About Ignatius Insight
  Who We Are
  Ignatius Press
  Ignatius Press catalogs
  Catholic World Report
  Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  IP Novels site
  IP Religious Ed blog
  IP Critical Editions

The Better We Reason, the Nearer We Come to Truth | The Introduction to Reason to Believe: Why Faith Makes Sense | Richard Purtill | Ignatius Insight

Print-friendly version

This is a book about philosophy of religion. Since philosophy and religion are both words of many meanings, I will begin by trying to clarify the two terms.

Philosophy, as it is understood by most contemporary philosophers, has the following characteristics.

1. An effort is made to state the point under discussion as clearly and understandably as possible. Thus a concept may be defined or explained, various possible interpretations of a thesis or statement may be discussed, an argument may be laid out formally or informally, and the relation of its premises to its conclusion discussed. Philosophers characteristically ask, "What do you mean?"

2. An effort is made to examine the point under discussion critically. Thus assumptions may be brought out into the open and examined, possible objections to a thesis may be stated as fairly as possible, and counterarguments may be invented or drawn from the arguments of opponents. Philosophers characteristically ask, "What are the objections?"

3. An effort is made to decide questions on the basis of arguments. Arguments for a thesis may be shown to be valid and their premises true. Counterarguments may be refuted or shown to be irrelevant. Definite conclusions may be reached, or it may be concluded that there is no conclusive argument for or against a position. Philosophers characteristically ask, "How can you show that?"

The above concerns are characteristic of philosophical method. When applied to trivial or specialized subject matter, philosophical method may not lead to philosophy in the full sense. Thus we must add to the above list something about subject matter.

4. The subject matter of philosophy can be roughly divided into logic and epistemology, which investigate the grounds of our knowledge; ethics, political philosophy, and aesthetics, which investigate questions of value; and metaphysics, which investigates questions about man, the universe, and God. Typical philosophical questions are, "Do we know anything?" "Do we have free will?" "Does God exist?" "Is there an objective standard of morality?" Notice that dogmatic answers to such questions do not constitute philosophy. The answers must be supported by means of the philosophical method described above.

These four characteristics can be observed in the work of the great philosophers of the West (for example, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Scotus, Hume, Berkeley, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Mill, Peirce, Moore, and Wittgenstein), while it is not certain that they can be observed in any Eastern philosopher. There are also some philosophers in the Western tradition to whom these criteria do not dearly apply (for example, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer). Thus the sort of philosophy we have described is sometimes called analytic philosophy rather than simply philosophy. It should be understood, however, that analytic philosophy thus understood is a very broad term and is intended to apply to the whole history of philosophy.

Religion can be defined so widely as to mean whatever a man is deeply concerned about, but it is more useful to restrict the term to its primary meaning of "belief in a divine or superhuman power or powers, to be obeyed and worshiped as the creator(s) and ruler(s) of the universe". As this definition suggests, religion can be monotheistic, holding belief in one God, or polytheistic, holding belief in more than one God. There is also the view called pantheism, which holds that in some sense everything is divine or shares in divinity. There are two main nonreligious views: agnosticism, which holds that we do not know that any religious view is true, and atheism, which holds that we know that every religious view is false. We can, of course, distinguish various kinds of pantheism and panentheism (God is the world vs. God includes the world) and varieties of agnosticism (we cannot know vs. we do not as a matter of fact know).

Most readers of this book will not regard polytheism in its various forms as a serious possibility, though some may be tempted by the view that there are two "Gods", a good God and an evil "God". This view, which is called dualism, is suggested by the existence of evil in the world, and it will be discussed later in connection with the problem of evil. A few people today are impressed by some form of pantheism, especially as it appears in one of the Eastern religions. We will discuss pantheism later in connection with ideas and arguments about the existence and nature of God.

Most people in the Western world, however, will have been influenced in their religious views by traditional Christian monotheistic religion. Some may agree with this religious tradition, while others may disagree; still others may partly agree and partly disagree. But most people brought up in this country or in countries of similar history and tradition will have formed their ideas about religion on the basis of the Christian religious tradition. For this reason, it seems appropriate to concentrate most of our attention on attacks on and defenses of monotheism as understood by Christians. Of course, Christians differ among themselves in their views about God, but it seems reasonable to begin with what might be called the traditional Christian idea of God as the Creator of the world, all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good, able to interfere miraculously with the course of nature, and able to reward or punish human souls for deeds done before their death. Whether this traditional account must be abandoned or seriously modified in the face of criticism is one of the main questions we will consider.

Traditionally, it has been thought that there were two ways of getting to know about God: the unaided efforts of our own minds, and some form of revelation to man from God. Philosophy is obviously relevant to efforts to obtain information about God by our own thinking, but it can also ask questions about the meaning and justification of statements that are claimed to be revelations from God. These two enterprises—the attempt to find answers to questions about God by thinking and argument, and the attempt to criticize rationally alleged revelations—are main concerns of the philosophy of religion.

