Philosophy and Religion course taken Spring Semester of 2012-2013 school year.
Here you will find links to the essays I wrote over the duration of this course, and my final reflections on each essay.
From the syllabus:
“The main goal of this course is to confront what is probably the greatest intellectual challenge facing any serious person who thinks and feels deeply about religion. Why should you believe? The answer is far from clear for two reasons. First, there are a large number of competing religions claims, advance by religions that are vastly different, and even by the various sects within a single religious tradition. Strictly speaking, these competing claims are logically inconsistent – they cannot all be true. Which of these, if any, should you believe? The second problem for those serious about religion is the rational basis of religious belief. Only a little reflection shows that the reasons, if any, that can be given in support of religious belief are quite different from the sort of reasons we give to support our belief in facts about the natural world. Religious “justifications” – and appeals to “faith” alone are quite different from the sort of empirical or rational arguments we offer to support our belief in the facts of daily life or in the more formal results of science and mathematics. Why is there this difference? What is the difference exactly between reason and faith? In particular, what is the relation of reason and faith to genuine knowledge about the world and our place in it, and to our personal morality that governs what we think of as right and wrong?”
Essay #1: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam
Reflection: Religion fills various roles in our lives. Of particular interest to philosophy are its metaphysical and ethical claims. The major Western religions make profound claims about the nature of reality, and about morality, about what we are ethically bound to do and not to do. The task of the student of philosophy is to investigate whether any of these claims are true. My first task, then, was to become familiar at least in outline, with the central claims of the major Western religions. This topic is rich and varied. It encompasses much of the history of Western thought, and has pressed to the limit some of the greatest mind that have every exited. My task was limited. It was to obtain an appreciation for the key beliefs of the various religions on the nature of reality and on what is right and wrong. As intellectuals we must be clear about what a religion claims to be true before we can judge whether they are true. Students come to the university with varying backgrounds, and very few have a good grasp on the beliefs of traditions different from their own. Many do not even know their own tradition very well. In Part I of the course we went through the 2000 years of religious beliefs so we can focus later in the course on its more fundamental propositions that are shared by the major Western religions. It soon becomes evident that listing the “articles of faith” – the “creed” – of a religion is no easy task. The beliefs of a religious tradition are rooted in history, having evolved over many centuries, with a good deal of controversy and disagreement. There is not one Christian creed, but rather different belief-sets proffered by rival sects and even by the same sect over time. There is a similar diversity in Judaism and Islam. As reading for this class I made use of the internet, which contains good review articles on religious doctrine and history, including the special religious texts fundamental to the different traditions.
Essay #2: The Teleological Argument
Reflection: Historically, all the major religious traditions have divided on the worth of investigating reason. The “rationalists,” on one side, hold we should bring the same standards to bear on assessing claims to religious knowledge as we do in science and daily life. Opposed to the rationalist is the mystical tradition, which holds that reason and scientific thinking is somehow irrelevant to religious belief. We discussed mysticism and the limits of reason in Part IV of the course, but Parts II and III dealt with the rational approach. This approach holds that if a religious claim does not meet the standards of ordinary knowledge or of the scientific method, it should be rejected. A sub-variety of this view holds that religion and science are compatible and overlap. This view in fact prevailed among most educated religious thinkers prior to the upheaval caused in the mid 19th century by Darwin’s theory of evolution and the subsequent successes in modern materialist physics and chemistry. It is fair to say that until the 20th century the vast majority of serious religious thinkers were rationalist of some form other and thought that religion and science were both compatible and mutually supportive. This is not to say that they found it easy to reconcile religion with reason. Every serious student of religion today should be familiar with this “rationalist” literature. Part II of the course, therefore, focused on the most basic of religious claims: that God exists. We studied four of the traditional arguments for the existence of God. Our textbook, which sets out this material, is by J.L. Mackie, one of the best analytical philosophers to write on philosophical theology in recent decades. I chose the Teleological Argument for the existence of God to write about in my second paper for this course.
Essay #3: The Problem of Evil and Free Will
Reflection: One of the great religious mysteries is the problem of evil. How is the existence of an all powerful, all knowing, and all loving deity consistent with the existence of physical and moral evil? What is a deity’s purpose in permitting moral evil and human suffering? We read major parts of the Leibniz’s Theodicy, perhaps the most famous classic in philosophy that attempts to justify God’s tolerance of worldly evil. Ancient philosophers, more or less, thought that the cosmos was governed by chaos or necessity, even the actions of humans. Religious thinkers, however, introduced the concept of free will. The view had two parts. First, God is free. He created the world and humans, not because he had to, but because he was benevolent. The Christians also believe that God became man and did so voluntarily. If Jesus had been forced to sacrifice himself by necessity, there would be no virtue in the incarnation and redemption, and hence these acts could not have merited compensation for the sin of Adam. Second, humans too are free. They are free to choose to do right or wrong. If they were not free, but had to do what they did or did so by chance, then they could not be held personally responsible for the good or ill they did. Heaven and hell as reward and punishment would not make any sense. But these views about freedom clash with the view that God is omniscient. If I will sin, then God knows it. If he knows it, it must be true. It therefore seems to be necessary that I will sin. How is that consistent with free will? My approach to these topics was critical and rational – because this is a course in philosophy that uses rational inquiry as its method for justifying its conclusions and because religious thinkers themselves have tried to puzzle out these mysteries using reason. My job was to see whether the arguments for God’s existence and the solution to the problems of evil and free will are convincing as science or philosophy.
Essay #4: Mysticism Vs. Reason
Reflection: The second major approach to religious belief is mysticism, the view that religion is outside the province of reason. We should believe in God, these traditions hold, even if religious doctrine is not support by science or reason, even if science and reason are inconsistent with religious claims. We should believe – they say – even in the teeth of rational refutation. Mysticism has had major supporters in all the world’s religions. In various forms, some of which are so watered down that they are difficult to spot, it dominates religion in America today. Mysticism has in fact produced some of the most beautiful and, some would say, the most profound art and literature. Mystical art and writing is something that every educated person, religious or otherwise, should know, and we discussed some of this in class. We concluded the course by what is claimed to be a new insight: religion is not about belief at all. This view holds that faith is not a rival of science. The claim is that faith is not a matter of affirming belief in propositions or “articles of faith” understood as claims about the true nature of reality or morality. Rather, faith is an attitude or feeling towards action. It is a stance we take towards life that is in some way prior to or independent of reason. These views say that religion has nothing at all to with creeds or belief systems, and that the entire clash alleged to hold between faith and reason is the result of a misconception of what faith is all about. These are very interesting ideas indeed, but, as we shall see, they make religion into something that many of its practitioners over the ages would not recognize.