Course syllabus


First Semester 2017, City Campus


Lecturer: Professor John Bishop

Extension 87611; direct dial 923 7611

Room 431, Level 4, Arts 1

18 Symonds St

Office hours: by appointment.


The Lecture time is Monday 2 - 4 p.m., 104-G54 (Old Choral Hall, Lecture Room 2)

There is an optional discussion session for PHIL 207, Wednesday 3 – 4 p.m., 207-303 (Arts 2, Room 303); and for PHIL 327, Tuesday 2 – 3 p.m., 114-G13 (Commerce A, G13). Discussion sessions will be led by Tom Yates, Graduate Teaching Assistant.


Recommended Textbook:


Brian Davies, An Introduction to The Philosophy of Religion (Oxford University Press, 2004)


Course Information

Course description:

Philosophy of Religion deals with the key question whether it is justifiable to hold religious beliefs, and, if so, under what conditions. (Do the best ways of living require religious commitment – or do they just allow it, as an optional extra?  Or ought we to ‘grow out of’ religious beliefs and practices altogether?) Do justifiable religious beliefs have to be ‘reasonable’ – and, if so, in what sense of ‘reasonable’?  Religious beliefs are often claimed to be held ‘by faith’.  What does that mean?  If religious beliefs are a matter of faith, may they also be held reasonably?

Our key question concerns the justifiability of holding and acting on religious beliefs.  But what are ‘religious’ beliefs?  We will take as our main example the core beliefs of the theist religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam).

We will consider whether theist belief may be shown to be reasonable from an initially uncommitted perspective, by considering the appeal to religious experience, the argument from miracles, and two major natural theological arguments (Teleological and Cosmological). We will then consider the prospects for showing the unreasonableness of theist belief, paying particular attention to the Argument from Evil (i.e. the argument that the existence of serious suffering counts against the reasonableness of belief in a morally perfect and omnipotent God).  We will examine attempts to reply to this Argument by constructing theodices, and by appealing to human cognitive limitation (‘skeptical theism’).

A case for holding the view that the evidence for and against God’s existence is ‘evidentially ambiguous’ will thus emerge, and we will consider whether this favours atheism via an Argument from Divine Hiddenness. The remainder of the course deals with a range of possible responses to evidential ambiguity, including (1) seeking to settle the question of belief on pragmatic grounds (Pascal’s Wager); (2) taking a ‘non-realist’ turn by arguing that religious language should not be regarded as descriptive of mind-independent reality; (3) arguing that theist beliefs may be justifiably held as basically evident in experience (as urged by ‘Reformed Epistemologists’), (4) emphasising the importance of subjective decision (as urged by Kierkegaard); and (5) defending the permissibility under certain conditions of believing ‘by faith’ beyond the evidence (as urged by William James).  We will also use a discussion of the Ontological Argument to raise some issues about how the concept of God should be understood.

Course Programme:

Lecture 1 (6 March): Introduction

What is the Philosophy of Religion, and why does it matter? Philosophy of Religion considers whether holding and acting on religious beliefs is justifiable. Much contemporary work focusses on theist religious traditions, and makes two presuppositions:

(i) that it is justifiable to hold religious beliefs only if they are held reasonably, and it is reasonable to hold religious beliefs only if they are epistemically justified (the Epistemic Presupposition); and

(ii) that the core content of theist belief is belief in God, understood as ‘the personal omniGod’: the supernatural omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect personal agent who is Creator and Sustainer ex nihilo of all (else) that exists (the Content Presupposition).

Both these presuppositions may be questioned:

Questioning the Content Presupposition: Clearly religious belief is possible without belief in the personal omniGod.  But is theist religious belief possible according to some alternative to the personal omniGod conception?  (Note the influence of Anselm’s characterisation of God as that than which a greater cannot be thought.)

Questioning the Epistemic Presupposition: Does the fact that theist religious beliefs are held ‘by faith’ imply that they need not be held reasonably?  Or does it imply that they may be held reasonably yet without being epistemically justified – or that they may be epistemically justified even though they go beyond the available evidence?

We will consider whether, assuming both these Presuppositions, we can settle the question whether theistic religious belief is justifiable. (But as we do so we will keep in mind the contestability of these Presuppositions.) We begin with the Epistemic Presupposition: what is it for a belief to be epistemically justified?  A common interpretation is that it is held on the basis of evidence which (sufficiently) supports its truth.  That interpretation may be contested: nevertheless, we will begin by working with it.  We will consider, first, whether our evidence is sufficient to show the truth of (personal omniGod-)theism.  Then we will consider whether our evidence is sufficient to establish (personal omniGod-) atheism (the falsity of personal omniGod-theism).  The Introduction concludes with an attempted taxonomy of evidence-based justifications for theist belief, and the concern that appeals to the evidence of individual and collective religious experience is epistemically circular.

Further reading:

Brian Davies, An Introduction to The Philosophy of Religion, (Oxford University Press, 2004), Chapter 2


Lecture 2 (13 March): The Argument from Miracles

Could the evidence of miraculous occurrences suffice to establish the reasonableness of belief that God exists?

