Posts Tagged ‘atheism’

One may wonder if religion can be justified intellectually. Jay Newman seemingly argues toward a theoretical grounding for the belief in God and D.Z. Phillips argues for re-approaching the philosophy of religion. One must learn how to understand it, not being for or against religious belief. Taliaferro (2007) remarks to Phillips in that he secures a balance to successfully secure a position somewhere in between extreme non-realism and realism.

“To ask whether God exists is not to ask a theoretical question. If it is to mean anything at all, it is to wonder about praising and praying it is to wonder whether there is anything in all that. This is why philosophy cannot answer the question “Does God exist” with either an affirmative or a negative reply…”There is a God”, though it appears to be in the indicative mood, is an expression of faith” (D Z Phillips, Religion without Explanation)

One would need to see the intelligibility of asking both theoretical questions such as “Is there a God?” as well as searching out the meaningful practices of faith, praise and prayer. Phillips would belong to the non-realists in the sense that he does not treat religious beliefs as straightforward metaphysical claims that can be adjudicated philosophically as either true or false concerning an objective reality. This brings him to argue for a new approach to the philosophy of religion. It is not philosophy’s place to refute or defend religious belief. Confusion or conceptual mistakes are not to be attributed to religion. Beardsmore claims that many philosophers hold religious belief in contempt and claim it holds no intellectual value (1996). He claims that atheists often regard religion as intellectually inadequate. As an atheist, Beardsmore wishes to distance atheism from such claims. In contrast, he notes that Malcolm directs toward the atheist, a type of condescension. He notes that it is often claimed that an increase in violence can be attributed to a decline in religion. This does not make logistic sense: a lack of violence being a direct correlation with people fearing judgment of a higher power. This is a separate issue which will not be discussed in this essay, but it is interesting to note the reciprocal debate that still exists between philosophy and what it essentially ‘belief’ in a higher or judging power. The focus of this essay is to make a coherent response to D.Z. Phillips claim made in the title. That is, “To ask whether God exists is not to ask a theoretical question….”. This essay will focus on three aspects: D.Z. Phillips and the Hermeneutics of Contemplation – in which he outlines what it is to say one holds religious beliefs; The concept of Prayer – in which I will discuss how one can come to know God; and finally touching on Newman’s Illative Sense, in particular focusing on belief in the un-provable.

Hermeneutics of Contemplation

The Hermeneutics of Contemplation indicates a new way of doing philosophy of religion. Here we see and extension of what Phillips develops in Religion without Explanation. In it, he argues that a concept-free existence is a logical impossibility. Statements that religious beliefs are the product of an illusion cannot be acceptable to anyone who wants to remain a believer. Religion is not a separate part of private human life; it is seen in the context of which it functions. The Hermeneutics of contemplation comes from the Phillipsian account of Wittgenstein wherein Phillips tries to find a new way of doing philosophy of religion. Not searching for an “all embracing theory of religion”, he is trying to find a way to ‘contemplate’ the different senses which different beliefs can have (Berendsen 2002). He gets back to what is experienced through human life, that is, to avoid contextual confusion. Reflective interpretations are dependent on concepts which are not further interpretations (Berendsen 2002). People use religious language to explain experiences in everyday life.

Phillips is refuting the claim of ‘Wittgensteinian fideism’ in which he wished to separate claims to explain religion away as confused, or to make it ‘true’ by definition as a language-game which is played (Oppenheimer, 1978, p 247). Phillips seeks to distance himself from the Hermeneutics of Suspicion and the Hermeneutics of recollection. He wants to establish ‘Contemplative’ prospects. He claims that God is known only through prayer, and this will be discussed in the next section.

