Rule 14 for history of philosophy: take religion seriously

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Rule 14: Take religion seriously

Ok, this one might be controversial. But it has been much on my mind recently since I am writing episodes on medieval philosophy, where religion is woven into pretty much every text I am looking through. As I write the scripts I am thinking a lot about how to present the material in a way that will be interesting and seem relevant to listeners who don't care much about religion, without misrepresenting the material or for that matter letting down listeners who do have an interest in the religious side of things. At any rate, it seems to me important to remember that the vast majority of figures available for us to study in the history of philosophy have been religious believers. This goes not only for the obvious cases like the medieval Latin Christians but also for pagan thinkers of antiquity; we can assume that nearly all of the people I covered in episodes 1-100 (i.e. before arriving at ancient Christianity) were practicing pagans, and that includes household names like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. They may have had culturally unusual interpretations of the religion of their day but they were in some sense themselves religious (by which I mean that they believed in divine entities and presumably engaged in cultic practices) and more importantly for us, they felt the need to engage with religion in their works. So religious issues are (to differing degrees, but almost always to some degree) woven into the very fabric of the philosophical works we are reading from antiquity, and this also goes of course for the medieval period in various cultures, and for early modernity. I guess that it also applies to philosophy from Asian cultures; stay tuned for future episodes touching on that issue in classical India! Nowadays most professional philosophers in Europe and the US seem to be atheists, as far as I can tell, but that is a very recent development, even if one can point to occasional atheists in earlier periods (Hume is a favorite example).

What does this mean for the historian? In the first place that we need to learn about religious context just like the other aspects of historical context. No surprise there. But it also means something more challenging, which is that one needs to take an objective and open-minded attitude towards the philosophers' religious beliefs. Insofar as we are historians of philosophy, our goal should not be to take inspiration for our own religious faith if we have it, or to find the mistakes made by great religious authorities for the sake of reinforcing our own lack of faith if we don't have it. Rather it should be to understand how the religious views interacted with and influenced the philosophical views - to take a very nice example that's coming up a lot in the podcast these days, how Augustinian ideas about grace affected views on free will. Actually I would go further and say that we shouldn't even worry which aspects of a thinker's worldview are "religious" as opposed to "philosophical." Much of the time this dividing line is going to be blurry or even non-existent, and there is no reason to get anxious about this. I know from comments I've seen here on the website that some listeners think that philosophy is antithetical to religion; whatever merit that may have as a philosophical position nowadays, it is not a good place to start from in doing history of philosophy.

This is not to say, of course, that one's own beliefs remain irrelevant. If you are an atheist you had better be ready to say what is wrong with Anselm's ontological argument for the existence of God, once you have done your best to understand it! It's just that, as I've argued before in this series of rules, the first and very challenging step is to understand the texts you are reading, and taking religion seriously is part of that.

Chike Jeffers on 29 December 2014

"Actually I would go further

"Actually I would go further and say that we shouldn't even worry which aspects of a thinker's worldview are "religious" as opposed to "philosophical." Much of the time this dividing line is going to be blurry or even non-existent, and there is no reason to get anxious about this."

I think part of what makes letting go of this worry difficult for many people is that the idea of a clear dividing line between philosophy and religion is often tied up with the idea that philosophy was invented in ancient Greece. Often when making this claim, people have the idea that they can dismiss earlier thought as religious mythology... if they admit that the line between religious thought and philosophical thought is not so clear, such dismissal becomes groundless.

In reply to by Chike Jeffers

Kenneth Connally on 9 January 2015

I think you're right that the

I think you're right that the question of whether to "take religion seriously" in philosophy is totally bound up with the way philosophy is often defined against religious thought when discussing its origins in ancient Greece. I'm worried, though, that there's a straw man here: Peter is saying that ancient Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle were also religious thinkers because they also believed in gods, took part in religious rituals, etc. But surely the distinction being drawn between philosophers like them and earlier figures like Hesiod and Homer by people who define Greek philosophy against Greek religious thought is not that philosophers unanimously disbelieved in the characteristic objects of religious thought (gods, spirits, the afterlife, etc.), but that philosophers took another approach to knowledge-production.