Reading: David Hume, ‘Of Miracles’, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter Millican (Oxford University Press, 2007), Section X, 79-95.

Further reading: Brian Davies, An Introduction to The Philosophy of Religion, Chapter 11.


Lecture 3 (20 March): The Teleological Argument

Is there evidence arising from ordinary (non-miraculous) universal human experience of the world that establishes that God exists? The tradition of natural theology.  First case study: the Teleological Argument, or ‘Design’ Argument – focussing especially on its most contemporary version, the ‘Argument from the Fine-Tuning of the Universe’.

Reading: Robin Collins, ‘God, Design, and Fine Tuning’ in Raymond Martin and Christopher Bernard, eds, God Matters: Readings in the Philosophy of Religion (New York: Longman Press, 2002), 1-24.

Further reading: Brian Davies, An Introduction to The Philosophy of Religion, Chapter 4.

Richard Swinburne, ‘Argument from the Fine-Tuning of the Universe’ in John Leslie, ed., Physical Cosmology and Philosophy (New York: Macmillan, 1990), 154-173;

Elliot Sober, ‘The Design Argument’ in Neil A. Manson, ed., God and Design: The Teleological Argument and Modern Science (New York: Routledge, 2003), 27-54.


Lecture 4 (27 March): The Cosmological Argument

Second case study in natural theology: the Kalam Cosmological Argument.

Reading: William Lane Craig, ‘The Cosmological Argument’ in Paul Copan and Paul K. Moser, eds, The Rationality of Theism (Routledge, 2003), Chapter 6, 112-131

Wes Morriston, ‘Must the Beginning of the Universe have a Personal Cause?: A critical examination of the Kalam Cosmological Argument’, Faith and Philosophy 17 (2000), 149-169.

Further reading: Brian Davies, An Introduction to The Philosophy of Religion, Chapter 3.

William Lane Craig, ‘Must the Beginning of the Universe have a Personal Cause? A Rejoinder’, Faith and Philosophy 19 (2002), 94-105; Wes Morriston, ‘Causes and Beginnings in the Kalam Argument: Reply to Craig’, Faith and Philosophy 19 (2002), 233-244.


Lecture 5 (3 April): The Argument from Evil (1)

Is there a natural atheology? Does the existence of evil (serious suffering) in the world provide evidence sufficient to establish that God does not exist?  We will consider the ‘logical’ Argument from Evil as directed, specifically, against ‘personal omniGod theory’; replies to the Argument (the construction of speculative theodicies) – in particular, Free Will Theodicy. 

Reading: J.L.Mackie,‘Evil and Omnipotence’, reprinted in Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier, eds, The Impossibility of God (Amherst, N.Y: Prometheus Books, 2003), 61-72.

Further reading: Brian Davies, An Introduction to The Philosophy of Religion, Chapter 10 [and for Lecture 6 also].

Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1974), Chapter 9.

Nelson Pike, ‘Hume on Evil’ in William Rowe, ed., God and The Problem of Evil (Blackwell, 2001), 57-73.



Lecture 6 (10 April): The Argument from Evil (2)

Consideration of the ‘evidential’ version of the Argument from Evil, and the ‘skeptical theist’ reply.

Reading: William Rowe, ‘The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism’, American Philosophical Quarterly 16 (1979), 335-341 Stephen J. Wykstra, ‘The Humean Obstacle to Evidential Arguments from Suffering: On Avoiding the Evils of ‘Appearance’, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 16 (1984), 73-93.

Further reading: William Rowe, ‘Friendly Atheism, Skeptical Theism, and the Problem of Evil’, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 59 (2006), 79-92.






Lecture 7 (1 May): Evidential Ambiguity and its Implications; the Argument from Divine Hiddenness; Pascal’s Wager

Examination of natural theology and natural atheology may suggest that the evidence for and against theism is ambiguous: all our evidence can equally well be understood in a coherent and integrated way either theistically or naturalistically.

But could this ambiguity itself be the basis for a natural atheological argument? We will consider J.L.Schellenberg’s Argument from Divine Hiddenness, and Paul Moser’s response.

Would the evidential ambiguity of theism require suspension of belief? Or could theistic commitment be reasonable even in the face of evidential ambiguity?  Could commitment to theistic religious belief be justifiable even though it was not epistemically justified?

Could it be justified on pragmatic grounds (Pascal’s Wager), or as required by other commitments, such as moral commitments?

Reading: Debate between J.L. Schellenberg and Paul K. Moser in Michael L. Peterson and Raymond J. VanArragon, eds, Contemporary Debates in the Philosophy of Religion (Blackwell, 2004), 30-58 Blaise Pascal, Pensées (J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1908), 66-69.

Further reading: Ian Hacking, ‘The Logic of Pascal’s Wager’, and George Schlesinger, ‘A Central Theistic Argument’ in William Lane Craig, ed., Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide, (Rutgers University Press, 2002), 17-39.


Lecture 8 (8 May): The Falsification Debate; Theological Non-Realism

A possible response to evidential ambiguity is to adopt a non-realist understanding of theist claims.  (This is, in effect, a challenge to the Content Presupposition.)

