6.1 Philosophy and Religion


By the end of this section you will discover:

  • What the Philosophy of Religion explores.
  • Meanings of key terms like theism, agnosticism and atheism.
  • How philosophy has traditionally interacted with theology over the ages.

Students entering the study of philosophy often mistakenly believe that philosophy is somehow the enemy of religion. These students have listened to the arguments of those who focus narrowly on the philosophical arguments for atheism while ignoring the far more voluminous philosophical arguments in support of religious claims that have been used by theologians throughout the centuries to support belief.

Theism: belief in the existence of a god or gods, usually as part of a divine reality.

Agnosticism: the choice to neither believe nor disbelieve in the divine.

Atheism: lack of belief in the existence of a god or gods or any type of divine reality.

It is true that when it emerged in ancient Greece, philosophy made itself distinct from religion by focusing only on what can be known by observing the world or the human condition, in short, on natural reason. In this philosophers came to reject supernatural or mythic explanations for the origins of the world and of mankind in favor of reasons that could be derived merely from induction or deduction.

Nevertheless, philosophy has been used for centuries, both in Western traditions and non-Western, as a tool for the defense of religious beliefs. This became all the more important when major religious traditions began to encounter rival religious traditions. Theological debaters needed to find arguments that went beyond an appeal to scriptures, for their opponents had a different set of scriptures. To this end, reason, which is a universal human ability, came to the aid of revelation (scriptures) as a sort of common language, a lingua franca, for theologians in their responses to other theologians.

Excerpts From Beau Branson: The Intertwining of Philosophy and Religion in the Western Tradition

In what follows, consider:

How valid is the argument that philosophy is opposed to religion?

Philosophers have gotten something of a bad reputation for widespread—and perhaps closed-minded—atheism. The reality, however, is quite otherwise. We will address the reputation of closed-mindedness towards the end of this chapter. But first we’ll address the historical point. For most of their history, philosophy and religion have almost always been intertwined in one way or another, and the vast majority of philosophers have had some kind of religious beliefs, oftentimes central to their philosophy, whether or not they have made the links explicit. And this is not without good reason. Though their methods (sometimes) differ, philosophy and religion have always shared a number of similar goals in terms of seeking answers to life’s “Big Questions,” questions about the ultimate nature of reality, our purpose or place in the world, the meaning of life and how we should live it. … In Plato’s Republic, Socrates famously says, “It is no small matter we are discussing, but the very question of how we are to live our lives” (Book I, 352d). Many religious believers would say the same thing when discussing their religious beliefs.

Ponder if you will…

It is important to note that the Philosophy of Religion is based on an assumption. Philosophy of Religion tends to be theistic and assumes the existence of God. While there are many world religions that are not theistic, these religions are very rarely included. A more appropriate title might be “Philosophy of Theistic Religions.” However, “theism” is assumed and not explicitly stated, so please keep that assumption in mind as you study.

Indeed, outside of Western culture, where a sharp division has developed between philosophy and religion as a result of the Enlightenment, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between the two. Scholars agonize over whether Confucianism is “really” a religion or “only” a philosophy—or maybe neither one. Likewise, whether Buddhism fits neatly into either category or maybe into both at the same time … But even in the Western tradition, the division between philosophy and religion was not always so sharp prior to the Enlightenment, as we will see.

If you are new to philosophy, many of the philosophers discussed below may be unfamiliar to you. That’s OK! The point here is not to memorize names and dates, but to get a feel for how a representative sample of many of the “heavyweights” in the history of philosophy have interacted with religion, and how the two have, historically, not always been at odds with one another, but have rather been intertwined, mutually influencing one another.

Ancient Greek Philosophy of Religion

To what extent might we call ancient philosophy “religious”?

Ancient Platonists, if asked to summarize the essence of the philosophy of Plato (c. 429-347 BCE), would answer that it was a way of life directed towards homoiosis theou—becoming like God…. At various points in Plato’s dialogues, his descriptions of philosophy and of wisdom sound much more like descriptions of out-of-body experiences than like today’s notion of “thinking deeply about important questions.” For example, in Phaedo, Socrates says, “I am afraid that other people do not realize that the one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death…” and then defines death as “the separation of the soul from the body” (Phaedo 64a). He goes on to discuss how the true philosopher is not concerned with things connected to the body (including sense perception), but with the soul, and trying to get the soul to be “by itself, taking leave of the body and as far as possible having no contact or association with it [the body] in its search for reality… the soul of the philosopher most disdains the body, flees from it and seeks to be by itself.” Later Socrates continues, “if we are ever to have pure knowledge, we must escape from the body and observe things in themselves with the soul by itself” (Phaedo 66d-e). While there are other ways to interpret such passages, there is a long tradition of reading Plato as talking about something like an out-of-body experience that opens up some sort of mystical knowledge about reality, and even God. Certainly, something along those lines is how he was read by the so-called Neoplatonists like Plotinus and Porphyry (described below).

