Introduction (Brian Davies OP) (Full Text)
- Does God exist? Can God’s existence be proved? Can it be defended in some other way? What is God like? Can we talk sense about God? Does evil disprove God’s existence? Is faith always opposed to reason? Are miracles possible? Is morality of any religious significance? Is there life after death1? Does Christianity make sense? Can philosophy offer insight when it comes to the diversity of religious beliefs? What can science tell us when it comes to religious matters?
- This book is about these questions. Its purpose is to explain how philosophers have thought about them in the past, and to suggest how we can think of them today. It is intended for students and teachers of philosophy and theology. It is also intended for anyone who is seriously concerned with the puzzles raised by religion. Written by a distinguished collection of authors from Britain and the USA, it aims to provide a critical introduction to philosophy of religion. As well as indicating why philosophy might challenge religious belief, its authors are also concerned to ask what philosophy can contribute to our understanding of such belief considered as something of importance, something worth thinking about.
- The expression ‘philosophy of religion’ is a modern invention whose users have understood it in different senses. But philosophical thinking about religious matters (as good a definition as any of ‘philosophy of religion’) is something that goes back for centuries. So the book begins with a brief account of what has been said about philosophy and religion in the days of the ancient Greeks to the beginning of the twentieth century. Questions which have always concerned philosophers and theologians include ‘What is the relevance of philosophy to religious belief?’ and ‘How should philosophers approach religious belief?’ Twentieth century theologians have had views on the first question. Ludwig Wittgenstein, considered by many to be the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century, had views on the second. In recent years, both questions have been much discussed by a number of writers focusing on a notion they refer to as ‘Foundationalism’. So the book continues with accounts of what has been said about philosophy and religion by twentieth-century theologians, by Wittgenstein, and by those with an eye on ‘Foundationalism’.
- Religious beliefs have been many and various. In Judaism, Islam and Christianity, however, it is taken for granted that the truth on which all else of religious importance depends is the truth that God exists. Yet why suppose that God does exist? This question is what Chapter 2 is all about. Those who have argued for God’s existence can be thought of as offering what can fairly be called ‘Ontological Arguments’, ‘Cosmological Arguments’ and ‘Design Arguments’. It has also been suggested that there is reason for believing that God exists because God can be experienced (rather than argued for). In Chapter 2, readers will discover what ‘Ontological’, ‘Cosmological’ and ‘Design’ arguments have amounted to, and what might be said of them. They will also find an essay intended to help them to consider whether God can be an object of human experience.
- In his Summa Theologiae, St Thomas Aquinas suggests that, once we have discovered that something exists, we need to ask what the thing is. He goes on to deny that we can know what God is, but he also argues that philosophy can help us to say why certain statements about God (other than ‘God exists’) are true. Agreeing with the central teachings of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, Aquinas suggests that God can be said to be eternal, simple, omnipotent and omniscient. He also argues that knowledge and will (attributes we ascribe to human persons) can be ascribed to God. The notions of divine eternality, simplicity, omnipotence, omniscience and personality have been central ones for philosophers thinking about the nature of God (what God is, as distinct from whether God is), and these are the focus of Chapter 3.
- Talk of God’s ‘attributes’, however, has seemed to some thinkers to be largely nonsense. For how can human language ever succeed in saying anything significant about God? When we say that something exists, or that it is like this or like that, we are normally talking of things in the physical world. But God is not supposed to be a part of this world. He is supposed to be its Maker or Creator. So can we employ any of our usual ways of talking about things when trying to talk about God? Can we talk sense about something which is not a part of the world? These questions are the focus of Chapters 4 and 5. Here readers will find a history of philosophical thinking about ‘God-talk’. They will also find a defence of the conclusion that talk about God might indeed make sense.
- The defence begins in Chapter 4, where (among other things) James Ross introduces and discusses the theologically influential notion of analogy. It continues in Chapter 5 as William Lane Craig suggests how we might think about the assertion that God is the Creator of a world in which divine providence operates. It is often said that divine providence sometimes arranges for miracles to occur, and the topic of miracles has given rise to much philosophical discussion. For that reason, Chapter 5 also includes a treatment of miracles, one which aims to say what might be meant by ‘a miracle’ and whether we might ever be right to conclude that a miracle has occurred.
- One of the biggest puzzles raised by belief in God’s existence is often referred to as ‘the problem of evil’. Some have taken this to show that there cannot be a God. Others have taken a different line. With a special eye on contemporary and medieval thinking, Chapter 6 reviews and comments on the major positions adopted with respect to the problem of evil. It concludes with the suggestion that evil is a mystery which, while not counting against God’s existence, is not something solvable by philosophy.
- Some would say that such a conclusion is best described as a summons to faith. But, though ‘faith’ is a word much used by religious believers, one might wonder what it means. Some have taken it to be a word designed to throw dust in the eyes of philosophers. On their account, those who appeal to faith are basically trying to block reasonable enquiry. But is that really so? Can faith never be reasonable? These questions are the concern of Chapter 7. And, since ‘faith’ for millions of people means ‘Christian faith’, Chapter 8 turns specifically to Christianity. How do the doctrines peculiar to this religion stand up under philosophical scrutiny? What can philosophers say about, for example, the assertion that God became man (the doctrine of the Incarnation), or that God is three persons in one substance (the doctrine of the Trinity). These questions are very much alive in contemporary philosophy of religion, and Chapter 8 addresses them directly.
- Chapters 9 and 10 are concerned with two topics frequently connected with each other in the context of religious belief: morality, and life after death2. It has often been said that our moral character in this life has consequences for a life to come. Some have implied that religion is needed to safeguard morality. It has even been suggested that religious belief is nothing but a kind of moral belief. But what is the truth of the matter? How might thinking about morality have a bearing on thinking about religion? And is there any reason to think that people somehow survive their death? Chapter 9 turns to the first question. Chapter 10 addresses the second. As well as proposing answers to their questions, both chapters offer accounts of how the questions have been treated in the course of the history of philosophy.
- Most philosophers of religion writing in English have concentrated on beliefs to be found by those who subscribe to three of the major world religions. Their concern has mostly been focused on Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. But they have not always paid much attention to the differences between these religions. And they have rarely ventured to philosophize about other religions. Yet such religions exist. There are Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism, for example. We might therefore wonder whether philosophy can have anything to say when it comes to the world-wide diversity in religious belief. Chapter 11 is intended as an aid to such wondering. Can Western philosophical thinking help us usefully to reflect on the major world religions? What is a world religion anyway? Can philosophers in one religious tradition fruitfully debate with others in different traditions? These are some of the questions raised and discussed in Chapter 11.
- Good though they are, these questions are not much considered in the writings of philosophers living before the twentieth century. And they have not been given the attention they deserve by twentieth-century philosophers. From the nineteenth century onwards, however, questions about religious belief have been raised in the light of the rise of modern science. And these have been much discussed. Many have suggested that science now somehow shows that religious belief is wholly discredited. But are they right to suggest this? This question is Dominic Balestra’s specific concern in Chapter 12, which is a brief introduction to the topic of science and religion.
- Readers should not be surprised to find that contributors to this book sometimes disagree with each other (by implication if not explicitly). That is because they are philosophers with views of their own, not a group of writers chosen to defend a party-line of some kind. Argument and debate are the life-blood of philosophy, and these cannot be guaranteed to produce a single, unified outcome. In the end, you do philosophy (including philosophy of religion) not just by learning who has said what but also by engaging philosophically with what has been said. So, as well as telling readers something of the history of philosophy of religion, the authors of this book reflect on this history as individuals and thereby encourage their readers to do likewise.
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