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What Hath Jerusalem to do with Athens: On Faith and Reason

Philosopher Gary Gutting of the University of Notre Dame in an article for the New York Times’ blog The Stone explores the relationship between religious faith and philosophical inquiry. His topic resonated with me as I had an impassioned discussion with my father over this very question recently. The path of discourse seems to be a well-worn one. Just as Gutting explained how he challenges his mostly Catholic undergraduates to think about why they hold religious belief, I found the discussion with my father exploring a variety of similar topics including religious diversity, the problem of evil, philosophical arguments for and against God’s existence and inevitably personal faith. Problems with personal faith Personal faith. The term itself admits of an impenetrable epistemic keep. As Gutting observes, playing the “faith card” tends to be a discussion-stopper. Instead of having to wade through the morass of complex issues and incomprehensible philosophical jargon, faith leaps over the complexity and lands the claimant on apparently firm ground from which he waves confidently at the poor sap stuck in the confusion he just avoided. I understand this move very well as I employed it for years. But grounding religious belief on faith alone ends up creating a series of difficulties itself. While employing faith as an epistemic trampoline one may leap over the philosophical mire, she finds on the other side not solid ground but a sinkhole. The argument goes something like this. Either reason is the ground for religious belief or faith is. Reason cannot be the ground for religious belief. Therefore, faith must be. The reasons given for accepting the second premise tend to have to do either with a postmodernization of truth or are based on a polemic involving the corruption of the human mind and the inability of human reason to get at truths about things eternal. Gutting explains how he quickly is able to show his students that no philosophical, scientific, or historical arguments have been given that conclusively settle questions about specific religious truth claims. The essence of this claim is about an authoritarian juxtaposition: faith is on one side and reason is on the other. To affirm reason as the final arbiter of truth, one places the person and his or her ability to use reason as the epistemic authority. To affirm faith is to place God as the final authority. (Don’t ask me how that’s supposed to work exactly but that’s how it’s been explained to me.) Since human beings are fallen and unable to see God through the light of reason, faith must be the final bulwark against skepticism or atheism. But immediate problems arise. There is an initial challenge that is both simple on the surface and becomes more complex the more it is explored. If one is going to exercise faith in a God or religion, in which God or religion does one exercise faith? It’s a rather obvious fact that people generally have faith in the religion that is the closest to them. If you grew up in the West, you will have a much greater tendency to have faith in the Judeo-Christian God. The object of faith tends to become what is epistemically a live option for us. Yet most monotheisms teach that through faith we come to believe in the true God. But if one exercises faith in the only God or religion one has available at the time of commitment then it’s difficult to see how faith is truth-conducive. Yes, but . . . I’ve encountered two classes of responses to this problem. The first, and most prominent, is to cite evidence for God’s existence or the truth of Christianity. “I believe in this God because there is good evidence that proves this God exists.” To general arguments against God’s existence, believers may respond with logical problems associated with disbelief. Gutting captures the idea in this typical response by his students, “’Well, if there’s no God,’ they say, ‘how can you explain why anything at all exists or why the world is governed by such precise laws of nature?’” But this response lands one right back in the morass she was trying to avoid. Reason now becomes the final arbiter: I have faith in the God for which there is the most evidence: reason chooses the “right” God then one exercises faith in that God. Once this move is made, the honest person will have to contend with the messy rational arguments for and against God’s existence or for and against one’s religion. “This seems to bring us back to where we started.” as Gutting notes. The other class of responses avoids this difficulty by rejecting the dilemma. What I’ll refer to as the existential response rejects the idea that truth plays any role in the decision to exercise faith. Faith indeed is blind and genuine faith must be blind. I posed the religious diversity problem above to an existentialist friend of mine. I asked him how, if faith is all that is required when grounding religious belief, one should decide which God to believe in. He, an admitted Christian, answered, “It doesn’t matter.” He explained that the very question I posed is misguided. Faith is not about deciding to believe in a particular God, it’s about believing in God. When religion—any religion—is a live option for a person, he or she must make the choice whether to exercise faith and that alone is what matters. An Existentialist Response This response may sound puzzling at first particularly when you consider that it may come from someone who confesses allegiance to a particular religious faith. It is quite sophisticated however and comes from the thought of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. He attempted to change the angle from which the problem is viewed so that the puzzle dissolves. Kierkegaard argued that reason could not be used to decide the truth of matters of religion. He did not deny reason’s ability to get to truth because of some inability of the mind. Rather, he said that questions of religion and theology are so complex and difficult when viewed through the lens of reason that it would take a lifetime to sort through all the evidence and to decipher all the arguments. Even if one had a lifetime, one may not get to a conclusion that decides the matter. Gutting makes a similar point in his article. Regarding the role of philosophical arguments in deciding matters about God’s existence, he writes, “There is no disagreement among philosophers about the more popular arguments to which theists and atheists typically appeal: as formulated, they do not prove (that is, logically derive from uncontroversial premises) what they claim to prove. They are clearly inadequate in the judgment of qualified professionals.  