Language and prayer

For religious believers, there exists something that we call God. God does not come to know anything, as he is all knowing. This is implied through prayer which can be described as a discourse with God. However it is unclear what the purposes of prayer are if God is all knowing: what we say to him “cannot be informative” (Phillips 1981 p. 53). Arguing against this implies that God’s knowledge is finite and partial. Prayer involves an ability to pray, which suggests a form of self-contemplation. One discovers something new through prayer. Phillips describes how one comes to discover something new through prayer. One is not informing god of something new, but one reveals something which allows the individual to reach a new sense of self. In this, it can be criticised that God is dispensable. The same cannot be achieved through mere contemplation. Prayer is the direct communication with ‘God’, one could confess or seek solace in other people, but that is hardly praying to them.   Phillips argues that philosophers have created a great deal of confusion approaching religious language in such a way rendering it too “literal and unimaginative” (Phillips 1981 p. 58). The act of prayer is argued to be a useful activity. He likens the act to a teacher-student relationship. The student repeats to the teacher what the teacher already knows. This shows that prayer is not a dispensable activity. He goes on to say that theologians and philosophers do not know more about God than other people. On the notion of prayer, it doesn’t really matter if God exists or not. Through prayer the act of telling God, having understood the telling yourself is the point. It is misleading to ask whether the person told is present or not. The type of knowledge of oneself reached through talking with God (prayer) and the type of knowledge reached through self-reflection or other forms of enquiry are completely and utterly different.

One comes to know God only through prayer. Yet God cannot be what we mean by the term ‘God’. The ‘God’ we conceive of is an entity or ‘force’, engaging with Him through prayer. We attribute human like qualities to something which cannot be human. Prayer must be understood in its context. Phillips considers what we mean through pleading for God’s mercy. One does so as he/she is concerned with what they are becoming. “To see oneself as the object of God’s anger is to see oneself cut off from the source of one’s hope for oneself as a person, namely, communication with God.” Newman’s Illative Sense extends what we mean by believing in something we cannot necessarily prove and further discusses the human situation.

The illative sense

Belief in God is not a kind of minimal belief underlying affective religious states (Clack 1995 p. 111). Newman’s Illative Sense rests on two assumptions: 1) You can believe what you cannot understand; 2) You can believe what you cannot absolutely prove. Newman accepted the empiricist distinction between proof and probability. Proof belongs to logic and mathematics. These are the realms in which certainty can be achieved; realms which exclude religious belief.  Newman is concerned with how one can be justified in believing what one cannot prove. Probability in God is not sufficient justification for believing in God. It may be argued that Newman’s use of the term ‘probability’ is to distinguish all non-declarative forms of reasoning from deductive reasoning. Phillips argues that the probabilities are not probabilities in the normal sense; we arrive at certitudes with these probabilities, in that we infer that there is a God in all probability and this may be sufficient. The illative sense can be described as the way we “respond to ponderable and imponderable evidences in the context of our concrete models of reasoning and the ways in which we reach conclusions there” (Phillips 2004, p. 3).  This is far removed from factual statements. The sum of the interior angles of a triangle equals 180 degrees. This is part of what we mean by a triangle (Phillips 2004). What we mean by God is different. We have a conception of the world which seems to be arrived at through facts and probabilities, we function through this concept.


Phillips has examined different religious practices such as prayer and the belief in an afterlife, concluding that both are intelligible because the motives behind each can be held intact without any of the metaphysical “baggage” traditionally linked with them. For example, prayer to God by parents for the recovery of a child’s health may be understood as an expression of their anguish and an effort to center their hope on the child’s getting better and not as an attempt to influence God’s to violate the laws of nature in miraculously healing their child (Klinefelter 1974). Philosophy cannot answer the question “Does God Exist”, but one can try to understand philosophy’s role in interpreting the answer to such a question. There are extremes to the argument, for sure. It is irremovable from personal experience, that is, life lived. Phillips argues that philosophers have created a great deal of confusion approaching religious language in such a way rendering it too literal and unimaginative (Phillips, 1981). The balance between personal judgment and concrete proof is seen in Newman’s Illative Sense in which it is necessary to discuss the consequences of believing in what one cannot possibly prove.

This post has discussed the theoretical arguments surrounding belief in what one cannot prove; D.Z. Phillips’ argument for prayer as well as the role of contemplation in philosophy seen in the Hermeneutics of Contemplation. The Philosophy of Religion does not have to seek a grand explanation to religion. The contemplative stance involves neither an endorsement nor a rejection of the sense to be seen in religion (Byrne 2002). Philosophy must neither endorse nor condemn religion.


