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2.2: Philosophy and Religion in the Western Tradition

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    Philosophy and Religion

    Philosophers have gotten something of a bad reputation for widespread and perhaps closed-minded atheism. The reality, however, is quite otherwise. 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, often 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, human’s purpose or place in the world, the meaning of life and how it should be lived. 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.” Many religious believers would say the same thing when discussing their religious beliefs.

    In reading about the Enlightenment, you will get more detail how and why the Enlightenment may have contributed to this sharp division between philosophy and religion in the West. But even in the Western tradition, the division between philosophy and religion was not always so sharp prior to the Enlightenment.

    Ancient Greek Philosophy

    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, or 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.” 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.” 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.

    What is today called the “metaphysics” of Aristotle (382-322 BCE), he himself famously called “theology.” 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. There is very little known about Pythagoras (570-490 BCE); it’s doubtful he actually discovered the theorem named after him. But one thing that is known about him is that he taught his followers to believe in reincarnation and engage in various mystical practices.

    The Stoics believed the universe was guided by a divine Logos. While “Logos” in Greek Philosophy often just means human reason or an argument, the word is also the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew “Davar” or Aramaic “Memra,” (the divine “Word” of God) which, in the later parts of the Hebrew Bible, began taking on many of the characteristics associated with God. And although the Stoics are considered a school of Greek Philosophy, the first Stoics happened to be Semitic immigrants from the East, so their view that the world is governed by a divine “Word” is especially noteworthy for its connection to Jewish thought.

    Numerous individual passages in the New Testament, as well as the entire epistle to the Hebrews, also show influence on a number of points either directly from Philo, or else some common source from which Philo and the New Testament authors must both have been drawing. For example, the author of Hebrews famously downplays the importance of the earthly temple in Jerusalem in favor of a heavenly temple, of which the earthly temple is merely a “copy and shadow”:

    [They] serve the copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed when he was about to make the tabernacle. For He said, “See that you make all things according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” (Hebrews 8:5)

    The talk about “copy and shadow” recalls Plato’s famous Analogy of the Cave in Book VII of the Republic, where prisoners are chained up, facing a wall, unable to see anything except “the shadows of copies of things,” which they mistake for the truth. The talk about making all things “according to the pattern” recalls Plato’s discussion of the “craftsman” or “demiurge” (creator of the universe) in Timaeus.

    Does all this mean Plato was the source of these ideas in the New Testament? It would be difficult to deny that several New Testament authors make use (apparently intentionally) both of Plato’s thought and his vocabulary. As to whether Plato was the source of any of the New Testament authors’ thoughts, however, it’s hard to say, and scholarly debate continues. Of course, there are also deep differences that must be acknowledged as well. But while questions about sources and directions of influence may be debated, one thing is for certain: there was no separation into two distinct compartments of “philosophy” versus “religion” at this point in history. Thinkers at this time did not see two categories here, but one.

    Questions to Consider

    Brainstorm definitions of “philosophy” and “religion.” To what extent do those definitions overlap, or differ? Consider a belief system like Buddhism or Confucianism. How do the definitions you came up with categorize that belief system? Do you think your definitions get the right result? What does this say about the relation between philosophy and religion?

    Medieval Philosophy

    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?.” 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.” Plotinus’ greatest influence, the middle-Platonist Numenius of Apamea (c. 150-200 CE), created a new school of Platonism with the explicit purpose of demonstrating the overlap between Platonism and ancient near-Eastern religions, like Judaism (which he mentions by name). Indeed, he was the author of the much-quoted saying, “What else is Plato than a Moses who speaks Greek?” And Plotinus, probably the most famous neo-Platonist in antiquity, 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-encentred; 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)

    In this light, it makes much more sense that early Christians were often critical of “philosophy” (by which they meant Platonism), even when they were themselves engaged in something that in today’s terms could be called “philosophy.” They were opposed to it, not because they were opposed to critical thinking, but because Christianity and “philosophy” (i.e., Platonism) essentially constituted rival schools of spirituality, with teachings about the spiritual path that, while frequently overlapping, were often at odds.

    Modern Philosophy

    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, comes the Modern Period. The rapid pace of discovery of new knowledge and the overturning or questioning of previously-held beliefs from the mid-1400s to mid-1500s led to a period in which Classical learning began to be questioned, doubted, and interrogated to a growing degree. 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.

    Turning from the Rationalists to the British Empiricists, John Locke (1632-1704) was a deeply religious man and authored arguments for God’s existence. Even his political philosophy begins from the premise that people are all God’s property, 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.

    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 were not concerned with religious questions. Rather, they were both deeply concerned with questions about religion. They simply came down on a negative side of those questions.

