Philosophy of Religion Term Papers

This is for SLCC 2016 Fall Semester
(Phil 2350)

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright September 2016


First Insight

The quickest and easiest way to solve the quandary caused by declaring God to be omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent, and then looking at the result that is our real world, is to change the "omnibenevolent" part to "unfathomable". This is quite possible. We humans don't understand our universe creator any better than Mickey Mouse understands Walt Disney.

Second Insight

There is a lot of talk in philosophy about the paradox of so much evil being in a world created by an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent God. How did it all get in the world, and why?

Here is an insight I came up with as I pondered this problem: An answer:

Evil creates good.

To put it another way: Evil is the soil in which the flowers of good grow and thrive.

To me this sounds like a comic book villain concept, but a quick Google search did not reveal any philosopher type espousing it. So, for now, I'm adding it to my Roger's List of Insights.


Reflective Writing

The Difference between Religious Philosophy and Science Philosophy

As I work through this class I can see that there is a big difference between the conduct of science philosophy and religious philosophy. The difference is a "Which comes first, the cart or the horse?"-difference.

In science the goal is to better predict what will happen in the real world. As an example: If I build a building in a certain way, will it be sturdy and withstand the elements that nature throws against it?

In religion the goal is to build a logic system that justifies a God with characteristics the philosopher wants him to have. If this person wants a God that is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent what logic system can be assembled that lets him have all of the above and still have some relation to the material world we humans exist in?

In the science system better prediction of real world events is the key goal. If I'm doing my science right then I can make more accurate and more consistent predictions about real world events, in particular, those I modify, such as when I make a building.

In the religious system thinking up ways to justify the philosopher's dream god is the key goal. Success in this has nothing to do with real world events. It is all about wishing and hoping, and then sleeping better at night because, "I've explained my wishes and hopes better."

These religious systems of logic remind me a lot more of role playing games and cosplay than they do science and engineering.

Reflecting on the class

This has been an interesting class in helping me understand what religious wise men (philosophers) think about and attempt to accomplish. The process can be divided into two steps:

o Deciding what attributes we want God to have.

o Trying to assemble those in a consistent way that has some relevance to the real world.

The "we" above is the relevant community that this discussion of God is taking place in. The decision of what attributes God should have is made by the communities the philosophers become respected in -- they thrive within that thinking matrix. If the philosopher is not respected by a community he does not thrive -- his ideas are considered crazy and not worth paying attention to. The philosopher becomes a voice in the wilderness and remains one, unless the community's mores shift and he or she becomes "discovered". In sum, the community is making the choices about God's attributes, not the philosopher.

Worse for the philosopher is when his ideas become considered dangerous by the community's powers-that-be. Socrates is the early famous example of what happens then. He is also an example of community mores then shifting so that he became discovered again.

The salient example in the class discussions of this "community wishing and hoping" is defining God as omnibenevolent -- an entity which is not evil. My thinking on this is, "Why should a creature who is beyond matter, space and time be concerned with or constrained by the concept of good and evil?" And my thoughts on this are an example of my being voice in the wilderness thinking.

Once the community has decided which attributes its God will have, then the philosopher's wisdom and cleverness can flower. The philosopher can now work at discovering logic systems that can reconcile the community's wishes for God's attributes.

As pointed out above community preferences in what God is like change with time. Much of the change is driven by changes in the community lifestyle. The Industrial Revolution provided lots of power to the rise of the many flavors of Protestantism. And in the same vein the changes the Judean communities were undergoing due to Roman occupation powered the rise in popularity of the Christian God concept.

In sum, it is the community's wishes which decide the attributes of the community's God. The job of the community philosophers is to create logic systems which can support the community's choices.

Further readings

This is an essay I have previously written on this topic.

God and Man, Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse -- discussing the mankind-Creator relationship

Here are two short stories specifically addressing the concept of holy creatures interacting with human ones:

Ghost Child Alana -- in which a heavenly spirit who wants to get born comes to earth to mend a fraying boyfriend/girlfriend relation

Searching for Angels -- in which two 1990's-era scientists discover how to summon an angel to the earthly dimension


Paper One -- Ruhollah Khomeini


Ruhollah Khomeini first came on my radar as the Iranian Revolution of 1979 evolved, and this cleric evolved into Iran's leader. This was quite a surprise at the time! I have followed current events since I was a teenager in the 1960's so I was aware of how surprising the Iranian Revolution was becoming even as it evolved, and yes, a cleric becoming top of the government heap was sure surprising at the time.

