Religion, philosophy of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K113-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2015
Retrieved May 21, 2019, from

2. Philosophy and belief in God

Just as philosopy of religion has been preoccupied with questions about the nature of the God of Western monotheism, so too it has been preoccupied with questions about the rationality of belief in this God. One central question here is whether we can 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). Many contemporary philosophers regard these arguments as unsuccessful (see Atheism; Agnosticism).

Another important set of questions concerns 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 (see Sceptical theism). 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 God 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 God 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). Further, some scholars working in the cognitive science of religion have argued that religious experience and religious belief both can be explained naturalistically, in terms of familiar psychological or neuropsychological mechanisms, without supposing either that God is the cause of religious experience or that belief in God is the product of our ordinary reasoning faculties. Unsurprisingly, these conclusions, too, are controversial, as is the inference from them to the further conclusion that belief in God is rationally suspect.

Finally, a number of philosophers think that the phenomenon of religious diversity and disagreement casts doubt on religious belief. Consider the way in which meeting people from different cultures naturally leads one to think that one’s own approaches to (say) meal times or the propriety of taking an afternoon nap reflect merely conventional choices rather than fixed facts about how things ‘ought to be’. Or consider the way in which widespread disagreement among experts about (say) the health benefits (or demerits) of a high-fat diet or of drinking a glass of red wine every day naturally leads one to have less confidence in all of the competing theories on the table. So, likewise, some philosophers think that encountering diverse theories about the divine ought to lead one to have less confidence in all such theories across the board and that encountering diverse religious practices ought to lead one to think that one’s own approaches to the divine (or, more neutrally, to ‘ultimate reality’) reflect merely conventional responses to that reality rather than fixed facts about the ‘one and only path to salvation’. Thorny philosophical issues lie in these woods, and the topics of religious disagreement and realism in theology have been particularly significant areas of research in recent years (see Theological Realism; Religion and epistemology).

Citing this article:
Stump, Eleonore and Mike Rea. Philosophy and belief in God. Religion, philosophy of, 2015, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K113-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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