented on their topics or the strengths and alleged weakness of their approach to the philosophy of religion. Readers will thus see not only what the prominent views and approaches in philosophy of religion are but encounter noteworthy criticisms of them as well. In being representative of a distinctive viewpoint the chapters present their authors' own views on the topic or approach. Readers will thereby encounter not only exposition and criticism but the substantial development of a viewpoint on the subject under discussion by a well-known author in the discipline. Finally, in addition to exposition, criticism, and original philosophical development, each chapter includes topical bibliographies identifying key works in the field. It is our hope that the Handbook's combination of topical and methodological comprehensiveness, criticism, and original philosophical development will provide the reader with a unique and invaluable reference work on the philosophy of religion.


(1.) John Dewey, A Common Faith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1934), 42, 50–51, 27.

(2.) See Marilyn McCord Adams, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999), and Robert Oakes, “Creation as Theodicy: A Defense of a Kabbalistic Approach to Evil,” Faith and Philosophy 14 (1997): 510–21. For attempts to offer theistic accounts of natural laws, mathematical objects, and moral claims see, e.g., Del Ratzsch, “Nomo(theo)logical Necessity,” and Christopher Menzel, “Theism, Platonism, and the Metaphysics of Mathematics,” both in Christian Theism and the Problems of Philosophy, ed. Michael D. Beaty (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), 184–207 and 208–29, respectively; Philip L. Quinn, Divine Commands and Moral Requirements (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978); and Robert M. Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

(3.) See Marilyn McCord Adams, “Praying the Proslogion: Anselm's Theological Method,” in The Rationality of Belief and the Plurality of Faith, ed. Thomas D. Senor (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995), 13–39.

(4.) See C. Stephen Evans, Passionate Reason: Making Sense of Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), and William J. Wainwright, Reason and the Heart (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995).

(5.) John Clayton, “Piety and the Proofs,” Religious Studies 26 (1990): 19–42.

(6.) It should be noted, however, that, on the Visistadvaitin view, bodies are absolutely dependent on souls although souls are not dependent on bodies. So the differences between the two views should not be exaggerated. See William J. Wainwright, Philosophy of Religion, 2d edition (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1998), 192–96.

(7.) Merold Westphal, “Traditional Theism, the AAR and the APA,” in God, Philosophy, and Academic Culture, ed. William J. Wainwright (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996), 21–27.