It may be worthwhile to separate carefully philosophy of religion, so understood, from related enterprises. Theology accepts some body of revelation as a starting point and attempts to use reason to understand the revelation, draw out its consequences, and systematically relate its elements. Apologetics is the effort to defend some religious revelation against criticism, using arguments of various kinds, not only philosophical but historical and sometimes scientific. It is thus more restricted than philosophy of religion in its purposes and less restricted in the kind of arguments it uses. Philosophy of religion differs from theology by not accepting revelation as a starting point and from apologetics by "following the question wherever it leads" rather than defending some view against attacks.

Of course, a given philosopher of religion may come to the conclusion that a certain religious tradition is true and ought to be accepted. He may then use arguments very much like the theologian's or the apologist's to convince others of what he has become convinced. But this is because he has become convinced by a kind of inquiry that begins without commitment to the truth of a given view. The philosopher of religion is thus, in theory at least, like a judge, who begins hearing a case without having decided the question before him. The apologist, and to some extent the theologian, is more like the lawyer who pleads one side of the case.

In practice, of course, many philosophers of religion have made up their minds on one side or the other of the question. But in discussing the problems of philosophy of religion, they will make every effort to present both sides as fully and fairly as possible. They will act as philosophers, not as advocates. They will seek to convince by presenting the evidence fairly, not to persuade by presenting only one side of the case. Someone who does not act in this way has ceased to function as a philosopher of religion and has become an apologist or an "antiapologist", an advocate of the antireligious side.

Until fairly recently, many philosophers of religion believed they could present both sides fairly only by carefully concealing their own points of view and their own conclusions about the questions at issue. This was always somewhat unrealistic, and with the emphasis on honesty and commitment in recent years it is no longer seen as desirable by many philosophers. They believe it is fairer and more honest to make clear on what side of a question the philosopher's own convictions lie and then to present the arguments pro and con. If students were ever inclined docilely to accept their teachers' ideas without critical examination, they are certainly not so inclined now.

My own convictions on the matters discussed in this book are quite clear-cut. I am a professional philosopher, and I consider myself to be working within the "analytic" tradition of modern philosophy, a tradition influenced by the logical positivists, by Wittgenstein, and by the "Oxford" or "ordinary language" school of Austin and Ryle. Like a number of such philosophers, a number that includes some of the most able representatives of the tradition, I am also a Christian. I have published a number of technical articles and books having to do with metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of science, as well as four books on logic. I find no contradiction between analytic philosophy and traditional Christianity, between logic and the love of God. It is the theme of this book that no such opposition exists and that clear and logical thinking leads us not in the direction of unbelief, not in the direction of "liberal" reinterpretations of Christianity, but rather leads us back to traditional Christian answers to the problems that confront us. Logic alone cannot lead us all the way to Christian belief. But like Dante's Virgil, it is an incomparable guide so far as it goes. And like Dante, I believe that if we go this far with honesty and good will, help will be given to us to finish the journey.

As you will see from the Contents, my strategy in this book is to consider the negative side first and answer common objections to religious belief. In the second part of the book, I consider the positive arguments in favor of Christian belief, which might not gain a hearing until some answer had been given to the objection. In the third part, I turn to certain puzzles about the Christian revelation, both to answer objections and to give a fuller understanding that can provide grounds for belief. To answer objections and to give grounds for belief will not necessarily lead to religious commitment, but it is an important first step toward such commitment.

One final point: any vigorous argument that comes to definite conclusions is bound to seem one-sided at times, and any attempt to cover a number of important issues in a limited space is bound to simplify and to ignore some ambiguities and qualifications. Sometimes in trying to be clear and brief, this book may sound dogmatic. Let us make it clear then that many sincere and intelligent people do have what seem to them to be good reasons for agnosticism or atheism. Not every objection to theism can be considered in a single book, and many people may believe that they have satisfactory replies to some of the arguments given in what follows. Thus a single book, a single class, a single teacher, may be only the start of a long dialogue, with oneself and with others. But reason, like every good thing, leads us ultimately to God. The better we reason, the nearer we come to Truth.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:

The Two Lives of Richard Purtill | By Gord Wilson
C.S. Lewis’s Case for Christianity | An Interview with Richard Purtill
The History and Purpose of Apologetics | An Interview with Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J.
Foreword to A History of Apologetics | Dr. Timothy George
"Be a Catholic Apologist Without Apology" | Carl E. Olson
"Love Alone is Believable: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Apologetics" | by Fr. John R. Cihak
"Kreeft On Apologetics" | An interview with Peter Kreeft

Richard Purtill, former Professor of Philosophy at Western Washington University, is an accomplishd author of philosophy, apologetics, and fantasy. Other Ignatius Press books by him include J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion, Lord of the Elves and Eldils: Fantasy and Philosophy in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis's Case for the Christian Faith.

If you'd like to receive the FREE IgnatiusInsight.com e-letter (about every 1 to 2 weeks), which includes regular updates about IgnatiusInsight.com articles, reviews, excerpts, and author appearances, please click here to sign-up today!


World Wide Web


Place your order toll-free at 1-800-651-1531

Ignatius Press | San Francisco
Web design under direction of Ignatius Press.
Send your comments or web problems to:

Copyright 2018 by Ignatius Press

IgnatiusInsight.com catholic blog books insight scoop weblog ignatius