Philosophy and Religion


Philosophy and Religion

Welcome to this article on philosophy and religion. Our focus here will be on philosophy’s relationship with religion in order to ascertain the soundness of the assumptions and claims made in the area of religion.

To achieve this, we shall discuss this topic under four sub-headings:

(i) The idea of religion

(ii) Philosophy of religion

(iii) The idea of God

(iv) The human search for God.

It is truism that religion plays a central role in human affairs, more than most other factors. Religion influences several issues, including dispositions, relationships, worldviews, and many more.

Philosophy’s core concern is to interrogate assumptions and ideas that we live by, then, it is important that philosophy give a lot of attention to such an influential factor as religion.

It is hoped that, at the end of this article, you will understand what religion is, have a clear understanding of the relationship between philosophy and religion and have an appreciation of some of the issues in the philosophy of religion.


The Idea of Religion

Even though religion is believed to be as old as humanity itself, the systematic study of religion is held by many scholars to be fairly recent and the philosophy of religion even more so.

Etymologically, the term ‘religion’ comes from the Latin word ‘religio’ which in turn derives from the phrase ‘re-ligare’ or ‘re-legere’.

Religare means ‘to bind back’ (meaning, to re-establish by worship, a lost or broken intimacy between God and worshippers), while relegere means ‘to make a law again’. 

St Thomas Aquinas points out the connection between the two terms when he says, “"lex" [law] is derived from "ligare" [to bind].”

Discussing the etymology of ‘religion’, A. C. Bouquet, writes: of Roman writers, Cicero held that it came from a root ‘leg-’ – meaning ‘to take up, gather, count, or observe’, i.e. ‘to observe the signs of Divine communication’.

Servitus, on the other hand, held that it came from another root, ‘lig-’ – ‘to bind’, so that ‘religio’ meant ‘a relationship’, i.e. ‘a communion between the human and Super-Human’.

Based on this, Bouquet sees religion as “a fixed relationship between the human self and some non-human entity, the Sacred, the Supernatural, the Self-Existent, the Absolute, or simply ‘God’.”

For St Augustine, religio meant worship, those patterns of action by which, in public, we self-consciously turn ourselves towards God in homage and praise. There could, he thought, be a right and proper (“true”) way of worshipping God, just as there could be improper and damnable (“false”) ways of doing so.

For Olusegun Oladipo, religion is an expression of a relationship between individuals and God. He goes on to say that, it is both a belief and an attitude. 

It is the belief that God (or whatever is regarded as the ultimate reality in each culture) created (or made) the world and everything in it, and that it is on Him that we are dependent for our being and sustenance. As an attitude, it is devotional; it expresses our sense of dependence on God.

H. G. Wells would seem to have a definition or explanation that covers the motive, manner and essence of religion. 

According to him, nearly all of us want something to hold us together, something to dominate this swarming confusion and save us from the black misery of wounded and exploded pride, of thwarted desire, of futile conclusions.

We want more oneness, some steadying thing that will afford an escape from fluctuations. It seems to me that this desire to get the complex of life simplified is essentially what has been called the religious motive, and the manner in which a man achieves that simplification, if he does achieve it, and imposes an order upon his life, is his religion.

For Kwasi Wiredu, Religion as such is, in essence, simply a metaphysic joined to a particular type of attitude. 

A religion, on the other hand, is, typically, all this plus an ethic, a system of ritual, and an officialdom (usually hierarchical) for exhorting, reinforcing or monitoring conformity to them.

In the first sense, religion can be purely personal – one can be religious without having a religion; which, actually, is not at all uncommon.

In the second, religion is both personal and institutional. Wiredu believes that to be religious is to entertain certain ontological and/or cosmological beliefs about the nature of the world and about human destiny and to have an attitude of trust, dependency, or unconditional reverence toward that which is taken to be the determiner of that destiny, whether it be an intelligent being or an aspect of reality.