What we today call the “Metaphysics” of Aristotle (382-322 BCE), he himself famously called “theology” (Metaphysics XI.7, 1064b1). Prior to Plato and Aristotle, the writings of the pre-Socratics (Greek philosophers prior to roughly 400 BCE) were filled with speculations about the nature of God, or the gods. For example, Thales (624-546 BCE) claimed that “all things are full of gods.” We know very little about Pythagoras (570-490 BCE); it’s doubtful he actually discovered the theorem named after him. But one thing we do know about him is that he taught his followers to believe in reincarnation and engage in various mystical practices (Kirk et al. 1983, 214 ff.). And Parmenides (515-450 BCE) presented his philosophy in the form of a long poem about a spiritual vision he had, in which secret truths were revealed to him by divine beings….

Medieval Philosophy of Religion

How did Christianity, Islam, and Judaism integrate philosophical thinking into theology?

After the rise of Christianity, the Neo-Platonist philosopher Plotinus (c. 203-270 CE) asks, “What can it be that has brought the souls to forget the father, God, and, though members of the Divine and entirely of that world, to ignore at once themselves and It?” (Ennead V.1.1). Here Plotinus refers to his interpretation of Plato’s highest principle—The One, or The Good—with the particularly Christian-sounding terms, “Father,” and “God” (Ennead V.1.1). … Plotinus, probably the most famous Neo-Platonist in antiquity,

Al-Kindi (801-873 CE) was an Arab Muslim philosopher who is often referred to as the father of Islamic philosophy. He was an accomplished scientist and mathematician but focused much of his work on the philosophy of religion. Al-Kindi agreed with Aristotle’s cosmological argument for the existence of God but disagreed with Aristotle’s view of God as impersonal and uninvolved in creation.

An artist's rendering of a turbaned al-Kindi
Al-Kindi (801-873)

saw Platonism not as a merely theoretical study, but as a spiritual path. He describes his own mystical experiences, inspired by Plato’s teachings:

Many times, it has happened: lifted out of the body into myself; becoming external to all other things and self-centered; beholding a marvelous beauty; then, more than ever, assured of community with the loftiest order; enacting the noblest life, acquiring identity with the divine…. (Ennead IV.8.1)

At points he even gives guidance on how to achieve such mystical states, drawing from Plato’s writings, and referring again to God as “Father”:

The Fatherland to us is There whence we have come, and There is The Father. What then is our course, what the manner of our flight? … all this order of things you must set aside and refuse to see you must close the eyes and call instead upon another vision which is to be waked within you, a vision, the birth-right of all, which few turn to use. (Ennead I.6.8)

This again shows us that in antiquity, what was called “philosophy” was not simply the modern-day concept of a kind of deep, critical thinking about important subjects, but was instead an attempt at what might be called a kind of “spiritual science.” …

After the emperor Justinian discontinued public funding for pagan schools of philosophy in 529 CE, those schools began to fade out for a lack of financial support, although classical learning itself was kept alive by Christian scholars in the (Eastern) Roman Empire (usually erroneously referred to as the “Byzantine” Empire) for the next thousand years. From the Christianization of the Roman Empire until its fall in 1453, most philosophical thinking was done in the context of theological thinking, whether by Greek-speaking Christians, Latin-speaking Christians, Muslims, or Jews. Although such thinkers gave intense scrutiny to many philosophical questions, they always did so with one eye toward the religious or theological implications of those philosophical questions.

Modern Philosophy of Religion

Were modern philosophers able to easily escape their theological perspectives?

After the armies of the Fourth Crusade sacked the Eastern Christian city of New Rome/Constantinople in the 1200s, and brought back precious ancient manuscripts, Western Europe saw the Renaissance blossom in the following century (1300s). After the eventual fall of Constantinople in 1453 (which led many Greek scholars to flee west and bring more knowledge and manuscripts with them), the arrival of Europeans in the Americas in 1492, the rise of Protestantism beginning in 1517, and the Scientific Revolution … led to a period in which Classical learning began to be questioned, doubted, and interrogated…. Not surprisingly, and despite being in many ways revolutionary compared to Ancient and Medieval thought, Early Modern Philosophy was still deeply concerned with religious questions.