Beardsmore, R. W. (1996). Atheism and Morality. In D. Z. Phillips, Religion and Morality (pp. 235-249). London: MacMillan Press LTD.

Berendsen, D. ‘Religion and the Hermeneutics of Contemplation’. Ars Disputandi. http://www.ArsDisputandi.org (2002), March 21. Retrieved online: 06/04/10

Byrne, P. (2002). Review of Religion and the Hermeneutics of Contemplation by D. Z. Phillips. Religious Studies, Vol. 38, No. 4 , 449-501.

Clack, B. (1995). D. Z. Phillips, Wittgenstein and Religion. Religious Studies, Vol. 31 , 111-120.

Klinefelter, D. S.  D. Z. Phillips as Philosopher of Religion.  Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 42, No. 2 (Jun., 1974), pp. 307-325

Oppenheimer, H. (1978). Review of Religion without Explanation by D. Z. Phillips. Philosophy, Vol. 53, No. 204 , 274-275.

Phillips, D. Z. (2004). Antecedent presumptions, Faith and Logic. In I. Ker, & M. T., Newman and Faith (pp. 1-25). Lueven: Peters Press.

Phillips, D. Z. (1981, orig pub 1965). The Concept of Prayer. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Taliaferro, C. (2007). http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/philosophy-religion/#MeaRelLan. Retrieved 4 8, 2010, from http://plato.stanford.edu/: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/philosophy-religion/#MeaRelLan


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For Feuerbach, religion is the dream of the human spirit. He maintains that all religious belief is essentially based on and derived from human error and misunderstanding, maintaining that all religious belief is a product of anthropomorphic projectionism. The concept of God is an anthropomorphic projection of the human mind, and as such embodies man’s conception of his own nature.  This was originally conceived of by Xenophanes and Lucretius, and by Spinoza. However, this does not take from his achievement: he clearly articulates the philosophical relevance of man projection God.

The danger, as Feuerbach sees it, is that we are denying our own nature and thus alienating ourselves from what is truly human, by believing that our values are derived from a moral order which is divine in nature. The superhuman deities of religion are in fact involuntary projections of the essential attributes of human nature, and this projection, in turn, is explained by a theory of human consciousness heavily indebted to Hegel.

Hegel’s influence is great: for Feuerbach, what marks man off from the ‘brutes’ is precisely our awareness of ourselves as species-teings, which is not simply an additional fact of which we are aware: it is rather recognition which qualitatively changes the very nature of human consciousness itself. As Hegel states: consciousness is intentional, hence to be conscious at all is of necessity to be conscious of something. For Feuerbach: God is man’s awareness of himself as a species being. His whole though arises from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.

Each attribute of God expresses an aspect of the hope humans have to be free from their limitations. For example: God’s holiness is a projection of human desire to be free of sin; God’s creativity is a projection of human sense of finitude and vulnerability; God’s presence is a projection of human sense of loneliness and mutual separation; God’s Trinitarian nature is a projection of the human need to be whole through being an ‘I’ participating in, though distinct from a ‘Thou’; The same method is applied to each of the doctrines of Christian Theology: incarnation, trinity, sacraments, prayer, the Holy Spirit, resurrection etc…

For Feuerbach, the process of ‘mystifying’ human nature begins with theology, with the projection of human species-attributes onto an abstract, but personal, bewing called ‘God’, and is continues by philosophy, which switches the projection from ‘God’ to ‘Nature’, and finally to that ultimate metaphysical abstraction, ‘Being’.  His aim is to change: “the friends of God into friends of men, believers into thinkers Christians… from half-animal and half angel, into men…”

We treat the existence of God as if it were distinct from the question of the nature of God, when in fact the two are part of one and the same thing. We make this mistake because human existence seems to be a necessary precondition for the possibility of possessing human attributes. We see Hegel’s influence: distinction between subject and predicate is a logical or conceptual rather than an ontological or metaphysical one. One could not exist if it didn’t have any attribute at all. Thus, the existence of any entity and its possession of attributes are necessarily connected. We are misled into thinking that we can accept that the predicates which we ascribe to God are anthropomorphisms, while denying that God himself, the subject, is an anthropomorphism, because we mistake the conceptual distinction for an ontological one.

