About the discipline
Philosophy and religion have a long history of inspiring, influencing and challenging each other. In the process, they have impacted how humans view their roles, drives and ideals in the world in which we live.
Classical philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle influenced early Christian thinkers. Early philosophers and religious thinkers both competed with and borrowed from each other to further explain and understand their beliefs. Early Christians intertwined their beliefs with classical learning, science and philosophy, including ideas such as Plato and Plotinus’ notions that God could be found through contemplation of beauty, or Gregory’s doctrine that God is incorporeal, a doctrine from Platonic philosophy. Gregory’s account of the Trinity revolves around Aristotle’s idea that things could be divided into categories and qualities.
Middle Eastern Christians translated the works of Plato, Aristotle and others into Middle Eastern languages such as Syriac and Arabic, preserving their ideas and influencing later Muslim philosophers. More modern philosophers have also tackled the role of faith in human experience and societies; some supporting belief in a divine creator and others dismissing it. Both philosophers and religious thinkers continue to influence humans’ views of our place in the world, our current religious struggles, world geography and beliefs about what it means to be human and what constitutes a virtuous life.
A few major philosophers who have developed thoughts about religion include:
Socrates – Socrates (469-399 B.C.) was the first philosopher to focus on the problems of “God, the Good and the Beautiful.” He examined issues such as piety, morals, ethics and religious practice. Socrates believed in the existence of gods vastly superior to ourselves in wisdom and power. However, he was also a critic and reformer of the religious tradition of his time and new practices he encountered. Some experts argue that Socrates saw religious commitments as integral to his philosophical mission of moral examination, and that this reformed how religion was practiced in his time. Socrates’ contributions to the “rational reformation” of Greek religion informed the theology of his pupil, Plato.
Plato: A founding father of Western philosophy, Athenian philosopher Plato (427-347 B.C.) had a major impact on religious and philosophical thought. Plato felt gods should only be represented as pious and good because goodness was the nature of divinity. In “Philebus,” he meditated on pleasure and the good life, concluding that something’s goodness lay in the unity of beauty, symmetry and truth. In “Phaedo,” he argued for the immortality of the soul. Plato expressed how he believed the universe was created – in the creator’s likeness, out of pre-existing chaos (contrasting with the later Christian account that God created the universe out of a void) – but also warned that, being mortals, it was something none of us could ever understand.
Artistotle – Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) was not particularly religious himself, but called theology “the most divine knowledge.” A student of Plato’s academy, Aristotle created the study of formal logic and influenced the course of Western intellectual history. He conceived of a God operating outside of the world, putting creation in motion and causing all motion in nature. He did not attribute mercy, love, sympathy or similar qualities to God. But he believed that God was drawing all things toward himself – that it was the instinctive desire of all things to be drawn to God in action, purpose and self-worth, and especially to the divine design God holds for their lives. He believed this God or Supreme Form was uncreated, eternal and unchangeable, and existed as “pure intellect” and “fully realized potential.” He also believed that the human intellect is connected with the divine intellect, which gives humans their powers of inspiration, insight and imagination.
Aquinas: Influenced by Aristotle, philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), has had a huge influence on Christian theology, especially of the Roman Catholic Church. Aquinas believed “that for the knowledge of any truth whatsoever man needs Divine help that the intellect may be moved by God to its act.” Aquinas defined the four (natural) cardinal virtues as prudence, temperance, justice and fortitude. His three (supernatural) theological virtues were faith, hope and charity. Aquinas viewed theology, or the sacred doctrine, as a science whose data consists of written scripture and church tradition. He felt existence of God is neither self-evident nor beyond proof, and described God as simple, perfect, infinite, immutable, and one. Aquinas’ works influenced the literary practice of modernist writer James Joyce.
Immanuel Kant: German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) asserted that reason and philosophy are “in reality directed to those three problems only (God, Soul, Freedom),” meaning that no one can really know if there is a God and an afterlife. But no one can really know that there is not a God and an afterlife either. Kant believed that for the sake of society and morality, people can be justified in believing in them, even though they can never know for sure whether they are real. He believed that happiness is tied to morality, and for this reason, people should choose to believe in God, because the idea of God can’t be separated from happiness-morality as the “ideal of the supreme good.” Kant’s efforts to root religion in morality had a significant impact on Protestant theology in Europe, especially what is called “liberal theology,” which stressed the moral content of Christianity, particularly for social reform.