He came on to my radar again last year, and this time in a context quite relevant to this class. I took a Middle East history class and his role as a cleric who transformed Shiite Iranian thinking was discussed. This is what this essay will be about -- his changing Shiite thinking -- and how that shows that while religious texts may be nearly timeless, the interpretation of those texts by contemporary opinion-makers is much more mutable and much more shaped by the contemporary conditions of the interpreters and their communities.


From Wikipedia:

"Ruhollah Khomeini (1902 – 1989), known in the Western world as Ayatollah Khomeini, was an Iranian Shia Muslim religious leader, revolutionary and politician. He was the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution that saw the overthrow of the Pahlavi monarchy and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. Following the revolution, Khomeini became the country's Supreme Leader, a position created in the constitution of the Islamic Republic as the highest-ranking political and religious authority of the nation, which he held until his death. He was succeeded by Ali Khamenei.

Khomeini was a marja ("source of emulation") in Twelver Shia Islam, a Mujtahid or faqih (an expert in Islamic law) and author of more than 40 books, but he is primarily known for his political activities. He spent more than 15 years in exile for his opposition to the last Shah. In his writings and preachings he expanded the theory of velayat-e faqih, the "Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist (clerical authority)", to include theocratic political rule by Islamic jurists. This principle (though not known to the wider public before the revolution), was appended to the new Iranian constitution after being put to a referendum. Khomeini called democracy the equivalent of prostitution."

Philosophic distinctiveness

What makes Khomeini distinctive as a philosopher was how radically he changed the mix of activities Shiite philosophers could engage in. Specifically, he brought a lot of politics into the mix. Prior to Khomeini the established wisdom of the Iranian Shiite communities was that religion and politics didn't mix. Khomeini upended that dramatically. This upending is one of the distinctive parts of the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

Roger's insight

Religious texts are nearly timeless... once they have been agreed upon. (Note: This agreeing process typically takes about four hundred years for what will become a major religion. The Council of Nicea is an example.) But the interpretation of what the texts mean is an on-going and very contemporary process. This is why there are always many religious schools for major religions and lots of students attending them.

This constant interpretation must happen because the religious ideals must be explained in ways that match contemporary circumstances. With this explaining goal in mind I have come to look upon religious texts as "white noise sources" (in the physics sense) -- look through them long enough and with the right perspective in mind and you can always find something to justify an assertion you are trying to support. Doing this research is the philosopher's job.

As I point out in my reflections essay above, the philosopher is closely tied to a community. This is because the more the community likes what the philosopher is saying, the more they will support him and spread his word. Conversely, if the philosopher is out of synch with contemporary mores and aspirations he will not be listened to with any interest -- he will be a voice in the wilderness. Or, worse for him, he may be considered dangerous by the powers-that-be and exiled in some fashion. (exile, jail or death) This happened to Khomeini, for fifteen years prior to the Revolution breaking out he was exiled and living in Iraq. But while he was there he was also in synch with many community members who didn't like the current state of affairs in Iran. He was a voice in the wilderness, but a surprisingly loud one.

And times change, and when they do contemporary mores change, and when that happens the interpretation of the religious text must change so it stays relevant. When this change happens one or two voices in the wilderness who are attuned to the "right changes" become mainstream. The Iranian Revolution allowed this to happen to Khomeini. He became seriously mainstream.


Khomeini is a dramatic example of the linkage between the community and the philosopher. For a philosopher to become popular and influential his teachings must resonate with what a large part of the community wants to hear. The stronger the resonance with the larger part of the community the more influential the philosopher becomes. Between the 1940's and the 1960's Khomeini's teachings came to resonate well with the thinking of many members of the Iranian community, but far from all of them.

There are risks. If the community is divided the popular philosopher may be exiled because the powers-that-be are not the ones resonating with his message. This happened to Khomeini.

And times change, and with those changing times can come changing aspirations in the community. This happened in Iran in the 1970's and the Iranian Revolution in 1979 was the outcome. Another change the 1970's brought about was a much stronger resonance with Khomeini's ideals leading to his installation as supreme ruler in Iran.


Paper Two -- Martin Luther


Martin Luther was a world-shaking religious philosopher, one of the founders of the Protestant movement in Christian theology.

He is interesting for several reasons:

o He started out as a voice in the wilderness, then began resonating mightily as the social circumstances around him changed.

o He employed new technology, specifically new communications technologies, to get his message out to the community

o He mixed in a lot of religious tropes with those new social circumstances and new technologies.

These are the topics of this essay, but first, a quick review of who Martin Luther was.

From Wikipedia

Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) was a German professor of theology, composer, priest, monk and a seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation. Luther came to reject several teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. He strongly disputed the claim that freedom from God's punishment for sin could be purchased with money, proposing an academic discussion of the practice and efficacy of indulgences in his Ninety-five Theses of 1517. His refusal to renounce all of his writings at the demand of Pope Leo X in 1520 and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms in 1521 resulted in his excommunication by the Pope and condemnation as an outlaw by the Emperor.

