How to Explore the Philosophy of Religion

The philosophy of religion deals with the big questions about God and religion: does God exist? Are we justified in believing in God? Should we make a leap of faith? What ought our response be to evil and suffering? If God exists, what properties does he have? Are religions compatible with one another? Can we communicate with God through prayer and can he communicate with us through religious experiences? Is a belief in God compatible with a respect for science?


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    Make the distinction between philosophy of religion and theology. Philosophy of religion attempts to investigate the philosophical underpinnings of religion and religious beliefs - about God, for instance. Theology combines some philosophical reflection on these topics with reflection on religious beliefs that take some of the answers for granted that philosophers of religion would want to question.
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    Prepare yourself personally for studying philosophy of religion. Unlike other branches of philosophy, philosophy of religion questions and seeks reasons for ideas around religion and faith. For many people, their religious faith (or lack of) is a very personal and subjective matter and discussing it frankly and openly in a classroom may be uncomfortable. Decide whether or not you truly want to take part in such discussions and be prepared to change your mind.
    • One way to dodge the problem of personal involvement is to mentally rethink the arguments without the term 'God'. The term 'God' brings with it a whole set of beliefs and assumptions. When presented with an argument, mentally substitute 'God' for 'X'. Then you can work through the logic of the argument without bringing your personal beliefs about God into the question of whether or not the argument works on a logical level.
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    Familiarise yourself with the arguments for and against the existence of God. The three main types of arguments are the cosmological or first cause argument, the ontological argument, and the teleological or design argument.
    • Start with an introductory text: "The Philosophy of Religion: A Critical Introduction" by Brian and Beverly Clack is often recommended to undergraduates.
    • One good way of doing this is to read a book by a theist and by an atheist. For the theistic side, "The Existence of God" and "Is there a God?" - both by Richard Swinburne - are recommended, and on the atheist side, try either Robin Le Poedevin's "Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion" or Michael Martin's "Atheism: A Philosophical Justification".
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    Explore the ontological argument more deeply. Many philosophers of religion, both theist and atheist, will agree that the ontological argument is perhaps the most interesting of the philosophical arguments for the existence of God.
    • It was originally proposed by St. Anselm. You can read his presentation of it in the Proslogion.
    • Another form of the argument is presented in part V of Descartes' Meditations. This was criticised by Kant in The Critique of Pure Reason.
    • More recently, contemporary philosophers of religion have revived the argument in a more technical manner. The two philosophers to read on this are Norman Malcolm and Alvin Plantinga.
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    Consider the epistemic questions about faith. Learn about the idea of fidelism, and read up on Pascal's wager. Attempt to answer the question: is it rational to believe in God? Do believers in God have evidence for their beliefs? If they don't have evidence, can it still be rational to believe in God? Is a religious or spiritual experience evidence?
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    Consider the divine attributes. Many of the sort of questions one may ask in Sunday school are actual problems that philosophers of religion attempt to resolve: questions like "can God create a rock so big he couldn't lift it?" (or Homer Simpson's variation on the theme: "could Jesus microwave a burrito so hot he couldn't eat it?") are questioning the compatibility of the "omnimax" conception of God (omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience, omnibenevolence - God being all-powerful, everywhere, all-knowing and all-loving), specifically whether God's Omnimax properties ever conflict with one another or with the laws of logic or of nature.
    • Some good introductions to these questions are Gerard J. Hughes' book "The Nature of God", Anthony Kenny's book "The God of the Philosophers", T.V. Morris' "The Concept of God" and Richard Swinburne's "The Coherence of Theism".
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    Think about the role of religious language. Some philosophers in the logical positivist movement considered religious language to be cognitively meaningless and to lack reference (A. J. Ayer and Rudolf Carnap hold this kind of position). Some other philosophers try to interpret religious language in a naturalistic, reductionist manner, reducing claims about God to being claims about ethics (see R. B. Braithwaite and Kant). Some mystics and religious thinkers deem it impossible to describe God because of his infiniteness, and so prefer to talk about what God is not - this is described as the via negativa. In recent times, many philosophers of religion have interpreted religious language through the lens of Wittgenstein's latter theories.
    • To learn more about this, look at Dan R. Stiver's book "The Philosophy of Religious Language: Sign, Symbol and Story"
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    Think about the problem of evil. How can we say that we live in a universe created and ruled by an omnibenevolent and all-powerful God when he allows so much pain and suffering to occur? This question has been a primary line of argument from atheists and agnostics, and one that religious philosophers find the most difficult to answer. A number of theodicies have been presented that attempt to respond to these criticisms. The main theodicies to consider are the free will argument (including Plantinga's formulation of it) and the soul-making theodicy (as presented by John Hick).
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    Engage in dialogue and write. It is no good just reading the literature: philosophy is not a spectator sport. Attempt to develop the arguments yourself, think them through, write down your thoughts, and discuss them with others. It can be difficult finding people who have also studied the philosophical literature in depth: this may mean finding people on the Internet, attending seminars, conferences and lectures at universities or becoming a student.
    • One good way to keep up with the literature is to subscribe to a philosophy of religion blog. A number of good blogs exist: Prosblogion and Common Sense Atheism are two that are worth reading. The former is intended more for professional academics in philosophy of religion, while the latter is suited for a wider audience.


  • Some philosophical religions are: Universal Unitarianism, Deism, Taoism, Confucianism, and to some extent, Buddhism.

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Categories: Philosophy and Religion