Matheson Russell on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”


Matheson Russell

Matheson Russell is Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Philosophers of religion exhibit their understanding of what it is to do philosophy of religion in what they choose to write about and in the way they write about it. When we survey the philosophy of religion literature, then, what tasks do we find philosophers of religion taking up? What topics and questions do we find them tackling? I think it’s possible to discern four main streams in the contemporary literature. As I shall try to indicate, these four are dialectically interrelated.

(1) The first stream sees the philosopher of religion taking the role of a rational judge or arbiter presiding over the dispute concerning the existence of God. In this guise, the philosopher of religion asks: Does God exist? And the question is traditionally referred to “proofs” for or against the existence of God.

The first stream presupposes that there is some method of rational reflection capable of deciding for or against the existence of God, and presupposes furthermore that the method of rational decision will rest upon evidence, proofs or arguments. But in lieu of any decisive empirical or rational argument for or against the existence of God (an impasse we reach for perhaps essential reasons), we find ourselves casting about for other—perhaps less direct—means of judging whether religious beliefs are reasonable or not. And at this point philosophers of religion have found themselves having to ask more general epistemological questions about the nature of justification and warrant, about the categories of probability, plausibility, reasonability, the ethics of belief, and so forth. A new question therefore emerges within philosophy of religion:

(2) The second stream asks: Under what conditions would religious belief be rational or reasonable? This stream is characterized by its epistemological focus, in contrast to the traditional metaphysical or ontological focus of the discipline.

The first and second streams in the literature presume that “restricted” or “classical” theism should set the terms of the debate within philosophy of religion, i.e. the belief “that there exists a being—God—who is all-powerful; all-knowing; supremely good; infinite; eternal; one who possesses all perfections (and no imperfections); transcendent to the natural universe, hence supernatural, but at the same time creator (and sustainer) of the natural universe.”[1] However, it seems legitimate to wonder why we should accept a definition of religious belief that excludes from consideration all religious beliefs beyond those of the monotheistic traditions. Should the philosopher of religion not first turn his or her critical attention to the concept of God rather than taking it as a given? What’s more, perhaps the rational acceptability of religious belief depends upon which concept of God we are considering. Perhaps the more fundamental question, then, is not “does God exist?” or even “when would religious belief be epistemologically respectable?,” but rather “what, if any, concept of God, the gods, or the divine, would be logically coherent and rationally compelling?” Under the force of this line of thinking, a new focus of inquiry emerges:

(3) The third stream asks: What, if any, concept of God, the gods, or the divine might be logically coherent and rationally compelling? This line of inquiry has the character of philosophical theology, by which I simply mean philosophical reflection on the doctrine or idea of God, very broadly construed.

Yet another distinct line of inquiry has been fuelled by perceived limitations in the traditional forms of philosophy of religion: namely, that they presuppose that religious life at its core is founded on a knowledge claim that there is a God and that it is therefore open to critical evaluation in just the same way as any other knowledge claim. But what if faith does not have the character of a truth claim at all? This line of reflection leads to a fourth conception of the philosopher of religion’s task:

(4) The fourth stream asks: What is the religious dimension of life? Where does it sit in relation to theory and practice—or better, in relation to human existence as such? How are we to characterize it? What does it signify, and what is its significance? This line of inquiry aims to interpret and evaluate the so-called “spiritual” or “religious” dimensions of human experience as such.

Here the goal is to suspend the assumption that certain truth claims are at the basis of religion and to seek a philosophically satisfying conceptualisation of religious life as such, in its experiential or existential characteristics, its ways of speaking and acting, its forms of behaviour and social interaction, including those of prayer, meditation, ritual, and hermeneutic practices. The focus is neither metaphysical, nor epistemological, nor theological in the first instance, but rather falls within the sphere of philosophical anthropology.

What is the point in pursuing any of these lines of inquiry? As a discipline, philosophy of religion has been shaped largely by the existential questions facing culturally Christian individuals in a post-Enlightenment world: Is belief in God really plausible? Can miracles happen? Do I really possess an immortal soul? Is the natural world the product of an intelligent creator?

But does this really do justice to the scope and relevance of philosophical reflection upon religion today? Surely not. Without negating its significance for individual lives, it’s also the case that philosophy of religion has a vital role to play in the broader philosophical quest to understand who and what we are as human beings and what is possible for us to do and be today in the context of late modernity. A broader historical, cultural and political view of religious belief and practice is leading today to a renewed vision for philosophy of religion in our secular age.[2]


1. Elmer Daniel Klemke, To Believe or Not to Believe: Readings in the Philosophy of Religion (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1992), 7.

2. See the longer version of this essay for further discussion of this final point: Matheson Russell, “Philosophy of Religion in a Secular Age: Some Programmatic Reflections,” in P.D. Bubbio and P.A. Quadrio (eds.), The Relationship of Philosophy to Religion Today (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2011), 2-25.

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