Core 4: Philosophy of Religion

Steve Smith (smithsg) – Christian Center 11
Office hours & syllabus posted

Philosophy 3140/Religious Studies 3310
IDST 2400-07 (Foci: Philosophy, Religion) Fall 2015 TTh 12:55

The purpose of this course is to learn some of the most important strengths and weaknesses of different ways of thinking about religious issues through philosophical analysis and conversation. We will work toward a more precise understanding of key religious concepts like “religion” itself, “God” or “divine reality,” “evil,” “piety,” “faith,” and “soul.” Some of the most influential early modern thinkers will serve as primary resources for us, and through them we will gain insight into important new departures (but also continuities) in modern thinking compared with premodern.

Often-asked religious questions include the following:

Does a divine being exist? If so, what is its character? How are we affected by it?

How should we relate to it? Does it control our lives?

Does, or can, a person live forever?

Is perfect happiness attainable? What does it (or would it) consist of?

What, if anything, makes suffering tolerable?

Is nothing sacred?

Grading will be based on class participation (10%), journals (20%), a midterm take-home essay exam (20%), a 2,000-word Essay accompanied by a peer review (30%), and a final take-home essay exam (20%).

The required books on sale in the Millsaps bookstore are:

Cicero, The Nature of the Gods, Oxford 978-0199540068
Baruch Spinoza, Ethics, Hackett 2nd ed. 978-0872201309
David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Oxford 978-0199538324
Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, Harper Torchbooks 978-0061300677
Wing-Tsit Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, Princeton 978-0691019642

There will also be required reading in handouts and e-mails.


This course will be not only a fountain of fascinating ideas but also an exercise machine to strengthen your thinking, speaking, and writing powers so that you can enter more fully into the life and fellowship of the mind. Like other Millsaps core courses, this one promotes certain broadly relevant abilities:

Reasoning. This is your ability to keep track of differences and similarities, of evidence and lack of evidence, and of your own acts of acceptance and rejection, so that you can draw conclusions about what is true or false, likely or unlikely, consistent or inconsistent. The coursework will challenge and lead you to reason in a sustained way. Our primary concern is not with what certain famous thinkers thought to be true, or best, but with what is true or best. So you will be asked to articulate your own understanding of these matters and to refine it critically in conversation with the historical sources and your fellow learners.

Communication. This course will ask you repeatedly to weave your thoughts together with other people’s thoughts by oral and written means. Besides daily class discussion you will write assessments of course material on a weekly basis, essays on questions on two take-home exams, a longer philosophical essay, a critique of a fellow student’s essay, and a revision of your philosophical essay.

Historical consciousness. We will strive to understand how early modern philosophers of religion responded to the new pressures and opportunities of modernity, and how our own intellectual and spiritual prospects are connected with theirs.

Social and cultural awareness. We will introduce the issues facing modern philosophers of religion with a classic text from the ancient world – reflecting a premodern Greco-Roman culture foundational to modern Western culture – and we will make a comparative foray into an important East Asian philosophical tradition, Neo-Confucianism as represented especially by the 16th century thinker Wang Yang-Ming.

Revisions to this schedule will be announced in class or by e-mail
Aug. 25 Introduction to course. Issues of “modernity.” Issues in philosophy of religion.
Aug. 27 Classical views: Cicero, The Nature of the Gods, Book I
Sept. 1 Cicero, The Nature of the Gods, Book I, cont.
Sept. 3 Cicero, The Nature of the Gods, Book II
Sept. 8 Rationalism in modern philosophy: Descartes, Meditations I-II.
Sept. 10 Descartes, Meditations III & V.
Sept. 15 Spinoza as a Cartesian and Jew. The Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (handout).
Sept. 17 Spinoza, Ethics, Part I
Sept. 22 Spinoza, Ethics, Part I, Appendix
Sept. 24 Spinoza, Ethics, Part II
Sept. 29 Spinoza, Ethics, Part III
Oct. 1 Spinoza, Ethics, Part IV
Oct. 6 Spinoza, Ethics, Part V
Oct. 8 Leibniz’s challenge to Spinoza (handout).
Oct. 15 Empiricism in modern philosophy: Locke (handout).
Oct. 20 Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Parts I-III
Oct. 22 Hume, Dialogues, Parts IV-VI
Oct. 27 Hume, Dialogues, Parts VII-X
Oct. 29 Hume, Dialogues, Parts XI-XII
Nov. 3 Kant’s moral theology in Critique of Practical Reason (handout).
Nov. 5 Kant’s Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, Preface to 1st ed. and Book I
Nov. 10 Kant, Religion, Book I, cont.
Nov. 12 Kant, Religion, Book II
Nov. 17 Kant, Religion, Book III
Nov. 19 Kant, Religion, Book IV
Nov. 24 INSTRUCTOR AT CONFERENCE; ESSAY AND PEER REVIEW DUE. (Peer review guidelines to be provided)
Dec. 1 Neo-Confucian philosophy of religion: Wang Yang-Ming (in Chan).
Dec. 3 Wang-Yang Ming, cont.


