The Scope and and Methodology of Philosophy of Religion

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Philosophies-of-disciplines, while not a return to the ancient and medieval view that philosophy encompasses all knowledge, allow philosophy to “invade” other disciplines and discuss their foundational principles. The philosophy of science, for example, discusses such topics as the nature of theory change, the nature of scientific explanation, scientific realism vs. nonrealism, and the demarcation of science from nonscience, among others. Its complexity has grown amidst the recognition that scientific methodology differs from discipline to discipline, and the “unity of science” thesis seems dead for now.

A similar growth in complexity has affected contemporary philosophy of religion. The initial struggle in the establishment of philosophy of religion as a subdiscipline involved separating the field from Christian theology. To what degree should philosophy of religion be tied to a particular religion. After all, if it is the philosophy of religion, rather than the philosophy of the Christian religion, its scope would be broader than a philosophical examination of Christian belief and practice and broader than monotheistic faith in general. However, Western philosophy of religion is dominated by examination of monotheistic claims about the existence of God, the attributes of God, the problem of evil, and life after death. Take most undergraduate (and graduate) texts in the field in the United States and in the UK, such issues dominate the textbook. If someone wants to study the philosophy of East Asian religions, the student usually takes courses in a religious studies department.

Strangely enough, methodology seems to fit such divisions. For example, analytic (or Anglo-American) philosophy of religion focuses on monotheistic claims. This has been consistently the case since the 1955 publication of the anthology edited by Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre, New Essays in Philosophical Theology. This anthology marked the rebirth of philosophy of religion in Anglo-American philosophy after its short sleep when logical positivism dominated analytic philosophy. The trend of focusing on traditional monotheistic claims continued in an influential anthology edited by Baruch Brody, Philosophy of Religion: An Analytic Approach (first edition 1974) and later anthologies and textbooks as well as most articles in the field. Following Alvin Plantinga’s lead, some analytic philosophers of religion used analytic methodology in the study of Christian theology; examples abound, including Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, and Eleonore Stump. Sometimes this approach is labeled “philosophical theology;” and sometimes it is classified as “philosophy of religion.” Neo-Thomists, from the analytic tradition, more traditional Thomistic positions and Transcendental Thomism, followed this focus as well. For those interested in a broader philosophy of religion, the later Wittgenstein offered them the opening of classifying religions in terms of language games. D. Z. Phillips held that religious language does not make truth claims about reality but functions in particular expressive ways within religious communities in guiding worship and practice. The process philosopher Rem Edwards used such a Wittgensteinian approach in his classification of religious beliefs and practices in his 1972 text, Philosophy of Religion.

Continental philosophers of religion took a broader approach and generally did not limit their study of philosophy of religion to monotheistic traditions. Their use of the phenomenological approach to the study of religions allowed them to discover both similarities and differences between disparate world religions without dealing with religious truth claims. A good example is the widely used textbook by James C. Livingston, Anatomy of the Sacred, now in its sixth edition. Even though Livingston’s book uses phenomenology, a well-established philosophical methodology, it is generally classified as a book in religious studies and not as a book in the philosophy of religion.

Process philosophers who work in philosophy of religion are interested in religious truth claims and often focus on similarities between world religions. Recently prominent have been meetings between Christian process philosophers and Buddhist philosophers in order to foster interreligious dialogue.

In 2014 a book by the Eastern Orthodox philosophical theologian, David Bentley Hart, was published, entitled, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. His own methodology could be called eclectic, and he finds similarities between Hindu and Christian conceptions of God, an interesting conclusion for a conservative Eastern Orthodox scholar. His book could be classified as Christian theology, philosophy of religion, or philosophical theology, given the fluidity of such terms in the West.

My question is, “Is such apparent narrowness in Western philosophy of religion necessarily a bad thing?” I do not believe so. Areas of contact between Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim and Christian philosophers are growing, even among traditional Christian thinkers. In addition, India has a rich tradition of Hindu philosophy of religion, which is difficult to separate from religious studies—a similar situation to that in the West. Although American society is increasingly diverse, and religion is in rapid decline, the dominant cultural force religiously remains Christianity and to a lesser extent, Judaism. The inroads Muslims are making only introduces another monotheistic faith into the fray. Students should be, in my judgment, exposed to Western ideas first and then to ideas from other traditions so they can make accurate comparisons between traditions.

