We are going to think philosophically about a number of questions and issues related to religion. The purpose here is neither to convert believers into non-believers nor the other way around. The objective is to demonstrate and encourage applying philosophical thinking to matters of great importance. Religion is certainly of great importance. Philosophy is based upon reason and religion is based upon faith. With many of the issues we are about to examine the philosopher will attempt to give reasons and to look for reasons in support of beliefs. Some of the issues raised in this module and in the entire course may be disturbing to the belief systems of some. In life it is possible to live and live well based upon beliefs. It is possible to respond to some of the questions raised by philosophical reflection by simply declaring, “Well, I believe that…..” Now that response will probably be accepted by many people in many situations, in philosophy however, the “I believe, that’s why!” response is not acceptable. Philosophers need to have reasons for holding to a belief in particular after that belief has been called into question.
There are many ideas that people have concerning all things and religion in particular which may not be exactly true or not true at all. Be prepared for that possibility concerning issues related to God, Religion, Reality, Knowledge, Truth, Mind, Freedom and many other ideas that are common to our cultural heritage.
Concerning Religion there are many questions that Philosophers have been dealing with for some time. The very meaning of “Religion” is subject to philosophical reflection, speculation and criticism. After that the meaning and value of Religion are an important matters. For the religions of the West with their belief in the one god, the idea of god has come into a great deal of very careful thinking. In this module we shall examine those questions.
Theology -deals with religious beliefs in a rational manner and presumes faith
Philosophy of religion is rational thought about religious issues and concerns without a presumption of the existence of a deity or reliance on acts of faith.
- What is Religion?
- Characteristics of Religion
- Religions of the West – the one GOD
- Problem with the Attributes of deity (god)
- Arguments for God's Existence: Are there any rational reasons to believe?
- The Problem of Evil - Rational arguments for disbelief.
- Faith vs. Reason - Are there other ways to find a basis for belief?
- Religious Language-Meaning and Truth
- Definition of Religion
What is Religion?
There are many definitions of religion. It is not that easy to pin down exactly what religion is and then to insure that the definition distinguishes religion from magic and from cults and sects. Many people offer definitions without much knowledge of the wide range of religious phenomena and the many different cultural manifestations of religion. It is a rather common misconception to think that religion has to do with god, or gods and supernatural beings or a supernatural or spiritual dimension or greater reality. None of that is absolutely necessary because there are religions that are without those elements.
In this millennium there are over 7 billion people on the planet earth. Most of them would declare that they are religious in some way. Rough estimates are made that place people in the various traditions.
Here is a tabulation from adherents.com and available
(Sizes shown are approximate estimates, and are here mainly for the purpose of ordering the groups, not providing a definitive number. This list is sociological/statistical in perspective.) Last modified August 2015.
Sizes shown are approximate estimates, and are here mainly for the purpose of ordering the groups, not providing a definitive number. This list is sociological/statistical in perspective.)
- Christianity: 2.1 billion
- Islam: 1.5 billion
- Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic/Atheist: 1.1 billion
- Hinduism: 900 million
- Chinese traditional religion: 394 million
- Buddhism: 376 million
- primal-indigenous: 300 million
- African Traditional & Diasporic: 100 million
- Sikhism: 23 million
- Juche: 19 million
- Spiritism: 15 million
- Judaism: 14 million
- Baha'i: 7 million
- Jainism: 4.2 million
- Shinto: 4 million
- Cao Dai: 4 million
- Zoroastrianism: 2.6 million
- Tenrikyo: 2 million
- Neo-Paganism: 1 million
- Unitarian-Universalism: 800 thousand
- Rastafarianism: 600 thousand
- Scientology: 500 thousand
This information is from Adherents.com : a growing collection of over 62,000 adherent statistics and religious geography citations -- references to published membership/adherent statistics and congregation statistics for over 4,200 religions, churches, denominations, religious bodies, faith groups, tribes, cultures, movements, ultimate concerns, etc.
The three religions that are proselytizing religions, seeking more members actively are: Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. Islam is the fastest growing of the traditions and will most likely have the most adherents in the world by 2020.
