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Contemporary Philosophy of Religion and NCEA Religious Studies: Part Four

October 23rd, 2017 by Matt

This is a talk I gave to the New Zealand Association of Philosophy Teachers annual conference at St Cutherberts College in September this year. Several people have asked me to make this talk available.

I have broken my talk up into four parts. Part One introduces what philosophy of religion. In part two I will outline two movements within analytic philosophy during the early to mid-century which I think resulted in religious beliefs not being taken very seriously within philosophy and philosophy of religion taking a fairly minor role. Part three will look at some responses to these movements offered in the late 20th century and how they changed the philosophical landscape. Part four will look at the question of “how to do philosophy of religion” comparing the methods used by two different atheist’s J L Mackie and Graham Oppy, and how this relates the National Certificate of Educational Achievement Standards. This post will contain part four.

How to do Philosophy of Religion: A tale of Two Religious Skeptics

I think the demise of verifications and the questioning of evidentialism then changed the landscape of philosophy of religion dramatically.  A good way of highlighting the change is to compare the work of two philosophers who probably have made the most rigorous cases for atheism in the last fifty years.

The first is J L Mackie’s work “The Miracle of Theism” published in 1982. Mackie’s work was for many years the definitive defence of atheism in Philosophy; I quoted Mackie above, let’s look again:

If it is agreed that the central assertions of theism are literally meaningful, it must also be admitted thatJohn_Leslie_Mackie they are not directly verified or directly verifiable. It follows that any rational consideration of whether they are true or not will involve arguments . . . [i]t [whether or not God exists] must be examined either by deductive or inductive reasoning or if that yields no decision, by arguments to the best explanation; for in such a context nothing else can have any coherent bearing on the issue. (Mackie, Miracle of Theism, 4-6;)

The second, atheist I want to look at is Graham Oppy; Oppy is a philosopher at Monash University, his book Arguing about God, is rightly hailed as the best contemporary attack on the theistic arguments and he is, in my view, the leading defender of philosophical atheism writing today.  Here is what Oppy says in an article “What Derivations can do” published in 2015.

Philosophy of religion should not be about the standard array of ‘arguments for and against the existence of God’. Indeed, philosophy of God should not be about the standard array of ‘arguments for and against the existence of God’. In so far as philosophy of religion – or philosophy of God – is concerned with the clash between theistic and atheistic world-views, the proper way to proceed is: (1) to develop best theistic Oppyand atheistic theories; (2) to assess the liability of these best theories to internal defeat; and (3) to make an assessment of the comparative theoretical virtues of these best theories, paying attention to simplicity, fit with data, explanatory scope, predictive accuracy, and the like (  Oppy “What Derivations Cannot Do” Religious Studies (2015) 51, 328

The contrast between these two writers is illustrative.

Mackie focuses on the fact that the claim that God exists isn’t verifiable. He acknowledges the collapse of verificationism: despite not being directly verifiable the central assertions of theism are meaningful. However, he does think this lack of verifiability places a burden of proof on the Theist. The Theist is required to produce arguments for Gods existence. Deductive, abductive, inductive, arguments presumably from premises which ultimately are verifiable in this way.  Oppy, by contrast, doesn’t focus on whether the claim “God exists” is verifiable. His focus is on this belief, embedded in broader philosophical theories, verification, when it occurs, is applied to theories.

An even clearer contrast is over evidentialism.  Mackie affirms evidentialism. He contends that “any rational consideration” of the question of God’s existence depends on the Theist providing “deductive, abductive, inductive arguments for Gods existence. “Nothing else can have any coherent bearing on the issue. Oppy however explicitly repudiates this he states Philosophy of religion should not be about the standard array of ‘arguments for and against the existence of God.”

Instead, Oppy suggests that the important question is what happens when people utilise theological assumptions in philosophy. Theists and atheists will reason from their prospective presuppositions and construct theories which attempt to answer important philosophical questions. Questions such as “why is there something rather than nothing?” “why are there and what are laws of nature”? “what are moral obligations” and so forth? Philosophy of religion is about how defensible these theories are. Can they be defended against objections, do they provide coherent answers to these questions, and how do the answers they give compare with each other.

Contemporary Philosophy of Religion and NCEA Achievement Standards.
You’ll probably guess my sympathies lie with Oppy, and it’s at this point that I think it’s interesting to look at the NCEA standards for Religious Studies

One barrier to doing Philosophy in secondary schools is the fact there are no nationally recognised qualifications for the subject. There is an absence of any standards for philosophy under NCEA. Many people in this organisation have been lobbying for the government to introduce philosophy as a NCEA subject and I support this cause.