    Questions to Consider

    Nearly every philosopher in the Western tradition during the medieval period was either Jewish, Christian or Muslim. If philosophy and religion are sharply distinct pursuits, what could explain the long-standing connection between the two? If they are similar or overlapping pursuits, what could explain why philosophers would begin abandoning religion in the 1800s?

    Nietzsche described Christianity as “Platonism for the masses.” Consider your definitions of “philosophy” and “religion.” Assuming that Christianity counts as “religion,” and Platonism counts as “philosophy,” could Christianity possibly be “Platonism for the masses”? That is, would it even be possible, on your definitions, for a religion to count as a philosophy? What does this say about Nietzsche’s claim, or about your definitions?

    Is Contemporary Western Philosophy Dogmatically Atheist?

    Philosophical speculation can easily lead to beliefs that aren’t the same as the surrounding cultural mainstream. So, it’s easy to see why people would associate philosophy with heresy (beginning with Socrates himself). But it is probably with philosophers of the early 1900s, such as Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) and the Logical Positivists of the so-called “Vienna Circle” (who met from 1924 to 1936) that the source of philosophers’ current-day reputations as people who narrow-mindedly refuse even to consider the possibility of the existence of God or anything spiritual can be found. This reputation of narrow-mindedness is rather unfair in context, however. It’s true that the Logical Positivists held religious talk to be, not merely false, but meaningless (which of course is a bit of a conversation stopper). But this was not, or at least not simply, a matter of being closed-minded or dogmatic about religion in particular. Rather, the Positivists had very specific views about the nature of language and meaning, and the relationship of meaning to observation and experience.

    World War I and World War II no doubt also shook many people’s faith in any kind of benevolent deity and solidified the skepticism of those who already doubted. Yet, even during this early 20th century flowering of atheism within philosophy, philosophers like Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), whose manuscripts make frequent allusions not only to the Bible, but to Christian thinkers from St. Augustine to Kierkegaard, Newman, and Tolstoy. Wittgenstein was both baptized and buried as a Catholic, though between those times he was not a practicing Catholic. Nevertheless, he was deeply interested in religious questions. He is reported to have once said, “I am not a religious man, but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.”

    Meanwhile, Continental Philosophy has often been bound up in one way or another with religion as well. Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) did not grow up religious, and seems to have strayed away again in his later years, but we do know that at one point in his twenties after having read the New Testament he was converted to Christianity and baptized in the Lutheran Church. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) actually began his studies as a Roman Catholic seminarian before switching to philosophy, and he was influenced by the neo-Thomism he had encountered in seminary (McGrath 2006, passim). Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was not religious in any ordinary sense. Yet his philosophy is in many ways deeply engaged with religion, as it attempts to explore what the meaning of life could once be rejected by the traditional Western religious paradigm. In “Existentialism is a Humanism,” Sartre describes his entire existentialist project by saying that “Existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position.”

    Michel Foucault (1926-1984) is another 20th-century Continental philosopher one cannot describe as religious in any conventional sense, and yet it’s been reported that he “would sometimes laugh about his fascination with Catholic topics,” often criticizing Christianity, but sometimes becoming an unexpected defender of certain aspects of it.

    In his later years, Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) wrote and spoke explicitly about his ambivalent relationship to his Jewish identity, and how deeply it affected much of his thinking. Thus, even during the heyday of 20th-century atheism, although most philosophers didn’t adhere to any traditional religion, they were still frequently engaged with religious thought at a deep level (whether or not this was always made explicit).

    In the middle of the 20th century, philosophers’ attitudes towards religion began changing. At the same time that philosophers began to see deep problems with the Logical Positivists’ very narrow theory of meaning, a small number of mostly English-speaking, Christian philosophers began a firm and sustained series of defenses of the rationality of theistic belief against the then-crumbling Positivist theory of meaning.

    The reputation of closed-mindedness about religion among philosophers results from a misunderstanding of one particular school of thought that has somehow managed to overshadow nearly the entire history of philosophy from antiquity to the 20th century. The truth is that most philosophers throughout history have had religious beliefs of some sort, and many of the non-religious minority have been interested in, even consciously influenced by, religion. And while Logical Positivism’s dismissal of religious talk as meaningless may sound insulting when viewed out of context, it was a straight-forward and unavoidable logical consequence of the then-dominant view about linguistic meaning in general. That view about language, however, met its demise some time ago.

    Adapted from Introduction to Philosophy: Philosophy of Religion by Beau Branson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0.

    Question to Consider

    For many, thinking of faith means thinking of love. While religion can be studied from a pragmatic point of view, when you think of faith, what is the role of love?

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