Further, there are no more sophisticated formulations that theists or atheists can accept — the way we do scientific claims — on the authority of expert consensus. In these popular debates about God’s existence, the winners are neither theists nor atheists, but agnostics — the neglected step-children of religious controversy, who rightly point out that neither side in the debate has made its case.” There’s a problem here says Kierkegaard. Agnosticism for relatively “trivial matters” like whether there is alien life or black holes is perfectly acceptable. If one goes to his grave undecided about the truth of life on other planets, there is no great consequence. But matters of religion are not trivial. They are, in the words of Paul Tillich, matters of “ultimate concern.” Agnosticism about matters such as these could prove eternally fatal. Since reason is unable to help us sort the matter out, one must take a leap of faith. One must decide to believe in God and commit one’s whole life to Him to avoid the abyss of indecision. But doesn’t this land us right back to the problem I raised earlier? Which God do I choose? Again here, Kierkegaard’s position is that we’re asking the wrong question. Faith is less like a choice between wrong and right and more like a commitment in which one is faithful or disloyal. In fact, exercising faith in God is similar to falling in love. In agape, reason is a non-starter. One does not tend to rationalize love (or if one does, it’s fails to be love). One does not consider all the arguments and wade through tons of evidence before deciding with whom they will fall in love. Most of the time, people know very little about the person. They, in a very real respect, take a leap of faith. Likewise, it’s odd to speak about the “right” person where “right” means I should love this one person and it would be wrong to love any other person. While we romanticize about our “soul mate” and talk as if we’re looking for the one person fate or God has chosen for me, in reality, most people have a range of options and there isn’t one single person for whom we must look. Similarly, we don’t have the option of love anyone. We typically fall in love with a person who is in close proximity; with those who are live options for us. Faith is very much the same primarily because faith, according to existentialism, is about a relationship not about adhering to a formal religious system (which Kierkegaard abhorred). The God one relates to is the God that is nearest, the one that is a live option. The person must choose to love or to reject that God. This, according to the existentialists is the essence of faith. He lives within my heart While this approach may provide a way out of the quagmire of reason, notice that it also completely privatizes faith. Faith no longer an object of public consumption or, more importantly, influence. People of like faith can come together and commune but that community has no epistemic ground to challenge another’s belief or even disbelief. In fact, this is locus of the postmodernization of religion. Postmodern epistemology focuses on the idea of truth as a product of community agreement. Within the community there is truth. But there is no such thing as Truth that transcends a particular community and applies to all communities. Gutting closes his article discussing the Reformed epistemology of Alvin Plantinga. While Plantinga is not a postmodernist or an existentialist, Gutting observes that while Plantinga’s epistemology may ground a rational belief in God, it does not help specify which God or which religion is true. “Believers may have strong feelings of certainty, but each religion rejects the certainty of all the others, which leaves us asking why they privilege their own faith.” Or, we could add, having faith at all. At this point, it seems that reason must play a role if one is to make strong claims that their faith community is the “right” one or the “true” one and the expect others to agree with them. Indeed, this has been a fundamental concern of modern atheists. Some religious communities have eschewed their privatized status and gone public. Many also eschew reason and are using force--either in the form of physical force or legal force—to get others to accept their claims. When reason isn’t an option, force is the only option. And this takes us back to the question Gutting raises in his article: what does philosophy and faith have to do with one another? Gutting’s answer seems right, “philosophy and religion can and must speak to each other, and that those who take their beliefs seriously need to reflect on [questions about why one believes], and that contemporary philosophical discussions (following on Hume and Wittgenstein) about knowledge, belief, certainty and disagreement are highly relevant to such reflection — and potentially, to an individual’s belief.” Further Reading The Essential Kierkegaard by Soren Kierkegaard, edited by Howard and Edna Hong Warranted Christian Belief by Alvin Plantinga Religious Ambiguity and Religious Diversity by Robert McKim  