When people use religious language, what are they doing? Are they engaged in the same kind of activity as when they use scientific or common sense factual language?  If not, does it follow that talk about God should be given a non-realist construal (as Don Cupitt and Lloyd Geering have advocated)?  We will consider a classic debate from the mid-1950s arising Antony Flew’s claim that theological language isn’t factual because it is not ‘falsifiable’.

Reading: Antony Flew, R.M. Hare and Basil Mitchell, ‘Theology and Falsification: A Symposium’ in Charles Taliaferro and Paul Griffiths, eds, Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 105-110.

Further reading: Charles Taliaferro, Contemporary Philosophy of Religion (Malden, MA, Blackwell, 1998), 40-55.


Lecture 9: (15 May): Anselm’s Ontological Argument and the Concept of God

We will use a discussion of Anselm’s Ontological Argument to consider further whether the concept of God could be the concept of a socially constructed fictional being, and whether any other alternatives to the personal omniGod conception are feasible.

Reading: Anselm's Proslogion (Chapters 2-4); Gaunilo's reply on behalf of the fool (Pro Insipiente), and Anselm's Reply to Gaunilo - all to be found in Brian Davies and G.R.Evans, eds, Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works (Oxford University Press, 1998).



Lecture 10: (22 May): Reformed Epistemology

Could it be justifiable to believe that God exists even though one does not do so on the basis of rational inference from more basic beliefs? (If so, there need be no evidential ambiguity – the truth of theism may be directly evident in experience, as with the truth of perceptual beliefs.)  We will examine Alvin Plantinga’s defence of ‘Reformed Epistemology’, and his concept of properly basic belief.

Reading: Alvin Plantinga, ‘Warranted Belief in God’, in Eleonore Stump and Michael J. Murray, eds, Philosophy of Religion: The Big Questions (Blackwell, 1999), 285-297.

Further reading: Brian Davies, An Introduction to The Philosophy of Religion, Chapter 2, 37-41.


Lecture 11: (29 May): Fideism: William James

Finally, we will consider fideist responses to evidential ambiguity – i.e., responses that affirm the justifiability of commitment ‘by faith’ without the support of evidence. We will focus on an influential example of this response – William James’s ‘justification of faith’ in his lecture ‘The Will to Believe’.

Reading: William James, ‘The Will to Believe’ in The Will to Believe and Essays in Popular Philosophy (Dover, 1956), 1-31. 



Note: There will be no lecture in Week 12 (due to the Queen’s birthday holiday): discussion sessions will focus on preparation for the final examination.



Assessment: Coursework Essay and Final Examination

Your overall grade in the course will be the grades achieved on (i) a coursework essay (worth 50%) and (ii) a final 3-hour examination (worth 50%). At Stage II, a 2,000-word coursework essay is required; at Stage III, a 3,000 word essay. There will be a different final examination appropriate to each Stage – at both Stages, however, candidates will be asked to answer three questions.


Coursework Essay

Write an essay of not more than 2,000 words (for PHIL 207), or not more than 3,000 words (for PHIL 327), on one of the following topics.

The due date is Friday 12 May at 3 p.m.  Please retain your own electronic copy of your essay, and submit a hard copy with cover sheet attached (generated through your Canvas account) at the posting boxes at the Arts Assignments Centre, Level 3, Arts 1 (Building 206).

(1)        Could it ever be reasonable to believe that a miracle had occurred, where a miracle’s occurrence would provide independent evidence for the existence of a powerful supernatural agent?

(2)        What is the ‘new’ Teleological Argument? What’s new about it? Is it more successful than the ‘old’ version?

(3)        Does the Kalam Cosmological Argument succeed? Give reasons for your answer, making sure that you consider objections to the position you seek to defend.

(4)        State the Argument from Evil as an argument for atheism. What would theists have to do in order to defend the reasonableness of their belief against the force of this Argument? Do you think they can succeed?  


Essays should be properly referenced. Please consult the ‘Referen©ite’ website for further information:


Doing coursework assists your learning and your acquisition of philosophical skills. It is also important that you submit coursework in case you are ill at the time of examinations. If you make an application for an aegrotat pass or compassionate consideration no recommendation can be made unless there is good evidence, provided by coursework results, of your ability in the course concerned.

Final Examination

The final examination will be a 3-hour examination, in which you will be asked to answer THREE unseen essay questions chosen from a list of questions. This list will contain at least one question related to each of the lecture topics on the course. (Note that you should not simply repeat material from your coursework essay in your examination answers.)


Examinations are held in the three weeks at the end of each semester after lectures finish. The examination times are noted in the information for each course on Student Services Online, the University’s on-line enrolment system. If you accidentally miss an examination you should go immediately to the Examinations office. If you are ill or suffer some other problem that seriously interferes with your examination performance or preparation, and wish to apply for aegrotat or compassionate consideration, you should consult the Examinations Office and see Student Health or Counselling urgently. (Do NOT wait to see your results first!) You should always sit your examination if at all possible.


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Course summary:

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