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Philosophy and Religion in Western Thought

The Twentieth Century

Only in the twentieth century did it become commonplace for philosophers in the West to engage with the central concerns of their subject without so much as raising questions about God. A collective penchant for empiricism in both Britain and America prompted Rudolph Carnap (1891–1970) and A. J. Ayer (1910–1989) to argue that all religious claims are meaningless. Other influential philosophers such as Willard Van Orman Quine (1908–2000) essayed a metaphysics and epistemology that disqualified many of the assumptions on which a theistic philosophy could be based. It was only with the move away from strict verificationism and the development of a greater pluralism in so-called "analytic philosophy" that religious topics reappeared in philosophical thought. The work of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), while by no means concordant with earlier traditions of metaphysics, was believed by many of his followers to have a broadly theological outlook whereby religious practices and belief could be shown to have dignity and purpose, as well as a discursive integrity that insulated them from the critiques of Hume and Kant.

In the final decades of the twentieth century, philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga in the United States and Richard Swinburne in Great Britain set about the task of applying the rigorous standards of analytic philosophy to the discussion of traditional theological subjects. The effect of their work was to increase the institutional profile of the subject known in the early 2000s as "the philosophy of religion" in professional philosophy. In many senses, this subdiscipline provides the main conceptual forum in which philosophers can debate the claims of the Western theistic tradition.

Notwithstanding the reemergence of the philosophy of religion, it is important to stress that philosophy has become a secular discipline in most Western countries. Yet the fact that it is practiced by philosophers with little or no faith or indeed historical understanding of religion does not negate the fact that throughout the ages philosophy has been closely connected to religion and speculative theology. While the impulse to philosophize and to reflect on ourselves and the world around us may or may not have its origins in a protoreligious sentiment or disposition, the very nature of philosophical reflection will always dispose itself to intrude upon matters connected with religion and concepts of divinity. Even in this godless age, it is to be expected that the uneasy and, at times, vicarious relationship between philosophy and religion will continue.


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M. W. F. Stone

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Philosophy of Mind - Early Ideas to Planck lengthPhilosophy and Religion in Western Thought - The Early Christian And Medieval Periods, The Early Modern Period, The Eighteenth And Nineteenth Centuries