Contemporary philosophy is a discipline in which religion hardly figures. A subject called philosophy of religion exists and has some devoted practitioners, but in the discipline as a whole inquiry into religion is a marginal activity. No doubt many circumstances have contributed to this state of affairs, some of them lying outside philosophy, but a part of the explanation lies in the recent history of the subject.
During the last century some of the most powerful currents in the discipline allied philosophy with scientific method. For the Vienna School of Moritz Schlick and Rudolf Carnap, whose work in the early decades of the twentieth century had a formative influence in Britain and the United States, the central concerns of philosophy were in logic and the theory of knowledge. Working in the British tradition of empiricism, Bertrand Russell reached a similar conclusion at around the same time. Scientific inquiry set the standards that must be met by all branches of thought that claim to embody knowledge. By clarifying scientific method and exhibiting its rationality, philosophers could join forces with the dominant intellectual enterprise of modern times. If philosophy had a future it was as an adjunct of science.
The type of philosophy that emerged from the convergence of Viennese positivism with British logical empiricism, sometimes described as the analytical tradition, was highly restrictive in scope. Ethics and aesthetics were relegated to the periphery of the subject, if not beyond, while about religion nothing was said. In some strands of this tradition it was asserted that the only meaningful questions were those that could, in principle, be settled by scientific methods. Since metaphysical questions do not fall into this category, they were judged meaningless.
As traditionally understood, metaphysics was the study of the kinds of things that exist in the world; but this was a type of inquiry that could not be disentangled from an attempt to establish some kind of ultimate ground for judgments of value. Metaphysics and religious apologetics have never been far apart. The question Why is there something and not nothing? is an example. Ostensibly an expression of puzzlement about the existence of anything at all, it has always been linked with questions about the place of human beings in the world. These are questions of the sort religions address, and many analytical philosophers have believed that religion is like metaphysics in being beyond rational discussion. Some have conceded that questions of the kind asked by religious believers may not be literally nonsensical; but because they remain unanswerable, it has been assumed that they are unworthy of serious attention.
Against this background it has been easy to conclude that religion has no place in philosophy. This is not a view confined to the various strands of the analytical tradition. Critics of that tradition have aimed to broaden the scope of philosophy, with some arguing that it has closer affinities with literature and the arts than with logic and science. A countermovement of this kind developed in the later …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.