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Philosophy of religion is the rational study of the meaning and justification of fundamental religious claims, particularly about the nature and existence of God (or gods, or the divine).

Philosophy of religion as a part of metaphysics

Philosophy of religion has classically been regarded as a part of metaphysics. In Aristotle's, Metaphysics, he described first causes as one of the subjects of his investigation. For Aristotle, God was the first cause: the unmoved mover. This later came to be called natural theology by rationalist philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, philosophers have adopted the term 'philosophy of religion' for the subject, and typically it is regarded as a separate field of specialization, though it is also still treated by some, particularly Catholic philosophers, as a part of metaphysics.

It should be clear why considerations of the divine have been regarded as metaphysical. God is usually conceived to be in a distinct category of being; a being different from those of the rest of the universe. For example, God in some traditions is conceived as not having a body. Metaphysics, and in particular ontology, is concerned with the most basic categories of existence, those things that cannot be explained with reference to any other type of existence. Thus one might argue that the very notion of God (or gods, or the divine) cannot be reduced to human concepts of mind or body; God is a sui generis entity.

However, the philosophy of religion has concerned itself with more than just metaphysical questions. In fact the subject has long involved important questions in areas such as epistemology, philosophy of language, philosophical logic, and moral philosophy.

Questions asked in philosophy of religion

One might think that philosophy of religion would be an inquiry into the foundations of religions (as Philosophy X is typically an inquiry into the foundations of X). However, philosophy of religion is predominantly an inquiry into the nature of God and religious belief (not religions per se). Thus, two of the main questions in the field are:

  1. What is God?
  2. Are there any good reasons to think that God does or does not exist?

Still, there are other questions studied in the philosophy of religion. For example: What, if anything, would give us good reason to believe that a miracle has occurred? What is the relationship between faith and reason? What is the relationship between morality and religion? What is the status of religious language? Does petitionary prayer (sometimes still called impetratory prayer) make sense?

What is God?

The question "What is God?" is sometimes also phrased as "What is the meaning of the word 'God'?" Most philosophers expect some sort of definition as an answer to this question, but they are not content simply to describe the way the word is used: they want to know the essence of what it means to be God. Western philosophers typically concern themselves with the God of monotheistic religions (see the nature of God in Western theology), but discussions also concern themselves with other conceptions of the divine.

Indeed, before attempting a definition of a term it is essential to know what sense of the term is to be defined. In this case, this is particularly important because there are a number of widely different senses of the word 'God.' So before we try to answer the question "What is God?" by giving a definition, first we must get clear on which conception of God we are trying to define. Since this article is on "philosophy of religion" it is important to keep to the canon of this area of philosophy. For whatever reasons, the Western, monotheistic conception of God (discussed below) has been the primary target of investigation in philosophy of religion. (One likely reason as to why the Western conception of God is dominant in the canon of philosophy of religion is that philosophy of religion is primarily an area of analytic philosophy, which is primarily Western.) Among those people who believe in supernatural beings, some believe there is just one God (monotheism; see also monotheistic religion), while others, such as Hindus, believe in many different deities (polytheism; see also polytheistic religion) while maintaining that all are manifestations of one God. Ayyavazhi asserts a concept Ekam, a state of ultimate oneness of 'all that exists' as the ultimate and the foremost. Buddhists generally do not believe in a creator God similar to that of the Abrahamic religions, but direct attention to a state of called Nirvana.

Within these two broad categories (monotheism and polytheism) there is a wide variety of possible beliefs, although there are relatively few popular ways of believing. For example, among the monotheists there have been those who believe that the one God is like a watchmaker who wound up the universe and now does not intervene in the universe at all; this view is deism. By contrast, the view that God continues to be active in the universe is called theism. (Note that 'theism' is here used as a narrow and rather technical term, not as a broader term as it is below. For full discussion of these distinct meanings, refer to the article Theism.)

Monotheistic definitions

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"?

Polytheistic definitions

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.

Pantheistic definitions

Pantheists assert that God is himself (or itself) the natural universe. The most famous Western pantheist is Baruch Spinoza, though the precise characterisation of his views is complex.

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".

Rationality of belief

See main article: Existence of God


The second question, "Do we have any good reason to think that God does (or does not) exist?", is equally important in the philosophy of religion. There are four main positions with regard to the existence of God that one might take:

  1. Theism - the belief that God exists.
  2. Weak atheism - the lack of belief in any deity.
  3. Strong atheism - the belief that no deity exists.
  4. Agnosticism - the belief that the existence or non-existence of God is not known or cannot be known.

The majority of philosophy of religion involves determining which of these positions is most rational to take. However, this assumes that the existence of God can be debated and proved or disproved.

Natural theology

The attempt to provide proofs or arguments for the existence of God is known as natural theology or the natural theistic project. Natural theology, then, is the attempt to justify belief in God by independent grounds. There is plenty of philosophical literature on faith (especially fideism) and other subjects generally considered to be outside the realm of natural theology. However, throughout much of philosophy of religion is the assumption of natural theology (i.e., that the existence of God can be proved or disproved).

The philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, is one prominent Christian apologist who has effectively abandoned the tradition of natural theology. Instead of attempting to prove the existence of God, Plantinga has shifted his focus to justifying belief in God (that is, those who believe in God, for whatever reasons, are rational in doing so) through Reformed epistemology.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have all developed religious world views based on, or incorporating, philosophical investigation. There are separate entries on Jewish philosophy, Christian philosophy, and Islamic philosophy.

Major philosophers of religion

See also

External links

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