Bernie Cantens is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Moravian University. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
Philosophy of religion is a branch of philosophy that studies the nature, existence and reality of the supernatural world; its relation to the natural world; and the issues that arise from this relationship. Philosophy of religion’s method, unlike revealed theology, is solely reliant on empirical and rational approaches, as are modeled in other areas of philosophical studies. I can envision at least two ways to approach the task of clarifying what is philosophy of religion: first, we can describe it through its logical structure; second, we can describe it more organically, meaning the natural way philosophers come to address the subject matter. Let me begin with the logical structure.
1. A Logical Structure to Philosophy of Religion
The discipline of philosophy of religion can be divided into three parts, corresponding to three areas of investigation. First, the part that investigates the central core questions of discipline: the existence, coming into being, and sustenance of the universe; second, the part that investigates second-order questions that are offshoots of the core questions, such as the nature and reality of the supernatural world, if there is such a world; and, third, the part that investigates third-order questions that are offshoots of second-order questions, such as the relationship between the supernatural and natural world.
It seems it me that the core domain of philosophy of religion focuses on the central metaphysical issues related to the first cause and final cause of the universe. Whether the universe was created or not created, whether there is purpose within the universe, and whether the universe requires an intelligent designer of some kind are fundamental issues of this discipline. Common topics belonging to this area of study include arguments for the existence of a first cause, necessary being, first mover, or intelligent designer. Topics might also include arguments from the meaning and purpose of human existence for the existence of an intelligent supernatural being. All arguments for the existence of God, then, are part of this core area of the discipline of philosophy of religion. Conclusions to these arguments frame a specific worldview, forging a new set of related questions and issues.
If the world is created, then the nature and reality of the creator becomes a central issue of investigation for philosophy of religion. For instance, if a creator exists, is the creator distinct form the natural world? If the creator is distinct from the natural world, what is the creator like? What attributes must a creator of the universe have? If the creator is worthy of worship, then omnipotence and omniscience might not be sufficient; the creator might also have to be morally perfect. Here common topics of philosophy of religion include the examination and analysis of the attributes of God, such as omnipotence, omniscience, moral perfection, immutability, simplicity, omnipresence, etc. The nature and reality of the supernatural world raises a host of third-order questions concerning the relationship between the supernatural and natural world.
First, the purpose and meaning of human existence and its relation to the supernatural world leads us to views about salvation, reincarnation, or other possible afterlife experiences. Here questions and issues of human immortality become central. Moreover, these lead to theoretical questions about the nature of human beings, as well as to practical questions involving morality. For instance, how are humans related to the supernatural world? More specifically, how is our material nature relevant and related to the supernatural world? If humans have an afterlife, are there rewards and punishments in the afterlife? Is there divine justice, and how do we humans come to terms with it? Is there forgiveness? Is there atonement? How does our moral life in the natural world relate to our afterlife in the supernatural world? Other major topics that arise here are the problem of evil and the problem of the hiddenness of God, just to name a few.
2. A More Organic and Natural Approach to Philosophy of Religion
Few people ever do philosophy of religion in the way I have outlined above. The reality is that most people, when they engage in this discipline, have strong personal beliefs, disbelief or doubts about the supernatural world. For instance, a prominent worldview, and one from which my thoughts evolved, is the traditional theistic view belonging to Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The important distinction between the logical order and the personal traditional theistic approach is that the latter entails and begins with a traditional view of God, and thus describing God’s attributes becomes the first and central order of business. The vital questions here are: What is God like? What are the attributes of this being to which the name “God” refers.
For instance, when I began to do philosophy of religion, I was interested in the question concerning the existence of a theistic God. But to answer this question, I first needed to develop a clear understanding of what this Being was like. In other words, I had to expound a description of God that was detailed enough for it to have some meaning and significance for me, while leaving it sufficiently vague so that it would remain significant and meaningful for all theists. This can be quite a task. According to most traditional theistic views, God is not simply a first uncaused being but also a loving and morally perfect being who created the world freely for a loving and moral purpose. Theistic philosophers of religion spend much of their time and work in describing what a personal, loving, morally perfect, omniscient and omnipotent Deity is like. What does it mean for a being to be omniscient? What does it mean for a being to be omnipotent and loving?
The question concerning the existence of the theistic traditional God is probably the most fundamental metaphysical area of inquiry in philosophy of religion. Of course, this presupposes that we have come to terms with a well-constructed definition of a theistic traditional God. Once we have done so, we can then construct arguments for or against the existence of this God, and this then becomes the central focus of our investigation.
Notice that in many cases the traditional arguments for the existence of a first cause or necessary being do not confirm the existence of a theistic God. If the arguments are successful, they only lend some support to the probability that such a God exists. The investigation into the nature of God and the existence of God should not be seen as static and independent inquiries, but rather as dynamic interdependent areas of investigation. Arguments for and against the existence of God depend on the nature of God, and thus the study of the interaction between these two areas of inquiry is an on-going and interrelated project.
Another essential area of study in philosophy of religion is religious epistemology. Most philosophers strive for truth; and truth is inherently valuable and thus something we seek for its own sake. Moreover, most philosophers believe that having knowledge or justified beliefs is much better than mere opinion or unjustified beliefs, because the former entail beliefs that are closer to truth. In addition, knowledge and rationality are connected concepts because it is considered rational to believe things for which one has evidence and thus are more likely true, and irrational to believe things that go contrary to the given evidence and thus more likely to be false. Since knowledge entails beliefs that are more likely to be true, then knowledge is essentially connected to rationality.
The difference between knowledge and mere opinion is provided by the concept of justification. Therefore, justification and evidence in the context of religious beliefs is an extremely important area of study. What is knowledge, rationality, and justification and how do we understand these concepts within the framework of faith and religious beliefs is an especially popular area of study. Some of the central question here are the following: Is belief in the theistic traditional God rational, irrational or non-rational? How is faith related to reason? Does religious experience count as evidence for the existence of God? Does the lack of religious experience count as evidence for the non-existence of God? Does knowledge of God require inferential evidence? Can we know God’s reality as a basic belief?
Finally, there are a host of third-order questions that take much of the space of contemporary philosophy of religion. Some of these issues might be relevant only to theistic philosophers. For instance, consider the following: What are miracles and do they exist? How are religion and science related? How are religion and evolution related? What should we expect in the afterlife? Will there be eternal damnation? What will eternal happiness be like? How are religion and morality related? How can we explain the plurality of religious views given that there is only one God?
Conclusion: Openness to questions outside of our categories
Fallabilists believe that even in cases where one’s beliefs seem to be true and well supported, they might be false. I am a fallibilist, and I believe we should be open to possibilities of ordering the world in ways that have never occurred to us because they are simply outside our conceptual frameworks. There are questions that might never be asked or investigated because they are meaningless and incoherent within our understanding of the world. Such questions simply could never make sense to us; therefore, they could never arise as meaningful questions within our metaphysical or religious investigations.
However, this does not mean that they are meaningless and incoherent within all possible conceptual frameworks. Some worldviews (or parts of a worldview) might be incongruent within our conceptual framework, but they might provide a categorization of the universe with equal or greater explanatory value than the one we espouse. While we might be blind to such perspectives, our understanding of these intellectual shortfalls leaves room for growth and evolution of thought in the future, in ways, we simply cannot imagine in the present.