Some of these religions have no belief in a god. Some have no belief in the survival of a soul. Some believe in more than one god. What do they have that makes them religion?
Here is the best definition I have ever come across that captures the common core and yet distinguishes religion from other institutions and phenomena. It is from Federick Ferre in his work Basic Modern Philosophy of Religion.
Religion is the most comprehensive and intensive manner of valuing known to human beings.
Characteristics of Religion
These are the common characteristics or family traits of those members of the category or “family” of religion. Just as with family members not every member must have every trait but most have most of the traits. The more any human phenomena demonstrates these traits the more likely it is that it will be included into this category of social institutions known as religion.
Common Characteristics: (family traits)
- notion of a deity or absolute, that which is of ultimate concern and importance
- ideas on the nature of human beings
- the idea of divine providence, destiny, fate
- the idea and meaning of human history
- problem of evil explained
- description of the central problem of human life and suffering idea of an afterlife-life after death
- a concept of the world
- ideas of human community and ethics-a moral code
Religions of the West – the one GOD
Religions of the West- Judaism-Christianity and Islam share in some common traits or characteristics that distinguish them from other religions in this world.
- belief in one god
- belief in linear history
- belief in a sacred scripture- the book
These common features bind the three traditions together. One god made the universes at the beginning of time and that one god will end the universe. Each human has a soul and at the death of the body the soul shall separate from the body and go one in another dimension. There is a judgment to be made concerning the moral worthiness of the soul at death for an eternal reward or lack thereof. Time is linear and there is but one period of existence for individuals and the entire universe. Other religions hold for multiple or no deities, cyclic time and reincarnation of souls, even multiple reincarnations.
Problem with the Attributes of deity (god)
Forms of theistic beliefs:
Monotheism- a belief that there is but one god.
- Theism- one god separate from the creation
- Pantheism- one god existing in the creation-i.e., world=god
- Panentheism-one god , the world is part of god who is greater than creation
Polytheism- is a belief that there are many gods.
Agnosticism-is no clear or definitive knowledge of whether there is a god or not
Monotheism is the view that only one God exists (as opposed to multiple gods). In Western (Christian) thought, God is traditionally described as a being that possesses at least three necessary properties: omniscience (all-knowing), omnipotence (all-powerful), and omnibenevolence (supremely good). In other words, God knows everything, has the power to do anything, and is perfectly good. Many other properties (e.g., omnipresence) have been alleged to be necessary properties of a god; however, these are the three most uncontroversial and dominant in Christian tradition. By contrast, Monism is the view that all is of one essential essence, substance or energy. Monistic theism, a variant of both monism and monotheism, views God as both immanent and transcendent. Both are dominant themes in Hinduism.
Even once the word "God" is defined in a monotheistic sense, there are still many difficult questions to be asked about what this means. For example, what does it mean for something to be created? How can something be "all-powerful"?
The distinguishing characteristic of polytheism is its belief in more than one god(dess). There can be as few as two (such as a classical Western understanding of Zoroastrian dualism) or an innumerably large amount, as in Hinduism (as the Western world perceives it). There are many varieties of polytheism; they all accept that many gods exist, but differ in their responses to that belief. Henotheists for example, worship only one of the many gods, either because it is held to be more powerful or worthy of worship than the others. Ayyavazhi for example, accepts almost all polytheistic (gods) in Hinduism. But in Kali Yukam all gets unified into Ayya Vaikundar for destroying the Kaliyan. (some Christian sects take this view of the Trinity, holding that only God the Father should be worshipped, Jesus and the Holy Spirit being distinct and lesser gods), or because it is associated with their own group, culture, state, etc. (ancient judaism is sometimes interrpreted in this way). The distinction isn't a clear one, of course, as most people consider their own culture superior to others, and this will also apply to their culture's God. Kathenotheists have similar beliefs, but worship a different god at different times or places.