Søren Kierkegaard: Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is sometimes characterized as a Christian existentialist. Popular ideas included his “leap of faith,” of how an individual could transcend rationality in favor of something more uncanny such as faith. He also surmised that to have faith means also to have doubt, and that a faith without doubting God’s existence or goodness is not much of a faith. Later in life, he attacked Christianity and its allegiance with the state, believing that state-church union perverted the true meaning of Christianity. He believed that in such conditions, congregations are meaningless, Christianity becomes secularized and political and the faith becomes empty.
Karl Marx: German social philosopher Karl Marx (1818-83) wrote, with Friedrich Engels, “The Communist Manifesto” (1848), which appealed to science and reason as the basis for reform, rather than the rights of man. His “Das Kapital” offered a critical analysis of capitalism. Marx’s ideas had a major influence on workers’ movements and Marxian ideas have impacted many parts of the world. Marx famously wrote in 1843: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sign of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
Friedrich Nietzsche: German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) produced critiques of religion, morality, philosophy and contemporary society. His “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” (1883 – 1885), a philosophical work of fiction, imitated the style of the New Testament and the Platonic dialogues. Nietzsche offered interpretation of Western literary and philosophical traditions through the character of Zarathustra (a reference to the historic figure behind Zoroastrianism, an ancient religion born in what is now Iran). His “The Antichrist, Curse on Christianity” (1888), attacked the morals of Christianity. Though he gave some respect to Jesus and some Christian elements, Nietzsche proposed an “Anti-Christian” morality that included reframing the perspective of all values. In “The Gay Science,” he ranked one’s life as the sole consideration when evaluating how one should act. The book is best known for Nietzsche’s statement: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”
Issues today: The pursuit of philosophy can bring greater depth to discussion and understanding of current issues such as end-of-life debates, the death penalty, legal concepts, and the role of democracy and religion in society. Both philosophical and religious ideas are used to define human values and ethics – from the environment to poverty – and how we define our responsibilities in the world, human motivation and the human will. Those interested in philosophy can examine the beliefs, ideas, values, rituals and traditions that have shaped various cultures. They may also want to study the role of philosophy today, on an individual and global scale – what needs it fills, how one defines “philosopher” in the day of blogging and pundits, and how it can reflect the new technologies and ethical issues of the modern age.
- “Philosophy of Religion” by L.N. Mitrokhin. Russian Studies in Philosophy. 45, no. 3 (2006): 6-34.
- Changchi Hao. “We-Wei and the Decentering of the Subject in Lao-Zhuang An Alternative Approach in the Philosophy of Religion.” International Philosophical Quarterly. 46, no. 4 (2006): 445-7.
- Kail, P.J.E. “Understanding Hume’s Natural History of Religion.” Philosophical Quarterly. 57, no. 227 (2007): 190-211.
- Mitrokhin, L.N. “Philosophy of Religion.” Russian Studies in Philosophy. 45, no. 3 (2006): 6-34.
- Ferrari, Michel. “Culture and Development Matter To Understanding Souls, No Matter What Our Evolutionary Design.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 29, no. 5 (2006): 472.
- Lloyd, David. “Rage against the Divine.” South Atlantic Quarterly. 106 no. 2 (2007): 345-72.
- Mitrokhin, L. N. “Philosophy of Religion: New Perspectives.” Russian Social Science Review. 48 no. 2 (2007): 51-78.
- “Philosophy of Religion: New Perspectives” by L.N. Mitrokhin. Russian Social Science Review. 48, no. 2 (2007): 51-78.
- “We-Wei and the Decentering of the Subject in Lao-Zhuang An Alternative Approach in the Philosophy of Religion” by Changchi Hao. International Philosophical Quarterly. 46, no. 4 (2006): 445-7.
- “Culture and Development Matter To Understanding Souls, No Matter What Our Evolutionary Design” by Michel Ferrari. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 29, no. 5 (2006): 472.
- “Understanding Hume’s Natural History of Religion” by P.J.E. Kail. Philosophical Quarterly. 57, no. 227 (2007): 190-211.
- “Rage against the Divine” by David Lloyd. South Atlantic Quarterly. 106 no. 2 (2007): 345-72.
- “Religion and Modern Man” by Yasin Ceylan. Philosophy of Religion. Vol. 10 (2010): 341-67.
- “God goes up for debate, believe it or not” by Paul Bibby. Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), Aug. 19, 2008.
