Institute of Philosophy
of the Russian Academy of Sciences




  Concrete questions to be discussed in the project
Home Page » » Theistic Belief, Atheistic Belief and Standards of Rationality » Concrete questions to be discussed in the project

Concrete questions to be discussed in the project

(1) the epistemology of religious belief—boundaries of rationality in religious belief and especially in theology and whether belief is primarily aimed at achieving truth

(a) The importance of religious experience and tradition for religious belief: How do traditions influence one’s commitment to one’s belief? Religious experience as one reason for a commitment to one religious tradition rather than to another: In what sense does religious experience count as a strong argument of justifying one’s personal religious commitments? For not ending up in an incommensurable Wittgensteinian language game, we believe that there must be one general standard of rationality and different traditions may offer different arguments for their justification. That is why a special attention will be paid to different resources for justification from the perspectives from Orthodox theology and from Russian religious philosophy.

(a1) The importance of evidence for religious belief: How important is evidence? What counts as evidence? What is the nature of justification in religious context in general? How do requirements for justification change from one religious tradition to the other? The problem of religious authority: how does religious authority provide enough evidence for religious belief, what kind of evidences do provide religious authority and religious experience? How do those evidences interact: do they come independently or one influence on generation and excepting of the other, being thus conditioned? Is religious experience a necessary condition for generating religious belief? If so, is religious experience expressible?

(a2) Special theological practices of understanding: Is there a special sense of understanding involved in theological practice, for instance, the liturgy or prayer? This question yields also to phenomenological and hermeneutical analysis. Of special importance on the question are patristic theology and Russian religious philosophy.

(b) Religious diversity and peer disagreement. What effect does the diversity of religious (and non-religious) views have on the epistemic correctness of holding any one of them? This question could broaden the debate of the epistemology of disagreement, which asks what the epistemically correct response is when you find out that an epistemic peer (i.e., someone you take to be just as likely as you are to believe truly in a given domain) has come to a different conclusion than you about whether some proposition is true. It is unlikely that you will antecedently take someone to be an epistemic peer on the topic of religion if they already have a belief that is incompatible with yours: you will think that you are more likely to have the true belief (because you hold it).

However, a question which might be deeper than that of peer disagreement remains: Given that people of other religions have over the course of their lives received lots of different evidence than you, had very different experiences, and have grown up in cultures where different methods of evaluating evidence and experiences are taught, how should the fact of religious diversity affect your own religious (or non-religious) belief?

(c) Rational standards for religious belief. What are the criteria for an account of the rational standards for religious beliefs? Many authors have written about the rationality of religious beliefs and each author has his or her own account of rational standards. Some famous approaches include those of Richard Swinburne (in a Lockean tradition), Alvin Plantinga (in a Reformed tradition), Wittgenstein (either in the guise of a relativistic tradition or a pragmatist one), Franz von Kutschera (in a Kantian tradition). Yet there is very little discussion of what criteria standards of rationality for religious beliefs need to fulfil. Given the plurality of accounts of the rationality (or irrationality, or a-rationality) of religious beliefs, we think this could be a good time for a meta-discussion of what standards of rationality for religious beliefs should be, to begin with. Some good criteria could be found within patristic thought and orthodox theology; if they are actualized, they might be fruitful for contemporary discussions.

(2) the nature of theology as a kind of knowledge

(a) To what extent is the method of analytic philosophy suitable for theological inquiry?

Since orthodox theology evaluates the achievements of (secular) philosophy for theological inquiry quite differently from Catholic and Protestant theology due to the different (cultural) histories of these Christian traditions, we believe that an ecumenical exchange can provide interesting insights into the advantages and limits of philosophical thought for theology from a Western and an Orthodox perspective.

(b) Is there a difference between the epistemic aims of religious belief, theology, and philosophy? And to what extent should their methodologies differ or be the same in order to reflect any differences or similarities in their respective epistemic aims? Looked at in one way, theology seems to be a middle point between religious belief and philosophy, in the sense of codifying, justifying, and theorizing about religious belief, on the basis of philosophical reflection but also on the basis of texts, history, and tradition.

(c) Every discourse has its own language and theology is no exception. How does the analysis of theological language help to drive to a better understanding of specifically theological problems? What is the specific purpose of the wide-spread use of metaphors and symbolic language in theology: Is this way of speaking just a rather helpless expression of pointing at something (the divine) which cannot be described in clearer language or does this way of speaking convey a specific meaning which is particularly suitable if someone aims at referring to God and the transcendental realm? Is it possible at all to specify in precise terms how we use religious language to describe the Divine?

(3) the problem of scientific atheism—to what extent a scientific understanding of reality fosters atheism and what the epistemic connections between a scientific understanding of reality and atheism are

(a) Every discussion of atheism should start with the question of its nature: Is it a kind of worldview, that is, a broad intellectual and cultural tradition, which begun to take shape in the 18th century in Western Europe and became the dominant tradition by the end of the 19 century, or is it rather a methodological-epistemic position of unbelievers? For an adequate answer to this question, it will be relevant to tackle the development of atheism: In what sense does the appearance of atheism go hand in hand with the raise of modern science and the success of the scientific method (with its methodological atheism)? How does scientific atheism relate to the intellectual phenomenon of European nihilism?

(b) Is the difference between a religious and a non-religious (atheist) understanding of reality a deep and decisive one, or is the belief in God or supernatural entities just one additional component in a complex system of the same fundamental beliefs determining how we understand and interact with reality? In other words: Can we take a broad naturalistic framework as common ground regarding this world and the theist is just a super-naturalist by adding God (and corresponding super-natural state of affairs such as an afterlife, heaven, hell etc.) to this picture? If the difference between the two worldviews is not a deep one, then one may wonder what the important fundamental beliefs are: Scientific beliefs, ethical principles, beliefs about the human person? And if so, should ethical principles and beliefs about the human person be interpreted naturalistically or not? If the difference is a deep one, what makes theistic beliefs deep: Is it a fundamental different outlook on the human existence, the meaning of one’s life or even the world as a whole because the world’s fundament is taken to be personal and not a-personal?

(c) What is a ‘worldview’? We aim at clarifying the notion of a worldview. Roughly a worldview can be understood in a more subjective sense as a set of fundamental metaphysical, ethical and existential beliefs a person holds and in a more intersubjective sense as a large-scale tradition shaping the set of fundamental beliefs which many people or social groups of a certain size share about reality and human life. Thus, every person holds and is embedded in a certain worldview. For a better understanding of what it means to have a worldview and how people with different worldviews are able to enter in meaningful and fruitful dialogue, it is crucial to investigate whether there are reasonable criteria for a rational comparison of large-scale traditions such as the relatively recent atheist/naturalist tradition (which became a wide-spread public alternative to a theistic worldview in Western Europe from the 18th century onwards) and the older theistic traditions. Next to current insights from modern epistemology such as social epistemology, social psychology and swarm intelligence older approaches such as Willhelm Dilthey’s ‘Weltanschauungslehre’, Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy of science and A. MacIntyre’s ‘After Virtue’ are also valuable resources for getting a better grip on these issues.