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Contemporary Philosophy of Religion and NCEA Religious Studies: Part one

October 17th, 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 one.

First, I want to thank the association for asking me to speak, seeing I have been teaching in the secondary sector full time for only a  couple of years so I am not sure I have a lot to share with you and feel very much like I have more to learn from you.

I have been asked to talk about the contemporary philosophy of religion.  In my talk this morning I will focus on three things. First, I will talk about what philosophy of religion is. Second, I will talk a little bit about its history but focus on recent developments in contemporary analytic philosophy of religion. Finally, I will link some of these things with the current National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) Standards in Religious Studies. I hope what I say is helpful to you.

What is Philosophy of Religion
What is the philosophy of religion? Charles Taliaferro at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines it as “thephilosophy-of-religion philosophical examination of the central themes and concepts involved in religious traditions.” He adds “Philosophy of religion also includes an investigation into the religious significance of historical events (e.g., the Holocaust) and general features of the cosmos (e.g., laws of nature, the emergence of conscious life, widespread testimony of religious significance, and so on)”[1] Chad Meister at The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines it as “ the philosophical study of the meaning and nature of religion. It includes the analyses of religious concepts, beliefs, terms, arguments, and practices of religious adherents.”[2]

The History of Philosophy of Religion

Now, Philosophy of religion has a very long history, going back to the Pre-Socratics. And it was an integral part of medieval philosophy, Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Abelard, Scotus, Ockham and so forth worked in the tradition of “faith seeking understanding”. They used philosophy as a conceptual tool to reflect upon, analyse, refine, the religious faith that they held and develop philosophically informed models of core religious doctrines, they also used it to respond to objections and critique rival views and develop arguments for the own for theological models they supported. Some of these reflections proved very fruitful.  The Islamic-Christian dialogue over Aristotle’s understanding of causation and how it related to miracles, and Gods causal activity in the world, for example, is profoundly influential on latter accounts of causation by people like David Hume and the concepts of laws of nature used by early modern scientists.

Perhaps lesser appreciated is the role of philosophy of religion during the enlightenment.  There is an unfortunate tendency in the history of philosophy not to appreciate the religious context in which important key thinkers of the enlightenment operated. Descartes cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am), for example, comes from Augustine’s response to sceptics about religious knowledge in the city of God Book 11: 26. Descartes immediately follows this up of course with an appeal to his own version of the ontological argument, proposed famously by Anselm of Canterbury.

Or consider John Locke, according to Locke’s associate James Tyrell, the impetus for Locke’s “Essay on human understanding” was a conversation  he, Locke and four others had on the topic of “the principles of morality and revealed religion.” Locke’s attempt to develop a comprehensive empiricist understanding of knowledge was an attempt to answer the question of faith and reason, a topic he explicitly addresses in the last section of the book. (Incidentally, it’s a section often skipped in contemporary courses on Locke.)

Or consider what a widely used textbook refers to as the “revolution in ethics” which occurred in the 18-19th centuries. Which the author, James Rachels, contends is due to Hume, Bentham and Mill. Rachel’s refers to as “A new conception of ethics”… “Morality, he [Bentham] urged is not a matter of pleasing God,  nor is it about following abstract rules, Rather, morality is nothing more than the attempt to bring about as much happiness as possible into the world”.[3]

Rachel’s is, of course, talking about utilitarianism. However, his characterisation of the history is quite selective. In 1715, some 74 years before Bentham, George Berkley had defended a rule utilitarian conception of ethics[4]Berkeley was a divine command theorist hat moral rightness, and wrongness consists in agreement and disagreement, respectively, with the will of God.  Because  God’s purposes were benevolent a God’s aim was to maximize the happiness of his creatures, so one could assume that whatever rules maximized happiness were those enjoined by God. Berkley used this theoretical account of God and morality to attempt to reconcile his Irish Anglican commitment to passive obedience with loyalty to the Glorious revolution during Jacobite uprisings in Ireland. Berkley’s “theological utilitarianism” was adopted by people like John Gay, Abraham Tucker and compiled by William Paley. Paley’s textbook defending this way of looking at ethics was the standard text at Cambridge and widely influential several years before Bentham published his defence of utilitarianism.

I could go on; my point is that Philosophy of religion has a long and prestigious history, even during the enlightenment and an important part of educating students about our history and the history of concepts that undergird much of the modern world involves acknowledging these connections rather than ignoring them.

[1] Charles Taliaferro “Philosophy of Religion”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[2] Chad Meister, “Philosophy of Religion” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[3] James Rachels The Elements of Moral Philosophy, (Random House: New York, 1993) 80

[4] For explication see Stephen Darwall, “Berkeley’s Moral and Political Philosophy” Kenneth Winkler (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Berkeley. Cambridge University Press. (2005) see also C. D. Broad, “Berkeley’s Theory of Morals” Revue Internationale de Philosophie, vol. 23-24 (1953):  72-86.


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