I'm guessing that if you had asked Homer or Hesiod how they knew the gods existed, for example, the most you could probably get out of them apart from a shocked and concerned expression would be "Everyone knows the gods exist," "Our fathers and their fathers worshipped these gods," "Many highly revered priests speak about them," "To doubt their existence would be a grave sin," or something like that. They would not have been prepared to prove their existence beginning with logical axioms like the PNC or basic empirical observations like the orderliness of the natural world, as Plato and Aristotle attempt to do. This, to my mind, is the basic distinction between "religious" and "philosophical" thought being drawn: (pre-philosophical) religious thought expects its key claims about the nature of the universe to be accepted based on faith in tradition, the authority of the people or scriptures professing the claim, or some personal spiritual experience; while philophical thought relies solely on (publicly available) evidence and reasoning.

It's for this reason that I think medieval thinkers generally seem "more religious" and perhaps "less philosophical" than the ancient Greeks. Not only are medieval thinkers more strongly constrained to reach conclusions in line with the dominant religious dogmas of their day (Socrates and Aristotle were both charged with impiety, and conclusions of ancient philosophers in general tended to be strikingly at odds with popular religious notions), they also tend to think that the highest, most important truths can be grasped (perhaps can ONLY be grasped) through faith rather than reason alone. For this reason, the works now considered "philosophical" from the Middle Ages are often those, like Anselm's ontological argument or Aquinas' Summa Contra Gentiles, that use reason to persuade someone (often a hypothetical someone) outside the religious tradition of the truths of religious claims, since those inside the tradition (including the authors themselves) do not need such rational arguments to conclude that God exists, etc.

In reply to by Kenneth Connally

Peter Adamson on 10 January 2015

I agree with much of what you

I agree with much of what you say here, especially on the Greeks. Of course, thinking about the way that Aristotle and Plato "rationalize" or otherwise reacted to Greek religion is a way of following the rule (because one is thinking hard about the role that religion played in their thought, and taking seriously its importance in their cultural context). I would want to qualify what you say about the medievals though. It's certainly true that some medievals thought that there are truths graspable only by faith/as revealed. That's a characteristic view of Aquinas, who distinguishes such truths from those graspable by reason alone. But there's a danger here (as elsewhere) of projecting Aquinas' view onto the medievals as a whole. As we just saw on the podcast Anselm thought you can prove God's Trinitarian nature and the need for the Incarnation using only reason, and we are going to see similar views in the 12th century with Abelard and the Victorines. So the view you're describing here is one I would say did exist in the medieval period, but it is far from a universally endorsed position in medieval Latin Christendom. (Even less would it be true for the medieval Islamic and Jewish philosophical traditions.)

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Peter Lührs on 2 April 2015

Hello Peter! Hello everyone

Hello Peter! Hello everyone else!

I put this here as it kind'a connects to the points raised previously regarding the distinction of religion and philosophy, responding in large part to Kenneth Connally's post.

I think this is a point which is - as far as I have seen - not given as much consideration as I'd think might be good, when the ancient philosophers are read. Somehow, indeed, the ancients like Plato and Aristotle are seen as 'post-religious' and mainly critical of religious modes of thought. I don't think that's really giving the phenomenon of religion credit, though, as it reduces religious modes of thought to uncritical, blind belief. If one takes religion serious one will hardly be able to deny that when Plato and Aristotle talk about the 'theos' or the gods, that they are exclusively and purely in a critical, intellectual mode that is in sharp distinction to the religious thought of earlier Greeks.

I'd also think that you find religion woven into a lot of the ancients texts as well. To give an example, when Aristotle starts to discuss the powers of the soul in De Anima he underscores the importance of nutrition as follows:

"It follows that first of all we must treat of nutrition and reproduction, for the nutritive soul is found along with all the others and is the most primitive and widely distributed power of soul, being indeed that one in virtue of which all are said to have life. The acts in which it manifests itself are reproduction and the use of food-reproduction, I say, because for any living thing that has reached its normal development and which is unmutilated, and whose mode of generation is not spontaneous, the most natural act is the production of another like itself, an animal producing an animal, a plant a plant, in order that, as far as its nature allows, it may partake in the eternal and divine. That is the goal towards which all things strive, that for the sake of which they do whatsoever their nature renders possible."

