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Preface: setting the scene
Philosophy of religion is concerned with philosophical questions prompted by religious faith and experience. Some of these questions concern religion generally; others concern particular families of religion; and some concern particular religious traditions. Some religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism, embrace philosophical reflection, whereas the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—contain very little in the way of explicit philosophical reflection.
Despite this, numerous Abrahamic philosophers have made important contributions to the philosophy of religion.
The philosophy of religion is concerned not with religion as a social, cultural, or political phenomenon, but with philosophical questions that are prompted by religious faith and experience. Some of these questions concern religion in general.
Philosophy of Religion
For example, philosophers of religion are interested in the nature of religious experience, and whether it provides evidence for the existence of a supernatural realm. Some of these questions concern particular families of religions. For example, philosophers of religion are interested in the conception of God that is endorsed by adherents of the Abrahamic faiths that is, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam , and whether there are good reasons to think that God as conceived of by these faiths exists. And some of these questions concern particular religious traditions.
The foregoing might suggest that there is a close connection between the philosophy of religion and theology. There is indeed p. One approach to distinguishing theology from the philosophy of religion appeals to the perspective that one adopts in attempting to answer a particular question. Theological discussions occur within the context of a particular religious tradition, whereas philosophical discussions aim to transcend the boundaries between traditions.
Suppose that you are considering whether God could have created time. This does not mean that the philosophy of religion is restricted only to those who do not identify with a particular religion, but it does mean that the kinds of considerations that one can appeal to insofar as one is engaging in the philosophy of religion are considerations that ought, in principle at least, to be compelling to people irrespective of their religious convictions. Religions exhibit a wide variety of attitudes towards philosophy and indeed towards philosophers! Some religions embrace philosophical reflection.
In fact, there are a number of religions—Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism, for example—in which the very distinction between philosophy and religion is far from clear-cut, and certain strands within these religions are as much philosophical systems as they are religious ones.
Other religions display a more ambivalent attitude towards philosophy. This ambivalence is particularly marked with respect to the Abrahamic religions. The scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam contain very little in the way of explicit philosophical reflection, and the claims that they make concerning God and reality are typically based not on argument but on appeals to revelation and the word of the prophets.
Indeed, suspicion of p. However, the relationship between the Abrahamic faiths and philosophical reflection is a complex one. Jewish philosophers who have made important contributions to the philosophy of religion include Maimonides — , Gersonides — , and Spinoza — And among the many Islamic thinkers who have made major contribution to the philosophy of religion are Al-Kindi c. Although these thinkers belong to very different social contexts and religious traditions, they all take philosophy to have a central role to play when it comes to religious matters.
Despite the long history of philosophical reflection on religious issues, many people are surprised to discover that there is such an enterprise as the philosophy of religion. Religion and philosophy, p. What might motivate this attitude, and is there any reason to endorse it? Religious issues—so this line of thought runs—are matters of taste and opinion rather than reason and argument. Although the position just expressed is not uncommon, there is little to recommend it. A great many thinkers down the ages—not to mention a great many contemporary thinkers—would certainly reject that assertion.
To demonstrate that religious issues are beyond the reach of human reason one would first need to provide an account of the limits of human reason, and then show that religious matters lie beyond those limits. Such an enterprise has occasionally been attempted—the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant famously argued for a version of this view—but few theorists regard such attempts as successful.
The philosophy of religion may not be able to provide definitive answers to the questions that it asks, but it would not be unreasonable to hope that it can at least illuminate them.
There is certainly no doubt that people do appeal to philosophical considerations when discussing religious matters. Of course, it can be argued that these considerations have little impact on the religious views that people hold. It is certainly true that the levers of belief are not moved by the force of reason p. A second argument for thinking that religion and philosophy ought to be kept apart concerns issues of autonomy and religious freedom.
One might be tempted to argue that if it were legitimate to appeal to philosophical considerations in adjudicating issues of faith, then religious convictions that could be shown to be irrational might be regarded as suspect, and that—one might worry—would in turn be at odds with deeply cherished ideals concerning religious liberty and autonomy.
Philosophy of religion
We can see that there must be something wrong with this argument by observing that there is no inconsistency in holding both that political discussion ought to be informed by philosophical considerations and that freedom of political thought should be respected. Where then does the argument go wrong? It goes wrong in assuming that presenting a person with objections to their views involves infringing their freedom of belief. Crucially, the methods of persuasion employed in philosophy are autonomy-respecting, for philosophical arguments appeal only to considerations that are rationally compelling.
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