For your course notebook, a loose-leaf binder is recommended. This will allow you to hand in just the newest pages of your journal each week, and also to incorporate the course materials that are handed out with your own writings. You have the option of e-mailing your journal assignments, but you might still want to keep print copies of these and of the responses you get.
Each week you will be asked to write one page in answer to a particular question, usually bearing on the week’s readings. You will also be expected to turn in another page (or more—but please not much more) of independent reflections on what you observe and learn about religion. The general purpose of this requirement is to encourage you to pay thoughtful attention to religious phenomena and to give you practice in articulating your thoughts and relating them to the arguments about religion that we study in the course. A more specific purpose is to help you develop your Essay for the course, as you can explore possible topics, questions, objections, etc. relating to this project.

You can skip two pages of work without penalty—either by not turning in the entire assignment for one week or by leaving out parts of assignments on two separate occasions.

The journal will be graded unsatisfactory – , satisfactory \/ , or very good + depending on the sensitivity and persistence of the thinking it shows.


1. Definition of the problem. By the end of your introductory paragraph, the reader should know what issue you are addressing in your paper. It should be an issue that you care about, that is personally worth wrestling with. (You will be working toward defining this issue from the first day of the semester.)

2. Explanation of the problem. Show why the answer to the question you are posing is not obvious and straightforward. Usually this involves setting forth conflicting points of view on it, especially any view that stands as a strong objection to the one you are going to defend. (For example, if you are going to argue that history or nature offer respectable evidence to back up certain types of religious assertions, you might first discuss the contrary view that anything offered as evidence in religion is only deemed “evidence” by the arbitrary interpretation of the beholder.) Further, you want to show, as best you can, the force of views contrary to your own.

3. Solution of the problem. Now explain the right way to think about the issue and the reasons that should decide us in favor of this way. Here you may or may not be helped by readings you have done, but in any case, you are taking responsibility here for the solution. Remember to be reasonable. Don’t preach. Don’t dogmatize. Don’t simply report opinions. A good philosophical essay probes for convincing justifications.

4. Defense of the solution. Since you did such a good job of presenting an objection to your own view in step #2, now you need to handle the objection. Show the mistake in it, or show how to interpret the point so that it harmonizes with your view. Possibly you were able to do this in step #3, but in most cases it will be worthwhile to write an extra paragraph or two just for this purpose.

5. Enjoy. What could be more rewarding than seeing your own thought take shape on a vitally important question? You will go through at least one revision cycle, so relax: care about it, but don’t worry about it. Often the best points come out in response to questions and challenges from the reader.


All students are strongly encouraged to visit the Writing Center, which is staffed by student Writing Consultants who are trained to help you grow as writers. Writing Consultants work with all writers, at all skill levels, and in all stages of the writing process. A writing consultation is essentially a conversation that challenges you to think deeply about your writing process, your ideas, the structure of your argument, and the organization of your essay. These conversations are most useful to students 48 hours or more in advance of a due date. Visit for more information about hours, locations, and upcoming events.


1. Class attendance. Being in class, being engaged with the work of the class, and behaving courteously are all expected. One discourtesy to avoid is coming into class late. Better late than never, definitely; but lateness counts as half an absence—that is, your work with the class that day will be counted as only half done. One percent of the course grade will be lost for each absence from class for any reason, beginning with the third absence. (For example, someone who missed class 7 times would lose 5% of the course grade, or half a letter grade.) The reason for this: our in-class work is a crucial and irreplaceable part of the substance of the course.

2. Electronic communication devices (phones, laptops, etc.). Electronic devices have become harmful Interrupters and Distracters in the current state of our social evolution. Their use is banned in our class. If you have special needs, discuss with me.

3. Late papers. Written assignments turned in late will lose a letter grade or equivalent. Homework may not be turned in more than one week after its due date. No work of any kind will be accepted after the last day of final examinations. Exceptions to this policy will be granted only to the victims of unforeseeable and uncontrollable circumstances.

4. As a general rule, no e-mail submissions. Unless the instructor allows it under specified circumstances (as with Journal entries), e-mail submissions of assigned writing are not accepted.

5. Plagiarism. Using the words or ideas of others without acknowledgment—that is, passing them off as your own—is a fraudulent practice called plagiarism. It also misses one of the main points of being in college, which is to develop your powers of thought and expression. Plagiarism is an offense under the Academic Honor Code (see next page).

6. Incompletes. An “Incomplete” grade for the course will only be given to students who, due to unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances, find themselves unable to complete course requirements during the term and can reasonably be expected to complete them within a few weeks after the term’s end. The “Incomplete” must be requested and appropriately justified before the end of final examinations.

7. Disabilities. Students with documented disabilities should discuss their needs with the instructor at the beginning of the semester.
From the ODS: If you have any needs or require accommodations related to a disability or learning difference, please contact Patrick Cooper to register with the Office of Disability Services. You can reach him via e-mail at or by calling extension 1228. Accommodations will not be granted until a meeting has taken place with Patrick and letters have been received by your instructor.