Panentheism is a variation of pantheism which holds that the physical universe is part of God, but that God is more than this. While pantheism can be summed up by "God is the world and the world is God", panentheism can be summed up as "The world is God, but God is more than the world".
The belief system of the religions of the West holds for monotheism and most are theists as opposed to being pantheists. The attributes of the god of the Western religions are impressive. There is a problem when considering the entire set of attributes. There are questions concerning the meaning of some of the features of the deity and definitely problems with a being possessing so many traits at the same time. Over time the concept of the deity developed by the Israelites, the ONE GOD, has evolved and has taken in the influences of the Zoroastrians in Mesopotamia and then the Greeks and Romans in Europe. The Greek Philosophers worked with the idea of perfection and the single source of all things as being all perfect and all good. This concept was not associated with the deity of the Hebrews at the time of Moses. The god or deity of the Jews and then of the Christian and Islamic peoples came to have these characteristics associated with it:
Beneficent Being- All good
All Powerful- Omnipotent
All Knowing- Omniscient
All Present- Omnipresent
In other words, if it is good thing, then the one god of the West was thought to have that feature and to have it to an infinite degree!
PROBLEM: Well the story of the one deity of the Hebrews became inconsistent with a being that was all good and all loving . Consider these stories of the single deity of the Hebrews and the Atrocities associated with acts of that deity or supported by that deity. Now these attributes certainly sound wonderful. However, do they make sense. How can a god that is all good and all knowing and all-powerful permit evil to occur? That is the Problem of Evil and it is covered in another section of this text. Here a brief consideration of of some of the characteristics will suffice to indicate the direction in which critical thinking moves.
All knowing and all loving and all kind and all merciful and yet there is evil and pain and suffering ??
All good and all knowing and all powerful and yet the is moral evil ??
All loving and all kind and all merciful and yet there is a place of eternal punishment-hell ?
All perfect and yet there is the creation of the universe? Why? How could the deity then be all perfect if there is a reason for creation the being is not perfect because it has needs or purposes that need to be fulfilled.
A spiritual being can not be physical being.
A physical being can not be a spiritual being.
A PERFECT BEING can not be physical as it would be limited and finite and would be subject to change and to the laws of the physical universe and it would decay.
A PERFECT BEING can not be physical as it would need to be in time and space and thus have a beginning and an end.
And one more thing, the deity is written of and spoken of as male: GOD, the father. How is god to be thought of a male? To be a male a being would need a sexual nature. God would need to have what makes a male a male: DNA, chromosomes and genes, the xy chromosome pair in the 23 paired position of human DNA, sex organs. To be male god would need to have …. But that seems ridiculous and totally pointless. In other words it make no sense literally! How can a spiritual being have physical properties? What would the one god need those organs for?
How could it be possible?
PHILOSOPHY is about IDEAS and about REASONING and looking at IDEAS and BELIEFS and determining if they make SENSE or not. So philosophers look at the collection of ideas about the one deity , the supreme being deity, the deity of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.
There are problems with any single being having all the properties traditionally assigned to the deity of the Western religions.
If the deity is ALL POWERFUL would it not have the power to create beings that would know what GOOD was without knowing or committing EVIL? If this is not possible then how is the being ALL POWERFUL?
If the being must make EVIL to make GOOD then how is the being ALL GOOD?
If the being is ALL KNOWING and thus knows in advance that there will be a use of FREE WILL that produces EVIL and then goes and creates FREE WILL then the being has made EVIL and is not ALL GOOD.
So, there are problems with the SET OF BELIEFS associated with the one deity of the Western religions.
The idea of god that we have appears to be a combination of ideas from the oldest time of the Judaic tradition combining with ideas of the Greeks for the spread of the idea of the Jewish god by the Christians to the Greeks and Romans. The god of the Jews is described as a powerful and mean spirited god . The god of the Jews would order entire towns, almost all living humans on the planet to be killed. The deity of Plato and Aristotle, Greek philosophers, came to be seen as a spiritual and all perfect being. So the ideas of the early Christians combined features of the two traditions with some ideas of the Zoroastrians from Middle Eastern lands (Persia). Christianity is then characterized as Hellenized Hebraism! This means that the ideas of the Greeks (Hellenes, saviors of Helen of Troy) are placed over and combined with the ideas of the Hebrews.
