Philosophy of Religion vs. Theology

In a recent survey, the results found that a lot of philosophy of religion is being done in seminaries. The takeaway? Seminaries inevitably ‘view’ philosophy of religion as apologetical in nature, which is not shocking. That’s not philosophy: that’s theology. Even philosophical theology is theology. Now, I’m not here to give my opinion on the discipline of theology.

What I am saying is that philosophy has different goals. For instance, philosophy follows the argument/explanation/evidence wherever it leads. It does not start with a conclusion and work backwards to defend it at every turn. But that’s exactly what we see with many of these seminaries. They make professors sign a statement of faith (see link above). So, persons like William Lane Craig aren’t doing philosophy of religion (or philosophy at all for that matter). They’re doing apologetics and theology. (1)(2).

Moving Forward

But what are some others marks of the way philosophy of religion should be done? Well, it needs to focus more on conceptual clarity and asking questions that lead to fruitful research programs, new academic fields, and testable claims. Experimental philosophy of religion is particularly useful because it challenges intuitions of many philosophers of religion; experimental philosophy of religion also forces philosophers of religion to deal with empirical facts that impact their theoretical models. Philosophy of religion should not just solely focus on trying to derive contradictions (if at all), and it should definitely NOT ever try to define things into existence–like the ontological argument for God.

My second suggestion is far more controversial to some. The suggestion is that philosophy of religion should start moving away from discussing supernaturalism. More specifically, it should start to move away from discussing personal gods, which includes Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. It’s neither here nor there that many philosophers of religion refuse to give up their personalistic theistic beliefs (i.e. God as Personal or God as a person). Why do I say all of this about supernaturalism and theism? What are my reasons? For a start, see here, here, here, here, and here.

Thirdly, philosophers of religion need to stop defending things that are simply false or pseudoscience. For example, libertarian free will does not exist (nor do ‘souls’). (3) And even if it was a coherent notion, which is questionable, one can’t just assume that it is something that would obviously be a part of the actual world or a (particular) possible world. Also there’s a common but dubious assumption that if libertarian free will doesn’t exist, then we live in a toy world and are all robots. What I am saying is that there comes a point where we have to accept the facts and evidence, otherwise we are becoming truth-deniers or schizophrenic.

Fourthly, philosophers of religion should stop relying on dogmatic tradition and authority. This includes the Bible, creeds, and so on. Why? Because that’s theology.


Philosophy is science; philosophy is a science, whether that science be social, formal, etc. Therefore, philosophers of religion better start acting like philosophy is a science. Otherwise, they aren’t doing philosophy. Instead, they are rattling off sophistry and engaging in apologetics. (4)


(1)We also see things like motivated reasoning, for example, “skeptical theism”.

(2) Philosophy of religion has some serious problems in its narrow focus on certain topics, the large presence of apologetics, the presence of topics that have been ruled pseudoscience, (e.g. demons, hell, prayer, souls, etc) and the presence of cognitive biases.

(3) The same can be said about defenses of petitionary prayer, defenses of the probable existence of an afterlife, and defenses of the resurrection of Jesus.

(4) Should philosophy of religion continue to be practiced in the university? That’s a topic for another post.


6 thoughts on “Philosophy of Religion vs. Theology

  1. Thank you for your thought-provoking post.

    It seems to me that there is a hell (!) of a lot of information and complex erudition in the areas of physics, information theory, logic and complexity science which could have direct consequences for any philosophical investigation of the plausibility of (a) God. Supernaturalism is self-evidently an appeal to an unjustifiably metaphysical (and consequently – unprovable) reflexively narcissistic wish-fulfillment.

    The separate analytical streams of religion as self-propagating information system and religion as aspiration towards Divinity are regularly confused. A key problem might be that all allegedly or aspirationally philosophical work done within the banner and encapsulating embrace of religious contexts is always already applying deference and submission to conventional culturally-acquired wisdom and rote-learned or unquestioned narratives, beyond the validity or the provability of any of those concepts. Religious studies in this sense are not different from a lot of other academic (or pseudo-academic) disciplines. The continuity of the system of thought becomes more important than the subject to which it was originally addressed.

    The area of logical unprovability, uncertainty, entropy in information systems and the self-propagating bias of patterned order within complex systems is actually a fertile source for philosophical reflection on the topic of Divinity. It is a curious fact that organised religion is as likely (or is inevitably predisposed) to lag behind scientific and technological developments in human knowledge as are the great leviathan bureaucracies and administrations of our era.

  2. Skeptic Thinking Power

    I feel like you just gave your top 5 arguments for Atheism with the links. I do feel that Evil, Hiddenness, Simplicity, Low Priors, and Religious Disagreement make a fairly strong case for Atheism. Perhaps we could make an acronym out of this like Frank Turek does with C.R.I.M.E.S

  3. animartco

    I loved your point about applying deference and submission. I remember at a philosophy tutorial the tutor discovered that he had a catholic priest among the students and he suddenly went all deferential. He really seemed to think that the knowledge of a priest was above that of a philosopher, and he allowed the priest to take the class in a new direction.

    1. Philosophy of Religion blog (Does God Exist?)

      That’s unfortunate. I’ve always had the opposite experience where Philosophy instructors say, “We are here to reason and look at arguments, not appeal to holy books or tradition”.

  4. There’s a lot wrong with this post. Right off the bat you say “For instance, philosophy follows the argument/explanation/evidence wherever it leads. It does not start with a conclusion and work backwards to defend it at every turn. ”

    You’ve obviously read/reviewed Feser’s “Five proofs of the existence of God” and so you know for a fact that Feser is doing philosophy. He does not assume a conclusion, but rather builds an arguments from premises. You probably also know that Feser 1. does not teach at a seminary 2. did not get his PhD at a seminary and 3. was an atheist when he started graduate school. Similar things could be said about others in the field, like David Oderberg.

    So you are committing a poisoning the well fallacy right away by insinuating that anyone who argues for, say, Catholicism is some biased, non-scholarly hack whose not doing real philosophy. And saying that “well I didn’t find Feser convincing” doesn’t change the fact that you’ve committed this ad hominem fallacy.

    Next, you make a number of baseless assertions regarding libertarian free will and souls. Yes, the majority of philosophers subscribe to neither (and just as many accept libertarian free will as accept determinism) but that make them false, and it certainly does not mean we should not discuss them.

    Finally, and most problematically, you argue for shutting down all sorts of discussion about all sorts of topics because you happen not to find them important or interesting. Just because someone argues to a conclusion you don’t like does not mean we should force that person to switch departments or shut down entire disciplines like philosophy of religion.

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