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Philosophy of Religion

Introduction | Forms of Religious Belief | Arguments for the Existence of God | The Problem of Evil | Major Doctrines
Introduction Back to Top

Philosophy of Religion is the branch of philosophy that is concerned with the philosophical study of religion, including arguments over the nature and existence of God, religious language, miracles, prayer, the problem of evil, and the relationship between religion and other value-systems such as science and ethics. It is often regarded as a part of Metaphysics, especially insofar as it is interested in understanding what it is for something to exist, although arguably it also touches on issues commonly dealt with in Epistemology, Ethics, Logic and the Philosophy of Language.

It asks such questions as "Are there sound reasons to think that God does (or does not) exist?", "If there is a God, then what is he like?", "What, if anything, would give us good reason to believe that a miracle has occurred?", "What is the relationship between faith and reason?", "Does petitionary prayer make sense?"

It does not ask "What is God?", as that would assume the existence of God, and that God has a knowable nature, which is more the territory of theology (which usually considers the existence of God as axiomatic, or self-evident, and merely seeks to justify or support religious claims).

Forms of Religious Belief Back to Top

The main forms of religious belief are:

  • Theism:
    The belief in the existence of one or more divinities or deities, which exist within the universe and yet transcend it. These gods also in some way interact with the universe (unlike Deism), and are often considered to be omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. The word "theism" was first coined in the 17th Century to contrast with Atheism. Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Baha'i and Zoroastrianism are all theistic religions.
  • Monotheism:
    The view that only one God exists. The Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), as well as Plato's concept of God, all affirm monotheism, and this is the usual conception debated within Western Philosophy. Jews, Christians and Muslims would probably all agree that God is an eternally existent being that exists apart from space and time, who is the creator of the universe, and is omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), omnibenevolent (all-good or all-loving) and possibly omnipresent (all-present). The religions, however, differ in the details: Christians, for example, would further affirm that there are three aspects to God (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit).
    • Exclusive Monotheism: The belief that there is only one deity, and that all other claimed deities are distinct from it and false. The Abrahamic religions, and the Hindu denomination of Vaishnavism (which regards the worship of anyone other than Vishnu as incorrect) are examples of Exclusive Monotheism.
    • Inclusive monotheism: The belief that there is only one deity, and that all other claimed deities are just different names for it. The Hindu denomination of Smartism is an example of Inclusive Monotheism.
    • Substance Monotheism: The belief (found in some indigenous African religions) that the many gods are just different forms of a single underlying substance.
  • Pantheism:
    The belief that God is equivalent to Nature or the physical universe, or that everything is of an all-encompassing immanent abstract God. The concept has been discussed as far back as the time of the philosophers of Ancient Greece, including Thales, Parmenides and Heraclitus. Baruch Spinoza also believed in a kind of naturalistic pantheism in which the universe, although unconscious and non-sentient as a whole, is a meaningful focus for mystical fulfillment.
  • Panentheism:
    The belief (also known as Monistic Monotheism), similar to Pantheism, that the physical universe is joined to God, but stressing that God is greater than (rather than equivalent to) the universe. Thus, the one God interpenetrates every part of nature, and timelessly extends beyond as well. The universe is part of God, but not all of God. The word (which can be translated as "all in God") was coined by the German philosopher Karl Christian Friedrich Krause (1781–1832) in 1828 in an attempt to reconcile Monotheism and Pantheism.
  • Deism:
    A form of monotheism in which it is believed that one God exists, but that this God does not intervene in the world, or interfere with human life and the laws of the universe. It posits a non-interventionist creator who permits the universe to run itself according to natural laws. Deism derives the existence and nature of God from reason and personal experience, rather than relying on revelation in sacred scriptures or the testimony of others, and can maybe best be described as a basic belief rather than as a religion in itself. The roots of Deism lie with Heraclitus and Plato, but it was also popular with the natural theologists of 17th Century France and, particularly, Britain, who rejected any special or supposedly supernatural revelation of God.
