This short book mostly covers some of the more influential, or just interesting, arguments for and against belief in God. There are many other interesting philosophical questions that arise in the context of specific theological commitments (some philosophers would categorize these arguments under the heading of “philosophical theology” rather than “philosophy of religion”). For example, is the specifically Christian doctrine of the Trinity (which says there is one God, but three divine persons) logically coherent? Is the specifically Islamic view of God’s providence and control over the universe compatible with free will, and moral responsibility along with it? Is the specifically Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura (“the Bible alone”) self-contradictory, if the Bible itself doesn’t explicitly teach it? Can we make coherent sense of the specifically Buddhist doctrine that, after death, the arhat or enlightened person, does not continue to exist, does not cease to exist, and does not do both or neither? And many more such philosophical puzzles about specific religious or theological doctrines could be asked. However, in this short introductory text, we are mostly introducing some general arguments about belief in God more broadly rather than delving into other, more specific religious doctrines. The first chapter clears up some misconceptions about the relation between philosophy and religion. The second and third chapters cover some influential arguments for belief in the existence of God, and the fourth and fifth cover some influential arguments against belief in the existence of God. The final chapter, on the other hand, questions how well this “general” approach to philosophy of religion accommodates various world religions, and critiques the very approach we are taking!
In Chapter 1, Beau Branson sketches the history of philosophy and religion from the pre-Socratic philosophers to today. He claims that philosophers have gotten a reputation as mostly espousing a very closed-minded atheism. In fact, the history of philosophy shows that, from its inception, it has been bound up with religious questions and ideas, and most of its figures had some kind of religious beliefs. Only in the last few centuries has philosophy taken a decidedly atheistic turn, and even then, many non-religious philosophers have still been intrigued by religious questions and ideas, and often influenced by religious thinkers. The reputation for closed-mindedness is probably to be blamed on a particular 20th-century movement, Logical Positivism. But even there, the accusation of closed-mindedness is not entirely fair, since the Positivists took the attitude they did because of technical views about the philosophy of language. After those views were called into doubt, in the latter part of the 20th century and up to today, there has been an explosion in the philosophy of religion.
In Chapter 2, Marcus Hunt presents what have traditionally been the three most influential arguments for belief in God. The Teleological Argument, also called the Design Argument, claims that the universe has the appearance of something that was put together purposefully and that this gives us reason to believe in an Intelligent Designer. The Cosmological Argument argues that the observable universe, consisting entirely of contingent beings, requires a necessarily-existent being as a “First Cause.” And the Ontological Argument attempts to show that the atheistic supposition that a greatest conceivable being (God) does not exist leads to logical absurdity. In addition to these traditional arguments, Hunt explains what has come to be called Reformed Epistemology (after the “Reformed” theological tradition associated with John Calvin). Reformed Epistemology makes a strong, if somewhat startling argument, that it may be perfectly rational for people to believe in God without any particular evidence or argument at all.
In Chapter 3, Sloan Lee discusses three additional arguments for belief in God that approach the question from very different angles compared to those in Chapter 2. Pascal’s Wager is the most well-known of the three, and does not seek to prove that God exists, but argues it is reasonable to believe that God exists, since belief in God is analogous to a bet with potentially infinite payoffs or losses. Next, arguments from Religious Experience begin with the fact that some people have had certain experiences that at least seem to them to be experiences of God, and claim that this gives us evidence for God’s existence. So, in the absence of overriding evidence to the contrary, we are justified in believing that things are as they appear to be. Finally, Lee discusses what is at the same time one of the most fascinating and least discussed arguments in this literature, C. S. Lewis’ Argument from Desire. Lewis begins with the premise that creatures are not born with innate desires that cannot possibly be satisfied. And yet, Lewis describes a kind of experience he calls “the inconsolable longing,” a kind of nostalgic desire that naturally and spontaneously arises at certain times, but which cannot be satisfied by anything in this world. It follows that there must be something beyond this world towards which some of our desires (like the inconsolable longing) are naturally directed.
In Chapter 4, Steven Steyl presents three of the traditionally most influential arguments (or kinds of argument) against religious belief. First, he discusses a group of arguments purporting to show the incoherence of various alleged divine attributes, such as that if God is Omnipotent, He can presumably do evil, but if He is Omnibenevolent then He can’t. Second is probably the most famous and influential argument against religious belief, the Problem of Evil. Why would any unnecessary pain and suffering exist in the world, if God is all-powerful (and so could eliminate any pain and suffering if He wanted to) and all-good or all-loving (and so would surely want to eliminate any pain and suffering that wasn’t absolutely necessary)? Steyl also discusses a particularly tricky version of the Problem of Evil called the Problem of Hell. Hell presents an additional difficulty, since it is supposed to involve pain and suffering directly inflicted by God (not us, or the natural world). Last is the Problem of Divine Hiddenness. The sort of God envisioned especially in 20th- and 21st-century Evangelical Protestantism desires to enter into a personal relationship with us. But in order for us to enter into such a relationship with God, we have to believe He exists, which (at least for some of us!) requires at least a certain minimal amount of evidence. Why, then, does God remain “hidden”? That is, why does God not simply reveal Himself to us in some manner obvious enough to convince those who are cautiously skeptical but still open-minded? The fact, then, that there are such people who are open-minded, but still lack belief, is itself reason to believe that no God of that sort exists.