The philosophies of the great Rationalists—René Descartes (1596-1650), Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716)—were all bound up in many ways with their respective Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant theologies. Descartes’ famous Meditations are largely concerned with proving the existence of God and the distinction between the body and soul. Spinoza’s Ethics argues for his version of pantheism. Leibniz wrote versions of both the Cosmological and Ontological arguments… as well as his famous Theodicy, a response to the Problem of Evil….

Turning from the Rationalists to the British Empiricists, John Locke (1632-1704) was a deeply religious man who authored arguments for God’s existence. Even his political philosophy begins from the premise that we are all God’s property (which he seems to have meant quite seriously), for example, in the Second Treatise on Government 2.6…. George Berkeley (1685-1753) was actually a bishop in the Church of England, and a key aspect of his philosophy of “idealism” was the idea that, since matter doesn’t really exist, only minds and ideas do, there has to be one very powerful mind (God) that constantly perceives all things and holds them in existence. Last among the three great British Empiricists, only David Hume (1711-1776) could reasonably be called an atheist, though this label was more of an accusation by his opponents. His views on religion have been more accurately described as “attenuated deism.” In other words, he seems to have held something like the belief that there is some kind of Creator, who may possibly be something like a Great Mind, but who is not likely to be directly concerned about anything that happens in the world, at least as far as anyone would have any way of knowing….

Ponder if you will…

What is the importance of context in understanding how these thinkers – from the ancient Greeks to the modern era – approached their work? How does the time in which they lived, their geographical location, their culture, language and status affect their thinking? What other contextual factors can you think of that affected their work? Why is it so important that we take context into account when examining their ideas?

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), whose “critical” philosophy was largely a response to Hume’s skepticism, described his project in The Critique of Pure Reason… as a way to “deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith” … While the philosophy of Hegel (1770-1831) is today often summarized in the triadic phrase, “thesis-antithesis-synthesis,” Hegel’s own conceptualization of his philosophy had much more to do with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (as he interpreted it), which he explicitly stated he was trying to revive, since the theologians of his day had, in his view, abandoned it….

Finally, although there had been atheist philosophers before, it is only really in the 1800s, with Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), that atheistic philosophies begin to gain what will turn out to be a more solid and lasting foothold in the intellectual history of the West. But of course, it would be completely wrong to say that Marx or Nietzsche was not concerned with religious questions. Rather, they were both deeply concerned with questions about religion—they simply came down on the negative side of those questions. (Beau Branson, Introduction to Philosophy: Philosophy of Religion, eds. Branson and Hendricks, Chapter 1, OER)

Strengths and weaknesses of the philosophical approach to religion.

One of the strengths of the philosophy of religion is that it has wrestled with the big questions of life for thousands of years. Questions about ultimate reality, the meaning of life, and how we should live are important and are common to all human experience.

As in all fields of philosophy, the philosophy of religion helps us to clarify our own beliefs as well as gain a better understanding of the beliefs of others.

The majority of the world’s population is influenced in some way by religion, so these are issues and questions that affect real people in the real world. A basic understanding of these issues and questions is necessary if we are to function successfully in the world.

One of the weaknesses of the philosophy of religion is that it tends to be very Euro-centric and primarily focused on the Abrahamic religions. There are many religions that do not believe in a god, or who understand the idea of god very differently than Judaism, Christianity and Islam do. These voices have not been equally included in the conversation. The section at the end of this chapter attempts to address this problem

The philosophy of religion has its basis in reason, but some might argue that religion necessarily has its basis in faith. As Pascal famously says, “The heart has its reasons which reason does not know.” Is there an inherent conflict in applying reason to matters of faith? Some philosophers and theologians have argued that there is an inherent conflict here, while others have argued that there is no conflict because matters of faith should be subjected to the light of reason.


Works Cited

Bakni, Michel. “Al-Kindi Portrait.” Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Commons, 13 Dec. 2020, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Al-Kindi_Portrait.jpg. Accessed 12 Apr. 2022.


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PPSC PHI 1011: The Philosopher's Quest by Daniel G. Shaw, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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