Luther taught that salvation and, subsequently, eternal life are not earned by good deeds but are received only as the free gift of God's grace through the believer's faith in Jesus Christ as redeemer from sin. His theology challenged the authority and office of the Pope by teaching that the Bible is the only source of divinely revealed knowledge from God and opposed sacerdotalism by considering all baptized Christians to be a holy priesthood. Those who identify with these, and all of Luther's wider teachings, are called Lutherans, though Luther insisted on Christian or Evangelical as the only acceptable names for individuals who professed Christ.

His translation of the Bible into the vernacular (instead of Latin) made it more accessible to the laity, an event that had a tremendous impact on both the church and German culture. It fostered the development of a standard version of the German language, added several principles to the art of translation, and influenced the writing of an English translation, the Tyndale Bible. His hymns influenced the development of singing in Protestant churches. His marriage to Katharina von Bora, a former nun, set a model for the practice of clerical marriage, allowing Protestant clergy to marry.

Resonating with the community

In Luther's time the German region -- there was no Germany -- was embracing the starting technologies of the Industrial Revolution. As a result German social structures were changing -- there was a lot of change and a lot of both optimism and fear flowing through German societies.

The Catholic church was also doing some adapting, but that adapting was centered on policies that were coming out of Rome -- a difficult two week-to-month-long journey away through Alps mountain passes, and a completely different culture. The Catholic Church aligned with the Holy Roman Empire. This was the imperial governing structure of the German region.

One of the innovations that had been developing in the Catholic church over the previous decades was allowing rich people to buy their way into heaven -- indulgences. Many of those who could afford it liked this new feature of the religion. Those who liked this also tended to be the landed classes, the ones who had become wealthy through the Agricultural Age social structures. But the newly emerging and rising-in-influence business and industrial classes were not so enthusiastic about this idea.

Martin Luther was not, either. This indulgence business looked too much like bribery in his eyes. He complained, and he also wrote up an alternative view of God's relation to mankind.

At first he was a voice in the wilderness, then his ideas gained some popularity among the rising classes and he became a threat to the status quo. The church didn't want to hear this complaining and alternative thinking, and it censured him vigorously. The two famous censurings happened in 1520 when Pope Leo X ordered him to renounce all that he had written and in 1521 at the Diet of Worms when the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V joined in the censuring and declared Luther an outlaw.

But times were changing. And rather than disappearing into the woodwork as just another crazy cleric he was even more vigorously embraced by the newly emerging industrial classes in Germany and he became their mainstream voice. This was the start of Lutheranism.

Resonating with the technology

Another key to Luther's prominence in philosophy was the communication revolution going on around him at the time. Gutenberg was developing his revolutionary printing press systems and as a result ideas such as Luther's could spread far and wide much more quickly, cheaply and conveniently than could happen in prior generations. This allowed Luther to become a pioneer in many language-related developments in addition to his religious philosophy achievements, which enhanced his reputation in philosophy.

It also allowed many more Germans to get behind his ideas, and use them to protest against the Holy Roman Empire's then current imperialist policies. The result was lots of change and a series of wars that history came to call religious wars of The Reformation.

Employing the tropes

Religion that becomes popular is for the people, not for other philosophers. This means that keeping things simple and familiar is of great benefit when expressing a religious idea that one wants to become popular and widespread.

The familiar idea that Martin Luther latched on to was that the current leaders were doing it wrong. They were misreading the Bible, they were moving away from the ideals being expressed in the Bible, and they were becoming corrupt and apostate. He, Luther, was bringing people back to the basics... the true and right basics, as expressed in the Bible.

This, "My contemporaries have it wrong. I'm telling you what is true. I'm taking you back to the basics." is a familiar and powerful way to initiate a religious reform movement. Countless, reform movements have begun with this premise. Luther was treading on real familiar ground here.


Martin Luther lead a revolution in religious thinking. He was one of the founders of the Protestant/Reformation movement that lead to the flowering of the many Protestant religions.

His success was based in part on his timing. He flowered as Industrial Age social systems and thinking were displacing Agricultural Age social systems and thinking in the German region. And part of that revolution was the communications revolution brought about by Gutenberg developing his new printing systems.

While his ideas were revolutionary, his way of expressing them was very familiar: "My contemporaries have it wrong. They are now apostate. I'm taking you back to the basics, and I'm telling you the real truth."

In sum, it was a world-shaking revolution, but a revolution expressed in a familiar way.



--The End--