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What is Philosophy of Religion?
An Interpretive Profile


Taoist (Chinese religion) Yin-Yang symbol

B. Historical Context

The term philosophy of religion is relatively recent, originating in the late 1700s as a replacement and precise specification of earlier terms such as natural religion, natural theology, and philosophical theology. Occasionally the term philosophical theology is employed interchangeably with philosophy of religion. However, this usage is erroneous and misleading because philosophical theology is more often than not an attempt to systematically clarify, defend, and develop theological dogmas by means of philosophical methods and modes of thought. In contrast, the term philosophy of religion should be restricted to the critical examination of religion as such and should not explicitly defend (historically called apologetics) the alleged truth of one specific religion.

B. Distinguishing Philosophy of Religion from Other Theoretical Approaches to Religion

The philosophy of religion is a particular theoretical approach to the study of religion that should not be confused with other related yet distinct approaches, including:

  • Religious apologetics
  • Sociology of religion
  • Psychology of religion
  • Dogmatic theology
  • Anthropology of religion
  • Phenomenology of religion
  • History of religions)
  • Religious studies

C. General Definition and Characteristics of Philosophy of Religion

1. General Definition

Philosophy of religion adopts a specific theoretical attitude toward religion that applies several philosophical methods to a number of interrelated problems intrinsic to religion as such (or to a specific religion).

2. Theoretical Attitude

Philosophy of religion applies a theoretical or hypothetical attitude toward religion. In contrast to a dogmatic attitude, the theoretical attitude suspends or brackets judgment (Greek, epochē) regarding the truth or falsity, validity or invalidity, of hitherto unquestioned values, norms and facts. In other words, it does not presuppose the truth of any religious tradition. In this respect it is comparable to the reflective and hypothetical attitude often adopted in adolescence.* Similarly, during adolescence religious and moral beliefs, social norms, scientific facts, and traditional values are often hypothetically theoretized, i.e., their truth-status is put in question pending further critical examination and evaluation. Accordingly, a theoretical attitude toward religion includes the following intellectual qualities:

  • impartial judgment
  • evidential reasoning
  • conceptual clarity
  • critically evaluative
  • comprehensiveness
  • historical sensitivity
  • theoretical precision

3. Philosophical Methods

  • analysis and clarification of conceptual meaning
  • historical understanding or interpretation
  • theoretical clarification of formal structures among religions
  • logical analysis and evaluation of arguments
  • comparative analysis of diverse religions
  • epistemological examination of religious knowledge claims and evidence
  • comprehensive inquiry into all religions (in principle not provincial or ethnocentric)
  • inductive reasoning
  • deductive reasoning

4. Problem Areas

  • definition of religion
  • concepts of God (coherence and consistency of the diverse concepts of God)
  • existence of God (does God exist or not)
  • immortality (life after death)
  • miracles and natural laws (supernaturalism in general)
  • mysticism (its nature and truth-status)
  • relation between religion and science (contradictory, complementary, or compatible)
  • relation between faith and reason (antithetical or compatible)
  • nature and evidential value of religious experience
  • nature and relevance of evil for a religious worldview (German, Weltanschauung)
  • is morality dependent upon or independent of religion
  • meaning, use, and truth-status of religious language
  • was the universe created supernaturally or did it evolve naturally

Cf. Jürgen Habermas, Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, trans. Christian Lenhardt and Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990.