Philosophy of religion

Philosophy and Religion

Though philosophy of religion as a distinct discipline is relatively new, its central topics the existence and nature of the divine, humankind’s relation to it, the nature of religion, and the place of religion in human life—have been with us since the inception of philosophy. Philosophy of religion comprises of philosophical analyses of certain concepts or tenets central to religions.

According to Mark D. Jordan, These concepts or tenets typically include the rationality of belief in God, the demonstrability of God’s existence, the logical character of religious language, and apparent contradictions between divine attributes and features of the world say, between omnipotence and evil, miraculous interventions and natural law, omniscience and free will.

Philosophers have long critically examined the truth of and rational justification for religious claims, and have explored such philosophically interesting phenomena as faith, religious experience, and the distinctive features of religious discourse.

William J. Wainwright points out the dual focus of the philosophical reflection on religion: Historically, philosophical reflection on religious themes had two focuses:

First, God or Brahman or Nirvana or whatever else the object of religious thought, attitudes, feelings, and practice was believed to be, and, second, the human religious subject, that is, the thoughts, attitudes, feelings, and practices themselves.

There is also a sub-disciplinary area in philosophy known as epistemology of religion. The focus here is to attempt to solve philosophical problems about knowledge which arise from religion.

For example: Is there mystical knowledge?

Is there knowledge by revelation or natural theology?

Can God be known to exist, or is there a sound proof of God’s existence?

Is it possible to have knowledge of the properties of God: omnipotence, omniscience, benevolence, simplicity, and eternity? These and many more form the disciplinary focus of epistemology of religion


The Idea of God

God or, broadly speaking, the supernatural is a central theme in religion. With very few exceptions, those who practice religion or hold some form of religious faith believe in the existence of God a supernatural being who has power over the world. The question of God’s existence is a weighty one.

As Robert Paul Wolff observes, to say that there is a God is to say there is a hope of immortality, a threat of punishment beyond the grave, significance to the existence and nature of the universe, an authority above kings, above emperors, above one’s own self.

However, since philosophy is basically about being critical about claims and assumptions that people live by, the need to demonstrate by reason what is accepted by faith cannot be set aside. 

It is in this regard that certain arguments or ‘proofs’ of the existence of God have come up, some of which will be discussed in this section. Aristotle, for example, identified philosophy with metaphysics or theology (which is the study of or discourse about God), and, traditionally, philosophy has been deployed by religion, not as a critical examination of the claims of religion, but as a tool for rationally justifying religious beliefs.

It is in this regard, at least in part, that we understand the arguments for the existence of God. The Ontological Arguments are varied, but the most popular of them was put forward by a medieval philosopher and bishop, St Anselm.

According to him in his Proslogium, God is that than which nothing greater can be thought.

In other words, the greatest being or entity that the human mind can imagine or conceive is God. Anselm quotes the scripture that says it is only the fool who says there is no God.

A monk called Gaunilo wrote a rejoinder titled, “In Defense of the Fool” in which he argued that it is not unreasonable to imagine that there is no God, since it is not impossible to imagine, for example, a golden mountain or a flying horse that actually does not exist.

Thus, for him, to imagine something does not automatically translate to what is imagined having an existence independent of the mind of the thinker.

In response to this, Anselm pointed out that to actually exist is greater than to merely exist in the mind, which implies that what is only imagined cannot be that than which nothing greater can be imagined. Scholars such as Robert Wolff believe that it is in Anselm “that we find what the most remarkable piece of philosophical reasoning is probably in the entire history of western thought – the famous Ontological Argument for the existence of God.”

The Cosmological Arguments were made popular by another medieval philosopher and churchman, St Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas puts forward the five arguments for the existence of God, popularly known as the Five Ways.

The first of these is the argument from motion. According to Aquinas, everything moves, and every motion is caused by another; every moving thing is moved by another, which in turn is moved by another. “For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality,” says Aquinas. “But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality.”

Motion, however, cannot go back to infinity because, as Aquinas points out, “then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover; seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover.”

