What Is Philosophy of Religion?

Have you ever watched a public debate or dialogue about religion? I certainly have – many in fact. I am quite interested in such conversations. Although I don’t usually like the heated ones – I like the philosophically informed ones. If you haven’t heard any of these types of conversations before, that might sound strange. Philosophically informed religious debate? Isn’t religion all about blind faith? Why would people be debating that? You might also be surprised that academic philosophy has an entire area called philosophy of religion. There are many peer-reviewed journals – such as the International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion, the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, Faith and Philosophy, and many others – dedicated to just this topic. Seems odd if religion is supposed to be all about personal spirituality. What is going on here then?

Perhaps none of this is surprising to you. Perhaps it is. Perhaps you have read or written some peer-reviewed articles in these journals. Or perhaps you think the idea of a philosophy journal dedicated to religious topics an oxymoron. Regardless of where you are, the fact of the matter is there is such an area of study – in both religious and secular universities, with both religious and non-religious philosophers asking deep and interesting questions about religion. One of the major goals I have for my blog over time is to make some of the conversations going on in these journals accessible to people who don’t have access to such articles. To begin the process of doing so, it is important to lay out some of the basic groundwork of what kinds of conversations go on in philosophy of religion.

A Few Big Questions Worth Asking

What sorts of questions do philosophers ask in this field? Here are some examples of the kinds of jumping-off points that lead to interesting back and forth exchanges between those who think God exists and those who do not.

  • How do religious groups come to their conclusions? What is the nature of a “central belief” of a religion? How is this similar to/different from central beliefs in other areas?
  • How do religious people arrive at their beliefs? How should a person arrive at their religious beliefs? Which of these ways of arriving at beliefs are rational, and why?
  • Where do other fields (like science, history, etc.) intersect with ideas that play a role in religion? To which religious worldview do these other fields point?
  • What is the nature of religion as compared to science? To what extent do the ideas at the forefront of science actually contradict or agree with core claims of various religious systems, or more broadly, with the generic claim that there is a God?
  • If God does exist, what is God like? For instance, is God omniscient? Omnipotent? If so, what do those words mean?
  • What is the relationship between God and time? Is God beyond time, or the creator of time, or everlasting throughout all time… or some combination of these?
  • What do we make of the possible existence of God in light of evil in the world? Is this good evidence that there is no God? And is there counterevidence from other domains that would indicate that God does exist?

These are all questions I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about (some more than others, to be fair) and all of which I think I can answer to some extent, although these questions are obviously extremely big and can’t really be answered easily or quickly. But I hope these examples give an idea of the topics and scope of philosophy of religion.

Having undergone a brief overview of what philosophy of religion is, we mention a few things it is not.

  • Philosophy of religion is not theology, although the two have intersection – particularly in asking questions about what God is like. Theology takes as a starting point the truth of a particular religious text or teaching and takes a deeper dive into analyzing and understanding that particular text or teaching. Philosophy of religion can draw from religious texts – for instance, if a philosopher wants to argue that two aspects of Christianity appear in conflict, they should quote the Bible at various points to make their case. But philosophy of religion will not use a religious text in quite the same way as theology does. This is not better or worse, but the distinction is important to realize.
  • Philosophy of religion is open to those who do not practice any religion. In fact, many famous philosophers of religion do not believe that God exists. Graham Oppy would be one of the most famous examples. Likewise, you can be a religious believer and nonetheless study the philosophy of religion objectively – Alvin Plantinga would be a good example.

Having taken some time to understand the big picture of what the philosophy of religion is all about, let’s take some time to unpack some specifics.

Natural Theology

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines natural theology as “the project of using all of the cognitive faculties that are “natural” to human beings – reason, sense-perception, introspection – to investigate religious or theological matters” [1]. In less fancy words, natural theology is the task of talking about religion without relying on appeals to religious institutions or Scriptures as implicitly reliable authorities. For instance, it cannot be “natural” in this sense of the word for a human being to believe the Bible, or the Qur’an, or even to believe that God exists. Although you could make an effort within different “natural” means in this sense to show why a human ought to believe that God exists, or believe in the Bible or the Qur’an. Mainly, natural theology does not address something as specific as a single religion, but asks broader questions – we might say about different types of religious systems. A few of what we might consider types of religious systems are theism, atheism, and pantheism. Theism is the position that God exists outside of the universe (usually as its Creator), and is the position traditionally held by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The most common form of theism is monotheism, the view that only one God exists. Atheism is the position that God does not exist, that there are no gods of any sort. Some common forms of atheism are naturalism (the only thing that exist are natural things, which is notoriously hard to define) and materialism (which holds that the only things that exist are material things, like space, time, matter, and energy). Pantheism is the view that God exists but is not separate from the universe as the theist thinks, but that God is the universe (in some sense). Hinduism and Buddhism, as I understand it, often have pantheistic attitudes. “New Age” religious systems are also usually pantheistic or something close to pantheistic.

The topic of natural theology involves looking at all the “natural” evidence available to us to determine which of these systems is best supported by the evidence. As a Christian myself, I believe that theism is best supported by the evidence. As you’d expect, I can’t exactly go super in detail in just one article about why I think so. But I can give some samples of the sorts of conversations that would lead in that direction. The way I’ll do this is by listing some general types of philosophical arguments for theism that philosophers of religion offer in favor of theism.