    • Pandeism: The belief that God preceded the universe and created it, but is now equivalent to it - a composite of Deism and Pantheism.
    • Panendeism is a composite of Deism and Panentheism. It holds that, while the universe is part of God, it operates according to natural mechanisms without the need for the intervention of a traditional God, somewhat similar to the Native American concept of the all- pervading Great Spirit.
    • Polydeism: The belief that multiple gods exist, but do not intervene with the universe - a composite of Deism and Polytheism.
  • Misotheism:
    The belief that a God or gods exist, but that they are actually evil. The English word was coined by Thomas de Quincey in 1846. Strictly speaking, the term connotes an attitude of hatred towards the god or gods, rather than making a statement about their nature.
  • Dystheism:
    The belief that a God or gods exist, but that they are not wholly good, or possibly even evil (as opposed to eutheism, the belief that God exists and is wholly good). Trickster gods found in polytheistic belief systems often have a dystheistic nature, and there are various examples of arguable dystheism in the Bible.
  • Ditheism (or Duotheism):
    The belief in two equally powerful gods, often, but not always, with complementary properties and in constant opposition, such as God and Goddess in Wicca, or Good and Evil in Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism. The early mystical religion Gnosticism is another example of a ditheistic belief of sorts, due to their claim that the thing worshipped as God in this world is actually an evil impostor, but that a true benevolent deity worthy of being called "God" exists beyond this world.
  • Polytheism:
    The belief in, or worship of, multiple gods (usually assembled in a pantheon). These gods are often seen as similar to humans (anthropomorphic) in their personality traits, but with additional individual powers, abilities, knowledge or perceptions. Hard Polytheism views the gods as being distinct and separate beings, such as in Ancient Greek Mythology. Soft Polytheism views the gods as being subsumed into a greater whole, as in most forms of Hinduism.
    • Henotheism: The devotion to a single god while accepting the existence of other gods, and without denying that others can with equal truth worship different gods. It has been called "monotheism in principle and polytheism in fact".
    • Monolatrism (or Monolatry): The belief in the existence of many gods, but with the consistent worship of only one deity. Unlike Henotheism, Monolatrism asserts that there is only one god who is worthy of worship, though other gods are known to exist.
    • Kathenotheism: The belief that there is more than one deity, but only one deity at a time should be worshipped, each being supreme in turn.
  • Animism:
    The belief that souls inhabit all or most objects (whether they be animals, vegetables or minerals). Animistic religions generally do not accept a sharp distinction between spirit and matter, and assume that this unification of matter and spirit plays a role in daily life. Early Shintoism was animistic in nature, as are many indigenous African religions. Shamanism (communication with the spirit world) and Ancestor Worship (worship of deceased family members, who are believed to have a continued existence and influence) are similar categories.
  • Atheism (or Nontheism):
    The belief that gods do not exist, or a complete rejection of Theism in any form. Some atheists argue a lack of empirical evidence for the existence of deities, while others argue for Atheism on philosophical, social or historical grounds. Many atheists tend toward secular philosophies such as Humanism and Naturalism. Atheism may be implicit (someone who has never thought about belief in gods) or explicit (someone who has made an assertion, either weak or strong, regarding their lack of belief in gods). Confucianism, Taoism, Jainism and some varieties of Buddhism, either do not include belief in a personal god as a tenet of the religion, or actively teach nontheism.
  • Agnosticism:
    The belief that the nature and existence of gods is unknown and cannot ever be known or proven. Technically, this position is strong agnosticism: in popular usage, an agnostic may just be someone who takes no position, pro or con, on the existence of gods, or who has not yet been able to decide, or who suspends judgment due to lack of evidence one way or the other (weak agnosticism). The earliest professed agnostic was Protagoras, although the term itself, which literally means "without knowledge", was not coined until the 1880s by T. H. Huxley (1825 - 1895).
  • Humanism:
    Humanism is more an ethical process, not a dogma about the existence or otherwise of gods. But in general terms, it rejects the validity of transcendental justifications, such as a dependence on belief without reason, the supernatural, or texts of allegedly divine origin. It is therefore generally compatible with Atheism and Agnosticism, but does not require these, and can be compatible with some religions. To some extent, it supplements or supplants the role of religions, and can be considered in some ways as "equivalent" to a religion.
Arguments for the Existence of God Back to Top