And this First Mover or Unmoved Mover, according to Aquinas, is what everyone understands as God. The second is the argument from causality, and it follows about the same trajectory as the first. We observe that everything is caused by another, which in turn is caused by yet another.

According to Aquinas, “There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible.”

In efficient causes, it is impossible to go back to infinity, and to take away the cause is to take away the effect.

The First Cause the Uncaused Cause which is the first and source of all efficient causes – is what everyone understands as God.

The third is the argument from necessity and contingency. In the universe, things come into being and pass out of being. But, says Aquinas, it is impossible for these always to exist, for that which is possible not to be at some time is not.

Therefore, if everything is possible not to be, then at one time there could have been nothing in existence. Now if this were true, even now there would be nothing in existence, because that which does not exist only begins to exist by something already existing.

But there has to be a being whose existence is not owed to another being, a being that necessarily exists and is the cause of other things. This Necessary Being is what we call God. The fourth is the argument from the levels of perfection.

According to Aquinas, there are degrees of perfection in things, such that we can speak of one object being better than the other:

Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But "more" and "less" are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum… so that there is something which is truest, something best, and something noblest and, consequently, something which is uttermost being; for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being.

There is thus an entity that has the fullness of perfection and every other entity can be measured against this absolute perfection. This entity, according to Aquinas, is God.

The fifth is the argument from purpose, also sometimes called the teleological argument. Aquinas says, “We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result.” But things which lack intelligence cannot move themselves purposefully unless they are moved by a being which has knowledge and intelligence.

“Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.”What have been commonly called the Moral Arguments have been postulated by some philosophers, most notably Immanuel Kant, a German modern philosopher.

According to C. Stephen Evans, “Moral arguments for God’s existence are, for lay people, among the most popular reasons for belief in God, though they have often been neglected by philosophers.”

In the line of the moral arguments, God has to exist in order to fulfill the need for a reward for those who live virtuously.

Kant rejected all theoretical attempts to show that God’s existence could be known, but held nevertheless that a rational moral agent should believe in God.

Since Kant held that happiness is a good that all human beings seek, he believed that the supreme end of the moral life, the complete or highest good, is a world where people are both morally virtuous and happy, and where their happiness is proportional to their virtue. He claimed that one could not reasonably believe that such an end is attainable unless God exists.

The attributes of God include: Goodness, Perfection, Simplicity, Omniscience, Omnipotence, and Omnipresence.

Goodness means that God is good in himself and good towards others, good in his actions as well as in his intentions.

Thus we call him omnibenevolent. Perfection is, in a sense, like goodness, except that it is not an exclusively moral attribute. Perfection implies that God possesses the highest of all possible attributes such that God is the measure of whatever perfection other beings have.

Simplicity, in contradistinction to being complex, implies that God is not divided into parts as creatures are. Omniscience means that God knows everything – he is all knowing.

Omnipotence means that God is all-powerful or almighty, and omnipresence means that he is everywhere.

Conceptually, some of these attributes imply and include others. For example, being omnipotent – all-able – implies, among other things, that God can be everywhere (omnipresent) or know everything (omniscient).

Perfection, too, would imply that God has, among other things, the very fullness of goodness. On the other hand, the combination of certain attributes raises some problems.

For instance, if God is omnibenevolent and omnipotent (in the complete sense that includes omnipresence and omniscience), how do we explain the occurrence of evil in the world?

Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do the innocent experience inexplicable disasters? This, in sum, is what is called the Problem of Evil, which, in the consideration of many, is the strongest argument against the existence of a benevolent and omnipotent God.

Many explanations and theories have come up to defend theism against this charge, but it is a problem that, for all intents and purposes, has refused to go away.

There are a number of positions concerning the existence of God as well as his relationship with the world. Even though each of them has different strands, the central points will quickly be considered here.

The first here is theism, which is the position that there is God, and that he has control over the universe. Deism (originating from the idea of ‘Deus absconditus’) believes in the existence of God who created the world and has since ceased being involved with its affairs.

Polytheism is the position that there are many gods. Pantheism believes in the existence of a God who is manifest in the whole of creation, such that God can be said to live in everything (or, by implication, every object is God).