This equation of man and god, this identification of god with human nature, is absolutely fundamental to Feuerbach’s thesis: religious individuals are not aware of the fact that in asserting the existence of God he is apotheosising human qualities.

Religion and Philosophy as anthropology

Feuerbach maintains that philosophy and religion are highly-evolved forms of anthropology. In this, he emphasises the progression of thought through the ages of religious and philosophical texts. The both vary in culture as culture is central to understanding of human nature. Religion is a rudimentary form of man’s awareness of himself as a species being, and is therefore by virtue of that a primitive anthropology, no less than philosophy.

One of his greatest strengths is that he points out that religion applies only to human subjects. The environment is never quite the same from one culture to another, and for this reason man’s conception of God, and, what for Feuerbach amounts to the same thing, his conception of himself varies greatly. We morally evaluate attributes in their own right before we ascribe them to God. Our moral norms determine our conception of God, our very religion, not the other way around: religious person fails to see this.

Feuerbach’s belief in God

Feuerbach was not an atheist: “He alone is the true atheist to whom the predicates of the Divine Being – for example, love, wisdom, justice – are nothing; not he to whom merely the subject of these predicates is nothing.“ He argues that god (or any other logical subject) is simply the sum total of his properties – if the latter are anthropomorphisms then God himself is an anthropomorphism.

A society’s conception of god is a function of the moral value system of the society’s concerned, a fact that which indicates that morality is logically prior to, and independent of, religion. The genuine theorist is, therefore, the individual who values the good whether it has been obtained by God or not. A quality is not divine because God has it; that God has it because it is itself divine: because God without it would be a defective being.

“We have reduced the otherworldly, supernatural and superhuman essence of god to its particular foundations in the essence of man. Thus we have in the end arrived back at our starting point. Man is the beginning of religion, Man is the centre of religion, Man is the end of religion.”

His uncritical acceptance of the assumptions that religious discourse is factual in nature, which may be assessed in purely theoretical terms, blinds him to the nature of the web of logical interconnections which obtains between such terms in religious discourse, and to critical differences which exists between it and that which obtains between these in terms of their factual discourse.

Also, his argument is not strong enough to convince a believer. He is possibly being too analytic and objective. It doesn’t solve anything, but raises more questions.

I admire Feuerbach’s shift from Man created by God to God created by Man. I find it a bit of a cop out to sum up the traits associated with God to suggest that God lies in these traits – but that’s just my perspective! Overall, Feuerbach is a fascinating read: some of his quotes remain my favourite: “…Man is the end of religion.”


Thornton, S. (1996). Facing up to Feuerbach. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion , 103-120.

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(First of all, if you would like to take a look at an excerpt of The Brothers Karamazov, please take a look at the PDF at the end of the blog! I refer to the passage a few times. Thanks)

In the Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky describes the problem of evil in great detail. We can also get a clear view of his atheism. The protagonist of this novel is Ivan and will be discussed in this piece.

Ivan accepts God, but rejects God’s world, and it is in this sense that he is an atheist. He speaks of the human mind operating within the parameters of the Euclidian mind and how it understands space and time. He refuses to alter the facts of heinous acts committed against children; he states that he does not wish to see them in transcendental or ‘godly ways (i.e. attribute them to god’s plan). The specific evils are, as he determines, hard facts

Turning specifically to The Brothers Karamazov, he describes 6 evil acts committed against children. The evil acts are:

  • The atrocities of the Turks in Bulgaria
  • Richard’s story in Geneva
  • The peasant flogging his horse around the eyes
  • The father whipping his daughter as a source of sensual pleasure
  • The parents abusing their 5 year old daughter, locking her in the privy for the night (the detail of the mother putting excrement in the daughter’s mouth is particularly horrifying, as he describes the daughter whimpering in pain for the night as the mother slept soundly)
  • The serf boy torn to pieces by his landlord’s hounds

Religious people try to justify or understand these crimes and states that it is immoral to use god as justification – we are bound by the parameters of a Euclidian mind. He is approaching it in an emotional way before an intellectual way, this he sees as a ‘human’ way. Intellectualising evil acts evades the problem completely.