Cosmological Arguments: Cosmological arguments for God’s existence are arguments that take analyze facts about the universe (cosmos) as their starting point. The philosopher could argue that certain facts about astrophysics, cosmology, and the universe appear to be very counterintuitive and unlikely if theism were not true.

Moral Arguments: Moral arguments for God’s existence begin with an idea that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are not just things we’ve made up, but real truths about the way reality is – generosity really is good and murder really is evil. Moral arguments argue that certain facts about this moral realm suggest strongly either that God is the ultimate source of the Good, or that God is the reason we as finite physical creatures are capable of truly knowing that there is ‘moral realm’ at all.

Teleological Arguments: Teleological arguments are also called ‘design arguments’ sometimes. They generally come in two flavors – biological and cosmological. In both cases, the idea is that when we look at reality, it looks like things could not have been this way by random chance, because when you calculate all the probabilities (say, that the universe could permit intelligent life on anywhere) they are much too low to be reasonable. This gives evidence that this universe was not in fact a random accident, but that it was designed to produce life by a Great Engineer, so to speak.

Ontological Arguments: These can be really meta and confusing. The word ‘ontological’ refers to ‘existence’. All ontological arguments use modal logic – logical forms that deal with whether things had to be a certain way or whether they might have been some other way – and use relatively simple steps within that complicated framework to attempt to argue that there has to be something that literally must exist, and that this something is most reasonably something like God as we normally think of God.

There are also topics within natural theology that one might leverage as evidence against God’s existence. The two most famous are the Problem of Evil, which roughly follows along the lines of “Why would a good God let so much evil happen?” and the Hiddenness of God, which argues that since we should expect to see clearer and much more frequent evidence that God exists if He did exist than we do in fact have. These are also quite serious points of discussion, and there are living philosophers that have made giant leaps of progress on even these questions (see Alvin Plantinga’s work on the so-called logical problem of evil).

I’m not trying to defend any of these here – I’m sure my reader will probably have opinions of these arguments. That is good. But whatever your opinion is, know that there are people who agree with you who make a lot of good points, and people who disagree with you that do too. This is no walk in the park – and why should we think it is? This is one of the biggest questions of all human existence – whether or not God exists. We would be foolish to expect these matters to be simple.

Epistemology of Religion

This is harder for me to summarize, because epistemology tends to get really abstract in certain ways. Epistemology is the fancy philosophy term for asking questions about the way we think – especially our beliefs and knowledge. So, religious epistemology asks questions about how we come to believe things about religion (and how, if true, we come to know those things).

I’ve read a book recently in religious epistemology by Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga called Knowledge and Christian Belief, and I figure that a rapid-fire overview of this book will be a good introduction to the sorts of conversations that might be had.

The book begins with an overview of various figures in pop culture – Richard Dawkins, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud would be some of the key examples – who claim that all religious belief is irrational – by which they mean that even if it were true, you still shouldn’t believe it because there is something ‘defective’ about it. Plantinga’s goal is to explain not only how belief in Christianity (and theism more broadly) can be rational, but how it can be rational even in the absence of ‘evidence’ that most people would want to see. Realize that by rational, Plantinga means roughly that it ‘make sense given what you know’, so you could actually perhaps rationally be an atheist or a theist in the same situation if you had some decent evidence on both sides.

Recall, we are not here talking about whether Christianity is true or not – we are asking that if it were true, how could we come to know that it is true? Plantinga’s view is, in a very simplified form, that we come to know that Christianity is true by a kind of testimonial that witnesses to us ‘in our hearts’, so to speak. Just as we come to know our parents exist because we have communications with them and recognize that they seem to have mental lives just like we do, so we come to realize that God exists and through a sort of communication with him. This communication differs from human to human communication, but since God is not very much like your next door neighbor, that is hardly surprising. God, as our creator, created us with an inner sense that longs for something more, and which naturally responds to certain aspects of the world (perhaps a particularly beautiful sunset) by feeling grateful – which points towards Someone-To-Be-Grateful-To, and that would be God. In Christianity, we actually talk about ‘relationship with God’ because of this type of connection, and we call the communication the ‘inner witness of the Holy Spirit’.

An important point to notice – we didn’t mention external evidence at all. But Plantinga’s overall point is that we don’t need to appeal to any such evidence. You don’t have to appeal to any evidence other than your relationship with your parents to prove that they exist – all though you could bring such evidence, you shouldn’t need to! You know them personally. That is enough to prove they exist to you. Perhaps someone else might not be convinced, but that isn’t your problem.

Again, I’ve way, way oversimplified Plantinga’s viewpoint. It is a lot more deep and nuanced than what I’ve presented here. But notice what I have done – I’ve given an account of what it means to believe a religion, where that belief is supposed to come from, and whether or not such a belief, if true, makes sense to believe. I also briefly mentioned an atheistic view on religious epistemology, although there are certainly other atheistic perspectives too, and Marx and Freud didn’t quite believe the same thing. This the goal of religious epistemology.


There is plenty I’ve left out here. This is a large field of study, and is very active area of research in modern times. There has been a resurgence in theistic philosophers as well, who have (among other things) updated and improved all the arguments for God’s existence and created a variety of new arguments as well. There is a lot of interesting material out there, and I hope to share as much of that material as I can.


[1] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/natural-theology/

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