Agnosticism, coming from the phrase Greek ‘a-gnosis’ (not knowing), is the position that God’s existence is either not knowable, or that knowing it is not important.

An agnostic, in other words, is one who either claims that God’s existence is not knowable, or who does not care whether God exists or not. Atheism is the position that God does not exist.

Unlike agnosticism which claims not to know one way or the other, atheism positively posits that God does not exist.

The Human Search for God Humanity, for many centuries, seems to be involved in a struggle for self-projection, such that much of its efforts with regard to the divine are, in fact, efforts in self-interest.

The human heart seems be to constantly concerned with reaching outside itself or beyond  itself for something other and greater than its being; and it seems humanity (or every human heart) would not rest until a satisfaction is attained in this direction.

For St Augustine, it is an internal search for something superior: ab exterioribus ad interiora, ab inferioribus ad superiora.

But even at that, it is fairly clear in Augustine that the search for God is related to the desire or love in man for beauty and perfection, something which humanity in itself was unable to produce.

And so Augustine would write: But what do I love, when I love Thee? Not the beauty of bodies, nor the fair harmony of time, nor the brightness of the light, so gladsome to our eyes, nor sweet melodies of varied songs, nor the fragrant smell of flowers, and ointments and spices, not manna and honey, not limbs acceptable to embracement’s of flesh.

None of these I love, when I love my God; and yet I love a kind of light, and melody, and fragrance, and meat, and embracement when I love my God, the light, melody, fragrance, meat, embracement of my inner man: where there shineth unto my soul what space cannot contain and there soundeth what time beareth not away, and there smelleth what breathing disperseth not, and there tasteth what eating diminisheth not, and there clingeth what satiety divorceth not. This is it which I love when I love my God.

Much earlier, Aristotle, in arguing for the existence of God (the Unmoved Mover), would be seeking for a fully actualized being who is the universal object of desire.

Until the Enlightenment, the matter seemed fairly settled, especially among theists: God, in broadly Judeo-Christian terms, was the Greater Other. But since then, this could no longer be taken for granted.

Science, the human spirit, human independence, and so on, have since become fairly equal contestants with God for this position. From the Enlightenment onwards, there has been a gradual effort to replace God with the human spirit.

As William Desmond said, One might say that Western modernity shows a progressive process of stripping the world of the signs of the divine and its ambiguous communication to man. 

As being becomes more objectified, the less it provides the nurturing matrix for religious reverence. In tandem with this, we find an increasing recourse to our own powers to deal with this world in its qualitative poverty.

We understand ourselves as seeking to be masters who can overcome its equivocal thereness.

What informs this projection is the need in man deep in the recesses of his psyche for a more perfect, more powerful being; in short, a being that fulfills man’s desire for something better and greater than the reality of himself and his limitations, and the imperfect realities around him.

In himself and his environment physical, social, mental and otherwise he finds imperfection; therefore, he needs a being or a reality that is not subject to the limitations of the realities around him.

Thus there is a projection into this Perfect Other or Greater Other - all that man desires but is unable to achieve or realize.


Conclusion on Philosophy and Religion

Even though the formal study of religion and the philosophy of religion are fairly recent, religion, the matrix of man’s relationship with God or the supernatural, has been around since time immemorial, and so, philosophy of religion to a considerable extent, has been the effort to assess the claims of religion as well as its underlying ideas.

And so this article has taken a look at the phenomenon of religion and philosophy’s concern in the study of religion. It also looked at some issues in religion that are of interest to philosophy.

Summary In this article, we have among other things, examined the meaning of religion, as the platform of man’s relationship with the divine.

We also examined the subject-matter of philosophy in religion, which is to interrogate the ideas and claims made in the area of religion. Since the idea of God is a major subject of discourse in religion, we examined the idea of God, as the uncreated, omnipotent Creator of the world.

Various ontological, cosmological and moral arguments for the existence of God were explained. We ended with some reflection on the human search for God.

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