Recent Book Calls for Reclassifying Works of Heidegger

A new book with the unambiguous title, Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-1935 apparently breaks new ground in identifying Heidegger much more strongly with Nazism. In the book the author, “appeals to his readers to recognize ‘the vital necessity of seeing philosophy free itself from the work of Heidegger.’” The author, French philosopher Emmanuel Faye apparently draws his conclusion based on evidence found in scores of material not available to the general public or even many academics.  According to this review in The Christian Century, Faye is unambiguous about his goal to debunk Heidegger and about the moral, social, and religious implications of Heidegger’s work.  “[Faye] throws down the challenge that Heidegger's works ought to be removed from the philosophy sections of university libraries and housed, if they are housed at all, in the section on Nazism. This point, more than any other, is likely to outrage critics and discourage people from reading Faye's book.”

How Much Would It Cost To Study Character?

Well $3.67 million would be a good start. Three professors—two psychologists and one philosopher—at Wake Forest University were awarded that sum by the Templeton Foundation to explore the nature of character. The project will be directed by philosopher Christian Miller. The multi-faceted approach to understanding character will include competitions for scholars around the country seeking funding for research on character, research projects by Wake Forest psychology and philosophy professors, two research conferences, a summer seminar, an essay competition with nine prizes of $3,000 each, and other elements. All three scholars either have published or are in the process of getting published in areas related to moral theory and will be expanding their work to look at what character is, what types of character people develop and what ought we strive to achieve. Read more here.

7/20/2010–NDPR Reviews of Philosophy Books

Lukas H. Meyer (ed.) Legitimacy, Justice and Public International Law Reviewed by Laura Valentini, The Queen's College, Oxford Jonathan R. Cohen Science, Culture, and Free Spirits: A study of Nietzsche's Human, All-too-Human Reviewed by Julian Young, Wake Forest University David Hyder The Determinate World: Kant and Helmholtz on the Physical Meaning of Geometry Reviewed by Lydia Patton, Virginia Tech David L. Hildebrand Dewey: A Beginner's Guide Reviewed by Michael Eldridge, University of North Carolina at Charlotte Berys Gaut A Philosophy of Cinematic Art Reviewed by Carl Plantinga, Calvin College Pablo Muchnik Kant's Theory of Evil: An Essay on the Dangers of Self-love and the Aprioricity of History Reviewed by David Sussman, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Georg W.F. Hegel, Robert F. Brown (ed., tr.) Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6: Volume I: Introduction and Oriental Philosophy Reviewed by Robert R. Williams, University of Illinois at Chicago Theodore L. Brown Imperfect Oracle: The Epistemic and Moral Authority of Science Reviewed by Steve Fuller, University of Warwick Joshua P. Hochschild The Semantics of Analogy: Rereading Cajetan's De Nominum Analogia Reviewed by E. Jennifer Ashworth, University of Waterloo Sharon Anderson-Gold, Pablo Muchnik (eds.) Kant's Anatomy of Evil Reviewed by Robert Gressis, California State University, Northridge

What Do Simone de Beauvoir, Patricia Churchland, and Philippa Foot Have in Common?

The obvious answer is that they’re all women philosophers. But another commonality is that, as professional philosophers, they’re also rare. A recent Sydney Morning Herald headline asks, “why aren’t more women philosophers?” According to the article, women tend not to like the combativeness of academic philosophy nor can they reconcile the apparently misogynistic views of the many dead white guys in philosophy. Sociology not natural interest is the culprit. Oddly, the article appears to be saying not that men have kept women out of the discipline but that women somehow keep themselves out because they don’t like (can’t deal with) what men are doing in the discipline. I’m fairly sure that’s not only inaccurate but itself mildly disrespectful. Regardless, the University of NSW is doing something about it. The Australasian Association of Philosophy Conference at the University of NSW this month unveiled a database and website to increase students' awareness of women's contributions to philosophy, and enhance the diversity of philosophy curricula.

Where Have All the Philosophy Programs Gone?

Professor Andrew Baker bemoans the continued commercialization of universities evident in the ongoing closure of programs in the humanities (particularly philosophy and history). He worries that without strong history and philosophy programs, universities will lose their intellectual diversity and students will not be challenged to think rigorously in areas of great concern, namely, morality. He cites Harvard professor Michael Sandel who also addressed the issue at some length in his recent book, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? (Justice, by the way, is a fine, albeit popularly written and somewhat narrowly focused primer on various theories of justice and criticisms of those theories.) Paul Bloom’s classic, The Closing of the American Mind addressed similar issues and Louis Menand explores some of these topics at some length in his short but intriguing The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University. Baker focuses on particular moral issues that he believes pose serious problems for society. The removal of history and philosophy from the university will only cause these issues to fester as students will not get the moral instruction necessary to deal with them. In the principal arenas of intellectual exploration, universities, we have closed down entire programs within the arts (philosophy, history) and rationalised the length and breadth of undergraduate and postgraduate study programs across the board….Higher degree courses are shortened and narrowed; where is the time or place for philosophical thought in a PhD program? But even more insidious in the removal or reduction of particularly philosophy programs is the impact the absence will have on the “optimized” university’s ability to train students how to think. In my opinion, no other discipline can do more to train the mind than philosophy.

Freedom of Speech or Hate Speech?