If one doesn't hastily dismiss this as simply poetic language and stylistic candor, it is, in my humble opinion, clear that 'the divine' is doing some work here. The divine is not only important in understanding the highest powers of the soul and functions of mind - the nous - but it already plays a crucial role in understanding the most basic, fundamental phenomena of life - and even more than that, to "partake in the eternal and divine" is, if we take Aristotle serious here, "the goal towards which all things strive". How much more religious can one get?

I don't mean to say that with the development of philosophy there wasn't a change in how to look at and understand the world, but to chracterise the mode prior to that change as the one that is religious and the latter one as post-religious seems be, to me, a case of not taking religion seriously enough - as it seems based on the premise religious thought can't be possibly critical, rational and with reason.

Also, as I see it, theology is - in so far as it is the systematic and rational study of the concepts of Religions and God-Deities and its influences, and on the nature of religious traditions - basically a philosophical project. I think one will be hard pressed to find a theologian who would not agree that theology deals with trying to understand in the light of reason "the goal towards which all things strive" and how we can best "partake in the eternal and divine". I think this is a project that very directly links to much of ancient philosophy.

In reply to by Peter Lührs

Peter Adamson on 2 April 2015

Yes, I couldn't agree more

Yes, I couldn't agree more with that. In fact part of my argument for this rule would be that it reminds us to think about the religious context of almost all philosophy in history, including in antiquity. Of course even atheist thinkers, who finally start to come along in the modern period, are very much shaped by the religious commitments of their societies. So whatever one's own religious convictions, there is really no getting away from the importance of taking religion seriously if you want to do the history of philosophy.

Eric on 22 February 2015



I've been listening to your podcasts now for over a month, and I'd like to thank you for doing such a great job on these. I apologize in advance if this is the wrong place for this post.

As a religious, former scientist who enjoys philosophy, a discussion I heard on one of your podcasts (or maybe it was in the comments section) about the problem of evil piqued my interest. 

Unlike many people I am not very bothered by the PoE and I'd like to do some further study. Below, I've posted the points that I find persuasive against the PoE. Could you suggest some sources for further reading that might address these?

Perspective: Often our conception of evil, and whether God can bring about greater good from evil, is purely a matter of perspective. For example, when I was young I didn't make the cut for a sports team I tried out for. Needless to say, I was devastated (in a way that only a teenager can be by such things). However, that perceived evil forced me to work very hard to make the team the next year and I eventually became one of the best players. I learned from that failure that almost anything is possible if you work hard enough--a lesson that has served me well in life. Now if you had asked me at the time, I would have told you it was the worst thing in the world. But looking back on it later, I realized it was the best thing that ever happened to me. ADMITTEDLY, this is a minor "evil" compared to counter examples that could be posited. But assuming God has the typical attributes of a Christian God, his perspective is infinitely better than ours. So as the evil we perceive gets worse couldn't it simply be a matter of his having a much better and eternal perspective than we have. 

It's worse for the atheist: If evil is a problem for theists, isn't it even worse for the atheist? If there is no God, than there is no ultimate justice, and all evil and suffering is "literally" meaningless. "The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must", as I’ve heard you quote before. 



In reply to by Eric

Peter Adamson on 23 February 2015

Thanks, glad you enjoy the

Thanks, glad you enjoy the podcast! That response is in fact at least very close to one of the popular responses to the "evidential" version of the POE, which says not that God couldn't possibly co-exist with evil, but that evil provides strong (even overwhelming) evidence against God's existence. The response is, unfortunately, sometimes called the "no-see-um" defense, which is a really stupid name but the idea is that we are just not in a position to imagine how God's plan may be unfolding, because He is infinitely greater than us in every respect. So there is in fact no reason to think we would understand why He permits evil, basically - sometimes, as in your example, we could guess at the reason, but often we'll have no idea which is just what you'd expect.

The Stanford Encyclopedia has a very detailed page on the POE including references for further reading:

Paul Burgis on 16 May 2020

Thank you Peter for your

Thank you Peter for your books, which, as a religious believer, I find fair-minded and informative. I am curious why biblical references are not used when relevant. For example, in writing about Abelard and intentions in sinful actions it would seem obvious to link the sermon on the mount, as well as stoic or other writers. Is this deemed politically incorrect by philosophers? But why should it be? 



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