The Philosophy of Religion
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The Philosophy of Religion

A Critical Introduction

Beverley Clack, Brian R. Clack

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eBook - ePub

The Philosophy of Religion

A Critical Introduction

Beverley Clack, Brian R. Clack

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For over twenty years, Beverley Clack and Brian R. Clack's distinctive and thought-provoking introduction to the philosophy of religion has been of enormous value to students and scholars, providing an approach to the subject that is bold and refreshingly alternative.

This revised and updated edition retains the accessibility which makes the book popular, while furthering its distinctive argument regarding the human dimension of religion. The central emphasis of the philosophy of religion – the concept of God, and the arguments for and against God's existence – is reflected in thorough analyses, while alternative approaches to traditional philosophical theism are explored. The treatments of both the miraculous and immortality have been revised and expanded, and the concluding chapter updates the investigation of how philosophy of religion might be conducted in an age defined by religious terrorism.

Clear, systematic and highly critical, the third edition of The Philosophy of Religion will continue to be essential reading for students and scholars of this fascinating and important subject.

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Religious Belief and the Philosophy of Religion

This book is an introduction to the philosophy of religion. It aims to provide a grounding in the central questions about religion which have concerned philosophers for two and a half thousand years. These questions include such matters as whether it can be demonstrated that a god exists; whether belief in that god is compatible with the appalling amount of suffering which we see around us in the world; whether there is a life after death; whether religion can be explained away as a dream of the human mind; and so on. Before we can embark upon these questions, however, we must gain some understanding of what our subject-matter is. In other words, when we engage in the philosophy of religion, what are we philosophizing about?

I What is Religion?

