Philosophy of Religion

Steve Smith
Christian Center 19, 601-974-1334
Office hours & syllabus posted @

PHIL 3140-01/RLST 3310-01
Spring 2020    MW 2:30

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. Assuming that some religious issues are of great intrinsic interest to us regardless of what people around us are doing or not doing religiously, we will work toward a deeper and more precise understanding of concepts like “religion” itself, “God” or “the divine,” “ultimate reality,” “salvation,” “soul,” and “faith.” Leading 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, what are they like? 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 would eternal life consist of?

What constitutes saintliness and wickedness?

Can evil be overcome? What, if anything, makes suffering tolerable?

Is perfect happiness attainable? What would it consist of?

Are our lives fated?

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

What is religion?

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?

What does being “spiritual” consist of? Are religious attitudes (faith, reverence, love) reasonable, or can they be?

How are religion and morality related? Does one require the other?

How do the claims of different religions differ? Can they be reconciled?

Readings will be drawn from various sources including this required text:

Charles Taliaferro & Paul J. Griffiths, eds., Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology

The ingredients of the course grade are class participation including taking turns as a discussion leader (20%), weekly writing (40%), a midterm exam (15%), an essay proposal (5%) and a 2,000-word essay (30%). Assignments are explained below.

SCHEDULE subject to revision by announcement in class and/or e-mail                                                   

Jan. 13 Introduction to the course.

Jan. 15 What is religion?

READ Stephen R. L. Clark, “World Religions and World Orders” 21-30




Jan. 22  Arguments for the existence of a divine being

READ Plato, Laws X (handout)


Jan. 27  The nature of a divine being

READ Swinburne, “God” 51-57


Jan. 29 The nature of nonduality

READ Loy, “How Many Nondualities Are There?” 345-356


Feb. 3 Illusion theory

READ  Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (handout)


Feb. 5  Feminist reconstruction of the divine

READ Suchocki, “The Idea of God in Feminist Philosophy” 91-97



Feb. 10  Can religious claims be verified?

READ Flew et al., “Theology and Falsification: A Symposium” 105-110


Feb. 12  Religious expression as symbolic

READ Tillich, “The Religious Symbol” (handout)


Feb. 17  Religious expression as enlightened

READ Buddhadasa, Toward the Truth (handout)


Feb. 19  Religious belief as irresponsible

READ Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief” 196-199


Feb. 24  Religious belief as reasonably venturesome

READ James, “The Will to Believe” (handout)


Feb. 26  Religious belief as basic

READ Plantinga, “Religious Belief as ‘Properly Basic’” 200-213





Mar. 2  The theistic problem of evil

READ Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence” (handout)


Mar. 4  Cont.

READ Davies, “The Problem of Evil” 375-379




Mar. 9, 11, 16, 18  SPRING BREAK


Mar. 23  Davies cont. 380-389


Mar. 25 Feminist critique of evil

READ Noddings, “Evil and Ethical Terror” 432-448


Mar. 30 Evil and nature

READ Rolston, “Does Nature Need to be Redeemed?” 530-543





Apr. 1  Moral faith

READ Kant, Critique of Practical Reason (handout)


Apr. 6  Faith as a virtue

READ Chappell, “Why Is Faith a Virtue?” 546-552


Apr. 8 Piety revived

READ Dewey, A Common Faith (handout)


Apr. 13  Love of the divine

READ Adams, “Pure Love” 493-503


Apr. 15  I-You relation

READ Buber, I and Thou (handout)




Apr. 20  READ Jantzen, “Do We Need Immortality?” 574-581



Apr. 22  READ Taliaferro, “Why We Need Immortality” 582-588


Apr. 27  On diverse religious truth claims

READ Hick, “Religious Pluralism” 517-522






Identify several issues in the assigned reading that you think would be worthwhile for the class to explore.  Have several questions ready to ask. Start out with the most important.



By the end of each class week you should turn in a written reflection of 250-500 words (that would be 1-2 pages typed) on any subject that seems significant to you, as long as it ties in somehow with matters that came up in the class work for that week.  (So I am not asking you to write a synopsis of the week in class, but I am asking you to process the week’s work in some way.) You may use any strategy you like to get at something. Try not to toss out a question without working toward an answer; working toward answers is what your journal is for.

You may skip one week’s journal writing without penalty.

Your journal will be graded for its intellectual ambition and for how responsive it is to class readings and discussions.



  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.)


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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 trained to help you grow as writers. Writing Consultants work with all writers, in all disciplines, at all skill levels, and in all stages of the writing process. These consultations are most useful to students 48 hours or more in advance of a due date, and many students benefit from multiple visits during the writing process. Students may elect to send a session report summarizing their Writing Center visit to professors. If you would like to notify your professor of your visit, please inform the Consultant when you arrive at the Writing Center. Students may also request to share a session report after their visit by emailing Visit for more information about hours, locations, and upcoming events.


The Center for Academic Support and Excellence (CASE)  is located in Academic Complex suite 109 and offers one-to-one consultations and academic support for all students in a range of disciplines, such as math, economics, chemistry, biology, and languages, as well as Consultants from the Writing Center who work with all writers in all disciplines. CASE is staffed by student subject-area Consultants who are trained to provide one-to-one academic support. Students may elect to send a session report summarizing their CASE visit to professors, coaches, or advisors. If you would like to notify someone of your visit, please inform the Consultant when you arrive at CASE. Students may also request to share a session report after their visit by emailing CASE hours for Spring 2020 are Mondays through Thursdays, 7-9pm. Visit to view hours or to make an appointment.



  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.
  1. Electronic communication devices (phones, laptops, etc.). Electronic devices have become harmful Interrupters and Distracters in the current state of our social evolution. But they can also give helpful access to information during class discussion. While in class, be careful to use such a device only in a helpful way. If you have special needs, discuss with me.
  1. 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.
  1. As a general rule, no e-mail submissions. Unless the instructor allows it under specified circumstances, e-mail submissions of assigned writing are not accepted.
  1. 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).
  1. 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.
  1. Disabilities. Students with documented disabilities should discuss their needs with the instructor at the beginning of the semester. Statement from our ADA officer:

Under the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504, accommodations can be made for students with disabilities or learning differences. If you require accommodations, please contact Katie Sorey to register with the Office of Student Life. You may reach her via e-mail at or by calling 601-974-1235. Accommodations will not be granted until you have a meeting with Katie Sorey, your letters/documentation are processed, and you meet with your instructor.