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Philosophy of Religion

Modern Conceptions

The modern subject of "philosophy of religion" continues to debate the legacy of Hume's broadside against theology. English-speaking philosophers of different persuasions still address a posteriori proofs for the existence of God such as cosmological arguments and arguments from design, while interest in the ontological argument—a specific object of Kant's wrath—shows no signs of fading. For much of the twentieth century many forces conspired to thwart the progress of those enamored of the project of responding to Kant's and Hume's critique. Predominant among these was the influence and legacy of logical positivism in both Great Britain and North America. The strict empiricism that was the hallmark of positivism launched a wide-ranging critique of traditional metaphysics by insisting that the subject matter of philosophy ought to be addressed by scientifically conditioned methods of inquiry. The collective penchant for empiricism in both Britain and America prompted philosophers like Rudolph Carnap (1891–1970) and Sir Alfred Jules Ayer (1910–1989) to argue that all religious claims are meaningless. In keeping with these tendencies, many philosophers of religion either sought to apply the methods of logical empiricism to their own discipline with the consequence that the subject became almost solely preoccupied with the topic of meaning in religious language, or else to fight a rearguard action to expose the inadequacies of the positivist position. Both of these strategies met with paltry success, as they failed to bring the philosophy of religion back within the mainstream of English-speaking philosophy.

With the move away from verificationism and the development of a greater pluralism in Anglophone philosophy, however, philosophers like Alvin Plantinga in the United States and Richard Swinburne in 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, particularly when combined with the historical studies of Anthony Kenny and Norman Kretzmann, was to increase the institutional profile of the subject in professional philosophy. However, the tremendous growth of the philosophy of religion in the English-speaking world is a phenomenon of the late twentieth century and is due in part to the establishment of new journals and confessionally minded societies dedicated to the study of the discipline.

Much of the best late-twentieth-and early-twenty-first-century work in philosophy of religion has taken place in the subdivision of the subject then specified as "philosophical theology" and "religious epistemology." The first, which claims a distinguished ancestry in ancient and medieval philosophy, can be said to concern itself with issues focusing on the nature and coherence of our concept of God, and especially the manner in which God's attributes (omnipotence, omniscience, simplicity, eternity, and the like), can be defined so as to escape confusion and paradox. The second is concerned with the nature and justification of religious belief. Topics here have to do with whether or not it is ever reasonable to conclude that religious belief must always be justified by external evidence, or whether it is best to argue that religious belief is sui generis and quite different in form and structure from our more prosaic beliefs about the world. In this sphere many philosophers, following the lead of Plantinga, have argued that religious belief need not be beholden to canons of external evidence and have thereby debunked Hume's putative challenge to any rational justification of theistic belief. The effect of their writings has been to shift the focus of philosophy of religion away from natural theology, such as a strict attention to the a posteriori proofs for the existence of God, to a more general epistemological concern with the justification of religious belief. An important by-product of this change in emphasis has been the rehabilitation of the subject of religious experience as an area of pressing philosophical concern. The American philosopher William Alston, whose own approach to philosophy of religion can be said to steer a middle course between the work of Swinburne and Plantinga, can be credited with bringing this subject to the foreground of recent debate.

Alongside these important developments there has been a growing interest in religious pluralism and a greater philosophical attention to the claims of nonwestern religious traditions. As part of this general revival of the philosophy of religion, a number of philosophers whose main work lies in other areas have been attracted to the discipline. Thus, complex arguments about substance, space and time, free will, and determinism, which might be thought more properly at home in metaphysics, epistemology, philosophical logic, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of science, have all been explored with reference to the idea of God. At the turn of the twenty-first century, there are efforts to explore cross-cultural philosophies of religion, to articulate feminist challenges to traditional religions, and to consider many political, moral, and social problems from the standpoint of a religiously motivated ethics or political theory. Further to this, specific issues that are internal to religious traditions, such as monotheistic faiths like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, are also receiving some coverage with increased philosophical effort being given to speculation on heaven, hell, atonement, the sacraments, and the meaning of prophesy and Scripture.

Philosophy of religion, then, might be said to have its place in English-speaking and Continental philosophy not only in the domain of the history of philosophy but also in areas of genuine and earnest philosophical debate. It is for this reason that the subject presents to the individual already acquainted with the traditional core of Western philosophy, namely logic, metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, an opportunity to apply their philosophical learning to a set of important questions. Since "philosophy of religion," as its history testifies, is nothing more than a rich deposit of questions that have always belonged to the central core of subjects that have characterized the concerns of philosophers from antiquity onward, it could be said that to engage with it is to acquaint oneself with the basic questions of Western philosophy itself. In contrast with its dire fortunes at the outset of the twentieth century, philosophy of religion reveals itself, one hundred years later, to be a confident and sophisticated area of philosophy at ease with itself and its place within the philosophical curriculum.


Alston, William P. Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991. Seminal treatment of religious experience by a leading epistemologist.

Kenny, Anthony. The God of the Philosophers. Oxford: Clarendon, 1979. A helpful guide to the medieval origins of many debates in contemporary philosophical theology.

Kretzmann, Norman. The Metaphysics of Theism: Aquinas's Natural Theology in Summa contra gentiles I. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997. An influential statement of the power and force of natural theology based on the work of Thomas Aquinas.

——. The Metaphysics of Creation: Aquinas's Natural Theology in Summa contra gentiles II. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. The second installment of a planned trilogy left incomplete at Kretzmann's death.

Plantinga, Alvin. Warranted Christian Belief. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Plantinga's definitive statement of his theory that theistic belief, specifically Christian belief, can enjoy warrant. Plantinga, Alvin, and Nicholas Wolterstorff, eds. Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983. Influential anthology that initiated a move away from natural theology to questions of religious epistemology.

Swinburne, Richard. The Coherence of Theism. Oxford: Clarendon, 1977. The first installment of Swinburne's trilogy, which takes issue with the claim that religious discourse is meaningless.

——. The Existence of God. Oxford: Clarendon, 1979. The second volume, which uses the methods of Bayesian probability theory to advance a culminative case argument for the existence of God.

——. Faith and Reason. Oxford: Clarendon, 1981. The final volume of the trilogy that seeks to reinvigorate the traditional teaching about the compatibility of faith and reason by means of the arguments of analytic philosophy.

Westphal, Merold. Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith. New York: Fordham University Press, 2001. An accessible guide to recent developments in "continental" philosophy of religion.

Martin Stone

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Philosophy of Mind - Early Ideas to Planck lengthPhilosophy of Religion - Changing Conceptions, Modern Conceptions, Bibliography