When thinking about religion there is always the danger of focusing only on the religion that is dominant in one’s own culture. We may call this the ‘Parson Thwackum Error’, after Thwackum’s remark in Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones: ‘when I mention religion I mean the Christian religion; and not only the Christian religion, but the Protestant religion; and not only the Protestant religion, but the Church of England.’ The Catholic theologian Tina Beattie makes a similar point when she suggests the problem of ‘protestantizing’ the study of religion. According to Beattie, this Protestant influence is evident in the desire to equate ‘religion’ solely with belief, thus ignoring the issue of practice: a theme to which we will return later.1
This tendency to confuse the Christian religion with religion per se is not an uncommon phenomenon within the philosophy of religion. This is largely because the questions and problems typically encountered within this discipline are drawn, if not exclusively from Christianity, at least from the Judaeo-Christian tradition. These problems tend to focus on the issues raised by belief in a supremely perfect being, a being who is all-powerful, all-knowing and of a loving disposition towards humanity. Indeed, such matters inevitably form the substantial part of this book. Nevertheless, it would undoubtedly be erroneous to think that the problems of religion were entirely equivalent to the problems of theistic belief. For example, the very title of T. J. Mawson’s introductory text on the philosophy of religion – Belief in God (2005) – implies that the problems of the philosophy of religion are exhausted once the nature of theistic belief has been analysed, evaluated and justified. But to think of theistic content as constituting the very essence, or heart, of religion is not uncontroversial. It is, indeed, deeply problematic, as can be seen if we turn our attention to a crucial debate within religious studies, that concerning the definition of the word ‘religion’. Definitional issues rarely cause as much controversy as they have done in the case of religion, and the details of this debate may be fruitful in evaluating whether it is correct to adopt the (albeit natural) thought that religion is in essence a certain variety of belief.
How would you define ‘religion’?
When we turn to the literature concerning the definition of religion, we find that there have been two main approaches to this issue: the substantive and the functionalist. According to the first, religion is to be defined in terms of its (theistic) belief content. The most familiar of substantive definitions was offered by the Victorian anthropologist E. B. Tylor (1832–1917), who defined religion simply as the ‘belief in Spiritual Beings’.2 For Tylor, religion centres on a belief in the supernatural, on the belief that alongside the world of mundane things (humans, animals, inanimate objects) there exists a realm of super-empirical beings (spirits or gods). Where we find the belief in gods, therefore, we have religion; where that belief is lacking, religion is likewise absent. It is, of course, none too difficult to find fault with Tylor’s minimal definition. For many aspects of a person’s religious experience have here been ignored (the social, collective and ritual elements; the emotional and affective content), while, at the same time, beliefs which would not generally be classified as religious (a belief in ghosts, say) would – by virtue of their reference to spiritual beings – have to be included in this category. Evidently, something has gone wrong.
The failure of Tylor’s definition should not, however, by itself lead to the rejection of the substantive approach altogether. A reformulation of this type of definition, and one addressing the shortcomings just highlighted, was put forward by Melford E. Spiro, who has defined religion as ‘an institution consisting of culturally patterned interaction with culturally postulated superhuman beings’.3 It can readily be seen how Spiro’s definition is an improvement upon that of Tylor. He stresses that religion is an attribute of social groups (a cultural institution, rather than merely an individual person’s idiosyncratic beliefs), and that it involves the person in perceived ‘interactive’ relations with the objects of his or her beliefs (through actions such as rituals and prayers, as well as adherence to a moral code and a value system, believed to reflect the desires of the gods). Though there is a strong emphasis placed here on the active and institutional elements of religion (rather than on seeing it as a merely passive belief), Spiro is insistent that the factor which must be present for any system to count as a religious system is the reference to superhuman beings. Religion differs from other cultural institutions only by virtue of this reference to the supernatural.
The substantive type of definition undeniably has its strengths. If we take the three great monotheistic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) as our model examples, the characterization of religion as fundamentally an organized belief in spiritual beings seems appropriate, for in these faiths we find reference to such entities as a creator God, angels and demons, jinn, and so on. On the other hand, when we broaden our field of vision and consider religions other than those of a monotheistic type, we discover the substantive approach to be inadequate. In Eastern systems of belief, such as Jainism and (at least some varieties of) Buddhism, we find a conspicuous absence of the belief in gods and powerful spirits (or at the very least an attitude of indifference towards their existence). Confronted with this, the substantivist would be forced to deny that these systems count as religions, which would be rather embarrassing, considering that textbooks on world religions typically contain chapters on these faiths. If, moreover, consideration is paid to the features of what are termed ‘New Religious Movements’ – including such things as Scientology and est (Erhard Seminars Training) – we find likewise that the element of the supernatural is (at the very least) underplayed. And if there is any truth in the contention of William Robertson Smith (1846–94) that ‘religion in primitive times was not a system of belief 
 [but] a body of fixed traditional practices’,4 then our scepticism would be complete. For if the earliest, original form of religion had no belief element whatsoever, it would surely be misleading to define religion – to see its essence – in terms of belief.
Unease about the value of substantive definitions may lead one to embrace functionalism. As its name indicates, a functionalist definition operates by laying its stress on the functions rather than the belief content of religious systems. The functionalist contends that what is essential in religion is not the content of its doctrines (and certainly not belief in the supernatural), but rather the role it plays in society, the way in which religion serves to bind together the members of a community into one coherent whole. This makes a functionalist definition true to the etymology of the word ‘religion’, which may stem from the Latin religare (‘to bind’). This emphasis on the socially unifying qualities was pioneered by Robertson Smith, who succinctly claimed that religion ‘did not exist for the saving of souls but for the welfare and preservation of society’,5 while these insights were first put into a full functionalist definition of religion by Émile Durkheim (1858–1917): ‘A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.’6
Another functionalist definition is to be found in the work of J. M. Yinger. Yinger’s claim is that what distinguishes a religion from a non-religious institution is its concern with what is ultimate. Politics, for example, is focused on non-ultimate ends, dealing with such matters as how a nation can defend itself, feed itself, maintain law and order, ensure justice for all, and so on. These political concerns spring from non-ultimate facts of human life; ultimate concerns, on the other...

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