Religion, philosophy of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K113-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 20, 2024, from

1. Philosophy and belief in God

As an examination of mere theism, the core of beliefs common to Western monotheisms, philosophy of religion raises and considers a number of questions. What would anything have to be like to count as God? Is it even possible for human beings to know God’s attributes (see God, concepts of; Negative theology)? And if so, what are they? Traditionally, God has been taken to be a necessary being, who is characterized by omniscience, omnipotence, perfect goodness, immutability and eternity (see Necessary being; Omniscience; Omnipotence; Goodness, perfect; Immutability; Eternity), who has freely created the world (see Creation and conservation, religious doctrine of; Freedom, divine), and who is somehow specially related to morality (see Religion and morality).

This conception of God takes God to be unique (see Monotheism), unlike anything else in the world. Consequently, the question arises whether our language is capable of representing God. Some thinkers, such as Moses Maimonides, have argued that it is not and that terms applied to God and creatures are equivocal. Others have argued that our language can be made to apply to God, either because some terms can be used univocally of God and creatures, or because some terms used of creatures can be applied to God in an analogical sense (see Religious language).

Not everyone accepts the traditional characterization of God, of course. Pantheists, for example, reject the distinction between God and creation (see Pantheism). Certain philosophers have objected to the traditional conception on the grounds that it leaves certain philosophical problems, such as the problem of evil, insoluble (see Process theism). And many feminists reject it as patriarchal (see Feminist theology).

Given the traditional conception of God, can we know by reason that such a God exists? There are certain arguments that have been proposed to demonstrate the existence of God so understood (see God, arguments for the existence of; Natural theology). The ontological argument tries to show that a perfect being must exist (see Anselm of Canterbury). The cosmological argument argues that the existence of the world demonstrates the existence of a transcendent cause of the world. And the teleological argument argues from design in nature to the existence of a designer. Some philosophers have maintained that the widespread phenomenon of religious experience also constitutes an argument for the existence of a supernatural object of such experience (see Religious experience; Mysticism, history of; Mysticism, nature of). Most contemporary philosophers regard these arguments as unsuccessful (see Atheism; Agnosticism).

But what exactly is the relation between reason and religious belief? Do we need arguments? Or is faith without argument rational? What is faith? Is it opposed to reason? Some philosophers have argued that any belief not based on evidence is defective or even culpable. This position is not much in favour any more. On the other hand, some contemporary philosophers have suggested that evidence of any sort is unnecessary for religious belief. This position is also controversial (see Faith; Religion and epistemology).

Some philosophers have supposed that these questions are obviated by the problem of evil (see Evil, problem of), which constitutes an argument against God’s existence. In their view, God and evil cannot coexist, or at any rate the existence of evil in this world is evidence which disconfirms the existence of God. In response to this challenge to religious belief, some philosophers have held that religious belief can be defended only by a theodicy, an attempt to give a morally sufficient reason for God’s allowing evil to exist. Others have thought that religious belief can be defended without a theodicy, by showing the weaknesses in the versions of the argument from evil against God’s existence. Finally, some thinkers have argued that only a practical and political approach is the right response to evil in the world (see Liberation theology).

Those who use the existence of evil to argue against the existence of God assume that God, if he existed, could and should intervene in the natural order of the world. Not everyone accepts this view (see Deism). But supposing it is right, how should we understand God’s intervention? Does he providentially intervene to guide the world to certain ends (see Providence)? Would an act of divine intervention count as a miracle? What is a miracle, and is it ever rational to believe that a miracle has occurred (see Miracles)? Some people have supposed that a belief that miracles occur is incompatible with or undermined by a recognition of the success of science. Many people also think that certain widely accepted scientific views cast doubt on particular religious beliefs (see Religion and science).

Citing this article:
Stump, Eleonore. Philosophy and belief in God. Religion, philosophy of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K113-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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