Methodologically, in the field of philosophy of religion, pluralism should be welcomed. Whether a philosopher of religion uses analytic methods, phenomenological methods, or the careful but not mathematical logic dominated approach of traditional Thomists—each method has its uses. It would be a positive development if analytic philosophers would study East Asian and African religions using that approach. Another positive approach would be more dialogue between phenomenologists and analytic philosophers. Each should be more familiar with the other’s methods.

My own approach to methodology in philosophy of religion is eclectic. I approach the field as a traditional Scholastic with affinities for both Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. I tend to keep my arguments in English rather than putting them in symbolic form, so I do not share the emphasis of analytic philosophy on formal logic. It seems to me that analytic philosophers are often unaware of the limits of formal deductive logic. It does not, by itself, capture well inductive and abductive thinking and ignores intuitive knowledge and what Scholastics label “connatural knowledge.” Phenomenology is useful in describing religious experience, although eventually I will get to evaluating truth claims. I am not sympathetic with postmodernism with its tendency toward epistemological relativism. Subject-wise, I focus on Christian beliefs, although I am open to insight from other religions if they help solve a problem on which I am working. My first philosophical love is metaphysics, and I tend to approach problems in the philosophy of religion from that standpoint, although I realize that metaphysics influences epistemology and vice versa. Overall, I could pigeonhole myself as a “pragmatic eclectic Scholastic,” although I would never expect or want other people who work in the field to follow that particular approach. Any philosopher of religion, regardless of method or focus, should be willing to learn from anyone, no matter what method he or she uses.

Atheist Desperation


The Hubble Ultra Deep Field, is an image of a ...

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field, is an image of a small region of space in the constellation Fornax, composited from Hubble Space Telescope data accumulated over a period from September 3, 2003 through January 16, 2004. The patch of sky in which the galaxies reside was chosen because it had a low density of bright stars in the near-field. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The number of new articles and books coming out that assert that the universe literally arose from nothingness without any deity reveal the desperation of atheists. They behave like individuals that assert an absurdity, thinking that if they repeat it enough people will believe it. No matter how much atheists repeat the mantra, “The universe popped into existence out of nothingness,” it will not make that claim any less incoherent. Atheists still play games with the “quantum vacuum,” even though theists have pointed out time and time again that a quantum vacuum is not mere nothingness. When Hawking speaks of a true vacuum causing the existence of a false vacuum, he is spouting nonsense. “Ex nihil, nihil fit” (from nothing, nothing comes to be”) is true today as it was in the past. Pure nothingness is just nonexistence–since it is literally no-thing, not matter, not energy–it cannot have any powers including causal powers. If the atheist tries to bring in another factor into the “true vacuum,” that brings back “something.” The atheist would be more consistent to accept the ancient idea of the everlastingness of the universe as do some “multiverse” theories. In the end, I do not think they save atheism, but at least they are not obviously self-contradictory.

Atheistic scientists often accuse theists of believing in the fantastic, in something so absurd that it cannot exist. Such claims are often salted with terms such as “Santa Claus” and “The Tooth Fairy,” as if that has anything to do with the issue of the existence of God. It is far more fantastic to believe that something arose from sheer nothingness. It is also far more fantastic to believe in an infinite number of universes in which all logical possibilities are actualized (If the traditional conception of God is logically possible, involving no contradiction, which it surely is, then I suppose the atheist would accept one logical possibility that is not actualized–but then the atheist is all about making exceptions when it suits him).

Atheism is primarily about rebellion rather than reality–some people refuse to accept a God who calls their behavior to account. Atheism is a matter of human pride–the refusal to accept any mind higher than one’s own or any truths that go beyond the purview of physical science (especially physics). Some atheists, such as the late Antony Flew, were honest seekers of the truth, and he became a believer in a deistic God. Atheists who are really God-haters may also change their minds if they can overcome their hatred. There is a subset of atheists who are hard core, such as the majority of the members of the National Academy of Sciences as well as those who deign to assert that something can come from nothing. These individuals could see God face to face and deny His existence. They are like the dwarfs in C. S. Lewis‘s The Last Battle, who perceive the gold and jewels Aslan offers them as horse waste and straw. Anyone who asserts a clear contradiction in defense of atheism must be willfully blind. These same scientists will use logic and reason to attack the coherence of a theory they do not accept–yet they assert a blatant contradiction as being true. The only way I can explain that is that the scientists’ beliefs are an act of the will rather than primarily an act of the intellect. They have willed to reject God, and their assertion of contradiction follows. If asserting that something comes from nothingness is the only “argument” that an atheist gives for his position, then that atheist truly is desperate. Atheists who accuse theists of irrationality ought to look at themselves in a mirror first.