In any exploration into what many people regard as the characteristics or properties associated with G-O-D, some would reflect on their ideas and perhaps notice a thing or two about them. For one, some of the qualities of the deity in combination produce a problem or two, as with EVIL. For another, ideas people have of the deity are very interesting when you consider the implications of those qualities.
Now for those who believe in the GOD of the Judeo-Christian –Islamic tradition they must believe in a single being with characteristics of being: SUPREME, ALL POWERFUL, ALL GOOD, ALL PERFECT, ALL KNOWING, ETERNAL etc… Why must they? Well, because they have no choice either they believe in the GOD of those traditions or else they make up their own ideas and they are then actually moving out of those traditions and are giving good example of the post modern relativistic, subjectivist tradition of the Twentieth Century. The religions of the West have very clear ideas about the DEITY they have at the center of their beliefs. These religions have doctrines and dogma that the faithful must accept. Now there are many people who think they are in the Judeo –Christian-Islamic tradition but in actuality are not because they have redefined their religions to suit their personal preferences. Even so, the idea of a SUPREME BEING that most people have is beset with problems not the least of which is the PROBLEM of EVIL. This problem comes about as a result of combining ideas of a deity found in the Hebrew Tradition with the ideas of perfection found in the works of the Greeks (Plato and Aristotle). The concept of G-O-D in Western religions results in some perplexing ideas.
Here is one more problem with the concept of the deity beside that of EVIL. Why would a perfect and supreme being create a universe? If it was for any reason then the being would be incomplete and not yet fulfilled and thus less than perfect. If it were for no reason other than fun, entertainment, play… then that raises another set of questions.
For those who alter their idea of the G-O-D to suit themselves and make the deity into something other than the classic idea of the Western religions, well they can avoid some of the problems but their G-O-D is not the GOD of Abraham and Moses as reported in the BIBLE.. They who have their own idea of G-O-D and insist that they have a right to do so would also be in violation of the first commandment that the God of the Western religions presented to Moses. The post modernists with their personal ideas of their own personal god have placed their god before the GOD of Abraham and Moses and Jesus and Mohammed. It is popular but certainly not orthodox. It is so popular that most who perform the substitution are unaware that they are holding ideas concerning the nature of god that would have had them condemned as heretics in prior centuries.
Another problem with the deity being ALL PERFECT is that the being would need to possess all perfections and if freedom is a perfection or a good thing as opposed to its opposite being not god then the deity that is all perfect would also need to be free and yet it cannot be free as it is not free to be or do anything that is less than perfect or the very best possible. As it cannot be free it is NOT ALL PERFECT.
Problem of Sex and the Deity
How is it that a deity can be thought of as a spiritual being and yet at the same time as having a sexual nature as a male or female (sexual identities known to species on planet Earth) when a sexual nature is a physical nature determined by physical entities such as chromosomes and organs? There are psychological and sociological explanations offered as to why deities are given sexual natures by humans. There is even now a position taken that the nature of the deity at the time of the construction of the tales at the start of the traditions in the West was not singular and the deity was at times refereed to as male and other times female and even that the name given to the deity (YHWH) known as the the Tetragrammaton suggested a fluid sexual identity.
"The Israelites took the transgender trope from their surrounding cultures and wove it into their own sacred scripture. The four-Hebrew-letter name of God, which scholars refer to as the Tetragrammaton, YHWH, was probably not pronounced “Jehovah” or “Yahweh,” as some have guessed. The Israelite priests would have read the letters in reverse as Hu/Hi — in other words, the hidden name of God was Hebrew for “He/She.” Counter to everything we grew up believing, the God of Israel — the God of the three monotheistic, Abrahamic religions to which fully half the people on the planet today belong — was understood by its earliest worshipers to be a dual-gendered deity." - Mark Sameth--- Is God Transgender? - The New York Times
If you believe in a deity or want to think about a single deity by attempting this exercise, quiz or game, you might determine whether or not your conceptions concerning the deity will produce problems such as incompatible properties or contradictions or difficulties with other issues. The reader might want to attempt a short exercise concerning the construction of a concept of a deity with characteristics that would not be problematic. There is an exercise titled Battleground God "Can your beliefs about religion make it across our intellectual battleground? In this activity you’ll be asked a series of 17 questions about God and religion. In each case, apart from Question 1, you need to answer True or False. The aim of the activity is not to judge whether these answers are correct or not. Our battleground is that of rational consistency."