  • The Ontological Argument:
  • The Ontological Argument, initially proposed by St. Anselm and Avicenna in the 11th Century, attempts to prove the existence of God through a priori abstract reasoning alone. It argues that part of what we mean when we speak of “God” is “perfect being”, or one of whom nothing greater can be conceived, and that is essentially what the word “God” means. A God that exists, of course, is better than a God that doesn’t, so to speak of God as a perfect being is therefore necessary to imply that he exists. So God’s existence is implied by the very concept of God, and when we speak of “God” we cannot but speak of a being that exists. By this argument, to say that God does not exist is a contradiction in terms.
  • The argument is certainly ingenious, but has the appearance of a linguistic trick. The same ontological argument could be used to prove the existence of any perfect thing at all (for example, Anselm's contemporary, the monk Gaunilo, used it to show that a perfect island must exist). Immanuel Kant argued against the ontological argument on the grounds that existence is not a property of objects but a property of concepts, and that, whatever ideas may participate in a given concept, it is a further question whether that concept is instantiated.
  • The Cosmological Argument:
    The Cosmological Argument is the argument that the existence of the world or universe implies the existence of a being that brought it into existence (and keeps it in existence). In essence, the argument is that everything that moves is moved by something else; an infinite regress (that is, going back through a chain of movers forever) is impossible; and therefore there must exist a first mover (i.e. God). It comes in two forms, modal (having to do with possibility), and temporal (having to do with time):
    • The Modal Cosmological Argument:
    • This argument, also known as the Argument from Contingency, suggests that because the universe might not have existed (i.e. it is contingent, as opposed to necessary), we then need some explanation of why it does exist. Wherever there are two possibilities, something must determine which of those possibilities is realized. Therefore, as the universe is contingent, there must be some reason for its existence, i.e. it must have a cause. In fact, the only kind of being whose existence requires no explanation is a necessary being, a being that could not have failed to exist. The ultimate cause of everything must therefore be a necessary being, such as God.
    • Critics of the argument from contingency have sometimes questioned whether the universe is in fact contingent, and why God should be considered a necessary being (simply asking "Does God have a cause of his existence?” raises as many problems as the cosmological argument solves). Also, even if God is thought not to have, or not to need, a cause of his existence, then his existence would be a counter-example to the initial premise that everything that exists has a cause of its existence).
    • The Temporal Cosmological Argument:
    • This argument, also known as the Kalam Argument for the medieval Muslim school of philosophy of al-Kindi (801 - 873) and al-Ghazali (1058 - 1111) which first proposed it, argues that all indications are that there is a point in time at which the universe began to exist, (a universe stretching back in time into infinity being both philosophically and scientifically problematic), and that this beginning must either have been caused or uncaused. The idea of an uncaused event is absurd, because nothing comes from nothing. The universe must therefore have been brought into existence by something outside it, which can be called "God".
    • The argument rests on the somewhat controversial claim that the universe has a beginning in time, but also does not explain why there could not be more than one first cause/mover, or why the chain could not lead back to several ultimate causes, each somehow outside the universe (potentially leading to several different Gods).
  • The Teleological Argument:
  • The Teleological Argument (also known as the Argument from Design or Intelligent Design) suggests that the order in the world implies a being that created it with a specific purpose (the creation of life) in mind. The universe is an astoundingly complex but highly ordered system, and the world is fine-tuned to provide exactly the right conditions for the development and sustenance of life. To say that the universe is so ordered by chance is therefore unsatisfactory as an explanation of the appearance of design around us. St Thomas Aquinas was the most famous subscriber to this argument, but the most cited statement of the argument is that of William Paley (1743 - 1805), who likened the universe to a watch, with many ordered parts working in harmony to further some purpose.
  • Evolutionary theory, however, can explain the appearance of biological design, even if not the laws of nature. David Hume counter-argued that we know that man-made structures were designed because we have seen them being built, but how can we be sure that the analogy holds? He also pointed out that certain events in the world (e.g. natural disasters) suggest that God didn't do a very good job of designing the universe, which belies the concept of a perfect being. Others, who reject the argument in its entirety, dispute whether the order and complexity in the universe does in fact constitute design. The mere fact that it something is enormously improbable does not by itself give us reason to conclude that it occurred by design. Also, the idea that our universe is but one material universe in a "multiverse" in which all possible material universes are ultimately realized, suggests that there is nothing particularly suspicious about the fact that at least one of them is a fine-tuned universe.
  • The Moral Argument:
