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Introducing the philosophy of religion
Introducing the philosophy of religion

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Philosophical and non-philosophical questions

Activity 3

Using the list below, try to decide how many of the questions are philosophical questions.

Make a note of the questions you’re sure about. If you’re not so sure, jot down the reasons you see for answering one way or the other. But whatever you put, notice your reasons for putting it! Then add your own questions to the list.

  • A.Does religion only cause trouble in the world?
  • B.Does God exist?
  • C.Could the world exist if God didn’t exist?
  • D.If God is good, why is there so much evil in the world?
  • E.Does religion depend on fear and brainwashing?
  • F.Are all religious people hypocrites?
  • G.Were Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King hypocrites?
  • H.Can you be a good person without being religious?
  • I.What difference does it make whether or not there is a God?
  • J.Are all religions basically the same?
  • K.Is religion something you can argue about, or just a matter of blind faith?
  • L.Is the world designed? If so, does that mean it must have a designer?
  • M.Can miracles happen?
  • N.Can we experience God?
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What makes any question a philosophical question? Different philosophers will say different things here. My own response is: a question is philosophical when it is a question about our own or somebody else’s world-view – about what really exists, about what we can know and how, about what is good or bad, right or wrong – and so on. (This vague ending ‘and so on’ is deliberate: there is a lot of overlap between philosophical questions and other sorts.)

I’d say that some of the questions identified above (A–N) are clearly philosophical questions. In this category are questions such as (B) ‘Does God exist?’, (C) ‘Could the world exist if God didn’t exist?’ and (D) ‘If God is good, why is there so much evil in the world?’ I think these questions are clearly philosophical, by which I mean this: you have no hope of answering them well without doing some philosophy.

I think other questions in the list are clearly not philosophical questions. Most obviously, question (G) ‘Were Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King hypocrites?’ is not a philosophical question. To answer (G), you don’t need to do philosophy; you need to do some biographical research. You need to find out about the life stories of Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, and see whether they lived hypocritically, or whether, on the contrary, they sincerely tried to practise in private what they preached in public.

The same is true of the more general, but still not philosophical, question (F), ‘Are all religious people hypocrites?’. To answer this question, what you need to do is a little dictionary work (what does ‘hypocrite’ mean?) and then, once more, some biographical research. If you can find just one religious person who is not a hypocrite, then the answer to (F) is ‘No’. This biographical exercise is not philosophy either. So (F) doesn’t count as a philosophical question any more than (G) did.

Now consider question (E), ‘Does religion depend on fear and brainwashing?’ and question (H), ‘Can you be a good person without being religious?’. Are these philosophical questions, or aren’t they?

Well, think about the different ways we might go about answering (E) or (H). One way would be to set up a statistical survey. We could take a sample of 1000 religious people, and see whether their motivations to be religious arose from fear or brainwashing. Or we could take a sample of 1000 good people, and headcount how many of them go to church/mosque/synagogue/temple/gurdwara/etc. If we answer (E) or (H) by these statistical means, then we are not treating them as philosophical questions.

Alternatively, we might try to answer (E) or (H) by closely examining the concepts (or ideas) involved. We might argue that ‘The very idea of religion has (or does not have) fear and brainwashing built into it’, or that ‘The very idea of being a good person is (or is not) a religious idea’. When we argue in this idea-based (conceptual) way, we are arguing in a philosophical way. Running this sort of inquiry is doing philosophy.

The moral is that there are some questions which you can approach either philosophically, or in other ways. (You can also approach them in both ways.) As you will see, philosophy does have its own distinctive means and methods. One of its characteristic methods is careful, logical argument – but, of course, that happens in other subjects as well as philosophy. Another is the close examination of ideas or concepts – ‘conceptual analysis’, as it is often called. But there is more than this to philosophy. Philosophy is not just about concepts of things, but about the things themselves as well. Moreover, philosophy (fortunately!) does not exist in isolation from every other kind of inquiry. Often it is so closely connected with other kinds of inquiry that it is an open question whether what you are doing counts as philosophy or not. As I said above, there is quite a lot of overlap between philosophy and adjacent subjects such as psychology, sociology, politics, science and theology.

This is a good thing, not a bad thing. It is something to bear in mind as you work through this course. It’s not a reason for thinking that the non-philosophical or less philosophical questions that we might raise about religion are uninteresting, or less interesting than the philosophical questions. But it is a reason – in a course about the philosophy of religion – for focusing on the philosophical questions about religion and God.