For a Philosophical examination of the properties most often assigned to the single deity of the religions of the West READ: Theodore M. Drange, Incompatible-Properties Arguments: A Survey in PHILO Volume 1, Number 2 at
How is it even possible for a deity that is everywhere and at all times to be conscious of anything and to think? Here is an examination of that issue.
READ: Matt McCormick,Why God Cannot Think: Kant, Omnipresence, and Consciousness in PHILO, Volume 3, Number 1
Theodore Drange, The Arguments From Evil and Nonbelief
Abstract: When God is conceived of as an all-powerful and all-loving deity, many arguments for his nonexistence can be raised. Two of the main ones are the Argument from Evil (hereafter abbreviated AE) and the Argument from Nonbelief (hereafter abbreviated ANB). In what follows, I shall provide precise formulations of those two arguments, make some comments about them, and then try to refute the main defenses (of God's existence) that might be put forward against ANB, which I consider the stronger of the two. I take ANB to be a sound argument establishing the proposition that God (conceived of in a certain way) does not exist.
There are those thinkers who hold that it is not possible for the human mind to comprehend the nature of a deity, let alone a single Supreme Being. Even within theology there are those who think it presumptuous of humans to believe that the human mind could capture the nature of a divine being. For those of you who are inclined to think in this manner consider the work of Paul Tillich who spoke and wrote of a G-O-D that was “above the line” which was the limit of human intellectual capacity.
Furthermore , Tillich thought of the essence of religion as existing in that which was of ULTIMATE CONCERN. This Ultimate Concern could be expressed in a variety of ways, including that of a Supreme Being. These ideas will be revisited as this examination moves deeper into the examination of religious beliefs.
“Faith as Ultimate Concern” by Paul Tillich Summary by Meghan Ramsay (QCC, 2004)
According to Tillich, “faith is the state of being ultimately concerned.” The Ultimate Concern is that which demands complete surrender of the person who faithfully accepts the Ultimate. Additionally, faith in and surrender to the Ultimate promises total completion regardless of what must be sacrificed in the name of faith. Tillich argues that faith is a task for the believer’s complete being—for instance, it is an act of both the conscious and the unconscious. He refers to faith as a “total and centered act of the personal self, the act of unconditional, infinite and ultimate concern.” Tillich then goes on to examine the sources for faith. He asserts that faith arises out of man’s awareness that he is a part of the infinite yet he is not the owner of this infinity. Additionally, he points out that God cannot be an object of faith without also being the subject of man’s faith. God, asserts Tillich, is present as the subject and object of ultimate faith while at the same time is transcendent beyond both subject and object. Tillich warns that there are finite things that claim infinity, such as the nation or state. However, unlike God, believers can approach such finite things with “ordinary knowledge.” Since God is infinite and ultimate and faith in God is the ultimate concern, Tillich asserts that only symbolic language is sufficient to express faith and God. Thus, he outlines the definition of the term “symbol.” Like signs, symbols refer to that which is beyond themselves. For instance, a stop sign points to the command to stop the movement of a vehicle. Similarly letters refer to sounds and meanings. However, unlike signs, symbols play a part in that which they represent and cannot be easily replaced. For instance, a country’s flag not only represents the nation that it stands for but also is an active participant in portraying the country’s “power and dignity.” Thus, it cannot simply be replaced unless the character of the nation itself is also changed. Tillich also asserts that symbols allow us to experience other levels of reality that are normally off limits to us. For instance art creates a symbol for a plane that we cannot move toward by science alone. Additionally, symbols open aspects of our souls which allow us to experience awareness of ourselves that we were not conscious of prior to experiencing the symbol (such as the depths that we can reach by listening to the “melodies and rhythms in music”). Another characteristic of a symbol is that it cannot be manufactured. Symbols arise from the unconscious and must be accepted on that level before conscious acceptance. Finally, since symbols cannot be intentionally produced, they come about and cease to exist in due time. In essence, they are borne out of a need and they perish when they no longer generate a reaction within the group that originally used them for expressive purposes.