In Chapter 5, Hans van Eyghen presents an extended discussion of recent challenges to religious belief that arise out of the nascent field of Cognitive Science of Religion. In particular, Cognitive Science of Religion attempts to explain the mechanisms behind the formation of religious beliefs. However, these mechanisms appear to be seriously prone to error. It is argued that they arose by a process of natural selection for reasons that have little to do with truth, but simply are (or at least were, in our evolutionary past) connected to having better chances of survival. For example, one argument theorizes that a population of people who believe in an all-knowing and all-powerful being who will punish them for their evil deeds will be more likely to cooperate with each other and less likely to harm each other, increasing the odds of survival for everyone in the group. If our beliefs really do result from unreliable belief-forming mechanisms such as this, then, so it is argued, those beliefs themselves are unjustified.
Finally, in Chapter 6, Timothy Knepper presents us with a challenge to the very framework within which the rest of this book (and the current field of philosophy of religion, typically) works. He points out that the vast majority of what passes as “philosophy of religion” in academic philosophy is not really concerned with religion as such, but specifically with the Western theistic tradition. Indeed, the first chapters of this book perfectly illustrate this complaint. Knepper then discusses the historical reasons why the idea of “philosophy of religion” was constructed during the Enlightenment, and how and why it fails to fit other religious traditions, giving examples drawn from religions in South Asia (India), East Asia (China), West Africa (Yorubaland), and North America (Lakota) (specifically, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Yorùbá and Lakota religious beliefs). All of the specific religions he discusses present seemingly insuperable difficulties being fit into the mold of “the philosophy of religion” (i.e., the philosophy of (mono)theism). He presents us with some proposals for better ways of thinking about what a “religion” is, ways that might be both more inclusive and more fruitful, inviting non-Western religions that are otherwise marginalized by the traditional theistic paradigm to enter into the conversation.
There is a glossary at the end of this book. If you are reading the book on the web you will find glossary terms in the text with hyperlinks to their definitions. Click on the terms and the definition should pop up on the screen. If you are reading the book in another form you may only see the glossary terms in bold, and you will need to go to the glossary at the end of the book to find the definitions of those terms.
An Explanation of the Book’s Structure
A parting note of explanation (or defense!) may be in order, as to why the first chapters of the book approach philosophy of religion in just the way Knepper criticizes, and yet the final chapter argues against this approach. So, why include both Chapter 6 and Chapters 1 through 5? Is this a contradiction?
To this question, there are two simple answers. First, even if one thinks Knepper is exactly right in his proposal for how to rethink philosophy of religion, one has to acknowledge that the task has not yet been accomplished, and that, in the interim, there is a practical problem in how best to pursue teaching (and learning about) philosophy of religion. Second, while much of the basis of Knepper’s argument is almost certainly true, it’s still possible to conclude that the goal of rethinking philosophy of religion can and should be done in a less radical way, and the editor of this volume maintains that students should be presented both with “traditional” philosophy of religion and with Knepper’s critique of it, and allowed to come to their own conclusions about what the future of philosophy of religion should look like.
To the first point, to take the most extreme example, consider the Yorùbá religion that Knepper discusses. Prior to E. Bọlaji Idowu’s 1962 publication of Olódùmarè: God in Yorùbá Belief, most of what was written in English about Yorùbá belief was, it seems, pretty wildly inaccurate. And even Idowu himself has been criticized as misrepresenting Yorùbá belief in an attempt to bring it closer to something people from a Western, predominantly monotheistic background would understand. It’s perhaps only in the last decade or so of the 20th century with authors like Kola Abímbọ́lá and others that those unfamiliar with it begin to get a clearer picture of what Yorùbá belief even really is, on its own terms. Thus, while we can all hopefully agree that philosophers of religion ought to start engaging with religious traditions like those of the Yorùbá that are outside of the traditional Western canon, they can hardly be faulted if they haven’t accomplished this task yet, as it will inevitably take time both for the very content of Yorùbá belief to become more widely known, and for philosophy of religion to find creative ways to enter into conversation with it.
Of course, other examples Knepper gives, like Buddhism and Hinduism, should be more of an embarrassment, since people in “the West” have known at least something about these religions since ancient times. (Though in these cases, at least some philosophy of religion addresses these traditions, even if surely not as much as one might expect or hope for.) But the point is that the task Knepper proposes simply has not yet been accomplished. Similar practical problems face many, if not all, areas in Western philosophy in terms of opening up further, not only to non-European cultures, but to women, to people from various economic classes, sexual orientations and identities, and so on. One school of thought might be to radically rethink the whole canon of Western philosophy “from the ground up,” as Knepper puts it. But to do that immediately would seem to be a Herculean task. Others might seek simply to gradually change the canon in a direction of greater inclusivity. The opinion of the editor of this volume is that the former approach is simply too ambitious, but that voices like Knepper’s nevertheless deserve to be heard, and that going forward philosophers of religion must take seriously the challenge presented.