- “In Tough Times, Humanities Must Justify Their Worth” by Patricia Cohen. The New York Times, Feb. 25, 2009.
- “I’m a Believer” by Anthony Gottlieb. The New York Times, Dec. 23, 2007.
- Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing?. Bede Rundle. Oxford University Press, USA, 2006
- Philosophers and God: At the Frontiers of Faith and Reason. John Cornwell, Michael McGhee. Continuum 1 edition, 2009.
- The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time. Judith Shulevitz. Random House, 2010.
- Ten Essential Texts in the Philosophy of Religion: Classics and Contemporary Issues. Oxford University Press, USA, 2004.
- Philosophy of Religion: An Introduction. William L. Rowe. Wadsworth Publishing, 2006.
- Reason and Religious Belief: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach and David Basinger. Oxford University Press, USA, 2008.
- The Case for Religion. Keith Ward. Oneworld Publications, 2007.
- The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion. William Wainwright (ed.) Oxford University Press, 2007.
- Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings. Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach and David Basinger (eds.). Oxford University Press, USA, 2006.
- Philosophy of religion: an historical introduction. Linda Trinkaus ZagzebskiPublisher. Wiley-Blackwell, 2007.
- Philosophy of religion: the big questions. Eleonore Stump and Michael J. Murray (eds.). Wiley-Blackwell, 1999.
- Arabic Thought and its Place in History. De Lacy O’Leary. CreateSpace, 2011.
- Desperately Wicked: Philosophy, Christianity and the Human Heart. Patrick Downey. IVP Academic, 2009.
- Nietzsche & Zen (Studies in Comparative Philosophy and Religion). Andre van der Braak. Lexington Books, 2011.
- Philosophy of Religion: Toward a Global Perspective. Gary E. Kessler. Wadsworth Publishing, 1998.
- Ethics in Light of Childhood. John Wall. Georgetown University Press, 2010.
- Craft, Christy M. and Alyssa N. Bryant. “Faith Development Within Religion and Philosophy Courses at a College of the Lutheran Church.” Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice. Vol. 48, No. 2 (2011): 195-212.
- “Problem of Evil in Muslim Philosophy: A Case Study of Iqbal.” M. Maroof Shah. Indian Publishers Distributors, 2007.
Codes of ethics
- American Catholic Philosophical Association – Objective
- American Philosophical Association – Service Statement
- American Philosophical Society – Mission Statement
- International Journal for Philosophy of Religion
- Journal of Religious Ethics
- Journal of Ritual Studies
- Journal of Society and Christian Ethics
- Science and Christian Belief
- Faith and Philosophy
- Philosophy of Religion
- Center for Philosophy of Religion
- Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online
- Philosophy and religion links
- Philosophy of religion resources
- Chinese Cultural Studies: Philosophy and Religion in China
- Analytic Philosophy of Religion site
- Philosophy of Religion links (EpistemeLinks)
- East and Southeast Asia: An Annotated Directory of Internet Resources: Japan: Philosophy & Religion
Professional associations and faith groups
- American Catholic Philosophical Association
- American Philosophical Association
- North American Association of Islamic and Muslim Studies
- Baptist Association of Philosophical Teachers
- Christian Academic Network
- Evangelical Philosophical Society
- Evangelical Theological Society
- Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace
- Society of Christian Ethics
- Society of Christian Philosophers
- Brown, Alison. “Philosophy and Religion in Machiavelli.” The Cambridge Companion to Machiavelli. John M. Najemy (ed.). Cambridge University Press, 2010.
- Jiang, Shanhe; Eric G. Lambert; Jin Wang; Toyoji Saito and Rebecca Pilot. “Death penalty views in China, Japan and the U.S.: An empirical comparison.” Journal of Criminal Justice. Vol. 38, No. 5 (Oct. 2010): 862-9.
- Murphy, Nancey. “Cosmopolis: How Astronomy Affects Philosophies of Human Nature and Religion.” Analecta Husserliana. Vol. 107, No. 3 (2011): 175-85.
- Nakagawa, Yoshiharu. “Oriental Philosophy and Interreligious Education: Inspired by Toshihiko Izutsu’s Reconstruction of ‘Oriental Philosophy.’” International Handbook of Inter-Religious Education. Vol. 4, No. 2 (2010): 325-39.
- Strong, Carson. “Why Public Policy on Embryo Research Should Not Be Based on Religion.” The American Journal of Bioethics. Vol. 11, No. 3 (2011): 33-5.