    The Moral Argument argues that the existence or nature of morality implies the existence of God. Three forms of moral argument are distinguished, formal, perfectionist and Kantian:
    • The Formal Moral Argument:
    • This argument suggests that the form of morality implies that it has a divine origin. If morality consists of an ultimately authoritative set of commands, where can these commands have come from but a commander that has ultimate authority (namely God)?
    • It begs the question, however, as to whether morality is in fact ultimately authoritative, and whether morals actually exist or have meaning independently of us or whether there are alternative explanations for the existence of morals.
    • The Perfectionist Moral Argument:
    • This argument suggests that morality requires perfection of us, but we are not in fact perfect. However, although we cannot achieve moral perfection by our own strength, we can do so with God’s help, which implies the existence of God. The gap between our moral duties and what we are capable of doing therefore implies the existence of a God, as the only way to resolve this paradox.
    • Immanuel Kant, however, argues that “ought” implies “can”, so that if we have an obligation to do a thing then it logically follows that we are able to do it, and morality cannot require of us more than we are able to give. Or it can also be argued that morality is just a guide and does not actually require perfection of us, and that it is in fact acceptable to fall short of the moral standard.
    • The Kantian Moral Argument:
    • This argument, proposed by Immanuel Kant, presupposes that moral behavior is rational and that we should have good reason to behave morally. Looking around the world, though, we see that in many cases immoral behavior does profit more than moral behavior, and that life is not fair. Kant therefore argued that moral behavior will only be rational is there is more than just this life, if justice is administered in the next life.
    • However, this does not fully answer why should it have to be God in particular that brings about the higher good, nor why something should necessarily have to be, just because we decide it both ought and can.
  • The Religious Experience Argument:
  • The Religious Experience Argument posits that one can only perceive that which exists, and so God must exist because there are those that have experienced him. The fact that there are many people who testify to having had such experiences constitutes at least indirect evidence of God’s existence, even to those who have not had such experiences themselves.
  • Some, though, argue that religious experiences involve imagination rather than perception, and there is always the possibility of fabricating artificial experiences of God, or that the experiences are not religious but merely interpreted that way by religious people. Also, adherents of all religions (mutually inconsistent and conflicting) claim to have had experiences that validate those religions, and if not all of these appeals are valid then none can be. In addition, why do we not all have religious experiences? Yet another counter-argument is the skeptical idea that all experiences (including religious experiences) are subjective, and no matter how one person perceives the world to be, there are any number of ways that it could be. Barely tangible religious experiences are by their nature even more uncertain than our familiar and lucid experiences of the external world, which are themselves unreliable.
  • The Miracles Argument:
  • The Argument from Miracles argues that the occurrence of miracles (which involve the suspension of the natural operation of the universe as some supernatural event occurs), presupposes the existence of some supernatural being. If the Bible is to be believed, then, such miracles demonstrate both the existence of God and the truth of Christianity.
  • However, the essential implicit assumption in this argument is "if the Bible is to be believed", which is by no means a given. In addition, according to David Hume, no matter how strong the evidence for a specific miracle may be, it will always be more rational to reject the miracle than to believe in it (given that there are two factors to assess in deciding whether to believe any given piece of testimony: the reliability of the witness, and the probability of that to which they testify).
  • Pascal’s Wager:
  • Blaise Pascal argued for belief in God based not on an appeal to evidence that God exists, but rather that it is in our interests to believe in God and it is therefore rational for us to do so: If we believe in God, then if he exists we will receive an infinite reward in heaven, while if he does not then we have lost little or nothing. Conversely, if we do not believe in God, then if he exists we will receive an infinite punishment in hell, while if he does not then we will have gained little or nothing. "Either receiving an infinite reward in heaven or losing little or nothing" is clearly preferable to "either receiving an infinite punishment in hell or gaining little or nothing", so it is rational to believe in God, even if there is no evidence that he exists.
  • However, this only works if the only possible criterion for entrance into heaven is belief in the Christian God and the only possible criterion for entrance into hell is disbelief in the Christian God. Also, if one argues that the probability that God exists (and therefore of either receiving an infinite reward in heaven or of receiving an infinite punishment in hell) is so small that these possible outcomes of belief or disbelief can be discounted, then Atheism is the rational course of action as it is better to gain little or nothing than it is to lose little or nothing. Thirdly, Pascal’s Wager asks us to believe without reason, whereas in practice one requires evidence for the truth of a belief.
The Problem of Evil Back to Top

