John H. Hick, Philosophy of Religion (3d edition), 1983.



What is the philosophy of religion? It was at one time generally understood to mean religious philosophizing in the sense of the philosophical defense of religious convictions. It was seen as continuing the work of "natural," distinguished from "revealed," theology.1 Its program was to demonstrate rationally the existence of God, thus preparing the way for the claims of revelation. But it seems better to call this endeavor "natural theology," and to term the wider philosophical defense of religious beliefs "apologetics." Then we may reserve the name "philosophy of religion" for what (by analogy with philosophy of science, philosophy of art, etc.) is its proper meaning, namely, philosophical thinking about religion.

Philosophy of religion, then, is not an organ of religious teaching. Indeed, it need not be undertaken from a religious standpoint at all. The atheist, the agnostic, and the person of faith all can and do philosophize about religion. Philosophy of religion is, accordingly, not a branch of theology (meaning by "theology" the systematic formulation of religious beliefs), but a branch of philosophy. It studies the concepts and belief systems of religion as well as the prior phenomena of religious experience and the activities of worship and contemplation on which these belief systems rest and out of which they have arisen.

Philosophy of religion is thus a second-order activity, standing at one remove from its subject matter It is not itself a part of the religious realm but is related to it as, for example, the philosophy of law is related to the realm of legal phenomena and to juridical concepts and reasonings, or the philosophy of art to artistic phenomena and to the categories and methods of aesthetic discussion. The philosophy of religion is thus related to the particular religions and theologies of the world as the philosophy of science relates to the special sciences. It seeks to analyze concepts such as God, dharma, Brahman, salvation, worship, creation, sacrifice, nirvana, eternal life, etc., and to determine the nature of religious utterances in comparison with those of everyday life, scientific discovery, morality, and the imaginative expressions of the arts.

What, however, is religion? Many different definitions have been proposed. Some of these are phenomenological. trying to state that which is common to all the acknowledged forms of religion; for example, religion is "Human recognition of a superhuman controlling power and especially of a personal God or gods entitled to obedience and worship" (Concise Oxford Dictionary). Others are interpretative. Thus there are psychological definitions—for example, "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine" (William James). Others are sociological—for example, "a set of beliefs, practices, and institutions which men have evolved in various societies" (T. Parsons). Others, again, are naturalistic—for example, "a body of scruples which impede the free exercise of our faculties" (Salomon Reinach) or, more sympathetically, "ethics heightened, enkindled, lit up by feeling" (Matthew Arnold). Yet others are religious definitions of religion—for example, "Religion is the recognition that all things are manifestations of a Power which transcends our knowledge" (Herbert Spencer), or again, "humanity's response to the divine."

But such definitions are stipulative; they decide what the term is to mean and impose this in the form of a definition. Perhaps a more realistic view is that the word "religion" does not have a single correct meaning but that the many different phenomena subsumed under it are related in the way that the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein has characterized as family resemblance. His own example was the word "game." You cannot define a game, as being played for pleasure (for some are played for profit), or as being competitive (for some are solo performances), or as requiring skill (for some depend on chance), or indeed it would seem by any single feature. Yet all these different kinds of game overlap in character with some other kinds, which in turn overlap in different ways with yet other kinds, so that the whole ramifying collection hangs together in a complex network of similarities and differences which Wittgenstein likened to the resemblances and differences appearing within a family.2 We may apply Wittgenstein's idea to the word "religion." Perhaps there is no one characteristic of everything that can be called a religion, but rather there is a set of "familyresemblances." In much religion there is the worship of a God or gods: but in Theravada Buddhism, for example, there is not. Again, religion often makes for social cohesion; yet in some strands it is aptly characterized as "what man does with his solitariness" (A. N. Whitehead). Again, religion often makes for the inner harmony of the individual; yet some of the greatest religious innovators seemed to their contemporaries to be unbalanced and even insane. The family resemblances model allows for such differences. It also allows us to acknowledge the similarities as well as the dissimilarities between more standard examples of religion and such secular faiths as Marxism. Marxism has its eschatological ideal of the ultimate classless society, its doctrine of predestination through historical necessity, its scriptures, prophets, saints, and martyrs. Thus we can see it as sharing some of the features of the family of religions while lacking other and probably more central ones. But whether a movement is religious is not an all-or-nothing matter but a question of degree within a widely spreading network of resemblances and differences.

Within this ramifying set of family resemblances there is, however, one feature which is extremely widespread, even though it is not universal. This is a concern with what is variously called salvation or liberation. This is probably not a feature of "primitive" religion, which is more concerned with keeping things on an even keel, avoiding catastrophe. However, all the great developed world faiths have a soteriological (from the Greek soteria, salvation) structure. They offer a transition from a radically unsatisfactory state to a limitlessly better one. They each speak in their different ways of the wrong or distorted or deluded character of our present human existence in its.ordinary, unchanged condition. It is a "fallen" life, lived in alienation from God: or it is caught in the world-illusion of maya; or it is pervaded throughout by dukkha (radical unsatisfactoriness). They also proclaim, as the basis for their gospel, that the Ultimate, the Real, the Divine, with which our present existence is out of joint, is good, or gracious, or otherwise to be sought and responded to; the ultimately real is also the ultimately valuable. Completing the soteriological structure, they each offer their own way to the Ultimate—through faith in response to divine grace; or through total self-giving to God; or through the spiritual discipline and maturing which leads to enlightenment and liberation. In each case, salvation or liberation consists of a new and limitlessly better quality of existence which comes about in the transition from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness.

In this discussion of the nature of religion I have been following the conventional view of religions as clearly demarcated entities—Christianity. Hinduism, Buddhism, and so on. In fact, however, the picture is much more complex than this, and in Chapter 8 I shall describe the important critique of the idea of "a religion" offered in our time by Wilfred Cantwell Smith.

In the meantime the discussion will focus upon the Judaic-Christian concept of God, which lies behind our western Atlantic civilization and still constitutes the main religious option within our culture. It will also be important to see how contemporary philosophical methods can be applied to the ideas of quite different religious traditions, and this will be done, as a sample, in relation to the Indian belief in reincarnation (Chapter 10). It is also necessary, in the "one world" of today, to face the problem of the apparently conflicting truth claims of the various religions. This issue, which constitutes one of the main growing points of the philosophy of religion today, will be explored in Chapter 8.

1 These terms are defined on pp 61-62

2 Philosophical Investigations, I, 66-67. Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford. Basic Blackwell &Mott, Ltd., 2nd ed. 1958.