He says ‘he will not be healed’. He uses the arguments derived from cruelty of children to give his position strength and power. He accepts God, but refuses to accept God’s world. He bases this on the manner in which suffering is inflicted in children. He makes the reader question their own views – Alyosha’s reaction to the serf boy. The cases were derived from contemporary news reports – factual instances not fictional.

Dostoevsky’s purpose was to link God with any attempts of justifying the atrocities. Doing so alters the facts. It alters the facts as it changes the nature of the situation and what actually happened.  The Euclidian mind cannot speculate or conceive of God, it is unanswerable and meaningless. Religious arguments to the children’s suffering are dismissed as he says they might as well come from ‘another world’. It is incomprehensible to the human hear (based on the Euclidian mind) emphasising emotion over intellect.

The function of is atheism

  • Moral responsibility/ethical response to justify by God emotional responses. The justification of the future happening is purely for the harmony of our minds: not-yet-known changing the facts of what has happened (diminishing the evil acts) bound by parameters of a Euclidian mind.
  • Rebellion. He ‘returns the ticket’ to the world created by God, yet he accepts god. The two follow from Euclidian mind and moral outrage from the acts of evil done to children. His atheism stems from moral outrage
  • No alternative. He accepts god yet he is not religious. He denies the validity of life of worship or religious belief. There are no other possibilities and he cannot accept God’s world. He rebels against god that allows the suffering of innocent children, as he sees it is ‘senseless suffering’.

“Evil is the price of freedom”

The story I wish to focus on is the serf boy torn to pieces by his landlord’s hounds, in particular, Alyosha’s response. The serf boy threw a stone which hit the landlord’s favourite hound – the landlord reacted brutally ending in the boy being torn apart in front of his mother. Ivan asked Alyosha if the landlord deserved to be shot to which he replied yes. It is clear from here that he is pleading for an emotional response. Such a response from Alyosha supports Ivan’s enquiry. It is clear that he is looking for support for the Euclidian mind and this response confirms it.

He states that he doesn’t understand and that he gave up on trying to understand. Trying to understand leads to intellectualising the acts, which ends up distorting the facts, and he is ‘determined to stick to the facts.’

Ivan cannot use the case of adults. Adults have: ‘eaten the apple and know good and evil.’  The children haven’t eaten anything. Children are so far innocent.  “For anyone to love a man, he must be hidden, for as soon as he shows his face, love is gone.”

Stating that children are born with sin is completely insufficient. For if children were born with the sins of their fathers’ crimes, ‘such a truth is not of this world and is beyond my comprehension.’ He states that it is not worth the tears of one tortured child. “What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured?”

Stating that the children would grow up to perhaps commit heinous crimes is insufficient also and distorting the facts, for they did not grow up. To see such acts as a whole is altering the facts – it cannot be seen as a whole it detracts from the fact that these were acts of senseless suffering

Alyosha states that he is living in rebellion by not accepting God’s world, but accepting God, ‘respectfully returning the ticket’. He does not see it as rebellion – ‘one could hardly live in rebellion, and I want to live’. If the torture and death of one tiny creature is the cost of human freedom, how could god consent to be the ‘architect of those conditions’. Alyosha claims that he would not consent on those conditions. There has to be moral repugnance at the very idea. Yet we see in an orthodox view of religion, human freedom has been purchased in the actual world at the cost of countless millions of such tortures. Such a view would contribute to a non-anthropomorphic account of god

We can also see a Nietzschian (“what is man capable of”) and indeed, there has been quite a lot of work done looking into this perspective on Dostoevsky’s work.  We see the moral rule: ‘Everyone is responsible for everyone else’.  That evil is a cost of human freedom is rejected by the Euclidian mind.

Hope you enjoyed my critical look at Dostoevsky’s atheism. Feel free to comment, make suggestions etc…

Excerpt from The Brothers Karamazov: Fyodor Dostoevsky on the Problem of Evil

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