However, I want to suggest that if one looks at the standards which already exist for NCEA religious studies. There is already in the curricula plenty of scope for doing contemporary Philosophy of religion. In fact, if you move away from an excessive focus on the arguments for and against Gods existence and ask about religious and secular theories, NCEA asks and requires students to engage in contemporary philosophy of religion. The most obvious is the final achievement standard for level 3 NCEA:

Analyse the key beliefs of a religious tradition and a secular worldview in relation to ultimate questions

This sounds very much like the method Oppy refers too. Here students are asked to look at secular and religious worldviews and the theories they offer in response to critical philosophical questions. They are told to analyse these views: to discern their key premises and assumptions. When one looks, however, at the Merit and Excellence criteria for this standard it asks students to do work out the implications of these different answers, and to evaluate them, that sounds very much like Contemporary Philosophy of Religion.

Similarly, in level Three, NCEA asks students to analyse a religious tradition(s) in Aotearoa New Zealand.  And analyse the response of a religious tradition to an ethical issue. Here, again, students are asked to analyse, to work out the assumptions and presumptions, assess the implications significance and evaluate the case for and against particular theories about right and wrong this is all contemporary philosophy of religion.

Of course, there are challenges to doing philosophy of religion under NCEA. NCEA classifies Religious Studies as a subset of the social sciences, and some moderators tend to interpret the words analyse or implications in more sociological senses. But, if we understand what it actually is to analysis a religious tradition or its response to an ethical issue or how it answers an ultimate question, then we are doing philosophy.

And I think this applies not just to level three religious studies where the standards require analysis. Consider the level two standard.  “Explain the key beliefs within two religious traditions in relation to a significant religious question.” This uses the word “explain” however the standard defines a significant religious question. As questions regarding ” life after death, the nature of God, the existence of suffering, good and evil, the nature of the human being.” To get an achieved they have to compare how traditions answer these questions. But For merit and excellence, they are asked to ask questions about the significance and what are the implications of these views. This is asking students to engage in philosophical reflection: its asking, if these answers were true what follows, what difference would it make why is it important and so on.

Even the more descriptive level 1 standards have this, level 1, for example, asks students to “Describe key beliefs of a religious tradition” this sounds purely descriptive however to gain a merit and excellence students are asked to think through the significance of these beliefs, to look at links between the beliefs and to ask questions about their implications. Done well, this has the potential to foster a lot of philosophical reflection on the beliefs in question.


So in conclusion, Philosophy of religion involves “the philosophical examination of the central themes and concepts involved in religious traditions”. This has been done by assuming a default position of religious scepticism and examining the arguments for and against religious beliefs or asking if religious beliefs are verifiable and meaningful and the temptation is for this to be the modus operandi in philosophy courses in secondary school.

I am suggesting a different approach. Today Philosophy of religion is much broader; it involves looking at the answers religions have offered to some of the most profound philosophical answers, developing these as charitably and defensibly as possible and seeing if they can stand against objections. Finally, it involves asking whether religious views of the world answer these questions in a better and more plausible way than secular views do. Interestingly, as worded, this is the sort of questions  NCEA  Religious Studies achievement standards ask of students.

This means there is plenty of scope for doing Philosophy of religion as part of Religious Studies programs. It is my hope that those of us who want to see philosophy taken seriously in the secondary sector can, where appropriate, use the current NCEA   standards to develop religious studies programs, which ask students to take these questions seriously. To get them to understand clearly various religious perspectives on various issues, to wrestle with them, significance and implications, to compare them to alternative religious or secular theories, and to critically consider the answers given.

I think this is an important part of a general education. Today’s students grow up in a philosophically pluralistic society, moreover, at a certain point in anyone’s life they will be confronted with different answers to very pressing existential questions, questions which are unavoidable, people will want to know who they are and how they should live. Avoiding these questions or allowing people to be uninformed and ignorant of how others answer them isn’t education. To allow people to be informed about different question’s and to think through carefully and honestly what these answers are, there significance and implications, and to critically evaluate them is in my view what Philosophy at the secondary level should be all about. So, I suggest that Philosophy programs at secondary school start to take seriously religious studies and religious studies take seriously philosophy of religion.



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