To the second point, the editor thinks students should be presented with both philosophy of religion as it is typically done and a well-argued critique like Knepper’s, and then allowed to come to their own conclusions. Knepper proposes that “if philosophy of religion is to be the philosophy of religions and not just the philosophy of (mono)theism, it must be rethought from the ground up, not merely expanded or enlarged.” In other words, whether we accomplish the goal immediately or gradually, Knepper makes a call for us, ultimately, to reconstruct philosophy of religion in a fairly radical way. But some might argue that this sort of re-thinking of philosophy of religion would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as there is much of value in traditional philosophy of religion, even if its value is primarily, or even only, within the context of a broadly monotheistic paradigm. Thus, even given the facts that Knepper cites, some readers might conclude that we should do exactly the opposite of what Knepper recommends. Namely, they might conclude precisely that we should find a way to expand what currently counts as philosophy of religion in such a way as to incorporate what Knepper calls the philosophy of (mono)theism into something bigger, rather than simply discarding the philosophy of (mono)theism in favor of something different.
For these reasons and others, the editor of this volume has made the careful decision to select and arrange the chapters so that readers begin with an introduction to philosophy of religion as it has been, and is, typically taught today, then presented with a strong and well-argued criticism of that paradigm, leaving them room to come to their own conclusions.
How to Use This Book
All of the books in the Introduction to Philosophy series are written specifically for an audience that has little to no previous exposure to philosophy. We have tried to steer clear of jargon as much as possible, and we hope you will find the language reasonably easy to follow and the arguments explained in ways that are as easy to follow as the subject matter permits. Almost every position or argument presented in this book is therefore, of necessity, presented on a basic level, and although various responses, objections and counterarguments are presented, there is in almost every instance a vast literature containing even more discussion on almost every point. What this book aims to do is only to give the reader a broad overview of the arguments presented. Each chapter then ends with a selection of Further Readings that have been chosen as being among the most beneficial places for novices to go for more information. Therefore, use a chapter in this book as a tool to help orient yourself to the topics, the “big picture” and the basic ideas that are in play, and then go to the Further Readings when you are ready to delve more deeply into a specific topic that has piqued your interest.
When it comes to religion, some readers will begin as firm believers in some religion, others staunch opponents of some religion, or of many, or of all religions. Some may be undecided, but curious to learn more. And after reading about some of the arguments in this book, some readers may change their minds, while others may become more firmly convinced of what they already suspected to be true. But regardless of what you believe when you begin your study of the philosophy of religion or when you end it, one thing is certain: you will have a richer life, and a better understanding of others around you, for having thought things through from various sides of the issues.
And on that note, we end this introduction with the strangely religious sounding words of one of the most famous atheists of all time, Bertrand Russell:
Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination, and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good. (Russell  2004, 113)
Russell, Bertrand. (1912) 2004. The Problems of Philosophy. Barnes & Noble.
- Given the tangled history of both philosophy and religion in Western culture sketched in the first chapter of this book, there’s obviously a good deal of value in knowing about the monotheistic tradition if for no other reason than to better understand the development of Western thought and culture in general. Indeed, as the first chapter hopefully makes clear, much of that entanglement goes un- or under-appreciated. And besides its merely historical importance, this traditional type of philosophy of religion has ongoing relevance to most of the world’s population. Some demographic data is worth noting here. Christians (as of 2020) make up roughly 2.3 billion or 31.2% of the world’s population; Muslims, about 1.8 billion, or 24.1% of the world’s population; and Jews, about 14 million or 0.2% of the population. Thus, over 4.1 billion or 55.5% of the world’s population fall within a broadly monotheistic paradigm in their religious beliefs. And arguably, most atheists and agnostics within Western cultures tend to think about religion within the categories they have inherited from this tradition, whether they are cognizant of that influence or not, and so could be added to the total number for whom the categories of theism are relevant (even if they are rejecting it, rather than embracing it). And while the percentage of the population consisting of Christians and Jews is projected to remain stable, by 2050 Islam is projected to rise to about 29.7% of the world’s population, giving us at least 61.1% of the world’s population fitting into this monotheistic paradigm. (After 2050, there is less certainty, but if things continue along the same trajectory, Islam should surpass Christianity as the world’s largest religion by about 2070, giving us a total of 62.6% of the world’s population within the monotheistic paradigm by 2070). So, while one must certainly be sympathetic to the other almost half (and even in the future still over one-third) of the world’s population, one might also conclude that we cannot simply ignore the entire tradition of thinking deeply about issues within the monotheistic paradigm either. (For data on the demographics of religion cited in this note, see “Christians Remain World’s Largest Religious Group, but They are Declining in Europe,” Pew Research Center , and “7 Key Changes in the Global Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center .) ↵
A Latin phrase meaning "on its face" or "at first sight." To say that a claim is true or justified "prima facie" is to say it seems to be true or justified on an initial examination, but that it is still possible that it could turn out to be false or unjustified in light of further evidence.