The philosophy of religion is a discipline and branch of philosophy that deals with the study of religion’s nature and what it means. It’s an integral part of philosophy and covers many of the important issues around morality, human knowledge, and the nature of reality.
For Westerners, the philosophical interest in religion started with ancient Greek philosophers. Plato, his student Aristotle, and later thinkers like Titus Lucretius Carus would carry the torch for the discipline. In 44 B.C., Cicero wrote “The Nature of the Gods,” summing up the ideas on religion and the philosophical questions that it spawned.
The basic questions they asked are timeless, in some way, since they continue to form the framework for philosophizing 1,500 years later. Plato’s contribution was the setting out of the idea of creation. He even attempted to prove the existence of God. Aristotle tried to show a rational demonstration for God’s existence based on features of the natural world. Though at the time it did not have a name, this would come to be known as natural theology.
Come the 17th century, two new leaders in the development of the philosophy of religion arose. These were René Descartes and John Locke, who were respectively continental European and English. Descartes was all about rationalism, which means reason is the source of human knowledge. This view removed God from the primary role in philosophical thought. Locke, however, took the “reasonable” approach to religion. In his view, reason constrained the appeal to divine revelation.
Their followers would go on to reject any tradition, including revelations and miracles. They espoused natural religion, which was based on propositions of the reasonable and intelligent average person.
By the end of the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant was to introduce a morality-based concept of religion. His argument was that all of reality’s features were conceptual categories created by the human mind to impose order on experience. Since God falls outside of these categories, there can be no knowledge of God. Kant would mark the end of the period of Enlightenment thinking on religion.
Modern philosophy of religion
What is called the “modern” philosophy of religion is actually centuries old, encompassing the ideas and trends that have occurred since the 19th century. After Kant, many began to see God as a projection of human concerns. This included Sigmund Freud. Both he and Karl Marx saw religion as an escape from unhappy parts of the human creation. Marx called religion “the opium of the people.”
In the 20th century, logical positivists called entities or events that could not be empirically demonstrated meaningless. As science advanced their ideas could no longer keep up. Today, there’s a renewed interest in metaphysics and so, modern philosophy of religion actually has commonalities with the Middle Ages and the dominant thought then. In part two of this series, the major areas of the concept of god and religious language will be examined.