Hardly a week goes by without news that some professor or other is being disciplined, fired, marginalized, or otherwise shut up for making some politically incorrect statement in his or her classroom. This time, University of Illinois lecturer Kenneth Howell apparently was fired for describing and then siding with the Catholic church’s stance against homosexuality. Professor Howell was teaching a course titled, “Introduction to Catholicism” when he made the controversial statement and then followed up his in-class comments with an email that further elaborated the thought. Based on what has been published, the email does not appear to be hateful or even judgmental though it is not ambiguous about the topic Howell discusses. Regardless of the subject matter, the issue that makes this story news is whether professor Howell was wrongly dismissed from his teaching position for articulating a position that runs counter to the stated inclusive policy and actually engaged in “hate speech” as the university claims he has. I’m also continuously struck when a professor is fired for making statements that a university deems intolerant. I’m not always certain about the logic that could justify such an action. See more details at the Huffington Post here. This piece links to other analyses (many critical of Howell). Also see this spirited defense of Professor Howell.

The New Atheism and the Ever-shrinking Circle of Explanatory Power

Reza Aslan concludes a recent article for The Washington Post with is critique: What the new atheists do not do, and what makes them so much like the religious fundamentalists they abhor, is admit that all metaphysical claims--be they about the possibility of a transcendent presence in the universe or the birth of the incarnate God on earth--are ultimately unknowable and, perhaps, beyond the purview of science. Aslan’s brief article, titled “Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett: Evangelical atheists?”, focuses on what he sees as a fundamental (pun not intended) weakness in the new atheism: it’s proponents don’t understand religion as an idea “occupied with transcendence.” Aslan views modern atheists as ill-informed and well outside their area of expertise. Their inordinate focus on scientific explanation has made them ill-equipped to treat matters of religion. For Aslan, religion is not about the manifest world but about how a “universal recognition of human contingency, finitude, and material existence has become formalized through ecclesiastical institutions and dogmatic formulae.” And religion is about “modalities,” pardigmatic gestures,” “spiritual dimensions,” and “archetypes.” The New Atheists, he says, don’t understand this (neither, I’m fairly certain, do too many religious people but that’s another matter). He also criticizes the new atheism, as a movement, of being too close minded, too absolutist, too  proselytical  -- in a word, too fundamentalist. Yet in reading his polemic, particularly when he accuses the movement of being under-informed and populist, I found Aslan himself to be too narrow in how he is defining the new atheism. If scoped merely to the four authors in the article’s title, then certainly the criticism holds. But anyone aware of the movement knows that Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris (and we might throw in Dan Brown for good measure), widely known in the movement as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”—a name they wear proudly—is just the marketing arm of a much larger phenomenon. The new atheism (no caps) is a broad shift in the way many are thinking about religion. The New Atheists (limiting that term to The Four Horsemen) are a small, but vocal and largely populist exemplification of that shift. Restricting the movement to those four men would be similar to saying Dinesh D’Souza, Tim LaHaye, Rick Warren, and Glen Beck constitute the whole of modern Christian thought. This failure to recognize the scope of and breadth of the shift away from traditional theistic belief is in no small part contributing to the breakdowns we’re seeing in certain pockets of Western Christianity (I wrote briefly about this breakdown here). There have been some powerful and important treatments and analysis of religious belief that take the material written at the popular level to great depths. Books like J.L. Schellenberg’s Cornell trilogy (see information on the books Prolegomena to a Philosophy of Religion, The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism, The Will to Imagine: A Justification of Skeptical Religion ), Robert McKim’s excellent and necessary Religious Ambiguity and Religious Diversity, Robert Wright’s, The Evolution of God, and Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained. I’m not making any claims about whether these books do or do not make their respective cases. I’m simply observing that anyone engaging what should broadly be called the new atheism, should content with the ideas presented in these and a substantive number of other books and articles. It’s unclear whether Aslan is aware of this growing body of fine literature and the impact this literature is having.  On the other side, Aslan doesn’t seem to account for many of the excellent books being written by analytical philosophers and theologians which attempt to defend the rationality of belief in God without buying fully into Aslan’s “non-overlapping magisteria” sentiment. The quote with which I began this article seemed to me on a first read to be an admission of defeat: the God hypothesis can’t hold explanatory water to a scientific analysis so it’s best to separate theism from science and relegate God and his actions to an unknowable metaphysical realm. I’ll plainly acknowledge that I haven’t read any of Aslan’s book-length treatments of the topics he sketches in the short Washington Post piece. But if his books essentially are an extrapolation of this article in which he seems to espouse what I see as a growing acknowledgement that theism has little explanatory power left, I’m confident this sentiment will continue to marginalize religion and further aid in the removal of it’s seat from the cultural adult table.

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