The Problem of Evil has been stated in different ways:

  • The Logical Problem of Evil, considered by many to be one of the most formidable objections to the existence of God, was first identified in antiquity by Epicurus when he noted that there were four possibilities:
    1) If God wishes to take away evils and is not able to, then he is feeble.
    2) If God is able to take away evils but does not wish to, then he is malevolent.
    3) If God neither wishes to nor is able to take away evils, then he is both malevolent and feeble and therefore not God at all.
    4) If God wishes to take away evils and is able to, then why are there evils in the world, and why does he not remove them?
    In response, St. Thomas Aquinas argued that it is not necessarily clear that the world would be more perfect in the absence of evil, and that worthy concepts such as justice, kindness, fairness and self-sacrifice would be meaningless if there were no evil to set against them. The so-called Unknown Purpose Defence argues that human limitations might not permit us to guess the motivations of God, especially if, as some argue, He cannot be known directly.
  • The Empirical Problem of Evil, initially formulated by David Hume, argues that if people did not have a prior commitment to believe the contrary (i. e. religious convictions), their experience of the world and its evils would lead them to Atheism and the conclusion that a God who is good and all-powerful cannot exist. A counter-argument to this might be that the apparent senselessness of some evil might in itself force a person to seek an explanation for it, which might be God.
  • The Probabilistic Argument from Evil argues that the very existence of evil is evidence that no God exists, although Alvin Plantinga notes that the meaning of this claim depends on the probabilistic theory we hold to.

Theodicy is the specific branch of theology and philosophy that attempts to reconcile the existence of evil or suffering in the world with the belief in an omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent God. Therefore it accepts that evil exists and that God is both good and able to remove evil, and then seeks to explain why he does not do so. One of the most famous formulations is that of Gottfried Leibniz in 1710, who made the optimistic claim that our world is optimal among all possible worlds, and that it must be the best possible and most balanced world, simply because it was created by a perfect God.

An example of this is the free-will defense, according to which it was not possible for God to create a world with good but no evil because his purpose for the universe required humans to have free will, and that good could not exist without freedom to choose evil (similar to Aquinas's argument above), although it can also be argued that there still seems to be a disproportionate amount of evil in the world.

Another example is the question of why He allows the suffering of animals (for whom free will is assumed not to apply). Some defenses suggest that the purpose of such suffering may be unknown, or that most of the suffering occurs when we remove animals from their natural surroundings, or just that we are given the free will to try to do something about it.

Recurring defenses in theodicy include: that what people consider evil or suffering is an illusion or unimportant; that events thought to be evil are not really so; that what we see as evil is really part of a divine design that is actually good, but our limitations prevent us from seeing the big picture; that God, if he exists, is so far superior to man that he cannot be judged by man, and that to even try is mere arrogance; that evil is the consequence of God giving people free will; that evil and suffering are intended as a test for humanity, to see if we are worthy of His grace; that evil is the consequence of people not observing God's revealed will, and not actually caused by God; that evil is propagated by the Devil in opposition to God; that God is a righteous judge and, if someone suffers, it is because they have committed a sin that merits such punishment; that neither good nor evil could exist without both existing simultaneously.

Major Doctrines Back to Top

Under the heading of Philosophy of Religion, the major doctrines or theories include:


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