Tillich then goes on to assert that anything that achieves ultimate concern for man is elevated to the status of god. However, when things like a nation or success become elevated to the level of ultimacy, they are merely false or idolatrous symbols of ultimate concern. Tillich also discusses that myths are an integral part of our ultimate concern. While a myth must be recognized as a myth (much like how a symbol must be recognized as a symbol), Tillich argues that any attempt to remove the mythological from our consciousness will be unsuccessful because myths signify a collection of symbols which stand for our ultimate concern. One might be able to replace one myth with another, but s/he could never completely remove mythology from human consciousness. In fact, Tillich argues that even a “broken myth,” one which has been proven to be understood as a myth and has not been removed from or replaced within consciousness, cannot be replaced with a scientific substitute because myths are the symbolic language of faith. However, Tillich also warns that one cannot simply accept myths as literal truths because they then loose their symbolic meaning and rob God of his standing as the ultimate. Tillich, Paul. Dynamics of Faith. HarperCollins, 1957.
There are other philosophers and theologians who have attempted to alter the conception of the deity or that which is of our ultimate concern so as to avoid the inconsistencies of the traditional ideas about a deity.
Arguments for God's Existence
Are there any rational reasons to believe?
The question arises as to how humans can be sure that the spiritual being, the Supreme Being actually exists. Throughout recorded history humans have thought of this. There is ample evidence of the belief and a good deal of evidence of humans attempting to provide support for that belief. The arguments or proofs that have been offered will be examined. The arguments each have their critics. None appear to be without weakness.
The arguments have different forms and are based on different foundations.
A. Revelation- scripture- direct instruction from the deity
- Ontological argument
- Cosmological argument
- Teleological argument
C. Experience Religious experience of the divine (absolute)
- mystical- ineffable and noetic, Numinous Experience- mystical consciousness of the "HOLY", infinite dependence , mystery, terror, bliss
D. Psychic Phenomena-Death and Immortality-
Support for the post-mortem survival hypothesis
- apparitions-spirits/ ghosts/ poltergeists
- seances - communication with the dead
- reincarnation memories
- near death experiences-NDE's
- death bed observations
- sacred scripture
Arguments against the post mortem survival hypothesis
- the irrational nature of the explanation of consciousness
- lack of clear, unambiguous physical evidence
E. Pragmatism - faith
There are arguments that attempt to disprove that the god of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic Traditions exists. One of the most famous and powerful is based on the existence of evil.
The Problem of Evil - Rational arguments for disbelief.
How can a god that is all good and all knowing and all-powerful permit evil to occur?
Arguments against the existence of god and its critics will be examined.
Faith vs. Reason - Are there other ways to find a basis for belief?
Faith and Reason
Pascal's Wager- a pragmatic approach to belief
Rational critique of the pragmatic approach
Defense of belief- The Will to Believe- William James
Belief as a genuine option, living, forced, momentous (unique, significant, irreversible)
Passionate nature of humans will decide
Religious Language-Meaning and Truth-Worldviews
- WORLD VIEWS
- CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORKS
- LANGUAGE GAMES
- FORMS OF LIFE
- BASIC BELIEFS
- FOUNDATIONAL BELIEFS
A Definition of Religion
Just what is it?
READ: Dallas Roark: Introduction to Philosophy Chapter 5: Knowledge and Method in Science, Philosophy and Religion: and inside the entire book here
Proceed to the sections that will cover the material listed above .