What is the Point of Philosophy of Religion?

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How would your life change if you knew, beyond a doubt, that God (an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good divine person) existed? How would the world change if we discovered irrefutable evidence or a deductive proof that such a being was real?

Not that much I think.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God repeatedly demonstrates His power and presence to the Israelites time after time in the Old Testament. What is the result? The Israelites obey God for a time, but repeatedly fall back into disobedience. God then allows the Israelites to come under attack and oppression, at which point they return to obedience, and for a time, there is peace and joy in the land. However, the Israelites fall back into disobedience, and the cycle repeats. Again. And again. And again… Did knowing that God existed bring about changed hearts and minds in the Israelites? For the vast majority, no. Mere belief that God existed was not enough to bring about change in their lives. It was not enough to reconcile them to God. God was not content that the Israelites merely believed He existed.

Consider an example closer to home. How often do (or did) we disobey our parents, even though we knew that they loved us and that they had our best interests at heart? How many times have we hurt our spouses, accidentally or deliberately, despite our commitment to love them and in the knowledge that they love us? Have we ever betrayed our friends for our own personal gain? In these cases, we know that these people exist, and for the most part, we know that they love and care for us. Yet that often is not enough to keep us from hurting them and to keep us in loving relationship with them. Are these people only interested in our acknowledgement that they exist? Do they not care about our relationship with them?

What does God want?

Consider James 2:19-20 (NIV): “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?” In the context of what I am discussing here, I might paraphrase this passage as saying that mere belief that God exists without a loving relationship with God is useless, pointless, and of no value. God’s angelic enemies believe He exists, yet that is not enough to reconcile them to God. It does not bring them into loving relationship with Him.

Clearly, what God desires is not mere belief that He exists. God wants us (human beings) to go beyond mere belief and to come into loving relationship with Him, a relationship of love, trust, and obedience. Just as our spouses, friends, and parents would not be content with our mere belief that they exist, so God is not content with mere belief that He exists. His goal is to bring us into a loving relationship with Him.

Why does this matter? In my observance of the study of philosophy of religion, many philosophers seem to proceed as though God’s main objective is to get us to believe He exists. For those already convinced of God’s existence, they view it as their duty to come up with arguments to prove beyond a doubt that God exists. I think this is misguided.

Clearly, if God’s main goal is to get us all to believe that He exists, He has done a terrible job. Operating under this assumption, since such a being could easily get us all to believe He exists (i.e., think of any miracle or demonstration of power that would convince you God exists), and since we do not all believe He exists, one should conclude that God does not exist.

But this is a bad assumption, and I think the foregoing reflection explains why. Mere belief is of little value in terms of fostering a loving relationship. It is necessary for this (since we have to believe a person exists before we can have a relationship with him or her), but hardly sufficient. In fact, a definitive proof of God’s existence may generate the opposite response that God desires. Would not many of us rebel against God (as the Israelites and demons did), preferring to do our own thing and living our own way? Consequently, providing a definitive irrefutable proof that God exists so that we should all merely believe that God exists does not seem to be God’s goal.

Implications for Philosophy of Religion

What then is the purpose of philosophy of religion? I do not think it is to come up with an irrefutable proof for God’s existence. Why?

First, I do not think such a thing is possible. For anyone who has studied philosophy with any seriousness, one knows that deductive arguments regarding anything of substance do not exist. Or even if they did, it would be debatable whether it was valid and sound (e.g., Plantinga’s Modal Argument). At best, philosophical arguments regarding one position versus another can bring to light what one is committed to in adhering to a certain position, which bullets one has to bite, and thus, which view overall is the most reasonable and likely to be true (of course, this itself will be the subject of disagreement).

Second, even if it were possible, the above reflection suggests that this does not get God what He wants from us, i.e., a loving relationship with us of trust and obedience.

Thus, for believing philosophers of religion, the goal of philosophy of religion ought to be to argue for the reasonableness of belief in God, but never forgetting that this is hardly the end goal. Such arguments ought to serve as a means of defending belief in God and it’s reasonableness, but they should also encourage others to try to know God and to not simply know about God.

I also think that such reflections should influence the context in which discussions about what an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good being would do (and consequently, what we should expect such a being to do). My idea of what an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good being would do is likely very different from your view of what an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good being would do. How do we reconcile these differences? Since these divine characteristics can be invoked to justify many courses of action by such a being, I think it is instructive to think about God’s purposes in interacting with us and what His objectives would be. What does God want from us? This will fill out the context of discussion by narrowing the possibilities of what an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good being would do. Otherwise, any arguments about what God would do will take place largely in a vacuum. We need more context.

I have given a possible context through my reflection up above (other contexts are possible, particularly from other faith traditions). The reflection above constrains arguments about what we would expect (the Judeo-Christian) God to do in the following way: any expectation of what God would do in which the expected action does not further God’s ends in fostering a loving relationship with us as individuals and as a whole is an illegitimate expectation, and cannot be used to argue against His existence.

An analogy: A child concludes that his parents do not exist because they will not buy him a candy bar. The child reasons that (relative to him), an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good parent would buy him a candy bar. Since he does not have a candy bar, these parents must lack one of these qualities or they must not exist at all (perhaps they are figments of his imagination). Not wanting to give up one of these divine qualities, the child concludes that his parents do not exist.

Why does the child make a bad conclusion? Because we know that a loving parent will not always give his or her child a candy bar, and will often do other things that seem confusing or unloving to the child. However, this only makes sense in the assumed context that the parent is acting in the best interest of the child (e.g., protecting the child’s health, fostering self control) and trying to create a loving relationship with the child (e.g., developing trust, obedience, care). In a different context however, the child’s conclusion may be legitimate. As such, the context is necessary to arrive at one conclusion or another since the qualities of the parent underdetermine his or her actions.

Similarly, any expectations that God will cure cancer by the thousands, cause bread to fall from the sky on the hungry, and allow all believers to walk through walls and call down lightning upon evildoers must be judged by the context of furthering God’s ends of fostering a loving relationship with us. And as I have argued up above, these miracles and signs have not and would not bring about God’s ends. Jesus himself (God incarnate as Christians claim) healed many during his ministry and performed many other miracles. Instead of following him, most people called for, and were granted, his crucifixion. Why should we expect anything different in our day?

Conclusion

Arguments for God’s existence have their place, but I have argued above that mere belief is not God’s end goal. Nor should it be the end goal of the believing philosopher of religion. God’s goal is to bring individuals and humanity as a whole into loving relationship with Him. As such, the believing philosopher of religion ought to understand and argue for God’s existence within this context. Such a context can be used to defend against illegitimate expectations about what God would do and through these expectations a denial of God’s existence.

For more philosophical writings on this sort of approach to philosophy of religion, see, for example, Paul K. Moser’s many articles and books on religious epistemology.

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