Philosophy of Religion - the challenge (my personal view)
In the introduction to his book A History of Modern Britain, 2007, Andrew Marr, political commentator and shrewd observer of the modern mores, comments on the experience of living in Britain since the Second World War:
‘In the period covered by this book, the dominant experience has been acceleration. We have lived faster. We have seen, heard, communicated, changed and travelled more. We have experienced a material profusion and perhaps a philosophical and religious emptiness that marks us off from earlier times.’ p. xxxi
If his comment is right – and I believe it is, minus the 'perhaps' – then there is no more important challenge today than to get to grips with the Philosophy of Religion. Philosophy should not be an obscure or exclusively academic subject. At its best, it is simply the willingness to think carefully about what it is we know and what it is we value. It is the process of bringing reason and evidence to bear on the assumptions of everyday life.
So the challenge of studying the Philosophy of Religion is to apply reason to religious beliefs and values, and to do so in a way that is rigorous (not being afraid to ask difficult questions) and also sensitive, recognising the key importance that religion has in the lives of very many people.
Sadly, there are plenty of religious people who do not seem willing or able to use their reason to examine what religion is about, preferring fundamentalist acceptance of dogma. Equally, there are a good number of really intelligent people (including top scientists and philosophers) who seem particularly obtuse when confronted with religious ideas, preferring to caricature and dismiss them, rather than examine why people choose to follow them.
Hopefully, a grounding in the Philosophy of Religion will be a useful antidote to both of these narrow views.
From my notes for students...
(Just click on any topic to go to the notes.)
Does God Exist?
If you think the answer to that question should be straightforward, consider this quote from St John of Damascus (c675-c750):
'God does not belong to the class of existing things: not that he has no existence, but he is above all existing things, nay even above existence itself.’
In other words, if you think that God 'exists' in the same way that other things exist, then you have not understood what the word 'God' is about.
Can miracles happen? What do they say about God?
What can we know and what can we say?
And is faith compatible with reason?
Or is the whole idea of a philosophy of religion a mistake?
In my view, most of the arguments presented in the Philosophy of Religion do not get to grips with the nature of religion because they tend to identify it with a set of propositions to be believed, rather than an overall experience of life. Why has this happened? And what on earth has this to do with mountains and Wittgenstein's advice about looking? Read more...
Is God needed to give life meaning? / The problem of evil / Science and religion / Does fundamentalism get to the bottom of it? / Eastern wisdom / Can you experience God? / Can there be a multi-faith truth? / What are the hazards and benefits of religion? / The distraction of militant atheism
Just click my image to get your discussion started....
The 'God' Blog
For about 12 months, five years ago, I blogged on issues in the Philosophy of Religion, particularly on the idea of 'God' and whether a religion for atheists is a viable possibility within Western culture.
The material on the blog was gathered with a view to putting together a new book, attempting to give a balanced view of 'god language' and the place it has both within religion and for human self-understanding. I was brought up Christian and was, for some years, an ordained Anglican, yet I cannot recognise my beliefs of those days in the caricature of belief that is often presented in debate. I've also been involved with Buddhism and for a decade regularly practised meditation with a western Buddhist group - seeing what religion can be in a non-theistic context.
I now describe myself as an atheist, simply because that causes fewest confusions - and it is probably more accurate than any other wretched label we give one another. In practice, I agree with and have great sympathy for the beliefs of many who would describe themselves as liberal Christians. The level of reality to which some people give the name 'God', however, is too important to be left to those who call themselves believers!
Exactly how to work through this issue is something with which I'm struggling - both personally and intellectually - at the moment, inspired by many modern writers on God (Karen Armstrong springs to mind if you want something accessible) and despairing of others. In the near future, the 'God Blog' will appear as an extended section of this website, organised by subject matter, and eventually it may, just possibly, become a book.
So, to read my own views on 'God', and see what is a very early work-in-progress, visit the blog, by clicking here.
For a fascinating dialogue between a secular Buddhist (Stepen Batchelor) and a secular Christian (Don Cupitt), held in August 2012, visit Secular Buddhism.org.
For those interested in a radical approach to Christianity, Don Cupitt's introduction, available here, is particularly valuable, and for more about Don Cupitt and his work, visit his website at doncupitt.com
Don Cupitt's ideas are a great stimulus for reflection, whatever one's own views on religion and life. Click here for what, I believe, amounts to a manifesto which any sensitive agnostic or atheist can subscribe, but which I regard as expressing the essence of what is best in religion.
Dealing with God
Discussion about what ‘God’ means, or whether God exists is clearly central to the Philosophy of Religion. Frustratingly, much recent debate (especially between religious and scientific fundamentalists) is superficial on the question of God. It is therefo re refreshing to find a book which takes, almost as an obvious starting point, that God certainly does not ‘exist’ in the literal way that things in the universe exist, and therefore that – if we are going to appreciate the word ‘God’ and what it refers to – we need to probe something of its history. Karen Armstrong’s The Case for Godis a particularly valuable book in that it provides a clear overview of the whole set of issues surrounding God.
But I have also found it useful to look at two books – one presenting the position of philosophers who do not accept belief in God (Philosophers without Gods, 2007) and an answering volume Philosophers and God, 2009. Apart from one or two rather sad lapses into polemic in the first of these volumes, both present what belief in God means with clarity and sensitivity.
We can set aside the crude, supernatural notion that God exists as an external object within (or beyond) the world – that would be idolatrous for a monotheist. But how does one square religious practice and language with the conviction that God is a human construct; an image used to probe the meaning of human life within the universe? There is still a mismatch between what theologians and philosophers say and what popular religion appears to proclaim - and while that mismatch continues, religious beliefs of all sorts will be rightly vulnerable to the less-than-sensitive criticisms of a newly vocal but rather superficial form of atheism.