Philosophy of Religion

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

Philosophy 3140/Religious Studies 3310
Spring 2014 MW 1:00

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,” “piety,” “faith,” and “soul.” Historically important thinkers will serve as resources for us, but we will never simply be learning what someone else thinks; we will always be working to clarify and improve our own thinking. Reading and writing assignments as well as classroom procedures are meant to advance this aim.

Often-asked religious questions include the following:

Do any divine beings exist? If so, how do they affect us? How should we relate to them? Is there a divine law that humans must follow?
Does, or can, a person live forever?
What, if anything, makes suffering tolerable?
Is perfect happiness attainable? What does it (or would it) consist of?
Are our lives fated?
Is nothing sacred?

Some questions about religion that get a lot of philosophical attention include these:

What is religion? How do organized “religions” relate to human “spirituality”?
What is possible and impossible in the nature of a divine reality, and the relation of such a reality to the world of our everyday experience?
How do faith and reason differ? Are they reconcilable?
How are religion and morality related? Are they harmonious?
How do the claims of different religions differ? Can they be reconciled?

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

The required books on sale in the Millsaps bookstore are:

Al-Ghazali, The Faith and Practice of al-Ghazali
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason
Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling/Repetition
Martin Buber, I and Thou (Walter Kaufmann translation)
Simone Weil, Waiting for God

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

Revisions to this schedule may be announced in class or by e-mail
Week of
1/13 Introduction to course. Survey of philosophical issues in religion.
READ Job 1-7
1/20 MARTIN LUTHER KING DAY. Survey, cont.
READ Plato, “Euthyphro” and “Laws” handouts
1/27 Al-Ghazali’s religious epistemology: authority, reason, mysticism.
READ The Faith and Practice of al-Ghazali
2/3 Kant’s critique of religious knowledge. The turn to practical reason.
READ from Critique of Pure Reason (handout); Critique of Practical Reason, the Analytic
2/10 Kant’s moral postulates of God, immortality, and virtue’s reward.
READ Critique of Practical Reason, the Dialectic
2/17 Kierkegaard: does the religious transcend the ethical?
READ Fear and Trembling, first parts
2/24 Kierkegaard, cont.
READ Fear and Trembling, the Problemata
3/3 Kierkegaard’s problem of repetition.
READ Repetition
3/17 Neokantianism, “life philosophy,” and Buber.
READ Schleiermacher, Simmel, and Buber handouts
3/24 Buber, cont.
READ I and Thou, Parts One and Two
3/31 Buber, cont.
READ I and Thou, Part Three
4/7 Weil.
READ Waiting for God
4/14 Contemporary issues.
4/21 Contemporary issues.
4/28 NO CLASS (Instructor out of town)



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. Remember, too, that a good essay in philosophy of religion stays in touch with its subject-matter. Don’t let the “God of the philosophers” become so remote from what religious persons are actually serious about that you end up solving an artificial problem.

4. Defense of the solution. Since you did such a good job of presenting an objection to your own view in step #2, you now 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? If you turn in your essay on time you will certainly have the opportunity to rewrite it, so: care about it, but don’t worry about it. Often the best points come out in response to questions and challenges from the reader.


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.